The area under the church was much bigger than it should have been. Long marble halls stretched in three directions from the staircase, with no indication offending anytime soon. The halls were well lit by tiny enchanted bits of core in recessed alcoves above them.
The whole thing looked…modern.
Studding the walls were door after door with reinforced glass windows, and behind each door was a…specimen?
There was a man that looked somewhat like a shaggy minotaur behind one of the doors, except his horns were too thick and his hair looked like he could survive a nuclear winter in comfort and style.
Further along was some kind of snake-child, the age old question of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could stick arms on a snake?’ at least the kid – it was probably a kid – wasn’t stuck halfway between legs and slithering and therefore unable to move.
GArth could just see it hissing ‘kill…meee.’
It seems like they’d found…some kind of research facility?
“Now that’s interesting.” Garth murmured as they followed Shadow, who was snuffling the ground in search of the thing hindering their escape. They followed the hall to the left for a good hundred feet when a door opened behind them, causing Caitlyn to inhale a sudden panicked breath.
Garth put a hand over her mouth again and they leaned into a doorway, pressing into it as flat as they could.
It was a meaningless gesture, more reflexive than thought out.
Luckily for them, the woman who came through the door had her nose in a stack of papers, and was heading the opposite direction.
She wasn’t wearing a lab coat, per se, but she gave off the scientist vibes, and was wearing a white uniform.
Garth dragged Caitlyn along behind him, aiming for the door the woman had just come through, his instincts screaming at him to take advantage of any temporarily unlocked door.
He managed to slide Caitlyn through just before the door latched shut. Shadow oozed under the doorframe and popped back to full size, watching him with a curious head-tilt.
“It’s sneaking around secret government facilities one o’ one,” Garth whispered. “Always go for the slowly closing door.”
Shadow seemed to agree. Or at least it didn’t show any outward signs and going back to sniffing the floor.
The room they found themselves in this time had…a lot more people in it, a bunch of eggheads at the opposite side of the room all staring through a large piece of glass, taking notes and muttering to themselves. There must have been a dozen of them, and if even one of them turned around, Garth would have the unenviable task of punching a bunch of people wearing glasses. Terrible Karma, that.
He still wanted to know what they were looking at.
“don’t let anyone out the door, Garth said, directing a glance at the two of them. Garth tried to harness a little mana, but predictably, the mana was vacuum sealed to the floor. This was a no-go zone.
Garth tiptoed up behind the dozen lab workers, noting that they were rather racially diverse. Two humans, three corio, a benkei, five shinta and a couple oddballs, Garth couldn’t name.
Luckily for him, Garth had recently gotten rather tall, so he was able to make out what they were staring at without having to jostle through them.
What garth saw was horrifying.
There were three children in a dozen cages.
Garth said three because the other children weren’t children, per se. They were Kipling. Little pale lanky mockeries of the human form.
Before Garth could do anything, the frontmost researcher pressed a button in front of himself, and a brilliant light shown down above the tenth cage.
Garth’s Mana Sight being what it was nowadays, he saw the Kipling spirit…or whatever the fuck it was, come down from whatever container it had been held in, circling lazily around the brown-haired boy. It was nearly invisible, bending the mana around it, and it didn’t have much of a form, but it did have eyes that watched its prey hungrily.
Don’t you fucking dare. Garth thought furiously.
As if it heard him, the spirit looked up at Garth and the researchers, and the invisible thing twisted violently before slamming up against the glass, aiming for Garth. The hairs on Garth’s head stood as the researchers began to mutter to each other, heedless of the invisible thing trying to get through the glass.
“Integration is slow. Do you think we got a dud?”
“Give it a minute or two. There’s no rush,” a seasoned corio said, still watching.
The Kipling spirit battered itself against the window futilely for another second before it seemingly gave up, heading for the shivering ragamuffin.
“No, you cocksucker!” Garth shouted, startling every person in the room, including himself.
Rather than take the time to explain what he was doing there or come up with a clever solution, Garth lunged forward, shoved the balding orc with spectacles out of the way and punched the glass, perforating it with his carbon-reinforced knuckle. Garth’s attributes didn’t reflect his self-modifications.
“Come get some, asshole!” Garth motioned to the invisible thing. It seemed to smirk, lazily sliding away from the kid and heading for the hole in the glass.
Now, how the fuck do I deal with a soul-devouring monstrosity that takes bodies with no access to mana?
“What are you doing!?” The corio researcher demanded, seemingly the one in charge of the experiment.
“One side, Jim,” Garth pushed the man away and raised his hand to catch the evil spirit slithering through the hole in the magically warded glass.
It probably wasn’t a great idea, but Garth didn’t really have much of a choice. Garth covered his hand in a thin film of Beladia’s mana, which shrugged off the magic dead-zone like it wasn’t even there. Garth’s green glowing hand clamped down on the wiggling…thing, and he grinned as it’s eyes widened in surprise.
Betcha didn’t see that coming, you little shit.
Beladia’s mana seemed to cause the thing physical pain as it writhed in his grasp, accompanied by a sizzling, popping sensation against Garth’s skin.
Garth brought another mana-laced hand up to tear the thing in half when it managed to squirm out of his grasp. Slippery thing. It gave him a cautious look and instead went for the corio on the ground, slipping around Garth’s hand and up the nose of the corio.
The blue ibex-man began shuddering, his limbs elongating, and his previously flat teeth becoming sharp and pointy.
Hmmm. Let me stop and consider the deep moral ramifications.
Garth grabbed the guy’s horns and twisted, hard and fast, severing his spine.
Killed a kipling, killed a guy who torments children for a living. Win-win.
The Kipling had other ideas though. The invisible spirit flew from the mouth of the corio with his head on backwards and shot into the balding orc.
Huh, this might be more complicated than I thought, Garth thought, as the orc fell to the ground and began convulsing.
Well, when a problem gets complicated, put a bandaid on that shit and ask for help, Garth thought, breaking the orc’s arm and legs while the rest of the researchers began to flee in panic.
The orc finished the transformation, becoming a slavering Kipling version of himself, eyeing Garth hungrily. Unfortunately the creature’s limbs were damaged beyond repair and Garth was sitting on his back, pressing him into the stone floor of the research facility.
There, band-aid applied. Now…
The remaining ten researchers were bottlenecked at the door where Shadow growled at them, the size of a panther.
“Hey, eggheads.” Garth said. “What’s the deal with this guy?” he asked, pointing at the Kipling underneath him.
They were too busy staring at Shadow, who’d grown some pretty respectable fangs.
“HEY!” Garth shouted loud enough to vibrate the industrial spirit-proof glass.
The researchers hesitantly looked back at him.
“What’s the deal with this guy? Is he gonna enter a new body every time I kill him, or what?”
“I…don’t know.” One of the lanky shinta women said.
“Well, what were you studying here? Unless you were just putting Kipling in kid’s bodies for shits and giggles.”
The shinta woman stepped forward and started saying something, but it was interrupted by a snarl from her former co-worker.
“Shut up a sec.” Garth said, busting the creature’s jaw. He glanced back at her. “Go on.”
“You know the theory of the Kipling?”
“A symbiotic species that goes ridealong with dungeon cores. Not being restricted by the speed of light, they take over sapient hosts on the target planet weeks before the cores show up, boosting the odds that a dungeon will complete its lifecycle and poke a hole in the fabric of reality to start the process all over again. The interplanetary version of a virus, actually.
“Um…yes.” She said. “I’m surprised you-“
“I’ve been around the block a couple times,” Garth said, waving it off. “What were you studying in this Podunk backwater?” Garth looked them up and down. They were most likely with the Dan Ui clan, and Earth was being used as a sort of Area 51, where no one really wanted to go anyway.
The plot thickens. Garth thought as the shinta organized her thoughts.
“Think of the collection of realities we experience to be a cluster of bubbles at the bottom of a deep ocean. The kipling came from beyond that abyss, and we know almost nothing about them. If we could understand more about what makes them the way they are, we just might be able to create something that prevents them from entering our realities from beyond the edge of nothing.”
“Huh, and how does putting them in children factor into this?” Garth asked.
“They’re easy to get?” she said with a wince.
“Right, and why were you putting them in anyone, for that matter?”
“We’ve recently developed equipment that can detect Kipling that have mutated. By studying their entire lifecycle, we hope to identify traits that can be more beneficial to society as a whole.”
“You’re trying to engineer them? It sounds like you’re telling me that you’re going through thousands of them, looking for a mutant with exactly the traits you want, like you’re breeding freaking apple trees.”
“Which still leaves the question, why were you using children?”
“I have no excuse.”
“That’s more like it.” Garth said, glancing around. Now, how to put a lid on this shit show.
“But it’s for a good cause!”
Garth put a fist down through the orc’s brain stem, killing him instantly.
The Kipling, having not learned its lesson the first time, tried to dart up and into Garth’s nose.
Garth backhanded the spirit away, toward Ms. ‘it’s for a good cause’ the spirit reoriented itself and shot into her open mouth.
She started convulsing as Garth stood up.
“I might be a bit of an evil scientist type myself,” Garth said, standing up and grabbing the mutating shinta by the back of her neck, hauling her toward the glass.
Garth found the switches to unlock the side door and the last three cages and flipped them.
“But I always stop and think about the cost in suffering before I go on a wild freaking human experimentation bender.”
Garth dragged her past the nine cages with kipling in them, to the tenth, where the moppy headed boy was cowering in the corner of the unlocked cage, staring at him with wide eyes.
“Out.” Garth said, pointing his thumb. The kid nodded and vacated the cage moments before Garth tossed the snarling abomination inside and slammed the door shut. The former researcher began banging on the cage bars in mindless fury.
“You, you, and you, you’re coming with me,” GArth said, pointing at the three kids.
He hadn’t intended to do any rescuing, but now that he was committed, it would feel like a waste of time not to save them. If he left them, the people in charge would go ‘ho hum, let’s continue with the experiments,’ and that would be the end of the kids, so if he wanted all the shit he’d gone through today to have any meaning, he had to get them out of here.
Ah, the good old Sunk Cost Bias. How I’ve missed you.
A thought briefly occurred to Garth and he eyed them suspiciously. Sure hope none of them have a mutant kipling inside them that looks perfectly normal. Garth had seen too many sci-fi horror movies to fall for that lame shtick.
I’ll have Mrs. Banyan keep a close eye on them for a couple weeks, Garth thought as they followed him meekly out the door like ducklings.
Garth got back in the room to find the nine remaining researchers watching him fearfully. Eleven corpses, ten hungry Kipling. Dang, the numbers almost work out just right. well, at least I know what I’m gonna do with them once I’m done with my questions.
“Alright,” Garth said, bending down to use the orc’s uniform to wipe the blood off his hands. “You.” He pointed at the closest researcher. “Which way is whatever is generating the security field? The generator room, or the security room, or whatever it’s called?”
“out the door and to the left. All the way to the end of the hall,” one researcher said, nodding nervously.
“Alright, let’s go check it out together,” Garth said, grabbing the human by the back of the neck and steering him toward the door. “Of course if it’s not the right spot…”
“Take a right, a right! end of the hall on the right!” he squawked.
“Ah, it’s okay, people can be confused during a traumatic event.”
Garth briefly considered bringing some of the researchers with him for debriefing, but his hands were already full with Caitlyn and three cling-ons.
Plus Mrs. Banyan had been getting really passive-aggressive about ‘Operational Security.’
Garth snapped the man’s neck with his fingers.