Erova

Bridge

When last we left our heroes, they had barricaded themselves within the great central chamber of the Western Tower. The ground floor of the Gatehouse had been suddenly besieged by smoldering creatures, the same fiery brood that had evidently slaughtered several of the Gatehouse’s former occupants. Leading the horde was a howling, fire-spitting salamander made of powerful tentacles and gnashing jaws.

The party had succeeded in closing off roughly half of the entrances to the building, and wounding the brood, but after a blundered attempt to seal off one of the windows in a prison room on the South-facing side, they were forced to retreat. Beckoned by Hrodane’s urgent orders, the wounded party abandoned the prison room and, under the cover of the Echo’s sudden shadows, escaped the onslaught.

They settled down for a brief respite in the makeshift hospital that’d been erected in this central chamber. Though the salamanders had not attempted to break in, no one slept easily. The gaping hole in the ceiling still dripped, almost imperceptibly, and the cracks in the main doors still flickered with the passing of glowing creatures. If not for Arca’s constant vigilance, none of our heroes would have set aside their weapons, even for a moment. But they were weary and knew the dangers of fighting fatigued, and soon, all were asleep.

Awakening one by one, the party stretched their rested limbs, looked after their wounds and burns, and discussed their next course of action. Hrodane thought for a moment, then enlisted Raam’s help in using a charred femur to sketch a charcoal map on one of the triage’s hanging tarps. They still needed to close a half-dozen windows to the north and west, and there were three unexplored storage rooms, any of which potentially containing the lab equipment they sought.

“Knowing us,” Raam said, casting Arca a significant glance. “It’ll be in the last place we look.”
In the end, they agreed that they were lucky to have made it into the central chamber without triggering a siege, and that stealth was their best chance of blocking the remaining entrances. They left through the northwestern door as a group, following Echo’s lead, cloaked by her supernatural shadows. More than once, they stumbled upon a stray fiery broodling, but the light emanating from the creatures kept the party from being surprised. Deft glaives silenced the creatures before they could call their countless brethren. The northern windows were blockaded and the party searched each of the storerooms in turn.

One was full of shelves, a cramped mess of dark corners, and the party was hard-pressed to find a safe and silent path through the maze. They weren’t halfway through the room when two salamanders streaked through the window, quite unaware of their human company at first. Echo was deft enough to dive through the mess and silence one of the creatures but, though Raam and Hrodane skewered the other with long blades plunged through empty spaces in the shelves, it still threw back its tentacled head and bellowed for help.

There was no sound whatsoever. It wasn’t as though the creature had gone hoarse—it was clearly bellowing. It was mid-bellow. But it was completely inaudible. Grains of grit and sand levitated about its feet and, when Raam and Hrodane withdrew their glaives, its bright blood floated out as though underwater. Arca gasped in exhaustion and the creature, blood and all, collapsed into a gurgling heap. He lowered his staff, sweating from the effort.

“Well done.” Echo nodded in Arca’s direction, and the wizard wiped the sweat from his brow. None of them knew much about the petite assassin, but it was clear that she didn’t praise often. Arca smoothed the front his robes and gave her an uneasy smile.!!!!!!!!!!

Raam grinned at his old colleague. “I didn’t know you could do that!”

“Neither did I,” replied the Eladrin. “But I’m not quite the wizard I used to be. I’ve learned the value of… improvisation.”

“Quiet. Both of you.” Hrodane’s brusque tone reminded them that there was still a job to do. “Nothing but documents in here. Move down the hallway. Check the next room.”

The adjacent storage room was easier to secure: it was far from congested, its walls lined with heavy crates and barrels. There was nowhere to hide in here, much to the dismay of whoever had been caught in the room when the creatures came. A spray of dried blood licked the walls and lay in sticky pools on the wooden floor. A circular, checkered game board unfamiliar to the mercenaries sat atop a crate, its red and green pieces scattered at random.

The storeroom’s single window was framed in iron, and a sturdy portcullis was quickly locked into place. Careful not to crush any of the fragile game pieces, or a bit of loose bone, the party quietly searched the boxes and barrels, finding only grains and goods—there was no lab equipment here. Raam and Arca exchanged a second sardonic glance.

“Don’t say it.” Echo passed between them like a trick of the light. “One more room.”
The door to the final storeroom was locked, but Echo wasted no time in cracking it open. This room was, like the one they’d just left, closest to the main doors to the West and was consequently used as a buffer to hold miscellaneous goods moving to and from the Gatehouse. Sacks of various size and texture were piled on sturdy racks against the far wall, cleaning equipment leaned in corners, a roll-top desk stood like a broad mother bird over a nest of ornate pottery. A few shelves in the middle of the room looked promising.

“There.” Raam murmured, nodding in such a way that the single sharp point of his horned helm traced a straight line to a gleaming vial high atop the farthest shelf. Hrodane and Arca moved quickly to the center of the room, but Arca’s attention was on the equipment, not the window. Hrodane’s mouth opened in a silent warning just moments before two great orange tentacles whipped through the open window and lashed around the Eladrin’s arm.

“Fool! Old fool!” Hrodane berated Arca as he threw his shoulder against the tentacles and drove his bardische through the open window. The tentacles tightened, and the hiss of otherworldly pain crescendoed into a shrieking call. The beast was summoning its brood! Echo darted forward to help while Raam flung open the door and retreated into the halls, slamming shut the remaining windows and ensuring that, when the time came, they would have an escape route.
Liquid fire shot through the window in gouts as the still-wounded salamander queen thrashed and howled, attempting to crush the Eladrin, burn him and pull him into her unseen mouth all at once. Hrodane fought to hold Arca steady, struggling to keep hold of his weapon while Echo scaled the shelves, preparing to strike. Fire tore at their boots and clothing; acrid sulphurous smoke stung their eyes and throats. Arca gasped in pain as the flesh of his back and sides began to sear from contact with the creature.

“Now!” Hrodane croaked as the assassin withdrew her knife and slashed at the tentacles. Somehow reaching his weapon’s trigger, Hrodane fired the three chambered rounds of the mechanical bardische at once. The bullets struck the creature with a fleshly thud. It howled in rage, but the force of the impact was enough knocked back through the window, severing the rest of the tentacles wrapped around Arca. Without a moment’s hesitation, Echo reached through the firestorm, grabbed the window’s steel grate and slammed it shut.

Tongues of fire and angry tentacles lashed at the grate for a few seconds, but the creatures soon abandoned the futile effort. Arca took a breath and grimaced as he became aware of his wounds; his singed robes tugged at his weeping burns with every motion. Hrodane, his eyes still locked on the secured window, chambered another three slugs into his bardiche. Echo had retrieved the lab kit and had just finished lashing it atop her own pack when they heard Raam’s shout from the hallway beyond.

“Need you in here now! They’re getting through!”

!!!!!!! There was something unfamiliar in his tone that made Arca’s charred skin crawl: Raam’s cry for help was laced with panic. The warlord was not one to panic. The Eladrin forgot his pain and darted for the main corridor, Echo and Hrodane hot on his heels. A powerful sound reverberated through the gatehouse; the slam of hundreds of pounds of sizzling flesh against a disintegrating door.

They found Raam just inside the entrance to the tower, charging at the newly made gap between the double doors. With a grunt, he drove his glaive deep into the crevice, then released the handle and drew his longsword, quickly dispatching an opportunistic salamander that had rushed through the buckling doors—the first of many. The glaive handle danced in the air, suspended by the furious creature it impaled. Raam struck another creature down, and the glaive handle withdrew, then shot back toward him as the unseen beast charged again. He caught the butt of his weapon as the creature struck the door, breaking the remaining fortification and blowing the entrance wide.

The party had barely reached Raam when the double-doors flew to pieces, leaving them standing face-to-face with the angry, bloodied mother and her countless smoldering children. A harsh chill wind kicked through the open doors, warming itself against the the multitude of salamanders and buffeting the party with all the temperance of a summer breeze. It was quite pleasant. Hrodane shouted something alarming, but he couldn’t be heard over the roaring flood of salamanders.

The battle began in utter chaos; nobody had time to give or take orders. Only instinct and practiced sense told the party how to fight. Each used their individual talents as best they could, focused only on the task at hand. Hrodane and Raam took the front, using their pole-arms’ reach to skewer creatures focused on the other, driving back the line with sweeping slices, brutal kicks and plenty of help.

Arca, shoved to the rear by one of the humans’ shoulders, unfolded the frightening black shapes of his new mind. The indescribable taste of the Far Realm turned his stomach and, with every psychic barrage he unleashed upon the ravenous creatures, he sensed a darkness within himself awaken piece by dreadful piece. Salamanders were torn to ribbons with screams that only he could understand.

Echo did what she did best. She found the biggest, scariest looking creature in the room and stabbed, throttled and shadowed it to within an inch of its life. The halfling dodged dozens of thick tentacles, endured scathing burns, and struck at the tremendous creature with arcane shadow and razor-sharp steel.

But as well and as bravely as they fought, the party couldn’t withstand the onslaught, and they soon found themselves backed against the doors to the central hall. Arca, stumbling back in mental exhaustion, struggled to open the doors to the central hall to no avail. They had, after all, barred them from the far side.

The great mother’s rage finally found its zenith, her pain and impending death spurring her riotous young to come crashing down on the party like a fiery tsunami. Hrodane and Raam could do little more than use their pole-arms to form a horizontal barrier, charring their knuckles. In an instant, they were completely overwhelmed.

In the heat, the light, they heard Hrodane’s bardiche fire its three rounds in quick succession. Arca’s eyes were closed, his head throbbing, the dark portion of his mind wriggling free of his control as his body burned. It screamed. It used his mouth to scream, and all at once, he felt the foreign presence. A voice spoke at the edges of his consciousness, communicating a distant will.

!!!! This one is dying, it said. It is like the children of the void, and it is like the humans, and something new besides. It is like us. Preserve it.

!!!! A heartbeat passed, then a sonic shockwave came crashing through the entrance to the gatehouse, kicking up a thick cloud of dust. Immediately, the salamanders shrieked and withdrew, boiling out into the wilderness and leaving four smouldering figures lying in a sea of cooling corpses. In their midst lay the flayed, finally spent body of the mother beast.

One by one, the party rose. All but Hrodane.

They found him pinned beneath the corpse of the monstrous creature, his bardiche driven deep into its flank. He must have been too close to the mechanical shotguns when he fired, because his entire torso was drenched in stinging orange blood and his face and neck were ravaged by shrapnel. He stared lifelessly at the ceiling, into the thick cloud of smoke still gathered there. The unbroken bones in his body could be counted on one hand.

!!!!! Raam cursed under his breath, then looked to his companions. “Arca, see to the door. Echo, the windows on the south side are still open.” Wincing, he unlatched one of his gauntlets and freed a blistered hand. The warlord closed Hrodane’s mouth and eyes, then wiped the alien blood on the fallen soldier’s cape. “We ought to burn him,” he muttered. “But it doesn’t seem right.”

“We… shouldn’t leave him lying around,” said Arca. Light poured in from outside, silhouetting the ragged wizard. The Eladrin had managed to shoulder one of the ruined doors mostly into place and was taking a close look at the other before deciding exactly how to proceed,

!!!! squinting against the glare. They’d both forgotten how dark it was in here, and now realized how much more frightening it was to fight fire when you were surrounded by shadow. Raam removed his other gauntlet and stood.

“Once the doors are secure, let’s put him down the hole.”
Arca turned at this, looking from Hrodane to Raam and back again, a manic smile behind his lips. “But he seemed like such a serious soldier! Hardly befits a military man, being thrown down a hole. What happens if you die, old friend? Should the halfling and I find a nice, deep hole?”
Raam glared. “Would you rather burn him?”
“No, I’ve had quite enough of that.”
“Then he goes in the hole.” Raam took hold of Hrodane’s pendant and yanked, snapping its cord. He tucked the enchanted communicator into his pack. “And Arca…”
“Yes?”
“Whatever’s gotten into you since we got separated in Fallcrest, try to keep it in check.”

!!!!! Raam threw his weight into the still-open door, forcing it closed. The wizard did his best to magically mend the splintered planks and bent steel before the whole thing came tumbling down. While Arca struggled to hold the door together, Raam wrenched Hrodane’s remains out from beneath the beast and sulked away. He dragged the soldier’s body back around the north passage and into the main chamber, murmuring a troubling fact to himself: “Eladrin aren’t supposed to scream like that.”

!!!!!!

Hrodane’s body tumbled down the open shaft, hitting the tunnel beneath with a thump and rattle. It kept on rolling down the steep walls of the tunnel until it was finally too far away to hear. Raam and Arca stood side by side at the precipice, both bent and weary.
The wizard flicked some cindered wood (or was it flesh) from his sleeve. “Where’s Echo?”
The question hung in the stale air.

  1. REC 2 ####

A pile of scrolls was quickly accumulating on the floor. One by one, the halfling assassin drew records from the storage shelf, unfurled them just enough to read the header, skimmed the first few inches with one cold eye, and discarded them. Of course, nothing sensitive would be here. She wouldn’t find what she was looking for here. But she could find some hint that might point her in the right direction. His name had to be on one of these manifests—on one of these transfer records—on one of these dossiers.

When she found it, she nearly tossed it in the pile with the rest. The motion of pull-scan-scowl-toss had become so automatic that it took her keen mind a full second to realize what she’d seen.
!!!!!The document was a copy of a copy of a shipment receipt and payment, and the contents were confidential. But then, the contents of any shipment to the Erianne Institute were going to be confidential. Her client had informed her of this much, and that most of the contents would be inconsequential to her contract. However, a receipt such as this would be copied, and a copy would be sent directly to recipient’s office. Then, she’d know just where to find him, or at least, where to begin looking for him. There it was: “Duplicate sent to the quarters of Dr. Burke, Level Five, Suite 15…”

!!!!!

“Remember, you get paid even if someone gets to him first. Just find me proof that it’s done, and collect your due.” He’d leaned forward and slipped Echo a bag of precious gems—the required deposit. “And assassin, between you and I, you’d better hope someone else took care of it. He will be easy to find. He will be very, very hard to kill.”
Echo opened the bag to examine the first portion of her payment, slipping a jeweler’s glass into her good eye.
“Believe me,” he continued in a whisper. “I’ve tried.”

!!!!! Her client’s words weeks ago had only barely registered with Echo; she wrote it off as a way for a weak man to save face. Of course, if he couldn’t kill his adversary personally, then the mark must be a force to be reckoned with. She’d sneered to herself, but now wondered if her client hadn’t been exaggerating after all. According to the conversation Hrodane and the wizard had with Percival in the basement, Burke was at the epicenter of this whole outbreak. Odds were good that he contributed to it in some way. She would proceed with caution. With a glance, she memorized the shipping receipt and tossed it on the ground with the others, mixing the pile of half-open scrolls with her boot.

“Where have you been?” Raam demanded, more curious than reprimanding.
“Stragglers in the prison room,” said Echo, emerging from the shadows. “Had to take them silently…”
“Well done. It’s been quiet since the attack. We should rest.”
“The Erovan couldn’t be saved,” Echo said. It was more a statement than a question.
“There was nothing we could do.” Raam turned Hrodane’s amulet over in his hand and held it out for Arca. “Think you can figure this out?”
Arca’s eyes seemed to light up more than usual. “Absolutely.”
Raam looked pointedly at the halfling. “I intend to see this through.

!!!! The party, or what remained of it, rested as deeply as they could. Even the Eladrin lay on his side and let his trance overwhelm his conscious mind while his body healed. Echo breathed soundlessly and Raam coughed occasionally in his sleep. When they awoke, the sun was high and cold in the sky above Lecone, and a crisp blue light shone from beneath the double doors. All was quiet, and as soon as they were clear-headed and had seen to their wounds, the ragged trio proceeded to the basement. As they did last time, Raam and Echo stood guard out of sight of the impenetrable bubble while Arca, laden with the lab kit, approached the murky magical threshold.

!!!! Percival’s shadow paced back and forth, then stopped suddenly and rushed to the barrier as he noticed Arca approaching. “You’re back! Oh, please tell me it’s actually you and not…”
“Rest assured,” Arca half-shouted, then was suddenly silent.
Echo and Raam, cloaked in shadow, eyed each other quizzically for a moment, then realized that Arca and Percival had probably begun conversing telepathically. Raam shrugged, sporting a sheepish smile-he’d been looking forward to eavesdropping. Echo wore a stern frown, her eyebrows furrowed and head tilted just so, as though she could hear their inner dialog if she listened hard enough.

After a time, Arca emerged with a single, long vial wrapped in a black rag. His eyes were half-closed; he looked ultimately satisfied.
“Percival and I have gone over it and over it, and we’re sure of our solution. This is poison—deadly, deadly poison—to whatever worm made these holes.”
“Well done,” said Raam, leading the group back up the stairs. “You two were speaking with your minds. Did anything of importance come up?”
“He asked what happened to Hrodane. I told him. He asked if we could hope to clear the gatehouse on our own. I told him… that we’ve surprised ourselves before.”
Raam chuckled, kneeling at one of the stairs on the flight up to the unexplored third floor. He lowered his glaive and Arca began dribbling the poison onto it.

!!!! “You intend to just walk up there and stab whatever it is?” Echo’s incredulous whisper cut through the silence and a bit of the poison missed its mark, splashing harmlessly on the floor. She continued, leaning down over the two men from a higher step. “Your foolishness is just going to draw attention to us. We may be able to avoid this thing altogether.”

Raam stared at her blankly for a moment, then turned his blade side to side as the poison dried and clung to the notched steel. “I appreciate your concern, but one way or another we have to go up, and it’s either take the stairs, or climb up the dripping hole that thing left behind. I think we are taking the more cautious road, don’t you?”
“Just don’t get carried away, soldier,” echo hissed, offering her blades one by one to Arca. She was, apparently, carrying an arsenal. The assassin withdrew more steel than either man had guessed she could carry, let alone conceal, and Raam found himself doing his best to spot each one’s hiding place in the half-light. After a while, he swore she was just pulling them out of thin air.
Arca made short, thorough work of coating her various thrown weapons and short-blades. He offered the last of the knives to Echo, and she shook her head. “Keep it. You may need it soon. Just… don’t cut yourself.”
“Noted,” Arca and Raam mumbled in unison. The poison was pungent, something between cedar and hot saliva. Not wholly unpleasant, but beyond deadly.

There was nothing at the top of the stairs but a blank wall and a pair of damp, reinforced doors. The swollen wood strained against the iron gridwork, cracking the stone around its arch. The doors were locked and, even if they hadn’t been, would’ve been impossible to open.
“Light?” Raam suggested, and he and Arca withdrew sunrods.
“Dim light,” added Echo, preemptively capping the unlit rods with her hands. “As dim as you can make it it without running into things”
A pale yellow light rose from the party as they moved around the central wall—the main chamber could probably be accessed through the North side and the South, if the second floor was anything like the first.
“You know, we’re going to have to fight everything in here anyway.” Raam chided.
“But we’re not going to fight them all at once, human.” Echo paused for a moment to peer down the hallway running alongside the central chamber, then continued in an absent-minded murmur. “That’s how people get killed.”
For a moment, they were silent, then Arca spoke. “According to Percival, these are sleeping quarters. Latrines in the corners, higher ranks along the walls, communal in the center.”
With the barest tip of his glaive, Raam pushed open one of the doors along the outer wall.
“Empty.”
Echo looked back from another door further down the hall. “This one, too.”
“And it’s dry…” Raam turned back to Arca, spotting the Eladrin’s glowing green eyes. “You’re good with space. Tell me, the hole in the ceiling of the staging room downstairs, where would it be on this floor?”
“Directly opposite the doors we saw when we came up here, of course. You know that. Of course, just beyond the doors.”
“Any idea why those doors were wet?”
“I have several. And they’re all… most unpleasant.”
Raam set his jaw and poked another door open. They were nearing the entrance to the central room.
Echo’s voice came from the darkness ahead. “Aah. That explains a lot.”
The others caught up to her quickly, and found the petite assassin standing by the doors to the central chamber, balancing on one foot, holding the other effortlessly in the air. The bottom of her leather boot were caked with dried blood. “My feet were sticking to the ground,” she said.
Raam’s eyes grew wide, and he lowered his sunrod to within a foot of the floorboards. The coloration had appeared to be dirt and wear and stain from afar, but of course, it was blood. A lot of blood. Enough to almost evenly paint the floorboards, to soak and saturate every plank, and it was mostly dry. Raam spotted a long, black hair stuck to the heel of his construct-leg and pulled it off with disgust.
“This is a hair from a horse’s tail,” he said almost dreamily. He was certain of it, but a horse?

The three mercenaries stood wordlessly for a moment, steeling themselves, then went right ahead and eased open the door. The light from the sunrods barely reached the ceiling. Rows and rows of triple-bunks were crammed together against the walls, the shadows from their posts casting a forest against the walls and mattresses. There were signs of a struggle here—swords lay drawn and abandoned, helmets crushed, and dozens of empty bunks.

“Come look at this,” Echo said, her voice barely disturbing the silence compared to their painfully loud footsteps. Raam and Arca drew near the halfling, who always seemed to hover just at the edge of their sight. One of the bunk beds was occupied: A young man lay on his back, a sword plunged through his abdomen. His icy hands were wrapped around the guards, as though he’d tried to pull it out. Echo leaned down, checking under the bed.
“It’s all the way through,” she whispered. “It’s stuck in the floor.” As Echo’s eyesight, dulled by the Sunrods, began to adjust to the blackness beneath the bed, she noticed something else. A shiny black hose ran up the side of the bunk from across the floor. “And what is this?”

A sudden, ragged gasp burst from the throat of the impaled man, and Echo had the misfortune of seeing the shiny black hose tense and wriggle, revealing it’s terminus: it disappeared into the back of the man’s skull. With a guttural moan, the dead man sat up as much as it could and swiped at Arca, catching his robes in its icy fingers. Empty eyes bulged, sightless, nearly forced out of their sockets by the pressure of the alien tentacle in its brain. The corpse’s mouth hung wide and, for a moment, squirming orange tentacles could be seen writhing about in the congealed blood at the back of its throat. Before anyone’s surprise had sufficiently transformed into disgust, Arca leveled a hand and half-shouted, his psychic strike removing the creature’s head and upper torso from the world entirely.

Something in the darkness howled in rage – something large. The oily black tentacle, its severed tip smoldering from Arca’s attack, whipped back to its source like a greased serpent, nearly tripping the assassin as it lashed past her ankles. The party spun as one to follow the tentacle’s path. On instinct, Raam cranked his Sunrod up to full power and threw it after the tentacle – Arca followed suit. The fiery beacons arced close to the ceiling, passing over two rows of bunks and the heads of a mob of silent, standing figures before landing in the drippings beneath a great, suspended mass. The creature that came into view was unmistakeably the monster that had burrowed up from beneath the gatehouse. It hung half-embedded in the ceiling, thick limbs gripping the girders and crushing down into piles of rubble. From its central point hung a bulb-like head wreathed in inky eyes and tipped by a yellowish, tripartite beak that gnashed and hissed as the creature shook.

Surrounding its head, in thick arrays, dozens and dozens of black tentacles ran down to the floor and snaked into the skulls of the silent legion. Erovan soldiers young and old stood perfectly still amidst the bunks, eyes wide and lifeless, most of them with drawn swords and loaded crossbows in their hands. Every one of them was skewered somewhere by one of these black tubes. A familiar slime dripped from their wounds and spots of orange peeked from their mouths—the only evidence of whatever creature lived, fed and grew within them.

  1. REC 3 ###

!!!! “God no.” Muttered Raam. He lit another Sunrod and prepared to toss it when a bunk to his right crashed to the ground. Clambering over it with shuddering, deliberate steps was a huge warhorse, its teeth bared, one eye replaced entirely by an oily black hose. A crossbow bolt whizzed past them, and the puppet-corpses lunged forward, weapons high. Raam threw the Sunrod at their feet and, with a wordless shout, called the party to battle.

If there had been no poison, the party wouldn’t have lasted a minute. But every blow they struck sickened and, almost immediately, killed each corpse-puppet. Every screaming, retreating tentacle seemed to injure the enormous puppet-master creature more and more. Finally, they thinned the crowd enough for Echo to move in and perform her most tricky coup-de-grace. She managed to slip beneath the creature, dodging blades and claws and cudgels, and charged one of the puppets directly beneath its gnashing beak, riding it over the lip of the hole. Falling, she severed the tentacle and held on tight as it retracted, as though elastic, back up to the creature.@@@@@Raam and Arca looked up to find their halfling comrade clinging to the thrashing beast, suspended over the pit, driving dagger after poison dagger into its mass before loosening her garrote and tossing it around the creature’s bulb of a head. She decapitated it easily, and all at once, the remaining puppets crumpled, the tentacles and thick trunk-like legs went soft, and the creature died.

Echo slid down one of the limp tentacles, swinging to and fro a bit to get within jumping distance of the floorboards. The moment she landed on solid ground, unable to contain a smile, the dead puppet-master let out a belching river of dark blood from its neck-stump and released its hold in the ceiling, crashing down through the floor with an incredible noise. It’s rock-solid topside and the helical organic grinders that allowed it to chew through the earth were the last to disappear through the floor, topped off by a sucker-like cap at the very peak of its cone. The thing itself must have been two stories tall, and unless it had chanced to fall further down its own tunnel, its topside would soon be a rotting monument in the middle of the first floor.

“I need to sit down for a moment.” Raam said after the creature had fallen. It took him several seconds to find a bunk that wasn’t spattered with liquid.
“Weak stomach?” Echo taunted, though she was pale herself.
“It was the horse,” Raam said, breathing deeply to keep himself from throwing up. “The horse just got to me. How did a horse get in here anyway? I mean, what was that thing?”
They could both vaguely hear Arca saying “Fascinating. Fascinating!” Over and over. The Eladrin was standing at the edge of the hole, peering down on the creature’s conical head. Echo leaned against the wall beside Raam, closer to the Sunrod gleaming on the wet ground. “There were all sorts in here,” Echo said, gesturing to the prone forms that littered the ground. “Most of the soldiers bunked here—must’ve been caught asleep when the thing bored through the floor. Our friend with the sword was probably stabbed by one of his own men after he got… well…”
“Probed?” Raam offered.
“Penetrated,” said Echo in a chill whisper.
“Sure. Alright,” said Raam. “And the blood on the floor?”
As if on cue, they both stood upright, weapons ready. Something was moving near the entrance to the room. Echo stooped quickly and picked up a crossbow from one of the fallen corpses, preparing a bolt. “Arca,” she hissed. “Poison.”
The Eladrin had stopped his analysis of the fallen creature; he tossed the vial carefully to the assassin. She dipped the tip of the crossbow bolt and leveled it on the door, waiting. Slowly, taking its time, a figure lurched into the room. The party immediately recognized the body of the doctor from the first-floor triage, only when they’d seen it then, it didn’t have a tentacle-hole in its temple or a bloom of orange in its throat. He was dragging a dead stableboy.
Upon laying its bulging eyes upon the party, the once-doctor drew a bonesaw from its pocket, then collapsed as Echo’s poisoned crossbow bolt sunk deep in the center of its chest.
“Of course!” Arca exclaimed, startling the others. "I’ve seen something like this before, but not so large. The creature here uses the tentacles to lay eggs in bodies, living or dead. That’s why there’s all the blood on this floor, but not the others: the tentacles can only reach so far. Then… Then… " His excitement was palpable and very disturbing. “Then the eggs mature and the bodies become autonamous and wander out to find NEW bodies to bring back here, to become hosts.”
“Then, these ones only died because…”
“The poison circulated through the beast.”
“And the horse?”
“Stables nearby. I mean, there’s an accountant over here. These bodies are from all over the gatehouse.”
“How many more of those zombies do you suppose are going to be dragging bodies back here?”
“Who knows?”
There was a momentary pause in the discussion as Raam and Echo watched the Sunrod fizzle soundlessly.
“Curious,” said Arca, his voice full of genuine bewilderment.
“Not the word I would use,” Raam replied, misunderstanding him entirely. “Considering that everything we’ve seen so far hasn’t made even a little sense and seems to have nothing in common but tentacles, I’d put it a ways beyond curious.”
“No, this is curious,” the Eladrin said deliberately. Raam turned to find him standing at the lip of the hole yet again, Arca’s green eyes piercing the darkness. In his outstretched hand he held the chain of Hrodane’s amulet. The amulet itself was lit bright blue, flickering like sunlight on waves, and it was hanging straight up.

$$$$$$$ It was as though its gravity had been reversed and the gem itself was attempting to fall in a near-but-not-entirely upwards direction. If Arca had released it, it would have plummeted up through the holes in the ceiling and, perhaps, through the cracked floor of the fifth story and, from there, directly into space.
“Anyone know what this means?”
Echo made a noise that indicated she did, and the other two looked at her stoic face, patiently waiting for her to catch them all up on the cause of this little phenomenon. Eventually, she walked over to the amulet and cupped her hand behind it, examining it more closely without actually touching it.

“During training,” Echo began. “I occasionally… excused myself. I wanted to know more about the Regiment than it had any intention of telling me. There was a new officer’s training not far from our sparring site. Most of them had already left, and four squad leaders had been asked to stay behind. They were heading up reconnaissance or special task groups, like ours. They were given these amulets.”
“As communicators. We know,” Raam urged. “But what’s it doing now?”
“I was getting there, human. The amulets are experimental technology from the Erianne Institutes’s artifact labs, developed over a hundred years ago. Not only can they communicate over long distances, but to keep them from falling into enemy hands, they’re enchanted and imbued with the power necessary to return to the next Regiment officer who’s been through the binding ritual.” She was clearly quoting whoever had been explaining these artifacts to the new officers.
“So, there’s someone up there.” Arca was already peering up into the faint glimmers of light, searching with something besides his eyes.
“There must be a living Regiment officer,” concluded Echo. “Somewhere on the fifth floor.”
“Then I propose a change of plans. We needed Hrodane’s knowledge of the building, the terrain, the whole damned continent. We’d do well to secure whoever’s up there. Let’s skip the next two floors.”
“Agreed,” said Echo, avoiding Raam’s look of astonishment. But she sought Dr. Burke, Level 5, Suite 15, and arguing to maintain appearances wouldn’t get her any closer. She removed the length of rope from her kit. “Let’s go straight up here. It’ll be faster, and more direct.”
Only Arca hesitated, but then, he’d had decent luck with this kind of thing before.

Their ascent was surprisingly painless. Echo, who had years of dubious experience using grappling hooks to get places she wasn’t allowed, anchored each of their ropes with ease. In spite of the remedial nature of most of the Regiment’s training courses, the rope-climbing segment had actually taught Echo and Raam a few new tricks. Namely, Raam realized that he could wrap a portion of his rope around a protrusion on his construct-leg for an impromptu brake to help him bear some extra weight. Arca, the least experienced with these kinds of activities, had no trouble once his pack was in Raam’s hands. Echo was always at least a half-story above them. Still, after they reached the crumbling ceiling of the fourth floor, they all admitted that they needed a breather.

The creature had drilled up through an unoccupied portion of the building, mostly filling up the miscellaneous forgotten empty spaces in the middle of the tower that had once been storage rooms, but were so awkwardly-shaped that nobody used them. The “fourth floor” as the party found it was a Z-shaped ledge around the hole, flanked by walls which seemed, in terms of disrepair, to be built in different centuries. Getting through into the fourth floor proper would have been a dirty, noisy and dangerous affair. Getting through the ceiling wasn’t. Directly beside the magically-hardened crossbeam the creature had used to anchor itself was a splintered trapdoor. The party opened it quietly and, one by one, emerged onto the rooftop of the gatehouse.

To be exact, they emerged into the back room of what appeared to be a candy shop. Raam pocketed a handful of hard sweets, as did Arca, while Echo eyed them incredulously. “Of all people,” she started.
“It could come in handy,” he said with serious eyes, his mouth a hard line. He grinned at Arca when she wasn’t looking. They proceeded into the front room. Beyond the counter, the room was a wreck. Ornate glass windows littered the floor, and a chill gale whipped through the store.
“Which way to…” Raam began, but was cut off as the telltale sounds of battle overcame the howling wind. Someone was fighting nearby, and something unearthly was screaming bloody murder. Raam barely had time to close his mouth before he heard the deep, protracted yell of a falling man.

The figure crashed into the cobblestone directly in front of the candy shop, skidding to a halt and convulsing painfully. He was clad in heavy plate, with a tremendous shield and a red cape. In spite of his recent injury, he was on his feet in an instant, and the creature that had hurled all several hundred pounds of him glided into view.

  1. The party’s immediate impression was that some mad god had taken the top half of a jellyfish, tentacles and all, and had attached a handful of spider-legs to its base. And then made the damned thing fifteen-feet tall and covered its gooey lid in half-formed eyes.

Once more, the party rushed to battle.

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