We were all super groggy. Maybe the food had been too rich, or maybe escaping all that and finally having a place to crash was much more exhausting than I’d thought. Either way, even I went to sleep after waking up at dawn.
I was surprised, though, to see more figures in the room than I’d remembered.
My hand was on its way to my dagger, but not– these were just Harry, Felegum, and Zeno.
“How’d you guys get in here?” Helli asked.
“Magic box,” said Harry.
“We had a nice meal with the Temple of Thoth people,” Zeno added.
“No,” Harry amended, “we didn’t.”
“Oh, and we destroyed another heart and left it by their door. HFVNN had no interest in eating the heart,” the bard added, as if this somehow made it better.
Disregarding completely that bothering the nice Thoth people put them in danger or that we really had no idea what the hearts did, it was not lost on me that the other three had just gone ahead and done whatever they’d wanted to when I wasn’t there to tell them no. Weird, how when I asked for caution I was “being a problem” and “not using resources well” but when Harry did he was “wise” and “exercising good judgement.”
I thought that there wouldn’t be room left at the end of the world for hypocrisy. But no, once again, someone was determined to prove me wrong.
Anyway, apparently Yuval was a lithomancer or something– I wasn’t listening that closely because I was so mad– and then Zeno went over a rainbow and Harry aged half a year. I guess Felegum wisely did not get involved. Sometimes I really thought that we, the youngest people, had our shit much more together than everyone else.
I shook my head. The burden of youth.
“And,” Zeno said, concluding his tale, “there were these beautiful skeletons.” He clapped. “Vincenzo!”
A majestic skeleton shambled up behind him.
“What happened to Barnacle Bill?” I asked.
“He lost another arm,” Zeno said, as though that closed the matter.
“The Mages’ Guild is coming.” Harry deadpanned from somewhere by the table. “They’re bringing the goblins.”
This was good news (the goblins were great) but also less good. Paripas hadn’t exactly explained its part in the destruction of Egonia.
“Three is okay, according to Paripas,” the dragonborn added, as if that helped or alleviated my concerns in any way.
“So you got stuck in a what?” I massaged my temples.
“We got stuck in a box,” Harry repeated.
“A demiplane,” Felegum said. “Harry is underselling it. He methodically kicked doors. It’s a fast-travel demiplane between temple sites. Well, so long as you choose the right sequence.”
Apparently they struggled in the box for a while.
“If anything goes wrong,” Harry said, “snake-waves-wood.”
This was obvious nonsense and a sad effect of magical travel, probably. Or maybe being aged half a year. Rough. Glad that wasn’t me.
“What brought you here?” Tem asked.
“Drinking.” The other dragonborn did not look happy about it. “And guessing and checking. Dumb luck.”
“Smart luck,” Zeno, no doubt the source of the drinking, corrected.
We learned a little more about the others’ misadventures. According to them, Yuval, Savas, and Durnen were all missing from the ritual chamber. Harry had gotten aged in that strange ever-changing door we’d encountered much earlier in our catacomb explorations.
I was a pretty big no on the fourth heart. It seemed like exactly what another city intent on trying to destroy my city would do. And not like, pointing fingers at anyone in the icy north or anything, but I was a little loathe to trust a known citykiller with the health of my admittedly ailing city.
Anyway, Felegum had a theory that the four hearts had been corrupted somehow by the Red Eyes, which kind of made sense given that I knew we had four heroes of Csipherus. I wondered if we were, I don’t know, taking down some important line of protection in messing with them.
“Maybe they’re graves,” Felegum said meditatively.
“Ooh.” I looked up abruptly. That could make things interesting.
We were kind of at a loss on things to do that would be positive, so I brought up the idea I had about the two swords maybe being tied to the dragons. They were glowing and they looked different from the ones the Butcher normally carried. “I want to go back to the treasure room and check that out.”
Granted, this was extremely dangerous but I was also done with hoping that something was going to magically fall into our laps.
Somehow the topic of Aljahar got brought up.
“We specifically avoided him,” Felegum said.
“Yeah, my desire for answers can wait,” Harry added. Honestly, I did not think that Harry would ever go for answers. He seemed pretty keen to run away from that problem. And I would know: I ran from a lot myself.
Anyway, Felegum, Harry, and Zeno regaled us with stories of this weird box they’d passed through to get here as we dug into the juices and wheaty bread. Meanwhile, I assured everyone that we’d probably not whomped by the statue outside or anything because we’d been pretty respectful of this place, which I definitely thought was a tomb.
Also, the food was pretty baller. There was Csipherian yogurt now, which was the traditional really tart variety, hardboiled eggs, and then some berries and toppings for the yogurt too, and that wasn’t even mentioning the ever-filling pastries.
“Wow,” said Tem as we took it all in.
I had to agree. “That was really generous of them.”
What followed that was a brief discussion of my dragon-sword idea, where Helli and I agreed to split up possession of the swords if I was able to get them, with me getting Ojutai’s and Helli getting Atarka’s.
We were working through the finer points of this plan, like how we could probably get a pretty decent view from the scaffolding above the treasure hoard and figure out if maybe there was something else we could do to sabotage the ritual (versus destroying the entire thing, a risky move). Since information was well worth it, we settled on that.
And since I could bring a friend with me invisibly (and because I was incredibly talented at being nondescript) the task of doing most of the reconnaissance work fell to me.
Zeno insisted that he didn’t want me doing anything alone for some reason, and whatever, I didn’t actually have a plan beyond look at things, but having company was probably good just in case things went more sideways than planned.
I clasped his shoulder as the bard finished teasing me about something. “You give me so much shit but here I am doing you favors again.”
Then we both went invisible.
Getting out of the safe room went more smoothly than I thought: the heavy stone door slid open on seemingly greased hinges as we emerged into the corridor lined with statues. Zeno and I headed out onto the balcony beyond that had the scaffolding access.
The zombies up here were much less dense, thankfully, and it made sneaking by them a little easier as we headed down the stairwell and back to that standing queue of the undead. There was the glint of a few gold coins on the ground as well, meaning that we were now on the ground level and also pretty close to the massive treasure pile.
Our first order of business was to try to sneak closer to that treasure pile and the swords. Because hey, if we really could liberate them and Zeno could zap us back to the safety of the room guarded by that statue.
Neither of us wanted to push our luck going through a huge crowd of zombies, so we angled around the southern way and entered the second chamber. Weirdly, there were a lot of structures here that reduced the size of the entryways to only fit one humanoid-ish. I guess maybe they’d had issues with zombies trampling each other and dying for real before they could make it to the ritual.
Or maybe the Red Eyes were just anticipating us again.
The columns that had held up some of the cat walk had also collapsed, but crouching on top of one of them was a hooded figure, briefly illuminated by the flicker of sparks. Savas. The tip of his bow was aflame, which seemed low-key dangerous, but whatever, I guess when it wasn’t your cultural artifact people felt inclined to do whatever they liked.
Savas was much closer to the center of the ritual, and the three rings that had unzombified people were removed.
“Okay, let’s go.” I breathed near where I knew Zeno was.
He patted me twice. Yes, it was weird to basically be holding hands with anyone I took invisible, but after realizing how close we’d come to not having Tem know how to follow me, it kind of had to be done.
I interpreted the double pat as an affirmative and we moved on. Maybe I moved too fast because Zeno tripped over a rock. Luckily for us, there were enough of the graceless undead here to make it not a huge deal.
We slowly got closer to that pile of wealth and finely crafted pieces, the accumulated riches of a city. There were a lot of spices and a lot of beautiful things, and as much as I hated that they’d done this to us, I also had to admit that we were a pretty prime target. We had a lot of nice things.
Annoyingly, this spectacle was spoiled by the gross hovering figure of Ahkmatix floating like a demented balloon twenty feet over the pile. Also standing on the piles of treasure was the Butcher with those two swords plunged into the gold.
Intriguingly, there was no Durnen, no Hat-Broom Man (person?), or Yuval.
The Butcher was directly below Ahkmatix and I took a good hard look at those swords. I wanted to be sure that they were worth going for.
They definitely seemed different than the swords that I remembered him wielding before. Could be that he had multiple pairs of cool swords. That felt excessive.
But I wasn’t about to die on a hunch at best. So I sighed and we pulled back to a slightly safer spot where we could chat.
And you know, I had a responsibility. This was the not-fun part of trying to fix things: sometimes you had to be really awful on the way there. “How did you put it,” I paused, “something about limiting their wardrobe?”
Zeno, insightful dude that he was, caught my drift and we went upstairs to the torture room where the Red Eyes were storing their spares.
We stopped in the stone archway and beheld a room mostly devoid of bodies. There were three left. One was twitching and writhed in that familiar red, and on either side of it were Durnen and the now female-presenting artist formerly known as Hat-Broom Man. They looked relatively vigilant on either side of the reanimating body.
I pulled Zeno back tentatively, and he grabbed my wrist. Honestly, I wasn’t sure who was more worried about who was going to do what.
Getting a closer look at the body on the table, it appeared to be reddish-skinned and in tatters of clothing. Probably human. Probably also someone who had tried to rid Csipherus of this terror and who was now being used as something they would have hated.
My grip tightened around my dagger, but two of us against three (well, maybe two?) Red Eyes still felt like a big ask.
Zeno pulled me around the corner outside back into the hallway and I followed.
He explained that he had a plan. This was enticing. Usually Zeno did not want to do things unless they made him look very cool or were very flashy. But, as stated before, this was not exactly a walk through Greenrest. I was not unconcerned for Zeno.
I asked him about his plans.
He would not elaborate. Typical showmanship, I got it. I didn’t get a vibe that he was going to be self-destructive (that most definitely went against everything I knew about Zeno) but I was also pretty smart. I don’t think people really pick up on that, but it is a key strength of mine, this ability to foresee and absolutely demolish problems.
“I totally trust you. I’m good leaving you here to do whatever while I sneak off. But you know,” I said super casually, “that if you cast a spell it’s going to bring down invisibility on you and me.”
“Oh really?” he said.
“Yeah.” I always felt cool when I had a solid grasp of the magical concepts. “Same spell covers both of us.”
“Damn, okay.” He paused, then sighed. “Well, I’ll be back before you anyway.”
“Give me like a five minute head start,” I said. “Just in case you have to do anything. I should be far enough away by then.”
I would not, for example, have trusted someone else like this. But again, Zeno had this unfailing desire to avoid being un-alived and I believed he’d not only not sacrifice himself but also probably do something epic.
So, I left. I didn’t not worry, but sometimes you did need to be a little risky to do something worthwhile.
And sure enough, by the time I reached the statue, Zeno popped back into existence right next to me as the invisibility broke on both of us. We rejoined the group and I slammed back an orange juice.
They’d looked really good.
“So, what happened?” I asked when we were all back together. I’d already laid out the details of what we saw with the swords and my mostly-sure-but-not-totally feeling.
“I took a shot,” Zeno said. “It would have been worth it but it failed.”
On the table from the gods, as if it were a parting gift, was a bottle of chilled prosecco.
“I tried to get that body,” said the Sovereign Dungeoneering Company’s resident expert on body acquisition, “and I failed. Uncharacteristic of me, I know. I spoke with Durnen. We exchanged words.” He thought about it. “We caught up?”
Felegum sighed and steepled his fingers. “We need to kill Yuval before he recovers. If he becomes a rock again we’re fucked.”
Naturally, Harry had something to say about this decisive course of action. “I don’t want to go off on a fool’s–“
The other dragonborn also had words. “The odds are not going to get better,” she insisted.
“This,” Zeno said contemplatively, “might be the right time to crush something.”
“That means whatever we do, we’re right!” Felegum was thrilled. It had been a long time since he’d gotten to really flex the limits of his magic. Genocide Felegum was behaving very well in my city, but he was still definitely in there somewhere.
Tem returned to Zeno and shook her gold-scaled head in wonder. “How did you get out without being disintegrated?”
“He’s very personable,” said I.
“Yeah.” Zeno nodded.
What followed was once again a long discussion of next steps, which I will spare the reader who no doubt understands by now the group dynamics and how much argument generally needs to occur before anything happens.
“I can see where Harry is coming from,” Felegum said, “but doing nothing is also an action.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a vehemence. My city was literally dying. I don’t know how many times that I had to repeat that before it sunk in.
Tem had been thinking about our situation and cast a spell of nondetection on Zeno. Or Zeno’s soul. “Maybe this whole area is nondetectable,” she said. “It’s very heavily protected by divine magic. But just in case.”
Tem was starting to grow on me, not gonna lie. This was the kind of caution I could get behind. Smart, calculated risk and then a covering of one’s ass.
There was most discussion on the hearts.
On the third heart: “We had to burn down a tree,” Harry said.
“Forest fires are normal,” Felegum added, just in case.
“No on helped.” Harry sounded very bitter about this. I was curious to know more about what had gone down but I was still pretty annoyed that I wasn’t going to ask.
Anyway, speaking of things I wanted to know more about, those swords and just generally what was happening downstairs was one of them. I asked Felegum if he’d be chill using his spying eyeball to poke around. Check on Savas’ placement, the room with the spares, things like that.
“Oh my god,” the mage said. “YES.”
He got himself set up and then narrated an interesting turn of events.
Apparently, whatever Zeno had said or done to Durnen and the Artist Formerly Known As, etc had provoked a change. Durnen was carrying a red-glowing body to the giant pile of gold with Hat-Broom Reincarnation floating next to Savas and chatting.
We had a very interesting opening. There was, after all, no one in the spares room.
Zeno and I saw an opportunity and took it. He opened a door between places and we stepped through back into the room where he’d been standing before.
I’d asked to do it. These were my people, after all. They didn’t deserve to die at all, but I figured if anyone had to do it, it should be at the hands of a countryman and not a foreigner. Not a Red Eye, at the very least.
And besides all that, this wasn’t anyone else’s burden to bear. This was my city.
“Do what you’ve got to do,” Zeno said, “but do it fast.”
So I did.
I apologized and promised the city and I would always remember them. I’d never wanted to do this. I’d tried so hard to bring these people back, or save them like we’d saved Kal. But we were getting so close to the end of everything that I had to be ruthless. Sometimes that meant doing some pretty horrible stuff.
There wasn’t any blood, probably because of the stasis they’d been in for so long. But the bodies had lethal wounds when I was done with them, making them (hopefully) uninhabitable for the Red Eyes.
“We should probably bring the heads with us,” Zeno pondered.
This…felt not right. “I think if they try to bring these people out of stasis they’ll be gone,” I said.
“I want the eyes.”
Okay, that tracked.
“I’ll get you different eyes,” I said, then after thinking about it, cut myself twice on my left arm, enough to leave two parallel scars.
It hurt like hell.
“Set, oh my god,” Zeno said, wincing. “Look, you can listen to your music and we can talk.”
“I don’t know their names,” I said, binding up the wounds and trying to figure out how to get them to heal without going away. “They didn’t have anything left on them. This way they can be remembered. And at least I won’t forget them.”
I hoped that the spidery marks on my arm would also fade. That was a downside to using the knife on myself. It got like, super-charged or something– Lathander had seemed especially pleased the first time I’d done it– but it also really got me. I guess it was also super awesome in battle too, because yikes, if it did this to me, just imagine what it was doing to my enemies.
“Ugh,” Zeno pronounced again, at the whole situation. Then, something lit up in him. “Hey, why don’t I animate them?”
I had to think about it. “Well,” I said carefully, because if you give Zeno an inch he will sometimes take an entire empire, “sure.”
He whipped out his bagpipes, thrilled.
A zombie rose up. The bodies were clearly dead, even in stasis. I wasn’t sure if I had been the one to make them…summonable? or if that had been part of the Red Eyes’ doing.
“Oh, okay.” I nodded. They were dead. If you weren’t dead, you weren’t about to rise to Zeno’s commands, so that checked out.
“Want to go back up?” the bard offered.
I sighed. “Yeah. I can always be invisible and sneak my way up if you want to take your friend.”
Like I said, I liked magic. I couldn’t do most of it, but it felt respectful to be aware of the limits of my friends’ spells and not ask too much of them. Zeno loved having a thrall around and it wasn’t good form to deprive him of one I’d okayed when he’d been relatively chill not turning all my city’s actual dead on this trip.
He thought about it. “Nah. I think it’ll be more fun to leave them here, don’t you think?”
One last fuck-you to the Red Eyes from their would-be victims. A little bit of beyond-the-grave revenge. I was all about that.
Zeno could be a surprisingly good friend, if you knew where to look. Or maybe he just needed regular offerings of dead bodies. Either way, in this moment, I was grateful he was around.
And grateful I didn’t have to go through that alone.
“Hell yeah,” I said, took his hand, and we left.