A wall of fire writhed in front of us and certain death closed in from behind. Durnen made a gesture while chanting and behind the fire rose a wall of stone. Personally, I felt like this was overkill and honestly just mean since it reached to the top of the cavern exit, making it impossible to fly over.
The one positive result of all this was that the vines around Zeno sloughed off at last, but even that was short-lived, as the Hat-Broom Man, not content with solely copying my style, sent down a pestilence of insects on us.
It really was pretty bad. They stung, they bit, and I made a mental note to look into insect repellent in the future. I knew we had some somewhere in this city because it was one more thing my parents insisted that we didn’t need and couldn’t afford (even though it looked fashion as hell), but gods, how I wished I had some in that moment.
Chitinous forms crashed into us, wings buzzing in my ears. To my right, Zeno succumbed to the onslaught and fell prone. Or, knowing Zeno, he could just be faking it because the bugs were grossing him out.
I didn’t think he was faking it this time, though.
That tiny goblin hell-raiser, also known as the Butcher, moved between me and Felegum and let loose a barrage of angry, quick, and destructive swordplay on us both. Thanks to my dodging, I was able to avoid the worst of it, but the same could not be said of the mage, who joined Zeno on the ground.
This only seemed to spur the Butcher on, driving him to more frenzied slashes toward my person. It hurt even worse than the first time and I was so surprised he could hit that many people in so short a span of time that I couldn’t dodge as well as I had before.
The lich in red was looking at Zeno’s downed body with an unnerving intensity, and while nothing happened, I still did not like this one bit. Both of our heavy magic users were out, and I didn’t like our chances of getting out without them. That being said, I also didn’t like that we were stuck in this cluster by the door.
We needed to get out or split up so we weren’t such an easy target.
And since I didn’t have an immediate way out–
I swung back to face Harry.
I was always running.
“And now you’ve left two people in danger saving yourself.” Zeno’s voice from ages ago.
He hadn’t been wrong. But I’d left more than just two people; I’d left my parents, Kalends, the Calendar, an entire city because I was too afraid to do something.
I’d run and I hadn’t looked back. Who saved anyone by doing that, by being too afraid to act?
“Get him out, okay?” I said to Harry, wild-eyed, still not quite believing what I was about to do.
Then I grabbed Zeno’s shoulder, trusting that he’d have some hare-brained scheme to figure this out or at least keep the rest of us from becoming zombies, and healed him. “You gotta get out alive!” I yelled over the rush of flying bugs and fire.
And then I ran toward the Red Eyes.
Was this stupid? Probably. I didn’t have a lot of choices and I figured I was fast enough to move out if the others could figure out a good exit strategy.
Zeno brushed himself off, then spoke words of healing to Felegum. “Get up, you lazy bastard!”
The mage stirred miserably under the insect onslaught.
“Do you want to get out of here?” Zeno asked him.
“Yes,” Felegum said.
Then they disappeared. I had to blink because I hadn’t thought he’d do that, just leave everyone. I felt kind of stupid, because I’d kind of thought we were friends. Not like it didn’t make sense– Zeno was exactly the kind of person to save himself first, I got that, but still, I’d hoped–
Harry unleashed a torrent of acid at the stone wall, melting through it. I was thrilled. They had a way out.
Then Harry dove headfirst into the wall of fire, carrying Kalends with him into the blaze, and I nearly lost my shit.
This was not what I meant when I said “get him out alive.”
Some choice words were on the tip of my tongue until a torrent of water poured over the flames in a carefully carved tidal wave.
They hadn’t left at all. They’d just found us a way out. The flames before the wall of stone were tamped down and the hole in the stone wall widened, maybe not enough for people to pass through yet, but it was something.
Then the arrows from in front of me started up again and I didn’t have the luxury to watch my friends escape. One went toward Lankin, which Zeno yelled out “no, Lankin!” at and the arrow just exploded at the sound, scattering into fireworks. Then, as though frustrated by this bardic intervention, the archer fired two more shots at Lankin.
This did not resonate with Lankin as much as the prospect of having another promising melee fighter with whom to tangle. The elf took a skull from one of the skeletons holding their own aloft, and hucked it at the Butcher. It was a good, clean shot, hitting the goblin maniac and shattering on impact.
As though struck by sudden inspiration–why throw just the skull?– Lankin picked up the rest of the headless skeleton (which was still moving and actively if not unsuccessfully fighting this) at the Butcher.
It also hit, but the Butcher still stood.
Lankin sucked in a breath. “I’m gonna get that guy,” he said.
Helli, no doubt keenly attuned to the sense of panic underlying all our operations, acted quick. “Cover your ears, Set!” she yelled and as I did so, she threw her music box right by the goblin.
The device landed and the opening strains of “The Wicked Arena” crooned out. The goblin looked down at the little box, transfixed.
“Set!” Helli called again over the music. “Get out of there!”
This was much better than I’d imagined.
Behind me, Tem stepped up to the wall of stone, shouted, “Bahamut, protect us!” and slammed her sword into the wall, creating a ten foot hole through it– more than enough for an escape route. Maybe I’d been too rash after all. We could get out of here after all.
The chanting from Durnen continued as he poured his energy into all those bugs. Then a ball of pure blackness shot out from his fingertips and enveloped Harry, Helli, and Lankin. I barely had time to register the Butcher dancing to the hip tones of the music box before a strange whisper cut through my thoughts.
I’d always thought that it had been the girl in my dreams, or you know, Lathander, talking in my head. Sure, Ojutai had been around that one time, but it was pretty obvious that he was different.
I’d thought all those whispers telling me to run had come from someone who wanted me to survive, that they’d come from a good place.
Even when the initial shock washed over me, my mind determined to move, my body refused to obey. The lich had pointed at me and I was caught in this moment in time, unable to do anything.
“Keep doing what you’re doing, buddy, it’s working alright,” Zeno said to someone. Then a second instrument joined the song– his bagpipes. “Follow the music– the right music!” he called.
Felegum, presumably, did something to make the Butcher clutch his head and the darkness just behind me to disappear, and the archer Savas shot at me, which was shitty of him.
He also made the mistake of shooting again at Lankin.
The other elf exhaled, caught in the throes of deep anger and competition. “There are two wolves inside of Lankin,” he said. Then he sighed and I heard this weird sound of cloth ripping. But the thing about Lankin was that he didn’t really have much fabric on him, let alone clothes, except for his loincloth, so I didn’t see where–
A fully nude Lankin danced with the Butcher to my side. Had the elf seen me in distress and tried to rescue me?
That was so terrible but also really kind, and I wished like hell I could move, if only to hide the flush of embarrassment on my face.
Magic missiles, either from Helli or Felegum, fired off toward the Butcher, who took them in stride while continuing to strut along to the Wicked Arena.
Somewhere behind me was a sound not dissimilar to Harry belching out his acid breath, except this felt hotter and of a slightly different timbre. “Set, Lathander has plans for you yet,” Tem called above the roar of her own fire breath. “Don’t despair!”
As nice as it was to know that someone thought I hadn’t just made a horrendous mistake, the thought of divine obligations irked me. If I messed this up then I’d really lost everything. Okay, maybe my friends would be able to save Csipherus without me–and a part of me in vague near-death clarity wondered if maybe wasn’t that the whole point, for me to realize I didn’t have to do this completely by myself– but a larger part of me doubted that.
They’d come here for me. Without anyone trying to save it anymore, everything I’d bargained for and promised Lathander would be forfeit. The city would die and no one would be around to mark its passing. It would be just like Egonia, a place that once existed and now didn’t.
In the depths of my despair, though, Durnen didn’t seem to do anything, which was great. The Hat-Broom Man took control of the insects and seemed to be sending them farther down the cavern hall toward my escaping friends.
Then the lich pointed– and for a moment I thought it was another spell meant for me again, but no– at Lankin. I didn’t hear a body hit the floor, though, just a grunt and the continued dance of the elf and the Butcher around Helli’s music box.
And then, I could move again.
Knowing that the only way to stop the music was to close the box, I moved toward it. My body, with everything frozen up for what felt like an eternity, was slow to respond and could only make it to the box, not enough to close it.
Abruptly at a word from Felegum, the pestilence looming over our escape route transformed from flaming insects into fireflies. It was beautiful, and it made me miss magic, the breathtaking kind that you only see after extreme study or times of duress.
Maybe, if things were different–
“Never,” came Kalends’ hoarse voice from somewhere in the distance, “carry me again.”
He was okay.
A gout of flame struck down on me, Lankin, and the Butcher, another gift from Savas and that terrible bow. I dodged it, newly determined. Harry had done it. Despite all those terrible things he’d inflicted on my friend, he’d gotten Kal out okay.
Lankin was not quite as good at dodging as I was– he fell to the ground, not quite shutting the music box. Ahead of us, Tem scooped the limp body of Zeno up and out through the hole she’d burnt into the stone wall.
I swung my head back, as Durnen returned to his sceptre and raised it, beginning to channel some power through it that pieced zombies back together. The Hat-Broom Man, still air-borne, swung down closer to me and the Butcher, also charging up something dark and crackling between his hands.
Luckily for both me and Lankin, the Butcher continued to dance.
Unfortunately, the music got to me then too.
I had just enough presence of mind left to cast one last spell.
I looked at Lankin. He had been so brave trying to help me. He’d come along because he was trying to have the fight of his life, not because he was some kid’s minder. And yet, here he was anyway.
He didn’t deserve this.
“Save my city,” I said softly, and healed him.
Was that unfair of me? Maybe. I’d always hated it when people dumped shit on me and then died, and here I was, doing the same thing to someone else.
But I wanted so badly to believe in a future where it could be saved, even if I couldn’t do it or be around to see it. Maybe we were all allowed a little weakness at the end.
People moved around us, gathering for the kill or escaping, depending on which side you were with, and I closed my eyes as the music took over.
Except then Lankin picked me up and ran with me out toward the hole in the wall. Felegum shattered the ceiling above the music box, causing chunks of the ceiling to rain down on the Butcher and maybe also the Hat-Broom Man.
The music box, amazingly, was still going. It was a little muffled by all the debris and the dust cloud was certainly not helping the sound transference, but that thing was unstoppable. A familiar moonbeam popped into existence over where it had been and the Butcher continued to dance beneath it like a deadly, dusty party.
More zombies crept out of the ground and the Broom-Hat Man flew down next to the Butcher, touching his shoulder. I was baffled until the skin and muscles began to reknit themselves.
So they could heal too.
I grabbed a familiar potion from my bag, the very first thing I’d bought when I had any money to spare, a potion from the Goblin Shopping Network that was incredibly powerful and incredibly smelly.
I’d been saving it, just in case.
“It’s a special occasion!” I yelled, and chucked it at the Red Eyes in Tem’s moonbeam. Coughing and gagging erupted from behind us– I caught a brief whiff of it and truly the potion had only grown in power the more I’d left it corked in my bag.
Then I ran through the fire, which had stopped being suppressing and now was twenty-five feet high again, and out.
Felegum broke more of the ceiling again as Savas rolled forward, angling for a better shot on us.
Lankin screamed in anger, either at being hurt so badly or at the fact that he was going to have to walk out of this without getting to fight the bad guys more, and jumped, vaulting off the stone walls elegantly before leaping through the flames, cartwheeling expertly to a stop, then exclaiming, “oh, the fire!” and collapsing in a dead faint.
Whatever was left of his loincloth stuffed in his ears had evaporated.
So too had my pink boa.
Now that I was outside the stone wall, I could see that we all looked pretty bad. Helli seemed like she was only hanging on by a thread, as were Felegum and Kalends. Tem hauled Lankin’s naked body over one shoulder and looked to the southwest. “Please, someone,” she said, “be there.”
Behind us was more coughing and retching, yelling and commotion. I’d have to make the loss of her music box up to Helli, but at least the potion had met a good end. I’d hoped it would.
Then the Red Eyes’ argument was suddenly and weirdly silenced.
I did not like this at all. I made sure Lankin was stable with a spell– because jangling around on Tem could not be good long-term– and caught up with Harry, who was still carrying Kalends, as Felegum and Helli dragged Zeno out.
We threw ourselves over the ledge of the hole at the base of the pyramid and into the sun.
We’d made it.