Your sword nearly slips from your hand as you dispatch the final loper. Quickly scanning the area for new threats you find nothing more dangerous than a few gristle worms and other small scavengers, nothing to fear as long as you keep moving. Only partially reassured, you remain wary as you struggle to wipe the tainted fluids from your hands and sword hilt. It’s nerve-racking work to spot the threats in this place. Sound is muffled, the air is thick and wet, heavy with the stench of gangrene. The environment assaults the senses, concealing threats until they’re almost upon you.
As unpleasant as close quarters fighting might be, and it is obscenely unpleasant in this little pocket of Gloom, you’re thankful that you learned to use a sword. Simple firearms became unreliable within hours of arrival and more sophisticated weaponry failed almost immediately. Even your camp knife, the best modern metallurgy has to offer, soon became pitted and dull. Only the minor enchantments that Seledon placed on your sword have kept it sharp and you fear those are beginning to unravel. You dearly hope that’s the greatest concern.
As if reading your mind, Steve asks, “Emilia, how’s the Portarray doing?”
“Same as last time you asked, the wards on the satchel are holding but not so well I don’t want to get on with it. Now let me concentrate!”, she snapped.
Emilia’s got the Sight and her divination magic’s top notch but it’s draining to use here. You’d hoped she could take us straight to our missing friends but instead she’s had to resort to dowsing and triangulation. She’s put on a good face but the strain is wearing her down.
After a quick break to treat the wounded you continue on, following Emilia’s pendulum. It’s been guiding you in the same direction since your arrival, so either your friends haven’t moved or Emilia’s dowsing isn’t working properly. You choose to believe they’re stationary, given the grim alternatives. Besides, you rationalize, they were abducted, it’s only reasonable that they’d be restrained.
As the minutes turned into hours you began to wonder if you’d find your comrades. Now, as the hours close on your first “day” in this place, you wonder if there’s anyone living and sane left to find. This little pocket of misery oozes corruption that seeps into your pores. Your skin feels thin and inflamed, even the tiniest of scratches rapidly turn red and puffy. The reek from Casey’s wounded arm is enough to overpower the general miasma and antibiotics have only slowed the infection. Everyone feels ill and feverish.
By the middle of day two your triangulations indicate that you’re getting close. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see their location from atop of the next rise.
Still, you begin to wonder if you’ll be alive and sane when this is all over. Your skin is slick with clammy sweat and you’ve begun to catch glimpses of things that aren’t there. The rest of the team isn’t much better, and Casey is in bad shape. He began to hallucinate and mumble about 30 minutes ago, his words confused, hard to decipher, yet deeply unsettling. You’d send Casey back right now if you could.
“We’ve got to get Casey someplace with real facilities! I’ve done all I ca–”, Chris began.
Emilia cut him off, “If we open that satchel we’re done, we all go home, now.”
“Look, I know it’ll shorten the clock, but if his fever doesn’t come down he’s not going to make it!” Chris tried again.
“You aren’t listening! It’s not ‘shorten the clock’! If we suspend the wards and break the seal we won’t be able to put them back. Then it’s 15 minutes, tops, before the Portarray is toast.”
In a moment of lucidity Casey interjects, “We aren’t leaving anyone in this place!”
“We don’t have much time left anyway. The satchel won’t last more than a couple of hours regardless. And the way this place has been…infecting us I’m not sure it will be safe for us to stay that long. If it gets too deep inside our spirit we’ll take it back out with us and then…”, Emilia trails off.
Casey hurries to fill the silence that follows that cheery pronouncement, “We’re almost there, let's not waste our time!” and turns to make his way up the ridge before anyone can argue.
You take the final few yards on your belly and cautiously peer over the top of the ridgeline. Below you is the first work of construction you’ve seen here and unquestionably your destination.
“Huh”, Steve whispers, “I guess it kind of makes sense.”
And it does, it just isn’t what you were expecting. A large maze stretches out beneath you, crumbling and ancient looking.
“What do you think, Emilia? Can you get us to the center of that before we’re out of time?”
“Just watch me.”
Everyone scrambles down the broken face of the ridge as quickly and quietly as they can. You’re all on edge, it’s been at least an hour since the last loper sighting and you’re concerned by the possible implications. Seeing no immediate threats you hurry to the maze entrance.
Once inside Emilia takes the lead, moving at a near jog. You slow only occasionally for her to check the pendulum. Left, right, straight past 2 passageways, right, left and then straight again. Casey leans on Steve for support, his breath now ragged panting interspersed with fevered outbursts. You feel driven forward through the twisty corridors, unseen dread at your heels.
Emilia guides you through an opening on the left and you nearly stumble as you enter an open square filled with tall, silent figures stretching out into the gloom. It takes what feels like an eternity to understand what you’re seeing, horror slowly mounting until you have to clench your jaw not to scream.
You’ve found your friends. The necromancer who sent them here has wrought a terrible revenge. There is Monte, the warrior who taught you to use the sword, recognizable only by his fabled axe, Shield Splitter. His once majestic horns have been consumed by this place, now nothing but wisps of keratin waving in the heavy air. His skin is in tatters, internal organs clearly visible, bloated with corruption. Tovra, the first to welcome you into their community is behind him. Targris the sorceress to his right. All the rest are here as well, their vacant eye sockets staring through you.
“We’re too late”, Steve whispers, “What do we do?”
Nobody responds, you all just stare in horror until Emilia shakes herself. She peers intently at the defiled bodies standing before you, examining them with the Sight.
“They’re still alive!”, she cries in shock. Then in a more subdued voice, ”There are magics that could heal even this if they’re still alive but…”
“But what! Let’s fire up the Sieve and get everyone out of here!”
“It’s not that simple. I’ve been watching it, this place corrupts the flesh and infects the spirit. It’s contagious. If it’s sunk into them this deeply we could be taking it back with us. It could infect other worlds and everyone in them.” Glancing unconsciously at Casey, she continues, “I’m not even sure we can all safely leave.”
At that moment Targris makes a tortured movement, spreading her hands in some form of evocation. A beautiful swirling blue light appears between them, contained within a transparent vessel.
Emilia stares at it in wonder, “That’s a Spirit Jar and it’s nearly full! If Targris sequestered their spirits before they became infected we could take them out, save them from this place. We might even be able to restore them to new bodies or at least give them a new existence as Autonomous Ego-States. There are a lot of risks and little certainty, but it’s a chance.” Glancing at Casey, “If we take it with us we may need to add one more.”
A: Offer mercy to your tainted minotaur allies, tearfully taking Shield Splitter from Monte before destroying their physical forms with the legendary weapon one by one. Then turn on Casey, and ask if he has any last messages to his family before quickly and painlessly dispatching him. You know it will weigh on your soul for all of your days, but the taint here can not be spread, the risk is too great.
B: Targis, Monte, and the other captured minotaurs are lost, and it is too grave a risk to bring them anywhere else. Convince them that the best thing they can do is one last act of defiance: unleash a warded black powder bomb that you have brought to destroy the necromancer upon its return. It is a dire option, especially what happens if the corruption has gotten through the bomb’s wards and it doesn’t explode? If it works it would put the minotaurs out of their suffering and remove a grave threat to their homes and families at the same time.
C: Seize upon the hope that the Spirit Jar represents: save the souls and leave this place and the corrupted bodies behind as quickly as possible. Instruct Emilia to secure the Spirit Jar, and perform the same rituals upon Casey, sealing his soul against whatever foul infection of this place is running through his body. There are magics and technologies that can make new forms for the souls to inhabit, and becoming an Autonomous Ego-State isn’t a bad alternative. There is risk that this realm has seeped beyond the bodies into the souls and the Spirit Jar is tainted, but no one should be left behind.
D: The Para Initiative can work miracles. With allies who have the technology of Delphi, the knowledge of the Infinite Library, the riches of Capitol, or perhaps even -electrical- assistance from that strange woman in another wasteland not entirely unlike this one, someone must be able to restore the minotaurs and Casey’s bodies and souls! You have faith that there must be solutions to the problem, even if they might be costly, and no extreme measures need be taken. There’s always a solution, there has to be. You take the Portarray out of the warded satchel to take everyone home, it will all turn out alright.
Casey’s eyes go wide as Emilia forms the sigils, hand gestures, and incantations that pull the ethereal energy of his soul out through his orifices, across the foul air, and finally swirl into the Spirit Jar with that of the minotaurs. You collect Skull Splitter from Monte’s form while Chris removes the black powder bomb from their pack and sets a fuse long enough for the team to Portarray away to safety. Hopefully it will collapse the center of this maze and obliterate the corrupted bodies being left behind.
After that moment, the coming weeks are a blur for the team. Safety Ethics Assurance, once made aware of the contamination threat, follows protocols to quarantine and contain all of those potentially infected. Delphi-assembled clean rooms are reinforced with warding circles from a book Scribbs recommends. Technicians and magicians make regular checks on the situation to make sure nothing of the putrid place reaches out a tendril into the world.
Biosynthesizers are encoded with pre-mission health scans of Casey, templating him a new body almost identical to the one he left with. It’s an energy intensive process, but what are joules for if not to help members of the Initiative? Unfortunately for the minotaurs, not a shred of their bodies remain, and the Archeo-Teleo Linguists report that it would go against their culture to be put into the body of another. Fortunately, a clever biologist from the Knowledge Corps comes up with the solution of simulated gene cross-breeding to make unique new bodies for each minotaur, which answers the Minotaur taboo of copying a body sufficiently.
The greatest moment of tension is reopening the Spirit Jar to perform the rituals required to move the souls to the newly fabricated bodies. Despite everyone being on guard about the corruption seeping out, none is detected. Casey and the minotaurs are assigned to the care of various Archeo-Teleo Linguist spirit guides and thought analysts to begin rehabilitation from the trauma of the suffering and destruction of their bodies they have undergone.
The team is eventually released from containment, but with instructions to report for routine scans every cycle, and to report any feelings out of the ordinary. Safety Ethics Assurance has ongoing concerns that the taint of the journey may be somehow distributed below current detection abilities.
[SHK-E Outcomes: It was a great act of the HEART to rescue the minotaurs and Casey, despite the controlled risks to SAFETY from the invasive realm and the moderate ENERGY costs of containment and body reconstruction.
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