Waking up for second watch was perhaps not the greatest moment of my life. An unexpected–and perhaps it shouldn’t have been, but hey, I hadn’t expected it– development of me devoting my life to Lathander had been waking up unerringly at dawn, and I had felt the tiredness of second watch even more keenly when I was destined to be woken up by daybreak than by Zeno’s bagpipes.
I was tired. But Felegum was on watch with me, and he was always good for conversation. I expressed my, admittedly low-to-medium priority, concern about leaving the water flooding out into the catacombs as we tried to fix the Red Eye infestation.
“I think it’s an aquifer,” he said. “Like how the city would get water.”
I’d never really thought of that before. Had I been drinking water from the endless plane of water all my life? Weird. Not sure how I felt about that. Felegum and I also discussed how maybe it was related to the conduits and how weird that Egonia had had a portal to the endless plane of fire and Csipherus had water.
We mused on that for a bit until our watch ended, and we were woken again by Zeno blasting out inspired bursts of reels.
Tem seemed to be concerned with something, so we gathered around her.
“Helli, uh,” the dragonborn began, “is Helli conscious?”
She pulled Harry aside and spoke with him a low voice. Zeno glared pointedly at the legs affixed to our gnome friend.
“This might be a legs problem, but…” Tem trailed off.
“Legs,” Harry said sourly.
“Before you passed out,” Tem continued, “something in that egg moved.”
Felegum steepled his fingers. “Maybe we need to rotate the egg from person to person.”
Helli, at last, stirred, and joined the conversation. “The legs talk to me, the egg not so much.”
The legs crossed themselves in front of her, perhaps a little defensively, almost certainly not of her own volition.
With a little more discussion, we decided to head up (Zeno’s suggestion) while being careful (Harry’s suggestion). There were signs that something had definitely gotten exploded in some manner, which made me glad, but also left little clue as to where to head next to continue this positive change.
“You called Lathander?” Harry asked.
This was somewhat problematic, as we were not only underground but also the sun was pretty much blocked out at this point by a terrible all-encroaching death dome. I considered myself lucky to still have access to as much of my divine power as I did, given the circumstances. Besides all that, even on a perfectly sunny day, gods were just not obligated to answer or reply back. It wasn’t like messages from Paripas.
But, given that I too had thought that gods were too big to care about the goings on of people, and that only recently had it seemed like at least one did, I extemporized. “Well,” I said eloquently, “yeah.”
“I don’t think I can deal with the dank stench,” Zeno whined.
Dank. It hadn’t smelled that way before.
I was now more than vaguely concerned. But again, on the scale of catastrophes my city was facing, extraplanar flood was still lower on the calamity scale than avatar of death.
“No zombies, at least,” Harry said as we continued up.
“Quiet does not sound especially reassuring,” Tem muttered.
And I was inclined to agree with her: the hallways were now entirely empty where we walked and it was unsettling and weird. After so long a time of running from zombies, escaping zombies, or just seeing zombies scuttling around, it was truly bizarre to see a place empty of them.
We made our silent way back to where the airship cavern was, the vessel awaiting us at the very bottom of the chasm.
“We could take it,” Felegum said, half-jokingly.
Tem followed up with something that I forgot but sounded like it might be dismissive of Csipherus in some way, so I glared at her. Either way, the airship we decided we’d leave for another day. Perhaps an aerial battle would present itself. Or perhaps we could exit the city in style at some point.
It was cool, even if it was unspeakably foreign.
About two-thirds of the way up we reached a landing where the curvature bent, widened, and then tunneled up through the rock. It opened up into an atrium with a large hallway lined with columns.
But even this was strange, with broken down remains of carts and stacks of anvils. Once, this place must have been a marketplace, or a place where smiths worked on their wares. I didn’t know basically anything about metal work, but I did know that anvils were not supposed to function like that.
A blast furnace with no chimney (the shattered pieces next to it perhaps had once filled that role) stood empty and dark, and this hallway too terminated in an upward spiral.
Has we really been so ravenous and desperate in our looting to survive? It felt like a lot, even for the early days.
I didn’t like it.
“Can you stealth?” I whispered to Zeno.
He gave me a wry look, then snapped his fingers with an “alakazabulous”, and made his outfit match mine. Well, it matched mine with the exception of his chest, which was bare.
But not really bare, because that was the magic part of those robes.
I shook my head, but clasped his shoulder all the same and offered what little divine guidance I could. It was at this point that I noticed Felegum striding purposefully toward the stairs.
“Oh shit,” I hissed and sprinted to get ahead of him, more quietly.
Perhaps I needn’t have bothered, because what I saw was just…horrible.
A wall of bodies loomed before us, blocking the rest of the passageway.
I fell to my knees. Oh. This was what had happened.
Zeno asked me if I was okay. I clearly was not, but he was nice about it.
Every time I thought I couldn’t possibly get sadder, something like this happened that would surprise me with how badly it hurt. Maybe I should have been pleased that I still had this capacity for grief, but most of the time I was just so tired, like I’d run so far and gotten so exhausted but I still hadn’t reached the end of it. It would be much easier to accept that this was over, to look away from this city and all its pain, and leave.
But I guess maybe I’d done that once already and found I didn’t like it.
And for as much as Zeno teased me about a ton of stuff, he was pretty legit when things got real bad. I could count on him not to give me unutterable shit when I was well and truly down.
So, hoping that I had enough daylight left, I prayed for the souls that formerly inhabited the bodies to be okay, to shelve themselves in the empty rows and tunnels of our catacombs, to join the beloved dead of a much beloved city.
The rest of the party caught up with us as I rose.
“These have the same scaly coating on their skin as victims of the creeping plague did,” I said to the others. “So, uh, be careful. This feels bad.”
Felegum threw up. “I’m okay,” he said, and promptly threw up again. “I’m okay.”
Very carefully, because I could be quiet and because these were my countrymen, even dead, and I owed them the dignity of not being too afraid to pass them, I ascended the massive pile of bodies.
It was every bit as horrible as I remembered. I went to that same place I had gone to now years before, where they weren’t people anymore, just heavy shapes around me, and I ascended the pile, tumbling down over the other side, even as the mass sucked at my boots limply as I staggered over.
Tem whistled. “This is some trauma.”
“You don’t even know,” I whispered.
“Set?” came Harry’s voice. “You good?”
What a question to ask. “Yeah,” I said as I plodded on through the ankle-deep swath of dead flesh and made for the door ahead. It was locked.
Something stirred into my mind from Zeno. “Set–good? We–pile– you–“
I shook my head. Yikes. Maybe I was just better at casting message spells than he was because that had been atrocious. “Yeah, I’m fine. There’s a locked door here, though. Might need some time to figure that one out.”
Felegum called out something from behind the body mound that sounded like it was meant to be encouraging, but also sounded like it was punctuated with retching.
Anyway, imagine my surprise when Harry sauntered along and also inspected the door. “Set,” he said. “Do you have a plan?”
“Yes,” I said tiredly, “the plan is to save Csipherus.”
I had no idea how many times I was going to have to repeat this.
“No,” the dragonborn said, “I meant like in the moment.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Well, maybe open the door.”
I got to work on one of the hinges, since the lock seemed a bit beyond the scope of what I could do. Also, it seemed really, really shut. I didn’t want to be right, but if I was, then hinges were going to be the way.
With dogged and determined effort, I had pretty much gotten one hinge to release its hold when Harry cleared his throat. “Set, maybe you should slow down.”
I looked up. Slowing down meant more people were going to die. There had to be some balance between diving into things headfirst and exercising caution, true, but we also couldn’t just sit around waiting for more of my people to die while we kicked our heels and lamented on how sad this all was. “It’s one hinge,” I said. “I need an easy win.”
I actually needed a lot more than an easy win, but Harry and I had been a little rough lately and I wasn’t about to get into that.
Zeno’s voice called down the hallway and soon he joined Harry and me at the door. “What’s going on over there?”
We caught him and Helli– whose spider appendages made the just flesh mass a mere inconvenience and not a horrifying obstacle– up on the situation. Zeno listened attentively and then extended a hand to Helli, as though asking for a dance.
She took it, and the two of them vanished.
I shook my head and became aware of Felegum gamely squiggling over the apex of the body hill.
It was also at this point that the body decided that it had had enough of being climbed over and that it was time to animate.
They weren’t a ton of zombies, rather a flesh construct of similar ilk to the bone one that we’d encountered escaping Ahkmatix after the death of Hat-Broom Man.
This was astonishingly bad timing and made the name of the game Protect Felegum, as the mage was closest to the construct.
Well. Closest after Tem, who on closer inspection had been engulfed by it when she attempted to pass over it. Either way, I could trust Tem to extricate herself.
Standing slightly in front of Felegum, I scooped my holy symbol out from my shirt and armor. “I can only do this once, so make this next one count.”
Holding the necklace, I pointed at the flesh construct, opening a pathway between it and its inevitable end. Now, someone just needed to hit it hard enough to knock it into that waiting oblivion.
Tem swung around violently within the blob, gently whapping at the construct. It looked way more injured than it should have been for such a mild strike, which was great, but also, ugh.
“Okay,” I said, attempting to be supportive despite being really pissed off, “okay, Tem, I see you.”
Maybe that really was her best effort. Maybe I really had lucked out with Lathander, because yikes, Bahamut was just not showing up for his girl today.
Tem opened her mouth and just froze up. I shook my head. Yup. Ate a dead person. Do not do that.
Naturally, Felegum landed a massive hit on the construct immediately after Tem used up my cool thing, piercing through a proboscis in two lancets, one right after another. “Thanks, Set!” he said and cheerily peaced out to the door, pulling at it. “Oh my god, there’s a giant monster in here, oh my god!”
Harry moved in and punched the construct, finding it squishy and presenting little to no resistance. One of his punches seemed to dislodge a bone, and he punched at the construct with more ferocity, attempting no doubt to get Tem freed.
Upsettingly, it was at this point we learned that the construct was moving forward, towards us. It moved to engulf Harry, and in my surprise I slipped on a bit of floor goo (formerly a person? best not to think about it), and had to fight to keep my balance as my strike with the spicy knife went wide. Luckily, my other hit with Kalends’ dagger went through, and thanks to Felegum’s quick thinking with his spell, I could make it to the door without worry of being accosted.
Even so, cutting through it had been like slicing Csipherian butter– known for being especially soft, a thing I had not considered relevant before traveling to a ton of different inns and sampling their hard, unspreadable fare.
Tem worked to pull herself out more, though that seemed to be a long and arduous process. Next to me, Felegum took out a crowbar and pried off another of the hinges with astonishing ease. I guess he really had been quite capable on his own before he ever met us.
I did not have long to gloat that I had been right about the hinges needing to come off because then the sorcerer tossed the crowbar to me.
I caught it, somewhat stunned.
“Good luck, Tem and Harry!” he called over his shoulder.
Harry turned and barfed out acid on the door, melting it in massive spots. I dodged, obviously, because ew, and I even managed to save Felegum’s trusty crowbar, his companion for many solo adventures and no doubt very emotionally important to him, from being melted too. I was going to say that this was real rich, Harry cautioning me about the door only to literally blast through it himself much less subtly.
But no, it wasn’t over yet: Harry broke free from the limited fleshy grip of the construct, ran at the door damaged by his acid vom, and then hit it on his shoulder. I wasn’t sure if the crack I heard was the door breaking or his shoulder dislocating, because the second one definitely happened and the door looked very wobbly and almost destroyed.
Tem, again, was having little luck and just got freshly re-engulfed by the wall of flesh.
As if to add insult to injury, a new proboscis snapped out to attack both our beleagured dragonborn.
I set to prying at the door again with the precious crowbar and managed to get another hinge off, unfortunately not looking as cool as Felegum had, but I did return the crowbar to its master unblemished. “Here, thanks!”
Tem gave up on conventional means of escape and just set the construct on fire.
I felt something weird pull around me, not bad, but I was still pretty new at this ghost stuff and was having trouble putting a finger on it.
It seemed like something Tem was pleased about, though, so I assumed that it was a generally positive outcome.
Felegum took out his trusty mica dust and crunched up some as he shattered the insides of the construct. A green-black ichor spurted over the floor as he sheathed the crowbar on his back and retreated into a corner.
From the other side of the door, Zeno and Helli also appeared to be going to work on the hinges and making progress. “You know what?” I could make out the muffled voice of the bard saying. “I believe in you. Get that door down, legs.”
“This should be pretty quick,” Harry gritted out, and later splintered the door with a kick. There was a slit through it where we could see the other side, and with one more kick, the doors flew apart. “Door’s open, folks!”
At this point, perhaps sensing it had one last rush left in it, the wall of flesh construct attempted to subsume all of us left in the corridor. It got Tem (again) and she made to cut off another emerging proboscis to no effect.
This was becoming a problem.
I stabbed the offending appendage with the spicy knife, drying out the proboscis around Tem, and seeing my work done and the paladin hopefully freed again, I ducked out of the broken door and into daylight.
Where I beheld Zeno brandishing a small shovel.
“Weird flex, bro.” I clasped his shoulder as I passed. “But okay.”
I heard more fire sounds and understood more of what I felt– the souls of the bodies exiting, being freed at last. It was a strange mix of relief and sadness, being glad to find an ending but upset that it was this one. Then Tem came to stand beside me.
“It’s so unpleasant in here!” Felegum moaned, the last one left.
“Come on, guys, let’s go!” Helli called. She sounded…perhaps slightly drunk.
“I’m trying so hard,” the mage replied.
“Book it! We’re getting ready to nail the door shut!”
And Felegum did indeed book it, sending one last ray of frost in behind him.
Zeno peeked in one last time, ushering someone else through the mass of flesh and construct. I did the math, counting– surely we had everyone– until Barnacle Bill lumbered out unscathed (I guess, zombie health has never been something I thought I’d need to prioritize learning).
Harry breathed out more acid and Helli pulled him from the door.
We probably would have had to do something about the massive thing if the proboscises didn’t lose their magic beyond the threshold of the door, melting back into limp, wet, inert flesh, and the entirety of the construct glooped into messy corpse.
For a long time, all there was was a buzzing of flies.
Zeno grabbed Harry’s shoulder. “Good job, buddy.”
Harry, meanwhile, set his own dislocated arm.
“I’m going to need a break,” said the other, less intense dragonborn. “I spent too long submerged in the people of Csipherus.”
I decided to be charitable and chalk that one up to Common not being her native tongue, and deeply hoped that sounded less uncomfortable in Draconic.
Above, the black hemisphere had closed. There were still some cracks in it, where the daylight was coming through, and it rippled like a holey curtain over too big a window. The city seemed bathed in an eerie twilight– not quite night but perpetually dim.
Tem took her break to burn the mass of flesh completely, and luckily they went fast. I prayed for them, rising through the air, and looked out into the middle of the city, waiting, trying to catch a glimpse of anything that might have been alerted by our, as Harry might say, less-than-subtle approach.
The souls of the flesh construct filtered up and out through the dome’s cracks and holes. At least something had been saved. I supposed it was a very low bar getting souls to an afterlife, but we’d done that at least.
May you fare better than the living here, I thought, watching them rise.
Zeno joined me in listening, and clearly he was less distracted because he said, “I think they’re still busy. I think we should get closer.” He paused. “Maybe there’s been an organ failure in their organization.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking of the souls and what fate they’d escaped, “they’re more than a little bit heartless.”
And with that, we split up. The stealthier people (which unironically was me, Harry, and Zeno) would investigate the center of the city. The less stealthy ones (so Tem, Felegum, and weirdly now Helli, thanks to the legs) would see what they could find close by.
My group approached. The fractures on the giant dark column of darkness rising from the central pyramid were more frequent and the red lightning orbs were out. Suspended in the air, yes, but out.
And in the central park, zombies began to fill in even more quickly. We could either go see what was happening in those lightning cages, get closer, or note that we’d caused some chaos and get a third heart.
I looked up, beheld the ruin of my city, and made a plan.