“Alright, everybody look for a secret door or hatch or something,” Shara instructed. “Adgito, you might want to swap over to a combat-ready form.”
Darron, Isabella, and her servant hopped into action, inspecting the nooks and crannies of the incense room for anything suspicious. Adgito, however, was less inclined to comply.
“There’s gonna be like, a gazillion vrochthízo where we’re going, isn’t there?” she asked.
“Um, yeah,” Shara said, surprised. “How did you know?”
Because Adgito really didn’t want to fight vrochthízo anymore. Because that would be the worst-case scenario, and because everything in the universe seemed to conspire to against her pretty much all the time.
“Lucky guess,” is all Adgito said.
Shara gave Adgito a funny expression but quickly returned to inspecting the floor for trapdoors.
“Well, if you want to sit this one out, you can,” Shara relented. “I don’t sense any huge ones from up here, so we’ll probably be fine without you. You’d be a big help, though.”
Adgito knew all of that, more or less. Nothing was forcing Adgito to stick around at all; she could just leave and Shara would let her. Yet that fact, at least in part, was what made Adgito want to stick around. Shara had gotten her into a bunch of terrible situations, sure, but it was all in the spirit of trying to help. She was a genuinely nice person, if you looked past her tendency to get rough when the chips were down. If Shara had been trying to force Adgito to help out, Adgito would have long since ditched her.
Although maybe Shara knew that, and that was why she was lenient at all.
Adgito shook the thought out of her head. Shara and Adgito went through with an extended heart-to-heart back in Mt. Phlegethos, between the time they killed the rest of the eggs and their eventual escape. Using her own powers, Adgito had confirmed Shara was more or less exactly what she presented herself to be. Constantly second-guessing her only real friend was a stupid idea.
At least, Adgito hoped they were friends. Wait, crap, she was doing it again.
“Found something,” Darron said, tapping a stone slab that made up the floor underneath one of the incense burners. “Seems loose. Can you lift it, Shara?”
Shara snorted indignantly and rolled her neck, moving the incense burner out of the way before heaving the five-by-five foot stone slab into an upright position. Sure enough, a ladder and passageway were revealed below. A rank smell wafted up from the opening, almost overpowering the incense.
“Yuck,” Shara said, holding her nose. “I’m pretty sure that’s corpse rot.”
Adgito, meanwhile, failed to hold back a dry heave. Rotting corpses? To overpower this much incense, how many must there be?
“H… hold on,” Isabella piped up. “Sh… Shara, was it? Why is this in my basement? What’s happening?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure we’re uncovering your dearest daddy’s secret monster dungeon, or something,” Shara said matter-of-factly, and began climbing down the ladder. “You probably don’t actually want to come with us. It’s only going to get worse from here.”
“H-how dare you! My father would never–”
“He would and he did!” Shara bit back. “Seriously, Isabella! Pull your head out of the sand!”
“I will not!” Isabella huffed, “I mean, I don’t need to! My father was a wonderful man! He was generous and kind, and not just to me! He built this town to greatness because he loved it. He gave so much of himself for everyone here. He… he was a good man!”
Isabella stomped the ground, ending her little adult tantrum with dramatic flair. Silence, except for the crackling of flaming incense, reigned in the room.
“Can’t he be both, though?” Adgito suddenly butted in, largely to her own surprise.
“What do you mean, ‘both?’” Isabella asked incredulously.
“I mean like, somebody that does horrible and evil things can still do tons of good things too, right?” Adgito explained. “Being a scary evil mob boss doesn’t mean your dad didn’t love you, or didn’t do lots of good things for people. He can do both. The person you thought he was doesn’t disappear when you learn new things about him.”
Although, Adgito supposed it recontextualized the person you thought they were a bit. The cute girl who spoke to Adgito in the fountain was a little more intimidating once it turned out she was also a mind-reading super-powered fugitive.
“People are just… complicated,” Adgito concluded.
Isabella finally didn’t argue the point. Looking away, she nibbled on her bottom lip with a concerned expression on her face. Score one for Adgito! Leave it to the dumb member of the team to convince the dumbest member.
“Great,” Shara said with a glare, “Well, there’s a ton of vrochthízo down here, so now that your little heart-to-heart is over I’m going to go kill them before I gnaw someone’s leg off. Feel free to come with.”
With that, she disappeared down the dark shaft. Darron followed immediately after. After a bit of thought, Isabella told her servant to return upstairs and began to scale the ladder down as well. She stopped, and turned to Adgito.
“Um, are you coming as well?”
“Yeah,” Adgito said with a sigh, “I probably should. Go down without me, I need to set something up first.”
Once she was the last person in the room, Adgito stripped naked. She had just bought all of these clothes, and wasn’t about to ruin them with what she was planning. After stuffing her entire outfit in the backpack Shara had bought her, she tossed it down the shaft to make sure the ladder was clear. Then, she found a particularly toasty incense burner and caught her hair on fire.
The flames quickly rolled up to her scalp and triggered a transformation, and Adgito felt the all-too-familiar disgust as a result. Her organs utterly evaporated, her skin and bones boiling away into a contained, autonomous flame. A great emptiness won a coup inside of her, burning out the mass that once formed her and replacing it with only fire. Nothing of what Adgito’s body had been remained: there was only light and heat and magic, formed into a shell of the woman she had once been.
Which was, in turn, a shell of the man she had once been. In more ways than one.
Staggering from the transformation, the entirety of which took barely a second, Adgito steeled herself to make a jump down the shaft. She didn’t want to risk burning the wooden ladder, and fire form would take the jump like a champ besides.
Fire form lacked a lot of the awesome factor Adgito appreciated about lava form, but it was fundamentally very similar: it was mostly incorporeal, and it allowed Adgito to output a large amount of heat. Rather than grant fine telekinetic control over flames, however, fire form simply allowed Adgito to make them from her body.
Adgito had thought a lot about what would be the best available transformation to take into a pit of monsters. Fire form had required a lot of consideration, seeing as how disastrous lava form had ended up against the vrochthízo lord. The other main contender was stone form, banking on the hope that the vrochthízo wouldn’t be able to pierce its “skin.” However, if stone form had any magic stone-controlling powers, Adgito didn’t know how to use them, meaning she’d need to get up close and personally punch some vrochthízo in the face.
And boy howdy did Adgito not want to do that.
Besides, lava form had been incredibly effective against all of the vrochthízo lord’s children. Only the lord herself actually seemed immune to the intense heat, and those were odds Adgito was willing to bank on. If any of the little monsters resisted the deep fryer, Adgito would just count on Shara to cover her back. Because that’s what friends do, right?
“Incoming!” Adgito called down the secret hatch, and leapt. She descended the hatch with relative slowness, her near-massless body eventually hitting the ground with a feather’s touch. At the bottom, Adgito spotted Shara, Darron, and a frightened-looking Isabella were waiting for her, due to a reason that quickly became apparent: other than Adgito’s crackling body, there was no light anywhere in the room. It was difficult to see even with Adgito as a beacon, casting flickering shadows across the area.
It was a surprisingly large area, and though her senses weren’t as strong in this form Adgito could definitely tell that it was the source of the rotting-corpse smell. The room took the appearance of a reverse maze, where instead of walls the room was dotted with deep pits, the bottoms of which she couldn’t see from the base of the ladder. The whole room was dug from solid stone, clean and natural, the thin walkways between pits barely a few feet wide and completely lacking in guardrails or other protections. Without a light source to guide them, a person would have inevitably fallen into one of the holes had they attempted to traverse the room.
“What is it with vrochthízo and darkness?” Adgito muttered, and a cacophony of voices immediately erupted from within the depths of the room.
“The light spoke!”
“Voice and light!”
“Master is back!”
“Pick me, master!”
“Master brought the light!”
“Master, we are hungry!”
“I want to see! I want to see it!”
“Master! I’m sorry! I did not eat her but she still died!”
“I’ve been good, master!
They all sounded like children, little boys and girls talking like they were handing their father a homemade macaroni painting. It was profoundly disturbing. An assault of innocent-sounding voices, each apparently enamored with the idea of servitude to some nebulous, light-bringing overlord. It was an indoctrination camp.
The contrast to the adorable, endearing voices was about to get deeper, Adgito knew. Walking past Shara, who was clutching her forehead with a horrified look on her face, Adgito peered down into the closest pit. What started back up was a naked boy, looking around five to seven years old. His tiny body appeared human apart from its perpetual inky blackness, the claws on his fingers, and the curved, black teeth that comprised his goofy grin. He looked so close to human that not even those monstrous chompers could fully mar his face of childlike wonder. No, what truly dehumanized the child was the fact that he stood ankle-deep in the rotting remains of a dozen corpses, toes playfully drumming in the decomposition fluids of past victims. Adgito would have hurled, had she still possessed a stomach.
“Woah!” he said, “The light is different! So pretty!”
“Really? I want to see!” a girl’s voice chimed in.
“Let me see too!” said another, and the room erupted with agreements.
Darron came to join Adgito on the precipice, eyes widening on his normally stony face. Neither of them had anything they felt like they could say.
“Well, Darron?” Shara asked, walking up behind them with a grimace, “What are your moral qualms against killing these vrochthízo?”
Darron only stared back at her with a look of horror and sadness while the two of them presumably had one of their special silent sibling speeches. Adgito wanted no part of their debate.
“We should… alert the sheriff, or something,” she said. “This is way above our heads.”
“Not really,” Shara countered. “I bet you could take them by yourself. Just point down and cook ‘em where they stand.”
“He doesn’t mean above us in capability,” Darron said, “he means above us in culpability. And he’s right, this is… I don’t know what this is.”
“This is… where Arina came from, right?” Isabella squeaked, causing the trio to turn back to look at her. She hadn’t walked up to peer into the pit like the rest of them had, but the look on her face left little doubt that she had caught onto what was in them, at least in part.
“Well, yeah. Probably,” Shara said. “I would guess they expanded the facilities since then, but yes. Arina… mentioned a similar place, back when we talked.”
“W-w-well then we shouldn’t hurt them! They’re… they’re like little Arinas, right? And you wanted to help Arina, didn’t you? That’s why we’re here!”
Shara sighed, clearly frustrated.
“Right,” she said, “Of course. I’m just… a little stressed out, right now. That’s the problem, though. There’s too many of these things down here. Helping Arina was questionable to begin with, Isabella. I don’t know if we can pull it off. I don’t know if we should pull it off, and that’s just one of her. This… titans, Isabella. Do you have any idea how many people–” Shara suddenly cut off what she was saying, her face widening in surprise. “Oh, crap! Everyone brace!”
At that moment, the ground fell away. Everything under Adgito, Shara, and Darron’s feet suddenly sucked itself into the pits, the dividing walkways shrinking into nothing as the trio was forcefully deposited into the now-singular pit. The juvenile vrochthízo seemed just as surprised as Adgito was to have the walls between their stone cages fall away to present a shared buffet before them. Adgito fell harmlessly like she had after jumping down the shaft, and Shara managed to grab ahold of her brother before the fall could break his legs. After their safe landing, however, Shara dropped Darron and had her sword out before he hit the ground. The body Adgito landed on caught aflame, flickering quietly as it accented the smell of the dead with burnt flesh. Adgito shot flames out of her feet and quickly incinerated the rest of the corpse, securing herself some stone to stand on, and more importantly removing the constant reminder of her surroundings from underfoot. Sanity required Adgito not to think about it.
A lot of the vrochthízo stared at them greedily, but many of them seemed far more interested in their cellmates. They murmured quietly among themselves, most of them having never seen each other before. Their inhuman features differed, some possessing stinger-tipped tails or rows of black bone spikes. Of particular note was the few of them that had lizard-like jaws. Yet each one looked fundamentally similar to a naked human child, and there were more than enough corpses in each cell to figure out exactly where that appearance came from.
However, none of the vrochthízo moved to attack, even the ones that circled the group with hunger in their eyes. They were waiting for something.
“Shara?” Adgito asked, “Any insight, here? What just happened?”
“Hostile earth mage up above,” Shara said flatly. “Pretty sure he’s our guy. As for the vroch, I think they’re waiting for orders.”
“That’s… incredibly convenient,” Adgito observed. “What’s the catch?”
“My moronic supergenius of a brother doesn’t want me to kill any of these baby mass murderers so we are royally boned if they do attack. How many bloated corpses do I have to drop you in, Darron???”
“Well, feel free to knock them out or something,” Darron said, failing to wipe bits and pieces of decomposing bodies off of his clothes as he stood up.
“Ah, yes. Concussive force!” Shara bit back. “The ideal combat method for a swordswoman and actual living fire. We are so very equipped for dealing with threats nonlethally right now!”
Yeah, Adgito doubted she had fine enough control over her flames to make something dangerous but not immediately deadly. She hadn’t considered the possibility that they’d be keeping the vrochthízo alive when deciding on her form. To be honest, she still wasn’t really onboard with that. Whatever earth mage sprung this trap had dropped her into a literal uncanny valley, with innocent children smiling and introducing themselves to each other for the first time while they stood on their own decomposing victims. Adgito was seriously tempted to just nope the entire room to ash. If any vrochthízo jumped her way she would absolutely incinerate it rather than let it touch her.
After making that decision, Adgito noticed some sounds of struggle coming from above. Scuffling noises and muffled screaming made their way ever closer. Eventually, Isabella’s head became visible over the top of the wall, with a man’s arm around her neck and mouth. The man said arm belonged to was a lean, tall figure dressed in expensive silk garments, who held a lantern in his other hand. His leering, condescending expression indicated that he was tired of inferior people wasting his time, an expression perfectly accented by his pointy goatee.
“Well,” he said, “it seems you have all fallen for my trap!”
He then chuckled at his terrible joke like a complete tool.
“Oh my god,” Shara exclaimed. “You are actually the evil vizier. Isabella, why do you even have an evil vizier??? How is this not obvious? Do you not read books? Why was this man not immediately fired? Darron, can I kill him?”
“You’re the worst!”
“Silence!” the goatee-man demanded. “You will all do exactly as I say or Isabella dies and my horde of vrochthízo will descend upon your helpless bodies! Firstly, surrender your weapons to–”
Rather than listening, Shara opted to pick up and throw her brother at the man like she was hurling a discus. The surprised Darron collided with him in a heap, causing him to drop Isabella into the pit below. Isabella screamed all the way down, and after Shara leapt forward to catch her she immediately threw Isabella back up with an underhand toss, causing the woman to scream even louder on the return trip. Isabella reached the top of her thrown arc right above the cliff face, landing with minor bruises at worst. Darron had probably not been so lucky, as Adgito could hear him chanting irritated-sounding healing spells. Unfortunately, the noises of rushed footsteps fleeing towards the ladder indicated that the “vizier” was still well enough to run.
“Eat them!” the goatee-man screamed as he fled to the ladder, “Kill them all!”
Shara turned to Adgito and winked.
“You got this,” she assured her, and leapt.
She failed to clear the full height of the 15-foot wall of the pit, but simply punched the wall hard enough to get a handhold, pulling herself the rest of the way up with one last hurl. Then she was off, grabbing Darron under her arm and chasing after the villain while leaving Adgito alone in a pit full of confused, hungry monsters. All of which were staring right at her.
“Um, hi,” Adgito said with a wave.
“Woah!” came the enamored response.
“The light talked to me!”
“No, the light talked to me!”
“Light, how are we supposed to eat them? They left!”
“Did you see how high they went?”
“Maybe we’re supposed to eat the light?”
“Nuh-uh! The light was looking at me, not you!”
“Don’t be stupid! How can you eat the light?”
“But she looks tasty!”
“She’s not a she, she’s the light!”
“I’m hungry. I’m gonna try it.”
Adgito took that as her cue to create a torrent of flame, engulfing and obliterating the bodies she was trying to forget were near her.
“I’m not gonna try it,” the last vrochthízo corrected.
“Yeah, this is a test,” another vrochthízo claimed. “I bet we’ll get fed if we pass!”
“Maybe we eat each other?”
“Oh yeah! Last time the walls opened, I ate things that looked like you!”
“I remember that!”
With a wet, sloppy impact, a stream of vomit descended from the top of the wall and landed next to Adgito. Isabella had apparently taken her first serious look at the scene in her basement, and lost hold of her morning tea.
“Oh, no!” one of the vrochthízo screamed, “Acid breath!”
“Uh-um…” Isabella stammered, “th… that man from before… did he come here often?”
“Yeah!” the vrochthízo confirmed. “He was almost always with Master!”
“He held the light!”
“It was a much smaller light.”
“Not as pretty!”
“W… was your master Gregory Cornwall?” Isabella asked.
“Master is master!”
“No, he is! The lightman called him Master Cornwall once!”
“What’s a corn?”
“I,” Isabella continued, pale-faced, “am Isabella Cornwall. Your old master died, so I am Master Cornwall now.”
Oh, Adgito saw her angle here. Props to Isabella for finally being useful! If they could establish themselves as the new master and light, it was problem solved. The poor monster children could actually get some guidance underneath someone as stupidly nice as Isabella. Adgito almost chuckled at the disturbing image of her nannying a little swarm of vrochthízo kids, teaching them their ABC’s alongside what they were and were not allowed to devour alive.
“Master is dead?”
“That makes sense. He’s late.”
“Master used to talk about a lady! Is she the lady?”
“She’s the lady?”
“The lady is here!”
“Y-yes,” Isabella said, just going along with it, “I am the lady. C-can I get you all to do something for me?”
A chorus of confirmations filled the room. Adgito smiled and nodded to herself. More good luck! This ‘lady’ figure was probably Gregory grooming his legions of darkness to one day be ruled by his daughter. They had a path to masterhood already set up, and Adgito wouldn’t need to worry about fighting off swarms of monster children anymore. Or, you know, accidentally becoming one.
“C… could you please,” Isabella asked, choking as tears joined her pile of vomit below, “could you p-please eat the light for me?”
“Wait, what???” Adgito yelped, as cries of enthusiastic agreement were followed up by a room full of vrochthízo leaping directly at her.
Adgito took it back. Isabella would never be useful.