Episode 002: The Mind of an Artist, Part 3

Events presented in this journal are assumed to have happened shortly after Episode One. While keeping an open mind, we do believe that the participants of this group have been delving in underground magics and the shadow arts. We advise caution against reading and taking the words of this scholar to heart and with caution.  

Note: Despite its aging, this journal was miraculously well-preserved. The works have been translated to the best of our ability, but the original was believed to be written in a mix of cuneiform and Persian script.

Part Three – New Worlds

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The faint smell of scorched wood and metal smacked us across the face as the doors creaked open. Taking the lead, Avi took no time to scout ahead in the shadows – the same kind that hung over us during our time at the bakery just the day before. Sunset entered next, grip around her sword tighter, while Birdsong followed. Clover, after a smidge of hesitation, entered the building.

      Despite the darkness and shadows, whatever little light streaming through the burnt window panes revealed a large living area, a door leading to another room on our left, and vines crawling around the staircase curling up to the second level on our right. Those paled in comparison to the framed paintings piled on their side against the walls, their contents either too charred or shadowed to make out whatever was painted. Except for a few.

      Having scouted ahead, Avisha stopped in front of a framed piece nearer to the entrance of the next room. Unlike the baker’s shop, the environment was quiet, significantly quiet. While the shadows continued to hang over our heads, each step ended up being accompanied with a cautious gasp from any of us. Inching closer to Avi, we found ourselves in front of a painting almost the size of the wall.

      Barely touched by the flames, the painting stood in its gold-framed glory, a layer of dust collecting over the canvas. As Avi studied the portrait further, we noticed a smirk curling at the corner of her mouth, almost as if she was stifling a laugh. Turning to look at the same thing as she did, a cacophony of sighs, gasps, and steps back filled the air.

      Laid in front of us was the representation of a grand warrior atop a battle horse, its front legs up in triumphant glory, an aura of brighter gold around a proud, noble face. Watching Avisha subtly cover the bottom half of her face with her hand, it was safe to assume that this was a familiar person.

      “This was what you came for?” Birdsong blurted.

      “I’ll get this to the side,” Avi replied, doing her best not to let out a laugh.

      Despite its size, she was able to haul the painting to the side, closer to the exit. While Avi and Birdsong busied themselves, Sunset and I turned to the entrance to the room on the left. Glancing over my shoulder another time, I saw Clover standing at a short distance, in front of a painting of a woman, back dressed only with a sheer shawl, seated on a chaise lounge, facing the entire city of what I could only assume to be Neth.

      “Nargs!”

      Sunset called from beyond the entrance to the adjoining room.

      “Coming!”

#

Darker than the rest of the house, Sunset and I found ourselves in what we could only assume to be the equivalent of a kitchen or pantry. But given the sparks and glow from the contraption in the middle of the room, it felt more like a laboratory than anything else. The sparks crackled from a matte-gold sphere towards the centre of the room. Entirely mesmerized, Sunset found herself drawn to the lights.

      “What do you…”

      It was at this point when Birdsong and Avi appeared at the entrance, looking for both us and likely more items. While Birdsong looked longingly at the bottle-filled cabinets, Avi swept the room in her usual fashion.

      “These look useful,” Avi came back to us with a few bottles – though empty.

      Birdsong snatched and uncorked one of the bottles, retching and returning it to Avi almost immediately. The noble lady laughed.

      “Empty?”

      “I’m looking for more good stuff,” Birdsong said, heading to raid the cabinets.

      “Alcohol vapours can help either way,” Sunset said.

      Running between them, Birdsong happily declared, “One’s still intact!” before pocketing the bottle in her hand and running out. Shaking her head, Avi exited the room, leaving Sunset and I back to where we found ourselves back to where we started in our exploration – the lights.

      Upon closer inspection, intricate machinery revealed itself through a faint glow in the darkness. The crackling of the electricity growing louder by the second, it grew increasingly obvious that the orb was the source of the crackling energy.

      “What is that?” Sunset gathered herself.

      “Something none of us has seen in our journeys, much less studies,” I said, my right fingers tapping my upper thigh as I leaned closer. The chrome sphere had nary a speck of dust on its surface, betraying its recent use in this house. On its sides, a long, clean, metallic shell obscured its systems. This except for a knob on the orb’s right side, attached to what could only look like a ruler of its energy. And another indicator on the left side, with a single number – 6.  

      I reached for the rod the orb stood on with my left hand, then reached for the knob with my right.

      The crackling stopped.

      Sunset’s eyes widened as she turned to me.

      “Seems like something useful,” I replied, “If not, it’s going to tell us something about this place.”

      The screams in the living area interrupted the rest of our conversation.

#

Avi, Birdsong, and Clover had their weapons out and stance limber when Sunset and I burst into the living room. A little late, given how we charged into the bakery with a fire harpy waiting earlier.

      Three figures hunched opposite our comrades, two seeming female and the other looking like a male, the pungent acridity of the chemical burn coming from them. Upon a closer glance, they looked as if they were dripping in some kind of fluid – chemically viscous and somehow, with a sheen of colour under their charred overtones. Avi struck first, stabbing at one of figures, creating a jagged tear down its side – a tear not that different from a sword going through canvas.

      The figure screamed.   

      Sunset charged forward, shredding another one of the figures in seconds. Birdsong followed, stabbing after the figure Avi just damaged. Standing back, Clover still had her eye at the same painting I saw her taking note off. This time, however, the main lady of the painting had the side of her face showing, crying tears.

      The other of the two remaining figures screamed again, a signal for the both of them to step closer.    

From the corner of my eye, they sparkled at the sight of a hanging potted plant over a mezzanine-level window.

      As the acrid smell of paints and chemical burns join the darkness in enveloping our environment, I anchored my concentration on the hanging plant, repeating the runes that have been etched in my head since those days with my old mentors. From my mind, the runes made their way to my mouth and fingers, moving soundlessly as I kept my eyes on the plants, and the figures moved slower as my spell ran its course.

      With the final rune, the figures that seemed to advance in slow motion sped back up, lumbering towards us before one of them became entirely impaled by one of the vines originating from the hanging pot by the window. With my conjured vines tearing one of the figures apart, it narrowly missed the already-injured creature. By this time, Avi was already speeding towards it, finishing it off with a final slash.

      All this time keeping our distance from the mayhem, the shriek from the final creature echoed through the hall, dissipating into nothing but the new shadows that seemed to hang heavier over our heads.

      At the end of all this, we turned our attention to charred remains of the defeated nightmare creatures, then to the staircase swirling up to the second level, and then to Clover, who was now fully planted in front of the painting.

      Where the leading lady was now crying blood, her eyes flooded with burgundy and black, a soundless scream coming from her mouth. Clover’s eyes welled up.

      “Did you…” the words almost came out of someone’s mouth, only to be interrupted with muffled screams and the faintest whir of what sounded like a mix of machinery and laboratory experiments. 

      Then, Clover blinked away.

      “Let’s go,” she said.

      Glancing over to the staircase, Avi led the way.

      Only one way left to go.

#

Author’s Note: The significance of the creatures and scenarios in the nightmare dungeons are explained more in-depth in The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger. You can create your own scenarios and stories in this world by getting the hardcover here, or trying out the game first with the free version here.