“Now what?” Fyrehowl shook her head as she peered up into the void that stretched between the slopes of the Furnace and the drifting, tidally locked moon high above. “Now we go the long way up and try not to get spotted.”
The lupinal and then the others collectively turned to glance at Tristol. The wizard glanced at them, then up at the moon, mentally judging what it would take and if it were possible with the resources at his disposal, then he nodded albeit with some clear hedging of his mental bet on it working.
“I can make us invisible long enough to reach Nimicri,” Tristol held up a finger in warning, “But nothing too fancy, like attacking or casting a spell. We’ll have to just fly straight there and not take any absolutely unnecessary detours until we’re on the ground.” He looked away and muttered, “Hopefully that is…”
Another glance up into the void and distantly they could make out flocks of patrolling slasraths and flying nycaloths, their movements regular at least it seemed. It was possible if they were quick, just as soon as the current patrol passed over the moon’s rim to be out of line of sight.
“Now!” Fyrehowl said, the moment her eyes determined the patrols were just where they needed to be.
Tristol snapped his fingers and whispered words of magic, dropping the first spell without any metamagic effect and then weaving the second to increase its duration so that they might just be able to make it. Having cast both, they took effect and the group simultaneously vanished from sight and their feet lifted from the ground as they transmuted into living currents of air.
Without hesitation they bolted skyward invisible and cloaked from sight as literal magical currents of air whistling up through the void. They’d have been indistinguishable to most eyes against the black and starless void upon which Nimicri hung, but even then, the keen eyes of a nycaloth might have discovered them, or possibly one of the many arcanaloths who rode through the void on slasraths-back, their sight potentially aided by looking glasses or spectacles wrought in the magical workshops and furnaces of the Tower Arcane. Tristol’s magic hedged their bets against both worries.
Askelex ap Porphatys sneered with delight as he soared with delight through the bleak voice that stretched out and surrounded the Fourfold Furnaces. The volcanic eddies of air that rose up from the slopes of the 1st and 2nd Furnace whistled about him, everything from a gentle rustle against his fur to artfully blow back his robes as he flew on patrol atop a slasrath to erratic hurricane force updrafts that violently buffeted him and his attendant flock of nycaloths: it was truly a glorious experience to the neophyte arcanaloth.
Askelex had been in his current position, elevated to arcanaloth caste for less than a decade, but what he lacked in experience he certainly made up for in ego and aggressiveness. Thus far it had served him well, as his current status leading some twenty nycaloths rather than still slaving away as a scribe in the Tower Arcane. His charges of course hated him, but they feared the arcanaloth in equal measure, and he reveled in that feeling that fueled an overwhelming sense of superiority as he grinned and inhaled, reveling also in the sensations his senses swam within: the reek of volcanic brimstone and of mortal souls igniting in the arcane forges of the ‘loths built deep into the flanks of the Furnaces, and the sounds not only of the wind whistling about him, but of the distant wailing of mortal petitioners suffering far below.
“Faster you fools! We have a schedule to meet and I’ll have your hides if we’re a moment off pace!”, Askelex bellowed orders to the flight of nycaloths under his command, his first since his still recent promotion to arcanaloth caste. His mind swirled with that experience of horror, agony, and ecstatic transfiguration that had elevated him into his present place and position of power and superiority over the winged wretches now serving under him, even though eight odd years earlier he’d ranked among them.
Askelex inwardly chuckled as his threats spurred the nycaloths to fly faster and redouble their attention to any attempts to reach Nimicri. In the past two days they’d had no such attempts of course. News of the blockade had spread far and wide across the planes and the obvious strength of the yugoloth blockade had itself dissuaded attempts after the first few days during which all attempts had met with swift and fatal ends. As far as the arcanaloth was concerned, there was no continued threat, and so his mind and his attention wandered, speculating on a wide variety of conspiratorial plots he hoped to enact upon his fellows over the next year to decades.
Of course, such a threat did exist, and so self-consumed with his own ego and then as he continued to patrol onwards, his own heady plans and plots, he never saw them as they magically whisked between he and his nycaloths, seeming to be nothing more than just another random buffeting updraft of wind.
The party shot through the void as bodiless currents of air, the far-off moon shedding a distant, reflected glow of yellows, oranges, and reds from the volcanism of the Furnace which it orbited. Despite the odd flickering of its reflected light, it was welcoming and tranquil by comparison to the explosive torchlight of the distant Second Furnace.
Minute by minute the pale gray-white sphere of Nimicri loomed ever larger. Closer and closer, the mottled surface slowly revealed more details from simply semi-regular smudges to the outlines of city blocks, to the intricate paths of individual city streets and buildings that sprawled across the surface of the mimic-moon.
Finally, without a minute to spare and just as their invisibility was preparing to drop on its own accord, the party alighted upon Nimicri’s cobblestone surface, a pair of buildings rising up to either side of them, neither with street-facing entrances. Few of them actually did, with much of the sprawling cityscape being little more than an inaccessible Potemkin village, there for appearances or in a more cynical take, to funnel mortals into the portions of the cityscape populated by the “citizens” and “merchants” that ran the city’s shops and markets, lures for the giant mimic to there take its occasional price.
“Everyone?” Fyrehowl glanced about warily, paying more attention to the surrounding buildings than her party members’ faces. “Avoid the buildings, keep your attention up, and whatever happens don’t get cut. This place is a giant mimic and it can and will make copies of you if it gets a taste.”
“Wow…” Nisha openly mused, glancing about at the nearest buildings. “Just imagine a dozen of me running around!”
“Gods help us.” Florian softly muttered, with a soft chuckle from several of the others.
Tristol however could only blush and smile.
But, with that warning in their minds, the group moved on, warily traversing through the maze of streets. It was odd and eerily silent for a cityscape, even taking into account the absence of the usual hustle and bustle of planar travelers and visitors to the moon. The city of course was hunting the few that remained, and especially so the yugoloths present who intended to do much the same to prevent knowledge of their actions on Nimicri from getting out to the planes at large.
Distantly the sounds of screaming, the eruption of a magically conjured fireball, and the grinding sound of stone on stone and… flesh moving on a profoundly grand scale and then a return to silence suggested very much the current statue quo: the ‘loths were being hunted more than anything else.
“Everyone, hold up…” Fyrehowl held up a hand to motion the others to slow down as the group neared the terminus of the street they occupied, and it opened into a city square.
With the rattle of mail on chiten, a trio of mezzoloths burst from cover and dashed across the square. Only one of them made it across.
The first of the least yugoloths was tripped, intentionally so, by one of its compatriots, and as it fell, a nearby lamppost transmuted itself into a tentacle, lashing out to grab the insectile ‘loth by one of its legs and drag it towards a sewer grate at the street curb, a grate that swiftly shifted into an open, slavering maw with two sets of ravenous, jagged teeth. The other two mezzoloths continued running without looking back as their fallen companion’s dying screams echoed across the square.
“Yugoloths will be yugoloths…” Toras shook his head.
The other two made it another ten yards before one tripped on a cobblestone that turned into morphic protoplasm. It screamed out for help, only for the other ‘loth to turn and abruptly stab one of its legs, leaving it there on the ground, crippled and unable to move. Chittering with evil glee at its second betrayal in as many minutes, it scuttled off down a side street as the street grew a half dozen mouths and began to feast upon its maimed, shrieking companion.
“They’ll probably have earned a promotion for that if they ever get off this place.” Clueless rolled his eyes as they watched Nimicri slowly dissect and eat its victims.
The false moon wasn’t simply killing the ‘loths however, it was torturing them, playing with its food with clear and open malice in a scene likely being enacted all across the breadth of its surface. The scene they’d witnessed would repeat itself time and again as they slowly moved through the streets, next repeated as they witnessed another mezzoloth and its dergholoth superior restrained and then torn limb from limb as a shopfront entryway and awning turned into a slavery mouth with a pair of barbed, prehensile tongues. As Nimicri tore the fiends apart, the humanoid-appearing shopkeeper stood there ten feet back, watching and smiling, its feet eerily slick, connected as it was to the moon by mobile strands of protoplasm like a living marionette.
The shopkeeper looked up and across, making eye contact with each member of the party, then without a sound or expression, it went back to watching as it continued mangling its yugoloth quarries.
The moon was ignoring them.
“Guys…” Fyrehowl whispered, “It’s only going after the ‘loths…”
And it was.
As swiftly as they watched Nimicri hunt down and slaughter yugoloths, it never seemed to care about any members of the party as they snuck through its streets, even though the living moon was clearly aware of their presence. Twice the group observed other mortals, either recent visitors curious about the blockade, or travelers trapped on the moon by the same. Wary of drawing attention to themselves or those wayward travelers, they didn’t make contact but, in every case, Nimicri seemed to care less about any of them, only targeting the ‘loths, and sometimes in spectacular fashion.
“Damn you in the Oinoloth’s name!” Came a scream, ebbing and flowing with Doppler volume as the arcanaloth who shouted it flew past the party on an adjacent street.
They darted down an alley to watch as the jackal-headed sorcerer hurled a bolt of lightning at a doorway suddenly turned into a mouth as a protoplasmic tongue lashed out to ensnare her. She laughed with malicious delight as the extruded limb burned and retracted, and for a moment the group glanced at each other, uncertain if they should interfere, but then Clueless acted on his own.
Drawing Razor and flicking the sword’s tip in the motions of a spell, the bladesinger telekinetically ensnarled the arcanaloth as she began to fly away. Screaming vulgar invectives, she began to cast, but in her distraction, she never saw the street below her open up as she drifted ever closer to the cobblestones. By the time she realized her error as Clueless’s magic tangled her movements, it was too late and the party watched with morbid satisfaction as Nimicri devoured her noisily.
Pausing only a moment as the street rippled and resumed its normal, cobbled appearance devoid of mouths and fangs, they continued only to witness more fleeing, fighting yugoloths, mostly those ‘loths unable to fly or low enough in caste to have been ordered to patrol the surface and hunt down mortal stragglers even as Nimicri hunted them. Their superiors didn’t care about them in the slightest, in true yugoloth fashion.
“Has anyone noticed the streets moving?” Fyrehowl asked.
Toras looked at the lupinal, shaking his head. “How so?”
“Oh, you mean how we keep not moving on the surface for the most part, even though we keep seeing new and different streets?” Nisha quipped, looking up from where she held a lollipop in one hand, carefully unwrapping the sticky treat. “Because I picked up on that since we got here.”
“You what?” Clueless asked.
“What he said.” Tristol glanced at the lollipop. “And you brought candy?”
“Oh, no!” Nisha said with garbled speech as she popped the candy into her mouth. “I snagged this from a candy shop about a block back. One of the mimic shops yeah, whatever, but candy is candy, even mimic candy!”
Tristol’s eyes went wide as he realized just how close to a deadly end his girlfriend had gotten without the slightest care in the world in her head. “No more mimic shop shopping… please.”
Nisha stuck her tongue out around the lollipop and shrugged. It wasn’t a yes or a no response from the Xaositect.
“The streets are moving.” Fyrehowl shifted the conversation back to her original topic. “The city is flowing and remodeling around us as we’re walking around.”
Nisha nodded in confirmation.
“When we’re moving in certain directions, Nimicri is moving us around and away.” The lupinal explained. “It’s keeping us away from something.”
“And that’s probably what all of this with the ‘loths is about…” Clueless pursed his lips, thinking about what it all might be.
“Tristol?” Fyrehowl prompted as she explained to him what she’d observed and where in relation to themselves they needed to be.
Tristol nodded and cast a spell, semi-blindly dimension-dooring through buildings of mimic-flesh to deposit the group not on yet another of the cobblestone streets that they’d been traveling through, but upon a blasted landscape of broken stones that undulated beneath them on a matrix of mimic-protoplasm laced through with angry ruddy lines like the stitches of developing scar tissue.
“What the…” Florian stuttered as she gazed out not onto a city square but a massive wound gouged into Nimicri’s flesh. Nearly an acre in diameter and perfectly hemispherical, it lay on the moon’s tidally locked dark side, kept perpetually away from casual observation from the slopes of the second Furnace, and its periphery and interior shuddered and rippled, the raw, festering mimic flesh slowly forming a sort of urban scar tissue.
For the first time since they stepped onto Nimicri’s surface, the mimic moon actively reacted to their presence and the ground beneath their feet went liquid.
“Sh*t!” Fyrehowl blurted out, leaping in surprise as tentacles rapidly formed and began reaching out for her ankles.
“Tristol!” Clueless shouted out, looking at the wizard with panic, “Can you talk to Nimicri?! Telepathically?! If so, do it now!”
The aasimar nodded and with the utmost haste he whispered the words to a spell, uncertain if any such communication would be possible with the magic at his command, and if any thoughts would even be understandable given its alien nature as a broken chunk of mortar liquefied and reached out for his feet.
“Please don’t give it any reason to be any angrier though!” Florian winced as Nimicri grabbed hold of her, “It’s still a native of Gehenna after all.”
Tristol’s spell went off and he reached out with his mind down towards Nimicri, and the result was instantaneous. Nimicri -screamed- in abject agony.
Tristol cried out and fell to one knee, his senses overwhelmed with the thoughts of the living moon pouring into his mind, barely filtered by the sieve of his magic, his mind struggling to impose some manner of order and comprehensible understanding of each thunderous mental barrage.
The tentacles grasping at the party slowed and paused, though they did not yet release any hold they’d already gained. Tristol moaned as the moon screamed into his mind, a torrent of raw emotions and thoughts and only after some long, agonizing moments could he manage to both translate what it meant and catch his breath long enough to verbalize it for his compatriots.
“They stole it.” Tristol said, clutching a hand to the side of his head as each statement from Nimicri impacted like a crippling migraine.
“What?” Clueless asked. “They stole it?”
“They stole it!” Tristol repeated.
They tried to make sense of it as they felt the ground tremble beneath their feel like the soft shudder of an earthquake as the streets further pushed forward the ragged wound in Nimicri’s flesh.
Toras’s eyes went wide with abject rage as he came to realize what the ‘loths had done, just as Tristol stated it.
“They stole Nimicri’s child.”
It wasn’t a wound that stretched out before them, some hemispherical chancre to torment the living moon, it was the aftermath of some alien, parthenogenic birth come too soon when the ‘loths had torn Nimicri’s child from its flesh before it was time, ripping the moonlet away and kidnapping it for their own purposes.
“They threatened it.” Tristol explained, hold back tears from the mimic moon’s emotional barrage into his brain that spilled over the sluiceway of his mental dam and magical dikes. “They threatened Nimicri. They would harm its child and they would harm it. They would make Nimicri suffer if it did not comply and say nothing about what had been done to it. If Nimicri complied, its child would be safe and it might one day return.”
“That assumes yugoloths telling the truth…” Fyrehowl said, a soft growl forming in the back of her throat.
Tristol nodded and Nimicri shuddered with another flesh-quake and then another, stronger this time.
In its own way, the moon was weeping.
“Nimicri could still feel its child, and it still can.” Tristol explained, tears forming at the corners of his eyes, “Nimicri could feel it from across the planes where the ‘loths kept its child chained and shackled.”
“Where?” Toras asked, his voice coldly promising righteous violence. “Where did the ‘loths take it?”
Some of the group looked up and outwards into the black and starless vault above them, wondering if Nimicri’s child could be out there, swimming somewhere hidden within the empty and pitiless void within which hung the Fourfold Furnaces themselves.
“No…” Tristol said, crying and doubled over with both hands on the ground, the cobblestones turned soft to comfort him, “Not in Gehenna. Nimicri would go there and take it back, whatever it took.”
“WHERE?” Toras demanded.
“The Waste.” Tristol cried, “The Oinoloth himself took it to the Waste.”
“Motherf*cker…” Toras’s expression was one of absolute murderous malice.
Nimicri’s answer shouldn’t have been entirely a surprise. Every one of the ‘loths most secretive actions had been linked to the Oinoloth: the theft of Elysium’s third layer, the instigation of the yugoloth civil war, plundering the godisles in the Astral… it had either been him personally, entrusted to one of his original conspirators, or carried out by his lover/proxy Shylara the Manged.
Nimicri could feel its lost child a plane away, yet crying out, yet suffering.
“We will find your child and we will return them.” Toras stated, “Tell it that Tristol. Tell Nimicri that we will find them and return them. We will do that now. Immediately if it allows us to leave.”
A malevolent and hungry moon below them, its pseudopods grabbing hold of them, none of the party saw fit to object in the slightest to Toras’s promise.
Tristol nodded and translated, offering up that same promise of aid directly into the great mimic’s mind. The screaming in his mind paused and softened to a soft whimper and a feeling of desperate hope.
Immediately the tentacles that held onto them went slack and withdraw back into the main substance of the moon, Nimicri’s answer being obvious even before Tristol confirmed it for them. The moon wasn’t finished however. It felt its child on the Waste, but it understood that the mortals on its surface offering to help it needed more.
Nimicri reached out, a pile of broken cobblestones and protoplasm lifting up to offer forth a fragment, a broken scrap of flesh distinct from Nimicri itself, perhaps a singular remaining piece of its stolen child or a fragment of mimic umbilicus belonging not to Nimicri’s child, but linked to it. The living moon was intelligent enough to recognize the strength of their wizard and his ability to divine her stolen child’s location when in possession of that tiniest fragment.
Watching silently, floating above a nearby rooftop, hiding from the ravenous, agonized moon, Taba smiled.