Taxmen: High Risk Unit #10

Their rest is undisturbed. But though they awake to the same darkness, something has changed in themselves. It has become easier to accept, their brains working overdrive to rationalize the situation in which they find themselves. They kept watch but apart from eerie sounds that they couldn't trust themselves to have actually heard, the hours slowly burned away like their torch. They lit another one. Another day, another struggle to survive in an unknown place against unknown foes while trying to bring back a dead god that's chosen them while being dead. So it goes, I guess?

Panna has a curious expression when she awakes. Shaking her head in disbelief, she tells them that something strange is happening in her head. When she gave away the memory of her parents, at first when she tried to think of them, her mind just slipped away, refusing to focus on those memories. There was nothing there and it couldn't acknowledge that. But now something different was happening. When she thought of her parents, she saw two women hiding in the dark. They are scared. The fire is going out. One is crying. The other holds her close and then picks up a burned stick and begins to draw on a wall, making strange sounds with her mouth.

Unsure about what to make of this, the crew reassure and then move on.

Back to the first cavern. Back to the hole in the ground.

As they approach it, they catch their breath - there's a person lying down on their belly, peering into the hole. The crew make a sound of greeting, the person spins around. A heavily armoured dwarf stares back at them. Tentative greetings and suspicious looks are exchanged.

The dwarf has no memory. He has no name to give, no explanation for how he got here. The group can clearly tell he's not lying. He asks to come with them. He has a stick, the symbol of his nature god. Tells them to call him Stickman. They look at his armour, they look at his weapons - he can come along.

The hole in the ground is small, too small. While the dwarves and the gnome will be able to make their way through only mildly uncomfortable. The bigger members of the group - Marlowe, Ea and Dal'gurrin - will struggle to fit through, dragging themselves painfully on their bellies, prone. They can't reach for their weapons and they can't turn back. They are committed.

They begin. It feels like hours have passed almost instantly. The darkness, the claustrophobia, the air, the only visual is the sight of the next person's boots crawling away from them. In these moments, they are alone. And when they are alone, they are afraid. Images of their worst fears come unbidden into their minds. Each bend seems like it will reveal some long-suppressed terror. Marlowe begins to sing, anything to stop from screaming.

As they crawl, a weird tingling forms in the back of their skull and then in hits them, this wave of white noise that drowns out all sound, leaving them effectively deaf. Their heart starts beating faster as they panic. They try to twist and look around but they can't. Chipak's suddenly rings in their head, "It's okay. It's okay." His voice has a frantic edge to it. "It's all of us. Keep going, keep going."

They keep crawling, losing all sense of direction. They hear odd scratches through the walls of the tunnel even though they know they can hear nothing. Finally, they get to the end. The first thing that they notice is that they can notice. The cavern is vast, too vast. They see an exit at the far the end. This a darkness - but a different darkness. They see a vast pale beast, a giant white whale, half in the room, painfully stuck in the rent, the scar in reality that they are trying to heal. It is thrashing in agony but with great exhaustion. It is surrounded by these glowing, semi-transparent swirls of colour. They move ... like shoals of fish but they circle the whale, not touching. And the whale keeps thrashing and screaming. It's constant, searing pain the source of the wall of white noise that assails them.

The opening into the cavern seems to be twelve feet off the ground. They all jump down, carefully. Marlowe jumps but forgets for a second that his right arm is shrivelled. He uses it to steady himself and the resultant pain forces him to yelp. The swirling shoals of colour turn and approach them. As they near, each one sees them morphing into the nightmares they envisioned in the crawlway.

A short, burst of violence ensues. Each one wrestling with their own nightmares. Stickman bravely ignores the fiend attacking him and strikes at the one bearing down on Marlowe. He gets bitten in the neck. Tuck vaults over him, striking hard and down with his staff, crushing the head latched onto Stickman. Suddenly, it is quiet again.

They try to read the beast's mind but all they can hear is pain. They try to talk but it is beyond talking. Getting close to the scar means putting themselves in danger, in range of the beast's tortured thrashing. Dal'gurrin, wearing his ethereal blue armour, shields Panna and walks her to the scar.

Marlowe blinks and finds himself, falling in darkness. The eye that is teeth speaks "Little One, the priestess marked you in the name of the snake. I ask you to return the favour - mark her in my name. She grows weak. As she heals his body, she suffers, she loses herself. The others will not suspect. Even if they do, I will give you power enough to destroy them. Feel your right hand. I do not come like a healer, I do no restore. I come like a loving parent at the feast of lights, I bear gifts." When he blinks and opens his eyes, his right hand is still warped but moves with all the agility and deftness as before. Maybe more. There is power here, a lot of power. Marlowe grits his teeth and looks at Panna.

She kneels down and begins whispering, the beast thrashes. The scar closes - the giant white whale is sliced through, stilled, and then the body creaks over and blood, blubber, metallic, noxious smells fill the air and the room. Trying to avoid being trapped under the mass of soupy mish-mash from the inside this giant, sad creature, they run to the exit at the far end, one step ahead of the gushing metallic blood. When finally they seem to have run far enough, they collapse, emotionally and physically exhausted.

The path splits up ahead into two forks. Stickman, their recent companion who acquitted himself so well in the nightmare battle, suddenly looks troubled. He has never had a memory till now but feels something vaguely familiar stirring in his mind. He has been down this path before - the right fork looks familiar. They listen into the left, hear two low hisses. Right fork, it is. They march down, the pathway lit dimly till they see an opening coming up.

Just as they make it out, an odd tugging falls upon them. They try to shake it off but it only gets stronger. Something is pulling them into the hole. Ea and Dal'gurrin lose the fight, they get pulled in. Marlowe and Tuck rope them with their magical friend. They turn to Stickman and see him staring in horror at a thin golden thread rising out of his neck. His memory is back - he tells them, aghast, that he is bait. Like the light at the end of angler fish. He didn't mean to do this, he confesses, he didn't know. The party becomes aware that the opening is a large gaping maw. Some monstrosity is pulling them in. Stickman joins Marlowe and Tuck in holding the rope, keeping Ea and Dal'gurrin out of the waiting jaws. Marlowe tries to cut the golden thread tying the unwitting Stickman to his master but the blade is sliced by its target. Dal'gurrin throws his axe, dimly glowing blue and its edge shears the thread. Stickman feels freer than he has ever been. They begin to pull and pull, Marlowe feels his mind slipping to the monsters' powers but Dal'gurrin struggles and gets himself free just as his friend goes under. Now that he's free Stickman is sucked in as well. But with Dal'gurrin's help, the group drags themselves free. But Ea and Stickman get a glimpse of the inside of the creature and shudder.

They go back to the fork and sit down. It's been a long day and while some are in favour of camping, Marlowe listens to the voices from the left fork. Two hisses, rising and falling, dry laughter. The voices are talking:

"Has that cetacean stopped blubbering?"
"Blubbering, nice." wheezes
"Or have we just gotten used to it's constant whining?"
"That blind bag of rocks - it's not the only that's dying."
"Nobody knows how to die with dignity these days. Shame, I tell you. "
"Shame."

Curious, the group enters the left fork and finds themselves facing a large, wrinkled two-head snake. The snake looks at them, asks if they'd be willing to politely walk into its mouth and when they say no, it goes back to talking to itself. Asavansi sent us, they say. Does that mean he's coming back?, asks the snake, because this place has gone to shit. Yes, they say, will you show us the way out? The snake moves aside and reveals the way past. Find some food and send it into our mouths please, ask the snake. They continue, and when you kill things, make sure they suffer, damn squatters.

Photo credit: Srividya Tadepalli <3