The Pain of the One
Left in deafening silence after their confrontation with Rahin, the party rests briefly to recompose themselves before continuing through the only exit. They make their way to a four-way intersection, and begin to ask Grant for directions and specifics on where they are in the compound. As he begins to describe their choices, a ghostly apparition passes through one of the doors and flies past them towards another. Though most of the party is simply confused, Lawrence vividly recalls the figure as Arturus, exactly as he appeared in the crystal chamber on their first visit to the compound. The door from which Arturus entered violently swings open as wave after wave of orc and human soldiers charge, tight on Arturus’s ethereal heels. The markings on the orcs brand them as members of the Halfleaf tribe, and both Kag’gar and Archibald energetically lead the charge against their foe. They follow Arturus through the central exit, which Grant explains leads to the primary laboratories. Trusting in their allies to hold their own for the time being, the party chooses the door leading to what was previously Cassandra’s tertiary lab, where she housed her private and most sensitive tests.
They pass first through a chamber that reeks of rotting flesh and the entrails of a score of beasts. The test subjects they can see appear to be different animals with strange grafts; some have limbs which their bodies would be unable to support, others have clearly incompatible body parts sewn on in strange locations. All of them appear dead, though some bodies are still noticeably warm.
Continuing into the next chamber, the experiments become at once more of an affront to the senses. The beasts in this chamber have been mutilated in ways too gruesome for a normal person to fathom; several of them have been turned inside out, or had their internal organs replaced with parts of another creature, or simply removed and not replaced at all. The expressions on the faces that are still intact enough to reveal such information point to the fact that these creatures endured terrible agony before their lives finally, mercifully, ended.
The third chamber continues the trend. The creatures therein have been so horribly altered, hacked, sewn, and burned that most of them are indistinguishable from a mass of flesh composed of organs of a dozen different animals from a dozen different planes of existence. The smell is overwhelmingly foul, and it is a strain on each member of the party to simply resist the urge to retch. Though they are all affected by the scene, Petra seems the most perturbed; whether this is due to the clear misuse of the most holy gift from her god or the brazen disregard for the natural order, none can say.
In the fourth chamber the party finds not an experiment room, but something resembling a dumping ground for unneeded creatures and body parts. The design of the room resembles a large descending cone, with caked-on blood and limbs crusting the sides. Deep scratches line the walls and the cone itself, evidence to the escape efforts of all manner of creatures from whatever fate awaited them through the tunnel at the bottom. They skirt the cone itself and make their way, as quickly as they can, to the door on the opposite side.
Upon opening the door, they are met with a welcome breath of clean air. The chamber beyond marks the end of those experiments, and the party gladly shuts the door behind them, sealing the wretched stench once more. They light the torches in the room, revealing three large steel cages; two of them are empty, the protective runes around them dispelled, and the bars bent by some mighty force in one smooth motion. The third cage, however, still has active runes around it, is sealed, and is far enough away from the torches as to be still not clearly visible. The party can make out a small girl, seated on the floor with straw-colored hair completely shielding her from view. Barely audible above the sound of their own breath is the sound of her soft sobs. Though normally the only member of the party to cope well with stressful situations, Loren is unusually on edge once he hears her sobs.
They make their way around the runes to where they can see her more clearly, and set up an ambush in case she is yet another insane experiment. They call “Cassandra,” as a guess, but she does not respond. Lawrence uses his magic to call out to her in Arturus’s voice; she responds to this by shivering slightly and attempting to hold back her sobs, but does not say anything, and returns to her sobbing within moments. The party decides to leave the girl there and continue out of the tertiary labs through the portal in the room, which Grant explains leads back to the primary labs.
Beyond the portal they find an enormous and bloody battle: the mercenaries and orcs have clashed head-to-head with a horde of aberrations, devils, demons, and experiments; they are presumably the creatures Arturus had been summoning and using. Though they are fearsome foes, the party’s allies seem to be holding their own ground, and trying to cut their way through the masses to a set of double doors beyond.
Her patience with Arturus and his experiments depleted, Petra uses her druidic powers to take on the form of a bulette, the fearsome and mighty land shark. With the party dispatching enemies around her, she makes a thunderous charge towards the spearhead of their allied forces, towards Archibald and Kag’gar. Together, they all cleave their way through the creatures and burst through the door. Lawrence calls out to the Green Scale clerics and tower shieldsmen to form a wall to block the demons from assaulting their rear, and Petra shapes the earth in the wake of her burrowing to force the demons into a bottleneck.
They emerge into one final chamber: here they see three greater devils, all standing bloodthirsty and ready to engage the party. From behind a glass wall they see Arturus, slightly out of breath but with a smug grin gracing his visage. Overtaken by rage, Petra continues her charge through the earth under the devils’ feet and bursts through on the other side of the glass; Grant, Archibald, Kag’gar, and their soldiers all remain to face off with the three devils.
The party stands face-to-face, not with Arturus but with a glass cylinder. Inside the cylinder, suspended in some kind of fluid, is a porcelain-skinned, straw-haired girl of breathtaking beauty. She is clearly alive and unconscious. From beyond the cylinder a door opens, and Arturus steps forward, panting. He slams a chair down in front of him, puts a dagger to the neck of the old, silver and straw-haired woman seated in it, and yells sternly, “Make one move and she dies.”
Though they have never seen her before, all members present except Loren realize that she is Cassandra and make no move towards her. Loren begins to run towards his mother, but Khaber holds out his arm and grasps the boy solidly. The party begins to inch around the cylinder to get a better view of the scene; Arturus presses the dagger’s tip against Cassandra’s neck in response.
Sim attempts to throw Arturus off guard with a few taunts, to no avail. Lawrence slowly nocks an arrow, but does not pull the string taut, eyes fixed firmly on Arturus’s hand for the slightest motion. With no desire to preserve the life of a woman as guilty as Arturus himself, Petra begins another charge. Seeing this, Loren charges after her, somehow fading from sight as though under the effects of magic. Making good on his promise, Arturus stabs Cassandra in the neck, but responding to the tensing of his arm muscles, Lawrence fires one clean and precise shot. The arrow catches Arturus’s hand just as the dagger begins to break the skin, and pins it to his chest. The dagger clangs to the ground, and Cassandra bleeds slightly, but remains alive.
The party descends on Arturus from all sides with a fury none of them have ever exhibited before. Loren, his body recalling the forgotten powers of Markham Ovren, tears into Arturus with mindblades. Petra strikes with the continued rage of her new form. Sim strikes carefully but vehemently, aimed solely at striking true once with the Gith silver sword. Lawrence fires arrows as though he were fighting to take down an army, not one weak and tired man. Khaber, however, waits for Lawrence to give him the final cue.
Though physically frail and clearly sleep-deprived, Arturus’s mental powers still afford him a great measure of strength. He lashes out psionically twice at the party, screaming at them from inside their own minds before attempting to directly stop Sim’s heartbeat; with great focus, Sim is able to keep himself from cardiac arrest and continue fighting.
When Arturus begins to weaken, Lawrence signals Khaber for the final blow. Woolf charges up into the air, under the effects of Petra’s magic, while Lawrence fires another volley down on Arturus. The final arrow, imbued with the power of benign transposition, puts Khaber in his place 40 feet up into the air; he crashes down on Arturus, opening him from shoulder to thigh. As he lays dying, Sim brandishes the silver sword and severs Arturus’s head from his body.
No sooner does Arturus fall than the room begins to fill with a familiar soft Elven lullaby. Turning towards the caged girl, the party now sees that she has opened her eyes and is singing. Instantly, Sim, Khaber, Lawrence, and Petra find themselves in a sea of blackness not unlike the astral plane, but clearly different as well. The lullaby still sounds strongly in their ears, but no other sounds can be heard, and both Loren and Cassandra are nowhere to be seen. Each member of the party save Sim now finds themself facing off against Markham Ovren, Rakhoum, and Arturus, fresh and ready for battle. Sim sees his friends staring angrily at each other, and the girl from the cylinder now flying free, singing her song.
As they begin to battle each other, strange realizations fall upon them one by one; Petra realizes that Rakhoum must be dead, for she wields his spiked chain; Lawrence yells and begins to see himself yelling before him, and he couldn’t possibly exist in two places at once; Khaber sees Arturus using arcane magics, and realizes that based on their research his talents lied only in psionics. While the three of them fight with their own sanity, Sim attempts to land a blow against the girl. All of his attacks fall short of her, deflected by some invisible barrier.
Once the members of the party identify their own paradoxes, the invisible barrier surrounding the girl starts to appear and crack. By the time they have all snapped to their senses and can see her, it has shattered fully. However, no sooner does the barrier fall than they see white tendrils flowing forth from her body, connecting her to spirit forms resembling all manner of creatures, from the beasts of the forest to the humanoid races to the Aboleth, Illithid, and Beholder aberrations. With each blow that they land on her form, the tendrils shorten and the forms begin to converge on her. Though they can barely make sense of the situation, they know instinctively two things: they must kill her, but they must not allow her to merge with the creatures.
Sim notices a small green cone piercing her neck, which buries itself deeper with each blow they land. As it passes further and further into her, it seems to trigger the surges that shorten the tendrils. Even using his psionic powers, he is unable to directly influence the green cone itself, though he does sense a psionic resonance from it. Ignoring this fact, solely intent on ending the girl’s existence, Petra lunges forward, wraps her flaming chains around the girl, and erupts into an inferno.
Watching this unfold before him, Lawrence fights his instincts and decides upon his goal: he will sever the merging, and he will save the girl. He attempts to call upon psionic powers himself, but is unable to do so even in this place, where the power of the mind can change reality. Left with no alternative, he pulls two of the four blood needles they recovered from Markham’s laboratory so long ago, and stabs himself in each leg.
Within an instant, he feels the surge of two consciousnesses flowing into his body, each fighting for dominance. On the left, with a mindblade drawn, is Markham Ovren. On the right, the power of the arcane ready and waiting, is Cassandra. They both force his body to lunge forward and bring him into striking distance of the girl, but with an inhuman exertion of will, he calls both of them under his command, and grasps the girl by the skull.
Time slows to a crawl as he melds psionically with her; he now has three different consciousnesses occupying his body simultaneously, all of whom are unable to wrest control from him. However, they still exert their own will, and he is unable to force them to do precisely as he wishes. He pleads with Cassandra to help him, and she expels the cone from the girl’s neck, stopping the tendrils a mere inch away from the girl, and halting the merging process. With no idea how to proceed, he asks Cassandra what her wish is; she replies that the girl must die. Markham Ovren chimes his agreement. Lawrence refuses to accept this, and demands their help to implant Cassandra’s consciousness into the body of the girl, forcing the will that wants to merge with the nexus of creatures out. Cassandra agrees, but Markham remains obstinate; no words or offers seem to be able to sway him. Lawrence begins to grasp why: with no body of his own remaining, Markham Ovren only exists so long as the needle remains implanted into someone.
With his options exhausted and time wearing thin, Lawrence offers Markham the only thing he can: residence within his body in exchange for his aid. Markham forces him to swear an oath, but does grant his powers to Lawrence temporarily, enabling him to accomplish his goal. With Cassandra’s consciousness now occupying the body of the girl, the great illusion shatters, and they all return to reality, where a similar scene greets them. Lawrence holds the girl by the skull, and the rest of them stand poised to strike.
With no hesitation, Petra pulls tight on her chains, opening the neck of the girl completely, and ending her life. Taking this as a hostile action, Markham Ovren seizes control of Lawrence and brandishes a mindblade against the party. Sim dives and rips out one of the needles, but with no knowledge of which needle was which, he pulls out the one which previously housed the consciousness of Cassandra. Lawrence fights with Ovren inside his own mind before finally tearing the needle out himself to prevent further harm to the party; the incredible strain of severing his own consciousness takes its toll on his mental faculties permanently.
The danger entirely past, the party offers their aid to the true Cassandra, who remains impossibly alive, to the joy of her son. Together, they all make their way back to the silent cage chamber, where Cassandra effortlessly dispels the protective runes, opens the cage, and embraces her true son and daughter.