"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
The first thing I remember was sitting in an unfamiliar city at a cafe with a small half-orc wearing bones, feathers, and a skirt, an elf in robes, and a large human in a shirt so tight that it looked like it would cut the circulation to his brain. I later discovered their names (at least, those that they could remember) – Ku'uvlin and Brawl Dar – as well as that Ku'uvlin was half kobold as well as half orc, an oracle apparently, and that Brawl Dar was some kind of fighter. I also learned that none of this was real. But, at the time, everything was as solid as the page I'm writing on now. The only name I can remember for myself is Luna Teak, and based on my ears (and the way I smell, according to Ku'uvlin), I'm half-elf, half-human. They insist I'm a ranger. Labels…
We sat at the cafe, drinking and chatting, everything going on around us a haze. Whenever I looked around, it was difficult and disturbing, as if I were staring back at myself through a mirror, and I was the reflection. Thick yellow fog swirled through the street on the other side of the window, and slowly drifted in through the open door. Our waiter approached, and said something about "what we want underneath". I turned to speak and my mouth hung open as I saw myself staring back at me, repeating "Let's find out what's underneath." As the waiter spoke, it turned slowly from me to the others, it's face shifting to copy each of us in turn. As it became Brawl Dar, and began mouthing again "Let's find out what's…" Brawl Dar, apparently a man of action not words, flipped the table towards the waiter and shouted "What foul sorcery is this! Beer and coffee, not tricks!" The waiter's face and body melted into a nearly featureless shape, and it menacingly approached.
The fog continued to drift in, and more figures approached. Cloaked in mists, their bodies shifted with a praeternatural threat that left no doubt of the peril we faced. There was no question of what to do – we fled through the unfamiliar streets.
What followed next was most singular indeed. Running through the pallid yellow fog, the four of us were separated. Turning a corner, I was surprised to come across my parents, who had been killed many, many years ago. They had a feral, hungry look in their eyes, and approached me, insisting that they wanted to see the "real me". They embraced me, and I was powerless to move or resist as they sniffed and pinched me. I gagged as a foetid smell of rotting flesh filled the air, and as I broke away, I could see the bodies of my adoptive mother and father transforming, their skin becoming a pale greenish-grey, as their muscles all but wasted away, leaving them almost literally skin and bones. As I fled into the swirling mists, the last I saw of them was razor sharp teeth growing from their mouths and filthy claws from their fingers.
I fled in terror through the strange streets and alleys, as from the mists behind me the sound of something relentlessly pursued me. Exhausted, I turned to face my stalker, and felt my mind shatter as "the yellow fog parted, and a mask of grey rags emerged, strips of something fleshier than fabric worming and constricting across a body that was almost humanlike – mut too lean, and far too flexible. Gauzy grey ribbons reached out like tendrils towards me, each grasping for my less doubtful flesh to claim."1 The creature left no quarter for me to defend myself. It approached with maddening languidness, and suddenly a flicker of metal and a spray of blood and it was over. As I slumped against the wall, my life force draining from my body, I saw the blood spray on the walls had spelled a word "ME". My gaze slumped to the left and I saw the rest of the message "SAVE UP WAKE". I heard the message echoing in my head as everything went black. "Wake up! Save me!"
I woke with a start. Candles flickered behind a barred gate, providing some illumination (thanks to my half elf eyes, this was enough for me to see clearly). I took stock of my situation. I was on some type of cot, in a small cell or cage. Ku'uvlin and Brawl Dar were in the cell with me, also stirring. Through the gate, there was nothing in front of me, but the flickering of the candles to the left, around the corner. From that direction, I heard a wet scrape and the sound of a man moaning. It sounded like someone was in pain. More wet scraping sounds.
Ku'uvlin caught my eye as Brawl Dar sat up, and we both rushed to him, but too late. "Brawl Dar doesn't know where he is!" The wet scraping sounds stopped, and the silence was broken by the sound of something metallic being dropped. Footsteps approached and a figure appeared in front of the cage. She appeared to be a doctor or nurse, from her blood covered outfit. A name tag simply identified her as "Dr. Scaen". She looked in the cage, held her index finger to her mouth, and made a sound, "Shhhhhh…" She went back, out of sight. I rushed to the bars and peered through. Outside our cell was a narrow hallway with a number of cells on either side. To the left, strapped to a table, barely conscious, was a man, covered in cuts, portions of his flesh stripped from his hands and arms and laid on the table before him.
"Doctor" Scaen rummaged through a number of sharp instruments gathered on the table, and selected what appeared to be a garden trowel. As she raised it I cried out "Stop!" She turned, locking eyes with me, and for a moment there was only silence. Suddenly, her face twisted and I was staring into my own visage. "You're next!" she exclaimed, as she lifted the trowel and brought it down to the man's gut. Blood pooled on the table as he moaned in pain. He gazed towards me and silently mouthed a cry for help.
I backed away from the bars, my heart racing and barely able to breath, terrified beyond words at what I had witnessed. Behind me, Ku'uvlin and Brawl Dar had wasted no time. Brawl Dar was dismantling the bed, and had armed himself with a long metal rod. Ku'uvlin passed me a loose brick that he had pried from the wall then armed himself with our chamber pot. Through the bars, he heaved the bucket at Dr. Scaen, covering her in filth. Infuriated, she raced to our cage and berated us, while Ku'uvlin deftly grabbed her key ring and unlocked the gate. "Ho ho, Brawl Dar is here!" Brawl Dar stepped through the gate and swung the bar at Dr. Scaen with both hands, striking her across the brow. Apparently not wanting to face three foes, Dr. Scaen fled down the dark hallway out of the candlelight.
Ku'uvlin and I rushed to the man to aid him, but he his wounds were too much. "Everything went mad … patients, staff, doctors…. monsters… find Chaplain Setrachian…" A blood stained name tag identified him as "Orderly Campre". As we searched the hallway and the cells, we discovered that we all had the same disquieting dream, including being having family and friends transform into ghouls and being stalked and killed by the ragged figure in yellow. In a cell across the hallway, we discovered another sleeping figure – the elf from our dream. Unable to rouse him, we continued searching the hallway.
We came upon a furnace, unlit and cold. Before it were piles of discarded clothes, bloodied and torn. Ku'uvlin and I looked at each other. He sorted through the clothing, and gave a start. "What is this…?" he pondered as he pulled a small violin from the dirty rags. The violin was well made and in perfect shape. Ku'uvlin peered inside and found a little note, with the word "Ausiel". Continuing the other way down the hallway, in the direction that Dr. Scaen fled, we opened a door in the darkness and were assaulted with a foul scent. Ku'uvlin, able to see in the dark with his orc-kobold eyes, was the first to comprehend the horror. "No, no, no…" he muttered. As Brawl Dar came up behind us with a candle, it was clear where the stench came from and who the bloody clothes belonged to.
In this dark stone room, piled up under a chute, lay dozens of corpses, piled on top of each other, limbs askew. They were all naked, with various wounds indicated a violent death by weapon, claw, or bludgeoning. Dozens of bodies that had been casually tossed down a chute. "C'mon", I said. "We've got to find a way out of here." But, unfortunately there appeared only one way out. A stairwell to our right was buried in rubble, as was the passageway heading to the left. It appeared that the only way out was up, and that involved crawling over the corpses.
Once I made up my mind do make the climb, I distanced myself from the gruesome task and scrambled up, into the chute. It was an easy climb, and as I carefully approached the top, I lifted a hatch. I was barely able to make out my surroundings in the dim light coming from under the wall to my right, but it was obvious that I was in a small gardening shed. A small shed with shovels, hoes, forks, wheelbarrows… and a chute for disposing of bodies. Outside it was raining. Brawl Dar and Ku'uvlin followed me up the chute. We gathered some supplies (rope, torch, lantern, flint), and exited the shed. We stood under a small overhang, and looked around the walled garden we found ourselves in. There were a number of fruit trees, and swirling amongst them was that same yellowish mist from our dreams. The sky was completely obscured by the yellow fog, and rain beat down in the garden. We felt heat emanating from the rain. To our right, under the eaves of the roof, was a door with a sign that read "West Ward – Chapel – Facilities – Administration". Across from us, to the east, was a large wall with windows running across the top, and to our north and south the walls had collapsed in rubble. Ku'uvlin pointed out that the wall behind us (to the west) was intact and that there was a door heading in. As we were famished, we walked into the storm to gather apples, but were forced back by the scalding rain.
I listened at the door. Hearing nothing, I slowly opened the door. Inside, a hallway running to the left and right, with a sign
"< Chapel — Facilities / Administration ->" – dimly lit by the pallid daylight and some candlelight from the left. I entered the hallway and immediately felt a sharp pain in my arm. I had been shot by a crossbow bolt. Another flew past me, missing the mark by a wide margin. "C-captain York! Th-there's another!" A voice from the direction of the chapel exclaimed. Huddled behind an improvised barricade of desks and chairs twenty feet from me, a man and a woman, both dressed in uniforms similar to that of poor Campre, aimed crossbows at me. The man was shaking nervously, but the woman's aim was steady and true. "Don't come any closer", she said. Behind the barricade, lanterns lit a hallway which turned to the left, with a number of doors on either side. From a door behind the barricade a man appeared, bearing a crossbow in one hand and a sword on his hip. He wore a scowl on his face and walked with a martial bearing. His uniform confirmed that he was no doctor or orderly. The nervous orderly stood up and whispered to him, his hands shaking violently, as the woman maintained her aim at me. I held up my hands.
Captain York fixed his eyes on mine. "We've no patience for your kind. Leave now or die." I tried to explain but was interrupted. "Enough of your tricks!" Captain York roared. He turned to the orderlies. "Another one came by recently?" They nodded in confirmation. "I think it was – used to be – Dr. Scaen." Captain York regarded me, he called for assistance, and two more appeared. Now, with five crossbows aimed at me, Captain York said, "Tell your friends to enter, slowly." Ku'uvlin scuttled in, and Brawl Dar sauntered. Both were eating apples. Captain York said "Bring me back a body of one of those dopplegangers, and we can discuss your story." I begged him to give us something to fight them with. York's face twisted with rage and he opened his mouth but was interrupted by the nervous orderly, who whispered something. "Fine, Denman, you're probably right." He turned to me. "How many apples do you have. Give us those and we can give you some cloaks and shields." We had collected a couple dozen apples, and I rolled them towards the barricade. Denman, the nervous orderly, entered a door and a moment later came out another door in front of the barricade. While the York and the other orderlies kept their weapons trained on us, Denman gathered the apples and threw a bundle of cloaks and three shields towards us.
"Now go." York motioned with his crossbow down the dark hallway, towards the facilities. "That's where your friend went. Tell her and the rest of your shape-changing to leave us be." We headed off into the darkness.
We quietly skulked off into the dark hallway. Brawl Dar holding a candle and armed with a metal bar, and Ku'uvlin and myself armed with gardening tools and pieces of rubble. Ku'uvlin led the way, as he was unhampered by the complete darkness. As we walked down the dark corridor to the north, it was evident that a great deal of destruction had taken place. The stone ceiling, floor, and walls were cracked, and rubble littered the floor at places. Occasionally a draft blew through a crack. With no idea where to go, but knowing we had to confront Dr. Scaen in order to convince Captain York of our good intentions, we began checking each door as we passed.
A sign next to one door indicated "Boiler Room". Ku'uvlin quietly opened the door, and scurrying sounds filled the air – perhaps seeming louder than they really were because of the darkness. In the far corner of the room, two large round water tanks were connected to the wall by a number of pipes. The boilers were apparently not working, as there was no condensation or heat in the room. Rubble lay scattered about – it was apparent that Dr. Scaen was not in here, although rats were in abundance, as evidenced by the continued scurrying as we searched the rubble. I found a chain hanging from the wall, and as I gathered it, I heard "Brawl Dar sees a light under the pipes!" Sure enough, two small beams of light darted quickly around the room from behind the pipes, casting unsettling shadows in the middle of the room. I was surprised to hear from the direction of the lights a few muttered words – "Hungry… home … lonely" – in Aklo, an otherworldly language found in the Darklands, used by aberrations and other unnatural creatures. Ku'uvlin squatted down, reaching behind the pipes. "I think it's a zoog." The creature bit his hands and would not let it go. The rats in the room began swarming, crawling on us and biting. Finally, the rats scattered and the zoog let go of Ku'uvlin once I promised, in broken Aklo, that we would leave it alone.
We continued our search. In a linen closet, we discovered a pendant. While pondering whether we should grab it, giant centipedes burst out of a crack in the ceiling and chased us away. Continuing into the darkness, the piles of rubble became larger. As we entered the administrative offices, the magnitude of the the destruction became apparent. Entire sections of walls had fallen, making it impossible to move quickly. We carefully balanced as each step caused stone and timber to shift, echoing loudly in the darkness. As we made our way through the offices, we heard a moaning, and came upon an elderly nurse, partially buried in the rubble. I splint her leg, which had been wounded in the cave in. She introduced herself as Grata Rubolia, and slowly followed us as we continued to explore the ruined offices.
Deeper into the administrative offices, we faced another shock. Muttering and mumbling, a doctor stood with his back to us, dissecting the bodies of patients and monsters. Strips of flesh hung from wires strung between shelves. Nurse Rubolia hobbled forward, "Dr. Latchke, these lovely gentle-beings pulled me out of the rubble. They are in need of treatment." Dr. Latchke turned around, its face a featureless mass of flesh, it's coat soaked in blood, and holding a bloody scalpel in its hand. With the scalpel, it pointed at the table. "Lay down and await your turn please", it said good naturedly. Brawl Dar wasted no time, and swung his metal bar at the back of Dr. Latchke's skull, striking home. Nurse Rubolia's face twisted in rage, mimicking Brawl Dar, then settling on Dr. Scaen's face. The "wound" closed up, but although her leg was not really injured, she was now hobbled by the splint I had luckily fashioned for her. She swung her long, sharp claws at Brawl Dar's back, knocking him to the ground, where he struck his head and fell unconscious. Ku'uvlin and I grabbed surgical tools from Dr. Latchke's table, and battled with it. Dr. Lathke's grip tightened around my throat, and I passed out as I saw Ku'uvlin stab it over and over and over, while Dr. Scaen hobbled away, over the rubble into the darkness.
I awoke with a sore neck, coughing and hacking. Looking around at the dim light, I saw that this had been no dream, but that I was actually living in a nightmare. As Ku'uvlin chanted over me, a soothing sensation washed over my neck. I saw Brawl Dar, dragging the body of Dr. Latchke, had similarly been healed. Ku'uvlin shrugged "It just came back to me…" If his memories would return, perhaps mine would as well. We brought the body of Dr. Latchke back to the barricade, and, true to his word, Captain York begrudgingly allowed us is. "I've got my eye on you," he warned.
A group of about twenty survivors were gathered behind the barricade in the a chapel of whatever or wherever we were. We were promised that we would be given weapons and armor if we would help protect the survivors and find more food. Ku'uvlin spent the last of his energy helping to heal the wounded survivors before passing out. As I drifted to sleep, I saw Captain York speaking with a beautiful raven haired woman with pale white skin, confirming that we had brought down a doppleganger and that yes, we could probably be trusted to find the missing Chaplain Setrachian.
1. F. Wesley Schnieder wrote this brilliant description.