In the room of hanging cocoons, the Drunk wanders amongst the people standing idle at the walls. He waves his hand in front of their eyes, blows in their ears, and pinches a few feminine backsides. Nothing that he does causes them to move.
O-Rem and Wo-Yang pass through the illusory wall. The Drunk crouches down behind some of the motionless people, watching them. The innkeeper's hands are held up, his fingers curled into claws, while the armored man has his greatsword ready.
The large innkeeper thumps farther into the room and lifts a hand to the nearest cocoon. “Nothing is disturbed. My troublesome guest may have left here, but he cannot escape. My Inn is locked down.” He turns to Wo-Yang. “Search every room. Find him. Discretely kill him.”
The armored man bows his head. “Yes, sir. And if he's spoken to his companions?”
O-Rem grunts. “Knock them out. I will decide whether to modify their memories or add them to the stock.”
Wo-Yang sighs. “Yes, sir.”
The Drunk steps out of hiding. “Ya may as well stay here, lad. I won't run.” The two other men gape and turn as he takes a swig from his hip flask. “Sounds like there's some evil afoot.” He returns the flask to its pocket, pulls out a heavy golden ring, and takes off his shawl of furs to hangs it on the back of a motionless person. “I'll have ta put a stop ta that.” He walks toward the other two.
The innkeeper points his finger at the Drunk and snaps his fingers, producing a sound like nails on a chalkboard. Every person at the room's walls lifts their head, settling their glassy eyes on the Drunk. The common workers pull out knives and clubs, while the guards ready their weapons. They advance on the Drunk.
Wo-Yang braces his feet, pulls back his greatsword for a swing, and whispers, “We are water. Water flows through.” He vanishes and appears behind the Drunk.
The bare-chested man catches the armored man's wrist and stops the blow coming for his neck. The Drunk twists his upper body and slams Wo-Yang against the floor. The armored man gasps and drops his sword, and the bare-chested man kicks him. Wo-Yang flies across the room and crashes against a section of the oncoming horde.
“Please, lad.” The Drunk turns to O-Rem and smiles. “Stop this while ya can.” As the crowds converge around him and swing from every angle, the Drunk darts through them in a blur and stops in front of O-Rem. His fingers close into a fist, around which flames appear as he pulls back. “We'll go for drinks.” He holds his fist, waiting for the other man's answer.
The crowd of people turn as one toward the Drunk, but O-Rem snaps his fingers and they become still. The heavyset innkeeper shakes his head. “You have seen too much, my troublesome guest.” His hands contort into claws and he speaks sharp, echoing words.
Solid red spikes pierce out through the bare-chested man's skin, then melt and splash down to the floor. He coughs, staggers backward, and sways on his feet. “We can drink ta forget.” The flames around his fist disappear. The Drunk coughs up blood and drops to his knees.
O-Rem smiles. “You should have stayed hiding, my friendly fool.” Lightning sheathes his arms and gathers in the palms of his hands.
The Drunk shakes his head and smiles. “A bondman of the Rose does not hide.”
The innkeeper sticks his claw fingers into the bare-chested man's shoulders, who bellows as the lightning arcs through him, blistering his skin. The blood on the floor around him boils and evaporates; the red mist clings to the skin stitching itself together again. In a second he looks whole and uninjured, though he remains on his knees, his eyes half-closed.
The heavyset innkeeper's form wavers in the lightning's brief flash. The air cracks around him and falls away. A squat and hulking body is revealed, with green and slimy skin. The thing's head is large and bulbous, with bright red eyes.
“Annoying feedback.” The large humanoid grimaces, and then stares down. “But what are you, my troublesome guest?”
“Old is all I know, lad.” The Drunk chuckles, his voice dry. “Though I know what you are. I was once wed ta an ogre.”
Multiple clear lids come in from the sides of O-Rem's large eyes and back again. “Unlikely, but not impossible.” He squints and tilts his head to the side. “There is a most powerful spell nuclei within you, my strange guest. I will study it before killing you.”
Wo-Yang appears six helms behind the Drunk. He shoves his longspear through the kneeling man's back and out through his chest. No blood sprays out. Wo-Yang breathes out a sigh. “That should kill him, sir.” He pulls out his longspear. No blood is sticking to the blade.
The bare-chested man snarls, baring sharp teeth at the ceiling, eyes closed tight. Flame rolls out from its clenched fist to enshroud its entire body. Its skin burns and heals, again and again. Standing, the infernal Monster licks its lips and smiles.
“What have you done?” O-Rem glares at Wo-Yang. “Now I must subdue it again! Stand back, idiot!”
The Monster pulls back for an uppercut aimed at the ogre's large stomach. The ogre's cheeks bulge and let out a croak, sending the Monster flying backwards and extinguishing the flames. O-Rem scratches two clawed fingers together; the crowd of people raise their weapons in a wall of pointed steel. The Monster crashes through them and rolls against the floor, swords and daggers now sticking from its back.
“Grand-uncle, allow me to help!” Wo-Yang pleads.
O-Rem grunts. “You are useless. You do nothing but try to seduce the lower races.” He sighs and shakes his head. “My brother should never have allowed a half-breed son to live, never mind it couple with yet another human slave and produce something one-quarter that of a true ogre.”
“What? No. You have it all wrong.”
O-Rem and Wo-Yang turn to the doorway as Klax pokes his head through the illusory wall. Zarah is on their side of the wall and shaking her head, one hand on her hips.
“Us halfies aren't lesser. We're the best of both.” The half-human points her Cleaver at Wo-Yang. “I mean, look at that beautiful face!” She grins at O-Rem. “Haven't you ever heard of inbreeding, you fat toad?”
He snarls at Wo-Yang, “They've seen the room! Now you must kill them!” The innkeeper thumps after the Monster. The crowd of people close ranks behind.
Zarah sighs. “Are my insults not good enough any more? When did everyone stop caring?”
Klax stares around the room, his white eyes widening and his jaw slack. He taps on Zarah's arm. “Miss Zarah, I know what is happening here. You must do something for these people.”
The sound of the Monster bellowing comes from across the room. Klax turns toward the sounds, but the crowds between are packed tight. Between them and the crowds, Wo-Yang raises his longspear.
Zarah glares down at the Small Folk. “I told you, I don't save people. I kill - ”
Wo-Yang appears behind Klax, the spear coming toward his neck. Zarah brings the long handle of her Cleaver down to smack the spear shaft, so the blade of the longspear pierces through Klax's shoulder rather than his windpipe. The white light in Klax's eyes fades, and he whimpers and tries to move. His upper body remains held fast by the spear.
Turning on her heel, Zarah chops down toward the spear's shaft. Wo-Yang tugs the spear free and steps away, so Zarah's Cleaver only cuts deep into the floor.
She glares at him. “What are you doing?”
He shrugs. “A warrior should deal with healers before all others. Is that not recognized?”
Klax stumbles forward and falls on his hands and knees. “Light, please grant me your fortitude.” A cloak of white light settles around him, and he takes a ragged breath. Blood squirts from the open wound as he crawls forward.
Zarah pulls her Cleaver free of the floor and swings the large sword at Wo-Yang. He eyes the coming strike and ducks down below. She stops the blade above him, spins it, and chops downward. Wo-Yang grunts and rolls to the side, dropping his longspear with the dodge. Behind the crowds, another bloody roar is heard from the Monster.
“You are stronger than you look, milady.” Wo-Yang pulls out the metal gauntlet, slips it on, and then retrieves his whip of many heads. He shakes out the loops, letting the heads rustle and scrape against the floor. “Or you have a magic weapon.”
He strikes at her with the whips. Zarah shelters behind her wide blade. He pulls back again and whips her, giving the handle a small twist. The heads spread apart and wrap around the Cleaver's handle, stinging against Zarah's hands. Wo-Yang jerks the large sword free of her hands, and it hits the ground with a loud thump.
“I don't want to kill you, milady.” He pulls out his truncheon and steps forward to stand atop the fallen Cleaver. “But I am commanded to do so. Escape now and I will say I could not stop you.”
Rubbing her hand, Zarah glances over at Klax. The Small Folk rolls over and lays on his back, whispering to himself, one glowing hand pressed against his fading wound. Zarah grins at Wo-Yang. “I'm not beat yet.” Her smile stretches from ear to ear. “Hold steady. There's something I've wanted to try.”
She darts in a half-circle around him, raising her fist high as she stops behind his back. He spins and raises the truncheon to parry, but the phantom blue knife that appears in her hand passes through and swipes down across his armored chest. The glowing knife remains in Zarah's hand, wavering a little. Wo-Yang growls and looks down, but his armor is unbroken.
“Why does it hurt?” He grimaces and steps back from her. “There is no wound.”
Zarah shrugs. “Apparently the wound is on your soul. Or something.” She stares at him, her eyes squinting. “I can almost see it. I got your heart.”
Wo-Yang grimaces and pulls up on the whip. The handle of Zarah's Cleaver lifts off the ground and he grasps it, dropping the whip and the truncheon to wield her Cleaver in both hands. “Heavy. Unbalanced. But sturdy.” He turns the sword on Zarah and spreads his feet. “I like your large sword.”
She snorts and giggles. “That's my line.” Turning her side to him, she raises the phantom knife up like a fencer, as Scarfenstein crawls down her other arm to her hand. “Kill or be killed. That's how we'll do this.”
He smiles. “I do not want a warrior's death. I will die in bed, surrounded by concubines.”
From beyond the crowds, a loud yip is heard. Zarah and Wo-Yang charge at each other. He swings the Cleaver at her neck. She kicks high and punts the massive sword up where it sticks in one of the hanging canvas sacks. He lets go of the sword and rushes closer. She tumbles back and tosses Scarfenstein at him. He ducks under and pulls back his gauntlet fist to punch her chest. She gasps and her eyes bulge, an audible snap heard from her ribcage.
He tackles her and they fall to the ground, him on top. She stabs him with the blue knife, down below his belly. He whimpers, stands again, and limps away from her toward his longspear. She grimaces and tosses the knife, which flies through the air and shatters against the back of his head. He falls forward and hits the floor, his hand atop his spear, surrounded by his weapons. She lays back, gasping for air.
Klax bends down over her, twin halos around his hand and his hand. “You have a punctured lung. Do not move.” His hand reaches out to hover over her chest. “Light, please return the bones to where you placed them and make them sturdy. Heal the tissue of bruises and tears. All this I humbly ask, O Light.”
His hand glows a bright white. Zarah grimaces, then sighs and relaxes. Beyond the crowds, a ear-splitting yell is heard.
The pierced canvas sack hanging above them tears open, and Zarah's Cleaver falls to the floor. Something else falls beside it, with brown paper-thin skin, a skeletal body, and sunken eyes.
The mummified thing stares at Zarah. “Thank. You.” Its eyes close as it lets out a final gasp.
Zarah turns to look at Klax, her eyes wide. “What the fuck.”
The Small Folk nods. “Light tells me they are making Coma here. The process involves keeping someone in a paralytic state until they are gripped by endless waking nightmares. If the body is provided nourishment, and waste is removed, the process can go on for years before the victim dies.” He nods his head up at the ceiling and the many hanging canvas sacks. “With Light's aid, some of them may survive.” Tears drip from his eyes and he sniffs. “Please, Zarah. Help me save them.”
Scarfenstein scurries back to her trembling hand. Zarah stands and takes a deep breath. “In a moment.” She whips Scarfenstein out, where the cloth wraps around the Cleaver's handle and pulls the sword to her hand. “The toad signed for its death.”
O-Rem stands tall, looking down. The Monster lays curled up at his feet, hands against its bleeding ears. The crowds stand in a circle around them, motionless and staring at the floor. O-Rem forms a ring with his thumb and pointer finger, then pokes a claw from his other hand through. The Monster cries out as its right eyes opens and the hazy eyeball pops like an exploding yellow cherry.
The large innkeeper smiles. “I haven't used that spell in years. Even tadpoles can resist it.” He does it again, and the Monster's other eyeball pops, as the first one forms again within the socket. “You have zero resistance to magic. Or your body accepts it without trying to resist.” The second eye reforms and O-Rem grunts. “Yet you have amazing cell-regeneration. You would make an excellent combat dummy for young mages.”
The Monster growls, sniffs at the air, and whines. It scratches at the floor with the nails of its hands and feet. The hand clenching the gold ring curls in tight to its chest, while the other arm extends to swipe at O-Rem's thick green feet.
The innkeeper steps back and speaks a few guttural words. The Monster's shaggy black hair crawls from its head and lengthens, twisting around the Monster's hands and legs to bind it. O-Rem stares down at the Monster's bare head; two long, pointed ears are revealed, until new hair grows out again to cover them.
O-Rem snorts. “Are you part goblin?” He shakes his head and sighs. “Well, your spell nuclei won't extract itself.” The ogre scratches two nails together. “Sword.”
Everyone in the crowds holding a sword offer the weapon up. The handle of Wo-Yang's greatsword catches O-Rem's eye, and the ogre reaches for it. He grasps the large weapon in one clawed hand and holds it aloft, blade poised to fall. O-Rem smiles down at the Monster.
“I wonder if you will regenerate and become two after being split in half.”
His hand drops as a black blur races past, running atop the shoulders and heads of the crowd. O-Rem's hand slashes down and stops above the Monster, but the greatsword is gone. He stares at the empty hand, and then up at the crowds.
Zarah bashes her way toward the circle. She wields her Cleaver in one hand and Wo-Yang's greatsword in the other, and uses them as large shields to force her way through.
O-Rem scratches two fingers together. The crowds turn and swing their short swords and club at her. She can block many of the them with the wide swords, but she takes several glancing blows along her arms and shoulders. Her eyes remain focused on the ogre, who glares at her.
“Why are you not dead?' He smiles, showing many square, flat teeth. “No. I will not ask why Wo failed.”
Zarah leaps at him, swinging her Cleaver overhand. The ogre waves a hand and a orb of water appears, floating in the air. The Cleaver splashes into the orb, which freezes, stealing the sword from her grasp.
“The answer is obvious.” O-Rem grins at Zarah. “His human blood.”
The half-human frowns. “Really?” She holds the greatsword in both hands. “A racist too?” She slashes across the ogre's chest, but the weapon slides off without cutting. “I had enough reason to kill you.”
The ogre shakes his head and mutters a few words. Several exact duplicates step out of the crowd around him, shaking their heads and laughing. They pass in front of each other, hands held up as claws.
Zarah frowns. The tip of the greatsword drops lower, dragging against the ground. She slashes across the front of the nearest mimic, which falls backward, blood spraying as the illusion around it shatters and a tall human cook appears.
The other mimics laugh, pointing at her. They speak a few guttural words as one, and many blobs of green goo fly from their outstretched claws. Zarah grunts and raises the sword up to block with the wide blade. Several hit her, but shatter and vanish, as the rest hit the blade. One starts sizzling against the steel.
The Monster wobbles to its feet between them. It grumbles, sniffs at the air, and turns to face Zarah with a small grin, licking its lips. It punches upward, smashing the floating ice holding Zarah's Cleaver, and takes the large sword in one hand. In one breath it is standing before Zarah, her own sword coming for her throat.
She blocks with the wide edge of Wo-Yang's greatsword, and a large crack appears in the acid-eaten blade. Even so the blow sends her flying backwards to smash against the crowds.
“Light, please send a proxy of your star.” Klax's voice comes from beyond the crowds. A large globe of dim light appears near the ceiling. “Light, your proxy star has been seen by the faithful. As your star rises in the east, so shall your light touch all that lives. Please bring healing to all that you behold!”
The globe of light becomes brighter. The cuts and scratches on Zarah disappear, and the slashed cook on the floor stops bleeding. The mimics all look up at the ceiling, frowning. The Monster turns around with a roar, shielding itself from the light with the wide blade. It stares around, searching the crowd.
“Don't like it?” Zarah saunters up beside the Monster and points at O-Rem. “Get him.”
The Monster swats at her with the Cleaver, but the attack is slow. Its scowling face is turned towards O-Rem.
“Not me!” Zarah complains, ducking below the swipe. “That's mine, by the way.”
She grabs the handle and wrests the blade from its grip. The Monster snarls, but then clenches its fist, which starts to burn. Soon its whole body is aflame again; it smiles, its skin burning and reforming. The Monster and Zarah stalk toward O-Rem.
The mimics scratch their fingers together. The crowds around turn towards the two and raise their weapons. Zarah smiles, defending herself from the rain of blows, both wide swords flashing around her. The Monster does nothing, allowing them to burn themselves on its aura of flame. It grabs a stone rolling pin coming for its face and throws it; the missile shatters against O-Rem's chest, causing the ogre to flinch as he was starting to point a claw at the two.
“Light, please wake from sleep all that you survey!” Klax's voice comes again. The globe of light above dims, and then brightens. The crowds stumble and falter. Some fall to their knees, or backwards onto the person behind them.
The Monster squints and blinks under the light above. It flashes forward and punches O-Rem; all of the false mimics shatter. A web of red cracks spread outward across the real ogre's chest. The Monster takes a grip on the cracks, lifts the ogre up into the air by them, and turns to slam his face into the floor. O-Rem bellows, but then all the air is forced from his body as the Monster kicks him at Zarah.
Her eyes go wide. Zarah ducks down and raises the two large swords up in front of her. The flailing ogre hits like a heavy sack of meat. Wo-Yang's greatsword shatters along its crack, but so does the armor skin around the ogre. Zarah's Cleaver bites into him, almost cutting through his arm.
Before O-Rem can fall atop Zarah, the Monster flashes through the air and punches him, the flames around its fist expanding to cook the ogre's backside. Zarah's Cleaver cuts all the way through his arm and the ogre flies away to smash against the wall and slump to the floor.
Zarah raises her head, blinking. “Did we win?”
O-Rem raises his head and coughs. “This is nothing.” His remaining arm raises, palm facing the room and everyone in it. “Die now.”
The Monster appears as he speaks in the guttural language. The Monster's hand, flattened like a spade, cuts into the ogre's other shoulder and separates the remaining arm from his body.
A cone of gray mist bursts out from the sheared shoulder, spraying against the walls. One mote of mist hits a person standing at the far edge of the crowds; they shrivel up and implode into gray smoke, only their clothes left behind.
O-Rem opens his mouth, starting to speak. The Monster shoves its hand down the ogre's throat, grabs his tongue, and pulls it from the mouth. O-Rem's eyes roll back and the ogre collapses. The Monster howls, fists raised in the air. It brings the long tongue to its jaws and gobbles it down.
As the crowds continue to fall to the ground, Klax becomes visible behind them. His body shines as the Small Folk points up at the globe of light. “Light, please take back your fire from the Monster. Please heal the wounds his body hides. Please strengthen your efforts to wake him from madness.” Klax falls to one knee. “All this. I ask. O Light.” He collapses down on the floor. The globe of light shines brighter than before.
The aura of flame around the Monster vanishes. It howls, standing to scowl at the fallen Small Folk. The Monster flashes towards Klax, but slow along the way, trudging when it gets below the globe of light. It slumps down to its knees, extends one hand as if to crush the Small Folk ahead of it, but then falls as well.
Zarah stands in the middle of every collapsed person, looking around. “Okay. Now what?”
Priests in black scurry around the room, tending to the people huddled at the walls and carrying mummified bodies out. They grin and laugh as they go about their grim work. The illusory wall is gone, and in front of it, the whip and truncheon remain. The longspear has vanished.
Her arms folded, Zarah stands beside Klax. The Small Folk holds his hand over each body being lowered from the ceiling cocoons by the many common workers and guards. Some he directs to the side, where they are being placed on cots. The rest go to the priests in black.
The Drunk takes his shawl from someone, chuckling and patting their shoulder. He returns to Zarah and sighs. “Would ya know why my mouth tastes awful, lass?” She shakes her head.