What could possibly be worse than having all your enemies in the same room, killing the people in your city in order for one of them to summon or become an avatar of some extraplanar death god?
Noticing that they were standing on the gold that your best friend had told you was the dragon hoard lite, the collection of riches and magical artefacts that would be helping to power the ritual.
I bit off a swear. I’d been hoping that we wouldn’t have to engage them directly, that we could free the dragons (or one of them, at least) by disrupting something in the treasure hoard while the Red Eyes were occupied up here. No such luck. Everything was happening here.
Zeno, no doubt also noticing the wealth spread out below us, tactfully reached out and grabbed Helli by the mechanical legs. This seemed like a joke, a nonsense kind of safety precaution, until she inched closer.
“With all the bodies I guess it was hard to get a better look before,” he said with a sigh.
Meanwhile, the the Butcher, that goblin dude who had nearly sliced through me and Lankin the last time we’d been in this pyramid, hefted a war hammer on his back, seemingly bored by the ceremony. Two swords near him were plunged into the treasure trove, wispy with energy.
Again, another zombie walked forward, a small one, and a halfling un-unalived and relieved of their soul.
Zeno, Felegum, and I had a discussion on magic and we almost got noticed by Savas, which would have been both hilarious and awful, but luckily we weren’t.
Instead, we retreated back to the safety of the hallway to discuss.
As much as I wanted my people to stop becoming fodder for a god of death, I also knew I couldn’t be stupid. Or ask my friends to do something stupid. I’d hoped there was a sneaky way of throwing a wrench in their plans, but with the room that they’d gathered in being the same room we’d need to be in to stand a chance at really cracking their set-up, it wasn’t looking good.
Zeno, though, had another strategy. “We could, ah,” he suggested, adjusting the hem of his ever-changing robes still in their thiefy glamour, “cut down on their wardrobe.”
I stilled. The people, whose bodies the Red Eyes kept on hold just in case one of them got destroyed and needed a new host form to inhabit.
I was reluctant about killing, for real, yet more of my people, especially ones we’d worked so hard to save, but what choice I have but to agree? It would box them into a corner, ruthless as it was.
“Also,” Harry said, “we’re in enemy territory. If you see something shiny, take it.”
I rubbed my temples. “This is a cultural landmark. I know I’m playing the long game here, but please don’t pillage this one too badly.”
Unlike apartments and houses in the city, this one we still kind of needed to be able to restore the city.
A statue of one of the heroes of Csipherus stared up at me balefully from where it had toppled onto its side on the treasure trove floor.
“Yeah,” I hissed back at it, “I know, I suck.”
Ultimately, we decided to head back into the passages and away from the scene. Looking at it was a lot, and we figured that there still had to be some other, oblique way of taking action and making a difference. We tended to be at our best when we were also at our sneakiest.
Passing back through the weird dark tree area, I took the opportunity to nick one of the strange trunks with my knife. The gray-brown tendrils didn’t seem any different than they had been before, they just reached in weird, webbed grooves over the ceiling and floor, like a secondary structure. There wasn’t much give under the knife either; they were pretty firm.
Feeling that perhaps what was missing was enthusiasm, I tried stabbing instead. This wasn’t a mistake, obviously, because I am very smart, but the dagger did get stuck in there briefly and I had to look a little uncool to pull it out. But, knowledge: the trees were hardwood.
Also, I noted as I removed the knife and the bark sealed over the entry wound, apparently they were self-healing as well.
I forget why but at this point Tem started giving me shit about Thieves’ Cant. Typical paladin. Can’t understand it, doesn’t like it.
Felegum, being Felegum, looked at the map.
Parts of where we were looked kind of familiar to me, but then again I thought a lot of parts of the catacombs looked familiar. That’s how the Calendar keeps you guessing. Anyway, after some time Felegum was able to confirm that indeed, there was another entrance from the catacombs into the pyramid that we could try.
We set off, trekking down a promising tunnel. But something must have happened, because it was filled in. So too was another.
Multiple ways into the central pyramid, sealed off. Rocks, compacted in an eerily similar way to how we’d seen a creature of stone maneuver through the earth, intentionally sealed the space.
“You guys want to do that?” Zeno jerked his chin at the massive, filled in rock pile.
“Yeah,” Felegum said.
I was on the fence, but Felegum had made a good point earlier that they wouldn’t have sealed off the passages if they didn’t go somewhere vital that the Red Eyes didn’t want people (like us) to access. So I agreed. It seemed most efficient, after all. We bust through, we start shit, and then finish it.
Tem raised a hand and looked at Zeno. “What happens if you–“
The bard cut her off. “It hurts and it doesn’t work,” he said. “I don’t have a good analogy for that.”
“Really?” I quirked an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Zeno doubled down. “I don’t.”
“What do they teach you in bard school?”
“Not much. I haven’t been back there in two years!”
I felt a little awful.
“So what’s your plan?” Tem asked after a pause.
“I was going to ask the dragonborns, but…” Zeno sighed. “Ugh.”
And he gestured at the rocks blocking the tunnel and, as if lifted by an unseen hand, they began to float out of the way.
Felegum also went to work, molding the earth to help out. This was tough work, as the passage was heavily filled in and compacted. Also, possibly collapsed. There were a lot of rocks, is what I’m saying.
Tem, sensing an opportunity for the might of Bahamut, held out a claw. “Felegum, please pass me your crowbar.”
“Okay,” said Felegum, whose crowbar we had learned was an object of extreme sentimental value.
Tem took it and whaled on the boulders as though they were avatars of Tiamat herself. Meanwhile, Helli inspected the chaos and offered rock gnome expertise to help the others avoid collapse points.
As his telekinetic spell concluded, Zeno surveyed his work. “No,” he finally said after consideration, “I’m exhausted.”
He took a drink.
“Thanks,” I said, because with Zeno you learned that anything he gave you that wasn’t nothing tended to be a high compliment.
Somewhere else down the tunnel, Helli put her face up to the rocks and sniffed. I had no idea what this did or if it was even mildly beneficial. Gnomes, man. “Hey,” she called after this scent inspection. “There’s some different rock over here.”
Harry rested his arm, having also been somehow pressed into assisting, and Felegum directly his moving earth efforts to the area Helli pointed at. I went off down the hall, keeping watch and also getting some space.
The corridor I’d chosen was (surprise) also filled with desiccated zombie parts and defunct bodies, and it was as good a place as any to have a minor mental breakdown over all the stuff I’d just seen. My people were dying–for real, literal souls scattered to cosmic dust– by the minute, I was in a hole below them, able to stop this and yet not doing it, and the incredible dissonance of saving Csipherus while letting it perish was just too much to bear.
I got myself together enough to check on the rest of the group. They’d found a massive boulder, this time made out of granite and another in dark-blue basalt.
“Ooh.” Tem oogled it. “You were right there, Helli.”
Helli was also enraptured by the pretty, foreign stones.
I went back to the emotional crisis corridor and pulled out my holy symbol. “Hey,” I whispered, “if you could help me, that would be great. I’m having the world’s shittiest day.”
I waited, a good long while. But no, of course I’d be on my own for this awful part of it.
I was on the verge of going into a tirade about gods and disinterest and quite frankly terrible divine reception under a dark hemisphere, when a massive boom rocked the corridor.
Holy shit. Was that Lathander answering me after all? My ears rang and I hurried back to the others, thankful the passageways hadn’t collapsed, and saw a room full of dust and shards of rock.
And also Felegum, hands held high over a massive crack in the granite.
Then he dusted himself off and the detritus hit me in the face.
Suddenly this felt a lot less divine and a lot more like the byproduct of some really determined friends.
A very unamused Harry tapped on Felegum’s shoulder and pointed to Tem, who had sat down and was pulling rock out of her scales where the explosion had lodged them.
It seemed like some of the other rocks in the filled-in tunnel had also burst apart more– there seemed to be more sandstone and lime varieties, which had fractured in addition to the massive fissure through the granite block.
Tem offered to heal Harry. Harry refused, again, surprising no one. Helli collected the shards. Again, the usual stuff.
I had to cast my messaging spell a lot to talk to people because I’d worked out at this point that no one could hear thanks to the shattering at such close proximity.
“Maybe we should try another way?” I offered.
“Maybe this is a distraction,” Harry said. We gave it a few moments for people’s ears to return to normal and for the fallout of the tunnel explosion to come to light.
“Yeah, maybe we need to go.” Zeno squinted down the passage. “What if Yuval made a tunnel to us?”
I went down the now-passable path through the granite and checked it out, keeping stealthy. From the other side of the blown-open passage, steps echoed up and gradually became louder. Quickly, I stumbled back to the group, to find that Tem had picked up Zeno for some reason. I told them what I’d heard.
“Put me down!” Zeno hissed. “Can you even see me?”
“Yes,” said Tem, “I can see you, but you smell like a drunk.”
“This,” the bard stressed, “is perfect.”
Tem didn’t look like she believed Zeno, either about his level of intoxication, the plan resulting in what it was inevitably resulting in, or honestly, anything that had transpired since meeting us in the desert. She just took out her sword, said a prayer to Bahamut, and the blade caught fire.
Zeno listened at the corner, focusing on the orange-yellow glow of something coming. The thing, no doubt, that I’d heard.
It was lava. Molten and thick, churning through the passageway and congealing on the floor. We could run back and hide, perhaps striking the main event while whoever had been sent to find us, well, tried to find us; or we could take them out and find our own way into the pyramid.
“Hmm, this is disappointing,” Zeno said. “What do we do?”
It was down to a vote. I had to decide and I chose to do something. It didn’t make sense to be pincered between two groups of our enemies, so I said let’s do this. Take out whoever was coming and then figure out how to take out the rest.
That’d be a disruption, alright.
Zeno nodded, then with an egregious amount of poise and elan, stepped out into the corridor and called out: “YOOHOO!”
And thus began the battle.
Tem’s sword glowed even more as she hollered down the passageway to our foe. “Yuval the Stone Mage, Bahamut’s Fury has come for you!”
At first I didn’t realize that Bahamut’s Fury was the name of her sword, and I thought Tem was just being really extra. But then it sunk in and I realized I should also do something cool too.
I moved forward and cast Bane on Yuval, who, by the way, was a massive magma stone dude at this moment. Very not good. But the spell did seem to be doing something, so I kept my focus on that.
“Uh, guys?” called Harry from somewhere back down the passageway. “Why are we fighting?”
I did not have time to explain deep, undying pride and devotion to a ravaged homeland, and neither apparently did Felegum, because he just screamed, “YUVAL!!” and the stone monster paused as though something had shot through his mind and made it glitch out.
Zeno looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Set, don’t get smashed. I think you’ll do okay, though.”
I felt marginally better, and I made a mental note to avoid getting smashed by the giant rock guy.
Yuval himself churned around, the stone on his body melting and rolling over in the magma flowing over him. There didn’t seem to be any significant change, save his being momentarily more hesitant thanks to Felegum’s glitchwave screech spell.
But despite all the churning, Yuval didn’t move any closer. He just stayed where he was, oozing through and around lava, annoyingly protected.
Helli, sensing her moment was nigh, climbed up a wall on her spider legs and hung upside down. “What’s the plan?” she called.
“Wait for it to open the passage!” Zeno called back.
“And then kill it!”
Helli paused, hair hanging down from the ceiling like a stalactite. “I don’t know if we can!”
Tem walked up between me and Yuval (because, okay, I’d had to get kind of close to cast that cool spell) and struck a boulder between herself and Yuval. She cleaved into the rock.
“Yuval the Rock Mage,” she intoned once again, “I am Temhojamak Akris of the Paladins of Bahamut. Your tyranny over Csipherus is at an end.”
I flashed her a thumbs up, because cool, yeah, end to tyranny, and then I lit up my wings. Because I was actually feeling pretty serious about 1) not getting burnt on lava and 2) actually killing something.
Harry’s voice again drifted down the corridor: “Guys, we can get out! He’s slowed down!”
I was beginning to suspect that Harry had missed the memo about teamwork. In his defense, it was a difficult concept to process, and I’d only really given it a true shot after a literal god had had a heart-to-heart with me and told me I sucked at it.
Still, I’d do anything to save the city, even something as uncomfortable as trust another person that their approach might be right. Like, say, not attacking the Red Eyes on sight when we saw them ritualistically murdering my people.
Doing something your gut insists is wrong, even if you knew you have to, was hard. I got that, completely.
Compassion aside, though, I was pretty steamed. Homeslice was just sitting in a hallway peaceably while the floor in front of me and Tem was melting. Ask me why I think adults are dumb: because they tell you you’re being whiny and awful and childish when you don’t like their ideas and then they turn around and do what they want whenever they disagree.
“I’d don’t think we’re as keen on running away as you,” Felegum said, somehow able to keep congenial after all this, probably prepping another spell.
Zeno, meantime, had had enough of this distance play. “What are you doing over there, fatso?” he called to Yuval, sitting contently in magma. “Come over here and fight!”
He moved down the hallway closer to me and Tem. Fighting words, but would Yuval take him up on it?
The tunnel around us shook ominously as two stone limbs smashed into its sides. Yuval was pulling and cracking apart the tunnel we’d come through. Boulders fell, and Tem, Zeno, Helli, and Felegum all dodged out of the way of falling debris. Tem managed to look cool again and slice a rock in half with her sword, and somehow everyone ended up being fine.
Beyond, you know, a sneaking suspicion that the walls were starting to close in, that was.
And also, I might add, the wave of lava that flowed down the passage.
Since I was flying I was able to avoid the worst of it, but Tem wasn’t. She was caught in the rocks, searing heat blistering up from them. Helli reached down from the ceiling to try to pull her out.
“I said,” Tem gritted against the pain, “we have come–” she stabbed her sword to shatter the rocks encasing her– “for you.”
With Helli’s assistance, she pulled herself out, sword still on fire.
This was some top dragonborn action right here.
I backed up, understanding that Tem had done something to make Yuval concentrate on her and that if I got involved I’d mess it up, and held my position. Luckily, I hadn’t lost the spell I’d cast on Yuval despite getting hit a little by the rocks.
“Guys!” Harry again. “Let’s go!”
“I’m pretty set on lodging my sword in this guy’s throat, Harry,” Tem said, eyes still locked on Yuval, in her battle stance.
“Might as well all die together!” said Felegum cheerily. “Watch this trick!”
I didn’t know what he did, but it was probably something either immensely helpful or just extremely goofy. He only really went one of two ways.
Zeno held his position, and we all watched to see what Yuval, possibly enraptured by Tem, might do.
And indeed, our reading of the situation was good: he moved toward the group.
Unfortunately, a not so great consequence of this was that the lava also moved toward the group, meaning that pretty much everyone besides Harry (and I guess Lankin, wherever the elf was hiding out) had to deal with lava. It was unpleasant and very hot. Tem was especially not doing good, even though she still held her ground relentlessly.
Above us, Helli skittered across the ceiling and swore. “Ugh, well that changes things. There’s more of them behind!”
Then she muttered her magical incantation to her knife and dropped onto Yuval’s head like a total badass before stabbing him in the eye. Black ichor dripped over the stone around and behind the eye like a fast-growing moss, flowing into the creature.
“Remember there’s people behind him!” she reminded us.
Tem, sensing a trend, went for the other eyestalk. She missed, but tried again on the one Helli had just sauced. This too was perhaps too much to ask of her body after it had taken such a great beating from the lava. She muttered another spell and the light from her sword faded, instead encircling her protectively in a shield spell I knew well.
I moved in, took my opportunity to set off a thunderwave and unleash some of the radiance pulsing through me and then backed off. I had to be smart about it, as much as I deeply wanted to stab. We just didn’t have enough people who could withstand being so close to this guy.
Silence from the Harry gallery.
Then Felegum unleashed a tidal wave. I couldn’t see him cast it or anything– it was a surprise– but this was like the sorcerer’s thing. You didn’t just see a sheet of water appear out of nowhere and suspect anyone other than Felegum.
While the water did solidify some of the lava, it didn’t make Yuval explode. Felegum made annoyed noises about Yuval being too well tempered, whatever that meant, and then promptly was cut off– hopefully not a bad sign.
On the heels of this, Zeno had an idea. “Hey, Helli!” He raised a hand to the ceiling. “High five!”
The gnome obligingly high-fived him and disappeared.
It was cool. My invisibility is still cooler, but this was pretty clutch.
Down the hallway, Yuval began to swell (gross) and reform, angry red cracks and fissures running through the newly cooled rocks of his exoskeleton. Again, stones fell from the ceiling and again, we dodged them as best we could. Helli and Zeno took more of a significant hit than me and Tem, but still, this wasn’t something that was getting better with time.
Then out of nowhere, Zeno let out this shriek like he’d died.
It was horrifying. I’d literally listened to my countrymen shrieking like that not even an hour ago and I got weird goosebumps even though I knew that Zeno was clearly among the living.
I didn’t know what Invisible Helli was up to, but it was probably something good.
“Well, Yuval,” said a very beat-up Tem with a wry smile, “it’s your time in the spotlight.”
And a perfect circle appeared over the rock creature. A familiar, lunar one.
Weirdly, this also illuminated a very small creature inside of Yuval. Like something piloting that giantic rockform with ten little limbs emerging from it. It looked…oddly insectoid. His outer rocks had gone almost translucent under the force of the moonbeam, and while I couldn’t tell if he was the same kind of bug we’d ripped the first heart from, it didn’t feel super unlikely.
I took my shot and moved in, swinging to attack twice and utterly making a fool of myself both times.
Somewhere, back down the corridor, Harry hurtled around the corner and saw a very much still alive Zeno. He sighed.
“I’m injured, though,” Zeno whined.
Finally, at long last, as though this moment would never come, Harry attacked Yuval. It seemed like he almost had the rock monster stunned but then it didn’t quite work so he just belched acid onto him instead. Pock marks appeared all over the stone casing.
“I’m on his head,” hissed a very disgruntled and invisible, poison-dodging gnome.
Done with helping for the day, Harry stalked back off down the hallway.
Out of nowhere, Felegum appeared.
“Oh, fuck you guys,” Harry said, taloned hand over his chest.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” Felegum said earnestly.
“I’m amazed you’re not dead. We need to run.”
Felegum maybe considered that possibility. Or maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. I was not him. But what I did know was that he must have done something weird and mental to Yuval again because the monster glitched out in a similar but slightly different way than he had before. Then Felegum disappeared again.
You know, just Felegum things.
Zeno played a complicated reel and black smoke wafted out of his bagpipes and clouded around Yuval’s eyes. He took a breath and stepped back a few steps. “Harry!” he called after the dragonborn’s retreating back. “We need your help, don’t leave us!”
It was, to my great shock, a genuine appeal. Zeno, the always ironic, perpetual wearer of masks and lover of disguises, was being completely and utterly frank, telling the truth with no adornment.
We needed him. We were a team.
And that was precisely when a scuffed and much-battered, moonlit Yuval collapsed the tunnel, burying himself and us with him.