Somrak disappears into the portal and the room seems to grow a couple of degrees colder almost immediately, in spite of the smoldering anger coming from Saira’s eyes. The mortal woman looks a challenge at Alma, daring her to deny Saira her chance at vengeance as if prepared to fight for it. Alma merely sighs her resignation at such a choice for a way to die. There is only a very thin sliver of a chance that Saira will make it out of this alive. The goddess starts preparing her mind and her emotions for her former patient’s impending departure from the realm of the living. It will be a sad thing to hold Saira’s freshly-disembodied soul in her hands.
Looking disappointed at Alma’s lack of reaction, Saira mutters, “Fine…” and nearly stomps her way into the portal like a pouting brat who has tried and failed to upset her mother. The goddess follows, exchanging a glance with Gwydion of shared melancholy at the situation and of concern for what is yet to come. This little battle was merely an appetizer, she knows and so does he. Whatever lies beyond the portal is certain to be far more challenging than vampiric shadows.
But they cannot linger and leave Somrak and Saira unprotected. So with a soft, grazing touch to her lover’s hand and with his whispered reassurance that he will cover the rear should anything else pop up out of nowhere, she moves to cross the portal before him. As Alma enters, Somrak is pulling a blade out of a guard’s torso with a dreadful sucking sound reminiscent of a snake swallowing a mouse, low and swift but amplified by the deafening silence of the small antechamber. Blood pumps from the wound as the man expires with a grunt and a sigh, falling heavily on the floor by the god’s feet. Somrak shows no contempt for the man as he leans down just enough to wipe his blade on the dead guard’s jacket, as if the body were nothing now but a lumpy rag. Saira cannot even be bothered to look at it. It means nothing to her.
Alma wonders if she herself feels anything for this life just lost. Perhaps no more than the call of her essence to release the man’s soul into the Wheel before she moves on to take lives herself. She moves to crouch by the fallen guard but at the first step, a shadow at the corner of her eye and a sudden shriek makes her turn swiftly, barely in time to evade an attack of taloned fingers pointed at her throat, sharp teeth snapping, just grazing and missing the rise of her pale cheek. She slams her forearm and clenched fist into the side of the thing, knocking it against the wall as a crossbow bolt whizzes by, perfectly aimed at where the creature would have been it Alma hadn’t been so quick to respond. As it is, the projectile misses, hissing past Alma’s head close enough to blow a gentle breeze against her face, and buries itself in the wall with a dull sound just as the goddess’ other hand pins the little attacker by its neck against the stone.
A demon, a small one, no taller than the length of Alma’s arm, with a sickly yellowish skin covered in what would be best described as feather stubs, running in parallel lines along the length of its body. One leg looks almost human while the other is replaced with something close to shattered glass, blackish and oozing pus. Seven blade-sharp nails on each forelimb. Eight eyes in total, three pairs on the head and one on its belly, at the sides of a secondary leech-like mouth. No ears, no hair, no nose. It screams its hatred in some vile language of Hell, clawing at her arm as it tries to break free.
To no avail. Her hand squeezes its windpipe harder as her eyes flare and then darken, much like the shadows around them. Her hand glows with eerie light as Alma begins to drain the creature of the jumbled, fractal, pitiful mishmash of spectral energy that demons have for souls. It howls in pain at the flow of energy that burns its body from the inside out, convulsing as its muscles stiffen and cook, blackening into coal and ash. Soon, what was once a demon is no more than soot, crumbling between her fingers, down the wall, to the floor.
She breathes deeply and straightens, one hand moving instinctively to her arm, where the claws dug into her skin. She turns to find Gwydion standing by her side, sword drawn and stained with a film of orange blood, looking at her in worry. She looks down to see a severed tail lying by his feet, covered in the demon’s yellowish skin and armed with a most likely poisonous stinger. Amidst its squirming and clawing, it must have tried to sting the goddess, only to see its strike thwarted by Gwydion’s blade.
She smiles apologetically at the god, feeling a cold rush of fear travel down her spine at having completely missed the danger. She could have been paralyzed or sent into convulsions or worse if her partner had not been there to watch her back. He returns her smile, relief spreading over his features.
“Reminds me of a well-done dish of eel,” he says as a cleansing spell infused into the blade of his sword makes all traces of demon blood vanish from the metal.
The comment brings back the memory of their encounter with the demonic eels on their first visit to the Oracle’s grotto. It feels like a lifetime has gone by since that episode. She carefully avoids all thoughts of carbonized vulture-headed Archons.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Saira says, stepping closer, sounding only mildly impressed, though with a glint of exhilaration in her eyes.
Somrak, his muscles relaxing slightly from their combat-readiness, eyes glancing this way and that on the lookout for any more attacks, says with restrained curiosity. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
Alma crouches by the deceased guard, whose spectral form lingers in detached contemplation of its no-longer functioning shell. It looks at her questioningly, not afraid but still with expectation. If she does not release it now and this pocket universe somehow collapses like Sky’s did, the soul could be trapped in the Void for eons, with no one to show it a way out. “Go on, now,” she says softly, cutting the final threads binding the soul to the material realm and opening the conduit that leads to the antechambers of the Wheel. “No more fighting for you.”
To Somrak she says aloud, “Weak demons are easy enough to handle. I suspect the rest of them will not go down so quietly.”
He nods, eyes looking softly at her. “One mortal guard and one weak-ish demon. After two nasty shadows – but not nasty enough to stop us. They’re going to spring a trap soon enough.” He looks at the others. “Let me range a bit ahead – if I trigger something, you can…get me out of it.”
“Or scoop up the remains,” Saira volunteers with a shrug.
“Go ahead, I will cover the rear,” Gwydion tells him.
With a nod Somrak takes the lead, his footsteps falling almost silently on the grey stone floors of the antechamber and the dark hallway that opens into it. They advance in single file, silent down the narrow passageway that would make a good profit selling cheap tickets to a carnival horror house. The high ceiling is lost in darkness above them while the walls are crisscrossed with an apparently unnecessary number of pipes and rusted steel bolts. Luminescent, reddish slime covers the walls, sprouting tufts of a sickly-orange mold here and there in eerie – and most definitely Hellish – symbols in random places and with no obvious order to them. All in all, the pocket universe looks like something decorated by a novice, overly-enthusiastic, satanist interior designer with a tendency to depression. The faint moans and screams lingering in the air and the sense of dormant, strangled life pulsating through the walls does not quite make it look any better.
Somrak remains vigilant as he scouts ahead, scanning for any possible signs of a side-passage or hideout that any ambushers could use to trap them. Nothing. No doors open, no enemies come. The hallway is empty except for the four of them.
Soon, they arrive at a doorway into darkness. Somrak, a few steps ahead from the rest of the group, signals them to stop and wait while he draws a knife from his belt and shoves it into the doorframe to prevent the sliding door from closing, should there be a mechanism designed to slide the door shut and trap them once they pass through it. He enters, leaving Saira, Alma and Gwydion looking at each other while they wait for his signal. Again, Saira gazes at Alma with defiance in her eyes but the goddess simply shrugs at her. Whatever happens, there is no going back now. For any of them.
The darkness beyond the door flickers to grey, then to glaring light as a set of bulbs fluoresce, revealing something like a back office, within which Somrak waits for them. As they enter, they see it is empty of enemies, abandoned in a haste by its previous occupants as a fallen chair and an unfinished plate of food appear to suggest. Grey walls, stone floors and ceilings, everything looking barren and somehow tortured into existence. And yet it is not entirely uncheerful. Two sofas, a gaming table and even a small kitchen area to one side with a little stove and a sink make it look almost homely, the scattered playing cards and chips and half-empty glasses of some cheap alcoholic beverage speaking of people spending their off-times here, in the endlessly uncreative ways of hired thugs in general.
“That tea there is warm,” Somrak murmurs, pointing to a mug sitting on the kitchen counter. “Somebody just left.”
“Which just means they know we are here,” Dion replies, eyes flashing golden as he scans the room with his mage sight. “I see nothing that could indicate a trap, though.”
Alma does the same, her eyes searching for any souls that might be lurking about in the hopes that walls are enough to block godly senses. Nothing, not even a common house fly resting on the wall to bring some life into this place. “And wherever they went, there is no trace of them anywhere nearby.”
Saira huffs at this. “Guy at the door must’ve pissed somebody off.” She shrugs, looking around. “They knew he was gonna die.”
“But they’re not going to that much trouble to try to convince us this isn’t a trap,” Somrak notes, with a slight grimace that his facial scar only amplifies.
“Then why are we following the straight and narrow path?” Saira complains. “We should be…” She looks around for any other doors that might provide an alternate route, but none are there to be found. Only the one through which they came…and a closed door through which to leave. “…gah!”
“This place can be reshaped by the creator,” Somrak explains to her, shoulders sagging a little in resignation. “We really have no choice but to go forward. Even if we gave up now, there could be no way back.”
Alma nods, grim. A glance at Gwydion shows her the god’s thoughts are no brighter than her own. “I guess there is no choice then. Unless anyone cares to start blowing up walls, onward we go.”
As the unspoken leader of the expedition, Somrak takes the handle of the closed door, no more appealing or appalling than any other, and with a look back at the rest of the party, pulls it open. Beyond it lies just another stretch of hallway. Stone walls, half-burnt-out torches. Everything dark and cold. Hopeless. Dead.
Before Somrak can take the first step down the hall, Gwydion’s voice cuts through the silence. “Somrak, wait. I’ve rested for long enough after the break-in spell and I can conjure a scout to go before us with considerably less danger.” He whispers a few unintelligible words and stretches a hand forward, palm up. In it, a familiar glittering, golden ball of light begins to glow, its shape twisting into the slender ferrety body with reddish eyes and a long fluffy tail that makes for Gwydion’s favorite scouting imp. The creature stands upright, looking smartly at at the god, awaiting its orders.
“Go. Scout for us.” He sets the ferret down and it sniffs the air, looking at the rest of them before scurrying out of the room. Gwydion’s eyes glow with his magic. “Now let us see what my little friend can find.”
Somrak touches the edge of the doorway. “Dion…is this a portal?”
Gwydion nods. “Yes. I suspect this place is built like an anthill. One main shaft into which various reality pockets may open at any time. It saves energy without compromising space. Any empty room merely ceases to be until it is needed, that way.”
Somrak’s grimace only increases at that, his chest rises and falls with one long breath. “Great…”
“Your little friend spotting anything we can kill yet?” Saira mutters, arms crossed.
“A few empty rooms,” Gwydion replies. “No traps unless they are triggered by an actual physical presence…” He trails off, apparently considering the possibility.
A sound. A scream, perhaps, though it sounds very faint. Nevertheless, gods and mortal become tense.
“There is someone screaming,” Gwydion says, his senses heightened by the scouting spell. “A woman by the sound of it. Coming from a room down the hall, I think. Sixth door to the left. But it’s closed. My scout can’t get in.”
“Oh, the old screaming victim act…” Saira breathes, rolling her eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” Somrak agrees, voice dry. “But we have to check…”
He proceeds into the hallway, cautiously, closely followed by the others. Again taking the rear, Gwydion directs them to the door from which he thinks the scream came. Doors open into the hall, along the stone walls, each lying ajar, only a faint brilliance escaping from within each room lying beyond them.
“Your scout entered these rooms?” Alma asks him in a whisper.
“Just a peek at the door. Nothing worth mentioning,” Gwydion replies in the same soft tones.
“And there is no one around that I can detect…” Alma breathes.
How strange that a hive of criminal types is so empty and lifeless, even to her soul scrying… She feels her spine beginning to freeze with a creeping dread at what might lie ahead. Surely, the necromancer and her diabolist ally are expecting them. And considering their track-record, a particularly nightmarish welcome party will have been prepared to honor their uninvited guests.
From the end of the corridor, the lightspawn creature comes scurrying back to Gwydion, climbing up the god’s trouser leg and onto his shoulder with the ease of an illusion. “Nothing ahead but that one door,” Gwydion reports as the ferret dissolves into nothingness.
And just like the ferret, the door they were just passing winks out of existence, leaving behind blank wall. On the opposite wall, another door disappears. And one by one, each door they pass disappears, until they reach the one, closed door.
A low growl comes from somewhere in the vicinity of Somrak’s throat as he approaches the eerie entrance. “This is really starting to piss me off.” He reaches his hand out toward the doorknob but seems to hesitate. His hand draws back. “Am I just imagining it, or is this another portal?”
Gwydion nods. “It is. They all were. Had we gone into one of the other rooms, we probably would have been sealed inside it.”
Screams rise again, louder now. But for as much as Alma tries, her vision cannot penetrate through to whatever lies beyond the door. She grimaces in frustration. “Curse these portals. I can’t scry past closed portals.”
“Wait, it lets screams through but not your super-senses?” Saira asks, sounding suspicious.
“Portals can be adjusted in many ways,” Dion explains, his voice level but tense. “Some portals only allow image through and cannot be crossed unless one has the right key. And I cannot sense anything past the body of the portal.”
“They’re letting the screams through to unsettle us,” Somrak announces dryly. “This is it. The trap. And we have no choice but to step into it.” He looks at all of them, a shadow of – sadness? Regret? – darkening his visage for an instant before he turns to the door, and extends his palms toward it. They flare with a white flame, blindingly hot, far brighter than before with the shadows and zombies, a flame that seems to want to devour the entire pocket universe, as if it hates the very nature of it. The door twists, melts, and collapses, revealing the portal behind it.
And unleashing the voices. The screams. Countless, terrified, agonizing in breathtaking pain that not even death can put an end to. As Somrak moves quickly through the portal, immune to the heat, followed by Saira. Alma bends double in pain, clutching at her ears as if it could be of any help.
Gods, no…no…not again. Not the shattered souls she encountered in the basement of Three Rats Station. “No…no…” she whimpers, reflexively taking a step back.
A cry from behind her. “DEMONS!”
And someone pushes her into the portal.