• Published 1st Dec 2017
  • 1,412 Views, 392 Comments

End Game - Meep the Changeling

When an Old One stakes the future of Equestria on a game, Vinyl Scratch vows to win at any cost. But can she win the game when Hastur the Unspeakable could be anyone at all within the gameworld? Even an ally?

  • ...

2 - The Dark Fortress

Stonerake Exclusion Zone
Entry to this area is prohibited due to the likelihood that any activity could resurrect an ancient evil which constitutes an immediate threat to all surrounding life.
Zone is protected under Article 7, Paragraph 3 of the Numerica Naval Assistance Charter. Co-signed by Queen Halevic the Goldscaled of Wieav.

  • Signs placed on the beaches of Stonerake Island

Vinyl Scratch - Day 1

Stonerake Exclusion Zone - Wieav

The sun had been high when the team began to repair the derelict sailboat. The rotten old boat had taken more care and craftsmanship to make seaworthy than anyone could have known. Even underway, the boat leaked like a sieve, kept afloat only by a few well placed bunches of banana leaves and constant bailing. Now, as the distant island at last drew close, the sun kissed the horizon as the very last moments of twilight began to slip by.

Sky looked across the lake towards the mountain astern of their crudely repaired boat, doing his best to ignore the cold wind which kept blowing his cloak’s hood back, lowering his one protection against the very same chilly wind.

“Anyone else wish they had a camera? That sunset is really cool,” he said as he looked into the yellow-green glow which coated the lower half of the sky.

The alien sun’s fading rays created a sight much like an aurora, with a thick shimmering band of green light covering the horizon, with just a hint of yellow along the topmost ridge.

Lyra thrust a bucket up through one of the many holes in the deck, and quickly dumped it over the side before nodding in agreement.

“Yeah, it’s really cool. We seriously need more people bailing through!” She warned, jumping back down below deck with a splash.

“I’m steering,” Sky protested. “Besides, we’re nearly there. So calm your tits!”

“I can’t! I have to bail,” Lyra shot back playfully as she kicked her bucket back below decks, jumping after it with an audible splash.

Vinyl glanced up from her oar, looking towards the oddly barren island in front of them. A few scraggly trees met her gaze. Spaced oddly around the island.

The forest looked way thicker from a distance, she noted to herself. “It’s cool, Lyra. We’ve got about… Two hundred meters to go. Not a bad swim if it comes to that.”

Below the deck, Chem laughed triumphantly. A heartbeat later, a bucket seemingly floated on its own up from yet another hold in the deck to dump itself out. “It’s fine, Ly,” the Old One said happily. “I figured out how to use magic! If we can find another bucket I can do one myself, and one with sourcery.”

“It’s just a shame we couldn’t caulk the hull better,” Twilight sighed, her oar creaking as she pulled back on the hastily shaped log. “We would have been there by now with four rowers.”

“We literally just jammed banana leaves in the gaps. What did you expect to happen?” Sky snickered, moving the tiller slightly to avoid some rocks.

“For you to use those tools?” Lyra called from below decks. “Make some proper patches for the hull. Whip up some fast drying resin?”

“With what supplies?” Vinyl asked, shaking her head slightly before returning to look at the island.

I swore everything was more… Filled in, she mused, looking at the clumps of jarrah trees which dotted the island here and there. We used to be able to see the castle through the trees, but now I’ve got a mostly clear view of it. Distance couldn’t produce that kind of illusion, could it?

Her eyes continued to roam over the island and it’s castle, pondering what, if any, magical defenses the place might have.

The island jutted up from the lake at an odd angle. It wasn’t quite level with the ground upon which it sat; like the centerpiece on a feasting table. The castle’s central keep tilted ever so slightly to one side, as if the island had partially sunk, or rested atop an unstable base.

The trees too looked odd. They grew straight enough, making the odd angle of the castle much more obvious. Their problem was being scattered around the island in odd little clusters. FIve here, then there, all clusters growing in a completely unnatural pattern. Yet, who would plant trees in such a manner?

At least the grass between the trees grew in a fairly normal way. Long strands of blue grass waved in the breeze, with a few ferns and patches of flowers popping up in a fairly even distribution across the whole of the island.

Despite their patchy placement, the trees still managed to blanket every last patch of flowers in shadow.

Vinyl shivered slightly. It’s like dad designed this place and felt like making everything extra sinister, she thought before turning her eyes to the castle itself. That angle… Is that a star shaped wall design? Odd. Probably some sort of magical defense built into the walls requires that shape.

The castle’s ancient moss covered walls were indeed very angular. The outwards faces sloped downwards, giving the walls an eighty degree face. They were also laid in an angular pattern to form an eight sided star. Each corner had a tower to defend it. An odd, wedge shaped tower with the wedge pointing outwards, studded with defensive openings.

A tall tower-like keep loomed over the entirety of the fortifications. It’s simple hexagon shaped design fit the walls rather well, and it would have blended in seamlessly with the rest if not for one single feature.

A single window ran around the top of the keep. A glass window, one tall enough to be the entire wall for a floor. A glass wall behind which, amid the dismal shadows, one would swear they could see things… Moving.

Vinyl squinted at the window, lamenting the lack of her vampiric vision. I swear there’s something moving up in there… She grumbled to herself. Too bad there isn’t any lights on that I can see. Or… Is there? Maybe a few candles? Nah, that’s just sunlight reflecting on the glass.

“Nearly there! You guys should get up here so we can get off,” Sky called as the boat began to cut through the shallows.

Vinyl blinked herself back to reality, realizing she had been studying the island and castle for several minutes. “Whoa! I kinda zoned out there. Sorry! I didn’t mess up the rhythm, did I?” she asked turning to look across the boat at Twilight.

Twilight shook her head no, anything she might have said being cut off by Chem jumping up onto the deck through a hole in the bow, his boots and pants dripping water onto the deck.

“About time! This boat was not built for tall people… Wait, why the heck wasn’t I rowing? Twilight got to row because she wouldn’t fit below deck,” He complained as he popped his neck and stretched his shoulders. “Stupid body I can’t just block pain from…”

“You wanted to bail. You thought it would be ‘An important and noble duty’. Then you giggled at the word duty,” Lyra reminded as she pulled herself up through the hatch, grunting as she was forced to lever herself up due to the missing stairs. “I hope there’s a dock and some other boats on the far side of the island. I don't think this boat will make a return trip. It’s a big hunk of junk.”

Vinyl frowned and gave Lyra an apologetic look. “I’ve been checking the place out and I can’t see any signs that someone lives here. So, probably not.”

“Eh, if that’s true we’ll have stuff we scan salvage to make real repairs,” Sky reminded trembling slightly as the boat’s keel smacked into the muddy beach with a dull thud. “Whoa! Not used to two legs…”

Twilight let go of her oar and stood up, looking down at the beach. “Huh… It’s all mud. The lakeshore is sand. This island sank. And recently. Sand is deposited on beaches pretty quickly.”

Sky raised an eyebrow, giving Twilight an odd look. “Um, yeah. Quickly on a geological scale maybe. It’s more like, this mud should have been washed away in a few days. You don't get mudflats and sandy beaches in the same lake.”

Vinyl stood up and vaulted over the sailboat’s railing, wincing slightly as her boots hit the ground beneath the mug causing the weight of her armor to slam into her shoulders, sending her stumbling sideways. Okay, important note. This halburk is not fitted very we-

Vinyl’s hip struck something hard, a thin stick immediately snapping under the impact with a sharp crack.

“Huh?” Vinyl asked herself with a frown, turning to look for whatever she had struck.

“Great we broke part of the ship!” Lyra moaned as she climbed over the side herself.

“No, this is something different…” Vinyl said slowy as her hands felt a crudely woven silk fabric.

Vinyl grabbed the fabric, her claws digging into the material as she pulled on it as hard as she could. The cloth resisted. She ripped it free with a second yank, a large tarp-sized sheet of fabric ripping away, almost invisible save for a telltale shimmer in the air as it was removed.

Beneath the camouflage sheet lay a crude raft built from freshly cut banana trees, bound together by equally fresh vine ropes. A small scaffolding made from sticks had kept the fabric held up just enough for a person of Vinyl’s size to lay down on the raft, along with perhaps ten others.

Vinyl’s eyes narrowed. “That settles it. The castle is occupied,” she said firmly.

“Why’s that- Oh. That’s a stealthed raft,” Twilight said as she jumped overboard, her hooves sinking fairly deeply into the muddy beach on impact, prompting the mare to cringe. “... Ew… The mud is warm! Why is it warm?”

“What’s this about stealthed rafts?” Sky asked as he disembarked their boat by sensibly lowering himself over the side then letting go.

Vinyl hefted the camouflage tarp in her hands, her uncertainty growing as she looked off through the thin woodland towards the castle.

“This raft would hold enough people to make a commando team,” Vinyl analysed as she searched the area for any hidden soldiers. “The tarp couldn't have been made in the field, but the raft was. This is the sort of thing Luna would have us do on a mission where we needed to parachute out of an airship then approach some place unseen with a boat.”

Lyra nodded in agreement, immediately walking around the raft slowly, bending down to inspect the ground around it. “Yeah… You don’t need to approach an abandoned ruin while invisible. Animals and monsters don't care about something floating on the- There’s six more of them! Look at the water.”

Vinyl turned her head, looking at the waterline in the direction Lyra was pointing.It took her a moment, but then she saw it. The lake’s tiny waves lapped gently along the shore, except for in five rectangular patches a short distance down the coast.

“This bodes ill. Perhaps we should turn back,” Chem proposed worriedly. “Or are all of you ready to fight? I am, but I don't know if you’ve adjusted yet.”

“Mmm… There’s hoof- Uh, I mean footprints in the mud,” Lyra continued, her tail lashing as she walked around, stooped over to inspect the ground. “They were wearing shoes that obscured their prints but a LOT of people were here. Like… At least fifty. And these prints are fairly fresh.”

Twilight’s tail flicked in alarm as she looked off towards the forest. “Are you telling me that a platoon of comandos landed on the shore recently?”

Vinyl nodded once. “Yep. Looks like it. Which means that castle is occupied. Or at the very least someone thinks it is,” she said looking at the cloth one more time before drawing her sword.

This was the first time Vinyl had taken her blade out of its scabbard. Her sword was a very unassuming weapon, a simple disk pommel, a crossguard with a slight V shape to it. But the blade? The blade glittered and shone brightly even in the dim twilight. It’s bright white finish almost looked painted on, and the edges seemed to disappear from sight as you looked at them.

Huh, that’s pretty cool! Weird that a part of this sword is fancy when nothing else is though, Vinyl thought as she began to slice the cloth into large squares.

“I don’t like this,” Sky mumbled quietly. “Maybe we should turn back?”

Chem hummed and nodded in agreement. “Maybe, but then we don’t have any affiliations here. Perhaps we could ally with these commandos. We don't know they are hostile after all. And besides, the raft is sized for kobolds. Wieav is populated by them. They might be the military. In which case we, as lost travelers, could ask for assistance.”

Twilight hummed and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “That’s true. Or if they are bandits we could warn the castle, maybe even help a bit. Then have a favor owed to us!” She proposed.

“Yeah… Or we could get our plots kicked,” Lyra snorted. “Or did you figure out how your magic works on the ride over?”

“Yes, actually. It’s fairly simple,” Twilight replied. “I- Um, Vinyl? What are you doing?”

Vinyl finished cutting the cloth and looked up at Twilight giving her a huge grin. “Not abandoning the active camouflage cloth. Duh! Everyone, take a shitty cloak!” She announced, holding out the sheets of cloth she had cut. “We’ll need these.”

Sky frowned as he took his ‘cloak’. “Not that I don't like active camo but, I really don’t want to sneak over there and poke my head into a battle.”

Vinyl sighed and pointed to the rafts. “Fifty. Commandos,” she said slowly, emphasizing each word to make her statement clear as crystal. “We can't sail away from here. They will see us leaving. It’s basically a miracle they didn't see us coming. We know they didn’t because we’re not being shot full of arrows or magical firebolts.

“If we sail away form here they will see a boat leaving and assume whoever they are here to kill is getting away. Our only good options are to go to the castle and get more info, or we can hide.”

Sky nodded slowly, quickly fastening his new cloak over his old one. “And either way these help. Oh! We could cover our whole boat with the other tarps and leg it.”

Twilight an eyebrow. “Um, you cut up their tarp. They will know we’re here,” she said gesturing to the lightly shimmering patches in Vinyl’s hands before taking one for herself.

Lyra winked at her. “Yeah. But the BIG BOAT ON THE BEACH will give that away! This way they at least don't know where on the island we are. The only question is do we hide, or do we advance?”

Chem hummed and crossed his arms over his chest for a moment before taking one of the cloaks from Vinyl and putting it on, making him the last of the group to conceal themselves.

“I vote we at least look at what’s going on. We could stand to gain much,” he decided with a short nod.

“That’s true,” Sky agreed. “And Lyra’s right. They will know we’re here, or have been here if we sail off. The boat will leave a mark in the shore.”

“I think we could maybe make a run for it,” Lyra said uncertainty. “I mean they just have rafts… But, the boat is also pretty bad. I also vote we check things out first. We can always run and hide.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. There’s trees here and we know that the water is safe enough for crude rafts to cross. We can get back to shore. And splitting up would be the worst thing we could do. Especially if we’re being watched right now. Okay, let’s get going.”

“Lyra, take point. Everyone stay single file,” Vinyl ordered, flinching as she suddenly remembered exactly who was in the party. “Uh, sorry Princess Twilight. Force of habit.”

Twilight shook her head. “No no, it’s fine.This is your job. Commanding stealth operations. My heroics are more above board. Different tactics. Lead on,” Twilight insisted with a wave of her and before pulling as much of herself into her cloak as her large body would allow.

While her legs and some of her plot remained uncovered, the island’s grass was quite tall and would do the rest of the work. Eh, partial invisibility is better than none at all, Vinyl decided after a moment’s worry.

Wait, her heroics? Vi thought, raising an eyebrow slightly. Never heard her not give the credit to the Elements as a whole before. She must be trying to not think about them. It’s what I would do. Plan using the team you have. If we had Octy and Bonbon here this whole thing would be much easier.

Vinyl nodded, bundled herself up, and began to follow Lyra as she slowly made her way inland towards the castle.

The five made their way through the sparse woodland towards the castle, pausing briefly to allow Lyra and Vinyl to explain a few basic aspects of stealth to a certain Old One. Only a hundred yards of ground lay between the outer walls and the lake. Lyra’s slow methodical pace combined with the castle’s gate being located on the far side of the island made the relatively short trip take quite some time.

With each step taken towards the castle, a sense of dread grew ever stronger. If this were Equestria, everyone would have been fine. Twilight on her own could handle fifty opponents. But this was not Equestria, and they did not have an archmage with them.

We still need more information. Maybe I should I send Lyra in on her own? She is out best scout... No. Pairs are best. I’ll go with her, Vinyl decided, hoping that the others could remain unseen while they quickly scoped out the situation.

By the time the castle's gate was within the team’s view, the sun was just barely over the horizon, shining a mere sliver of light across the lake, making the tiny waves crests glitter and shine as if the water were a rippling silver mirror. The twin moons were setting as well, plunging the land into a much darker state than any of the five were familiar with. Within a few more minutes, the world would be plunged into near-total darkness.

Fortunately, a path of sorts had been found. The well trampled earthen pathway led around the wall at just the right distance to be a road, and after following it for just a few minutes the squarish outline of a gatehouse could at last be seen ahead.

“What kind of fantasy world doesn't have moons out during the night?” Chem grumbled quietly as he carefully stepped over a fallen branch to avoid getting yelled at again.

“I don’t even want to think about the nocturnal predators here,” Sky whispered back, nervously fidgeting with his rifle’s grip. “They’ve probably all got sonar or… Or… Huh… Did the world just turn green for everyone else?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “No?” She said quietly but curiously.

“I seriously just blinked and it’s like I’m looking through old school night vision goggles!” Sky exclaimed in a mixture of happiness and confusion. “I’m so glad that it’s not a spotlight. I guess these humans can see in the dark.”

“Shhh!” Lyra hissed. “I can see something ahead.”

Vinyl squinted nervously ahead, searching for possible enemies who might be lurking in the growing darkness. This is so not okay! I need my real eyes. Is this what night is like for normal ponies?

Everyone heard a soft scraping sound as Lyra moved something. “It’s a person. Humanoid. My size but not a kobold. It’s very very dead,” Lyra reported with a hint of sadness in her voice.

“Cause?” Twilight asked quietly as she crept over to Lyra, following the sound of her voice.

“Um… Executed?” Lyra suggested uncertainty. “He wasn’t hurt in battle. His throat and wrists have been slit. But like, surgically. This was done with a scalpel.”

Everyone moved forward slowly, the slight lump in the road becoming visible as they drew near, eventually resolving into a small humanoid creature. It was scrawny with an oversized head, pale green skin, knifepoint ears, and an absurdly wide mouth filled with needle-like teeth.

It had to have been intelligent in life. A camouflage patterned brigandine vest protected its torso, and its large head was clad in a simple domed helmet lacking any sort of face protection and held on with a leather chin strap.

Despite having the crudely fashioned armor no sign of a weapon could be found, nor any equipment for that matter save for two torches tucked into the creature’s belt. The corpse wore pair of boots with brushes around the edges, revealing it to for certain have been one of the people who had used the raft. A pair of green lensed brass goggles were its final accessory.

Just as Lyra had said, the creature lay in a pool of its own blood, his throat and wrists slit with a single expertly delivered cut each.

“It’s a goblin!” Chem exclaimed with genuine surprise.

“Shhh!” Vinyl urged quickly glancing up at the walltop to make sure they hadn’t been heard. “This guy’s only been dead a few minutes. The blood is still wet!”

“I’m sorry,” he quickly and quietly apologised. “These creatures are like humans, they occur in many worlds, but in much much less than humans. We’re in luck! I know their psychology well. I can easily convince them to help us with like, our entire quest. They make for excellent mooks.”

“They are friendly?” Twilight asked curiously. “In that case, let’s help them take the castle.”

Vinyl and Lyra shared a quick look of stunned disbelief. “A-are you nuts?” Lyra asked, raising an eyebrow.

“There’s no way their cultures are always identical,” Vinyl pointed out skeptically. “Maybe you can convince a few but we don’t know what this world is like. Maybe these goblins are a scourge on the world.”

“Oh they always are,” Chem agreed quietly. “But the promise of wealth and a few flashes of magic always get them to listen to you.”

Lyra frowned. “It’s a bad plan… I know you’ve done this a lot but-”

“Nineteen million, eighty seven thousand, five hundred, and forty seven times,” Chem informed proudly. “Goblins. Are. Easy. To. Recruit. And they are hard workers to boot! If I ever needed real things made, I used goblins. When available.”

“Yeah, how about we don’t recruit a people that everyone hates?” Sky suggested. “Also, we should keep moving. I don’t like this… They killed one of their own and dumped him here before a raid. What kind of people does that?

“Sure, maybe there’s a good reason. But we need more information. We came here to get information, let’s just do that and not make any dumb decisions. Hey, maybe we should befriend these guys. We don’t know. Whatever we do, let’s do it now.”

Chem sighed. “Alright… We’ll put a pin in it. Let’s keep moving.”

“I still think it’s a good idea,” Twilight pushed. “An army would make this mission a lot easier.”

Vinyl sighed and nodded at Lyra, the two quickly resuming the walk towards the gate. The two made it another fifteen steps before freezing in their tracks.

The castle’s gate had been blown open. Freshly splintered wood, charred timber, and ash filled the gaping hole in the ancient, foreleg thick, ironwood timber gate. A few motes of orange light glowed on the edges of the hole as the odd coal sill smoldered from the recent explosion.

I didn’t hear a Sisters’ damned thing! A blast big enough to put a hole in that… We would have heard it anywhere on the lake. They have silent explosives! There’s no way these guys are not backed by a major world power. Vinyl thought to herself, as her face twisted into a horrified expression at the thought of what creatures could do with soundless bombs.

“Vinyl,” Lyra whispered her left hand appearing out from under her camouflage cloak as she pointed to the entryway.

Vinyl squinted slightly, her eyes still not used to the ever growing darkness. “Oh…” She whispered at seeing five more goblin bodies laying just inside the ruined entrance.

Lyra and Vinyl slowly approached the five bodies, the shadow cast by the gatehouse concealing the courtyard’s blood slicked black marble tiles until the very last possible moment. Lyra bent down to inspect the bodies, wincing as she realized the bodies had fallen in battle.

“Just like the other. Wrists cut. Throat slit, one clean cut for ea…” Lyra trailed off, her tail raising in alarm.

“What?” Vinyl whispered, her hand reaching down beneath her cloak for her sword.

Lyra wordlessly pointed to one of the five bodies. Unlike the others, this one’s goggles were not covering both its eyes. The left eyepiece had been pushed upwards leaving the eye exposed for a large needle-like dart which had been plunged through the eye, presumably into the poor creatures brain.

... Hatty’s words aside, this is not a game. Stop treating it like a game, this is REAL! Vinyl yelled at herself before quickly starting to strip the goblin bodies of their goggles.

“What are you doing?” Sky hissed as he drew near. “O-oh.. What are they carrying that’s useful? I’ll help.”

“The goggles!” Vinyl yelped. “Put them on! Whatever is defending this keep goes for the eyes. With darts! They have a VERY good aim.”

“It’s… The tip is in the brain,” Lyra whispered quietly. “Right through the optic nerve. How… What has this kind of precision?”

Chem stepped forward, looking at the gruesomely butchered goblin and cringed. “Ooo, nasty! I don’t think the goggles will protect against that sort of force.”

Sky pulled a pair off the goblin closest to him and inspected the lenses. “There’s a reason they all wore these,” he said confidently. “If not for protection, then something else…”

“Maybe don’t put on something their attackers are using? I don’t want to mess with these people,” Lyra warned urgently as she took a torch from the goblin’s belt. “We’ll need light soon though. So, grab a torch.”

Vinyl immediately dropped the three pairs of goggles she had taken. “That’s a very good point. Thanks, Lyra. You probably saved my life.”

Sky debated with himself for a moment, and then stuffed the goggles he held into a pouch on his belt. “I think I’ll keep- Girls! Look, the courtyard,” he said pointing with his left hand while bringing his rifle to bear with his right.

Everyone looked up. The last pale light of the day shown over the walltop, casting long shadows over the battlefield which stretched across the courtyard. At least a dozen more bodies lay in twisted heaps, wherever a goblin had spasmed their last. No one had reclaimed their weapons. A few daggers, swords, and a bow or two lay on the ground, near or in its owner's hand.

Small lumps of ash dotted the spaces between the goblins, the fine gray powder blowing away slowly in the late evening breeze. Whatever had burned was a mystery, but the staggering number of spent torches which cluttered the entirety of the battlefield told exactly what had done the burning.

At the far end of the battlefield, the keep’s door lay ajar. Quietly, so quietly as to be nearly inaudible, a scream pierced the night, echoing as it left the interior of the keep.

Twilight’s eyes widened at the sound. “There’s still a fight happening! People are in danger, we have to help!” She shouted running for the open door, her hooves clicking loudly on the marble tiles.

“WAIT!” Vinyl hissed loudly, reaching out to try and grab her, but the four legged deertaur proved far too fast to grab hold of.

Twilight sprinted across the courtyard, nimbly forging the fallen goblins, arriving at the door and tossing it open before her friends made it even halfway across. Grabbing the edge of the open door with her hands, Twilight tossed it open, quickly muttering a few phrases in an arcane tongue, her body sparkling slightly as magical protections enveloped her graceful form.

Well, at least she has Mage Armor, Vinyl sighed as she drew her sword.

As her hand gripped the blade with the intent to do battle, alien memories flooded her mind. The way this body was meant to use the weapons she had been given seemed to come out of the scabbard alongside her sword. How to stand. How to move. It was all there.

Vinyl slipped the kiteshield off her back, quickly sliding her arm through the straps. Her stride not even breaking as she swept the shield in front of her.

Ponyfeathers! I should have checked my pack for any magical weapons. Vinyl cursed as Twilight rushed inside the castle.

The screams grew louder the moment everyone crossed the threshold and entered the ancient building. The five had entered directly into the castle’s great hall, if the massive size of the room was any indication. A major security flaw, poor castle design. Unless of course, something truly horrible protected this place.

The great hall’s wooden floor was slick with goblin blood. A terrifying amount of the poor creatures were piled up against a door on the right hand side of the great hall. Their living comrades having resorted to making a barricade from their fallen comrades.

“HAHAHA! NOPE!” Vinyl exclaimed the second her eyes locked onto the macabre barricade.

She spun around, boots slipping on the drenched floor. Vinyl stumbled falling to a knee. Chem stepped forwards, crossing the threshold, one hand extended to help her up.

No one else remained outside.

The Castle door slammed shut, plunging the room into total darkness with a sound more like steel slamming against steel than wood on stone. Large iron bars slid down from hidden recesses in the ceiling, moving through specially designed rails in the backs of the door and into the floor. Portcullis and door locks, all in one neat package.

We’re trapped! VInyl realized in horror. This is EXACTLY like what I’d do to my players… This is a real world operating on tabletop logic. We're doomed!

Then the gaps between the bars began to glow a pale blue, the fields springing to life between them filling the air with the sharp scent of ozone.

“Everyone! Weapons out,” Lyra snapped as she drew the large pole-sword form her back, immediately looking surprised as she held it in her hands, clearly also knowing exactly how to use it.

Chem whispered a few arcane words and held out his hand. The torch Lyra had looted slipped free from her tunic’s belt and floated into his waiting hand. He lit the torch with another quick word, making everyone wince.

“What?” Chem asked. “The castle knows we are here. I want to see what it throws at us and this is less mana use than a light spell.”

“Yeah, can’t shoot what you cant’ see,” Sky said grimly as he shouldered his rifle, grateful for those times he’d decided to do quick fire drills at the Pheonix’s shooting range.

With the torch lit, the carnage within the room was even more terrible to behold. The flickering orange light shown down on the pooled blood. It made every dropped weapon glitter and flash. It showed the extinguished torch in every last goblin’s hand.

“This door is still open,” Twilight said as she pointed to a door on the hall’s left hand side which sat right at the edge of their torch’s small bubble of light.

Vinyl looked over at the door Twilight indicated. A fallen Goblin’s body held the door open, preventing whatever magic had forced the other doors to close from sealing it. Not that it would have mattered. The door’s handle and lock had been chopped away, leaving frantic axe marks all over the door’s face.

“It didn’t want them to go that way,” Vinyl remarked.

“But they did,” Sky said as he began to walk towards the door. “I vote we follow the route they made. At least till we find an exterior window. Then we’re breaking that shit and getting out.”

With no other choice, the team slowly crept towards the open door. Vinyl reached it first and pushed her shield up into the gap between the door and the wall, kicking it open with her foot.

“Looks… Clear…” Lyra said uncertainty as she peered down the hallway.

“I’ve got the whole night vision thing going still,” Sky reminded everyone. “It’s clear. There’s a door on the far side of the hallway, and eight more, four on each side.”

“Okay,” Vinyl planned. “We check the rooms on the left. There has to be a window in one of them.”

It’s unlikely, but there’s a chance the windows won't be covered by plasma fields too, she dared to hope.

They crept into the hallway like terrified moths. Vinyl lead the way with her shield held in front of her to protect as much of the team as her stature would allow. Lyra followed along behind her with her sword held out like a spear, then Sky, rifle ready to go, Twilight behind him, hands held ready to cast a spell, and lastly Chem, who held their shockingly dim torch a loft, trying to light the way as best as the puny flame could manage.

With each step the tortured screams grew louder, but less frequent. Two more sounds joined in on the terrifying chorus. The occasional woosh of something flammable igniting. A dull buzzing like a distant woodshop full of circular saws. Yet the not too distant sounds of death were the least of their worries.

The shadows seemed to resist and defy their torch as they approached the end of the hall. They would move, making way for the light noticeably later than they should, even seeming to reach off of the wall for floor for a heartbeat or two. But every time someone looked directly at the strange shadows, everything snapped back to normal. Like predators, waiting for just the right moment to pounce, moving to strike, and then deciding not to.

“I think…” Chem said slowly as they reached the middle of the hallway. “I should watch behind us, and someone else, should keep watching the shadows ahead.”

“I love this plan,” Sky laughed nervously. “I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Chem began to turn around. The door at the far end of the hallway silently exploded, consumed in an instant by a bright ball of crackling orange flames. Shrapnel bounced off the walls and embedding itself into Vinyl’s shield. A single goblin clad from head to toe in a set of crudely crafted gothic plate armor stood in the ruined doorway, save for the faceplate, which had been partially torn off, and hung from one hinge at their left side.

The terrified goblin immediately sprinted through the doorway, not having broken their stride as they ran to the door. A cloud of multicolored lights raced towards the screeching creature. Cyan, pink, yellow, pale green, an inverted color rainbow which roared like a million saws and glittered like shards of glass in the sun.

The goblin’s eyes locked onto the group filling the hallway in front of her. “Fire!” She screamed in a wet, injured voice. “Alla fire! Burn! Burn quick!”

A part of the deadly light-cloud raced forwards, two individual points of light peeling away and racing directly for the running goblin. The lights caught up with her in an instant, helixing around her wrists, up her arms, and across ther throat with a shriek of metal on metal, trailing orange sparks the entire way. The entire attack took less than a heartbeat.

“HOLY SHIT!” Sky yelped, sweeping his rifle up to take aim at the lights, and pulling the trigger.

The rifle beeped. Nothing came out of the barrel. “Initializing… Ready to configure weapon profile!” A cheerful female voice exclaimed.

The goblin kept running, Twilight began to chant, trying to cast a spell but stammering too much for it to take effect.

“WHY!?” Sky screeched in panic, staring at his rifle in horror.

“If you prefer male companions, say ‘male companion’ now!” The voice continued.

Vinyl and Lyra shared a look. This was it. Nothing they had could hit anything that small, and even if they did, was it even a thing that could be killed?

Never thought I would be killed by a living spell, Vinyl sighed grimly as she raised her shield.

The cloud of lights surged forwards as one mass, engulfing the goblin before it could reach the team. She screamed once, her pained cry cut off halfway through as her body hit the floor, her eyes now empty sockets.

“Default voice accepted!” Sky’s rifle continued. “Please select an audio profile category! Ballistic or arcane?”

The lights turned to face the other living beings in the hallway, moving in rippling surges like an immense flock of birds. They began to move down the hallway, but then stopped. Hanging in the air as if analyzing their prey.

Vinyl gripped her sword tightly, raising it, ready for the swarming lights to advance.

A single pink light pulled away from the group and flew a few meters forward ,stopping just out of Vinyl’s reach. She looked at it, lines of sweat pouring down her face, searching for any possible sign of weakness in…

In the eight centimeter tall bioluminescent humanoid carrying a chef’s knife-like sword twice her size.

T-those are fairies!? Vinyl squeaked silently, her mind breaking a little.

The fairy squinted past Vinyl towards the rear of the group as if appraising them. “... Yes!” She chirped happily before zipping back to the group at a speed the eye could barely track.

The swarm of fairies surged down the hall in a chaotic swarm, engulfing the team in an instant, but not laying a finger on any of them. As the swarm flew past her, Vinyl turned around, wondering is she should run for the open room in front of her, her jaw dropping as she watched the swarm rush over to Chem, glomping the Old One as best as their tiny forms could allow.

The same pink faily let go after a heartbeat and flew up in front of the confused wizard’s face. “Hi, boss! Gosh, it’s been FOREVER! There’s still some nasty little goblins in the east wing, we’ll go get them! Sorry the place is such a mess. We ran out of cleaning supplies centuries ago. Bye!” She exclaimed happily before racing away, the swarm following along after her.

Everyone started at Chem in shock. Chem looked back at his friends in equal shock.

“I um… I guess I have been here before?” He admitted sheepishly. “I REALLY don’t remember any of this. No, seriously!”

“Ballistic or arcane?” Sky’s gun repeated as if nothing had happened.

“Uh… Ballistic?” He said slowly, as if working on autopilot.

Okay. We’re safe. But heart… Heart needs to calm the buck down. Vinyl groaned and sat down in the hallway. “I- I need a minute…”

“State desired caliber for auditory simulation,” the rifle continued.