Baen didn’t hesitate, sending a feathered shaft into the fleshy mass as it started to rise. It struck with a wet, snapping sound and the sickening crunch of bone, and though the horror gurgled, the arrow protruding from its malformed back didn’t seem to hinder it as it climbed ponderously to its feet. For a moment, all three of us stared in a wordless daze that combined disgust and shock in equal measure.
This creature stood like a man might, albeit a hunched and misshapen one, but where a face should be was just a mangled mass of teeth and jagged, exposed bone that glowed with a faint but familiar green light. Exposed muscle, black with rot, gleamed wetly on its cadaverous body, and as it began making its way unsteadily forward arms with fingers turned to barbed talons reached out for us.
The creature that had killed Fiegrsonn had been horrifying in its own way, but there had been a sleek, graceful aspect to its serpentine movements. The thing that stood before us now might have shared a few superficial yet obvious similarities to it, but with none of the elegance or subtle lethality of the beast we’d chased across the rooftops. Cruder, uglier, but unmistakably related.
“By the Six…” Sahir breathed. “Cut me lose! Cut me lose!”
“Shut up.” I snapped, dropping down to my knees behind him and bracing my gun arm on his shoulder, my other hand grabbing the back of his head and forcing him to look directly at the oncoming horror. He shouted something, but it was drowned out in the roar of my pistol as I squeezed the trigger.
The shot took the monster in the centre of the chest, punching into its body and bursting violently out of its back. A wave of fresh stench hit me, and dark fluid bubbled from the wound, but the creature merely stumbled back before righting itself and resuming its shambling advance. I swore, firing again just as a second creature appeared in the doorway with a gurgling rasp. Behind it appeared a third, then a fourth and a fifth.
Baen’s next shaft struck the first monster in what passed for a face and sent it reeling back, once again to no lasting effect.
“Kaede, we need him.” Baen shouted to be heard as I emptied my revolver into the closest creature, sending it staggering back. “Cut him lose.”
“Now there’s a good idea!” Sahir yelled. “Voice of reason!” Swearing, I holstered my pistol, pulled a knife from my boot and began sawing at our prisoner’s ties. I didn’t like it, but we needed him alive – I was certain he had more to tell us, and if we could just get him somewhere safe we could pick up where we left off. The notion that perhaps these things were his allies here to rescue him from us occurred to me, but I dismissed the worry. Thinking too much would accomplish nothing when survival was the priority.
“Arrows and bullets might not bring these down, but they’ll work fine on you.” I warned him as the ties came lose. “You try to run and one of us will spare a moment to shoot you and leave you for them, understand?”
“Yes yes…” Sahir muttered, rising to his feet. He disentangled himself from the last of the rope before grabbing the chair he’d been bound to and hurling it at the nearest creature. It crashed into the shambler, which fell heavily onto its back. “Any chance of giving me a weapon?” I ignored him.
“Kaede.” Baen said pointedly, her voice surprisingly calm as she slung her bow and spun into a back kick that caught the closest thing in the chest, sending it tumbling over. They were closing in now, surrounding us and cutting us off from the door. “Do it.”
“What, arm him?”
“No, dear, that other thing.” Sarcasm dripped from her words, and I resisted the urge to snarl back, realising what she was saying. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Ah.” I drew in a deep breath and reloaded my pistol as I backed further towards the wall. “Let’s do this then.” I noted Sahir giving me a quizzical look as Baen spun into another kick. “Get Grapple out of here.”
“Go on, girl.” Baen ordered. The fern hound gave her a quick look, as if in surprise, but obeyed. Injured as it was, the hound was still a good deal more lithe than any of the creatures and darted easily past them, taking the exit we’d been cut off from and disappearing up the stairs. The monsters seemed to have no interest in the beast, not even making what I was sure would be a clumsy effort to stop it and instead advanced on us, clawed hands rising.
Baen ducked low and kicked at a rotting knee. There was a wet crunch, and the monster toppled, but my partner gave a hoarse shout as a flailing arm slashed her calf open. She swore, but her quick glance told me the injury wasn’t serious enough to threaten her life. It would, however, slow her down.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sahir shouted, trying to fend off one of the advancing monsters with a broom. “Give me a bloody weapon!” They were closing in around him, ignoring Baen and I, or so it seemed. Perhaps they could tell which one of us would be the easiest target.
I took another deep breath, gathering myself and mapping out the basement with Baen and Sahir’s eyes before I made my move. No sense in doing this any way but perfectly, after all, and a few seconds wouldn’t matter. I felt, unbidden, a tiny smile tug at the corner of my lips.
The air around me blurred, and violet simulacra, like shimmering ghosts of myself appeared, rapiers flashing. Two first, then four, then six, then eight, then ten, crowding the cellar as they threw themselves into the fray, slashing at limbs or bodily tackling the rotting monstrosities, bearing them to the ground. The things made no moves to defend themselves, but their advance slowed to a near standstill, caught by phantasmal hands or impaled by illusory blades.
It felt good to use this power again. The last time I’d done anything real with my abilities had been on the road with the brigands we’d massacred, and even then I’d held back the full extent of my talents. This was better. This was more real.
I funneled power into my hand, into my pistol, whipping my arm as I fired. Violet light flared from the muzzle of my gun, the air warping as my will predetermined the path the bullet would take. It tore through a reaching arm, swirled around and blasted through a pair of legs before burying itself in the dirt floor.
“I’m clearing a path.” I said, my voice calm, and a thought from me shattered half my phantasms in a violent explosion of purple light that sent the monsters sprawling. “Go!” I shouted, my remaining illusions driving their weapons through the chests of the fallen creatures and pinning them to the floorboards. I knew they couldn’t hold them for long, but it would be long enough for us to make our escape.
Baen led the way, the three of us leaping over the carnage and through sickeningly vile air as we rushed up the stairs and into the Gilded Anchor‘s common room, where a dozen corpses – including the remains of the innkeeper – lay sprawled and broken like discarded dolls. None of us stopped to inspect the bodies, running on and into the street as I felt the last of my phantasms thrown aside.
The dockside street was empty, and the trio of mangled corpses lying around us explained why. I was grateful for that, at least. Fewer people meant fewer eyes that’d see what I could do.
“What in the name of the Six were those things!?” Sahir cursed, and Baen threw a quick look at me. It did seem to be genuine surprise in his voice, and I nodded ever so slightly.
“Probably something Levaunt sent to keep you from talking.” She said, tearing her sleeve and crouching to bind her bloodied leg.
“Levaunt?” He snarled, squinting in the late afternoon sun. “How would he do any of this!?” Apparently the situation had rattled him enough that he no longer cared about beating around the bush. “Levaunt wants someone dead, he sends me! If he wanted me dead he’d send someone else. Someone, not something!”
“Can’t help but notice you focused on ‘how’ and not ‘why’.” Baen said, rising to her feet and eyeing the door of the alley, hand resting on her hatchet.
“We don’t have time for this.” I said. “Those things are coming.”
“Then it’s time I leave.” Sahir said, calmly.
His foot snapped out, catching Baen in the injured calf, staggering her before he slammed into her with his shoulder and sent her down. My pistol was up, but he rolled over Baen, ripping a knife from her boot and hurling it at me in a blur. I threw myself aside at the last minute, rolling painfully along the hard cobbles as I saw Sahir get up and take off at a dead run.
“Go!” Baen shouted, looking after him. I hesitated. “I’ll be fine!” She snarled. “Don’t lose him!”