The battle was without end.
Helli deftly got away from an attacking zombie, rooting through her pack for something. Felegum took advantage of some of the chaos to send off a quick shattering spell to the north, but then he ran into three zombies, all of whom hit him.
“Oof, ouch! My bones!” he cried and then promptly disappeared once more.
Zeno whispered something to the Butcher, or at least he must have, because the goblin in question hurried back up the stairs to the platform with a vengeance. Meanwhile, his companion Savas tumbled out of sight before firing two arrows at Harry with the Phoenix Bow.
One of them was literally an arrow on fire, but it transformed into something more midair. The missile flexed, opened fiery wings like a dragon or an eagle. I’m not sure if Harry caught that one or the other one, but he was definitely on his game.
Somewhere in the back of the stage area, Durnen huddled behind a box and channeled a swirling wind at Harry. Flames and shrapnel cascaded over the dragonborn’s body as Durnen emerged from behind his cover and emitted a reddish-pink fog that obscured the ritual area. The entire top of the alter vanished, which was inconvenient, as that was where all the bad stuff was either about to happen or happening.
“You good?” Zeno asked Tem.
The bard disappeared through another door between places, appearing I didn’t know where. Knowing Zeno probably somewhere devious and unexpected.
Harry ran toward the lich and leapt, hastily unsheathing an old plaguesword he’d had since gods-only-knew when. He jammed it into the lich’s eye. “Forget about this?”
It didn’t seem to be bothering him, but it was disconcerting as hell to see this massive floaty dude with a sword in his eye, just carrying on.
This time, Harry breathed acid in his face, right into that same aggrieved eye.
Green smoke and pus poured from every orifice on the lich’s face and even leaked through his neck. Something seemed to shift in the air, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Are you ready to pay attention now?” said Harry.
I stood up from the ground, broom floating away somewhere over head. I did not care. I had one goal from here on out and that was either to win or to cause as much damage as possible.
“Tem,” I said, flexing my wrists. “Thank you for believing in me and my city.”
At the start, I thought that she was an interloper sent in from a foreign place on a mission of self-aggrandizement. Maybe part of that was even still true. But the fact of it was that she wasn’t running away now that things had gotten real bad. She was still standing here and standing down the enemies of Csipherus. And that was no small thing.
Dawn coalesced behind her, making that armor glimmer even more as my shield surrounded her.
Then I lit up, four sets of wings rising around me as I took to the air, swarmed by copies of myself. My target was huge and airborne. Time to get to work.
Unfortunately, I was not fast enough.
Hat-Broom Man touched Harry and channeled negative energy through him. Harry collapsed and went limp.
I was about to be really upset and formulate a plan to remedy this but then someone started throwing rocks at me. I looked down to see Yuval totally nuke one of my duplicates. That was so crappy. I had barely gotten to be super intimidating and many-winged and already one was down.
Then he totally hit me, which was obviously worse, and I had to move fast to avoid the worst of it and also keep up my spell on Tem.
Tem, meanwhile, healed herself for like, I don’t know, a bunch, and then moved through the crowd, continuing to look for the Butcher. Somehow, despite my awesome divine protection, Tem still managed to get hit by some random zombie. Maybe she was just really paying attention to finding the Butcher and not to walking. I don’t know. I was dodging a giant rock man at the time.
Other zombies in the unending crowd turned toward Harry’s unconscious body. The tattoos on it began to shift. I wasn’t sure if the zombies were trying to attack him and slipping over the corpse of the alligator they had to scramble over to get there, or if they were being thwarted by something else, like the tattoos.
Anyway, again, I was distracted by more people throwing rocks at me, this time the zombies. It was kind of refreshing to have my countrymen hate me this openly instead of with thinly veiled contempt reserved for street kids, but like, I still didn’t like it.
Meanwhile, Nisbit kept Helli out of reach of all of this mess. Two more zombies tried to throw rocks at Tem. This ended as one might finally expect, with them failing thanks to my awesome spell.
The moonbeam, I hadn’t noticed, had at this point moved directly over the lich. Ahkmatix’s old skin seethed under its gentle light, and he muttered and disappeared from view.
Helli was doing something on the ceiling. I wasn’t sure what, but this was one of those times when you really just had to decide to trust her or not. Sometimes she would mill around the edges of battle and in the moment you might be like “what the hell is this” but then it would turn out later that she’d found a secret key or like, I dunno, pick-pocketed someone mid-strike. That was pretty cool and often useful.
Anyway, so I didn’t know what was happening there but I hoped it was to our benefit.
Felegum strolled through the remains of zombies in the paladin’s wake. “Thank you, Tem,” he said. “You did more for my mobility than I could for myself.”
One zombie tried to hit him and missed by a surprisingly wide margin. As Felegum waas busy scoffing at this one, he got hit several more times by other zombies. He was, admittedly, not looking great.
“This is for you, Set!” he yelled, and threw his magnifying glass into the air.
It spun, glass catching the light from me, from Tem, from the torches and the magic, flashed bright and then vanished into a golden sphere.
“Solis ort!” cried the magician.
And then the cavern was flooded with daylight.
This was arguably the biggest leap of faith anyone had ever taken on my behalf, except maybe Lathander. Felegum had literally called down the sun for my sake in this benighted terrible cavern and was about to blast Red Eyes into oblivion. I was under no delusions that he cared particularly for my city (I didn’t really think any of my friends had yet seen Csipherus’ beautiful side yet), especially when so far it had been actively trying to unalive him, but here he was.
Doing something insanely powerful in a last-ditch effort to save it, all because it was important to me.
And that meant a lot.
Hat-Broom Man, needles to say, did not react well to a face full of sun. They blinked, unable to see, as for a brief moment of perfect syzygy, the sunlight and the moonbeam crossed.
It was breathtaking, and then the daylight collapsed into a small mote in Felegum’s hand, ready to explode into light again at his command.
I had some pretty cool friends.
And then, as if things could not get more tense, the Butcher attacked Savas. This was clearly Zeno at work, and it was with no small amount of satisfaction that I beheld a tiny ferocious goblin absolutely laying into this elf dude.
Once again, an annoyed Savas tumbled out of the way and shot the Butcher from a safer distance. “You want more of that, you son of a bitch?”
I still wasn’t sure how they interacted, being parts of themselves and now also attacking each other, but it was probably the most I’d empathized with them throughout our long history.
“You still have a job to finish here!” called Durnen from somewhere within the pink cloud. A wave of light emerged from its center.
Zeno made a motion to dispel something on the portal. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, had happened, but I liked his ruthlessness.
Then there was this massive crumbling sound as the outer ring of the device collapsed and fell to the ground. In the ensuing wave of magic, I felt Felegum manipulating fates in my favor– he’d done this a few times for me before, and I was never quite sure how he did it, only that he was reordering the universe in such a way that it benefited me– and I survived the worst of the fallout.
Black fissures now ran up the column of darkness, and eighty feet in the air above us, wreathed in a familiar crackling lightning, was the body of the lich.
Just levitating in there. Hanging out, if you will, as layers of magic coursed all over him.
Zeno looked a little nervous.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, Harry did not look great. I was close enough to get him, though. This was part of my whole job now, saving people on the brink of death, and I had a plan.
That was, until Harry died.
He had not had Felegum around to ensure he saved that fatal wave of magic, and his soul departed for realms unseen. I felt it leave and hated the circumstances, hated myself for being so near to fixing this and so unable to do anything.
Meanwhile, the giant form of Yuval loomed over the broken ring and went tense.
My original plan had been to help Harry. That had been it. So when Harry died, I just expended all my anger on Hat-Broom Man. It was a lot. Not quite enough to kill them, but enough to make them look a lot worse than they had moments before.
Maybe this time we would finally get that broom.
My triumph, though, was short-lived, because that was when the lich pointed a red tendril of electric light down at the ground and Harry’s dead body stood back up.
That was not supposed to happen.
I wanted to look more, but then Hat-Broom Man shot off and healed themselves, though they still seemed pretty blinded. Yuval, somewhere, descended into a tunnel.
Tem climbed onto a pillar, into the pink mist, and the moonbeam shifted toward the lich. Below, Harry’s body stood, the tattoos staying where they were. As the moonbeam passed over it, we received confirmation that neither living Harry nor undead Harry were shapeshifters.
Then the moonbeam crashed into the dark pillar and bonked off, unable to go farther and reach the lich.
Meanwhile, the zombies set their sights on Helli above. So did Zombie Harry. He didn’t move as fast as normal but he was still really fast, and he began scaling a pillar to go after the gnome.
I also got more rocks thrown at me and I was down to just one duplicate of myself.
The zombie form of Harry didn’t seem able to talk, but there was something weird surrounding it, like a shroud of billowing silver-blue mist. It grabbed his body by the shoulders and then tore him off the wall.
It was Ghost Harry versus Undead Harry, deathmatch of the century.
Undead Harry was unable to resist. He just fell right to the ground in a heap.
Ghost Harry had messages from beyond. “Keep fighting!” he said. “Help is coming!”
I was unsure if that meant divine help or like, mortal help, but either way, good news. Even better, he flew toward Ahkmatix on a floating set of lights.
Ahkmatix in turn shifted toward the other dragonborn. “Stop,” he commanded her, in what seemed like every language at once.
She wobbled for a moment in that strange pink-tinged fog, but then regained her composure.
Foolish to think that something as simple as words could stop Tem. We all knew from experience that that was just not the case, no matter how many languages you said them in.
But I shouldn’t have spoken so soon, because then the lich descended from his safe spot inside the pillar of darkness, pulling zombies to him from the base of the ritual site. As they absorbed into his body, another pulse of terrible energy rippled through the air.
It felt bad, not gonna lie. I was not enjoying myself in that moment.
All the zombies collapsed onto the ground. I just couldn’t move. I was frozen in time, in space, drifting back to earth. Something in me seemed to be separating from something else, essential, in me, but I couldn’t make out what and it was taking my full attention to figure that out.
Then there was a weird voice, magically magnified:
“I THINK WE’VE FIGURED OUT A WAY TO GET IN! WE WILL USE THE CATAPULT.”
Knowing the Goblin Shopping Network, this was probably a trebuchet.
“HOW FAR CAN WE THROW A GOBLIN?” the voice continued, unbothered. “WE THREW THREE ALREADY BUT THEY ALL GOT CUT IN HALF. DID NOT LOOK VERY FUN. BUT WE STILL HAVE MORE VOLUNTEERS!”
“Please,” said Zeno from a hiding spot somewhere in the treasure, “send as many as you can!”
“We will give you two gold each,” promised Felegum.
Helli, perhaps knowing that negotiations with the Goblin Shopping Network were long and complex even at the best of times, simply shot Hat-Broom Man to death with the magic missile wand.
She looked like she was contemplating taking a drink of a potion that she got out of her bag, but then thought better of it. We all waited to see if the red wisps would emerge.
Somewhere in the fray, Felegum re-emerged from the ethereal plane along the walls and reached out his hand with the bright mote in it, releasing a beam of brilliant sun at the lich.
A whole bunch of zombies were not copacetic with Felegum appearing out of nowhere in their midst and smashed into him, but still he held that unrelenting sun.
The Butcher, meanwhile, finally facing down Tem, devolved into a rage. He charged across the altar area and sliced three times into Tem, racing through the moonbeam like it hadn’t even mattered.
(He was not a shapeshifter either.)
Savas, taking advantage of this, took shots with his Phoenix Bow at both Harry and Tem, dragonborn racism like I hadn’t seen since we were at that tiny farmtown outside Lake Norka. Somehow he was able to maneuver around the Butcher without much difficulty at all. He moved too without issue through the moonbeam (not a shapeshifter) and was fully within the black column.
Meanwhile, Durnen (unseen somewhere in that pink cloud) did something that made the zombies that hadn’t been absorbed into the lich perk up again. They climbed the dais and made to attack Tem, but once again Lathander was here and present and doing some work (or else Tem’s new armor was) because they all failed to hurt her.
Zeno poked his head out and whispered at Hat-Broom Man.
And that was the end. The body collapsed, greyish wounds opening on their eyes, mouth, ears, and nose.
The red slither was live.
I was going to turn my attention to this new development, but other matters became more pressing as Undead Harry turned and tried to attack me while I was fixated on everything.
Luckily, I had one last duplicate left to absorb that blow, but yikes, I was done with all that. I rose thirty feet into the air, caught between the escaping red slither and a perfect shot at the lich. Who knew where he was going to go next?
How many lives, how much of my city depended on his relinquishing its hold on it?
I was always supposed to fight him.
So, I faced him and said, “Begone, thot.”
It would have been cooler if my sacred flame actually hit, but it was still a victory that my shield was up on Tem and that I’d been able to strike at the lich without being stricken by fear like the last time. That had been so embarrassing.
Instead of trying to escape, Hat-Broom Man’s soul flew toward the lich at top speed.
This was so weird that I nearly missed Yuval repairing the ritual site and its ring that Zeno had broken.
Tem, sensing this new danger, obliterated a zombie on the way to Yuval and smote him with bluish fire pouring out from her sword.
Then she also shielded herself, because I guess Bahamut and Lathander were now working together. The zombies flowed in, keeping on trying to do a good job of throwing themselves in the way.
Felegum was probably the biggest recipient of undead woes, getting hit like three times, but he managed to keep standing like a champ, even if he wasn’t in the ethereal plane.
“People of Csipherus,” intoned Ghost Harry, “a new dawn is coming! Now is the time to throw the red-eyed fiends back into the hole they came from! Eh?”
There was a pause as though he was waiting for a response from his zombie audience. They gave him nothing.
“Guess I’ll just do it myself,” he said and plowed into the red lighting mess, bringing back his staff in the form of– I am supposing– ki.
“I have an old friend,” he continued, brandishing the staff, “who needs to find out who killed it and needs revenge.”
He tried to stun the lich with a well-placed strike. The lich staggered, but then appeared unaffected.
I’d almost forgotten that the staff had been a casualty of our earliest fight with the lich.
“You broke my staff,” Harry said epically between laying the smack down on the undead floating mage, “but you won’t break me again.”
Again, he went in for that trademark stun, and again the lich was not about it.
But for now, at least, in a strange new form, we had Harry back. And his staff.
Ahkmatix pointed at Felegum and for a brief moment I got super scared, but it just ended up being a ray of frost.
“Oof, ouch,” Felegum said, shivering. He looked really hurt.
Then because life was truly full of surprises, most of them bad today, Ahkmatix pointed again at Felegum. This was indeed the same spell of disintegration that the mage had evaded before and that I too had had too close of a call with (saved also by Felegum).
He counterspelled it and it fizzled out, but not before the red slithering soul of Hat-Broom Man could rejoin the lich and seep into his body. Ghost Harry laid down the law onto it, but it was no use: the lich had absorbed a Red Eye soul and had no doubt gained some measure of power from it.