"This is less an infiltration and more an assault at this point," Chopper remarked as they cleared their way up to the second floor. Feruzi helpfully pointed out the arrow-studded corpse of the peculiar beast she'd discovered and subsequently killed. Snake-headed tentacles grew out of the shoulders of an immense red-and-black cat. Everyone took a look at it but no one could identify it--whatever it was, it was rare and probably not the cuddliest of pets.
Labella picked the lock on the southern door and opened the door with great care, avoiding some gooey substance smeared on the inside of the handle. The room beyond was an extensive alchemy laboratory. Chopper glanced inside and nodded to himself. "Toss it," he said, and Ezikial promptly attempted to fit the entire lab into one sack, displaying impressive skill at multidimensional geometry. Sadly, the equipment was not as current on the application of space-time vortices and resisted this treatment, causing Ezikial to negotiate with Labella for the acquisition of a vehicle equipped with more real-world storage capacity. Barely resisting the urge to laugh, Labella left with Torkelsen and Pegsworthy's dwarven sorcerer Durgrin to secure transport.
With Sandara's help, Ezikial rummaged through the lab and found several small boxes containing poisons, completed alchemical items, and even some valuable magical concoctions. Feruzi stepped into the next room and discovered a heap of broken furniture and a hole in the ceiling leading up to the third floor. She repositioned a ladder and climbed up.
Chopper asked. Feruzi shrugged.
"Not at the moment. Perhaps they brought goods in this way? I don't know why else they would make a hole in the floor." She sighed. "After that explosion, anyone left in the building knows we are here."
"Then we should not leave them an avenue of escape," Reiko said, pointing across the dark wreckage toward the stairs on the other side of the floor. Feruzi nodded and they split into two groups, Ezikial and Sandara following Reiko up the stairs while Pegsworthy and Chopper climbed the ladder after Feruzi. The ladder ascended into a bare room next door to, of all things, a tidy bathroom. Reiko tried the first door at the top of the stairs and found it locked. Gesturing Ezikial forward, she moved on down the hallway and heard a faint click followed by the clangor of an alarm bell. A heavy blade shot out of the wall, taking a neat slice out of Reiko's back as she jumped away, nearly landing on Feruzi who was coming up the hall from the other direction.
"Ah, well done, you found the trap."
"Yes, I've found both of them, now," Reiko said, shaking her head in sudden wooziness. She glanced at the blade and was unsurprised to see dark stains on the metal--some sort of poison, no doubt. It was mostly dried out and Reiko felt little effect other than a faint tingling and numbness that she studiously ignored.
Ezikial blew the lock out of the door, flooding the hallway with the stench of fresh putrescence. The room was heaped with mulch and mud and the corpse of an almost skeletal humanoid with claws, a long tail, and sharp teeth lay on the floor. It appeared that someone removed most of its internal organs not long after it died, but Chopper noted to abscesses where it appeared something had burrowed out of the body.
"Cayden's rotting liver!" he announced as two dark shambling shapes detached themselves from the shadows. They resembled filthy babies with enormous distended mouths--if babies were made out of leaves, vines, tree bark and pallid roots. Feruzi and Ezikial both fired from pure reflex, sending chunks of the creatures flying, but one nevertheless managed to let out a hideous scream. Feruzi clapped her hands over her ears and even Reiko winced.
"Excuse me just a moment," Pegsworthy muttered and stepped outside the room, breathing heavily while he struggled with violent nausea.
"We should burn these creatures," Reiko said sharply. Chopper helpfully struck a tindertwig and passed it to her. She glared at him.
"Really, Chopper, be more useful."
"I'm surrounded by professional killers. I've got time for some levity."
Shaking her head, Reiko drew her katana and hacked the mud babies to disgusting pulpy bits.
"Why do we always find this disgusting stuff?" Feruzi asked, retreating back to the door.
"That is a good question," Reiko said, grimacing at the ooze on her katana blade. She reached over and wiped it off on Chopper's sleeve before replacing the sword in its sheath.
"You want pretty smells, become a florist," Chopper said.
Pegsworthy shook his head. "I have had some nasty adventures, but rarely THIS nasty."
"We seem to bring out the worst in everything," Reiko told him.
"There are two more doors down the hall," Feruzi said. "Quit wasting time." She attempted to boot one of the doors, causing it to rattle, but the door was unimpressed. Someone inside the room squealed.
"Would you like some help?" Reiko asked. Feruzi scowled.
"OPEN THE DOOR!" she bellowed while Chopper pulled out his axes. The person or people inside said something but it was too muffled to make out.
"Should I get that?" Ezikial asked.
"Save the bullet, someone inside probably needs it more than the door does," Chopper said. Ezikial gave him a tired look.
"I do have more, Captain."
"Save it, Mr. Hands," Reiko said.
"Do you hear that?!" Feruzi shouted. "If you don't open the door a criminal madman will burst in and murder you!"
"Mmm! Mmm mm mmph!" Ezikial took aim. Behind him, Sandara theatrically put her fingers in her ears. Feruzi and Pegsworthy rapidly did the same.
"Put it away!" Reiko growled. She slammed her shoulder against the door and it gave way with a splintering crash, revealing a young and extremely attractive Mwangi woman chained to the far wall, her mouth stopped with a gag. Her eyes widened as Reiko burst into the room and her face lit up. Then her eyes suddenly narrowed.
"Do you have ANY IDEA what I've been through looking for you?!" Feruzi demanded. Reiko glanced over her shoulder, shrugged, and went across the hall to try the far door.
"You sure you wanna miss this?" Chopper asked softly. Reiko shrugged.
"I'll wait. We'll have to break this door down with your axe, I'm thinking. It's barred on the inside."
Feruzi was still talking, glaring at the chained-up woman who was shaking her head vigorously and making furious noises behind the gag. "I am taking you straight home! Don't even think about arguing!"
"Tomak is dead because of you!"
"Mmn nnm MMPH!"
"D'ye ken whass goin' on here?" Sandara asked. Ezikial shrugged.
"Not a clue," he said.
Feruzi seemed to have run out of harangue for the moment and bent down to untie the gag, then paused. "No magic or it goes right back." The other woman glared, but held her tongue until her mouth was loose.
"I am NOT going back there!" she spat, wincing at the abrasions around her mouth.
"That's what YOU think," Feruzi retorted grimly. She gestured toward the people hanging around the door. "That's Chopper, Sandara, Ezikial and . . . Reiko went somewhere. And Captain Pegsworthy. Everyone, this is my sister Ukele." Feruzi addressed her sister. "Chopper saved my life so I've been traveling with him."
"Heh," Chopper said. He held up a key he'd taken from a nail near the door. "Think you'll want this."
"Allow me," Pegsworthy said, taking the key and using it to unlock Ukele's shackles. She promptly flopped on the ground at his feet, giving him a pleading look. He stooped and lifted her to her feet.
"Zarskia had me here for more days than I can count," Ukele said, leaning heavily on Pegsworthy's arm and looked up at him winningly.
Feruzi turned away from both of them with a scornful noise. "Don't turn your back on that one," she said, seemingly to the air, "or you're likely to find a dagger in it."
"Where is this 'Z'?" Chopper asked. Ukele gestured faintly toward the door across the passage.
"She found Tomak's talents useful and held me here to insure his loyalty when he began to stray."
"Right," Reiko said. "Axe please." Chopper handed it to her and she promptly went to work on the door. Strong as it was, she made short work of it, but the room on the other side appeared to be empty aside from elegant and expensive furniture. Then a bomb sailed out of the air and exploded at Reiko's feet, showering her with glass and flaming liquid. Another struck Chopper as they peered around the room, setting his clothing afire. Sandara rushed forward and threw a spell into the room. A tall, muscular Mwangi woman in silvery chainmail and elaborate attire appeared. Pegsworthy shook his greatsword loose and charged her, forcing her back away from the door. Chopper, still smoking, flanked her on the other side.
"Stand down and we will not kill you!" Reiko called. "Maybe," she added under her breath. Zarskia drew a pair of butterfly swords and fought back viciously. "I know the sentence for espionage in the Shackles," she hissed. Reiko reversed her katana, ducked under one of Pegsworthy's powerful swings, and cracked Zarskia on the back of the head, knocking her unconscious to the carpet.
"See, if you want them alive you have to do it yourself," Feruzi told her.
"Clearly." Ezikial scowled at this turn of events. "Oh, stop being dramatic, Mr. Hands," Reiko told him. "I don't honestly care if she dies; she ordered the deaths of some of our friends. But we may be able to get some information out of her before that."
"Hmm," Feruzi said. She looked over at Chopper. "If you don't mind, I need to get Ukele back home as soon as possible. It would . . . ease my mind."
"You know she's just going to run away again," Reiko said. "She clearly does not want to go home."
"What she wants doesn't signify. You think I wanted to go chasing her across half a continent?"
"Then why did you?" Reiko asked.
"Because . . ."
"Um, not ter interrupt," Sandara said, "but where IS Ukele?"
"Heh," Chopper grinned.
"Gods damn it," Feruzi swore and charged toward the stairs.
Reiko shook her head. "She might not have run if you hadn't threatened her." There was a sudden loud commotion below; Feruzi reached the hall in time to see Ukele barrel directly into Pegsworthy's returning crew. Torkelsen leered and snatched Ukele off her feet with a practiced grab, she shouted arcane words but Durgrin made a pass with his hands and the spell, whatever it was, fizzled.
"You're going home if I have to tie you up and sit on you the entire way," Feruzi said. "I can't imagine why you're so reluctant to go and be fussed over."
"You can't watch me forever!" Ukele shrieked, squirming to get loose.
"Heh, she's a feisty one!" Torkelsen announced. "That's okay, honey, I like it rough! Give us a kiss!"
"That's my sister," Feruzi growled.
"Uh . . . oh. Sorry." He slowly and carefully set Ukele on the ground. For a moment it looked like he might whip out a handkerchief to give her a quick polish, but he just backed away, raising his hands. Ukele eyed the exit, judging her odds, then subsided into a furious pout.
"WE NEED SOME ROPE!" Ezikial yelled down the stairs. Sandara jumped.
"Oh, damn it, be right back," she muttered. "Jist when it were gettin' good."
"Maybe you should go see what the rest of your crew is up to," Feruzi told Chopper, who was hovering some distance down the hall. "I can handle this myself."
Chopper shot her a sympathetic look. "As you wish." Following Sandara, he discovered that Ezikial and Reiko had, for some reason, disassembled the fireplace in Zarskia's chambers, revealing a shaft that led who-knew-where. "You all should really show more interest in your fellow crewmembers," he scolded.
"I was!" Sandara squeaked, offended.
"Not you, Sandi, them."
"I didn't seem that dangerous," Ezikial grated. Reiko poked her head out of the fireplace.
"I keep my fellow crewmembers alive, that's what matters," she said.
"I hate you both. So much."
"As long as you brought the rope."
The shaft led down to a dingy cellar stacked with ancient firewood beside a corroded iron gate secured by a padlock. A small table held a scattering of papers, most encrypted or simply ambiguous, but with enough hints do expose a spy network that seemed to extend throughout the Shackles. One satchel held instructions in plain language, dated three weeks ago.
"Silence is now key. Our plans will go into full force once our agent finishes his preparations. Destroy any remaining evidence and discreetly sell the business. Report for your next assignment."
"Aha," Chopper said.