Luck was on our side, at least for the moment. There was no Savas around, just a whole bunch of zombies staring blankly at rocks. More specifically, maybe there were twenty or thirty. I wasn’t counting.
I was more concerned about the fact that not only were we on the inside part of the pyramid with only half our crew, but that we were super beat up and in desperate need of a plan. Not to brag, but I’d basically kept both Helli and Tem from dying in the rock pile, gotten Tem back to consciousness– I could only assume that Zeno had been looking out similarly for Helli– and I felt responsible for their continued wellbeing.
I turned to the adults I’d saved from death and found Helli looking at dirt and Tem staring off into space.
This was probably fine.
“There’s red trails,” said Tem, her eyes shining with some weird Bahamut power. If only he would let her see in the dark.
“Damn,” Helli said. “We didn’t kill it.”
This was unfortunate, though not unexpected. We might have been happier if the consequences of what the Red Eyes would do if you didn’t get them dead-dead hadn’t recently been thrust in faces. But we’d had to try something.
Like taking on Yuval, running toward imminent and eminent danger had been a gamble. If we’d managed to take him out, a huge boon. If not, well, we’d have looked pretty stupid. I still wondered if we might have had a chance if Harry had just believed in us enough to help out, but that was a conflict for calmer climes. At least Lathander wouldn’t have to tell me I was being a failure on the teamwork side of things again.
Anyway, what I was trying to get at was that maybe there was something positive we could do here that we couldn’t have done if we’d taken the safer route.
That being said, we were also super hurt.
“What do you guys want to do?” I asked as I watched the undead population slowly move out of the corridor. “I’d maybe want to find a space to heal.”
We were behind a boulder and most of my time was not being spent in a relaxing way. I was on constant zombie watch. Meanwhile, Tem assured us that no one was hanging out here in an invisible sense, and Helli had found Yuval’s feet, which was also pretty cool.
“Yes,” Helli agreed, “let’s find a closet.”
I calculated our chances against the fifteen or so zombies remaining. Helli and I could sneak, but Tem couldn’t. Out of the three of us, I was best at concealment. “I can make you two invisible,” I said, because I conserved my big spells for emergencies like this one, “but I can only do two people. So I can sneak around and you guys can be unseen.”
I’d offered that one because we really needed everything we could get here, but Helli reminded me that as long as she was moving slowly she’d be able to be okay with stealth. Plus, she could walk on ceilings now and hardly anyone looked up, which was a good point. Meanwhile, I was covered in dust but still mostly black.
Inexplicably, Tem began disrobing. “Set, can you help?”
“Uh,” I said. “Sure.”
I gave her some spiritual guidance from Lathander just in case Bahamut was not doing it today. Then I realized that she wanted help taking the fifty-plus pound of chain armor off quietly. This I could help with, and I did.
It was abnormally quiet, almost like the kind of stillness that you’d find on an early morning when no one else was up yet. Tem carefully stowed her armor pieces in her backpack, which took five more long minutes, but nothing alerted the zombies and it did allow time for more of them to filter back out into the hallway.
We had about ten left at this point.
Behind us, a rock tumbled down the pile. Of course. Why wouldn’t this thing continue to be stupid and unstable? Probably best to get moving before Yuval or someone else could come back.
With a plan set up, I made both myself and Tem invisible after Tem cast a spell. We’d be relying on Helli to conceal herself. I’d go first so that I could find us a good spot– that part of the plan had remained unchanged even as we shifted who the invisible people would be– and then we’d chill there and heal, then figure out where to go next.
For something we came up with on the fly while trying not to alert zombies of our presence, I thought it was pretty good.
In my original sketch of this plan, it would be easy for the others to follow me. I would be hiding but visible and they, invisible, could sort it out.
This new plan, I realized, introduced some wrinkles into my flawless strategem.
Luckily, Tem (now the quietest I had ever heard her– almost silent, which was saying a lot for the paladin) was somehow managing to keep up with me. Perhaps she was using her Bahamut magic to see things that weren’t there, maybe even including me. I made a note to be aware of that in the future.
But Helli was another issue. How did you follow an invisible leader?
I thought about it as we crept down the hallway. That was a straightaway, so no need to wonder about where we’d be heading.
The hallway opened up into a wider cavern room, a few hundred feet by a hundred feet, ellipsoidal, with eight large columns supporting the ceiling in a two by four situation. To the left, the cavern narrowed and opened back up like an hourglass with all the zombies piling up over there. If you kind of squinted, you could see the gleam of the rings and the elevated platform in that direction.
Of course, there were also a million zombie faces reflecting up at us off the gold pieces. I could only hope that Helli’s sense of self-preservation won out on that front.
Straight ahead, there were several doors in the stone. I could see two clearly and a third was obscured, so like two and a half doors. To the right, the cavern narrowed into a tunnel.
Along the walls were a series of writings that I could almost recognize. Kind of like when you have an elderly relative who writes in cursive, or someone who abbreviates normal words strangely. It looked Csiperhian, but it wasn’t, not the Csiperhian I knew. It was carved into the walls all over the place though, this weird proto-language. Many words had been crossed out.
I scowled, invisibly. How dare these assholes deface a cultural monument?
Also, there was a smudge of dark maroon along the walls. There had been a struggle here. Perhaps this was where it had happened with Kalends, where he’d gotten captured after seeing the hoard. Or maybe someone else from the Calendar had died here.
All that was beside the point, though, because I had a gnome to guide.
But, that writing on the wall, that unreadable language, gave me an idea.
On the dirt by the entrance that opened into the wide cavern, I wrote “right” in Thieves’ Cant, the symbolic Csipherian version I’d taught to Helli a few weeks back when we were still trying to signal the Calendar.
It looked great. I’d hidden it decently so that the Red Eyes wouldn’t see it but that a professional eye would.
We moved right. I was pleased to see Helli follow us. Even when the plan changed, I was still killing it.
There were much fewer zombies here and we were able to move without being as obstructed, which was great. The tunnel broke out into four more doors before it was filled in at the end. The way that it had been filled in looked suspiciously like how the tunnel we’d been in before had been blocked off, i.e. fruits of Yuval’s labor.
I didn’t want to find a place too close to where everything was going down, so I went by the first two doors without going in, marking “no” in Csipherian crypt script psuedo-cant outside each door. Instead, I went down the third passageway, with Tem presumably following and Helli catching up.
It was kind of tortuous and went like maybe twenty feet down before splitting into two side caverns that also had probably been more tunnels that Yuval had filled up with rocks. I thought about it.
Then I shook my head. The vibes were just not right.
So I left, wrote “no” on the third and went to the fourth one. This seemed like it was carved with more careful hands (possibly of my people? who can say), curving to the north and left. It also had steps going up it, which made it a great choice. Up was good.
Following the steps, Tem and I were taken to a ledge ten feet overlooking the previous floor. Climbing up, we found ourselves on the familiar network of elevated platforms above that extremely fraught corridor where I’d almost died and we’d had to escape that one time.
There were arches, broken earthworks, and the broken remains of zombies and dark yellow carapace. There were also, of course, real, unbroken and still fully function people-of-Csipherus-turned-zombies in a snaking queue, no doubt the rest of the line waiting to be de-souled to fuel the death avatar’s magical whatever.
It was the excavation entrance was what I was saying.
I went up to the third level and turned left, again continuing to leave notes for Helli in the dust. The farther we were from everything happening downstairs, the safer and more able to rest I was going to feel. It sucked being too close to that thing anyway; I could always feel the dark ritual in the back of my head.
Not conducive to rest.
Height seemed to be our friend, because I found a mausoleum. Not surprising in a pyramid literally dedicated to honoring the undying heroes of the city, but not something I’d ever known about. This place was untouched, at least, as best as I could tell, and probably housed people thousands of years old.
There was at least a hundred feet of shelves for bodies and other grave markers carved into the walls going back to the end of the room, which was guarded by a strange statue with a jackal head and wings of an eagle, its arms crossed over its chest as it held a staff to the ground before a stone door.
There were, at last, no zombies here. The divine presence was too strong for them to comfortably handle. I was also willing to bet that probably the Red Eyes either didn’t know about this place or didn’t care.
That was a relief. We could chill out here and bind our wounds and then maybe figure out what to do next. If we were close enough to the excavation site entrance we might even be able to get back out into the city to link up with the others.
First things first, though.
I knelt before the statue and asked both for its protection and also if it was chill for us to take a breather here. It felt weird not to, and I’d also asked Helli not to lift anything from this place because yikes, it was probably deeply important to someone important to the city and also probably
I knelt before the statue and asked both for its protection and also if it was chill for us to take a breather here. It felt weird not to, and I’d also asked Helli not to lift anything from this place because yikes, it was probably deeply important to someone important to the city and also probably cursed.
I was going to get up after having made this silent prayer, but then the statue started moving: it stepped off its pedestal, raised its staff halfway, and then slammed it into the door behind it, pulling it open.
I was so shocked I dropped my invisibility spell.
I also had to explain to Tem and Helli (my notes had worked, I am very smart) about why the statue had done that, and thankfully they both were cool and we headed inside.
Something in a gravelly voice said: This place has always been a sanctuary for those who protect it. Use it well.
This probably was from a really old divinely enchanted telepathic statue.
With that, I walked into the super tomb.
After Helli and Tem followed me (everyone now visible), the statue shut the door behind us, sealing us in, and torches blinked on around the edges of the room. It didn’t feel like the bad kind of seal, more like the kind of thing you’d put on a rare herb you really wanted to keep safe.
Before us were, you guessed it, more graves, and a large stone table with two giant chairs at either side.
The graves themselves were less impressive than the table: bigger pockets than their outer counterparts, about three by seven by three deep. I didn’t see particular ornamentation, but it didn’t take a genius to know that these were especially important. Even if there weren’t distinct markings around them.
On the table, though, most importantly–
“Is that…food?” Tem asked.
There was a tablecloth draping over the stone slab, and on it, a loaf of bread (freshly baked), a cauldron with a hearty stew with three different kinds of beans spiced heartily in the Csipherian style, vegetables, and small chunks of beef, as well as tiny green peas that had seemed to be in everything when I was growing up. There was also a wooden board with three kinds of sliced cheeses, dried fruits, olives, and nuts.
It was relief and it tasted like home, the best parts of it.
It was also about at this point that I noticed one of the chairs weren’t empty. A darker-skinned man, gray and a bit ashen in a dark navy blue cloak with the hood up, was on one chair. He had a staff made out of gnarled wood, almost like a branch, topped with a small yellow bird. It was not clear if the bird was real, but the dude definitely was, despite his nondescript clothing.
In the opposite chair was a man of more Csipherian features.
I dropped to my knees because these were probably the ghosts of long-lost monarchs or something.
“No, no, no!” One said. “Please eat, we’ll attend to matters later.”
This was Lathander. Have this dude enough in your head and occasionally appearing to you in forms across the gender spectrum and you pick him out pretty quick.
“You may have heard it from my, uh, what would you like to call yourself?” he asked.
“Oh my god,” I said. Because honestly this was the last place I’d expected him. I’d thought he wasn’t able to pop down here anymore, or at least not easily with that dome still around.
Lathander was bored of this, though, and threw it to Bahamut, the other dude with the bird, who had joined us.
“We found,” Lathander explained, “that we could have closer access here for a conversation. We could provide you with a warm meal. A traditional Csipherian stew and sides. Please share, eat.”
This was immaculately thoughtful.
Bahamut sighed. I disliked him instantly.
“So,” Lathander said over food, “what have you been up to?”
I considered a charcuterie. “I talked with a dragon.”
Bahamut preened. “I’m glad you’re moving past these prejudices.”
“Uh, yeah.” I dragged a cracker to pick up some meat. “I just feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
“How else would you learn?” said Lathander. “We thought we would share with you what we know about that creature you call Ahkmatix.”
It turned out that while this was an awkward way of framing it, the truth was even weirder: the Red Eyes weren’t distinct people. They were all different personae of a single entity.
Bahamut tutted. “What good is having a hoard if you’re dead? You can’t really enjoy it. This ritual he’s attempting will require a lot of souls.”
A city’s worth, to be exact. Which was what he had, trapped within this pyramid in convenient zombie storage. I wasn’t as well-versed in magic as some of the others, but the gist of it seemed to be that Csipherus would become a nexus of translocation for the Realm of Death. In other words, all that bad stuff would be able to reach around and access the entirety of our world in an extra gross, even larger dome.
We couldn’t take direct action ourselves–disheartening– and it would still take weeks for our friends to arrive–even more disheartening.
“Our callings were received?” asked Tem.
“Yes, yes, they were.” Bahamut nodded. “Some of your friends are on their way. A certain mutual acquaintance is on their way with an old friend.”
I was unsure what this meant. Someone I knew? Or was this random people from the possibly not-fake order that Tem said she was a member of?
“And others have expressed an interest in this event as well,” Tem continued, clearly unbothered by this vagueness. “A servant of your sister?”
“Yes, indeed. Others would seek to use this event to advance their own agendas. She’s been giving chromatic dragons a bad name for thousands of years.” He shrugged. “What can we say? We’re a fickle bunch. Look out for those who might try to change this ritual. There are a number of weak points along it.”
Tem’s god sighed. “But truly the trick would be to break the concentration of the lich. Though truly you have to get through a lot of defenses to get to that point.”
I wondered if Lathander wasn’t the one conveying this information because he knew I’d completely lose it.
“There’s still hope!” Bahamut hastened to assure us. “It’s possible to use this conduit to channel life, to take an animated construct…” He looked at me. “You can bring your city back.”
“What are you intentions–” Tem began, but I cut her off.
“Tell me how to do it. Tell me how to bring the city back.” Who cared what he wanted? I’d do it regardless.
“That’s several steps down the line,” replied Lathander, who evidently saw the need to intervene in this early. “Break the dome of the lich. Without a constant stream of souls, things will re-normalize. He’ll be particularly susceptible to divine power. However, these are incredibly power individuals comparable to you and yours. While focusing on the ritual, the lich will not take too many actions against you.”
He paused, then smiled. “You have bought yourself enough time it will take for your friends to arrive. If you can wait, many friends would like to see this city saved.” Another pause. “And there will be a way to reverse this. It may not happen for years, but it can be reversed.”
“Weeks?” I repeated. The years part about the city’s salvation– whatever, that was a problem to be solved later. All I needed was that it was possible. The waiting around part, though, that was not making sense. My people were dying. “I thought we should just go in right away.”
“As you have disrupted them,” Lathander explained, possibly in this moment regretting signing me on as his emissary, “you have elongated the ritual by six weeks. If our scrying is correct, help should arrive within a week or two.”
Tem shook her head. “Two of Tiamat’s children are trapped. Should we not do something about them?”
Bahamut gave another weary sigh. “Tem-ho-ja-mak, all dragons are the children of my sister and I.”
I nearly spat out my fancy cheese. It’s not like ancient Csipherian rulers were immune from such censure either, but like, I don’t know, generally it was considered in power taste to bring that up.
But Bahamut did not care and continued only talking to his paladin. “We have understood our story. Gluttony and greed certainly come from Tiamat, but those with mostly less shiny scales turned out to be more mortal than the others. They perished easily. Those who are left merely act on their own instincts. These ‘children of Tiamat’ may share her colors, but they share our greed. I cannot imagine a greater hoard–“
He disappeared abruptly and then reappeared a few seconds later.
“Sorry,” he added to his very confused paladin, “I had to go back and see my hoard. Remember that it is a much greater hoard, you know.”
Tem nodded, a little numb.
“But,” Bahamut continued, “Tem, remember they have been wronged too.”
“It pains me to see such wise creatures so tarnished,” she said. “But I worry they might wrest control of the ritual for evil.”
“So might you.” Bahamut smiled at her. “If you put your faith in us, so much we put our faith in you. But these souls are being torn apart. They cannot be put together again.”
This was awful. Honestly some of the worst news I had received, and I had received a lot of very bad news.
Tem, in repsonse, asked for better armor.
“We were expecting such a request,” said Bahamut magnanimously. He clapped his hands and a mannequin appeared with silver-inlaid dragon spike armor. “Use it well, Tem-ho-ja-mak, and do us all proud. But for now, our power wanes.”
“Time is of the essence,” said Lathander, “but you have enough of it.”
Tem saw off the gods. I wished that I was better at this stuff. Either I got angry or I just thought about a perfect response after they left.
Anyway, three of the tomb pockets had thin bedrolls and pillows in them. Efficient, sparse, but doable. The food was delicious and we enjoyed it as we bedded down. And despite the circumstances, sleep never came so easily.
And even though we were in a crypt, in the middle of a pyramid, in a city that was in a magical dome of death-darkness, I still woke up at dawn.
And I heard a very familiar voice.
“Remember this, Sethandriel,” Lathander whispered. “It’s always okay to reach out for help, even mostly into the unknown.”
I sat up (carefully) and saw Helli and Tem. Tem had been cuddling with the mannequin and its divine spikemail and somehow had found a comfortable sleeping position. On the table, the spread had changed to a continental breakfast.
I’d already come so far with these two weirdos; asking for their help was familiar. I wondered what other unlikely parties Lathander had meant for me to seek out and walk into the fire with.
I wondered, too, whether I’d do it.