THE ONE THE BATTLES ALWAYS CHOOSE: in which walls get wrecked and we head for the heart

We fell asleep, uncomfortable truths melting into unsettling dreams as the night passed. I was up with the dawn as usual, watching the purples transition into pinks and then abruptly cutting off somewhere in amber when the sun went beyond the lip of the dome.

I put my hands on my hips and scowled. How the hell was I supposed to pray in these conditions? I was literally working with a dawn god. This went so far past ideal into plain old bad.

There was a similar rumbling to the last time we’d been out and those red-wreathed cage had appeared in the sky, and Zeno made a noise of agreement as he put together his coffee. “Hmm,” he said along to the building pressure outside, “that’s a good point.”

Then he added bourbon to his coffee.

“Zeno, we need you sharp,” Felegum said. He was doing a good job trying to keep the team together, but even for our normally unflappable sorcerer, the strain was beginning to show.

“Hmm,” Zeno said again, considering the situation, and poured more bourbon into the cup. He doctored another similar cup and handed it off to Helli, who was awake and looking a little less put-upon than before. “Friends, does anyone else feel oddly better today? I’ve been putting some things together and I finally have a new song. It’s inspired by the sounds of the desert. I’d been thinking about it ever since we found that Feywild inscription.”

Zeno’s in-depth discussion of his musical process, however, was interrupted when Harry descended the stairs, hopefully rested enough to do things.

Perhaps wishing to avoid any conflict, Felegum gave me a thumbs-up. “We got this, Set!”

“Thank you for keeping me calm during this incredibly shitty time,” I said. Because I could be self-aware. When I wanted to be.

Anyway, Felegum was back in action mode. “We’ve identified the water treatment facility as an entrance the the catacombs.”

“Ah,” Zeno said over his coffee-bourbon mug, “that sounds long.”

Kalends and I got caught talking about Kheryph and I made the mistake of feeding him a bouillon cube (Kheryph, not Kalends, though I suspect the result would be the same). The lizard gave me this look of utter betrayal at the dustiness that melted on his tongue.

“Oh no.” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” Kalends said, “not a good idea.”

“Helli,” Tem said noticing the diamond hanging from the gnome’s neck, “I can give you priority in revivification if you give me that.”

“Oh,” Helli said. She looked like she was considering it for a moment, but then something in her was just deeply unable to part with such a beautiful object. She kept the emergency necklace on, citing that Tem could always just crush it on her person should she fall, and then added her extremely flashy opal necklace to the situation.

I had to admire the fact that, in the face of extreme danger and possible fatality, she was choosing to flex on everything. Also, she flicked a coin to Harry with the height of elegance. “Found this in your dream world,” she said to him.

He just stared at it for a moment.

I took advantage of the moment to ask if anyone had a pearl. I had something that I kind of wanted to know what it did before I used it, but unfortunately we were straight out of pearls. We even checked Hat-Broom Man’s component pouch. Sad times.

Anyway, since this was the last good breakfast that we were likely to have for a while, we settled in for some steeped dried grains (courtesy of probably me) with bouillon (definitely me), giving us the illusion of a chicken soup. If you added in the dried meat portion of a ration, you could almost convince yourself that was it.

We tried to be light-hearted about it, and Kalends and I left first while Tem and Lankin figured out how to carry the wheelchair out onto the street.

When we’d passed through the back door, there was an etching on the wall familiar to us both: two circles intersecting, one on top of the other.

“This looks significant,” I said.

Kalends looked at it, then back at me. “They found us.”

The Calendar at last knew where we were. After all that work, we’d finally been found.

I had a lot of mixed emotions. First, I was thrilled. They were very badass. However, they’d also taken their sweet time in getting here. Kalends had told me that they usually went to ground after massive attacks like the one we’d called down after taking out Hat-Broom Man, and I figured that– I don’t know– maybe I’d accidentally destroyed them or maybe there weren’t as many people left as I’d thought.

Or, another possibility that I especially didn’t like, that they didn’t think I’d been worth working with before.

But yeah, that did leave us at a bit of a strange impasse. The Calendar had sent us a sign that they were willing to reach out for contact. We didn’t have the time for that, though.

Kalends looked down, then looked back up at the sign on the wall. “Alright,” he said, “we always knew it would take time. They found us. As far as I see it, we’ve got two options.”

Pretty much that we could either choose to reach back out to them and get in contact or we could proceed with the plan as normal. I sighed and we had a good long talk.

Kalends was thrilled with being invited along on our sewer-catacomb crawl (since yes, even I could see that he was a very lethal dude), but did raise the extremely valid concern that his wheelchair would probably not fare the best having to go up and down ladders and stairs (as evidenced by us even exiting Bacchus Jolly).

I was sad, because he really had impressed upon me that he was capable of fighting and wanted to be in this battle, but maybe this was also what he meant by being able to take care of himself: us trusting that he would be able to make it to the Calendar on his own.

And truthfully, when he pulled his cloak over his head in the chair, he really did look a lot like a pile of trash, which, as we all knew, was the winning strategy to stealth right now.

“I’m not giving up,” I said, interrupting our logistics conversation. “On your legs. I may not be able to fix them now, but I’m not going to stop trying.”

Kalends nodded, and then asked me: “What about Kheryph?”

“Oh,” I started, because obviously I was going to fix his legs too, I figured how different could lizard legs be from people legs? But then I realized that wasn’t the question Kal was asking me. “I don’t know.”

“I mean, I could hang onto him,” Kalends said, petting the little guy on his head, “but I thought that, since this might be intense, that maybe you’d like him.”

That was, unfortunately, one of the reasons that I worried taking Kheryph with me would be too dangerous. I’d nearly been reduced to ash and powder once. What if that happened when I had Kheryph with me?

I couldn’t put him in that kind of danger.

“He should go with you,” I said. “You two are best buds now, right? I’ll come back for him after.”

Kalends nodded. He knew how hard it was to leave things that mattered to you behind.

I pulled out a little piece of meat for Kheryph. “Here. Sorry about the bouillon cube before. This is much better.”

The lizard accepted it happily, trusting me not to trick him again. And yeah, that right there was why Kheryph had to go with Kal. Kheryph trusted me. Gods, being responsible was so…difficult.

“You,” Kalends said to me as he tucked Khyerph back underneath his cloak in a cozy spot, “take care of yourself out there.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said to Kalends. “I’ve got your knife, right? Stay fast.”

Kalends left, and I held my knife across my forehead in the Csipherian salute as he wheeled off to find the Calendar.

It took us maybe two or three hours to traverse across the city to the water treatment plant. There were three large fired clay water obelisks (not shaped like the traditional obelisk, but still a tall shape) and then smaller outbuildings around them. One of the smaller outbuildings, on Felegum’s direction, seemed the most promising, and we were indeed able to locate a small compartment at the back leading to a smaller staircase.

“Stay sharp,” Felegum said to everyone again.

I took the lead on going down the stairs, narrating the entire claustrophobic journey up to the rest of the party following behind me. There were points in the journey where it truly did get very cramped as the stairs spiraled tighter and tighter.

It kept on like that, me deeply hoping I could keep it together long enough to reach a larger room, which surely must be at the end of this, as the stairs curled deeper and deeper, until we must have been three or four stories underground.

Then at last, the stairs ended. The walls of the cavern around us were moist, like the water obelisks were leaking through the earth.

And so, I led on, following Felegum’s map directions.

At one point we were concerned that we’d need to find a secret door, but the corridor ended up connecting more easily than the map made it look. Behind us, Tem lit a torch, as she was the only one who couldn’t see in the dark. Felegum’s directions and the maps we found actually turned out to be pretty good.

After some trekking, we came to a large open room.

An abyss, deep into the earth, opened beneath us. It was mind-bogglingly deep and so dark that I couldn’t see the end of it. It seemed to be about seventy-five feet across and the long side of the cavern was about two hundred.

On the opposite wall, I saw something. A tube in the wall, running along it, almost like a pipe.


At first, we thought that the abyss would be easy to cross, since I after all, was still in possession of my frankly excellent broom. However, I had to re-explain (and also explain to Tem) that the broom, while very cool, was currently struggling with heavier weight loads after Egonia.

“Maybe if Set can get me across I can do the disk?” Felegum posited. “Like we did before?”

“But the pit?” I asked, recalling him saying that his disk could only hover a small amount over the ground.

“Oh,” Felegum said. “Right, right.”

“Stay sharp, Felegum!” Zeno chided.

Anyway, we discussed various strategies over this thing. I had the broom, obviously, Helli was effectively a spider now, Zeno knew tricks, and Harry was also basically a spider but in different ways, leaving Tem and Felegum for us to figure out.

I trusted that they could handle that– one way or another we’d figure it out– and I took off on my broom to check out the tubing in the distance. They looked dark, like a gray-black color against a pallid and glistening section of the wall, not unlike flesh.

So I stabbed it. Gently, you know, like a test stab. Definitely seemed to go in. I wasn’t about to shatter the spicy knife on a wall. I was curious if this was the heart of the city or something that I really should not be hurting, but there really wasn’t a good way to know that.

I stabbed it again, harder this time, like I really meant to.

This time, the city screamed.

Under my grip, the dagger pulsed and I felt invigorated, full of energy and power. It was awesome. This didn’t happen often, but when it did I reminded myself that this was a legendary weapon. Someone from home had used it before, I knew it. And maybe it too wanted me to win.

More importantly, the scream sounded almost like it was coming from the caverns themselves. It felt extraplanar, and that was about when I felt mostly certain that I hadn’t hurt the city but rather the thing that was trying to take over my city.

I pulled the knife out, and the wall annoyingly knit itself back together, a slim white seam on the pallid flesh. Nearly indistinguishable.

I guess this was all the prompting that the rest of the group needed to solve the problem: Felegum took out a pinch of something from his bag and a shimmering bridge spread across the chasm.

This was really pretty cool, even before Zeno catwalked over it snapping and changing his outfit.

Helli, true to form, scuttled over the ceiling.

“Is Helli okay?” Tem asked.

Felegum sighed, still annoyed that he’d had to cast a spell to solve this. “She’s just talking to herself, it’s fine.”

I checked the progress of the tube healing as they got closer: it was pretty much all knitted over, though on closer inspection to the exact spot would be visible, much like an old scar on healed skin would appear pale in contrast.

When everyone caught up, I relayed Lathander’s advice about seeking out the sources via the lines on the wall and the destroying the hearts. The tube seemed to be running, as near as we could tell, from the city’s center to somewhere in its periphery, but from what I could tell when I’d stabbed it, the flow’s source had been out on the periphery.

Zeno raised some concerns about not going toward the center of the action, which made sense.

But Lathander had asked me to trust him, and that was kind of what this whole thing was about. I didn’t have a chance at saving this city alone, as hard as that was to believe. We had the Calendar and we had us, but maybe my friends were right that we needed some outside help.

We needed to slow down whatever was happening long enough for that to occur.

Zeno said he’d trust me, but he had a bad feeling about it, and that being said (along with some dirty looks from Harry at me for, what, stabbing a wall without permission?), we continued in the direction of this source, following the lines on the wall.

They continued as veins and then widened almost into a delta, then into more of a wall. It still had that uncomfortable fleshy consistency, so yes, this was basically a wall of flesh. I did feel like we were going the right way, but it was a gross way.

Zeno took out his rapier, wiped it clean, and then slashed into the wall.

I admired that he was both willing to trust me on the Lathander thing as well as his decisive strike against the wall. I still felt like I was better at hitting the wall, but he was very effective.

So effective, in fact, that the wall sucked him in.

Instantly, we took action. And by action, I mostly meant panickedly pulling Zeno out of the zombie flesh wall. Harry grabbed onto him, Felegum sent a frosty ray into the mess of flesh and grasping limbs, and when I sliced down with the knife, already feeling keyed up and ready for action.

It was like the wall of undead turned into a lattice of black dusty bones, crumbling into dust. Tem slashed in with the power of Bahamut (and more importantly, her breathing fire on another side of the wall), and Helli joined Harry in digging in her heels to get Zeno out of there.

Tendril’s of Felegum’s ice caught flame, a strange sight, and gradually, we cut and pulled Zeno free. He had, somehow, managed to keep hold on his rapier, holding stock still. Perhaps he’d received extensive tableau training in bard school.

He held up the weapon in triumph.

“Orgy’s open,” he said, and promptly collapsed on the catacomb floor.

Tem and Felegum continued to go to town on the wall with fire and ice, and sometimes arms on fire would reach out for Tem, but she broke free from their hold.

It reminded me a little too closely, how it smelled, of how I’d left the city.

Then Tem cut through the wall, and three to five feet past the flesh we could see a passage that opened up into a large antechamber. All I had time for before the flesh started to close back over things was a quick glimpse of a cylinder pulsing with red-pink energy with a creature at the center.

It had a mostly black body with ropey things coming off it like roots and a gold-yellow chitinous plate, six arms, and four legs. Of the arms, two had curved hooked talons, and while I couldn’t make everything out, I’d guess the other two were blades, and then two hands with seven fingers each.

Also, a number of undead in there too surrounding it in rings.

That had to be the heart we were trying to find and remove.

All the while this was happening, Felegum and Tem were doing their part as Team Fire and Ice to get through the regenerating wall of undeath, and they were making great progress. They cut a hole into the corridor, and we followed it through. Several other passageways (also clogged with dead zombie flesh) also connected to this same chamber. So this thing must have serviced multiple undead things with whatever power it had. Checked out.

The strange insect thing floated in the center of a whole mess of zombies organized in rings around it. The outermost rings seemed to be more of the rank-and-file skeletal warriors we’d encountered and dispatched before. The inner ring, however, was made of zombies in red armor, and these looked tougher. I hadn’t seen them before.

The insect at the center was suspended but made no move– it seemed almost serene, hanging there with all of its pincers and exaggerated amount of arms limp and scraping the ground as it turned as if on display, surrounded by a faint pink light.

I was still thinking about that smell, and I was a beat behind everyone else when things started moving.

Zeno played a song that sounded distorted but somehow still had a catchy beat, and the smoke coming out of his bagpipes crackled with static. The party had begun in earnest.

“I believe we’re interrupting something?” Harry said conversationally and then unloaded an acid breath onto a bay of zombies. A few just straight-up melted. He drew a line in the dust before him, as if daring the creatures to come closer. Ice blossomed along it.

A crablike tattoo on Harry’s head had begun to glow. Helli and I exchanged a knowing look. There did seem to be a pattern to the glowing, but Harry never wanted to talk about it, or when pressed, got a little defensive. I, certainly, was the last person who he’d open up to about it, I imagined. Maybe Helli could wrestle that secret out of him.

Later. When we weren’t in giant insect combat.

Annoyingly, many of these zombies appeared to be good at archery. Four took aim at Harry, three at Tem, and one at Helli. Two arrows made contact with Harry, but he threw one of them back. Tem managed to dodge all of her missiles but one and Helli totally evaded the arrow meant for her.

She took out two daggers and got ready for an opportunity to present itself.

Meanwhile, Tem read herself a catechism about how great Bahamut was, and began to glow with a blue-silvery protective force as she mowed through some zombies.

Felegum dipped into his most reliable spell component–sweat– and conjured a hailstorm inside the room. This was wild. I’d seen him do this once before, but that had been outside and it kind of made sense for hail to appear there, even if it was weird for it to be hailing in Csipherus. Seeing it indoors was strange but also kind of awesome. Magic was so cool.

Anyway, the hail hit a ton of the zombies and also covered a large amount of the ground in hailstones, making it difficult for the undead warriors to get closer to us.

“He’s got a shield,” the mage called. “Maybe we need to take it out!”

I was all for that. However, you had to do things in a certain order. First matter of business: do not get hit with the zombie swords. I invoked the power of Lathander to protect and guide my companions in melee (and also myself because I needed to maintain the spell). Yes, I did bless Harry. I for one had moved on.

Unfortunately, there was nowhere for me to hide along the wall, so I’d kind of just cast my spell and was in the process of getting out my daggers when the zombie lines began to activate and advance.

Zeno cut across the floor and stepped in front of me. “Huey,” he called, “get ’em!”

Obligingly, Huey took a solid swing at one of the zombies now threatening them, and its left arm collapsed.

Zeno tsked at it. “You don’t even deserve love, but Huey does!”

The zombies around them seemed to visibly deflate as Zeno fistbumped Huey. Huey tried to grab at Zeno, not quite understanding the gesture of camaraderie.

Zeno turned back and gave me a wink, having noticed my struggle earlier. “You’re hidden now.”

I flashed him a thumbs up back as Harry once again breathed out a belch of acid onto the zombies around him and then punched one. Another zombie he threw back out of the door, presumably to be gobbled up by the undead wall o’ flesh, threw another into a wall, and knocked another one prone.

The zombies again took aim, this time at Zeno.

“You don’t deserve love either!” he yelled out to them, but unfortunately the bolt still hit him. The site where it had impacted his shoulder seemed to grow unnaturally dark, though the bard didn’t seem too worried about it.

Meanwhile, the armored zombies formed a line and moved in one smooth and terrifying motion toward us. Three of them attacked Zeno and two made it past his wounded defense with their spears, one Tem was able to dodge, as was Harry. Helli, who had been up on the wall at this point– spiders, I don’t know– skittered down and tried to pry the armor off one of the zombies. It didn’t appear to work.

Tem got in two clean hits on more of the zombies around Harry, and Felegum’s hail at last melted, having slowed the progress of the spear-zombies quite a bit.

I had somewhat overestimated my ability to deal with the spearbearers myself: my first strike with the spicy knife didn’t do anything except get my very fancy knife stuck in their armor. I had to wrench it out, but the seconds and effort expended in that made my second strike go wide, and Kalends’ dagger– the one I’d just sworn to take good care of not even twenty four hours ago– sailed out of my hand and clattered onto the tiles elsewhere.

“Huey!” Zeno called out to his trusty undead servant. “Remove this nasty bolt!”

Huey did his best. He was not great at getting the bolt out and did not succeed. Zeno sighed, and then whispered disconcertingly at his oncoming attackers, getting several of the armored zombies to run away.

Harry breathed out in acid again, then went right into a headbutt before taking up a defensive stance, the ethereal crab once again hovering up behind him.

The zombies were back at it on their bows, with an arrow missing me, one hitting Helli, another hitting Huey, two at Harry (with only one hitting him), and one also hitting Tem. Strangely, there was a wave of weird energy from Helli when the arrow struck her and the zombie responsible turned and ran.

Unfortunately, there was someone standing in the path of its retreat and even more unfortunately, that someone was me.

I was able to keep my footing and it clattered to the ground.

While Huey was hurt, he was still standing, and Tem even made an attack at the zombie who had hurt Harry, trying to shore up Team Dragonborn’s defense.

Helli, having done good work, skittered across the floor to get closer to the giant insect, no doubt wanting to inspect the mechanisms at work there. Soon enough, we’d likely be calling upon her insight to figure out how to deactivate that thing.

Tem, her sword glowing blue-silver with Bahamut’s power and purple-orange with Lathander’s blessing, cleaved an armored zombie in half. They could be beaten. This was heartening.

She moved next to Harry, in a shieldmate kind of position.

Felegum cast his Shatter spell carefully to avoid Harry and Tem, nailing many of the zombies, who had begun to look even more decrepit than usual.

I continued to hold onto the blessing and moved in to attack the zombie who lay prone. It was an easy slice, and while I tried to cut the head off of the zombie and didn’t quite succeed, I still managed to sever a limb. Backing off gracefully, I knelt down and retrieved Kalends’ dagger.

My parents may not have been surgeons, but I knew enough of violence to know how to remove a heart.

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