Editor’s Note: Instead of two original fantasy short stories this month, we have for you a single fantasy novella (presented in two parts) by Jeremiah Tolbert, which is about twice the length of a regular Lightspeed story. So, although you are getting three original stories instead of four this month, you’re still getting about the same amount of fiction. We hope you enjoy this minor deviation from our usual offerings, and rest assured we will return to our regularly scheduled programming next month. It’s also a sequel to Jeremiah’s story “The Cavern of the Screaming Eye,” which you can read in our October 2016 issue, or on our website at lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/cavern-screaming-eye. —eds.
When I made the decision to take up an after-school job closing trans-dimensional portals into pocket-worlds full of dangerous monsters and traps, I thought it would be easier—or at least more fun—than working the counter at a fried cockatrice joint or selling newssheets on a street corner at the crack of dawn.
My team’s first outing into dungeonspace—when we defeated The Cavern of the Screaming Eye on our first try—had gone pretty good. Since then, we’d been running low threat level, poorly synced dungeons as practice, the kind that don’t actually kill you if you take damage inside them, that instead mostly just send you hurting back to Braxis City, our little isolated fragment of the real world. A good thing, too, that we’d started slowly. The subsequent weeks of practice had taught me and my teammates that, if anything, our early success had been almost entirely luck. It was still to be determined if I had the same kind of natural skill at overcoming the dangers of d-space that my brother Rash had possessed.
And now, our latest run had ended like the previous six; in total disaster.
Stinging from our failure, we made the trek back to our training gym in silence. Once we slogged inside One-Arm’s Gym, Domino dropped his smoldering dungeoneering pack and slumped onto a pile of exercise mats. His namesake black-and-white mask flapped on the tether at his hip like a broken bird wing.
“Well, that run didn’t go very well, did it?” he said, patting out an ember that threatened to burst into open flames again.
I was too busy going over the run in my head to answer him. It’d gone badly, but something strange had happened. Again. I’d spoken with the weird, disembodied voice that I thought of as The Thing Between. I’d first encountered it in The Cavern of the Screaming Eye, and the experience had left me confused and disoriented. It revealed itself only to me and told me things about my missing-and-presumed-dead brother. Though I’d encountered it a few times since, I never got over how unsettled it made me feel. Maybe that was why we’d bit the dust? My head just wasn’t in the game.
“Flip? You okay?” Dom poked me on the shoulder.
I nodded. “Fine. I’m fine.” I slipped off my own pack. I’d managed to avoid the fire jets that charred him only to be crushed out of dungeonspace in a collapsing wall trap, and that was after spending an hour at the bottom of a pit having deeply strange conversations with a mysterious entity.
“So yeah, that didn’t go well, huh?” Dom repeated.
“About as ‘well’ as you did on that trig test last week. A total party wipe is kind of the opposite of ‘well.’”
I unbuckled my belt and scabbard and let them fall to the floor in a heap as I moved to light the gas lamps along the wall of the gym. Every joint in my body ached; a de-sync side effect of being ejected from the Repeating Phantasm dungeon. It’d only last a couple of hours. We’d gotten to know the aches pretty well over the past four weeks since we’d teamed up to take on Dungeonspace.
Our dungeon tactics mentor, Doom Maiden, was sitting on a weight bench pulling at the velcro straps to remove her Kevlar, and she had a “you kids effed-up and Imma gonna lecture now” smirk on her face.
She’d been really riding our asses lately, but I thought we’d had this one under control. Even when things had gone fubar in d-space, she didn’t intervene—but that was by design: I’d insisted on no training wheels for the run.
I could be real dumb sometimes.
Since Doom Maiden had left the dungeon voluntarily—unlike us—she wasn’t suffering from the same butt-kicking boneache as the rest of us.
“Want my opinion?” asked Doom Maiden.
“Do we really have a choice?” I tried a grin. “Ow. How the hell does my face have so many joints?”
Behind Doom Maiden, Basher stripped out of her plate mail in a jerking, pointed sort of way to let us know she was scorching hot and not just from the fire trap that’d wiped them out. “No, Dom, getting burned to a crisp is not my definition of a good run,” she growled.
“Don’t blame him,” I said. “I made a bad call.”
“He’s the ass who triggered the trap. Aren’t you supposed to be an escapist? Spotting traps is your job!”
“I only stepped on it to stop you from blundering into it as usual!”
Doom Maiden held her hands up and pressed against the tension in the room. “Restore your chill. Flip, what was your first thought when Dom triggered the pressure plate?”
“Run like hell, but Dom was snared. We would have lost him if Basher and I bolted.”
“Instead, you had a total party kill trying to free him. Taking the lead means you make some hard calls.”
I nodded, lips pursed to keep my anger from showing. Dom wouldn’t make eye contact with any of us. This kind of dressing down always got to him the worst, and even though Doom Maiden was trying to help, we were all reaching our maximum frustration levels.
Her tone softened. “Dungeonspace is dangerous. It’ll get worse when you work your way up the threat ratings where the real booty’s found. Understand?”
We nodded. I doubted any of us really needed to be reminded of that. If the Phantom dungeon had been rated lethal threat, we wouldn’t have been standing there to be dressed down.
“Go home. We’ll try another run tomorrow after school. You guys did better this time.”
I was pretty sure that last part was a lie, but it made me feel a little better anyway. I mulled it over as I helped Basher with some of the stubborn ties on her greaves. I didn’t wear much armor myself—just a padded explorer’s outfit—preferring my natural dexterity to keep me out of danger. Basher, though—the troller transformation had continued to rework her body ever since we’d first met, making her stronger, tougher, and ever more massive, but she had slowed as a downside. Her skin was also now gnarled and green, thick as leather, but not so thick that it could turn away a gobbin’s poison arrow or a wraithblade. So we’d pooled the lootbucks we earned from defeating and closing The Cavern of the Screaming Eye dungeon to buy her the suit. I would have barely been able to move wearing it, but to her it weighed nil. I was all kinds of regretting it now; we’d sunk so much cash into the armor. We’d been so sure we would earn it back in no time.
I swallowed my pride and did my best not to choke on it. “Hey. Sorry I got us roasted.”
Basher sighed; the tension she’d been holding in her back drained away, letting her looming frame slouch more comfortably. When a troller stood tense, everybody in the room felt it. “Forget it, Ivan. I don’t know what I would’ve done differently in your place.” I felt a little thrill every time she used my real name and not my d-space moniker. It was silly, and always made me a little uncomfortable in my own skin immediately after.
“Why don’t you take the lead tomorrow?” I said. I wasn’t sure if really wanted that or if I was just afraid of making another bad call and losing even more of my team’s faith.
“Nah.” She laughed—a soft, melodious sound that reminded me she wasn’t just a hulking monster but a teenager just like the rest of us. Sometimes I wished I was the kind of guy who could tell good enough jokes to hear her laugh more often.
“I thought I’d have to yell more about it, but you’re doing a really good job of beating yourself up.”
I felt my cheeks flush. “Uh, well. Thanks for that.”
“Are you okay? You’ve seemed distracted since we pulled you out of that pit early in the run.”
I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I shrugged. “Just focused on the homework I have to do tonight. Oh, hey, how are things with Sam?” Sam was her on-again/off-again boyfriend and the absent member of our team. I felt bad using him to change the subject. “I’m guessing not great since he didn’t show tonight.”
Her expression turned somber. “I should have told you earlier. He’s joining up with another party.”
“What!” Dom exclaimed. “That traitor!”
“Who’s he going with?” I asked.
“The Brave Trio want him. He told me to tell you guys sorry, but he says he knows we’ll do fine without him.”
“Oh.” Sam leaving was a stinging reminder of how badly we’d been doing lately. “Well, if he joins them, can they still call themselves a trio?” Lame attempt at a joke, I know, but it was my defense mechanism. I wished he would have told us himself instead of making Basher do it. But I wasn’t sure how much I would miss him after he pulled crap like this.
Dom wasn’t letting it go. “He’s only got the cred to join up with those thrilljunkie poseurs because of us!”
Dom had already stripped out of his leathers and changed back into his street clothes; baggy jeans, a knitted cap that was trying valiantly to tame his dreadlocks, and another vintage crawler team tee—this one for Dynamo’s Dozen. They hadn’t been a thing since my parents were kids. He had what seemed like an unlimited supply of vintage fanboy shirts.
Jimmy—a/k/a “Domino”—had only just moved into the city proper when we met two months ago. He grew up on the outskirts of our pocket, near the Fade where fewer anomalies formed. That distance from it all had given him an unrealistically upbeat view on the d-space scene. Not even our string of failures had dented his perkiness. I worried his positivity put us at risk; we’d even talked about how he needed to take some things more seriously. But then, I worried about a lot of stuff, at least some of which there was no point doing so. If only I knew which things were which, my life would work so much better.
“Screw it; we don’t need him,” Dom said. For once, he wound himself down without one of us talking him through it. “Two trollers in one party was overkill anyway! We’ve got Ivan’s brains, my stealth, and Cindy’s muscle. We’re a well-balanced party of ass-kicking awesome.”
“There’s no such thing as too much muscle in d-space,” I grumbled.
“Sponsored teams can offer a lot of perks to trollers,” Doom Maiden pointed out. “You guys should count yourself lucky that Cindy’s sticking with us.”
Cindy—Basher—looked anywhere but at me, her posture suddenly stiff again. I felt the bottom fall out of my stomach, like how it feels when you plummet down a ten-meter-deep pit trap.
Our team has only been on fire in the literal sense—we had seen early success, but we’d been slow to pull things together since. The lootbucks weren’t dropping in wheelbarrows like we’d been expecting them to. Hells, I wasn’t even sure we could scrape together enough cash to keep paying Doom Maiden’s cousin One-Arm to use his gym for our training.
So, yeah, sure; it made sense that Basher would be considering ditching the party too. Her treatments put her in steep debt to Body Mods, Inc. She needed to be part of a successful team—needed the bucks way more than Dom or I. That meant either we were going to have to stop screwing up or she was going to have to move on. Sam we could lose—but not Basher.
Dom got quiet, probably thinking similarly doomy thoughts. “I’ll walk to the bus station with you, Ivan,” he said to me, then added to Basher, “See you tomorrow?”
Basher nodded. “Good luck on your trig test,” she said to me, then lugged her armor into the gear storage room. Dom and I headed into our locker room.
“She’s got one foot out the door, huh?” Dom whispered.
“Can you blame her?”
“How can she abandon Team Scream after all this work we’ve been putting in?”
“The work needs to pay—wait, team what?”
“I’m trying out team names for when we officially register with Municipal Anomaly Control. What do you think?”
“Uh . . . not that one.”
I stored my kit and pulled on a blue and black “work” uniform. It reeked of fry-grease. I never washed it to lend more weight to my half-baked deception, and it was a good thing I didn’t actually have to wear it to a job because the fabric made my skin break out in hives. Really, I only ever wore it coming and going from my apartment, all for the benefit of one person: Mom.
“Dude, you still haven’t told her?”
After my brother Rash died in d-space, she’d either kill me or ground me until I aged out of interfacing with the anomalies. I said as much to Dom, and he tsked.
I put on the stupid horned hat that Balrog’s Burgers made their employees wear and checked the mirror. Taller than I was a year ago, and still a little chubby, but starting to build muscle from all the training. Pale skin from spending too much time in dungeonspace. I looked as dumb as I felt. But at least my acne had started to clear up. Though even that wasn’t all good, because it didn’t help my cover story.
Who cares? It’s still the face of a loser, a voice said. It sounded an awful lot like Rash. I didn’t want to agree, but the ghost of my brother had a point. I wasn’t a winner. Heck, I still owed Amit from my dungeonomics class a hundred lootbucks for the uniform. His boss had docked his pay for “losing” it and he’d been expecting me to pay up yesterday.
I really needed a win. We all did.
“Lying to her isn’t a great plan, man,” Dom said. “It’s just going to cause more problems for you.”
“Jimmy—you don’t know my mom. Trust me; it’s the only way.”
“I’ve met your mom twice and she seems like a nice lady.” Dom said, then sighed. “But okay.”
We sat not saying anything for a moment until Dom furrowed his brow, then broke the silence. “Bloodaxe is about to walk in.”
“Dude, it’s way spooky when you do that.”
His instincts had been growing sharper lately; Dom was developing real d-space talents as an escapist just like he’d hoped.
He’d been lucky. I was still plain old Ivan, known to d-space runners as “Flip.” I’d earned the name because of a coin I used to carry—a d-space artifact—that always landed on heads. Used to because I’d traded it to One-Arm to cover another month of our rent at the gym. The way things were going, I figured before long everyone would start calling me “Flounder” or “Flop.”
On cue, the locker room door swung open and in strode Bloodaxe, full of chill and swagger as always. Basher was big, but Bloodaxe towered over even her, his bare, blue-green arms criss-crossed with fading scars from a hundred d-space battles. He was older than the rest of us—coming up on nineteen now, meaning he was about to age out of the scene. Pretty soon, his mind wouldn’t be able to sync up with the d-space anomalies through whatever quirk of neurobiology allowed us teenagers to crawl. He’d been planning to transition into coaching our team in battlefield tactics; we had a handshake deal for him to collect part of our earnings, but that had been flat zilch so far, so I half-expected him to announce he was moving on to Sam’s new team.
What he said was far worse.
“Somebody escaped the Black Hole.”
• • • •
To understand why those words turned my world upside down, you need to understand my family’s screwed up history with the Black Hole anomaly. My older brother Jonah, a/k/a “Rash,” was part of the top team in Braxis City. Almost a year ago, they went into the Hole and didn’t return.
Rash was the lead of a d-space team called Alpha Response, and they were chartered by Braxis City’s Municipal Anomaly Control to tackle the most dangerous threats. D-space anomalies caused all kinds of strangeness and havoc, and if enough of them were allowed to form unchecked, reality became Swiss cheese. Even small anomalies caused electrical tech to stop working around them, which was why our city looked like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Luckily, brave, stupid, and stupidly brave kids like us could venture inside the anomalies and destroy them.
Every anomaly had an artifact at its heart, like a splinter under the skin of our world. If you captured it, the anomaly would vanish but leave behind artifacts in its place. Artifacts had all kinds of crazy powers in d-space. Some even worked their powers in originspace, and those were worth a fortune. Every crawler dreamed of bringing home one of those.
When the Black Hole manifested in the East Barrio Riverside Apartments, it created chaos. Gravity rotated 180 degrees in a five-hundred-meter radius. It launched three people through a skylight and into the upper atmosphere, all the way out of the Fringe and into the Nothing. The anomaly appeared as a half-meter-wide sphere of midnight glass. Even looking at it for a moment, rumors said, could claim your sanity. Everything about it screamed maximum-threat level.
Municipal Anomaly Control sent in Alpha Response. They never came out. Four more A-level teams took a run at it, and when none of them came out, MAC put the anomaly on full guarded lockdown. Nobody was allowed in and it was monitored for any kind of unusual activity around the clock. Incursions from d-space were rare, but still possible and never a good thing. Our world was mostly a safe haven, but sometimes, for reasons nobody understood, the horrors of dungeonspace found their way into originspace. My father was killed in an incursion when I was little, but I didn’t know much about him or how that all went down. My mom never talked about those days, even before Rash disappeared.
After months of nil activity at the anomaly, MAC declared dead everyone who’d gone inside the Black Hole. Mom got a small bereavement payment that got us through the rest of the year, but that was drying up now.
Meanwhile, I tried to move on. I thought I had moved on, but then I met Jimmy and his enthusiasm dragged me into the d-space world. I had always hoped I would belong there most of my life, but Rash had always been telling me I didn’t have what it took. But he was wrong; together with Dom, Basher, and Sam, we four defeated the Cavern of the Screaming Eye on our first outing.
When we beat the dungeon, we captured its artifact: a key made of the same material as the Black Hole anomaly, obviously related somehow to that mysterious dungeon. Even more mysterious, while in the Cavern, I spoke with that unknown entity that claimed to know my brother and a lot about the workings of dungeonspace.
Most d-space denizens didn’t know anything about the nature of their reality pockets. But the voice continued to speak from the darkness in other dungeons I visited. Always coy—never explaining who or what it was. I didn’t know what to make of The Thing Between. I still hadn’t told my friends about it. If they knew I was being stalked by a creepy and mysterious voice in the shadows that claimed to have known my brother, would they want to keep crawling with me? I had to learn more about it first.
After the Cavern, with the same friends I was reluctantly keeping secrets from, I formed a crawler team. I hoped that together we could use the key and my secret conversations to find out what happened to my brother. It would take years of training and d-space experience to reach a point where we could attempt something like the Black Hole, but it was the goal we were working toward.
The Black Hole had been quiet, so I thought we had time.
Turns out, the Black Hole had other ideas.
• • • •
We gathered on the gym’s sparring floor to discuss Bloodaxe’s bombshell. Basher swayed with exhaustion and periodically glanced toward the door.
“Thanks for staying,” I whispered to her.
“Of course,” she said and shot me a look of confusion.
“You didn’t have to. This is my deal.”
Doom Maiden gave Bloodaxe a punch on the arm. “I’ll rip you a new one for missing practice later. What’d you hear?”
“All anyone was talking about at the Speakeasy,” Bloodaxe said in his growl of a voice. He was a pretty chill guy most days, but the troller reworking made him sound angry even when he wasn’t.
“Who?” I asked a little too fast. “Who made it out?” I wasn’t sure if I was hoping it was my brother, or desperate that it wouldn’t be. What would he say if he saw me with my own beginnings of a crawler team? He’d been one of the city’s best, and I was still rank zero.
“Don’t know who or what. There was a hell of a fight, but MAC guards took whoever it was alive. Now they got . . . the escapee? Yeah, they’re locked up in MAC HQ tighter than new TrunchCo leather undies.”
“Gross,” Basher and Doom Maiden said.
“I need to talk to them,” I said. “They might know what happened to my brother.” For now, I didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that the escapee was Rash.
“That’s what I figured you’d say,” Bloodaxe said with a tusky grin. “Did some asking around. There is someone with the pull to get you inside. He’s a huge pain in the ass, but he’ll meet with us. He owes me a big-ass favor.”
Doom Maiden rolled her eyes. “Oh Gods, not that asshole.”
“Yeah. If Ivan wants to talk to the escapee, he’s going to have to do a job for Briggsby.”
• • • •
As much as I wanted to find out who Briggsby was and what we were going to do to earn his help, we had to call it a night or some of us were going to get grounded. We made plans to meet up at One-Arm’s after school.
Dom and I left the gym together and jogged for the bus stop, just barely making it onto the last bus of the night. As we took seats, it pulled away from the curb and chugged down the broad streets, steam engine rolling us forward with a pleasant rhythm that had rocked me to sleep many nights. The regular driver was an ex-crawler and had a lot of sympathy for our deal, and he’d wake me up for my stop with his bell.
Dom and I rode in silence, which was not typical for either of us, but especially not for him. It was all over his face how he wanted to assure me that things would be okay. I imagined him saying that we would come up with a plan and that our party would start to work like a real team—that optimism of his that never tarnished no matter how badly things were going. He was smart enough to know I didn’t want to hear any of it right now. I was too tired to think about tomorrow, especially with the failure of today still lingering.
Dom stepped off with a forlorn wave to catch the Blue Line on 9th Street. I returned it, and slouched in my seat. I rode for twenty minutes with only my fears and thoughts to keep me company. I did my best to keep them at bay by focusing on the sound of the wheels creaking over the paving stones, the hiss of steam, and the hum of the motor. I didn’t do a great job. I couldn’t even relax enough to nap. Finally, Antonio dinged his bell and gave me a nod from his mirror. I stepped off the bus and out into the cool spring air. The quality was good today, clean. I wished I could go anywhere but home right now. I hated bringing troubles to a home that already contained more than enough.
Our apartment was in a decent enough part of the city. Pollution didn’t get as bad here, not like in the north. Our building was ten stories, built during the Reconstruction, simple and unremarkable concrete construction like a lot of the buildings in the outer West Barrio. Lately, it was falling into disrepair; the elevators hadn’t worked in months and our pneumatic mail delivery was getting backed up every other day. The heating and gas lights worked, at least. The super was never around no matter how many angry notes we left her.
I slogged up seven flights of steps and down the hall to our door. I’d gotten good at opening it without making a sound—opening doors silently is a very useful knack to develop for d-space crawlers, and this was one of those cases where the skillset was just as applicable to originspace.
I expected to find Mom passed out on the couch again, but it—and the living room—was empty. Gaslight flickered from the hall, and I heard a rustling of someone moving things around in one of the bedrooms. I groaned. She’d searched my room in a fit of vodka-fueled paranoia twice in the past six months—luckily, I kept all my gear at the gym. I figured she was at it again, but as I crept forward, I could see that the light came from my brother’s room.
Neither of us had been in Rash’s room since the Hole had swallowed him up. Mom had forbidden me, certain that Rash would make it back someday, and he would be pissed if anybody messed with his stuff. Rash had been “lost” to d-space before, but never for longer than a week. As days added up to weeks, and the weeks spooled out into months, she never got around to doing anything with his belongings. His room became a hollow, aching space in our lives that we never talked about.
I peered around the doorframe. Mom was teary-eyed, but I didn’t smell any booze. She had a determined air as she packed away Rash’s crawler ’zine collection in a milk crate. She paused to tuck strands of gray hair behind her ear. I tried to slip past without her noticing me, but I wasn’t half as sneaky as Dom.
“If there’s anything you want to keep for yourself, you better get in here and pick it out tomorrow,” she said.
“How was work?”
“Busy, I guess.” Gods, I wished I could tell her how hard things were right now; the real truth. If I could, then she could assure me that things would get better. The Mom I could tell everything had disappeared with Rash.
I took a tentative step inside, worried that somehow I would upset this new balance. One wrong move, one wrong word and I might send her spiraling again.
“It’s time to admit that your brother isn’t coming back,” she said, voice calm. “Bet you thought I should have done that a long time ago.”
“Have you gotten your first paycheck yet?”
The sudden change in topic threw me off balance. “Wh—oh, no. The first one they garnished for my training and uniform and stuff. I should get it pretty soon.”
“Good. I need some help with the rent. With your brother gone and those bastards at the plant cutting everybody’s hours, things are tight.”
I blinked. “Sure.” Add another worry to my pile. More pressure would turn me into a diamond faster, right?
“Get some sleep, honey. I’ll finish up this box.”
I leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. I hadn’t done that in longer than I could remember; I’d forgotten the particular taste of the machine oils that got into her pores—like coppery limes.
I thought it would make me feel better, but instead I felt curdled to see her happy. I knew something that could renew all her painful hopes again at the worst possible time, and I couldn’t tell her. Not until I was sure who it was. What it would mean for us.
She smiled. “What was that for?”
“No reason,” I said. “Love you. Good night.”
Sleep didn’t come easily, and when it did, it brought the nightmares. Ever since the Cavern, I’d been having bad dreams after traveling into d-space. They were foreboding, vague, full of flames and shadows and smoke. In them, I stood and witnessed some behemoth rising up through a cloud of ash. I was certain that whatever this thing was, if it fully revealed itself to me, I would die. Each time, I shifted my weight atop a precipice of rock, desperate to see the thing even though I knew it was a harbinger of my doom. Inevitably, I would lose my balance, tumble into the fiery turmoil below. After the first few times, I learned to wake up without screaming. Those had been awkward conversations with Mom, but she’d chalked it up to more Rash trauma.
Nobody knew the full impact of traveling to d-space had on our heads; I figured nightmares like mine were common. A lot of crawlers ended up—if they survived into adulthood—with post-traumatic stress or worse. The counseling business in Braxis City thrived, and if I could scrape together some money, I might talk to a therapist myself . . . at least about the dreams. They seemed to be getting worse. More real.
I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it, but it seemed like the shape in the smoke was growing closer.
• • • •
Dawn broke sooner than I was prepared for. I steeled myself to the school day grind. Sometimes thinking of it as just another day of battle and training helped alleviate the boredom.
Dom and I met for lunch in the back corner of the cafeteria near where the other, better established crawler teams sat (and mostly sneered at us). We talked through the latest issue of Frobisher’s Guide—our favorite crawler ’zine. Frobisher described a new anomaly threat popping up—Gobbin Ambush. The little purple-skinned humanoids were becoming increasingly organized and aggressive against caravan teams that were crucial to the trade of Braxis with the other originspace cities. Frobisher had the usual outlandish theories to explain all of it—another coming Cataclysm being the most ridiculous.
It’d be hard to break the world when it was already in tatters.
The issue also included a pretty good overview of battle strategies against superior numbers made up of individually weaker forces. We debated the finer points of that strategy for a while before turning to personal matters.
“So what’s the story with this Briggsby guy?” I asked.
“You don’t know him? He’s one of the most prominent traders of artifacts on the scene.”
“Well,” I said defensively, “Rash worked directly for MAC. They have their own systems for earning that don’t involve fences or fixers. What makes this one so special?”
“He lives in d-space. Guess how old he is?”
“He’s ten. Some kind of child prodigy, been doing this since he was five,” I said with a straight face.
“He’s practically forty! Briggsby solved the aging-out problem by moving into a dungeon he tamed and never left. He’s, like, the most powerful formulist. I guess he didn’t want to lose all his magic just because he turned twenty.”
The description did shake loose a dim memory of my brother mentioning a “crazy hermit sorcerer.” Braxis was full of movers and shakers like that—people who facilitated trade between crawlers and the engines of commerce that could make use of the ’facts, or collectors who wanted to buy the looted art (artifacts with no real power, but still curiosities of value, like my old coin). Rich people could never get enough of dungeon loot to decorate their condos and mansions, or, apparently, their private dungeonspace pockets.
“Briggsby knows more about d-space loot than anybody, and ’cause of that, he’s built a network of connections in the city, even within MAC and the government. I bought my mask from him. Not directly, but through one of his fronts. I’m way surprised Francisco got us a meeting. He’s super-reclusive.”
“If anyone has the connections to a guy like that, it would be Francisco.” A year before, Francisco—Bloodaxe—had been a prominent crawler on the scene, but according to rumors there’d been a totally botched run and he was the sole survivor. He never talked about it; one time over drinks at the Speakeasy, he almost opened up about it but then Doom Maiden had made a joke at his expense, and the walls went back up. Those two had a weird relationship, kind of what I imagined a normal brother/sister thing would be like. (I never had a sister, and my one brother had been kind of a dick.) Their relationship was totally platonic, though, on account of Bloodaxe preferring guys.
The bell signaling the end of the lunch period sounded, so we got up and bussed our trays, Dom grinning the whole time. “Dude, I can’t wait to meet the great Wizard Briggsby!”
“I wish I was as excited as you.”
“Eh, I’ve got enough excitement for both of us.”
• • • •
When I finally walked into the gym after school—twenty minutes late—I got some glares. Dom was practically vibrating onto another plane of existence, bouncing around from foot to foot, shadowboxing. Basher was quiet, but her shoulders still carried nervous tension. Doom Maiden was the source of the most annoyed scowl. Bloodaxe looked troubled and deep in thought, and barely acknowledged my arrival.
The reason I was late was because I’d taken the long way to the gym from Braxis West High. After Rash’s disappearance, I’d taken up long walks around the city to get away from my mother’s grief. A nice side effect was that it burned off enough of my weight that I could actually consider becoming a serious crawler, and I’d learned to appreciate the meditative effect of repeatedly putting one foot in front of another.
This walk, I didn’t have any profound thoughts; I’d spent the time worriedly brainstorming ways we could pull our team together better. Dom and Basher bickered constantly now. I’d been questioning my calls, and that wasn’t good for anyone; you needed confidence to run a team. Mine had dried up, and I wasn’t sure how or where to find it.
“Everybody here?” Bloodaxe said, with a sheepish grin. “All right. No practice run tonight, kids. We’re meeting with Briggsby in a Tower of the Magus. He’s got a job offer, and if you pull it off, he’ll pull some strings to get Flip on the inside.”
Doom Maiden crossed her arms. “Dealing with him is a bad idea. Briggsby’s a dick. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself.”
“You got a better idea?” Bloodaxe asked, tone sharp.
“Forget the whole thing,” she said to me. “If it’s your brother, Municipal Anomaly Control will notify your family. Till then, I say we keep training and earn us all some bucks in d-space.”
Before I could respond, Dom spoke up. “Dude, no way. The main reason we formed this team was to help Flip find out what happened to Rash. If we need to do a work-for-hire job to get new info, then I’m in.”
“Me too,” Basher said, after a significant pause. “This time. But guys, I have to start bringing home some lootbucks—and soon.”
“Maybe we can negotiate for a small payment on top with Briggsby?” I suggested. “He’s probably a reasonable guy . . . right?”
• • • •
“You will find that I am not very reasonable,” Briggsby said with a greasy smile. “I don’t have to be. I hold all the cards in this situation.”
The wizard sat at one end of a long hall on a throne floating a couple of meters in the air. His black hair was thinning, combed carefully over an enormous bald spot, and he carried a paunch of the kind you get when you spend your days sitting instead of moving around. He wore a purple robe—not a wizard’s robe, embroidered with arcane symbols or anything like that. A bathrobe. My mom owned one just like it, only green.
What Briggsby lacked in physical presentation, however, he made up for in projection; his voice boomed through the great hall, and though we stood a dozen meters away, we could all hear him clearly. He spoke with a real confidence, and I was more than a little envious of it. I felt like I should be taking notes.
Briggsby was flanked by a pair of marble statues. They looked like jacked-up gym rats, bursting with well-defined muscles, only they had hammers instead of hands. One could have almost mistaken them for regular statues if they didn’t shift their weight occasionally. Their presence was obviously intended to awe and intimidate; the formulas necessary to create them took incredible concentration, but Briggsby showed no signs of strain. That meant he actually was as powerful as Dom had said.
“Frankly, your group’s reputation, such as it is, does not encourage me to believe that you’re capable of accomplishing the tasks I wish to set before you.”
“Give the kids a chance and they might surprise you,” Bloodaxe growled. “Surprised me.”
“Indeed. It’s only on the strength of your recommendation that I have agreed to take this meeting. What I see before me are inexperienced children that are as likely to have a T.P.K. as they are to acquire the object of my desire. Perhaps with yours and the Doom Maiden’s tutelage, they will, as you say, surprise me.”
“We got past the screaming eyes,” Basher muttered.
Briggsby stroked a patch of black hair on his uppermost chin. “Oh, yes, I’m well aware of your exploits thus far. There is quite a difference in threat level between cyclopian froglings and an ancient dragon like Karnifex.”
The room went silent. Even the golems turned their heads to stare at Briggsby.
“Did he just say ‘dragon’?” I asked.
“Ancient dragon,” Basher said.
“‘Karnifex’?” Doom Maiden wondered aloud.
“I feel like I should add something here,” Dom said, “but I got nothing. We can’t kill a dragon. Even I know that.”
Briggsby chuckled. “The task I require of you is not, as you fear, to slay the elder wyrm, but much simpler and perhaps even within the realm of possibility, given the resources at your disposal. Karnifex has in his possession an especially interesting artifact. I require it for my continued work.”
“There’s no fucking way I am sending these kids up against Karnifex,” Bloodaxe said, his voice crackling in a way that meant he was raging hardcore. I took a step back.
Briggsby chuckled. “Oh yes, that’s right! You have a history with the beast. Nevertheless, if you wish to earn my favor, you will acquire the Phylactery of Youth from the dragon’s hoard.”
“There’s nothing else we can do?” I asked. “Maybe mop some floors around the ol’ wizard’s tower? Some light dusting?”
Briggsby shook his head. “No.”
“So what exactly is the job?” Dom whispered.
“This crazy godsdamned wizard wants us to steal from the most powerful dragon in d-space,” I whispered back.
“Oh.” Dom paused. “Well . . . that sounds pretty fun, actually.”
I shook my head and spoke up. “Briggsby, sir, if we do this, we’re going to need some backing. We’ll need more financial resources to pull it off, and we’re a bit short at the moment.”
“What do you have in mind?”
I went for it. “How about ten thousand lootbucks for expenses?”
“Why in the world would I agree to that?” he sputtered. “Did I not, moments ago, explain that I don’t need to be reasonable?”
“Well,” I said with a smile, “that would be true if you hadn’t just told us what it is that you want, and that means you’ve shown me your cards, even if you do hold all of them. I bet there are other parties who would love to get their hands on a ’fact that can reverse aging. Who knows how many adults would love to be able to go back into dungeonspace and relive their glory days, huh? Just think of what MAC could do with that power?”
The possibilities were actually horrifying—adults would ruin everything about d-space. Briggsby alone controlling that power would be preferable, but I wasn’t telling him that.
“I see. You think you can threaten me and my interests?” Briggsby’s eyes began to glow, and a blue-white energy began to swirl around his hands. “It would be far easier for me to eliminate you than to negotiate further.”
“You could do that,” I admitted, “but you won’t. You’re trapped in this rat’s hole of a dungeon. Dude, you don’t even have working plumbing in here, and we didn’t see fields of crops on our way in. Your survival depends on not pissing off everybody in Braxis City. If word gets out you murdered some ‘inexperienced kids,’ you’ll be finished. Take your pick; starve to death or go become an accountant.”
Briggsby’s eyes dimmed and their energy evaporated. “I may have underestimated your cleverness. Do not think that your empty threats are what have convinced me, young man. In truth, it is your demonstration of some small glimmer of cleverness gives me some hope of your capabilities. Fine; I will ensure the funds are made at your disposal.”
“Thank you, sir. You won’t regret giving us this opportunity.”
“He might not,” Doom Maiden said, “but I have a feeling we’re going to regret the hell out of it.”
She might be right. We were in over our heads on this one, and looming somewhere a few stories over our heads was a ten thousand year old dragon.
• • • •
We rode the Green Line from Briggsby’s d-space anomaly back to the Gym. Nobody looked happier than they did before we met with the fixer. I’d never seen Bloodaxe turn so pale—he was practically chartreuse.
Basher broke the silence. “How exactly are we going to take on the Dragon of Dread Peak?” Her enormous hands nervously fidgeted in her lap. “More experienced crawlers than us have tried and failed.”
“Tried and been devoured, more like,” Bloodaxe muttered.
“I’m working on a plan,” I said. The idea had hit me just then, at least the start of one. “I think this is going to be easier than it sounds.”
Domino clapped his hands once, then tucked them away, embarrassed at his over-excitement. “I knew Flip would figure this out. There’s a reason he’s our leader. So what’s the plan?”
“Francisco, what did Briggsby mean about you having history with the dragon?” I asked. “We’re going to need lair intel and—”
“Karnifex took my former team,” he said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. We all leaned in closer.
“You mean, like, he took them out?” Dom asked.
“His breath weapon is a paralyzing gas. Turns you into a kinda living statue. That bastard plays with his prey a while, and then, when he’s bored or hungry, he eats them.”
“Oh my Gods,” Basher said. “I’m so sorry, Francisco.”
“If they’re not dead already, they will be some day. I can’t help on this one. I . . . I just can’t lose another group to Karnifex.”
The bus stopped, and Bloodaxe abruptly stood and charged out onto the street. We’d never seen him show fear of anything. As the bus pulled away, I watched him dwindle into the distance, shaking on a street corner.
“We need to go back for him!” Basher said.
“The old grump needs some space right now,” Doom Maiden said, “and you kids need to pay attention. You stay in this game long enough, you’ll lose friends too. It’s been fun and games up till now, but things are fucking real this time. Flip, what’s your idea for taking on Karnifex? Not a frontal assault, I assume?”
“No, of course not. I figure we Bilbo the crap out of this one,” I said. “We have all the pieces we need, don’t we?”
Doom Maiden frowned, looked as if she was going to object, but then nodded slowly. “Maybe.”
“What’s a ‘Bilbo’?” Basher asked.
“Haven’t you read the classics?” Dom asked with a grin. “It’s pre-Cataclysm. Bilbo was a short, hungry thief who stole from a dragon named Fog, or Bog, something like that. It’s been a long time since I read that one.”
“Yeah, Bilbo does steal from the dragon, but that sends it on a rampage,” Doom Maiden said. “Let’s avoid that part, okay?”
I nodded. “We have to be careful. Bilbo had a magic ring that let him turn invisible. Sound familiar?”
“Pretty much the same magic as my mask.” Dom was the only one of us who owned a d-space artifact of any significant power or use. When he wore it inside dungeonspace, he turned mostly invisible, so long as he moved slowly.
“Right. The rest of us work to distract Karnifex somehow, and you slip in, steal the Phylactery, and out we go before he knows what’s happened. Simple Bilbo.”
Basher’s scowl meant that she wasn’t sold on the plan. If nothing else, Cindy was practical and she was good at poking holes in my ideas. “You heard what Bloodaxe said. How do we distract Karnifex long enough to let Domino do his thing? He could paralyze and eat us in seconds.”
I paused, thinking. She had me there. “There’s plenty of ink spilled about Karnifex—the Dragon of Dread Peak has been around for decades. We’ll do some research, figure out what’s most likely to get his attention. Bribe him, smooth talk him, play hide and seek. Something like that.”
“It isn’t the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard,” Doom Maiden said, “but it’s close. We’re leaving a lot of room for things to go wrong once you’re inside. But . . .”
“You can practically see the pneumatic tubes working in her brain,” Dom faux-whispered.
“It’s why she’s so bad at cards,” Basher said with a smirk.
“Yeah, yeah,” Doom Maiden grumbled. “I know somebody who knows just about everything about dragons. She’s a competent formulist, too. Her magic could come in handy here. We could bring her in as a freelancer.”
I frowned. “She’s not one of those godsdamned dragon-botherers, is she?”
“She’s not nearly as zealous as a lot of them, I promise.”
There were a hundred small, oddball religions in Braxis City that less generous people would call cults, and a handful of them involved worshipping dragons. The biggest sect of worshippers believed that dragons were the cause of the Cataclysm; they called themselves Servants of the Drake, but everybody else called them dragon-botherers. The Servants believed dragons had created the anomalies and that some could even control them. To the Servants, dragons were the Creators of All, gods of our multiverse, and they documented all the stories about them they could find, even bringing some of the monsters offerings of food and loot, although that was uber-illegal. Not that it stopped them.
My family had no formal religion. (Except for Rash, who claimed he was a First Reformation Nihilist, but I always thought he was just kidding.) Most in Braxis City believed in higher powers—dungeonspace made it hard not to and sometimes people met entities out there that were pretty god-like—but Mom didn’t ascribe to any particular pantheon, and the idea of formal religion had always seemed exotic to me.
But besides the weird religious zealot thing, I was also nervous about bringing a new element into our team. Then again, a formulist’s spells could prove useful, and knowledge of Karnifex was something we absolutely needed to pull off my half-baked plan.
“If you vouch for her, let’s offer her a share to join the party this time,” I suggested. “We might need all the help we can get on this one. Any objections?”
“You vouch for her? We can trust this wizard?” Basher asked.
Doom Maiden nodded. “She’s good.”
Dom shrugged. “I guess some spellcraft could come in handy.”
“I’ll send her a tube-message from the gym,” Doom Maiden said.
“I hate to bring this up,” Basher said, “but we should move quickly. Once they’ve gotten their act together, MAC will probably move whoever escaped the Black Hole to a higher security facility outside the city. That’s their protocol for incursion threats. If they relocate the escapee, not even Briggsby will be able to get us in.” Basher had an older sister who worked in Municipal Anomaly Control, and so she knew more about their bureaucratic ways than any of us.
“How much time do you think we have?”
“Two to three days, max. Once the paperwork goes through, they’re gone.”
I swore. “Okay. We can do this.”
“Of course we can,” Dom said brightly. “We’re Flip’s Fierce Fighters.”
“Oh come on, nooooo,” Basher said.
“That one’s awful,” I added.
“Fine, fine, I’ll keep trying.”
• • • •
“I’m Sparks,” the dragon-botherer said. “I hear you need an expert.”
Sparks stood a meter and a half if I was being generous, and probably weighed about as much as my left leg. She reminded me of an anxious bird, the way she shifted around, never standing still. Her bleached blonde hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail except for a blood-red streak that ran from over her right eye and tucked behind an ear to hang down to mid-neck. She wore a stylized dragon pendant on a silver chain, just visible inside the folds of her half-zipped black hoodie. Something just beneath her cuffs sparkled in the gym’s gas lights: microweave chainmail. She’d come prepared to see action. And she clearly had some skill if she could afford that stuff. Light as cloth, a hundred times stronger. I tried not to drool.
“You won’t do better than me,” she added, “especially if this involves Uncle Karny. He loves me like his own hatchling.”
I could tell by Basher’s shift in posture that she had taken an immediate dislike to the formulist. She’d folded her thick arms across her chest and broadened her stance like she was prepared to bounce Sparks straight out of One-Arm’s Gym.
“Are we really about to let someone onto our team who calls the most dangerous dragon in d-space ‘Uncle Karny’?”
“Come on, don’t be rude,” Dom said. “Nice to meet you, Sparks. I’m Domino, this is Flip, and the grumpy one is Basher.” He offered his hand, but Sparks ignored it.
“No offense, but I don’t want to get too friendly. If this ends in a party wipe, I don’t want to feel guilty.”
“You’re just a basket of sunshine, huh?” I asked.
“Yep!” Sparks said brightly. “I’m practical, too. Doomerella said you’ve got a plan, so why don’t you run me through it and I’ll make it better so we can avoid that T.P.K., mm-kay?”
I laid out the basics. Sparks began to suggest some modifications.
“So, the only thing a dragon hates more than humans poking around its hoard is another dragon. That hatred for one another is what led them to cause the Cataclysm—so they would be eternally separated from each other.”
“Oh, I’ve heard this theory,” Dom said excitedly. “Our world was caught in their crossfire.”
“Uh huh. Point is, we’re going to have to look totally legits when we get Karny’s attention. If he suspects we’re playing him,” she snapped her fingers, “we’re stiffs.”
“What do you suggest?” I asked.
“Honest deception is the best kind with dragons this old. They have a harder time smelling the lie beneath the truth. We bring him an offering as Servants of the Drake while Domino works the Bilbo angle. I can stretch the offering ritual out to maybe fifteen minutes. We have to offer something with real oomph though. Got a good piece of art or a ’fact? Dragons love d-space loot as much as we do.”
“We’ve got some backing on this,” I said. “We’ll pick something up on the market.”
“So long as it doesn’t take too much from my share,” Sparks warned. “I’m already giving you a cut-rate deal here.”
“Question,” Basher said. “If it comes down to choosing between us and the dragon, whose side are you going to take?”
I stifled a gasp; the question hadn’t even occurred to me, and I could tell from Dom’s look that he hadn’t thought of it either. Even if her tone was rude, Basher had a point. We could be real suckers sometimes.
Sparks only laughed. “Fair enough. In my faith, we revere dragons, but they’re not ‘gods’ in the traditional sense. They’re smaller aspects of a greater divinity; we’re not stupid. A dragon will devour a Servant just as quickly as any rando crawler. I wanna make it out alive, thank you very much.”
“But would you kill a dragon?”
Sparks frowned. “I’m hoping it never comes to that. If it means surviving to play another day, I guess I would. The Flame cannot be diminished by the death of a single wyrm. I’d come down pretty hard against plans of dragon genocide, though.”
“What else are you bringing to the table besides the cover story?” Basher’s direct questioning was getting harder to excuse. I wondered if I should step in. I never knew how to resolve team disputes.
Sparks shot a glance at Doom Maiden. “Look, I didn’t know I’d have to audition—”
Doom Maiden shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I’m just the adviser.”
Sparks rolled her eyes. “I can prepare formulas that will buy us time to escape if things go bad.”
Basher nodded. “Fine. Good.” She uncrossed her arms, and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding until just then.
“Can you draw me a map of his lair?” Dom asked. “And any ideas where I would find the ’fact? The faster I can find it, the easier it’ll be on you guys.”
Sparks nodded. “I know the first few chambers, at least. That should help.”
“Does anyone actually know what this ’fact looks like?” Basher asked. “What even is a ‘phylactery’?”
“I think it’s a vial, right? Full of blood?” I said, uncertain.
“Historically, it was a small box made of leather worn around the neck,” Dom said. “How many phylactery ’facts could there be in Karnifex’s hoard? I’ll find it.”
• • • •
We spent the rest of the evening drilling the details. Sparks taught us the basics of the offering ceremony, which involved a lot of prostrating on the ground and reading from a dusty tome she carried. I took a peek at it while she was taking a pee break; the pages were heavily annotated in girly handwriting. Some passages were underlined or circled. I tried to read some, but it was really dry stuff, written in language that seemed to deliberately obscure meaning. It reminded me a little of the way Briggsby had talked.
A messenger arrived just before our dinner break and delivered a bulging envelope of lootbucks. Doom Maiden headed out to the Ninth Street Bazaar to find a ’fact that would please an ancient dragon. Sparks had given her some ideas of what might hold Karnifex’s attention long enough for Dom to make it in and out of the lair.
Just as we were breaking to find some dinner, Bloodaxe slipped inside the gym door and motioned to me from the threshold. He wobbled a bit and his eyes looked unfocused. I hustled over.
“Are you drunk?” I tried to level brotherly concern in my voice instead of scorn.
He rolled his eyes. “Yer not my mum. Come on, we need to talk.” He led me outside and into the alley between the gym and a corner bodega.
“I think we have a solid plan—” I began.
“Won’t matter. Karnifex is thousands of years old. He’ll outsmart you. Only reason MAC hasn’t locked him down is ’cause they trade ’facts with ’im. You can’t pull this off without losing someone.”
“We’ve surprised you before. You said so.”
“Ivan.” He seemed to regain his balance. He rarely sounded so serious. “Listen. You’re leading yer friends to their deaths, and for what? ’Cause yer still hung up on yer jerk of a brother? You gotta stop living in his shadow and be yer own chill dude.”
I shook my head, but couldn’t find the right words. He didn’t know about Mom and her grief. Rash’s disappearance was bigger than just me. A death was like a pebble dropped in a pond. The aftermath rippled outward, impacting so many others in ways you couldn’t predict or expect. If I could do something to ease that, I was going to. Jerk or not, my brother mattered. I didn’t say any of that—I was too embarrassed, too tongue-tied.
“I think we can pull this off,” I mumbled. Gods, I really needed a ’fact that could give me a silvered tongue.
“Better crawlers than you have tried and died. My lost friends’re at the top of that list.” Bloodaxe stared at me, and I could feel a drunken anger building up in him. He was going to blow if I didn’t do something. “You think yer so damned smart just because ya beat the Cavern of the Screaming Eye. Ya. Got. Lucky. That’s all. Ya haven’t done squat yet. I’m not going to watch this blow up in yer face.”
“Fine,” I said. “Go. We don’t need your help. If you’re out, you won’t be getting a cut on this one, either. That’s all you cared about anyway, right?”
His eyes widened like I had slapped him in the face. “That whatchya think?”
I nodded. Defiant. “Prove me wrong.”
Bloodaxe pursed his lips, sighed. Without another word, he turned away and staggered into the night.
Had I won or lost that fight? If I had won, why did it feel so much like I’d lost?
My stomach tumbled, and I felt like going for a long, quiet walk.
“Whoa,” Dom whispered somewhere behind me. He slipped out of the shadows. “That was intense. I’ve never seen him like that.”
“He’s probably right, you know.”
“Hey, high risk, high reward. We’ve got a plan. Sparks knows her stuff.”
“We’re all risking our lives, dude, but you’re risking the most. Are you sure it’s worth it?”
Dom thought quietly for a moment; I could practically see him calculating the right thing to say to me. Sometimes I was afraid that Jimmy cared about what I thought a little too much. I wasn’t sure I could live up to his idea of me. “Dude, you’re my best friend. If there’s anything I can do to help you, I’m going to do it. I know you’d do the same for me. Right?”
“Of course I would.”
“What are you two whispering about out here?” Doom Maiden asked. Apparently, it was a night for people to sneak up on me. She was carrying an armful of packages. Dom leapt to take a few from her, ever the well-mannered thief.
“Thanks—all this was way heavier than it looked. Was Francisco here just now?”
“Yeah. He said this is a suicide mission and tried to talk us out of doing it.”
“What’s the story with him and Karnifex?” Dom asked.
“That’s too long of a tale to tell on the street,” Doom Maiden said. “Let’s head inside.”
• • • •
Doom Maiden took a seat on a stack of mats. “Francisco was a good crawler. Not great; he’d be the first to tell you. But he was competent and a solid earner. He supported two little sisters and his parents on his take. Back then, he was second-in-command of the Inevitables.”
“I read about them in an old issue of D-Space Heroes & D-bags,” Dom said. “They were a good party. They had some epic dungeon take-downs a few years back!”
She nodded. “They moved up the ranks fast. The Inevitables had really solid teamwork, and Francisco was instrumental in that. You guys don’t know how lucky you are to have him running your drills. He was a great tactician, even if he wasn’t the best fighter in d-space. But Blight, their party leader, had dreams of making it superstar big.”
“I met her once,” Sparks said. “Kind of a status-hungry bitch.”
Doom Maiden shot her an annoyed look, but continued. “Blight wanted what we all want, and she figured she had the team to make a run at Karnifex. But the way I heard it was, she ignored Bloodaxe’s finer strategic advice and she pulled a ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ with a spells-blasting full assault. It was a massacre.”
“No wonder he’s so worked up,” Basher said. “That’s awful.”
“Karnifex let him go free to warn crawlers against making any other attempts.” Doom Maiden shrugged. “I can’t blame him for wanting nothing to do with this.”
We’d all heard stories like it, growing up. D-space was dangerous. Everybody knew that, but it was somehow different to know that this kind of tragedy had touched our friend. Even after what happened to Rash, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of everything, to forget the risks we were taking. Guilt at what I had said to Bloodaxe was gnawing in my innards.
“Am I making the same mistake that Blight did?” I asked quietly.
Doom Maiden grimaced and looked away. “That’s for you to decide. Francisco feels pretty strongly you’re not ready.”
“The difference for us is: You have me,” Sparks said cheerfully. “We’re not making an assault on an elder wyrm. That was idiocy and hubris. This is a totally different scheme. I’m sorry your friend’s old party got rekt, but the situations don’t compare.”
“Hmm,” Basher said. “I kind of agree with that.”
Dom and I shared a glance of shock at the two of them agreeing about anything. He said, “We’re coming at this run with the same level of planning that Bloodaxe and Doom Maiden here trained us for. He’s not thinking clearly right now. It sucks, and I love the big guy, but I say we go for it.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll run the Bilbo tomorrow.”
• • • •
I couldn’t even pretend to pay attention in class the next day. I ran over the plan again and again in my head, checking it for flaws. It had plenty; only someone with no imagination could fail to see how it could all go catastrophically wrong.
Even still, we had to move forward. As much as I wanted to know who the escapee from the Black Hole was and what had happened to Rash, we also needed a win for morale and for the epic loots. This was a make-or-break moment for our yet-to-be-named team.
Just before sunset, we met up at the entrance to the Dread Peak. It was in Cauliflower Park in the North Barrio, a small tree-filled lot nestled amongst the streets of pre-Cataclysm brownstones that were home mostly to poorer families who worked factories across the river or the fields further north. We had lived not far away from there before Rash’s successes had allowed us to move closer to the city center and the cleaner, more up-scale West Barrio. I felt sad and nostalgic for the place; it seemed, if anything, to have grown dingier since I last visited. Factory smog often wafted southward and contributed to the sense of decay and grime.
The anomaly itself appeared as a crystal serpent coiled around a raging bonfire, a meter-and-a-half across, that shifted slowly in color across the full spectrum. Even a dozen meters away, behind the MAC security cordon, I could feel the heat of it. The grass and plants in a ten-meter radius had withered and died. This anomaly looked a hell of a lot more dangerous than anything we’d gone through before.
“Interfacing with this is going to hurt, isn’t it?” Dom asked.
“Not as much as you think,” Sparks said. “But it does sting a little.”
A bored looking twenty-something in a Municipal uniform sat in a booth beside a small gate. She was reading a copy of Thrilling Tales From D-space. Now that I was into the real thing, fictional stories didn’t entertain me much, but I used to read that ’zine. She looked up from the page only when Doom Maiden cleared her throat.
“Could you open the gate?”
The woman frowned, then looked through a stack of paperwork. “I don’t have any authorizations for travel. Did you file a request with MAC?”
Doom Maiden dropped a tiny cloth sack on the counter with a clink. “Here’s our authorization. I think you’ll find our paperwork is in order.”
Dom nudged me and whispered, “We’re bribing people now?”
“All for a good cause,” I whispered back. “MAC would have taken weeks to approve the request to run this, if ever.”
The woman smiled, and the pouch vanished. “Right, of course. Sorry, I see it right here.” She stood and unlocked the gate, and we filed through. “Have a good one. Hope you don’t get eaten.”
I reached into my pack for my d-space timer, but Doom Maiden waved me off. “No timers. This is a maximum-threat dungeon, and there’s no known de-sync time. You either make it back to the entrance or you capture the dungeon’s heart. Those are your only ways out.” She passed out thumb-sized pebbles, smooth and cool to the touch. They were made of some white stone I didn’t recognize. Maybe marble? There was something else there, though; something inside. A hum I could barely feel in my fingertips.
“These are thoughtstones; I picked them up last night. They’ll let you communicate with one another sub-vocally. Put it in your mouth, inside your cheek.” I followed her instructions. To my surprise, the pebble dissolved, leaving a sweet, tangy aftertaste. “The effect will wear off in a couple of hours, so don’t take too long in there. Good luck.”
“Equipment check,” I said.
While the team was going over their gear, Doom Maiden handed me a hand-sized porcelain bowl that you could fill with water and then use to scry remotely. We’d purchased it at All-Night Bazaar as our offering to the dragon.
The bowl only worked within d-space, like most ’facts. The ones that worked even in our world—“prime ’facts”—were priceless, and every d-space adventurer dreamed of capturing one. Early crawlers, working just after the Cataclysm, captured a bellows that constantly pours out flammable unnatural gas. Without it, we in Braxis City might have been living in pre-industrial conditions. The other pockets of originspace that we had contact with were defined by what prime artifacts they had captured, too. To discover a prime artifact was to become a legend. I could go for becoming a legend one day. For now, I wanted my story to be about how I outwitted the great and terrible Karnifex.
“Okay, let’s head in,” I said.
One after another, we touched the anomaly and vanished. I was last. I reached for the bonfire, felt the heat scorching my fingertips. I hesitated, and looked over my shoulder. Doom Maiden gave me a curt nod. I touched the flames and disintegrated.
It hurt like hell.
• • • •
You can learn a lot about dragons in ’zines and books, but none of it truly sinks in until you experience it for yourself. Worst of all is how awful they smell.
Their lairs reek with a combination of feces and rotting meat and something event more pungent and indescribable. For the first moments after my body reconstituted in d-space, I had to focus on keeping down my lunch.
“What is that?” Basher asked, dry-heaving.
“Dragons scent-mark their territory,” Sparks said. “I like the smell, but it takes some getting used to.”
Through bleary eyes, I could just make out Basher, bent over and vomiting. “Okay, okay, I feel better now . . . nope, never mind—” she said, then vomited again.
Sparks muttered a few words while drawing shapes in the air with her fingers—performing the calculations of a reality-bending formula. My eyes cleared and Basher stood upright, a look of relief and a healthy green color returning to her cheeks.
[[Dom, you okay?]] I transmitted on the thoughtstone network. Somehow I just knew how it worked.
[[I’ll live]] his mental voice was faint. [[Probably]]
[[Move into position and get ready]]
[[Already ahead of you]]
“Everybody pull themselves together okay?” I asked.
Basher gave me a thumbs-up and Sparks chuckled.
“Great. Let’s go rob a dragon.”
• • • •
On this side, the anomaly blazed like a fiery ruby atop a cliff overlooking a desolate valley full of charred tree stumps and ash, and for as far as the eye could see, not a living thing stirred.
Dread Peak was an active volcano, but the anomaly was in a stable area with no recent lava flow. The air was dry and it was difficult to breathe, hot and laden with ash. I stifled a cough and wondered if we should have brought breathing masks—who knew what kind of nasty stuff was in the air in this place? How many of the failed attempts to take on Karnifex were attributable to the dragon and how many had been due to the terrible air quality?
Sparks walked calmly following a path into the crater. The trail was surprisingly well-worn and wound around the rim in a slow spiral. With each step down, the temperature climbed. I listened for Dom’s invisible footsteps, but couldn’t make them out. He was getting better at sneaking every time we entered d-space. Which was good, given that our plan relied on him going unseen.
The path terminated halfway down into the crater at a shadowy opening in the porous, black rock face. The tunnel walls were rippled and irregular in a way that caught my eye. I reached out and ran my hand down them. The walls contained deep grooves, each cut nearly as wide as my hand. I tried to imagine a dragon with talons that large, but I couldn’t conjure an image of something that enormous, let alone something with the raw strength to burrow into the porous volcanic rock, tearing out boulder-sized chunks to create its lair.
As we descended, the temperature cooled some, and the passage seemed to wind away from the caldera full of lava. I pulled at the back of my padded vest, trying to get some air between it and my damp skin. Sweat poured down Basher’s temples, and I worried that we hadn’t brought enough water to stay hydrated. I offered her my waterskin, and she emptied it with a grateful smile.
We definitely hadn’t brought enough water. We’d have to hydrate with celebratory drinks later.
Sparks began to sing an odd tune in a language I didn’t recognize; it was full of half-notes and strange pitch shifts that didn’t fit my definition of music, much less good music. I knew from Sparks that The Servants of the Drake used the song of greeting to let the dragons know that we weren’t hostile. Most of the time, it kept the dragon from lashing out. Luckily, it seemed to be working now. The only other sounds were the hot winds above us and the low rumble of the mountain’s molten heart below. Nothing moved in the dim passage ahead.
Basher and I did our best to join in on the song, but we hadn’t had enough time to properly memorize it. I prayed to any gods listening that our singing was close enough not to draw Karnifex’s ire. We exchanged anxious looks as the passageway grew darker. Sparks worked another formula and a pale orb of light snapped into existence and floated above her right shoulder.
The rumbling I’d heard before shifted in speed, sped up, and I realized that what I had thought was the mountain was actually the great bellows of a dragon’s lungs.
“EH? WHO COMES?” I felt the voice in every bone in my body, including some I hadn’t known I had.
Sparks sang our introduction. We were mere supplicants to the Holy Drake, come with a gift to curry his blessing.
There was a long pause.
“GET ON WITH IT THEN.” Karnifex’s words were not quite right, tilted a bit sideways, but we could understand them. I had never heard an accent before quite like it. Who knew dragons had accents?
We followed the passage into an enormous space—an emptied out caldera large enough to fit Braxis West High twice over. The floor was littered with bones of indeterminate origin. Most were of a size appropriate to humans, but some far larger. I was surprised at the lack of treasure. The stories of dragons told of great heaping piles of gold and valuables. I guess Karnifex was smart enough not to leave his valuables lying out in the open.
What I had taken for the far wall suddenly shifted, and I almost cried out “cave-in!” But the “wall” was actually the flank of the beast. Karnifex was so large that I couldn’t take in all of him at once; it was like sitting too close to the screen at a cinema, neck craned back. Scales, yes, blood red and white in places, and horns, protuberances, and shiny black teeth and talons. A wing like nightfall, unfolding briefly and causing a gust of wind so strong it staggered us all, even Basher. Great, green eyes, three times as tall as me, and twice as wide, lids slitted with caution.
When I was nine, Rash found a snake in the park and he decided to keep it as a pet. It was a docile milk snake, but it terrified me. Around it, I felt the urge to run screaming for the highest point in our house I could find, to climb, and maybe screech and throw my poop at it for good measure. It felt like all sense in my head fled every time I saw the thing, and of course Rash had tormented me with it, hiding it my bed or closet where I would find it unexpectedly.
Karnifex was that snake magnified a million times. There was no primate roost high enough to escape the great wyrm. That primitive-brain fear, yes, combined with a sense of utter unimportance, of worthlessness and diminishment. If the infinite universes could give birth to something like Karnifex, what purpose did humans serve? I had never felt more insignificant.
Some unknown amount of time passed before I felt Sparks nudging me in the ribs. Eyes diverted to the ground, I regained some control of myself. I moved to help her unroll the sacred cloths and build the makeshift altar.
[[Dom, status check]]
[[Holy shit holy shit holy SHIT]]
[[I know, but you gotta pull it together, dude, we need you here]]
[[I had no idea]]
[[Get moving]] I tried to shout mentally. [[But yeah, no shit, right?]]
[[Okay okay oh gods it’s so BIG]]
I looked to see how Basher was handling it. She was busy unfolding the other half of the embroidered cloth. If she was frightened, she didn’t show it. She seemed focused on the work.
“Great Karnifex, Mightiest Aspect of the Holy Drake. I bring these initiates to receive your blessing. We have brought you this scrying artifact as a gift of honor so that you might observe your domain from the comfort of your den.”
I placed the bowl on the cloth and took a step back.
Karnifex’s head swiveled until it was a fraction of a meter away, inspecting the artifact closely with that great green, hypnotic eye. This close, it was, inexplicably, somehow more tolerable. The eye became all I could see—how that was less horrible, I couldn’t explain.
“OH,” Karnifex sounded disappointed. “SO SMALL?”
Sparks fell prostrate on the cloth. Basher and I hastened to mimic her.
“Our deepest apologies, Great Karnifex. We are pitifully small creatures, beneath your attention.”
“EH. NO MATTER. RISE.” The dragon hissed out sounds with angular shapes that took shape in a ring around the bowl. Draconic runes—I never thought I would ever see such things in person. The bowl grew to the size of a bathtub.
“BETTER.” Karnifex sounded pleased.
[[Found it, guys, found it]]
I nearly jumped to my feet. Sparks shot me an alarmed look, but Karnifex was focused on his new prize.
[[This was too easy, I am awesome]]
[[Move to exit now]]
A pause. [[I want to check something first]]
[[Dom, no, do not deviate from the plan]]
[[There’s a whole room of them statue things, I want to see if I can get closer, maybe we can save them]]
[[Dom, no no]] Sparks cut in. I glanced at her, but she showed no outward sign of her panic.
[[We have to help Bloodaxe’s friends if we can we can fix everything, I just want to get a look]]
“EH?” Karnifex shifted to glance over one mountain of a shoulder. There was an odd flash of light, and a high-pitched keening.
[[Fuck, how did I miss that tripwire—]]
“A THIEF? IN MY VAULTS?” Karnifex’s roar knocked the air out of my lungs, and I worried for a moment that my bones would liquify under the decibels. It was impossible that something so large could move so quickly—it defied all physics and laws, but my mind was trapped by the mundane rules of our own reality, and here in d-space such things weren’t even improbable.
Karnifex departed the antechamber, scales screeching against the rough rocks as he barreled deeper into his lair in search of Dom.
“We’ve got to help Dom!” I shouted. Already, Sparks and Basher were headed back the way we came at top speed. Only I had hesitated. They turned at my command, and that was the first time I saw the fear in Basher’s face. It was the pressure plate trap all over again.
“Don’t be an idiot! We need to run!” Sparks screamed.
“YOU CAN’T ESCAPE ME, LITTLE THIEF,” Karnifex bellowed. I turned in time to see Dom appear, his mask in one hand and the Phylactery in the other, running in the open space of the caldera. Karnifex was snaking up behind him. Dom was not nearly fast enough to make it.
The dragon opened its maw and a bile-green gas billowed forth, enveloping Dom. He let out a scream that strangled in his paralyzed throat. Karnifex snatched Dom’s frozen body up in his talons and retreated back deeper into his lair.
“THIS ONE’S BETTER THAN A BOWL,” the dragon muttered.
[[Go]] Dom sent weakly. [[This is my fault, I’m sorry, Ivan]]
Basher looked at me, question obvious on her face. I nodded, tears streaming down my face. What could we do?
[End of Part 1]
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