I slept for what felt like a very long time at the table on the first floor. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and I’d slept in worse conditions.

But maybe I’d been too kind in giving Kalends my bedroll for so many nights and not finding something softer for myself, because when I woke up, while I still felt basically rested, I also felt off. The world was too bright, almost like it had been after that one time Zeno had recruited me for his drinking team at the beer battle.

I drew my cloak around me a little tighter and everyone caught me up on what I’d missed while I’d been sleeping.

“Kid,” Zeno said proudly, “we have a plan.”

“It’s not splitting up,” Harry added.

“Also, we have a cart.” Helli also looked very proud of this. “It’s a handcart, but we stole it fair and square from some zombies while you guys were gone.”

This was a great development. The first Sovereign Dungeoneering Cart had meet such a bitter end that it having a replacement, one not involving horses, was a welcome bright spot after the chaos of last night.

Another great development? Felegum had cracked the love letter code. Apparently our Bacchus Jolly brewers were involved in a lot more than casual vinting. According to Felegum’s decryption, they’d been dabbling with alchemy as well.

The rest of the group’s discussions had focused on planning out next steps, whether that was navigating the balance between action and caution, returning Kalends at last to the Calendar, or in Harry’s case, finding out how the plumbing worked. He showed us all the small baby Bacchus spout in the bathroom and how, notably, when turned on nothing came out.

As much as I reiterated that I, a certifiable holy person, could make water on command, Harry seemed equally invested in finding another option. Which, valid. I didn’t want to use all my spells taking care of everyone every day if I didn’t have to. Going invisible was fun.

“Also,” Zeno added as we left the bathroom after the spout tour, “I’m hungry.”

I rubbed my eyes, trying to get them back to normal. It didn’t work, which was weird, but then again, starting the day looking at a naked metal cherub Bacchus that was supposed to pee out fresh water was also a strange way to begin a day. I probably just needed to make myself an actual bed after all this time approximating one. Bodies were dumb like that.

“Crypt mushrooms,” I mumbled.

“Ew.” Zeno made a ‘bleh’ face.

I frowned. “They’re crypt morels. They’re classy and expensive.”

“Oh,” said the bard, “why didn’t you say so? And that’s right! We have the master chef here.”

I put my head into my hands. Of all the places for Zeno to follow me. I wouldn’t have believed it except he’d been able to quote the entire message I’d given the sailor back to me at embarrassing moments.

Like this one, in front of Kalends.

“He has two broken legs!” I was not even halfway as awake for this as I needed to be. “We can’t make him cook.”

Zeno tutted. “Two broken legs,” he stressed. “Not two broken hands.”

“Look,” Kalends began. Kheryph had spent the night curled around his neck and it seemed like they were bonding. It did not escape me that both of my closest friends both had broken all their legs. Hopefully that didn’t become a pattern. “I don’t know what you want me to do, but—”

“Breakfast.” Zeno waved a hand lazily.

The mention of food had also excited Lankin, who was thrilled to share some of his forest cooking skills with our foraged goods. I handed over the crypt morels, the “spice mix” that I’d liberated from that apartment earlier, as well as some of the beans and quinoa. At this point, Kalends had kind of accepted his fate of cooking and seemed to be getting into it.   

He pointed at various things and we fetched them so that his cooking could go more smoothly.

“Ooh,” Felegum said, “we do have potatoes.”

“Okay, we have potatoes,” Kalends said, a plan no doubt already taking shape. “Little ones or what?”

Felegum made a thinking sound and then went to ask Lankin about opening HFVNN. Zeno waved a hand after him. “Wait, wait, be careful! We still have two manticore eyeballs in there!”

Kalends turned to me, a disbelieving and concerned look flashing across his face between the near-constant annoyance. “Who are they?”

I shrugged. “They just really like eyeballs.”

“And this,” Harry said with a sigh, “is the group who wants to kill a broom-hat guy.”

“Did I mention,” Kalends said as he stirred ingredients together, “that we used a ballista? I don’t mean this as discouraging or anything, but I’ve seen in you all in action, and a well-oiled machine you are not.”

“That’s a good point,” Zeno said, sliding into a chair, perhaps expecting more commentary.

“Whatever,” Kalends said, clearly and wisely wanting no part in the caution versus action debate playing out in our team. “I will hang out here.”

To assist with the food, I created some water, Felegum heated it, and Zeno prestidigitated warmth onto some stones inside the pot in order to help everything cook. Helli even offered her pickles, which she’d taken from the Thoth temple settlement and, I realized belatedly, had not given back.

“Okay,” Kal said, accepting the pickles and surveying them, “this is the back-up plan.”

Helli looked mildly offended. “I mean, it’s pretty edible.”

“Yeah,” Kal replied, “that’s why it’s the back-up plan.”

As Kalends cooked the food, we made plans to spend our time wisely. “Let’s go up to that other brewery,” Felegum suggested.

“Another brewery!” Unsurprisingly, Zeno was thrilled.

We snuck out. As we had done previously, we broke into two groups: Team Evasion (plus Zeno) and everyone else. The first team would sneak ahead, scout out a safe path for the others, and then signal for the less stealthy people to track behind. On the way, there were the occasional roaming bands of zombies carrying things, like blocks of stones, building materials, and planks of wood.

It worried me somewhat, because the last time I’d really been paying attention to what the zombies had been carrying, it had been this red material that seemed important. At the time, I’d been adamant about not engaging them because I didn’t want to blow our cover before we’d rescued Kal. Now, though, not seeing them carrying the same stuff made me nervous. Was it really as innocuous as shift in construction preferences?

Somehow I doubted it.

What hadn’t we stopped?

Anyway, too lost in those depressing thoughts, I didn’t move out of the way fast enough when Helli was bobbing and weaving in an intricate pattern with me (we were looking cool, okay) and we knocked some stuff down in the alleyway during our resulting collision.

We were only maybe twenty or thirty minutes into our excursion; this was not ideal. So I threw a rock to make some noise to catch their attention.

There’s a reason I don’t do much in the way of ranged attacks, and that reason is because hitting things far away sucks. My rock bounced back off the window and made a loud noise right next to us. Not ideal, had to say.

We hid again, and eventually the zombies moved past. Letting a few more minutes elapse to make sure we were truly safe, we walked on, eventually reaching the place that Felegum had identified earlier. It was more crafty, like an ironworks.

I was familiar with it as a good place for pickpocketing– people genuinely weren’t paying that much attention on their way to and from work– but the payouts were pretty bad. Most people weren’t that much better off than my parents, and I always felt pretty bad about taking from them.

Also more common around here were houses that were collapsed or blown apart. A whole city block was pretty much leveled, and a large crater was carved into the ground with pieces of the city and its buildings almost thrown around.

Was this what Ojutai’s work looked like up close? Also, why the hell was he doing that? What an asshole.

“You said this was a brewery?” I asked Felegum at the open space.

“I think,” the sorcerer said, “it’s been leveled.”

I blinked again in the harsh light. I really had not been having the world’s greatest time on this outing; I hadn’t been really able to see Helli when we’d been playing around and hiding on the walk over, and even now, inspecting the wreckage for anything useful just made my head hurt. Lesson learned: get enough sleep.

I was just ticked off because I’d definitely gotten less sleep than this in the past and it had been fine. Maybe the combination of the table and the not sleeping was doing it.

Anyway, I squinted at the sky, winced, and decided never to repeat such an unfortunate thing.

When Harry squinted at the sky, however, he saw shapes in the air. This was obviously extreme bad news, so we ran to an alleyway to hide.

And sure enough, in a relatively quick amount of time, we had Hat-Broom Man and the lich in red flying overhead and making a beeline to the city’s center and out of sight.

“So,” Zeno whispered, “that’s them.”

“Hmm.” Felegum sounded tempted, but noncommittal.

“Ahkmatix came in once to check on the pump alone,” Harry said. He’d long been the top proponent of waiting this out, or at the very least trying harder to get Kal back to the Calendar first, and this was a good point. A war waged within me: we had to save the city, which meant defeating the Red Eyes, but every time I’d fought that lich, it was terrifying. Bad things happened constantly and I’d had to run.

Between the two groups, Felegum and I messaged each other to hammer out a plan. The brewery had seemed like the best bet– there had been a water reclamation plant, but it was too far from here, like half the city away– but it also seemed like something had blown up here, judging by the dark soot stains. And not in the magical way, just in like the, normal, mundane explosion way.

Harry sighed. “We can check that pump on the way back.”

This was a little too much. Like, I had the water problem solved. I was not sure why we cared so much about water when Lathander was clearly supporting us on this one. We had more important problems to worry about than water.

I winced out of the intense desert sun. “Okay, fine, I won’t make you water, Harry.”

The monk sighed, deciding not to engage even though I really wanted him to.

“What’s going on?” Felegum came over, sensing conflict.

“Harry,” I said with a pointed glare, “does not want my water.”

“Oh.” The mage shrugged, perhaps still riding the triumph of his decoding earlier and not letting the small things bother him. “I still like your water.”

I spread my arms wide, as though it really was that easy to solve this problem. “Thank you, Felegum.”

“Oh my god.” Harry shook his head and walked off, presumably to find better water.

Helli, perhaps also eager to de-escalate, mentioned that the park did have a water pump and that we could always go there.

Not eager at all for more physical labor, Zeno put on a moue of distaste. “Okay, fine,” he said, annoyed. “Hope we see that broom guy again.”

And so, we headed out. We were actually able to keep things pretty low-key with me and Helli looking for markers or signs that we were en route to a Calendar hideout. The markings we found on buildings were almost like soot stains, except that they were gray instead of black. They were also concealed well under awnings and balconies, but splayed across whole sides of buildings like a paintbrush had been dragged over them.

It was, to say the least, not what either of us were used to. But we did recognize a pattern repeated.

There were no flying shapes above us as we moved, though we did see the bulky shadow of Atarka flying off into the desert.

We finished dodging through the zombies and made it back to Bacchus Jolly. After more thought on the walk, Helli and I had come to the conclusion that the markings were hidden in the shadows and deliberate. What we weren’t sure of was whether they were pointing somewhere or marking a building for something.

The group continued to walk to get back to the square that had the water pump to make Harry happy about non-me water.

“Do you have any oil?” Harry asked Helli, who had steppes up to help him work the pump. “Since it was so squeaky the last time.”

“Oh, so sorry, no.” Helli shrugged sheepishly.

I passed her the oil from my bag wordlessly and continued to keep watch. Except it was bright and the hooded figure statue was just…so uncool. I couldn’t look up much because the sun was exceptionally bright right now, the only place shady enough to fixate on was the statue, and that was not making me think positive things about my own fashion sense. Was it just the two heads or did the hood really fall that strangely? I couldn’t tell and it was making me hate everything about that aesthetic.

Meanwhile, Tem was keeping to the alleyway to avoid drawing attention to herself. Probably for the best.

Harry and Helli gave the water pump a test pull and a little drop of water came out. It looked maybe cloudy and possibly gross, but after 20 or 3p seconds it went clear and they were able to fill all our waterskins.

I even handed over mine, though I did not stop staring at the statue. I did not like it.

I was distracted from my long-term glowering not by anyone on a roof sounding an alarm or anything but by Helli investigating some markings. This, at last, was better than the statue. Helli had checked out the grate by the statue and had tried to draw a symbol by it, but hadn’t gotten one of the important sticks long enough, so I fixed it. Also, I added the symbol to the statue’s cloak. Might as well.

“We’ll have to bring water barrels next time,” Felegum said after he’d rejoined us with Zeno and beheld the water trove.

“We do have barrels back home ” Zeno said, bored.

“Do we?” Felegum had to think about it. “That’s right, we do have high quality barrels!”

Again, unsure why this mattered but whatever. We went home and walked in on a heated argument between Lankin and Kal.

“No,” Kalends was saying in his how-could-you-do-that-terribly-stupid-thing voice, a voice I was very familiar with, “you can’t put potatoes in without peeling them!”

Lankin was all puppy dog eyes. “But I’ve always had it that way!”

Anyway, the soup turned out to be more of a very thick paste. The lid did not work really well, but our crypt dinner of morels and moose was actually pretty good.

Harry thanked both Kalends and Lankin for their contributions.

“Yeah!” Lankin cheered. “I helped!”

As we ate, I spent some time racking my still-hurting head for memories about a wizard school here, or our teleportation sigil. Now that Felegum was getting more skilled it might come in handy (if we could, you know, fix the scarring after we saved the city and all) and also having a magic school around would be helpful. I’d seen how much the school in Paripas had anchored the city; maybe it had been the same here.

But honestly I couldn’t remember much. Most of the times that I’d been in that area, people had just been jerks or foreigners and usually both at the same time loudly. They didn’t have much money on them, probably having been bled dry thanks to exorbitant Paripasian teleport rates.

Kalends sat back as he finished his own meal. “I feel like you’re revisiting duds,” he said, kind of bluntly. “If I could walk, finding a Calendar spot would be much easier.”

Briefly, I recalled that sometimes snow would come in through the circle and we’d make snowcones from it. That was very exciting.

Our thoughts then turned to planning an ambush.

“We can’t be too cautious, but we can’t be too reckless either.” I sighed, closing my eyes.

Harry said he didn’t know why we needed to try to take Hat-Broom Man down using tall buildings, but that was also something someone who could jump really high and run up buildings would say.

Anyway, we made some plans. I could fly, of course, and Zeno wanted to be on a roof too for mysterious Zeno reasons to help draw Hat-Broom Man in. In the north, there were enough high-rises to make that happen. Someone could also ride my broom.

“Hey Harry,” Tem called out, “would you like to help me build a basket?”

But Harry was nowhere to be found.

This was somewhat irksome, since throwing temper tantrums when you didn’t get your way was highly immature, and one more person copying me and my coping habits was making me even more tired. I yawned exaggeratedly. “Okay, my eyes hurt, I need to sleep.”

And we slept, with me relieved that I hadn’t let anyone see me overly bothered by this.

When dawn broke, Atarka flew away from the pyramid and back off into the desert and we prepared for our ambush.

“Is Harry going?” Zeno asked, in one of those insouciant ways he had for checking in on something he either disagreed with or thought was stupid.

“Yeah,” Harry said, descending the stairs. “I’m coming.”

“At least give us a proper burial,” Zeno replied, and left it at that.

We headed north, into a narrow street flanked with two- to three-story buildings. Zeno and I both scaled ones of similar heights, jumping and vaulting over the roofs to get to good vantage points. As we did so, the bard gave us an inspiring speech.

“So I know,” he said, climbing up a wall, “that not everyone wants to jump right into this. Maybe this, my friends, is our first step to saving Set’s city.”

“Alliteration!” Felegum elbowed me.

“I know!” I whispered back excitedly.

“We’re going to save the city,” Zeno concluded, “and stomp some Red Eyes.”

In our scouting out the area, we also found a sewer entrance nearby, which was good in case we needed a rapid escape point. Helli unwrapped her plague sword and I was glad that I was far enough away from her not to really smell it as much, because truthfully from the faces of the people around her, it must have smelled awful.

I was also kind of glad that I’d left Kheryph with Kalends. Kal had definitely needed someone to hang out with and bond with, but I didn’t think I’d want to bring Kheryph directly into the danger we’d be running into. As much as I’d like to think that everything was going to go smoothly, that rarely proved to be the case.

Felegum whispered to us and messaged me that there was a small pack of shambling zombies ahead. Helli hid and Tem casually moved into the center of the street, taking up a fighting stance.

From my hiding spot on the roof, I hoped that I wasn’t throwing everyone into their deaths. This city was mine to die for, but it felt like a lot to ask that of everyone else. Hell, I was even hoping that I could get out of this without dying.

I didn’t have that much time to fixate on my own bleak future because Zeno took a deep breath and let out the most horrifyingly undeath-like zombie screech I’d heard since, well, the last zombie screecher we’d run into.

It was so loud I wanted to throw up a little. Before my logical mind assured me that, no, it was just Zeno, my body had wanted to do what it had almost always done when it came to the undead, which was to run.

Below in the street, the zombies seemed like they were walking with more purpose. Felegum hid, as did Harry, and the zombies continued toward Tem. I thought that she was going to be the point of first impact, but no, Helli stepped out of nowhere and swung out at them instead. She was wearing long leather gloves and had that plague sword gripped firmly in both hands.

When she struck a zombie, its limb shed off of it and disintegrated into a green slurry. An ichor remained on the plague sword, though, and perhaps deciding that she did not like that very much after all, she stuck it into a box and disappeared back into the bowels of the alleyway.

Tem, now with the battle opened for her, stepped forward to a zombie and engaged, hitting the front-most one and obliterating two zombies with her massive sword.

I, for my effect, invoked a blessing on myself, Tem, and Harry, figuring that we were going to be the ones getting close enough to do damage on Hat-Broom Man, whenever he decided to pop in.

Then I hid.

Zeno turned to me and sighed. “Bless them? No,” he said with such an air of assurance I couldn’t help but be inspired, “bless you.”

Then he told me that it would probably take a while to draw in Hat-Broom Man and that I should relay that information to the others. I messaged everyone individually to communicate this, though it took a while and I did feel very silly about it.

Tem gutted a few more zombies and then also went to hide as we hunkered down to wait and the square slowly populated more and more with zombies. As my spell dropped and the undead filled in, I was beginning to think that maybe Zeno’s idea for an off-the-cuff ambush might have been less risky when a few of us perked up. A spot had been noticed flying over the city.

Hat-Broom Man was on the scene.

We waited until he was within range and then loosed our trap.

Zeno played a song I’d never heard before, an alluring jig accompanied by wisps of smoke from his bagpipes to the broom-riding demonic dude, but one that didn’t seem to take in Hat-Broom Man. His eyes briefly closed, but he shook it off.

Next came Felegum with his signature Tidal Wave spell. Hat-Broom Man fell, landing on the roof of a building and his broom stayed aloft, hanging there mid-air.

Taking advantage of the situation, Harry leapt onto the rooftop to Hat-Broom Man and laid into him. His first punch seemed to be pretty normal, hurting Hat-Broom Man but not disabling him, but the second punch left the Red Eye motionless and stunned.

This was our opening. Helli began to climb the building and Tem rummaged in her bag, took out some oil, threw it on the hoard of undead and then breathed on it, causing them all to erupt into flame.

And then, I flew. Hat-Broom Man made to try to cast some sort of spell, but I got right in there and sliced at him with my knife.

It seemed as though time slowed down. The spell curled around his hands, the light caught on my knife, and when I cut into the Hat-Broom Man, everything felt lighter.

The too-brightness faded into razor-sharp clarity, and as blood dripped off my blade I straightened mid-air, re-energized. It was happening. It was going our way, and finally, finally, my poor, beaten-down city would see some justice.

And I would be right there on the front lines, dealing it out.

“I feel so much better now,” I said, eyes wild and glowing, grin wide.

Unfortunately as cool as I was, I could not stop spells from being cast so Felegum had to take care of that one with a well-placed counterspell.

Then the Hat-Broom Man, who could speak in spite of his entire body being stunned, uttered a word in some weird fiendish language and his broom flitted down to him. An escape route I’d used many a time myself. I knew it well.

Zeno, seeing also that this dude was still casting and needed to be stopped, presumably tried to attend to that. I didn’t know if whatever he did worked, but I appreciated him trying.

Then, a whole bunch of balcony ornaments came to life.

I was worried at first, but once it became clear that 1) they were on our side and 2) they were probably the work of Felegum, taking his sorcery to new heights, I had to admit, it was pretty awesome. Especially since they too seemed to be aggressively pursuing Hat-Broom Man.

Harry continued to punch. One strike went wide, but the other landed and a familiar shudder reverberated through the spellcaster’s body as he was stunned again. Below us, the zombies on the street were smashing their bodies into the building, trying to get up.

Helli had her wand out and sent a volley of magical bolts of force at the Red Eye. As the last one connected, he fell unconscious.

We’d done it.

Harry grabbed at the broom, but it slipped out of his grasp. Meanwhile, Tem took a huge leap across rooftops to get to where we were and swung her sword in a massive decapitating blow. The red spirit inside flared straight up, but not before I advanced on it.

“You have hurt my city,” I said and erupted in thunder and light.

The building below me crumbled, but it didn’t really matter because I was floating anyway.

The red spirit, though, continued to fly straight up, even after I sliced out at it again.

Zeno vanished and reappeared almost on top of the broom, but after a brief tussle with balance, gravity won and he toppled to the ground. Before I could even move, he’d slammed into the road below.

Muttering the words of his all-too-familiar banishment spell, Felegum extended his hand to the Hat-Broom Man’s red spirit remains. Nothing happened, but sometimes you had to banish things multiple times for them to actually get the message and leave. With another wave of his hand, his furniture, including a table, a chair leg, and the umbrella that Felegum himself had been holding onto for transport, began to lay into the zombies below.

Also, Harry breathed acid on them, which helped melt them a bit.

One still managed to hit the table, while another member of the undead went after the valiant umbrella. Still more attempted to get to the source of the acid, Harry, and a few thought that they’d have an easy time assaulting Zeno, but Tem stepped in over his surprisingly still-conscious form to protect him.

Again, Helli pulled out her wand and shot at the fleeing red spirit. It grew weaker, but it kept going.

In one last push, I flew after it, extending my hand to extinguish it once and for all in fire.

One less monster roaming my city’s streets, one step closer to freeing this place.

But the light glimmered wrong, something was in my eyes or the slither was too fast, and it disappeared beyond my reach toward the center of the city and the pyramid.

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