“Aberrations,” Saito muttered as he laid eyes on the towering alien with a face like a Venus flytrap. “Everywhere on this gods-damned island, it’s frakking aberrations.” His sword was still awash in enhanced naga-ji blood from the last room they’d been in, where they’d euthanized Alakeem Dragonbone.
“At least they’re easier to kill than constructs, eh?” said Iltame. The massive and polite naga-ji thought a moment before adding, “Not that anything’s hard for me to kill.”
“Wait, did you say ‘frakking?’” piped up a voice from his waterskin. It sounded congested, and with an accent not far-removed from Saito’s own. The voice’s owner was the local water elemental Wu Di, who’d taken some time away from his favorite pastime of being a puddle. “You’ve seen Battorusta Garactica?”
“They’re my favorite plays,” Saito said. “Remember that one scene where Stabakku—”
“Hey, no spoilers!” Kai said in. “I haven’t seen all the plays yet.”
Suni rolled her eyes. “It turns out the captain’s first mate was a golem the whole time.” When Kai squawked in outrage, Suni jabbed a finger back around the corner. “We’re supposed to be dealing with these guys, remember? We can talk about Battorusta Garactica later.”
The party murmured in grudging agreement, then assessed the situation again. The gug was gone now, leaving two people in the room: a robed figure who’d begun to paint, and a familiar wayang bard who was plucking up a rendition of The Cosmic Horror From Beyond the Void and the Maiden Fair.
“Gee, this sure is bad and all,” said Iltame, “but at least Shub-Niggurath is a patron of the arts, eh?”
Kage narrowed his kitsune eyes. “Who’s the greater threat?”
“I don’t know the painter,” said Kai, “but the bard is Tsubasa. If a fight starts while he’s playing, it’ll go badly for us.”
“Yeah, and he gives me the fucking creeps besides,” said Saito. “First thing we gotta do is smash that bug.”
Kage said something. By the time the four of them were able to decipher it as “Accepted,” the ninja had already flitted around the corner, his standard-issue shinobi scarf billowing out dramatically behind him.
He approached with the speed and silence of a breeze, unsheathing his twin wakizashi as his feet padded across the floor of the Bakeo Seal. As the rest of the party looked on, two blades flashed, less than a heartbeat apart. The first one splintered Tsubasa’s instrument at its neck. The second did the same to Tsubasa’s actual neck. In a shower of wayang blood and sour notes, the bard didn’t even have time to draw one last breath before he collapsed to the floor and died.
“How dare you?” shrieked the painter, turning around. “That was my jam!”
The rest of Kage’s companions stepped out from around the corner. Kai was wreathed in the white aura of positive energy, ready to fill the room with it at a moment’s notice. “We’re the ones who destroyed your naga-ji army.”
Lightning crackled between Suni’s fingertips, while Tampopo the pipe fox wove a figure eight around her ankles. “We’re the ones who sent the dragon Kannarix to burn you alive.”
Saito hefted his flaming sword. Its cold iron blade flickered as if the whole thing were made of light. “We smashed the brains of Avinash, and cut off his heads.”
Iltame brandished a nodachi that looked like it could’ve butchered an elephant. His scaly muscles bulged with early onset rage. “And now we’ve got ourselves a summoning ritual to stop, dontcha know.”
“Fools!” the robed figure cried out, because that was what robed villains were supposed to cry out. “Do you know who I am?” He lowered his hood, revealing not a man, but a writhing collection of worms that had woven themselves into the outline of one. His form constantly shifted, and the air around him crackled with shadow. “I am he who has stared into the face of death itself, and seen death blink. I am favored servant to a power greater than your ken, and it is her power you stand before, not mine. I am Da Kang, painter of the dark tapestry, and each breath you draw is one I will take from your lungs, so that in your last moments, even screaming will—”
“Wait,” Suni said. “Da Kang, the painter?”
The interruption brought him up short. “Of course Da Kang, the painter,” he said. “It’s hardly a common name, and in life I was renowned—”
“You know,” said Kai, “now that I have you here, I just want to say that I really like what you do with light and color, but your brush technique is a little sloppy.”
“Yes,” Kage whispered as he sheathed his blades for a twin iaijutsu strike. “I would put your work up in an office, but not at home.”
“Well,” said Saito, “it’s like they say: never meet your heroes.” The party all began advancing on the tortured artist. “Now give it up, Vincent Van Goth. You’re outnumbered five to—”
A massive, screaming creature with a face made entirely of pink tentacles barreled into the room, immediately tackling Iltame. The naga-ji’s body was wracked with convulsions, his eyes lolling back in their sockets.
“Kai, help Iltame!” Suni called. “You two—”
“On it!” said Saito, as he and Kage moved to engage Da Kang.
By the time Kai managed to limp over to Iltame, the naga-ji’s eyes had gone glassy. A thin trickle of drool wended its way down his chin from the corner of his mouth, and he held his nodachi loosely at his side. “Iltame!” The naga-ji didn’t reply, or even give any indication he’d noticed Kai. Screeching, the tentacled monster lashed a claw out at the oracle, whose samurai training allowed him to sidestep and parry with his own blade. He summoned a cloud of healing energy around his palm, then drew his hand back. “Snap out of it!” he yelled, slapping the naga-ji on his scaly back.
The light surged back behind Iltame’s eyes. His posture straightened, and his grip tightened on his nodachi. He glared up at the beast that had stupified him, as it reared up and roared in challenge.
Across the floor, Kage and Saito darted and dodged around Da Kang. Kage’s blades were shining blurs around him, weaving a net of steel that would’ve diced anything to pieces. Saito’s own technique was more brutal, but he infused each strike with powerful enhancement magic that let him punch high above his weight class. It didn’t matter, though; the roiling mass of worms had no vital organs for Kage to pierce, nor weak points for Saito to exploit. Every so often they’d both step back to let Suni get in a clean shot with a spell of hers, but that was only a little better.
“Fools!” Da Kang said again. He hurled a bolt of dark energy at Kage. The ninja dipped out of the way, but it managed to catch the edge of his shinobi scarf and set it aflame. “I have transcended flesh and its limits! Your weapons and spells are nothing in the face of my divine inspiration, and the greatness to which it drives me! Yours are the fleeting powers of this world. The moon-beast and I serve a greater one…and an older one. A great old one. And we—”
Iltame chose that moment to slice the moon-beast perfectly in half with a single strike, as neatly as if he were slicing bread. The moon-beast let out one last scream as its two halves fell to the floor, then lit on fire. And as Iltame and Kai turned and began to walk towards Da Kang with menacing slowness, the halves exploded.
“I let your pet monster scream before he died,” Iltame said. “Which I guess makes me a nicer guy than you, eh?”
At last, Da Kang’s bluster faltered. “But that beast—you—I serve—”
“Blah, blah, Shub-Niggurath,” said Saito. “Like we haven’t spent all our time on this island pissing into her thousand mouths.” He pointed his sword at the robed swarm. “And now we’re gonna piss in one more: by going upstairs, killing Kyouya, and ending this.”
“Now you’ve got a problem there, sport,” Iltame said. “You’re kind of standing in our way. And by now, you’ve been enough of a jerk that we can kill you without threatening our alignments.”
“Which,” Suni said, “is exactly what we’re going to do now.” She glanced at her companions. “So say we all?”
Da Kang’s eyes—or the dark spots where they should’ve been—went wide. “You’ve all seen Battorusta Garactica?”
But he was drowned out by the resounding reply of the five-pronged death that rushed to meet him: “So say we all.”