Izzy paused at the entrance to the hall. Everything about the atmosphere the place exuded just screamed haunted house–the abundance of cobwebs on toppled chairs and dust-caked tables, the rusted chandeliers that dangled perilously from chains that could give way any second, and the mysterious specter that loomed at the head of the hall where the seat of honor remained whole though empty.
The dark form twisted and folded into itself in the air above the table at the end of the hall.
“Curious,” Sophia thought aloud. “In a village like this, that’s where the Elders would sit when gathered to discuss important matters…”
Izzy snapped back to the moment after having been laser-focused on recalling the voice. “Curious because there’s no Elders or curious because there’s a spooky monster above the table like the world’s ugliest chandelier?”
Sophia smiled. “Forgive me, I know that’s something you may not know,” she replied. “The Elders of a village like this were considered a step beneath the Gods. When they met it was to decide important matters that often dictated the fate of their village. That space is covered in protective runes and wards.” She pointed, and Izzy squinted to see.
The etchings were faint in some places, but still there. Clear, precise lines carved into the stone floor. Carvings, ornate and in concert with the decorative markings, were visible on the table and each of the chairs. Perhaps it was a trick of the curious lighting, but as Izzy looked at the markings they seemed to give off a dull glow as if to challenge any with ill intent to step back. Little lights in the darkness.
Little lights in the darkness, the candles the lizardfolk that Curian identified as Kobolds–or, as she’d put it more bluntly, gecko bastards–were all that helped lead the way along the dark corridor. The goblins marched along the walls in lockstep, and each had a dagger readied as if they were out for blood at the first sign of disobedience.
“Quite the predicament you’ve gotten us in,” Fontaine muttered. “All because you two insisted we take this blasted leisure time!”
Professor Everest stepped ahead a little too far, and the toe of his boot caught the heel of Fontaine’s in a way that caused him to stumble ever so slightly. The goblins were fast, but none struck. Instead, as they processed what had happened, they laughed to themselves.
“Dumb lot, this group,” one goblin said.
“Nothing but bickering,” another goblin added.
“They’ll make a handsome sacrifice, though,” a third goblin said. “Master’s hungry.”
Curian’s ears perked up at this. “Master’s hungry? What manner of master is it that goblins serve these days? Thought you served yourselves and only yourselves.”
The goblin nearest to Curian let out a hiss of hot, foul breath, but Curian did not flinch away.
“We goblins are smart,” the goblin sneered. “Times change and reality is what powerful people say it is. You get a chance to change reality by helping one such powerful person? Well, you don’t need to worry about that seein’ as we’re about to feed you to them.”
“Ah, shit,” Curian said. She turned to CMO Carter, glanced at the others, then returned her attention to Carter. “They’re definitely in a cult. No idea what their master might be, though, so…Keep your wits about you. The big guy any good in a fight?”
CMO Carter shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said I knew,” she said. “We’d only just met not that long ago, and their…Well, my Captain now, I suppose…Captain Warpt sorted things out nonviolently by threatening to blow up the planet.”
Curian stopped abruptly enough that Fontaine walked into her and fell backwards. “Threatened to blow up a planet?” She chuckled. “I hope I get to meet this Captain. I bet she’s got some fun stories to tell.”
“I don’t know you,” Izzy said. “You’re not a real person to me, just some spooky children’s show bad guy who killed people to try to scare me. I couldn’t even escape you on a vacation that was inflicted on me! Good grief.”
The shadowy form seemed to consider this as it shifted and reshaped into different faces. “You have few enemies and your memories are…baffling.”
“They’re organized, thank you very much,” Izzy replied proudly. “I’ve got all my thoughts in the right order. Ducks in a neat little row. You just see ’em as squirrels darting around the forest because you don’t know me.”
Sophia raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite the way of putting it,” she said.
“Something something codifying memories and thoughts,” Izzy muttered. “I got bored one summer, happened upon a video, and anyway that’s how I spent the next four sleepless days. I think? I can’t always remember.”
Behind the shadow, the wall began to shift and churn. The shadowy form shuddered, and there was an unmistakable muttering to the effect of concern. Protrusions from its top portion morphed into long, many-jointed stalks that ended in bloodshot eyes. Its central form collapsed to a bulbous shape, and at its center was a single, angry, bloodshot eye. The being turned to the shifting wall, its attention temporarily not fixed on Sophia and Izzy.
“Dang, that’s ugly!” Izzy said, clearly not concerned if the creature heard her.
“I’m not sure what it is, to be honest,” Sophia said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it in my years of studies.”
The wall gave way to a long, dim corridor lit by curious candles alight with black flames. Something moved within the corridor, and Sophia and Izzy crept closer as their curiosity got the better of them.
“Looks like they’ve got back-up,” Sophia muttered.
Izzy jumped up and down. “My crew!” she shouted. “And some little Godzillas!”
“Kobolds,” one of the creatures hissed from within the corridor.
Curian looked around the shadowy creature, an eyebrow raised. She spotted Sophia and smiled. “Looks like you’ve made a friend!” she called out.
CMO Carter, Professor Everest, and Fontaine peered around the shadowy creature.
“Captain Warpt! Thank the stars, you’re all right!” Fontaine exclaimed.
CMO Carter and Professor Everest exchanged smirks.
“Be careful! That creature looks similar to a Witness from an old fantasy game,” Fontaine added. He winced. “Not that I would know from personal experience. Purely research.”
Curian patted Fontaine on the back. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Wizard of plus ten wishful thinking,” she chided. “Bug-boy’s right, though. You know what to do, Soph?”
Sophia tapped her chin. “It seemed to take issue with you, Captain Warpt, Sorry. Izzy.”
Izzy nodded. “It’s cool, no worries,” she said. “Hey, big ugly!”
The goblins and kobolds surrounding the group in the corridor seemed to take issue with this comment, and yet none of them appeared to know how to handle their deity being called such a name. They remained still, their attention fixed on the Witness.
“Hey there ug-uh-leeeee!” Izzy shouted. “Look at me!”
The Witness turned and shifted, its form nebulous and murky again.
“Oy! They’re not what they said they are!” shouted one of the goblins. The shadows shuddered, a faint light briefly emanated from deep within its form, and the offending goblin crumbled to dust.
The Witness settled on a vague shape somewhere between Spiral Reach’s Chancellors and Izzy’s parents. “You are so very disappointing,” they hissed. “So. Very. Disappointing!”
Izzy shrugged. “I might have annoyed my instructors, but I’ve never bugged anyone enough for them to say I’m a disappointment. Heard I’m eccentric a lot.”
The Witness’s form began to glow with a faint, sickening light
Sophia gestured to Curian, who ran to the Witness’s side and waved her arms. “Yeah, ugly! Over here! I want my turn at your cheap mind-reading tricks.”
The Witness turned its attention to Curian, and its form changed to that of Dullahan. “Your world and the others will fall before my might,” it hissed. “Not bad. I like this form. Its mission suits me. You, however…” The Witness began to glow again.
“Hideous abomination!” Fontaine shouted. “Turn your gaze upon me and know your demise!” Professor Everest coughed to mask the brief bout of laughter that escaped.
“Enough!” The Witness roared. It glowed a vile green, and the glow quickly spread to everyone but Curian and Izzy.
“You chose to play games, and so a game we shall play,” the Witness sneered. “Select which of your worlds–your reality–will become my next meal. Failing to choose will only end with my devouring both of them!” It cackled wildly. The others were clearly in pain, their features frozen in contorted pictures of agony.
Izzy reached slowly for her sidearm. It felt heavier, and the metal seemed to call to her.
Yet she still didn’t want to take another creature’s life.
“Choose, or I will choose for you!” The Witness roared.
It turned to face Izzy, a toothy grin bisecting its face. “Perhaps I will take both worlds just to savor the sweet notes of suffering I feel radiating from you.” It opened its mouth and began to laugh again, but the sound that followed was far less jubilant as it gasped and sputtered.
“What is this treachery?” the Witness howled as its form convulsed between states it began to slowly rotate, which afforded Izzy a clear view of the strange weapon jutting from the Witness. It looked like a dagger wedged in a long stick at a glance.
“Had a wild, improbable idea and I figured what the Hells have I got to lose?” Curian replied.
“Something from each world as a weapon?” Izzy commented. “Super cool if true.”
Curian smiled “Super cool it is, and it looks like I was onto something.”
The Witness screamed and howled, smoke curling from its form as it spun faster and faster. It came undone slowly at first, dark smoke flinging from it until there was nothing left.
The air shimmered with a warm light and the magic that held the others in place faded. The goblins and kobolds fled without another word, and were not pursued.
“Not worth it,” Curian said as Professor Everest prepared to take chase. She walked across the small span of hall between her and Izzy and offered a mock salute. “Captain Warpt, I presume. Curian. I trust you’ve kept my traveling companion safe?”
Sophia cleared her throat. “I’m right here, you know,” she said.
“It’s almost as if I can hear her voice now, sending messages from some distant place,” Izzy snarked back prompting a hearty chuckle from Curian.
“Not bad,” Curian said. The air grew thicker with the shimmering magic.
“Looks like you best get back to your crew,” Curian said. “They missed you. Said something about time off?”
Izzy nodded. “We’ll see. I think I’ve had enough sitting back and relaxing after…Well, this silliness.” She gestured broadly. “Take care. May your mission be successful, and your course clear. Or something like that.”
Curian offered another, more sincere salute as Izzy backed away towards her crew. “I’m still a far way from home, but if we ever cross paths again we should grab a bite to eat. Swap stories. I’d bet you’ll have plenty to share.” The light in the air grew to an unbearable brightness.
“I’d like that,” Izzy said as the dining hall vanished, replaced entirely by the haunted mansion. A mechanized spider the size of a city bus dipped from the ceiling, and prompted Fontaine to shriek in horror.
Curian sighed, the wall where Izzy and her crew stood now no more than a wall. She turned to Sophia and forced a smile.
“Please tell me you at least sorted out how to get the next Piece.” Curian said.