“Alright,” said Saito. “Here’s how it’s gonna happen.”
His companions exchanged glances. Of the group, only Kai was used to his plans. The two naga-ji just looked on with their blank reptilian eyes, and there was no telling what Kyo the kitsune was thinking. His eyes were pretty much inscrutable.
“This here’s a tower,” Saito said. “A wooden tower with one exit. We know there’s bad stuff happening inside, and we know it’s probably dangerous as all hell to face head-on. What I’m saying is: for once, let’s not and say we did.” Of course, that was Saito’s entire overriding philosophy. Stories were full of gallant heroes striding right into danger, but Saito wasn’t in a story. He was a guy trying to live long enough to die instead of getting killed.
“What you propose?” said Ketzal. He was Devana’s brother, and he looked the part—at least in the sense that he was a scary, hulking snake-person. His grasp of Common wasn’t as good, though; when forced to speak in it, all he seemed able to manage were broken half-sentences. And yet he knows the word ‘propose,’ Saito thought.
“Simple,” said Saito. “You use those big muscles of yours to pile heavy shit in front of the door. We put pitch all around the base of the tower. And then, once we’re sure there’s no way to get in or out without us seeing, we light the fucking place up.”
It was a foolproof plan. Zero risk to them, a hundred percent risk to whomever was inside trying to curry favor with the dark goddess Shub-Niggurath. If they stayed inside, they roasted. If they tried to bust out, they’d have a hell of a time of it. And if they did manage to break out somehow, there were five seasoned warriors ready to get the drop on them.
The rest of the group didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. Kai, who’d adventured with him the longest, was well-used to shooting down his plans by now. Hskori Blackblood, whose bleached scales suggested it was about time for her to look for a new name, seemed reluctant to destroy any part of the Venema tribe’s village, even though its occupants had all vanished like smoke into air and the village had been turned into a cosmic horror playground. Ketzal, for his part, had just gotten his nodachi repaired on the Yamato and seemed keen to test its edge in a proper fight.
Saito sighed, ready to give up. This always happened whenever he tried to propose something sensible. No matter what, his group would always ignore his sage advice and go rushing straight into the teeth of—
“Very well,” said Kyo in little more than a hoarse whisper.
Saito did a double-take. “Sorry, what was that?”
“Your plan makes sense,” Kyo rasped. “I think it’s the safest course of action.”
The others all glanced at each other, then nodded. Deep down, Saito noted that of course his plan hadn’t been approved until someone other than him had put his weight behind it.
But whatever. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, and he knew much and more about being a beggar.
They each set about tasks he assigned them. He, Hskori, and Kai found fuel, while Ketzal barred the doorway with debris and Kyo synthesized alchemical fire to help kick things off right. It took all of half an hour before everything was ready and in position, but at last the five of them were able to step back and admire their handiwork.
He withdrew a torch from his pack. He’d been carrying it since Genbu, but it still looked as if it wouldn’t have trouble lighting. He willed a spark of magical energy into his hand, then snapped his fingers. A tiny flame spouted from where they met, jumping straight onto the torch. The entire thing came alive all at once, the fire hugging the torch’s tip as if for dear life.
With a grin, he tossed it onto a pile of alchemically-infused hay.
The fire roared right to life, following the line traced by pitch and fuel until it perfectly encircled the whole tower. In moments, the base of the tower burned merrily while still more flames scaled its walls like ninja.
He sighed contentedly and breathed in smoky air. With a theatrical pivot, he turned to address his party. “You see?” he said. “This is what happens when you listen to—”
Behind him, two enormous creatures burst through the wall, as if the tower had just birthed them. They were hulking beasts, covered in muscles and stitches and wires and runes and the gods knew what else. Perhaps at one point, they’d been naga-ji. Now, though, they were something else entirely.
And that something was a big, gaping hole in Saito’s foolproof plan.
They looked out into the night with big, dead eyes. And then, with the help of the firelight, their shared gaze fell right on the collection of adventurers standing on their lawn.
“This is what happens when we listen to Saito,” Kai said, holding up a vomit-encrusted breastplate. His boots were hardly in better shape. Even his axebeak’s feathers were matted down with puke.
“It was a good idea on paper,” Saito snarled, fully aware he’d never live this down. Of course the one time they’d finally listened to him would be the time that setting a fire would awaken two giant naga-ji abominations, and then trigger a long and arduous chase with a slippery wayang cultist.
It was the next morning, and a full night’s sleep had done little to ease the ill effects of last night’s encounter. At least the evening had been mercifully free of sand-worms or fever dreams, both of which happened on this stupid island far too often for Saito’s liking. He’d come to hate Byakku so much that he was almost willing to get on a boat just to get away from it.
“Besides,” he said, trying to salvage his pride, “at least we got some good info, right?”
“Only because the wayang escaped,” whispered Kyo.
“Which you plan no take into account during formulation process,” said Ketzal.
“Never mind my plan, alright?” Saito said. “We know Ngashnagatl’s at the Bakeo Seal, and that if we don’t do something, Shub-Niggurath will be there soon after. And the spiderling they’re offering up as a sacrifice was after the Tiger Spirit. If Kyouya already had it when the Me-Go grabbed him…”
“Then we’re looking at an island spirit possessed by a cosmic horror from the outer reaches,” said Kai. “Yes. We know. We were there.”
“Just like we were there to see those impossibly huge tracks at the Burning Sigh Oasis Shrine,” Kyo said. He had to repeat himself several times before the entire party heard him.
“Yes,” said Ketzal. “You no need to recapitulate events for benefit of group.”
Saito resisted the temptation to pry into the disparity in the naga-ji’s vocabulary. “Well,” he said as they rode for the top of the nearest hill, “what we’ve been running into lately is corpses. Lots of them, wherever we go, and we weren’t even the ones to put them there.”
The others grunted their agreement. In the distance, they could hear the waves crashing against the coast just out of sight.
“Now up ahead is that Myanmirene flag we saw when we took our little sailing trip,” Saito said. “And I figure there isn’t anything too corpse-y about a flag, right?”
As one, they all crested the hill.
And in the distance, four silhouetted bodies swung from an improvised gibbet.
Saito hung his head. “Gods dammit.”