For this plan to work, Imfay had to count on two things, expert timing and overly dimwitted jailers. As the hinges of the door into the dungeon squawked like a myter in need of one final blow, the elk threw himself to the floor. Sliding the arrow up through his sleeve, he penetrated his paw pad ever so slightly. He quickly smeared the blood pooled in his paw across his brow and down his muzzle to give an almost realistic trail. By the time the faint candlelit of a guard came around, Imfay was utterly still, and the illusion stuck firmly in place. Looking in through the bars, any onlooker would see Imfay, laying face up, motionless with gore streaked down his face.
“Why is it laying like that?” one jailer asked the other, who fiddled with the keys.
Taking stock of the prisoner, the key-bearer muttered, “Sleeping, I’d guess. Doesn’t matter; we’ll haul him up to the gallows all the same. He can wake up to see some of those bottom feeders that helped his men choke on their own ignorance.”
“No. Hold it a minute, look there, it’s… Can you smell that too?” the first asked, halting his fellow’s paws in trying to open the cell.
Putting his muzzle to the sky, the second deer whispered, “Blood? Is that blood? But it’s not a feeding day, last I checked.”
“I’m going to consult the others. Maybe that’s from Maxin coming down and thrashing the cur, but it’s just as possible he smashed his head in. You stay put and wait for me, got it?” the first jailer asked, handing over the candle to the other man.
Cocking an eyebrow, the key-bearer asked, “Do I look stupid to you? I’m not working harder than I have to cause you got spooked. I’ll be down here when you get back.”
Imfay wanted to curse out loud, seeing his plan crumple to pieces as one of the deer left and the other hung beside his door. He knew he should have tried to make himself invisible and allow the fools to come walking into their own demise. There was a certainty that all his planning was foiled in thinking these deer dumber than any other jailer. Yet, he was proven too crafty as the door to his cell squeaked open, and a lone pair of hooves clomped in quietly. In a low murmur, the jailer spoke to himself, “The Yerra is going to have us strung up right next to the peasants if we doddle. Better get you out into the hall and at least act like I tried my best. But I wonder what you might have on you, being a Yerra after all.”
“I’ve got plenty more than you might have expected,” Imfay rumbled as the arrowhead punched through the deer’s throat and out the other side. The man’s light was extinguished in a second, and only a breath later, he was left in the same position he had found Imfay in without his candle, keys, and certainly lacking that bolt. Sealing the door, Imfay was quick to lock the cell and create for himself a wider opening. Once found, if they could not identify who was in the cell, they would need to find a spare key and pull out the dead man. However, Imfay knew there was another way to distract from his escape. He had the ring of keys, and the candle illuminated the near dozen doors in the U-shaped corridor. There wasn’t much time but less room for error. He would have to unlock any occupied cell he could and hope whoever came out would be malleable.
Hastily checking, the cells near the stairs out looked empty primarily, saved for what could have been build up from mold and other furnishings that were hard to decipher in the blackness. Rounding to the doors nearer to his own, Imfay beheld an assortment of shapes and fleshy things that were hard to correctly determine to be beings at all. His candle shown some light into the cells, but those creatures within were able to self-illuminate by some means and made the item superfluous. What crawled about in two cells were maggoty-looking grubs the size of his torso feeding off the remains of what unfortunately was a dead deer. There were no two ways about it now, both were but bone at this point, but the state of the room could have suggested a struggle. Another two rooms held massive, slick columns, each suspended from the ceiling with the size and gravity of a body that had been bagged in its own hide. They oozed and dripped some heinous reeking fluids that glistened a glowing pale seafoam. If the cocoons had not driven the message home to Imfay, the final two set it all in stone, as clear as crystal for the elk.
In the cell, immediately after the cocoons, the translucent moth, a doppelganger of the one that had attacked him in the night, fluttered freely. Time after time, it would settle but again adjust and flow to the far side of the chamber. Imfay was filled with a sickness he couldn’t quite say he had ever felt before setting eyes on the monstrosity and would have opened the door just for the opportunity to kill it if he had the time and luxury. The final cell was home to something that Imfay could barely put sense to considering where it sat in the lineup of the moth cycles, but after a moment, he dismissed the circumstance.
A deer stood hunched from a deformity. His shoulders to his tail were inflated like a bubble, ready to burst. Like a yearling, spots pocked his fur in random clusters; however, these radiated with light as though he were nothing but a lantern. Low, aching moans rumbled from the man until he caught a glimpse of the candle’s light, “Has the time come? Can I… can I free these ones now? They’ve been so long in waiting, I can feel them gnawing deeper.”
“What are you?” Imfay hissed, his tone quiet but made all the more hushed as he heard the door into the dungeon creak open and conversation funnel into the lower floor.
Adjusting milky, swollen eyes in a face that had gone so gaunt and ragged it could have been a leather mask, the prisoner answered, “You’re not a regular jailer. You’re not even a deer. Could it be? Have they found out and come to dispose of the Yerra’s experiments? Oh, please be so, the end must be soon, please!”
“End? Yes, I can… I am going to let you free, and we will go topside and settle this, don’t you worry,” Imfay agreed as hoof steps grew closer.
With slow, silent movements, Imfay inserted, twisted, and removed the key from the door, allowing the deformed man his freedom. Yet before the elk could step free and enable the creature to proceed down the hall, the deer’s loyalties shifted. Had the door not been half-opened when Imfay noticed the man charging for him, he wouldn’t have had the foresight to put himself in the gap between wall and door. The abomination of a deer shrieked and howled in unearthly and almost insectile tones until muffled voices could be heard just barely beneath the tumult. As these others entering the scene, the man ceased pulling at the door to get at Imfay and turned on the jailers. The howling did not stop but was met with cries of terror, fleshy, tearing noises, and unintelligible strands of cursing. There was not going to be a better time to make his escape, Imfay assured himself as he rose and slammed the cell door, allowing the image of a rare scene to paint itself forever in his eyes.
The hunchback pressed a guard against the wall and tore away at the deer’s intestines through a queer hole in the breastplate. It remained as part of the armor but looked like a sheet of partially melted ice that the sun had targeted. Another jailer was pinned beneath a hoof that looked as though it should have trouble standing considering how malnourished it looked. Any effort to pry himself free was an apparent failure on the part of the second guard, who hadn’t even notice Imfay. Taking this opportunity for freedom, Imfay began for the mid-point of the dungeon before making a special consideration for the likelihood he would be caught. Aside from taking the barbed sai that had slid down the hall to the open cell, the elk made sure to unlock and partially open every cell he could on his way to the hunchback. All but one of the cells containing moths, a set of the larva, were left open, allowing whatever would come of them to pass. The final door was no doubt irreversibly sealed, having been impacted by the guard’s weight being devoured. Making himself invisible as he pressed against the far wall, Imfay aimed to avoid the fate bestowed to the jailers. When the hunchback almost looked his way, Imfay pressed down on the beastly mind and caused him to go into a frenzy on the other guard. With ease, Imfay made his way to the stairs, but once there, his course hit its rough patch.
Standing at the top of the steps was the being formerly Yerra Maxinimus. He was unarmed but wore a scowl that said he not only heard the commotion below but suspected Imfay. The elk glared back, the arrow still concealed in his sleeve but the sai in plain sight. With a weighing glance, Maxinimus glowered, “You thought yourself clever, didn’t you? Thought you’d pull a fast one and slip my grasp like a newborn newt, eh? Well, perhaps I should have left the venom in your spine. It would have taught you the meaning of true suffering. Now I’ll have to do that myself.”
“I’m going to send you back to this ‘Spiritcatcher’ of yours. And when you get to him, you’ll be begging to be thrown into whatever abyss you crawled out of to take my friend’s body,” Imfay shot back, tensing muscles but also flexing the Erkinan, preparing for a targeted attack.
The deer laughed at this remark, “Spiritcatcher? I am the Spiritcatcher, and you are nothing but an insect. Unfortunately, not one I can use, one I will have to feed to the others.”
There had been a crack in the man’s composure. It wasn’t the result of reflection or an extrasensory shock but a bleeding through of Maxinimus’s own spirit. Had he held steadfast to his emotions, Imfay would not have seen through his bluster and never considered it an act of delay. To remedy that minor slip-up, Maxinimus beckoned another of his moths stick Imfay with venom. Imfay slid low beneath the full-grown moth that fluttered past towards its master as though bid to do so. Maxinimus was no fool. He saw the plan falling apart in front of him and moved to slam the door, sealing Imfay in the dungeon until he was too weak and docile to fight back. Until the hunchback was reintroduced to the fray. Imfay rolled off into the space between the stairs and wall as the blood boltered deer charged upwards, his spotted back glowing even more intensely now. Loading the man with more and more rage and fearfulness, the door that had almost closed became no obstacle at all. The hunchback rammed into the main hall of the estate tossing Maxinimus like nothing more than a sack doll entirely by accident. It didn’t matter if the man killed or dismembered Maxin; Imfay would deal with him as he entered into the new scene of chaos on the ground floor.
Imfay may have been able to guess that any area that abomination went would be thrown into utter bedlam, but what he laid eyes on was so much more than that. Swiftly, a collection of knights had fallen on the man but had they intended to kill it was not noticeable. Their blades cracked against the hunch and were deflected almost immediately by those arms coated in a similar chitin-like material. From some concealed pouch beneath the man’s jaw, a spray of foaming cerulean spluttered out, covering everything in its path. The fluid’s stench, something like bile, filled the room and began to liquefy every surface it touched. Men were screaming, those clustered into the hall who were not armed soldiers took flight, and Maxinimus reeled up from the floor facing Imfay before regarding the terror that filled his estate.
The Yerra was quick to spring up, yet deciding whether to handle the elk, or the monstrosity first seemed to be something he struggled with. Had Maxinimus not delayed, the deer would have caught the paw that proferred the sai. Instead, a wicked gash formed in Maxinimus’s abdomen and drew his focus directly onto Imfay. Twisting the barbed tool in the other man’s stomach, Imfay made clear it was not to be a superficial flesh wound by the finishing blow to the Yerra. As he pressed against the wall, slinking down onto his tail, Imfay could feel a wavering in his mental state. Be it from the attack or possibly the sight of those larvae poking out and then slipping down the deflating hump on the man’s back, Imfay couldn’t be sure. Still, he ceased on that opening as he had every other opportunity that had presented itself to him in those frantic moments.
There was a deficit in Yerra Maxinimus’ emotions, an utter lack of those things that made a mortal tick the way they did. With only those joyful feelings, the sense of pleasure, and confidence, it was no wonder how the man made such an oversight. Again, Imfay had to remind himself that this was no longer just a mortal but a shell that had become possessed by an ancient entity. He was the Spiritcatcher himself, were Maxin to be believed. Ripping away those comforts was a chore without question for Imfay. The mind was hardened, and the task was as simple as extracting a snapping turtle’s meat without removing the shell. Regardless of how it would hurt the man, Imfay nonetheless tore free the heart of joy and supplemented it with the agony, rage, and terror the hunchback felt. It was not complex after extracting Maxin’s comfort and implanting the misery, but Imfay still felt a pang of remorse for one he had once known.
The Taliann line had been near-brothers to Imfay’s house for generations, going back even before the marrying in of the line from another noble house of deer. Maxinimus had been a boy when Imfay first met him in his adolescents, and though seldom did they see each other, the two were fast friends. Yet, there was still the unending bitterness and skepticism between the races. He had to wonder, were they really friends or simple acquiescences made for peaceful cooperation between the kingdoms. Imfay reflected on this notion as he began for an exit, the thoughts caused him to glance back to Maxinimus, and as he did, regret shook his body.