Chapter 27: Blister, Burn, and Sting

Chapter 27: Blister, Burn, and Sting

Arden could tell immediately they were good fighters. They moved low to the ground and advanced warily in a formation that both protected their blind sides and corralled their quarries. At no time did any joint move beyond its mid-range; they were all coil and potential, predators ready to strike.

Gnome was off. Dagger in his teeth, he flew easily up the curving walls and awaited the advance. Clinging like a spider to the ancient stone, he surveyed the scene unfolding beneath.

What the hell? The warrior in the center seemed to be glowing. 

The tattoos—are they… moving? 

The tattoos were, indeed, moving and glowing within the skin of the fighter in the middle. As gnome studied the three more closely, he realized that the skins of all the mysterious men were swimming with complex webs of snaking, slithering lines. But only the one in the middle was glowing, as if the thick dark lines had turned to molten magma flowing on the surface of his skin.

Boudreaux was closest to the glowing warrior in the middle. Stuffing back down the pain in his head and his chest, he unsheathed the large dwarven sword still strapped to his waist and stepped stiffly toward the advancing menace, sword tip low, body held intentionally too tall.

“I’ve had a bad day, guys, can we not do this right now?” he queried loudly to the room at large, in his best exasperated plea.

No response beyond cold, dark stares, and their continued wary approach.

But approach was exactly what Boudreaux was hoping for. The scimitar of the glowing guy, held loosely yet in response to Boudreaux’s casual stance, came within reach.

Boudreaux seized his opening. Lunging fast and low with his right leg first, Boudreaux exploded outward with a backhand strike to the underside of the attacker’s curved blade. He sunk the power from his legs and back and arms into swinging the heavy dwarf blade, and the other’s scimitar flew into the air like a projectile out of his tattooed hand. It arced high into the air and landed with a clatter on the far side of the room.

A lot of other things happened in the short time it was in flight.

Boudreaux’s surprised opponent yawned impossibly wide and began to crack open at the many tattooed seams on his skin. Through the orifices he emitted a blazing yellow-orange blast of sunlight-bright, furnace-hot radiation. Boudreaux was knocked to the ground instantly where he curled up into a ball, his bare torso hopelessly blistering, unintelligible moans escaping between the fists that protected his face.

Gnome watched the scene unfold from his perch. It was an excellent trick. As an accomplished illusionist himself, Gnome had to concede that the burning, glowing, fiery display was very impressive. His experience allowed him to see it for what it was, of course, but poor Boudreaux had not been so fortunate. His mind was so thoroughly convinced he had been terribly burned that it made the wounds manifest on his body.

Ohlen was just turning around when he was hit hard in the chest by the soggy, rotten shoulder of the undead fiend he had first met on the rock outside the Westwood forest. He landed on his back with the heavy, cold corpse on top of him, pinning him to the ground. It immediately began pummeling his face with its stump arms.

Even as he tried desperately to defend himself, Ohlen was conscious of how strange it felt to fight an emotionless opponent who experienced no pain and drew no breath. Ohlen hit back hard. He landed solid punches to the monster’s ribs and face. He broke the brittle skin, and cracked bones. But the monster showed no reaction—it felt like punching a cold carcass. Ohlen’s eyes and nose were bloody, his left ear had gotten caught by the monster’s exposed radial bone and was torn, his teeth had begun cutting into his lips from all the brutality, but the monster did not stop. Unable to reach his weapon, Ohlen was quickly tiring.

The Islander combatant nearest Arden advanced menacingly along the edge of the sewage pool. Chaos reigned all around them. Boudreaux was disabled from a strange flash and something hideous had tackled Ohlen from behind. Arden drew the blade of his forefathers and swung its reassuring weight to warm his wrist as the attacker neared.

The Islander’s blows came fast and furious. The curved blade and exotic, florid swordsmanship took some getting used to. Arden was able to read his attacker’s motions, however, and parried several uncontested thrusts as he studied his opponent’s tactics and looked for openings.

He found himself distracted by the crawling, mutating skin, however. The man was turning a dirt-brown color, and his bizarre tattoos were whirring in frenzy. Even as the cleaving blows continued in rapid succession, Arden’s divided attention turned to horror as parts of the man’s discolored head shifted and sunk rapidly into a deformation resembling a large misshapen potato. Fissures began opening like toothless mouths on his neck and arms. His eyes receded completely, leaving loose flapping lids that began oozing a thick black oily sludge.

It was disgusting.

Only when the relentless scimitar sliced off a bit of his left upper arm, did Arden regain full focus on the swordplay engaging him. Disturbed as he was at the nauseating transformation he had witnessed, it was time to go on the offensive.

His opponent was right-handed with weak outside defenses. Three rapid strikes from Arden’s dominant left side put his opponent totally off balance. He gained ground but almost immediately wished he had not. The man had become a scimitar-wielding giant oozing pustule, and he had leaked black goo all over the floor. Arden’s precious boots were now slipping in it and beginning to smoke.

Not again! Arden remembered the tentacular acid-worm that had melted part of his face, and his mind reacted viscerally. It was clear enough that whatever substance this thing was emitting, it was potently caustic.

The acid pus monster had retreated, leaving a wet trail glistening between them. Clearly this was its strategy. It would probably be just moments before the soles of Arden’s boots were worn off completely and his feet began to liquefy.

Thinking quickly, Arden stopped his advance. He retreated instead to the edge of the sewage pool, and with his right hand surreptitiously on the hilt of his sheathed second sword, he made a show of dipping and rinsing his boots one at a time in the filth.

Just as he hoped, the seeping mess came shambling toward him to deal its death blow. But Arden’s counter move was downright easy. He turned and parried with his left hand while swinging with his right to cleave the shriveled brown head-like mass from atop its gelatinous brown body.

His sword traveled easily through the distended flesh. The foul beast collapsed to the ground as if it had no bones left in it. Trembling, it leaked copious amounts of the steaming black bile onto the floor around it, which hissed as it flowed into the sewage below.

Weaponless, the glowing fiend leapt on top of Boudreaux and tried to pry Boudreaux’s hands from his face to throttle his neck. Now Gnome could act. He launched himself from the domed ceiling toward the exposed undulating red-orange back.

It was one of the first things he had learned in the thieves’ guild. Hide in the shadows. Wait for the opportunity to strike. When your mark is facing away from you, move silently to him and thrust your blade between the top two vertebrae beneath the neck. Quick, clean, effective, instantly debilitating, and ultimately deadly.

Held two-handed before him, the tip of Gnome’s dagger landed just before the rest of him. The force of his flight drove the weapon deep, precisely in the place he was aiming for, completely severing the spinal cord. The massive body jerked violently and then went rigid. The bright glow quickly began to fade.

But Gnome was not finished. He had to help Boudreaux understand that the pain afflicting him was not reality.

“It’s not real, Boudreaux! It’s not real!” He tried to reach around the giant comatose man lying on top of Boudreaux’s fetal form to slap him as he shouted.

“It’s not—”

But that was all Gnome managed to say before a stinging swat struck him from behind and sent him sailing through the air to slam hard into the stone wall, where he slumped unconscious.

With the acid pus monster still quivering at his feet, Arden took in the scene around him. Ohlen was struggling for his life beneath what looked like a handless dead corpse that had festered underwater for weeks before being hauled to the surface and reanimated. Ohlen’s face and hands were so completely covered in blood that he was unrecognizable.

Boudreaux was catatonic beneath the limp body of the formerly glowing warrior who appeared to have died on top of him, his color drained.

Beyond Boudreaux was a new menace. It had flicked Gnome like an insect into the wall where he now lay unconscious. This man’s tattoos had turned into horizontal lines on his chest spaced wide in the middle but converging into thick mottled ropes at the bottom of his ribcage. Two new arms had erupted from his flesh there, one on each side. But they were not human arms, they were segmented crablike exoskeleton arms ending in enormous pincers.

If that weren’t enough, towering behind him twitched a barbed scorpion tail. The thick trunk extended from the Islander’s back and caused him to hunch forward awkwardly as it hogged skin and sinew to support the treacherous appendage.

Arden had a decision to make: help Ohlen with the undead fiend, or engage the scorpion man before his friends were massacred.Before he could act, though, a new player arrived. Through the archway glided a tall blonde man in dark crimson robes. He had dark lines under his eyes, and while he may have been handsome at one time, his emaciated face now projected only hatred.

READ CHAPTER 28

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