Iri knew he had to get up from the bed, but the momentary lull in the action had taken the wind out of him. He could hear the sound of shifting rock from the main hall, and the sound of men yelling as they scrambled to find out what had just happened. It took two attempts to sit back up, and when he finally stood to his feet it was with a groan, both at the aches wracking through his body and at the prospect of what he was facing.
His arm was broken, the blow to his head was aching, and he felt like the exhaustion was on the brink of making him keel over. He was out of acid, and with only one good arm he didn’t think he had it in him to mix anything useful from the things in his satchels. If he was honest, he did not even want to rustle around in them for fear that something had broken and what awaited him was a noxious or vitriolic mixture that would burn his hands as soon as he started rummaging. So instead, he took a deep breath, and tried to take stock of what was available to him around the room.
The glass of acid had been knocked over in the previous scuffle and was now eating away at the table, leaving only a carpet of smoke that mixed with what was drifting off the body of the man he had nearly melted a few minutes before. He wasn’t going to be lifting the huge club he had used to defend himself before any time soon, so that was out too, but his attacker had left a smaller sap somewhere that might better suit his purposes. Then, of course, there was the chance that the large dagger was still lying somewhere outside his door. It would not really matter, however, unless he found some way to gain an advantage. He was dizzy and his right arm was completely out of commission, there was no way he was winning his next encounter if it came down to a fair fight. If he was going to get out of this, he had to make sure that it was unfair, and that iniquity favored him.
Kneeling down next to the body from his most recent fight, he searched around until he found what he was looking for. The blackjack was a small, lumpy baton with a strap on its short handle. Looping it around his wrist, he moved back to the stand of drinks from before. He filled one of the glasses with clear liquor, and then went over to the small table where he had knocked the acid over. It was still dripping down to the floor along the scars it had made in the table’s surface. There was no way to get a useful amount of it, but all he needed were a couple of drops to mix with the spirits in order to get a reaction started.
As soon as the first few drips had landed in the glass, it filled with a thick layer of fumes. While the vapor was probably toxic in large quantities, the mixture itself wasn’t really dangerous in any way, at least not compared to the vitriol from before. However, he was banking that the people roaming around the upper floors of the inn didn’t know that, and that the smoke bubbling up from the liquid and over the rim of the glass would look sufficiently intimidating to keep them from trying their luck.
This time when he moved out of his room, he made sure to check the exit first to see that he was not walking into another ambush. When he was satisfied that there was no one waiting for him, he ran to the rail to see what was going on downstairs.
There had been no moment of quiet tension for people to appreciate what had happened when the wall had been breached. The thing that had been flung through the wall had made a hole big enough for several men, but even so the amount of rubble that was littering both sides of the hole didn’t make sense. There was far more debris than the hole in the wall could explain.
Iri did not get much time to consider why people were scurrying to get away from the debris, all of them sprinting toward the wreckage of the main door or toward one of the stairs leading to the upper floors. One man whose clothes marked him as one of the attackers, was making a break for the door with a panicked expression on his face. Before he got there he slung himself against a wall, and stared wide-eyed out toward the room. He was paying particular attention to the floor, looking at the empty space as if there was something there, when he began to scream.
It was difficult to make out because of the shadows near where he was standing, but he could see thin black tendrils stretch out from the spaces between the stones of the wall in ribbons across his skin, and hold him against it with enough force to make his eyes bulge. As he wailed, he began to sink into the stone, and it looked like the shadows in the seams of the stonework were oozing out to cover him as he did. A moment later his voice died, and then he was gone. The only things that remained were his clothes, squeezed into the mortar. There was no trace of what had taken him, but within a few seconds there was another scream from the other side of the room. Whatever was hunting them, it was very fast.
Iri tried to wrap his head around what was happening. A surprising number of people were still alive, having given up on the door and the gaping hole and instead opting to climb the stairs. There were no sides in here anymore, no attackers or defenders, only prey. One of the final people to make it up to the first floor took a moment to breathe, and as he took in the room they made a brief moment of eye contact. He was very young, probably a messenger of some kind, and looked so scared that it made Iri realize how calm he was.
He did not get to appreciate it for long, however, as more of the black stuff oozed up from the cracks in the wooden planks that made up the floor and wound its way around the boy’s legs. Slick and stringy black belts wrapped themselves around his ankles and squeezed so hard it made his legs buckle just before they yanked him through the boards. The boy never landed on the ground below, disappearing somewhere in the space between the two levels with barely enough time to release a terrified shriek. Iri looked away far too late to miss anything. He had to think of some way to stop what was happening, they were going to get eaten one by one if Auri didn’t make it back soon.
Just as he looked back up to check up on his own floor, he saw several of his recent attackers approaching. Their approach was apprehensive but determined, a mix of , and it was obvious that they were intent on going at him though none of them want to be first. He brandished his smoking glass menacingly and narrowed his eyes.
“Give us your glass, alchemist,” one of them demanded. He didn’t notice which one.
“How about you all go fuck yourselves, back off unless you want what your boss got.” Iri spoke through clenched teeth. He was surprised at how angry he sounded.
“You do not have enough for all of us.”
“There’s enough for one of you, and one of you has to go first. We are being hunted, how are you still fighting me?” The question exasperated him, the obvious stupidity in even having to pose it felt like stubbing his toe, except it was his brain.
“I know, we do not want it for you. It burns, we want to burn the creature. It eats all of us.”
That changed things. He had been right before, there were no sides anymore, just a lot of scared men trapped in a stone prison with a monster. Like him, they just wanted out. Of course, that meant he would have to come clean about the contents of his glass. Iri pursed his lips and closed his eyes for a moment as he deliberated.
“I want to trust you, but how do I know you won’t throw it right back in my face and kill me?”
“We will kill you and take it, but we think maybe you are smart.” One of them had stepped a bit forward, a tall and dark man with a storied set of scars over his throat. His voice was a callous croak, and Iri thought that perhaps it would have been enough to make him hand it over even if it was acid. “Maybe you give it to us and we help each other.”
“Okay!” Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to come clean after all. “Okay. Good idea. Be careful with it, this stuff is dangerous.” His hand was trembling as he handed over the glass, quivering in beat with his heart.
“Now get away from me if you’re hunting that thing. It didn’t have eyes I think, so it probably hunts by sound or vibration or something.” He hoped his voice was up to the bluff as he reached out and offered them the smoking glass. If he was going to save anyone, it would be someone else.
“What do you mean vibration?” One of them stretched out a shaky hand and snatched the glass from his hand, moving gingerly to hold it with two hands, like a child carrying a cup of hot tea and trying not to spill. It almost did when all of them turned abruptly in the direction of another panicked screech, as someone else was snatched away somewhere on the other end of the room.
“Just stomp a lot and it’ll find you, then you can douse the thing as much as you want. Don’t do it here though! Go somewhere else, this floor is mine. If you see anyone, get them to grab a lantern and find me. If you can wound it, I will try to finish it off.” Iri began to extricate himself from the straps that was holding the gunpowder barrel to his back. He had no idea if the sound-theory was true, but he figured it couldn’t hurt his distraction. Whatever time he was buying, he would have to use it well.
“We will do more than wound it, wazee. We have seen your burning water work. This was the smart move for you.” The large man gave him a nod, then turned around with the rest of his group to head in the direction of the latest disappearance.
Though all of them stopped in their tracks, only the man he had been talking to turned around.
“The fuck does ‘wazee’ mean?”
Shaking his head, the man answered with an unsettling grin, a strange thing composed of both excitement and worry. “We are all wazee now.”
They marched off, diligently banging their boots on the floorboard to create a racket. Iri frowned in disappointment. What was the point of being obtuse at a time like this? He actually felt bad for them, until one of the straps on his keg yanked his broken arm and his resentment flared back up at the surge of pain. He put it down on the floor and began to carefully unseal while he tried to figure out a plan.
The thing ate people. That wasn’t terribly useful to know, but he knew it ate people alive, and it did so quickly. Did it eat dead people too? He took a look over the edge where Auri had left a half dozen dead, and wondered if the tar creature was somewhere in the shadows looking back. It ate people alive, and apparently it had an exclusive diet. Either that or he had been right about the hunting by sound thing, and it just couldn’t see the bodies. Come to think of it, it had even left the clothes behind on its first victim. He figured those odds were good enough for a roll of the dice, but he was going to need bait. Unless someone showed up, he would have to stand in the middle of his own trap if he were to attract the creature.
Dragging the keg back into his room, he found the wash basin by the mirror. He took a moment to appreciate the fact that he looked just as shitty as he felt, before he dragged it with him to where had left the keg. Tipping it over the edge, he poured out about a quarter of the contents into the bowl, until it was halfway full. If he had more sulfur, he would have made amber oil, an incendiary oil that burned brightly and stuck to its target. However, he figured that there was enough sulfur in the black powder to do the trick, and that the other reagents would just make it that more of a conflagration. If this ended up failing, he appreciated the fact that at least it was going to do so spectacularly. He carefully resealed the powder keg before he moved on to the next part of his plan.
There were three lanterns in his room, and after a minute or two, and another muted scream from outside his door, he had poured the contents of two of them into the bowl. He was going to need to keep one on hand for light, and for igniting the mixture when the time was right, so he headed back outside and almost ran into a small of entourage of people who were watching him with wide eyes. They were all carrying lanterns.
“You guys were just standing here all along!?” Iri yelled angrily at them, and pointed toward the bowl. “Put those things out and pour the oil into the bowl, then find a way to make yourself some-”
Several voices began to shout in unison. The hunting party must have spotted something, because he could hear them whoop and stomp more loudly than before. His stomach twisted, only partly because it meant he was running out of time.
“Make yourself some brushes! Grab some towels or sheets or whatever, we have to get this stuff all over the walls and floor out there. We’re gonna burn the fucking thing!”
After he finished yelling at the people around him, he went back to the bowl and began to mix the contents with his blackjack while people poured in the contents of their lanterns. The light in the room gradually dimmed as light after light died to feed his concoction. After a few minutes holding his breath as he waited for death cries to start coming through the door, he had turned it into a viscous, even fluid. He slung the barrel back over his shoulder, fastening only one strap so it wouldn’t put weight on his broken arm anymore, and filled a decanter from the drinks table with the contents of his bowl then turned back to the people milling around trying to craft makeshift brushes.
“Alright boys, we gotta paint as much wall and floor with this stuff as we can. We’re gonna light it up, and then we’re gonna make a run for it. Two of you pick this thing up and take it with you into the hall.”
Just as he finished talking, he heard the sound he had been dreading for close to ten minutes now. The now familiar voices of the people who had attacked him less than half an hour ago were in disarray. He couldn’t make their words out, but they were clearly very upset, and he was pretty sure he knew why – apparently the creature was not harmed by alcohol. At least they would occupy it for a bit, buy the rest of them some time to get set up.
“You lied to them, they thought you gave them a weapon!” One of the men carrying the bowl had stopped moving and was giving him a hard, accusatory look.
“Yeah, and now they’re buying us our shot, so get your ass moving!” Iri was in no mood to argue. That decision was going to stay with him for a while, and he didn’t need anyone rubbing it in.
“How do we know you aren’t fooling us too?” A woman this time, somewhere in the back.
“Because I’m not fucking sending you away from me!” Iri was already out the door, and began to give instructions before anyone could reply. The ones he had sacrificed were still screaming in fear and anger as they argued, and he was done arguing. As long as there were screams, they still had time.
“Get that shit all over the walls, all over the floor, just leave us a path to the stairs! Work fast!”
It worked, at least somewhat. Most of the people began to move quickly, dipping towels and ripped bedsheets into the bowl and smearing the gray slime over the stone of the walls and the wooden floor. Within a minute, the sounds of men being devoured by whatever horror was hunting them all had died away, and the entire area around them smelled like rotten eggs and resin. There were six people around him, and another two still in his room. He wasn’t going to waste any more time trying to convince them to follow, so he turned his attention to the ones who had listened to his instructions.
“Alright, now we have to draw it out. We make noise, and as soon as we see it, throw your lanterns on the ground and make a break for it as fast as you fucking can. If you get burned, just keep running! Don’t worry about light, this place is about to become real fucking bright!”
As one, they began to jump on the wooden platform so hard it shook. He hoped it could actually withstand the force of the ruckus they were all causing, as within a few seconds even the people who had been on the fence joined in. Before he could say anything, movement caught his eye by its corner. There was no time to think anymore, all that mattered was reaction. He threw his lantern to the ground just below where he had seen it, and fire roared out of it in a storm. The gray slime he had made out of black powder and oil wasn’t just a match for amber oil, it was beyond anything he could have expected. It exploded into an instant inferno, but he didn’t have time to appreciate it, because the people around him grabbed him by the elbows as they made a break for the stairs.
He thought the building was shaking around him as he half-ran and was half-dragged down the wooden stairs, tripping over his helpers and then having them trip over him in an almost comical procession of panic and urgency that somehow succeeded in getting them away. They were jostling each other so violently that he was getting disoriented, but the people at the front knew where to go. The fire roared above them, and he thought he could hear a pitched shriek behind it somewhere, but he couldn’t be sure if it was just what he wanted to hear. Seconds later they ran out of stairs, and the lot of them crashed face first into the packed earth of the first floor.
He lay there for a moment before he spluttered and spat out the dirt in his mouth, looking up to the hole in the wall in front of him. Auri was standing there, but she was bigger than before. No, that wasn’t right, she was wearing a full suit of armor. An enormous one. He was about to ask what had taken her so long when a worrying thought struck him. No one was jostling him anymore, but the building was still shaking, and it was getting worse.
From her expression, he could tell Auri had noticed the same thing. He looked up just in time to see the stones begin to crumble from the far wall, just underneath the fire he had started. At first he thought the whole wall had fallen into shadow, but the white light from his inferno quickly dispelled that illusion. It was covered in black ooze. A good portion of it was covered in burning sludge, but he had severely underestimated the size of the creature. Despite the quaking ground and the visceral rumble of a building coming around him, Iri’s attention seized on the single, disappointed syllable that Auri offered.