It was actually looking good for us, that was the thing. We were doing okay.
And then everything went to hell.
“Huey, Huey!” Zeno called to his loyal undead companion. “Pull harder!”
The zombie pulled the arrow out, leaving Zeno staggering but still upright. “Yuck,” he said at the spot of impact, though this did not seem to have any magical effect, which was saying something considering it was Zeno.
Then he moved next to me and got his bagpipes going again, blasting out a sharp note that felt weird and unnatural– usually it got things to move away from him pretty quickly. But it seemed like these zombies were already pretty weird and unnatural, so they stayed put, disinclined to leave.
Zeno gestured at me and them, like a parent shooing children to go and play together.
Harry breathed out in acid again and then headbutted another zombie before sinking back into a defensive stance. His eyes roved from person to person, and floating behind him was that ghostly crab head.
Again, I was deeply curious about this stuff– one does not simply develop a crab head out of nowhere– but we hadn’t had much of a moment where Harry or I weren’t mad at each other to really discuss this.
Two zombies tried to get to Zeno, each trying to hit him twice, and to his credit he managed to avoid three of the four strikes. These were the red-armored undead, the same as the ones that were also hassling Harry. One picked up a piece of stone and threw it at him, and three more went after Tem, who was stalwartly fighting alongside him.
In short, these dudes were doing a lot of damage to the dragonborn, and in hindsight I probably should have addressed this differently.
At the that one zombie with the broken bow didn’t do anything. It just shambled over after it forgot that it had destroyed its own weapon.
Helli was back on the ceiling, which seemed to be the new normal for her these days. She dropped down next to Zeno and stabbed a zombie next to him.
Tem called out some words and her sword burst out into lightning and then she totally smited someone. Blue flames wicked out around the body of the zombie and it was still standing, but it didn’t look like it wanted to be that way.
Meanwhile, attempting to narrow the field, Felegum called forth a tidal wave, curving it around Harry and knocking three of the zombies down. One of the red limbs, discarded from probably another zombie kill, was torn apart.
Because the creepy thing that was also happening while we were all fighting for our lives was that the zombies’ hewn off body parts were still squiggling around, perhaps trying to reunite with each other and form a body again. Felegum, being canny, had spotted this and was no doubt keen to address it. We’d been doing okay so far, but another round of regenerated zombie fighting sounded appealing to no one.
I sliced in on a zombie near Zeno and tore a chunk out of it. Feeling especially productive, I went in again, but my attack was thwarted by the insane amount of amount these dudes were wearing. At least my dagger didn’t get knocked out of my hands again.
Zeno commanded Huey to jam his arrow into the zombie’s back, but unfortunately Huey lacked whatever coordination he might have had in life. “Nice try, buddy,” Zeno said, and then played a more dissonant, hissing tune, causing the zombies around him to move away.
I held back, bracing to dodge another attack, causing Zeno to roll his eyes and direct Huey to stab at the retreating armored zombies. Huey was unfortunately not very effective here either, and Zeno sighed. “I don’t know why I even try.”
Harry made a stalwart attempt to patch himself back together mid-fight. “Don’t just lay there in pain,” he said, “give a round of applause to the Fallow’s Reach kid.”
I was pretty sure that Fallow’s Reach was Felegum and not Zeno, but hey, maybe Harry had really been impressed by the water sculpting skills that our mage had developed over time.
Anyway, the zombies attacked him pretty mercilessly, though Tem did get another hit in on them in retaliation.
Harry blocked another zombie’s attack, and the others began to form a shield line. In the moment, I thought this was annoying of them but not threatening. Their advance in a line had certainly been impressive, but I hadn’t seen it be much more than show.
How wrong I was about to be.
The line advanced on Tem and the glittering champion of Bahamut went down in a flash of spears and steel, the blue flame on her massive sword gutting out as she hit the floor.
I couldn’t tell what was going on in the press of bodies because everything was happening so fast, but it seemed like they were still hitting her, even as others piled onto Harry.
Zeno too had seen this, and perhaps had judged it more accurately than I had, because he yelled out, “Enough!” and distracted some of the zombies enough from their next dragonborn target that Harry had room to deflect their spear jabs.
Helli skittered over to Tem and took out a medical kit, quickly popping it open and getting ready to apply the supplies to Tem. But something made her stop and cry out in grief.
Not again. She’d only been down a moment–
Helli struck out at a red-armored zombie near her and felled it, its lifeless body joining Tem’s.
Felegum screamed and ran behind me, missiles of force magic emanating from him and striking into the zombie next to Zeno. I too cut into that one, taking it out.
We had to move fast and end this as soon as we could. Zeno had brought someone back before, and we had diamonds.
The bard himself seemed too to want to get this over with, and he directed Huey to finish off the regular zombie with the broken bow that had finally finished shambling up to him. Huey did so with aplomb. Perhaps all he needed, like his master, was the right dramatic timing for things.
Zeno called over to Harry, “Do you need help?”
“Eh,” Harry grunted back. He didn’t say he was in immediate danger, which was good.
“Give me a minute,” Zeno said, and became a mammoth.
Harry punched a zombie in front of him right in the face, immobilizing it instantly. He did the same with another.
And then that same phalanx that had moved on Tem moved on Harry, and in a swift stab of spears and blood, he too had fallen.
Helli screamed again in shock or despair, and gently placed the resurrection necklace on Harry’s still chest. Then, she unsheathed her dangerous dagger and got to work, carving down the zombie in armor who had ended Harry’s life for the second time.
To her right, the line of three towering shields reformed.
This was looking worse and worse. Felegum did something with his mind and the zombies seemed suddenly very distraught and worse for wear. I moved up next to Helli to give her some support, also not wanting to get too close to the zombies, and tried to pick one off with some divine fire.
As is the case with my divine fire, it completely didn’t work. I don’t know why I keep trying this, because evidence would suggest that I just give up on it, but it must just be my stalwart belief in Lathander that compels me.
Anyway, Mammoth Zeno joined the fray and at that point things were well and truly done for the red-armored zombies. The mammoth knocked out the shield line, flattening the middle zombie into an unflattering goo. Huey too tried to participate, bringing his cudgel onto one of the downed ones repeatedly in imitation of his master.
The remaining zombies laid into the mammoth, but its woolen form did not falter.
Helli zipped into the melee under cover of the mammoth, stabbed, and took out another zombie as Felegum went to inspect the defeated zombie near me.
“Hey, Set, watch this,” he said. And then he pointed at the zombie on the other side of the mammoth, aiming a ray of frost between Zeno’s mammoth legs. It was pretty cool, I had to say.
I skirted around the giant creature and also got in an attack, though my second swing didn’t connect. It didn’t really need to, though, because Zeno gored the hell out of the zombie and then trumpeted in the direction of the remaining one.
I dodged one of the zombie’s strikes but didn’t make it away from the other, and after a wide swing from Helli, she eventually found a hole in its defenses and all was still.
Well, almost all was still. Felegum was summoning his ice into a knife shape and blading through the fallen undead, and Zeno let out one last trumpet before shifting back into his half-elf form and walking purposefully over to Tem.
He sat down and placed her big gold head in his lap.
“Tem,” he said, taking out a diamond, “you know your work isn’t done. You came here for a purpose. Now fulfill it.”
White smoke shimmered over her form, like a facsimile of her soul, and she took a breath.
I offered to try to help out with Harry, but both Zeno and Felegum confirmed that the one spell I’d recently picked up to try to help with these situations would be of absolutely no use at all, so I stalked off with my two copper pieces and went to go investigate the floating insect on the pedestal.
Zeno moved over to Harry on the ground. “Helli, what’s this?”
“A diamond!” she said.
“Cool! Is it worth three hundred gold?”
He scooped the other dragonborn’s head up into his lap and repeated the spellcasting process. “Come on, Harry, vacation’s over. You’ve got work to do.”
The diamond from inside the necklace melted, spreading out over Harry and seeping into his intricate tattoos like quicksilver on an etching.
Harry took a less desperate breath, trying to bounce back onto his feet and rejoin the battle. He took a swing at some of the bones. “Did we win?”
“All good, all good,” Zeno said, standing back up himself.
Tem rolled over and coughed.
Helli and I, meanwhile, had a small conversation about what the heart was and what we could do to possibly make it no longer be connected in a way that mattered. I was searching for ways to possibly get a massive hovering bug to stop hovering, but Helli discovered a table behind said insect and for the second time in as many minutes I was left feeling incredibly useless.
The text on the plinth that Helli found said something about receiving a helpful item, but perhaps that was lost in translation, because when all of us collaborated to solve it, the desk revealed a lever. Helli pulled it, and the bug dropped to the ground.
I had done so little.
I approached the bug.
A wave of nausea passed through me but I fought it off. This was the heart. Or at least, something in this insect thing was the heart. Lathander had been relatively nonspecific about where the heart was or what it even looked like, so I was just going off vibes.
Helli sprinted from the room just as Felegum called back, “Hey, Tem, are you going to–“
I sliced into the insect-like thing. Kalends had talked about them before, how they’d had gemlike hearts. Or gems at least. That felt like a good place to start.
Only I’d gotten the impression that the gems were on the outside of their bodies, not in them.
One way to find out.
I stabbed into it again, prying open layers of carapace, green goo oozing onto my armor and skin. It was an odd neon color, and once more bile surged up my throat but I pushed it away to stab again and go deeper.
Everyone else, it hit me, had left. I was left alone, cutting into a bug until it became too overwhelming and I had to leave.
The others were in the flesh hallway just outside the room, recuperating. I steeled myself to go in there again. That heart, wherever it was, meant the difference between life and death for my city. I was not about to leave.
Zeno too understood its importance. “Set, remember your people.”
I felt very cool.
“Also,” he said, “Huey, grab a spear. I just remembered zombies can’t smell.”
I tried again, though Huey and Dronie (freshly re-summoned thanks to Felegum) were much more effective at paring through the insect’s internal organs than I was. It took quiet some time, and despite my best efforts, I needed a breather.
But then Huey stabbed into something hard in the middle of the scarab.
We were all back in the hallway, watching this unfold from a distance (okay, maybe Felegum was watching up close through the Dronie-cam, who knew). Zeno, once again, was about to save the day.
“Guys,” he said, “I know what to do.”
He took out his mask from Egonia, as I’d done before to cut into the bug, and placed it over Helli’s nose and mouth. Then he spoke the incantation. “Helli, it’s a big gem!”
It was a big gem, this much was true. But for Helli, this was a compulsion. She had to go.
“Gosh,” Felegum said, “I can’t believe you took advantage of her kleptomania.” He paused as Helli dove into the scarab’s split open body. “It was pretty funny, wow.”
Helli returned shortly after with a big dark green opal. This, I knew, had to be what Kal meant.
This had to be the heart.
Felegum also used his ability to control water to dehydrate the goop on the gem, and it flecked off as grains of really gross sand.
“Yes, aha,” I said as the extremely disgusting dusty bug guts slough to the floor. “This is how my city will be saved.”
As soon as Helli passed over the room’s threshold with the gem, a disembodied, otherworldly scream vibrated through the room around us.
On closer inspection, the gem itself was translucent with something in one end of it. Or rather, many somethings, with little tails. They looked like little teardrops, or maybe comets.
“Oh gross, is it an egg?” Felegum asked as he brushed off layers of dried-out entrails. “Ew, look, there’s stuff in it.”
Helli carried it. We did not fight her on this one; she’d more than earned the rights to it. Personally, I did not care what happened to it as long as it wasn’t in a place that was endangering Csipherus.
“Thank you for that,” Zeno said to the gnome. “Helli, you can keep the mask.”
This would have been a generous offer, if only the mask hadn’t been filled up with Helli’s vomit. Instead, she handed Zeno her own, clean, way-too-small mask in exchange.
“It looks like we want to backtrack,” Felegum said, once again back to consulting the map.
One heart down. We’d gotten lucky and found this one relatively easily, and I could only wonder how difficult hearts two through four might be.
And, more importantly, at what terrible cost their destruction might come.