Before I get into anything, I would like to preface this with the fact that we had walked into the center of the city, the three of us– me, Zeno, and Harry– and the only things we’d been able to see were the central pyramid and its terrible dark column of occasionally interrupted energy, the mostly down but intermittently ripped dark hemisphere around the city, and the red lightning cages floating on either side of the pyramid mid-air.
The first two things had been clear to us before we’d even come to the center. Our work with the hearts had clearly had an effect.
But we had come all this way, taken this time, and it was that last detail that concerned me.
Were we really going to just note that “oh, the red lightning balls are all-the-time present and visible now” and really not do anything beyond that?
That felt like a waste. A waste of our time in trekking it out here and more importantly a waste of my city’s time, time it desperately did not have.
I got out the broom. “Would you guys be cool,” I asked, “if I went over there to check out those lightning cages? I could fly out and be invisible.”
There was a brief discussion. This was one of those things where it really paid to have Zeno as a friend. He also hated doing nothing, especially when there was something interesting around to do instead.
Harry somehow agreed, and so, I stepped over the broom, spoke it into flight, and was hovering over the ground fishing for that eyelash in my spell components when Zeno called out, “Take care, will you, kid?”
I nodded, then turned invisible.
And that was the play: as long as I was invisible, as long as they didn’t see me pop back into visibility, then Harry and Zeno would know that I was okay and things were cool. If my invisibility dropped for whatever reason, they’d know something was up.
I thought it was a great plan, and I was even feeling pretty good as I flew out the quarter mile distance away from my friends and toward the first, closest red lightning cage.
My progress was slow; I wasn’t trying to take more risk than I had to, so I was checking for signs of any magic or whatever as I flew. I did see more patrols congregating closer toward the center of the city, but didn’t pick up on anything else. Maybe this was good. Maybe it meant that they thought their cages were secure.
I flew closer, within a hundred feet of this one. It crackled with energy and already the hair on my arms and head rose like spines on a hedgepig.
I had long suspected what was in these cages– had seen, briefly for a moment, what dwelt within– but seeing it up close was another thing entirely.
In the distance, almost invisible wisps of red energy circled the black column from the pyramid, probably energy feeding the dome. Every now and then, blue lightning flashed within the cage, pulsing and swirling against the red. Every now and then, a voice inside would alternate between yelling, screaming, and begging for a few seconds before cutting out into silence.
This close, the shape inside was clear: a muscular blue dragon.
I flew on, careful to loop around the massive death column at the center of the city.
If Atarka was in the southern cage, then I already knew what the northern one would hold. Still invisible, I flew to a stop maybe fifty feet from this second sphere.
“Hey,” I said. “Ojutai.”
I was much closer than I’d been with Atarka and my stupid hair was just fuzzed out everywhere. It was like being underwater, almost, having it float out around my head. Every part of me buzzed with anticipation.
And nothing. I realized somewhat anticlimactically that I’d just spoken like a normal person.
“HEY OJUTAI,” I yelled instead. “MAGE OF THE SANDS. YOU IN THERE?”
A few more seconds passed. I was about to swear again and puzzle out another strategy when there came a muffled, answering roar and a blue head swam into view within the lightning. He looked like he was yelling vaguely in my direction, so I waved before remembering I was invisible.
He got close to the cage’s boundary wall, but quickly recoiled and, I guess, seeing nothing, retreated back into its center.
“Oh damn,” I said. “Damn.”
I’d come all this way. Fishing in my things (a little more difficult to do when you’re invisible), I went through my spell stuff.
What would I do to save a city?
What wouldn’t I do?
I took a deep breath and cast a spell, instantly revealing myself suspended high above the central pyramid. I messaged Ojutai, arguably one of the last things in this city anyone would want or need to talk to, since he tended to read minds and cause horrible things to happen with it.
For context, the pit of my stomach completely dropped out. I was like, way up in the air, totally puffed out, and a huge pair of blue dragon eyes were locked onto me. Forgive me if I can’t remember everything perfectly.
But the general gist of it was: I was offering him citizenship. Provided, you know, he helped get the Red Eyes out of the city, as part of the citizen’s oath to protect this place. He was a magician who spent most of his recent days being the sentinel and general errand-runner of the Red Eyes, and now he was being used as a battery for some terrible spell.
We could build a library, a college of magic, here, after. A place where he could live in this shining city in peace, be surrounded by interesting puzzles and problems, students bringing him their latest breakthroughs, at the heart of the thing he loved (or I thought he loved) most.
I said that the Red Eyes had tried taking Csipherus through fear and that it hadn’t worked. We were a people who resisted domination. But, to act through companionship, to have our people love you instead of fear you– I pictured an archmage surrounded by powerful students and former students, eager to guard a beloved teacher. He wouldn’t need to worry again about being caged like this.
He’d just have to take up citizenship, all its privileges and burdens, and recognize his equality to any other citizen of Csipherus.
I was nervous. Not gonna lie, hanging visibly in the air above the city chaining like a thousand message spells together to get that to work really took it out of me. That was before considering that the thing I was risking my entire biscuit for was a massive blue dragon who, if not enclosed in a nasty lightning sorcery cage, could literally deep fry me.
And when Ojutai replied, it had been in a language I didn’t know. The spell translated for me.
When I came to this place, it was a gleaming jewel and the people here were strong, tenacious. The same magic that I have seen corrupt this place has now trapped me here. But I have made an agreement that this city would be mine and my sister’s. How can I trust that you would not cause this same sort of thing upon us?
“Because I love this city,” I said. “The only way anyone could trap you like this again would be to kill Csipherus. And even if I knew how to work that magic, I wouldn’t, because I love this place too much.”
Was it cringe? Yes. Would I let my personal pride stand in the way of this? Absolutely not.
Ojutai’s reply was contemplative. We never wanted to destroy this city, his echoed translated voice replied in my head. We wanted to enjoy it ourselves, not cause destruction on it.
Briefly, I recalled Ojutai yeeting crates around and frying buildings. I’d be interested in an explanation for that but now was frankly not the time.
If you can release us, we will fight for this place as if it is our own home.
“I may not be as well-read as you are by half, but you’ve seen me work a bit. I have a few tricks up my sleeve too,” I said. Again, I put forth the offer of citizenship. I wasn’t signing us up for dragon overlords. I wanted equality.
As the predator is equal to its prey, as the rat is equal to the refuse it gorges itself upon, as stones are equal to the roads. He paused. You seek guarantees and I cannot offer them to you.
Yeah, but like, why did he have to make it sound so much worse the longer we talked?
“As a librarian guards the books in their library,” I said. “As a farmer cares for their flock.”
None have ever been able to predict a true version of the future, he said, frustratingly. What I can offer you is the hatred for these that have bound me here. And the affection I have for the tenacious humanoids scurrying around. Lacking specifics I agree. Should I be freed, we will continue the conversation later.
“I will not exchange my city’s place in one hell for another,” I said. “I want a true golden era for Csipherus or naught at all.”
And then I hastily re-cast my invisibility spell, because yikes, that was more than enough vulnerability for one day. Hopefully my friends hadn’t run to my aid immediately when that dropped.
I mean, they were sensible people. They’d have realized.
I returned to where I was pretty sure I’d left them.
Nothing. No Zeno, and no Harry.
“Well, shit,” I said.
I supposed they’d been worried after all. I flew back along my route, closer to the ground, trying to intercept them and tell them that no, while I had decided to be extraordinarily reckless, it wasn’t actually time to swoop in and rescue me.
Nothing. This was not looking good, so I went back to the catacombs, thinking they’d been rumbled. Nothing.
“No, no,” I said, pulling out the cube piece, “it’s pulling me that way?”
Another hour of trekking through the city as low-key as I could, and I reached a community center. Weird, but who was I to doubt the cube?
Anyway, I linked back up with everyone and told them the whole thing with Ojutai. They caught me up on meeting some Csipherian healers here, like Kirtigo of Clan Baraja, and Felegum and I agreed on not giving the dragons the city wholesale, and I felt marginally less bad about everything.
“So, what’s next?” the mage asked.
“The center?” I said. I imagined that probably anything would be there. And we’d done what Lanthander had said. Two hearts and things should be delayed.
Helli voted for another heart, and we discussed stuff. “We also haven’t seen much evidence that the Red Eyes installed the hearts.”
“Yeah,” I said, “exactly.” I was not interested in accidentally undoing something magically important to the city as a whole.
“Well,” Zeno said, “it’s not like we’re coming up to the end of the world or something.”
People asked me about specifically what Lathander had said, and I repeated it– two hearts and we’re good to go. I suggested the underground route to the city and there was some wondering if maybe I could check back in with a certain deity about it.
I sighed. “I’d want to call my god, but I can’t. I don’t have the sun to. I’ve just got to trust that he chose me for this because he believes in my decisions when he’s not there. And I’ve got to save the city.”
Zeno sighed. “Then we follow the squishy brick road.”
We returned to the catacombs, following a different path this time to get to the city center. Partially, this involved us winding through a dried-out sewage canal, but eventually this opened to a circle of sand at what I could only presume was the center of the pyramid.
Here, there were a ton of really weird growths growing in even lines, a four-by-four of dark pyramidal shapes twisting around each other into the ceiling. It was almost like a tree, spinning upwards around each other, spreading out over the ceiling. There were four exits where the tree terminated, near as I could make out, two nodes connecting and the other two separated.
For a while, we just sat there in the quiet before there was a thudding and pounding sound, followed by footsteps above. We could almost make out people saying something, begging, screaming, or praying.
So, naturally, Harry and I had a huge fight. I forget exactly what we said, but it was probably the same as it always is: me wanting to do something like, you know, save a city and Harry wondering if anyone was actually in danger and shouldn’t we think about this a bit more.
Felegum, as usual, broke it up.
“Yeah,” he said, “and I’m a therapist when I’m not being a fascist.”
It seemed like an apt career choice when not attempting to understand the nature of the universe, as Felegum was wont to do. While our counselor examined the tree, Zeno headed up the stairs to listen in on the proceedings below.
He messaged me not a moment later. Someone was yelling in Csipherian needing help–
I sprinted up the stairs. He’d said he’d heard people being hurt.
We ran together up the stairs calling out for the others to hurry. “May the blessings of–” something, I couldn’t hear it– “be upon us!”
Zeno led and I was close behind. The passageway narrowed and then turned, overlooking a scene.
Below was a thronging mass of zombies, completely filling the cavern. We were in the main structure of the pyramid, and this had to be the main room. On closer inspection, it was the treasure room that Kalends had told me about, filled with gold and precious magical artifacts.
At the center of the square was a much-larger-than-the-original-flavor Ahkmatix, chanting without sound, floating about twenty or thirty feet above the floor. Very weird, moreso than usual for him.
He was chanting in front of a sphere made out of three rings of some kind of metal, rotating over and over themselves, holding themselves aloft definitely by magic. Sitting by the altar under the rotating rings were four familiar figures: a goblin holding a warhammer (no doubt the Butcher), Durnen on his knees, chanting with his eyes closed, Savas sitting on a column somewhere, totally disrespectful (probably), and floating over the chamber, the girl with the three circles on her arm floating in a familiar hat on a familiar broom.
Fuck. Just absolutely fuck that. I was angry and shaking and mad at myself, mad at everyone, mad at the Hat Broom Dude, everything. Everything sucked.
Also there was a pile of boulders that was definitely Yuval in the corner too. Just adding that.
But the real kicker, the real cherry on the absolute shit sundae that this had shaped up to be, was that when the three rings in front of Ahkmatix XL aligned into one ring, the zombie below it stepped forward and was, in a flash of bright light, no longer a zombie.
She was a half-elf.
She was back to being normal.
She wore the same tattered robes as her zombie self had, and her countenance flickered from confusion to fear. Then to determination.
“You will ever achieve what you set out!” she yelled in Csipherian.
Even after this, my people were still fighting.
A tear slid down my cheek and she turned to ash. A ghostly wisp lifted off the remains of her body like steam and was sucked into the black energy of the column.
Another soul, gone.
It was the most terrible thing I’d ever seen, my city literally being slaughtered before my eyes, and they were going to ask me to walk away.