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Friday, October 18, 2019

"A Tale of Fire and Panic" - Chapter 6: The Catacombs

If you are new to Project:  Spiral, then click here to read the teaser, or click here to read from the Prologue.  Otherwise, welcome back!

Content Warning!
This story contains instances, descriptions, and frank discussions of:  depression, personality disorders, and other mental health issues; suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts; child abuse and neglect; graphic violence, war crimes, and institutional/systemic violence; gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, and transphobia.  Reader discretion is advised.

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The three adventurers head toward the big iron doors at the back of the fort, weapons at the ready.  Pannych carries a torch in her off hand, Vector shines the flashlight on his rifle, and Phyr carries the trap detector.
About twenty yards from the doors, the trap detector switches to “TRAP DETECTED.”  They approach the door slowly:  Vector and Phyr go to each side, while Pannych stows her sword before slowly opening each door, careful to shield her body with them.
After nothing happens for a moment, they step around to look inside the doorway.  Pannych spots a pressure plate just past the threshold, running the breadth of the doorway, and they all step carefully over it.  The wide but shallow room appears empty, except for a barrel full of torches on each side of the door. They are able to spot a narrow horizontal slit just opposite the door.
“Hang on, let me try something,” Pannych says.
“Famous last words,” Phyr retorts.  “At least let us get clear first?” He and Vector step carefully back out and around the corner.
Pannych considers how to safely trigger the trap, then decides to hide behind one torch barrel while triggering the pressure plate with the other.  It takes her a couple minutes to maneuver the blocking barrel into place, then she crouches behind it and tips the other barrel at an angle, rolling it along the round bottom until one edge is raised above the plate.  She lowers it and huddles tightly behind the barrel as the plate clicks down, then the noise of machinery is heard briefly, followed by a shuddering groan and finally the squeal of rending metal. Then there’s a loud crash and snap.
Nothing fires from the slit.  Phyr looks at his trap detector after the noise has stopped for some time, and it reads green.  “Huh. Must have broken when you triggered it,” he says.
In the back corners of the room, there’s a pair of wooden doors that each open outward onto a staircase:  one up to the parapet, one down into the bowels of the fortress proper. They head down, Pannych in the lead, Vector at the rear, and Phyr with his eyes on the trap detector, still green.
At the bottom of the staircase, they emerge into a hall with several doors to each side.  They find what are presumably captain’s and officers’ quarters, with desks and writing materials and books, but nothing of apparent value or use.  There are also troop quarters on one side, with tightly packed beds, footlockers, and dressers. The other side is a mess hall with attached kitchen - plenty to cook with, nothing to fight with.  Right before a doorless staircase at the far end of the hall, they find a closet full of cleaning supplies.
Down a level, they find a high-ceilinged room filled with barrels stacked on end and piled sacks of moldy grain.  The place smells fetid, they hear rats scurrying about and a regular drip of water, and the occasional bug appears at the edge of their torchlight before scuttling away.  At the far end, there is yet another staircase leading down - still no sign of any traps.
They next find a proper dungeon, with three floors of iron-barred cells.  There is a desk outside of a gate at the entrance, with a ring of keys laying next to a candle, a pile of moldy paper, a cobweb-shrouded quill, and a dried-up inkwell.  All the cells are wide open, however, and there appears to be nothing in them except wooden benches, buckets, and moldy hay.
Until the third floor, at the very bottom:  one of the cells has a broken exterior wall, opening onto another hall sloping gently but clearly downward, and curving similarly to the right.  There is a major architectural shift, as well: instead of the utilitarian stonework of the fortress, the stone here is cut with ornate patterns and fit together elegantly, with no need for mortar.  Instead of torch sconces, there are magically glowing stones set into the wall at regular intervals, dim but still alight. Phyr douses the torch with his Chill spell, and Vector straps it to his go-bag.  The passage is wide enough for one comfortably, but not two abreast.
Whether by enchantment or clever engineering, there is no condensation on the walls or floor as there was in the fortress.  Consequently, everything is covered in a thick layer of dust, so piled up that it is wispy and almost fluffy at the top. No footprints are visible in it, not even the floor itself - just a gradually undulating surface.
And Phyr notices his trap detector has turned red.
“Whoah, trap alert,” he says.
“Duly noted, thanks,” Pannych replies.
“Who do you think built this place,” Vector asks, staring up at the high ceiling, comfortable even for him.
“No idea,” Pannych says, “But back up.  If I trigger a trap, I don’t want you two getting hit by it.”  They give her about five paces.
“Hey, why does this hall curve,” Phyr asks.  “I mean, it’s too regular to be natural - obviously deliberate.  But why?”
“Fighting,” Pannych says.
“Huh?”
“Here, hold on.”  She stops advancing, and backs up toward the other two a couple paces.  “OK, take that torch, and try to swing it like a sword at me.” Phyr holsters his blaster and does so, but it’s tremendously awkward with the curve going away to his right.  “But see, I don’t have that problem, since the curve goes the other way for me.” She raises her katana and waggles it suggestively along a striking path.
“Neat,” Phyr says.  “Who came up with that?”
“The Maccabees, I think,” Pannych says as they resume their forward progress.
“The who now?”
Click.  “HIDE!”  Shink-thunk!
A metal skewer buries itself in the log where Pannych used to be, and she reappears in a puff of smoke right behind Vector.  The log is split two feet down its length.
“Gah!  You OK, Pannych,” Phyr asks.
“Fine!”  She is rattled, but unhurt.
They inspect the trap:  the log is firmly wedged in place, completely blocking the path.  The thick layers of dust are barely disturbed, and they can’t even make out the edge of the pressure plate Pannych triggered.  Finally, she sighs and says, “Dammit. You guys are gonna hate this.”
“What,” Vector asks.
“Wait here, and don’t touch anything.  I mean it.”
They do as asked.  Five minutes later, she comes back with a broom.  Phyr takes one look at it and groans.

After wrestling the log out of the trap, and wrenching the skewer out of alignment in the process, their progress proceeds at a crawl.  Sweeping away the dust, Pannych is able to identify many more traps along the way. They come to a couple of large, open chambers, the walls lined with embalmed bodies and various valuables on display - though whether these are belongings of the dead, or offerings to them, is unclear.
They decide not to touch anything, just in case it’s trapped, and proceed from chamber to chamber.
“So, wait,” Phyr says at one point.  “Why would they put so much defense into catacombs?”
“Don’t know,” Pannych says.  “I mean, we revere the dead even today... listen to how people eulogize someone they hated in life.  We’re loath to speak ill of them. Now amp that up times ten with superstitious hokum, and subtract the internet for a distraction - hey presto!  That’s a recipe for some fancy burial grounds.”
A rhythmic clicking sounds from down the curved passage, and the adventurers go instantly silent.  The noise gets steadily louder, and they fall back to the previous burial chamber and take up positions:  Pannych in ambush right beside the doorway, sword raised; Vector dead ahead, crouching and sighting down his rifle; Phyr at a diagonal, opposite Pannych with his blaster at the low ready.
Soon, a skeleton rounds the corner and comes into view.  Vector shoots it with his laser rifle: headshot, the skull clatters to the ground, and the rest of the bones fall in a pile, echoing throughout the catacombs.  Almost immediately, the clicking of several more skeletons can be heard echoing up the curved hall.
The adventurers make short work of the additional skeletons - they fall to pieces with one hit each - and continue on their way.
A voice calls from below, “Help!  HEEEELLLLP!”
Another voice says, “Shut up, or I will stab you!”
“Yeah, and then Grayl will kill you, Stewart!”
A beat passes, then Stewart shouts, “Well, if those are heroes, then Grayl’s probably dead!  Now what?”  A silent beat passes, then:  “That’s what I thought!”
The adventurers emerge into a spacious domed cavern, some hundred yards across and half as high, dimly lit by glowing moss and a dozen-odd torches on wooden stakes here and there.  Stalactites hang from the high ceiling and glisten with moisture in the half-light. There is an aisle running between rows of stone sarcophagi, all pried open. The aisle terminates at an altar of some kind, and behind it stands a profoundly unwell-looking man of indeterminate age, wearing a badly stained red robe.  Far to one side, a woman stands in a makeshift iron cage, presumably pieced together with materials salvaged from the dungeon above.
Turn order is rolled:  Stewart goes first, followed by Phyr, Vector, and Pannych.
Stewart shouts, “Mass Reanimate,” and the embalmed corpses begin to rise from the sarcophagi, weapons in hand.  He begins to laugh maniacally as he takes a shiny black sphere about the size of a softball from within his robe.

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Phyr looks around, sees a rather large and tempting stalactite directly above Stewart, and fires his blaster at it.  He hits, and it comes free, falling on Stewart and killing him instantly. With the source of their magical reanimation cut off, the corpses collapse back into the sarcophagi, and the adventurers each gain 3 XP.
“Finally,” Phyr shouts, “A guy that gives me more than one experience!”
“Yes,” the woman calls back across the echoing cavern, “He was third level.”
“Hey,” Phyr yells while the adventurers traverse the distance, “How does that all work, anyhow?”
“I would be happy to discuss the finer points of metaphysics with you, once I am out of this thrice-damned cave!”
Pannych asks, “Are you Alice, the mystic?”
She says, “Well, since you know my name, I take it you’re here for me.”  She looks over each shoulder before adding, “Do you see anyone else in this cavern?”
“Well, there was that one guy,” Vector says.
“Yes,” she says with mock gravity, “Stewart the necromancer was Alice the mystic this whole time!”  As the adventurers draw nearer, she reaches through the bars and places her hand over the lock, then says, “Open!”  She steps out of the cage and stands before them:  ashen skin and empty eye sockets beneath wavy blond hair, wearing dirty leather adventuring gear.  She has a bow slung across her back and a leather satchel over one shoulder. The adventurers gain 15 XP for completing a quest step.
“Sweet,” Phyr says, “Only five points to go for second level!”
“Wait, you could’ve just walked out of here at any time,” Pannych asks.
“Not really,” Alice says.  “I mean, there was this asshole, and then all the traps, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem - I’m not really the ‘damsel in distress’ type - but the fifty goblins upstairs?  Couldn’t handle that. You kids seem to have found a way to negotiate with them, though.”
“Uh, something like that,” Vector says.
Alice pauses, closes her empty eyes, and tilts her head for a moment - then opens her eyelids and says, “Oh, you fuckin’ bastards!”
“The fuck,” Phyr asks, rummaging around the fallen stalactite and altar.  “They attacked us!”  Alice groans in frustration while Pannych and Vector look at their feet.  “What’s the big deal? They’re just goblins!”
“Exactly,” Alice says.  “They’re basically harmless, unless provoked.  They’re like slightly drunk teenagers.”
“Tell that to their swords an’ shit,” Phyr mutters, and returns to his rummaging.
“Oh, yeah?  How many of ‘em were there,” Alice asks.  Phyr waves at her dismissively.
“Like fifty,” Vector says.
“And how many of you are-”
Suddenly, a blazing green light fills the cavern, and Phyr lets loose a scream of primal agony - but as soon as the other three turn to see what’s happening, it’s already over, and Phyr collapses to the ground.
“Well, guess he found that,” Alice says.
“What was that,” Pannych asks.
“The Pearl of Transversion,” Alice says.  “Powerful artifact. Why Stewart was here.  It bonded with him just now - see? It’s fused with his armor.”  Pannych and Vector stare at her for a moment, and she hastens to add, “He’s fine, just give him a minute and he’ll come to.”
Pannych and Vector prop him up against the side of the altar, and sure enough, the softball-sized black pearl that Stewart had brandished just minutes ago is now embedded in the middle of Phyr’s breastplate.  “What does it do,” Pannych asks.
“It grants a power form,” Alice says, as she gathers a pair of hardbound tomes and a leatherbound journal from atop the altar and stows them in her satchel.  “The level is determined by a function of… look, if you use it at full health, you get a level one power form; half-health, level two power form; quarter-health, level four; and so on.”
“So he should use it when he’s at like 1% health,” Vector says.
“That would be ideal,” Alice says, “But the lower his health, the closer he is to dying, so that’s a risk.”
Soon enough, Phyr wakes up.
“Hey, you OK,” Pannych asks him.
“Fine,” he says, getting to his feet.  “Great, in fact. A bit groggy, but other than that, I feel like a million bucks!”  He notices that he is at full health and mana. “Ahh, shit! This thing totally refilled my health and mana.  Quick, Pannych, you take it!”
“Can’t,” Alice says.  “It’s bound to you. It will only work for you, until you die.”
“Well, does anyone know Resurrection?”
“I do,” Alice says, “But I can’t just kill you, rez you, and give it to Pannych.  For the binding to be released, you have to be fully dead - that is, beyond the point of Resurrection, your soul returned to the ethereal stream.”
“The what now,” Phyr asks.
“Later,” Alice says.
“I thought you guys weren’t doing the whole ‘escape hatch’ thing any more,” Vector says.
“Oh, right,” Phyr says.  “OK, well I guess I’ve got it for good, then.  How’s this thing work, anyhow?”
“Ugh, later,” Alice says.  “Can we please get out of this cave?  I need a shower... and so do y’all.”

The four return to the surface, carefully avoiding the traps in the catacombs once more and using torches to navigate the darkness of the fort.  As they cross the courtyard and approach the gatehouse, they see a large group of noobs lumbering toward the drawbridge on all fours. The adventurers rush up the gatehouse stairs to the parapet, just as the massive bears - led by their even more massive chief - reach the lip of the drawbridge.  They count 18 in total: twelve warriors, five menders, and the chief herself.
The chief stands on her hind legs and roars, “We have come for the souls of Pannych and Phyr!  The rest of you may leave in peace... but Pannych and Phyr will die!”
Pannych turns to the others and says, “Shit, that’s a lot of noobs... what do we do?”
“Fuck those guys,” Phyr says, “We have the high ground, and this fort was built for humans, not noobs.  Let’s waste ‘em! I want to get to level two already.”
Vector says, “No, I say we try to negotiate with them.  We know they’re intelligent, they know we’re dangerous; we should try to de-escalate and find an angle for mutual benefit.”
Phyr groans, and Pannych says, “I don’t know if they’ll want to negotiate - but I have an idea.  Well, a hunch, really.”
Alice says, “Well, whatever you do, decide quick!  She doesn’t look to be in a patient mood.”
Pannych says, “Phyr, real quick, let me see that tablet.”  As he retrieves it from his belt, she pulls an Orb of Destiny from her bag of tricks and shows it to him.  “Yep, just as I thought! ‘ORB OF DESTINY - Contains the soul of Pannych.’  Hey, Vector?  Did you guys ever loot the bodies of the destined heroes you killed?”
“Nah,” Vector says, “They just had random shit and those useless orbs.”
“Right,” Pannych says, “And did you ever dispose of the corpses?”
“No time,” he says, “We left them where they fell, and moved on to the next pair.”
“Makes sense,” Pannych says, “But did you ever run into the corpses of destined heroes who had already been killed?”
Vector thinks for a moment, and then says, “No, can’t say as we did.”
“OK, just follow my lead.”  She hands the other orb to Phyr, then turns back to shout down from the parapet to the noobs.  “You say you’re here for our souls?”
“Yes,” the noob chief roars.  “Surrender, and we shall give you quick deaths!”
“Ha,” Pannych shouts, “We laugh in the face of death, for we have died many times!  But if you have come for our souls, then you won’t get those by killing us.”
“How so not?”  The noob chief gestures back toward her troop.  “Our menders are skilled in soulbinding, and shall capture them when you die.”
“Is that your plan?  And you’ll let our two friends leave in peace?”
“Yes, we have no quarrel with them if they stand down.”
“Well, I think that settles it,” Pannych shouts.  “We surrender.” The other adventurers give her a worried look, but continue following her lead.  She ushers Vector and Alice down the ropes, and watches them cross the drawbridge. The noobs then start to walk across the drawbridge - it bends and groans in protest, but holds their weight just fine.  As the chief is about to enter the courtyard, Pannych says, “Pause!  OK, Phyr:  listen very carefully.  On my signal, we’re gonna make a break for the opposite corners of the fort, round the towers, and sprint back to the rear to head down below.”
“Oh, thank God, you do have a plan!”
“Not finished!  Look, when you get past that corner tower, I want you to ditch your orb somewhere - drop it in the stables, or on the barracks roof, whatever.  But don’t let them see you do it.  I need you to try your absolute hardest to sneakily dispose of the orb, but also keep up the pace.”
“Wait,” Phyr says, but Pause wears off.  He shuts up, as the noobs are now in earshot.
As the noobs proceed single-file into the courtyard, the chief turns to look up at the pair of adventurers on the parapet, and says, “You have chosen wisely to surrender.  You cannot stand against us, and there is no point in unnecessary bloodshed. Now come down and accept your fate.”
Pannych nods gravely and heads for the gatehouse stairwell, but just before entering, she makes eye contact with Phyr and winks.  He nods, then she shouts, “Psych!” They sprint for the guard towers in the surprise round before combat starts.
There is a moment of confusion as the noob chief roars in fury - the rest of them are in the process of crossing, with a clutch of noobs waiting behind the drawbridge and another past the gatehouse.  With everyone turned to look up at Pannych and Phyr, It’s a traffic jam of epic proportions as the noobs try to figure out what to do, and also do it fast.
It takes a couple turns for the noobs inside to get turned around so they can chase after the adventurers, but soon the menders are lobbing fireballs up at the parapet.  They’re large and don’t track well, but nonetheless make for an intimidating spectacle.
As Phyr passes the barracks, he tries to drop the orb surreptitiously onto the roof, fumbles the Stealth roll, but keeps moving as fast as he can to avoid the fireballs.
Pannych succeeds at her Stealth roll easily, and drops hers on the armory roof undetected.
They reach the rear of the fort, rush down the stairs, and wait with weapons out right above the stairwell to the troop quarters.  Phyr says, “This part of the plan?”
“Yeah,” Pannych says as the noobs thunderously bash and claw at the iron doors and stone walls between them.  “They can’t fit in here, but if they’re able to tear the stonework apart, then just head deeper. But whatever you do, don’t shoot, or this won’t work.”  Phyr nods and swallows hard at the squeal of wrenching iron.  Pannych nudges him and says, “Hey - brave face.” He nods again and sets his jaw.
The noobs have torn the iron doors from their hinges and are roaring and clawing through the widening hole when Pannych decides to head deeper.  The noobs continue dismantling the fortress, but after a few turns, the noise level tapers down. A few turns later, it stops entirely, and the adventurers are alone in the dark and the quiet.
“Is this still the plan,” Phyr asks after a tense moment.
“Yeah,” Pannych says.  “C’mon.” They head back upstairs into the wreckage, just in time to see the last of the noobs running away across the drawbridge on all fours.
“So,” Phyr says as they walk calmly across the courtyard, “You gonna fill me in?”
“Yeah,” Pannych says.  “See, I got to thinking:  since the ‘destined heroes’ are decoys, they need to be numerous enough to occupy Rayla and Aqu, but not so numerous that they overrun the whole island.  But how do they stay in the Goldilocks Zone?”
“The what now?”
“The sweet spot between too few and too many - Rayla and Aqu always have heroes to kill, but the heroes never get out of control.  How would you manage that?”
“I don’t know,” Phyr says in bewilderment.  “This is a really weird problem to have.”
Pannych thinks for a moment and then says, “OK, yeah it is.  Nevermind the walkthrough, then: look, the orbs are the whole thing.  Rayla and Aqu are after our souls, the souls of Pannych and Phyr - and I bet the destined heroes were useless to them because they’re soulless.  Jim said they all act and talk alike, they’re basically all the same person, but they look different because they have random gear and appearances.
“So my hunch is, after the destined heroes die - when nobody’s around to see - the orbs despawn the corpses, respawn new heroes with random gear, and now ‘new’ heroes are carrying the same old orbs around.  And if there are, say, twenty or thirty pairs of orbs in total - I mean, that’s enough to keep a couple assassins busily confused, but not so much that they’ll take over the island. And it explains why nobody ever finds their corpses.”
“Weird,” Phyr says, “But doable.  So why didn’t Rayla and Aqu take the souls out of the orbs, then?”
“I bet they tried,” Pannych says.  “But those orbs are very dense; I bet they’re indestructible and also undischant - unenchantdis - undisenchant-”
“Can’t be disenchanted.”
Pannych nods and says, “Right.”
“So,” Phyr says as they pass into the gatehouse, “You thinking Rayla and Aqu put the noobs up to this?”  Pannych nods. “What do you think is gonna happen to them after they find out they got fake soul orbs?”
“No idea,” Pannych says with a shrug.  “But that’s a chance I’m willing to ignore for the moment.”
Alice and Vector spot them in the gatehouse, and rush to meet them on the drawbridge.
“The Hell was that,” Vector asks.  “They chased after you, then ran away laughing!  I thought you guys were dead, but Alice told me she still sensed your life force.”
“Hey, Alice,” Pannych says, “How does a phylactery work in this world?”
“Uh, it respawns whoever’s soul it has.  Usually it’s also enchanted to only go off when nobody’s around to see, so you don’t get ganked right away,” she says, a look of perplexity working its way over her face.  “Why do you ask?”
“Because those noobs think they just tricked us out of our phylacteries,” Pannych says with satisfaction.
“OK, how,” Vector asks.
“Well, Phyr and I just tried to ditch ‘our phylacteries’ up top, and then lured the noobs toward the fort, where they were going to dig their way in and kill us.  But we would have just respawned up here, and run off while they dug their way back out.”
“Ah,” Phyr says.  “But wait - those things are tiny.  How’d they find them?”
“Because there’s no way you were gonna pass a Stealth roll, while running at full speed in combat, with that many pairs of eyes on you.”  Phyr glares at her for a moment, but then shrugs it off and accepts that the plan worked more or less flawlessly.
They each get 20 XP for the quest step.  Phyr says, “Sweet, level two! Wait, how do I level?”
“Happens in your sleep,” Alice says.
“Well, let’s not waste any time, then,” Phyr says happily.

The four then head back to Noob Town.

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