The narrow alleyway quickly grew crowded as everyone returned, sacks bulging with loot. Kethys questioned each as they returned, just in case it was a doppelganger. Checking to be cautious, Stathis extended her senses towards Janaxia, getting the usual sense of crushing, all-encompassing doom. That shouldn’t ever be a reassuring sensation, but at least it meant it was actually her. Next she turned to Parth. ‘Tell a joke.’
Parth looked confused for a moment before answering. ‘Hope.’ She chuckled to herself.
Well, the response was definitely brief enough to be Parth, even if that was darker than Stathis had expected. Now, if they could just wake Semari up, and then find an exit from wherever the hell they were, then they could get paid, and get a more normal job. And there was still whatever Kamarni’s deal was, but that could wait until they were somewhere a little safer. Worst case scenario, they could just leave him here and keep looking for the real one. With Kethys, Hadric and the others, now probably wasn’t the time to figure out why the hell some underworld (literally) doppelgangers had kidnapped another of their kind, or at least something similar.
Karami tried to speak, as Stathis cut him off, in no mood to deal with whatever complaints he had. They made their way back, taking various back alleys and side streets, just in case of any pursuers, and giving Stathis more of a view of the strange town – the buildings all looked ancient, worn and eroded into similar anonymity, and many were sized for things larger than humans, with single chambers now subdivided into separate floors, or doors that had the top part filled in with brickwork. And the inhabitants were decidedly different than what might be seen in the surface word – Kethys was far from the only dark elf they passed, along with other, stranger-looking probably-people; a humanoid mound of moss and greenery bustled past, while a juddering, grinding mass of soil somehow spoke, voice deep and slow, bartering with a bored-looking dwarf shopkeep.
Coming at it from a different direction, it took Stathis a moment to recognise the place as the hideout. Semari shambled towards them, head down, arms hanging limply. Behind Semari, the door of the shop was only half attached, showing signs of having been smashed through from the inside. Judging by the blood trickling down Semari’s knuckles, it was obvious what had happened, although she seemed barely coherent, never mind capable of violence.
As Stathis ran over, Semari turned towards her, head lolling, eyes glazed and unfocused. Stathis shook her by the shoulders, trying to snap her out of it, just ragging her around without resistance. As the others approached, there was a scream from towards the back, dragging her attention away. One of the rogues was on the ground, collapsed in a pile of blood, a figure stood over them, knife glinting in the red light before they bought it down for another stab, accompanied by another scream of pain.
Stathis pushed Semari towards Janaxia as gently as she could, before spinning to face this new threat. Ahead of her, Hadric charged, sword swinging, as the attacker dodged around, evading the swift strikes with ease. Even as Kethys circled around and flanked them, they flung an arm out, bolt of lighting snapping the area with brilliant light, earthing itself into Kethys’ chest, stopping her in her tracks, armour still crackling with energy.
The hood of their cloak fell back, revealing a crimson scar of a face, covered with cuts and brands and scars, their original features virtually impossible to see beneath the damage. As she watched, their features shifted and warped, becoming a bland, unremarkable face, although unstable, parts occasionally warping and shifting to reveal the wrecked mess below.
Stathis charged in, just in time to parry a blow aimed at Hadric, feeling a shock run through her arms from the impact – how strong was this thing? A moment later, a blue-white glow blasted out, lighting coming through the blade, and into her. Stathis felt her body clench and spasm, a momentary loss of control sending her reeling, world fading for a moment. An azure-blue bracer on one wrist crackled with energy, an obvious source of the lightning. It hissed at her, before jumping and flipping around an attack from Kethys, dancing inbetween her strikes before slashing at her wrist, knocking one of Kethys’ daggers away.
Hadric and Stathis attacked it from behind, the thing dodging Hadric’s strike as Stathis thrust, earning a glancing strike. She focused, her blade shining golden for a moment as holy power enhanced the strike, the thing’s flesh burning and melting away into ash, an unearthly yowl aiding to the general noise and chaos.
The thing’s entire body shifted and warped, joints cracking and popping until it had reversed itself, coming face to face with Stathis. Its face was now further warped, savage fangs shaping themselves out from a split and bleeding maw, the only sign of humanity brown eyes staring out from the warping, twisted face. Their voice was harsh and twisted, even as their body continued to shift and grow, bony plates and claws sprouting.
‘Stathis Iristari, your sister did this to me! I can’t get her, but I will kill you!’
Stathis pulled her blade back, just in time to avoid another burst of electricity, bringing herself back to a guarded position. What the hell had Carissia done? Bandits, cultists and crazed wizards, those were fair game, but this was something more, whatever humanity this thing had once had now warped and cracked into a twisted, broken monster. An arm, suddenly rippling with muscle and crackling with lightning, sliced through the air towards her, the fingers bearing vicious claws – even as she blocked it, she was knocked back, electricity channelling itself through her blade again, sending her into another painful spasm as she smashed into a wall, barely rolling to her feet to avoid a crushing blow that sent up a plume of debris as the stone floor was crushed.
Several bolts of darkness shot in as Janaxia contributed, the creature batting them out of the air before retaliating by hurling a paving slab back, the thing heavy enough to crush Janaxia’s head, if she hadn’t thrown herself to the ground in time. Semari, still in a daze, was staggering towards it, bland curiosity on her face, as several arrows, each glowing green, embedded themselves into its body, without effect. A moment later, magical vines sprouted from the ground, wrapping themselves around the mutated body and trying to pull it to the ground. With a grunt of effort, it flexed, breaking free, the vines withering to dust and ash.
‘Semari! Stay back!’ Whatever state Semari was in, she didn’t respond, moving close to the monster. Lightning flared again as it backhanded her through the air, her body smacking into a wall with a sickening crunch, her usual agility gone as the stone crunched under the pressure, Semari falling to the ground.
Stathis managed to drag herself to her feet, settling into a defensive position, wondering if it was worth trying to draw the thing away, loose it somehow. Then Semari stood up, slowly cracking her neck as though wakening from a long sleep, taking a deep breath. It made a fist and punched the air, a bolt of lightning coursing into Semari, sending her entire body into spasming twitches, back arching, head drawn back. The lightning faded away, Semari now smoking slightly, her clothing singed.
Then her eyes snapped open, burning white with power, as she looked around, taking in the scene. The creature charged, moving to simply crush her into the wall, as Semari reacted, fast enough that her actinic afterimage burnt through the air behind her. In a flash, she was inside the arc of the creature’s swing, and paid out a swift combo of punches, her strikes simply absorbed by the mass of the thing without effect, bruises fading away in seconds.
She jumped back, just in time to avoid its attacks. Her stance was that of a trained fighter, hands high and spread, body side-on, totally different from her usual, relaxed posture. Semari dodged a succession of attacks by bare inches, the minimum movement required to ensure safety, soaking another electrical blast, before coming to a halt as the thing punched and missed, it’s arm at maximum extension.
Then she countered, one hand gripping the sparking electrical bracer, the other unleashing an open palmed strike at its elbow, shattering through skin and bone, before twisting and wrenching, ripping the limb away. The creature howled in agony, flailing blindly with its other arm, as Semari dodged in close and targeted what weak points she could, mustering sufficient force to harm it. It shook her off and backed away, smaller wounds already healing, flesh warping and bubbling over the stump of the arm.
Its voice hissed and cracked, some internal warping evidently still occuring, even as it backed away, Semari now keeping a wary stance. ‘Iristari Stathis! You, and all your wretched family will pay!’ It tensed and leapt, jumping onto a building roof and racing away, pace greater than even Semari could match.
As Stathis sank against a wall, the stress running out of her, there was a popping hiss and the scent of beer, Kethys spraying down Semari. Lightning cracked and popped, beer steaming away as the energy in her was drained away, leaving her swaying again. Apparently a giant mutating monster-person and lightning-fuelled combat was enough to draw attention, even in a place like this, heads peeping cautiously out of hiding places, so Stathis allowed herself to be taken inside, away from prying eyes.