IT’S A TERRIBLE LOVE AND I’M WALKING IN: in which Zeno gives a speech and Felegum creates a problem

As the frigid winter settled in outside and we gathered our wits, resources, and forces, we began to sketch out the vague outlines of a plan.

Part of the problem, of course, was that all of our outside allies were outside the city. I’d mentioned the weird magic cube system as a way to possibly rectify that. Loathe as I was to give Paripas the keys to sneaking around Csipherus, I had also come to grips with the fact that if I didn’t, there might not be a Csipherus to sneak around.

Felegum deftly mentioned that to even get to the outside cube location you’d have to make it through the dome of darkness, which I’d hoped to circumvent.

“Also I already told mages about the cube,” said Harry.

“Aw, no.” I shook my head.

“Can’t trust the government,” Felegum agreed.

“Aw yeah!” Zeno held up his hand for a high-five.

Felegum left him hanging. “Actually, I was being facetious.”

Zeno frowned, then slapped his own hand to complete the high-five.

Felegum there pitched an idea he’d had about creating an explosive barrel, similar to what we’d done before with the terracotta soldiers at the second heart. He and Zeno shared a touching memory of Saenta Klause, the beloved Fallow’s Reach and Reach’s Fallow holiday icon who flies through the sky on an enchanted land vehicle to deliver gifts.

Zeno even admitted that he’d become fascinated in learning to drive land vehicles because of Saenta Klause, who seemed to exist more or less the same way in both cities, possibly because he could fly.

Breakfast had appeared on the table, and this time it was porridge with roasted nuts, dried and fresh fruits (not both at the same time, two different types), and seeds. For a meal right before we went into what was sure to be a cataclysmic battle, it was unobtrusive and surprisingly tasty.

As we finished our meal and side conversations about strategy, Zeno put down his glass. This was significant. He only ever put down his glass due to imminent peril or because he was about to make a speech. And we were, at the moment, in no more peril than usual.

He opened his mouth and Harry cut him off with something about us not having a perfect plan.

“Well, Harry,” Zeno said, visibly wrestling back the urge to go full prima donna and exact revenge on the destruction of such a perfect opening, “what do you have in mind?”

I forgot what Harry said because Felegum mentioned the bomb again. Our last bomb moment had gone very well, so it was a comfort to know that we might replicate it in our hour of need.

“I’m going to put effort into trying to pit one of them against each other,” Zeno said.

“I’ll be on Savas,” Harry said.

Tem said she intended to go for the Butcher.

“I love the idea of Helli going full Scrooge McDuck–” no doubt another Reach’s Fallow figure from popular lore– “on this thing,” Zeno said, stating the obvious, “but I worry if that’s the first thing you do, we won’t not die.”

“If,” Harry intoned mournfully, “you need to leave me be and save the city, you can do that.”

I was kind of annoyed because, while dying for Csipherus was very thoughtful, that was specifically my job. Also, seeing someone else being so willing to die made me wonder if I’d made everyone else feel like that. Like they’d constantly had to be making sure I was okay in addition to worrying about all the other stuff.

Man, that sounded exhausting.

I decided privately I’d try my best to live. And also, you know, keep everyone else that way too.

“I will happily loot your corpse,” said Helli, who always had a mind for the practicalities of the situation.

“You are doing so with permission,” Harry solemnly replied. As if this would have stopped her.

Or honestly had stopped me with Awk.

But it’s not like they had to know that. And besides, this was too beautiful a moment to ruin by bringing up ancient history.

“Also,” said our ever-practical and one remaining gnome, “blanket statement: if I die, please loot my body.”

At this point I was obliged to say something. “Thank you all for being so willing to die for my city.”

Felegum dutifully recorded these last wills and testaments and offered the respective papers to Harry and Helli. “Please sign this.” He pressed a hand to his forehead. “Oh my god, I need a notary.”

“I have a request,” Zeno added. “If I die, take my infinite bourbon and bury me with it pouring down onto my body.”

“Uh,” I said, because while that was hilarious, it also suddenly made things get very real. “Um, for me, Kalends should take Kheryph and his dagger, and probably my parents should get my holy symbol.” I didn’t think they’d find value in anything I had on me, but the necklace would be a nice token for my parents.

“And tell them,” I added, because sometimes this group took things very literally.

“Set,” Zeno said, clasping my shoulder, “you’ll tell them yourself.”

This was inspiring, regardless.

“Oh!” I suddenly remembered. “Also if I die, please give my desert irrigation book to Milto.”

“I’ll do it, Set.” Felegum said, steely-eyed. “I don’t plan to die today.”

“Wow,” said Zeno.

Tem turned to the other dragonborn in the party. “Harry, if I fall in battle, my belongings should be returned to my order.”

Noble, as expected.

“I’m sure your friends will be there.” Harry nodded. “We can put them on layaway.”

“Wow,” I said.

“If I do die,” Felegum added thoughtfully, “please kill some frogs for me because the party is all I care about.”

Everyone liked that.

We moved onto practical matters, like where to place the bomb and which of the spellcasters might be who we want to target first.

“A reuqest,” Zeno said. “Do not engage the one that I’ve turned. Don’t attack that one.”

“What about the zombies?” Felegum asked.

I sighed, about to resign myself to yet more truly final death.

“Disable the zombies,” said Zeno. “Not kill. We’re so close to finding a solution to their problems.”

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but not that.

Zeno nodded. “Yeah.”

Maybe this was going to be okay after all.

We returned, again, to strategy. “Maybe if we leave the lich alone he won’t enter the battle,” Zeno postulated.

Helli cleared her throat. “Does anyone have an exit plan?”

“No,” said Felegum.

“Victory or death,” said Tem.

“Hell, loot my body,” I said.

At this, it had been about an hour of planning and amping each other up and another wave of that gross energy rippled through us.

This was starting to get both really embarrassing and really inconvenient: I really couldn’t make fun of Harry now for succumbing to the magical cold earlier since I now felt it deeply and it sucked.

When this blast rolled through us, I was on the sanctum’s floor, gasping and retching. It was, to put it kindly, not a good look. Especially when I seemed to be the only one affected, and even more especially when I looked at my left hand as I knelt on the ground, coughing.

It didn’t feel any different. When I waggled the fingers, it still functioned just like it had before. But that reassurance didn’t take away from the disconcerting fact that the fingers had gone skeletal.

And not just like, thin. We are talking actual bone, that creepy shade of white that you are dead-ass certain you should not see outside of your body ever, under any circumstances.

I was so creeped out by it– my literal own hand– that I tried to hide it behind my back and forget about it.

But then Zeno grabbed my wrist and held it up. Like I was some prizefighter or someone who had accomplished a great task. At first I felt kind of dumb, but he started doing all these puns about my name, and that was pretty great, and then by the time he got into the serious stuff I was already into it that I forgot about how weird my hand was.

“And Tem,” he continued, “I’m sure you have a beautiful origin story. We all need to learn more about Tem. We would normally have done this at a tavern by now, laughing over drinks, but there are no good bars in this town.”

With a flourish, he took out his unending bourbon and poured it on the table. “This is for the people of Csipherus.”

For him to give up something that he so deeply valued– even if it was infinite– in the spirit of honoring my people meant something. We were going to do this. I’d brought friends, people who could help.

And I finally believed what I’d been telling Kalends, that while I hadn’t brought an antidote to the plague, I had brought Csipherus’ salvation.

“So shall we away?” Zeno closed out grandly.

We awayed.

Naturally, Helli and I were out at the head of the group, making sure that there weren’t problems for the others to run into. Namely, unexpected zombies. Also, it was dark.

I should add at this point that Felegum had some general conception of what the massive ritual chamber looked like thanks to his arcane eye, but the rest of us were working off memory. And honestly my memory with this one was not great.

We were walking on the second story of catwalks and scaffolds above the throng of zombies, and while I knew that left was the general correct direction on this, I still managed to end up nearly visible by a zombie. Felegum had to send me a message to get me back in the right general area of things, and then he crept up past me in order to make the bomb.

This time, the explosive would be slightly different. He’d have to make it himself via a spell that would let him duplicate an item he’d seen before or something, provided he had a tiny bit of each of the necessary materials. Knowing Felegum, he’d have saved some for just the perfect moment.

Unfortunately, knowing Felegum, he’d also stumbled on a rock or some debris or whatever and a zombie was getting nosy about us up here.

In a moment of great personal sacrifice, I threw my camel butt plate from Trash Man in the opposite direction of us as a distraction.

It landed in a dull thud on the sand and didn’t really produce a good effect. I didn’t even have time to be properly upset at Trash Man or myself or sand, because the zombie I’d been trying to distract cracked open in this weird way and cold poured out.

I could only guess that maybe this was a leftover of the conduits being connected and being so close to Calcryx’s breath. Anyway, like a bad surprise egg, the zombie creaked open and Helli, Felegum, and I got hit with this awful cold. Luckily, my boots were warm. Felegum also seemed okay, though maybe that was his dedication to the cause. Helli, who was encased in the metal form of Nisbit, struggled a bit more here.

Another emergent problem was that the second story of scaffolding only got us so close to the ritual area. There were more scaffolds running above the chamber, as well as a floor packed with the dense queue of zombies. Felegum, again, perhaps fueled by his dedication to save my city (or to blow something up), took the initiative and leapt down to the first story of walkways. In his haste, he even knocked a zombie down to the ground, where it fell unmoving before he dashed out of sight.

I let him be for a moment or two and then thought better of it. Not because I doubted him, but because everything tended to hit Felegum and I felt a sense of personal duty to prevent that. I was very sneaky and also kind of wanted to see the magic too.

I snuck closer. Harry also snuck closer, which was extremely cramping my vibe as “cool dude in the shadows”, so I kept going, trying to put distance between us. Maybe he interpreted this positively as “let’s protect Felegum together!” because he kept following after me.

Understandably, this ended up with Felegum conjuring a lit bomb out of nothing, and then turning around panicked to find both of us bickering with each other. “Guys!” he hissed.

Then he threw the bomb toward the zombies to cut them off and raced on out of there as Harry and I took cover.

The element of surprise quickly blown, Tem lit up like a sun and somewhere I could hear the mechanical winch of joints as Helli entered into battle with something. Despite Tem’s light, it was still not exactly easy to see around columns.

What I could tell was that Felegum vanished from this plane of existence briefly (seemed okay) and then there was more cold, which Helli and I had to endure. Zeno, mounted on Lily-of-the-Valley, turned his attention to the source of the frigid blast, and Harry raced off.

“No, wait, Harry, don’t go,” I said weakly. “I was going to bless you– well, here we are.”

I blessed myself, Zeno, and Tem. Tem and I had connected more recently and honestly, she deserved to be a badass. I’d been really suspicious of her and her order when we first met, but all things considered she seemed pretty alright. The armor was sick, even if it wasn’t my aesthetic. Also, Zeno’s speech had been fire and he tended to help me out whether or not I deserved it. I could return the favor.

Somewhere, on the other side of the chamber, stones were smashing into each other. Something was happening, and we shared a brief moment of worry that maybe one of the Red Eyes was going to come through a wall. Like the Mr. Fruit-Aid Personage from the merchants’ posters back when we still had food culture here. Man, it would suck to be the only person in the world to still remember Mr. Fruit-Aid.

Anyway, Tem heard this call to action and shielded herself with a platinum burst of magic and some zombies starting hitting Harry. I couldn’t see this super well because he was moving between shadows at this point, but I did see Tem avoid one and Harry not, so.

I’m just saying, Lathander was doing some work here. Or maybe Bahamut, but like, let me have a win.

Weirdly, worryingly, we didn’t know if Ahkmatix, the lich in red, was doing anything yet. Or what, for that matter, Team Red Eye was up to.

More mechanical skittering in the darkness. A ray of frost streaked past and hit something (probably in the way of Felegum). Another pulse of cold rocked the room.

In addition to ourselves and Lily, we also had Vincenzo with us as well. I wasn’t sure what Zeno’s game plan would be for him initially, but soon found out as he walked forward and the bard himself alighted into the air atop Lily, flying him to the other catwalk. Harry at this point had disappeared entirely.

Wanting to retain my element of stealth but also in deep need of being mobile, I hopped on the broom, taking care to fly close enough to the wall to be able to disappear into one of its shadows.

There was more of that weird rock-on-rock grinding sound, again, making me extremely doubt my decision to hug the wall, and then Tem dashed to a pillar, becoming more or less surrounded by zombies. Our plan to limit the horde and make a clearer path to the Red Eyes had not seemed to be as effective as we might have liked.

Still nothing from that lich, though. Or, from what I could tell, most of the other Red Eyes. This made me more nervous than anything.

I caught sight of Helli moving along the ceiling before she too stepped into the darkness ahead, just in time for a now-corporeal Felegum to fall off the catwalk and hide in a shadow on ground-level.

Zeno glided forth on Lily into the fray. “That’s no way to greet a friend!” he called as a flaming arrow launched toward him and arced past. Then he flew back toward us and yelled: “They’re all convening by the ritual! No one’s coming toward us right now and there are a lot of zombies!”

Vincenzo plopped down from the catwalk in a heap, but picked himself up admirably.

Harry, now in Tem’s light, moved along the wall, careful to take up a defensive position. “Can’t see shit, captain.”

I did not enjoy the thought of having to dodge arrows, so I popped up my mirror images as I continued to fly and hide along the wall. The longer this battle was taking to start, the more nervous I got. I kind of just wanted to be in it and dealing with it, not having this prolonged anxiety about the myriad number of ways things could mess up.

A sparkly bolt hit Zeno, dusting him with glittery light, as though he was under a spotlight. Zeno preened and struck a pose.

Something weird and not great happened again with the rocks, but it seemed less like it was coming from the wall and more like it was coming from a person.

Tem walked up to the zombies around her and bellowed out a challenge. “Butcher! Bahamut’s Furty has come for you!” She turned to a zombie in front of her. “You stand in my way.”

Then she utterly annihilated it with one sweep of her sword.

“Butcher!” she yelled again, hacking and slashing through the masses.

Nearby, Vincenzo shuffled nervously.

I was going to say something snide about how we’d clearly stopped trying to limit the total destruction of my ill-fated people. But then the zombies surrounded Tem, and it became clear just how outmatched we were.

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