Felegum lapsed back into a catatonic state shortly after coming back from the dead. I checked him out, as did a few other professionals (religious and otherwise), and we all determined that he was fine, meaning alive, just very tired.
Our attentions then turned to our other dead friend. Everything was so quiet that it made any noise seem awkward, almost unallowed.
“Are we sure that this is what Harry wants?” Tem asked.
Zeno drank from his endless flask and stared at the ground.
It seemed kind of late in the game to be asking this question, honestly. We had a diamond. We had an embarrassment of priests. Moreover, we were here. Obviously we were going to do it. What was the use in waffling now?
“He’s always come back.” Helli fiddled with Harry’s ring, which she wore on a necklace. “He’s done this a lot. He always comes back.”
Harry and I personally had not had the easiest relationship lately– he had, after all, invited Albrecht, zombie-and-Zeno kicker, into Csipherus and the results so far has been strongly not great– but I didn’t want the dude to be forever dead. At his heart, Harry was a good person. That much was clear, even if it didn’t always translate well to real life.
“A complicated thing, the nature of life and death.” One of the priests, perhaps having overheard us, walked over. “An even more complicated thing, knowing the wishes of a dear friend. Some choose a beyond our own world and paths more complicated than the ones wandered by a mortal soul. But, if you wish to go forward with this, the time is now.”
I spoke quietly to my friends. “You think the body’s okay?”
“Oh,” Helli said, wincing and remembering the mess of things that Harry’s body had gone through. “I don’t know.”
He had been undead for a period, after all. I wasn’t sure if that messed with things. That stuff was a little beyond me still.
“I trust the clerics,” said Tem.
“Then why isn’t he in the ring?” asked Zeno, voicing what we’d all kind of been worried about.
“I don’t know,” Helli said in a low voice. Zeno drank again.
Still, Tem did not let these small obstacles stop her. “It’s up to us to give the testimony to call back this spirit. But ultimately,” she paused, “it’s also up to him.”
I didn’t like that. It made it sound like she didn’t think Harry would come back. But why wouldn’t he? He’d said he was okay with dying, which like, okay, but it had almost felt at the time that he was giving himself permission to die.
Which was bullshit.
Why wouldn’t you keep fighting? What had happened to that determined person I’d met all that time in the past, who kept getting up over and over to defend things he thought were important?
Helli started the ritual off by plunking down a massive book. I hadn’t known Helli to carry around many books of this size, so this one was probably To Serve Man.
“You saved us,” she said, “and we need you back. You slaughtered many a foe when we needed you on the frontline. You ripped the shield off a dragon and you tried to warn us against the rock pile-up in Csipherus. You made it to the end, and we need you back for the final adventure.”
She walked back.
Tem elbowed her. “Helli, the ring, if you will?”
“He’s not in there,” Helli repeated and shook her head.
And that’s when it really sunk in. This was the first time I’d seen Helli keep a piece of jewelry other than for material value or prettiness.
Tem sighed. “Nothing could be a truer testament than him risking his very soul by abandoning this artifact. That alone speaks to Harry’s commitment.”
Whatever. If he was so committed, he could trust that we’d do this for him after everything was over and he could come back.
I stepped up next. My offering wasn’t expensive, but it was something that meant a lot to me.
I placed the drink token from our set of Bacchus Jolly ones on the altar. We’d felt the most like a team when we’d gotten our hideout, and I’d liked us best when we were like that. The token itself was simple, like Harry and his love of carving wood, but important.
“Even though we disagreed,” I said, “I never doubted we were friends.”
Zeno placed his wooden shovel on the altar next. “Reminds me of you, bud.”
Maybe that was a private joke or something. I don’t know. The three objects rose into the air–book, token, and shovel– and the room saturated with something bigger than itself: saffron, stale oats, and a faint porridge smell.
Then Harry’s bones dissolved into dust. It was really pretty, something being unmade like that, swirling around the room like sand. The particles rose to the ceiling, then sped upwards still, arcing toward the center of the city. We waited for the drop, the grand moment when everything would fall into place.
But it never came. The heady too-full feeling of magic in the room thinned out, dissipated, and everything felt colder for its absence. Was that desert wind or had it been smoke and tendrils of darkness? Goosebumps crept up my arms.
My hands curled into fists. What the fuck was this?
Zeno, never without an elegant response even in situations like these, turned to one of the priests, Aliphax. “Al, you think he’s happy?”
The priest contemplated things. “If what you say of his last moments are true, I’m sure he’s happy. But he’s also determined in his purpose.”
That was such bullshit. He’d been so obsessed with getting everyone out alive if he could. How dare he think he could die and that we’d just be okay with it.
“I guess he’s happier.” Zeno shrugged. It was nonchalant, but it didn’t escape me that one hand still quested for this flask.
“The funny thing about these magics is that they take time,” Aliphax continued. “You may yet encounter your friend.”
“Don’t say that.” Zeno shook his head. “I need closure.”
“Maybe he’s entered another plane,” Tem said.
I watched the incense burn down to nothing, smoke curling into thinner and thinner serpents and then going out. Voices washed over me and Zeno played a calm song, quiet somehow for bagpipes–maybe that was another part of his magic–but I wasn’t listening. My eyes hurt from staring so hard and all the smoke.
I didn’t know when it ended. It was a lot less apparent than the other, better scenario would have been, and maybe that was why Zeno had been so keen on getting closure, so we didn’t stay in one place forever, holding our breath.
I still hated it, though.
Someone had to carry Felegum out for further treatment, which was nice of them. It was still pretty new to me to have us be treated kindly. To have a city like you back after years of loving it, well. That was new. It still didn’t feel like I’d done enough to deserve something like that.
We slowly dispersed. Zeno summoned Lily back. Tem kept watch by the portal with her sword, ready to give the lich what-for if he decided to poke his nose back in.
I flew to the spot in the pillar where everything had happened, souls disappearing and being ripped into nothing.
It was tricky, since my broom was still busted and also this spot was like, I don’t know, eighty feet in the air. But I wasn’t going to compromise on this one; I was going to do it right.
This was the last spot where I’d seen whatever had been left of Harry’s soul. If there was a place he was closest to, if there was a place where all those grains of sand that had been him had gone, then maybe it was here.
“Look,” I said. “I’m not mourning. I don’t think this is the end. You’re not the kind of person to leave things unfinished, and we were in a hell of a fight. Come back so we can finish our argument and go back to being shitty friends.”
I hung there in the air, waiting for a sign.
But Harry wasn’t Lathander. Not like Lathander had to give me a sign every time or that I expected him to, but we had a level of trust there. If he knew I really needed it, he’d nudge me. Otherwise, he’d trust I could figure it out on my own.
Or at least, that’s what I chose to believe about us. That’s what felt true.
Eventually, it got too cold for me to stay up there and I left.
By the time I flew back down, Zeno was deep in conversation with Sylla and leading her in what I thought was the direction of the Bacchus Jolly. Clearly he was wasting no time.
What followed was a few weeks of us trying to get things moving in the city again. Helli, Zeno, and I worked with the Mages’ Guild experts to try and reconstruct what the portals had looked like so we could bring back my people who had been made undead. There were three rings, and all of them had gotten pretty shattered in the aftermath of the battle.
In spite of her affinity for magical devices, Helli wasn’t able to contribute as much, but Zeno and I made some pretty good progress on the repairs. Scholars flocked in from all over to either witness Csipherus rising from the ashes or to study our relics, and by the end of the second week, a caravan came to town.
It was led by a four-humped camel and a very familiar face.
“Ahaha!” he laughed.
“Pinjin!” Zeno called.
“It is a miracle to see water flowing from the center of the city!” Pinjin gestured.
Zeno nodded. “There was water flowing in a plane and we just turned it upside down.”
Pinjin laughed and clapped the bard on the shoulder like this was the most hilarious joke he’d ever heard.
Expatriated Csipherians started returning to the city. Some people found that their homes were gone, others were desolated at how much the city had changed, and still others were just amazed that there was anything to come back to after two years.
Felegum remained deep in sleep. We visited when we could, both to check in that he was still doing okay and because we missed him, and he’d twitch occasionally, like he was having some really vivid dream. When he woke up, it was sixteen days and sixteen hours later and a priest had urgently summoned us to his side.
“Where’s the lich?” Felegum murmured, still half-asleep.
“You have so much to catch up on,” the priest said and offered Felegum some food. “Here, eat this.”
The mage held the bread as gently as a small bird. “I am so hungry.”
Zeno said nothing, but looked at him. Felgum wearily looked back.
Then Zeno let out a loud croak.
There was a lot of catching up. I had to go leave, but I heard that apparently at the end, Felegum even brought Dronie back. This was great, except that this time Dronie was huge and possibly made of iron. Then Felegum fainted. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time in about a year that I would hear Felegum speak.
I was, as you might expect, preoccupied with the city.
The reversal of the undead process was a long and involved project. At first I was mad, because the Red Eyes had for sure made it seem very easy going the one way. Then, I was deeply sad. Had I really gotten what my friends and I had worked so hard and lost so much for? For a long time, I didn’t know. Then I got angry again and applied myself.
It was going to take a long time to figure it out and we needed a lot of scholars and people deep in study. I could do that.
We needed money, time, and manpower. As a tall an order as that was, it was still just three things.
The Calendar was very diminished. After them storming the battle as I died– amazing timing, I could only have wished that I hadn’t chosen that moment to croak because it seemed like they were pretty epic– they’d also done a lot of dying themselves. We were left with twenty-five or thirty, maybe forty people at most. I got another tattoo on my arm.
It took me some time, but eventually I went back to the street of the sycamores and my parents’ house. It was wrecked, about as I’d expected.
I began the long process of clearing things up, putting ingredients back in their proper places and generally tidying, when there was a small knock.
I went invisible, hand going to the knife at my side. Just because we’d beaten one set of monsters in this city didn’t mean that there weren’t still human ones out there. That was part of why I’d wondered about getting the Calendar back into less than legal activities. There was always someone out there willing to do terrible things. Better to know it, see it, and control it than leave it to someone else. I could at least mitigate damage that way.
And, I thought, as my hand tightened on the grip of the knife, I was pretty good at damage control.
But as the figure stepped into the wreckage of my home, it wasn’t a thief or someone looking for an easy target.
It was a small female figure in simple clothes, holding a bag, backlit in the setting sun, who was starting to do the same thing I’d been. Tidying up.
It was my mom.
I left the apartment, walked outside as quietly as I could, and took a few deep breaths. Then I released the invisibility and walked up the stairs like a normal person and knocked on the door.
It was hard. All of it. My dad, who had been sick with the creeping plague for months and I now know years, had died. If he’d died from the plague, he’d become a zombie like everyone did, and he and my mom had agreed that instead of, I don’t know, trapping him somewhere, locking him up, whatever, that they’d destroy him before that happened.
So he was gone.
Sound cut out. I couldn’t feel my hands, my arms, my legs.
Everything I’d done was worthless.
I loved Csipherus. Don’t get me wrong. But I have always known that in order to save my parents, I’d have to save everyone, the city entire, before they let me help them. They wouldn’t have accepted my help any other way. Or they’d have found reasons that someone else in the city needed me more than they did. So, I’d gone out and I’d done it.
I’d saved a city to save two people.
And I hadn’t even managed to fucking do that.
They hadn’t believed me when I’d said that I’d be back, that I’d fix it, that I’d give anything, including and not limited to my life, to keep that promise. It was just like things had always been, them always insisting that they were there to give to people but never believing themselves worthy of help in return. In the end, they’d made sure they wouldn’t be a burden, when that was all I’d ever wanted them to be.
And to trust that, for once, I might be able to have their backs.
My mom told me all this, that she worked at a pharmacy. That she’d met some of my friends. But that was static, smoke on the wind toward a distant pillar. One more unstoppable death.
She hugged me and for a moment I let myself relax, pretend that it was all okay. For a single blissful moment, it was. I was home.
And then I remembered what I was, what I had done and made myself into for the sake of this one, monumental task, realized the full cost of all I had wagered and lost, and then something caught in my chest. I turned invisible again and left.
Time passed. Helli and Felegum occasionally spoke about going back to Paripas once the teleportation circle got reinstated. Felegum had lost the ability to speak entirely after his massive summoning, and though he seemed more manic than before, he was still in full possession of his faculties. He hoped that maybe someone in that city would know enough about his condition that they could help him.
Eventually, we went to go chat with Ojutai.
Tem, being Tem, had a cloak made with the symbol of parlay; everyone else dressed normal. On the way over, I explained the situation with my parents to everyone. It was a sad, shitty piece of information, and I didn’t want to go over it during food or anything where people could draw it out. We’d have to stop talking about it when we reached Ojutai, and that was precisely the amount of time I wanted to spend on it.
Maybe that was why I opened the conversation with Ojutai by doing my fish illusion again, the same one I’d crafted when we’d first met and he’d asked us to impress him. I’d known my magic wouldn’t be anything special, but I’d trusted that my city’s culture would.
I was always making the same gamble.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. But probably something like, “Do you remember when we first met, when I showed you one of the best things about this place? Would you still be open to that school of magic, a tower room above this city where you can study and be a part of us?”
I was also kind of nervous. I thought I’d done okay, but this dude was a master of magic and also lying, probably, and while I was also great at lying, I was not always great at spotting lies.
Ojutai heard me out and waited before replying. “Have you ever been offered everything you ever asked for, dreamed of, and then things change?”
A city at sunrise, rebuilding itself. A history unerased.
“Yes,” I said.
We talked about a lot of things, including the Sunspire. Ojutai had told me to follow up with him on that one once he’d been freed, and when I brought it up with him again, all he’d said was that he was against its destruction. He wasn’t telling me the full story, though I couldn’t figure out why. I pushed. He said he’d consider telling me later, alone.
I asked about opening a school of magic here, and he was amenable. That was a relief.
Tem also talked with the silver dragon about stuff, which whatever. There were so many dragons at this point that I honestly did not know where to begin. But Ojutai had always captivated me, for good or ill, so I talked with him until I was mostly okay that my city wouldn’t be newly enslaved.
At the end, I even got brave enough to ask him out for aftermain.
He said it was a solid maybe.
And like that, a year passed. Tem continued to collaborate with the scholars. We fixed the teleportation circle and Helli and Felegum headed off to Paripas after we’d each received two thousand gold for helping save the city. On one of her Paripas day trips, Helli was even able to separate herself from the legs, aka Nisbit, which was awesome. Felegum stayed there more often than not, researching deep in the library on frogs and this thing called Mechanus.
I got started on a lot of things. Kalends and I worked on consolidating the Calendar, figuring out who was in and who was out, where we were going to take it. We decided to move toward the black market, alongside our companions in the Goblin Shopping Network. Trade was going to be essential if we were going to make it through this and rebound. Ojutai and I sometimes went out for food in the city as I showed him more of the culture. The hole-in-the-wall places were hard for him, but always worth it. Occasionally, I’d go out to the teleportation network ruin sites outside the city and poke through them, examining what was there and studying what the Red Eyes had been after. Bands of undead still roamed the desert, so those trips were always fun.
I’d also begun setting up a temple to Lathander near the Street of the Sycamores. It was long work on top of everything else, but whenever I woke up there in the mornings I felt calmer, even with so much mess around me.
One day, I went out to a tree my dad had helped me climb when I was a kid. I’d thought about setting up a memorial to him in the temple, but that hadn’t felt right, and while my mom and I still spoke, it was hard for me to be at home with her anymore. So I set up a small shrine by the tree and stayed there for a bit, just thinking.
Someone knelt beside me and I felt the pull of magic.
“Apologies,” said a familiar firbolg voice, “I thought it might look look better as a water feature.”
I opened my eyes. My small garden monument was now an elegant structure of flowing water. I laughed, and my chest felt sore, like I’d run a long distance and had stopped to take in the view. “Wow.”
“It looked like you had a book on them,” he said. I blushed, stupidly. I hadn’t realized he’d seen me take that out and put it back. I thought he’d been too involved talking to Sylla.
“Well.” I cleared my throat, then swung my bag around and took the book on Irrigation in Arid Climes out. “Actually, I’d only gotten this because I wanted to give it to you.”
“Oh,” he said, accepting it.
We stayed there by my dad’s grave for a bit more.
“Thanks,” I said, “for everything.”
Eventually, Milto and Sylla went back to Janwald and Paripas, respectively. The city continued to rebuild. While Helli and Felegum traveled (and I didn’t really keep track of what happened with Tem because she was just obsessed with dragons and her super-secret holy order and honestly there was only so much of the almighty glory of Bahamut that I could really take), Zeno surprised me by choosing to stay in Csipherus. He re-opened the Bacchus Jolly as an actual, functional bar.
One night, I was there with Ojuati on the roof. It wasn’t weird for us to hang out, but it was annoying since we always had to be on the roof because Ojutai was a dragon and therefore massive. I sighed as I flew my drink up and Zeno’s underlings arranged for Ojutai’s beverage cask to be fetched.
“Dude,” I said, dismounting my broom and shaking my head, “you are so smart and it just boggles me that you don’t have the whole transforming thing worked out. You are lucky I can fly.”
“I don’t like transforming,” Ojutai grumbled. “Telekinesis is my specialty.”
“Consider generalizing,” I snarked back, and threw a look over my shoulder at the bar to see what the hell was taking Zeno’s help so long with the cask.
There was a strange man at the bar, Csipherian, I thought, or at least very tan. His body language told me he was familiar here; he knew this place. Zeno was behind the bar, tending, teaching his new help how to make all the cocktails and schmoozing with patrons. When Zeno turned back around, the strange man met and held his gaze with an intensity. Not breaking eye contact, the strange man took out a drink token and slid it across the bar.
Zeno smiled. It was not a nice smile, but more like the kind of smile smoke made when it hung in the area too long– eerie and elongated, a sort of bad promise.
Then it was gone. The bard made a joke, served the man a tall glass of the house ale, which the man accepted and drank. I never saw him return to the Bacchus Jolly again.
Later that night, after seeing Ojutai off, I flew back down to the main floor with my empty cups as the barmen and maids saw to Ojutai’s things.
I placed dishware on the counter and slumped over it.
“So, are we going to have the dragon conversation?” Zeno asked, sidling up across the bar from me, fine vintage in hand.
“What’s there to discuss?” I said, wearily.
He gave me a look that plainly said literally all of it.
I sighed. “I mean, I like Milto but I liked him before he was a dragon. Now everything just feels so complicated. And it looks like I’m a dragonchaser if I go after him now. Also, he’s with Sylla! Or maybe he isn’t, I don’t know, I haven’t asked and I don’t think it’s my place to mess that up if they’re happy. Obviously I, uh,” I swallowed, “I think Ojutai’s, um, okay but I just have no idea how that would even begin to work. I don’t think there’s any movement there.”
Zeno tsked and poured a drink. It looked very pretty, white-gold, and caught the light.
“Set,” he said, “I hope you’re listening because I am going to give you a key piece of relationship advice.”
I met his ridiculous gaze, deadpan and defensive, ready for this to be absolutely fucking useless.
He garnished the fancy drink with a sprig of thyme and set it in front of me. “Learn how to cook breakfast.”
I blinked, then took the drink and sipped it. “Okay,” I said.