Be warned, this story is long. I was brushing the ten thousand word limit. So here it is, my honorably mentioned story. Any feedback would be appreciated, either here or via e-mail (email@example.com
Charles Wood glanced around the waiting room. It was filled with all sorts: all ages, all species, all nationalities and all armed. His agent had sent him here and he didn’t know why. The receptionist looked up at him. “Name?” she asked.
Charles winced; there was a time when just a look at his face would have reduced the receptionist to incoherent screeching. “Charles Wood,” he said, hoping that his name would spark some hint of remembrance in the receptionist.
“Charles Wood,” she muttered searching through the files in front of her. “Oh, right, the late addition. Team Three is one man short. They’re over there,” she said, pointing to a corner table.
An elf sat at the table, deep in discussion with a short-grey haired priest. A younger man stood next to the table; five knives flashed through the air, he juggled them effortlessly. The knives were curved with the thick blades of close combat knives, but they were obviously perfectly balanced for throwing from the ease with which the juggler kept them in the air.
Charles looked them over with the same appraising gaze that had told him how to slip past linebackers and when the quarterback would throw the ball.
The elf’s clothing was dingy; everything about her looked rundown, except for the sword hanging from her waist. He noted that, despite her rundown appearance, her armor was well made leather that didn’t hinder her movements at all. Her features were typically elven, but they were marred by an ugly scar that stretched from the corner of her left eye to her chin. The calluses that lined her hands said ‘warrior’ to his eyes. The tiny lines around her mouth told him that she was very old, even for an elf.
The older man was wearing the robes of a priest and a pendant with the stylized ‘V’ that indicated he was a follower of Vesta. A heavy metal cudgel hung from the simple rope belt that cinched his robes tight at the waist; an odd light clung to the air around his hands. Charles had seen lights like that after he broke his collarbone on the field; the medic who patched him up had a similar light around her hands.
The younger man’s hands moved constantly, keeping the knives in the air. While he juggled he spoke quietly, offering an opinion on whatever the elf and the priest were discussing. He wore brightly colored silks. There was a sheath under each of his arms and three more strapped to his belt.
Charles moved easily through the room, his bulk and confidant demeanor making the crowd to part in front of him.
“Team Three?” Charles asked politely.
“Who wants to know?” the elf asked. He almost winced at the sound of her voice. He’d met many Elves back when he was a star; they all had musical, beautiful voices. This elf’s voice sounded like a banshee’s shriek.
“The name’s Charles Wood,” he said, extending a hand to the elf.
She ignored it. “And?” she asked coolly.
“The receptionist said I should join Team Three,” Charles said, letting his hand drop to his side.
“Charming,” the elf said sourly. “What are your skills?”
“Well, I used to be a professional football—“
“She means what weapons do you use, what traps can you disable, that sort of thing,” the younger man said from behind Charles. His knives had returned to their sheaths while Charles had been talking.
“None really. I’m a tough guy and I’ve been in some fights, but—“
“Fine,” the elf interrupted. “John, you’ll be point,” the younger man nodded. “Charles, you’ll follow him. Ken, you’re third,” the older man nodded. “and I’ll bring up the rear.”
“Umm…sorry, what is it that we’re doing?” Charles asked nervously.
“It’s simple enough,” the young man began with a charming smile. Charles turned to look at him as he continued, “A Dungeon Judge finished a new design. We’re here to test it. There are five teams, we’re each dropped in a specific part of the dungeon, and they watch to see how far we get. We get paid based on how far we get, with a bonus if we finish. The traps only stun, they don’t kill, the monsters have constraints placed on them; and all our weapons will be magically dulled before we go in. No one dies, unless they do something stupid, like attacking a really foul tempered minotaur with a dull dagger.”
“Not my fault,” the elf said sourly from behind Charles. “He always was a bit of a crazy.”
“Right. So, you’re John?” Charles asked, interrupting their banter with a gesture to the younger man, who nodded. “You’re Ken?” he asked, gesturing at the priest.
“Kenneth servant of Vesta,” Ken corrected him.
“Right; Kenneth, and you are?” he asked as he turned toward the elf.
“Shaymatalaraknavelior,” she said easily.
“I suggest you call her Shay, unless you’ve got a fantastic memory,” John said with a smile.
“Right. So how do we stop the monsters, if our weapons are dulled?” Charles asked, turning back to John, he was beginning to feel a bit like a top.
“The monsters are enspelled; if you hit them hard enough to kill them with a sharp blade, it’ll freeze them up. Their weapons are enspelled too, but it’ll hurt like hell if they hit you.”
“Okay. Sorry for all the questions, but why is the DJ bothering with this?”
“Simple, she gets to test out her dungeon, see what needs tweaking before she offers it up for the big time. Also, it gives her and her friends something to bet on. Finally, it gives her a chance to check out up and comers. That’s why you’re here, right? Do well; maybe you’ll make it on someone’s radar, get an endorsement or a sponsor, work your way back up to celebrity status?”
“Yeah,” Charles said, finally realizing what his agent had meant when he said that this was his big chance
Shay moved blindingly fast, pulling him back, so he was lying across her lap; a razor sharp dagger rested against his throat. “Let me clarify something for you, Mr. Wood; the goal here isn’t to attract attention, or boost your career. We’re after the money—that means we go in nice and professional, no grandstanding. You try for the big play and we end up hurt, dead, or out of the contest, and you’ll discover that I don’t need weapons to kill you. Understand?” she asked.
“I understand,” Charles said, trying to keep his Adam’s apple from moving at all.
“Good,” Shay said, making the dagger vanish and shoving him off her lap.
“I know teams that would kill for a quarterback with arms like yours,” Charles said as he stood up slowly.
John laughed. “Yes, love, that’s what you should do, play professional football.”
“Don’t make me smack you,” Shay said, her smile belying her hostile words.
Suddenly the world seemed to twist and stretch. When the world returned to normal, they were in a small stone room, with a large man standing by the door, wearing the insignia of a Guild Magus.
“Hand over your weapons, please,” the Magus said.
Shay handed over her sword and dagger, while Ken did the same with his mace. Charles just shrugged, not having brought a weapon. John smiled charmingly at the Magus while he worked. His hands moved blindingly fast, drawing three of the knives and juggling them easily.
“Juggling knives,” he said as he sheathed two of them. “Only a fool juggles with sharp knives.” He drew the knife across his palm, flipped it over, and did it again. “Already dulled,” he explained as he sheathed the last knife. “And too light to really work as clubs.”
“Okay,” the Magus said with a shrug.
Charles just barely stopped himself from making a snide comment about the miserly way Guild Magi spent their power. He wasn’t a celebrity anymore; he couldn’t afford to annoy a Magus.
The Magus finished. “May Apollo grant you victory,” he said politely, before he vanished as well.
They headed out of the stone room, into a passageway that looked as if it belonged in a castle. Torches flickered in sconces at regular intervals along the walls. John took the lead, walking slowly, his eyes searching carefully across the floor, the walls and the ceiling.
His hand shot up. Charles stopped almost instinctively.
“What is it?” he hissed.
“Shut up,” Shay said quietly.
John knelt and carefully examined one of the stones that made up the floor. “Simple crossbow trap. Best to trigger it. Everyone get down.”
“Trigger it?” Charles exclaimed loudly.
“Shhh,” the others whispered angrily.
“If we have to retreat back this way, we don’t want to trigger it then,” John explained. “Just lie down and wait, okay?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Charles.
Charles nodded and lay down. He silently cursed himself. He was supposed to be proving his utility as an Xcrawler, not making a fool of himself. He knew that answer; he’d watched dozens of Xcrawls.
John pushed down on the cobblestone and then he kicked himself forward, rolling several times on the stones. A crossbow bolt shattered bounced off the back wall and spikes shot out of the floor where John had been. The bolt and the spikes were both topped with rubber balls, so they’d have hurt, but wouldn’t have killed.
“What happened?” Shay asked.
“The trigger cord split after it passed under the other cobblestones. That was why it was thicker than I’d expected. I didn’t notice until, until,” John’s voice trailed off.
“Until exactly the right moment,” Shay said reassuringly.
“Right,” John said, shaking his head. “We knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk when we heard the pay rate, right?” he asked, some of his old cheer coming back.
“Right,” Shay agreed. “Besides, we have Ken along to patch us up if anything goes wrong.”
“Aren’t you proud?” John teased Ken as he began to walk again. “In case of emergency, get Ken to pray. That’s what you’re for.”
“At least my goddess answers me,” Ken replied coolly.
John laughed. “Come now, I’m no priest, why would I want a god’s attention?”
Charles spoke up curiously, since they were all talking. “What is it you are? I mean, Shay’s a warrior, obviously—“
“Tavern owner, actually,” Shay corrected him offhandedly.
“And Ken, I mean Kenneth is a priest,” Charles paused, waiting for Ken to correct him.
“No, you’re right. I’m a priest,” Kenneth said as they slowly turned a corner and they could see a large wooden door at the end of the hallway.
“But what are you?” Charles asked John.
“Magician,” John answered simply, as he examined one of the cobblestones.
“You’re a Guild Magus?” Charles asked, unable to hide his shock.
“No,” John said. “Magician, not Magus. The Magi use magic; magicians use trickery, deception, intellect, misdirection, dexterity, patter, careful preparation,” a smile flashed across his face, “and the occasional bald-faced lie.”
“Ah,” Charles said.
John moved forward, to the door, examining it carefully. “It’s enspelled.”
“Back to the corner,” Shay commanded.
They jogged back to the corner and stepped around it. Shay produced her dagger and threw it at the door. An explosion of light and sound filled the corridor as the door swung open. Half a dozen goblins charged out, short spears in their green hands and raggedy chainmail armor covered their filthy skin.
Shay and Ken stepped forward. Charles started to join them, but John pulled him back. “We’d just get in the way. They don’t look for traps; we don’t do straight up fights; see how that works?”
“Right, sorry,” Charles said, as he wondered how he could prove himself if he never got to do anything.
The goblins didn’t charge in the uncoordinated manner of their kind. They advanced slowly, in a group. Ken gestured and spoke a quiet word to his goddess. Light sprang up among the advancing goblins, they shrieked and their group collapsed, their discipline broken. Shay and Ken advanced and quickly brought down the individual goblins, until they all lay still.
Ken returned his mace to his belt, knelt, and spoke quietly, “Praise be to Vesta for this victory.”
John laughed quietly. “Old friend, I’ve never understood how you can give away credit for your successes,” he said as Shay returned her sword to its sheath and retrieved her dagger.
“You’re a member of the cult of Prometheus,” Ken countered as he rose to his feet.
“Which involves mental discipline, lots of study and practice, but no worship. I respect the services Prometheus rendered to humanity, I admire the way he put one over on the gods, I may, on occasion, look to him for advice, but I don’t worship him.”
“Prometheus doesn’t lend you divine might,” Ken pointed out as John brushed past him.
“No, he just—” John began.
“Enough. Focus on the job,” Shay said, her hands resting on the hilts of her resheathed weapons.
“Love, we can bicker and do our jobs at the same time. Can’t we, Ken?” John asked, as he led them into the small stone room.
“Who knows what you can do?” Ken asked sardonically.
John laughed. The laughter echoed around the small room that had housed the goblins.
“This place is set up like a castle. Those goblins were disturbingly well-trained,” Shay interrupted.
“A monster kingdom,” Charles said suddenly understanding. “The guards get progressively stronger, better trained, better armed.”
“Yep,” John agreed. He stopped at the door. “Can’t remember, do we get reimbursed for items we use?”
“That’s what the woman said,” Shay answered.
“Good. The door’s not enspelled, so, I’ll toss this into the next room,” he said as a small glass orb appeared in his right hand. “I’ll follow it. Please don’t step on it. We need to make it through eleven more rooms and this has sixteen charges. So, everyone ready?”
“Uh, what’s that going to do?” Charles asked.
“It makes smoke, lots of smoke,” John explained.
“You’ll go first. We’ll take over if it’s monsters,” Shay told John.
“Right, if there are any traps, I’ll yell. You hear me yell, you stay put, right love? Only an idiot would have traps and monsters in the same room.”
“No promises,” Shay said.
“This may be a stupid question, but how are you going to see through the smoke?” Charles asked nervously.
An empty ceramic vial appeared in John’s left hand. “A really expensive paste. Put it on the eyelids and you can see magic; see in the dark; see through smoke. If I’d been willing to shell out the extra gold it would have let me see through clothing as well,” he leered playfully at Shay. “I decided it would be too much of a distraction to be worth it.” He made the vial vanish again.
“Ah,” Charles said, as he was unable to think of a witty reply. “Shouldn’t you let the rest of us have some of that?”
“Only had one dose left. Fortunately, this job should get us enough cash to restock,” John explained.
“Okay, I understand.”
“So, everyone ready?” John asked again.
Shay drew her sword and dagger, holding them with the ease of long practice. Ken lifted his mace and nodded. John looked over at Charles.
“I’m ready,” Charles said nervously.
“Good. Here we go,” John said.
He knelt next to the door. “Ken, if you’d be so good?”
Ken smiled and slammed his mace against the door. It shattered inward as if a bomb had gone off. John tossed the orb into the room and followed it as smoke blocked everyone else’s view. The wisps of smoke that floated back into the room were thick and impossible to see through, but they were breathed as easily as air.
“Stay put,” he bellowed.
Several loud thuds came out of the room, but no one moved. A minute later John came back out the door, carrying the orb and a large mace. He tossed the mace away before he made the orb disappear again. While the smoke started to clear, Charles grabbed the mace, looked it over carefully and hefted it. He needed a weapon; this was one that suited his strength and his general attitude. The mace was nice and heavy without being difficult to carry or swing. He took a few practice swings and was able to shatter a few cobblestones.
While he was examining the mace, the bodies of half a dozen unconscious orcs that covered the ground in the next room had become visible.
“John,” Shay began, her voice an odd mixture of curiosity and fury.
He shrugged. “It was easier for me to take care of them then for you to wander around in the smoke swinging wildly. I didn’t want to say anything, but your plan wasn’t great.”
“So you just decided to change the plan on your own?” Shay asked in a sweet tone that sounded a warning to Charles.
“Uh-oh,” Charles said quietly to Ken.
They carefully moved very slowly back out of the room, so as to not attract the attention of the arguing duo.
“Yes, that’s pretty much the way it went down. What’s more, you knew I would do that when you came up with that stupid plan and you just set it up so that you’d have an excuse to be pissed at me,” John said in a rush.
“And why would I do that?” Shay asked, stepping toward John threateningly.
John opened his mouth, met her eyes and carefully closed his mouth again.
“That’s what I thought,” Shay said, stepping back again. “But—it was a bad plan,” she admitted.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Ken interjected.
“Yes, but I didn’t in this case. I wanted to see if one of you, any of you,” Shay returned Charles and Ken to the conversation, “would stand up to me when I made a blatantly wrong decision. You didn’t. I’m disappointed.”
“I stood up to you. I just chose an oblique way to do it,” John pointed out.
“Disobedience is not the same as standing up to me,” Shay argued.
“They’re loyal,” Charles interrupted, attempting to cast himself as sincere without being annoying.. “What’s your prob—“
“Shut up,” John and Shay said simultaneously.
“Next time, just speak up,” Shay said. Her voice was gentle, despite the way it grated on everyone’s ears.
“All right, love. Now can we finish this stupid job?” John asked, holding up his hands in surrender.
“Yes,” Shay said.
They moved through the room and the next four without incident. John smoked them and smacked them.
“Six more,” John said as they approached the stone door to the seventh room.
“Ten more actually,” Shay pointed out.
“What are you talking about?” John asked.
“We’re dividing the money four ways, which means we need to do sixteen rooms,” Shay explained.
“Or we could just bash Charley here over the head and take his portion of the payment,” John pointed out.
“Hey,” Charles exclaimed. “I’m here, risking my life the same as any of you.”
“Oh?” John asked with a slight smile. “What have you done? I’m traps and tricks, Shay’s plans and swords, and Ken’s spells and maces. What exactly are you?” he asked.
Charles’ eyebrows rose involuntarily at John’s sudden hostility. He’d seemed like the nicest of the bunch. If Charles wanted to become an Xcrawler, then image was important. He forced his eyebrows down and let a smile cross his face, “I think you’ll see what I’m capable of before we’re done with this dungeon.”
John looked at him disbelievingly.
“Enough,” Shay commanded. “We’re not going to rob him. We’ll do ten more rooms and we’ll be done,” she commanded.
“Or we’ll keep going until we lose. Extra cash is never bad,” John pointed out.
“Have you forgotten what happened in Vegas?” Shay asked.
“One-time thing, or we wouldn’t be here,” John argued.
“We’re here because we need the cash, not because it’s particularly safe,” Shay argued.
“True enough. You’re the boss,” he agreed with a shrug.
“What happened in Vegas?” Charles asked, trying to make his tone convey that he was mildly curious, rather than nervous.
“We lost some people,” John said coolly.
“I thought this was just training,” Charles said, his control over his tone wavered slightly.
“You know an aristo who’d shy away from fixing a bet? And they are betting on our progress. Lots of money’s changing hands in some aristo’s pad in the city. When money changes hands between aristos the rest of us tend to suffer—a lot,” John said almost silently. Despite his volume, his tone was furious.
“Keep it behind your teeth,” Shay said quietly, with a gesture at one of the cameras in the ceiling.
John nodded sourly.
“You ready over there?” he asked Ken.
“Door’s ready,” Ken answered.
“Now,” John said.
Ken threw open the door, John tossed the orb and followed it through. He cursed loudly, before speaking to actually communicate, “Oozes. Can’t get out.”
For a moment Charles couldn’t understand the problem, then he remembered that Oozes didn’t have eyes, so the smoke wouldn’t inconvenience them at all.
Shay and Ken stepped back, away from the door and the smoke. “Time until the smoke dissipates?” Shay asked while Ken’s hands and lips began to move.
“Two minutes. I’m secure for the moment,” John answered.
Shay drew her sword, waiting quietly. An ooze slowly slid through the open door. Charles swung a massive overhand blow into it. He danced back as the ooze slowly turned toward him.
Shay moved forward and stabbed it. The blade crackled when it came in contact with the ooze and it moved back as quickly as it could.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Ken raised his voice and light sprang from his fingers. It stopped a fraction of an inch from the ooze which vanished into thin air. Charles stared at the empty space for a moment before he realized that the DJ must have acted to preserve his creature. An ooze couldn’t be wasted on a bunch of Testers.
“John? Situation?” Shay asked, concern making her voice somewhat more bearable.
“Not particularly good,” John said in between panting breaths. “I count three more in here. Staying ahead is rather more interesting than I like and I’m cut off from the door.”
Shay paced back and forth in front of the door, her sword moving almost unconsciously through have a dozen patterns.
Finally the smoke began to dissipate. Shay stepped through the door, driving the oozes back easily. They didn’t seem to be able to stand the touch of her sword, spell or no, dull or not. Where the ooze had essentially ignored the powerful blow from Charles, even a touch from Shay was enough to make any of them retreat. Charles followed her, mace clutched in his hands. He paused for just a moment to grab the orb off the floor. Ken brought up the rear, his hands already moving in preparation for another spell.
Charles glanced around for John. He finally spotted him holding himself between two of the beams that were holding up the roof.
“How did you get up there?” Charles asked, distracted from the battle by the sight of John clinging to the roof a good six feet above Charles’ own head.
John dropped down, driving his blunt dagger into the nearest ooze hard and then rolling away quickly.
“I’ve been everywhere in here,” John said tiredly.
“Adrenaline and acrobatics, an impressive and exhausting combination,” Charles noted.
Another burst of light came from Ken and the second ooze vanished. A moment later a third vanished under Shay’s sustained assault. They spread out and savagely smashed the last one until the DJ removed it. It never had a chance, too slow against too many opponents.
John walked back to the entrance, searching carefully for his orb.
“Looking for this?” Charles asked, pulling the orb out of his pocket and wagging it in front of John’s face.
“Maybe you aren’t so useless after all,” John said, holding out his hand for the orb.
“Is that how you ask for things?” Charles teased.
“No,” John said. “This is how I ask for things that I own: Give it back, or I’ll break every bone in your body.”
“All right then,” Charles said nervously and passed it back.
Shay looked John over carefully. “You hurt?”
“No, just winded,” John said. “I thought I’d be fine clinging to the ceiling, but then one of them started to come up the wall. After that everything got a bit more exciting than I truly like.”
Shay smiled. “Good,” she glanced up at the camera. “You know,” the smile dropped off her face, “oozes don’t really fit with the whole monster castle idea.”
“Well, they could be cleaners,” Charles pointed out.
Ken looked at him, clearly startled.
“You know, the monsters let them out to clean up the remains after they’ve taken everything they want…” Charles explained, mistaking Ken’s surprise for incomprehension.
“That’s not a terrible idea,” Ken replied.
“There’s no need to sound so shocked,” Charles said in an insulted tone.
“Up until now you’ve seemed remarkably useless. I was beginning to think you’d been put on our team as some sort of weird handicap.”
“Well, thanks so much for coming around to the idea that I’m not a waste of skin,” Charles said.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Ken said.
“Shall we go to the next room? We can argue when we’re safely home.”
“This room is secure and there’s no time limit,” Ken said, stepping toward Charles. “We can argue to our hearts’ content.”
“Ken, get the door open,” Shay commanded, gesturing toward the large cathedral-style doors that blocked their passage to the next room. “John, be ready. Charles, shut up.”
She’d let them bicker for just long enough for John to get his wind back, without waiting long enough to give them a chance to consider what probably lay ahead of them.
They passed easily through three more rooms. When Ken swung the door to the tenth room open, John chucked the orb inside and followed it closely, just like he had eight times before. This time vents swung open in the ceiling and the smoke rapidly began to clear.
John came out fast, just barely managing to grab the orb as he cleared the door. Shay and Ken stepped forward. “Hobgoblins, six,” John said as he fell back.
The hobgoblins spilled into the room pushing Shay and Ken back.
Charles was struck by the size of them. The shortest one topped his own considerable height by half a foot. Their armor was in good shape and looked like it would shed more than a few blows. The worst part though wasn’t their bulk, or the broadswords they carried like they were feathers, it was the intelligence that shone in their tiny red eyes. That intelligence made them much more terrifying than the orcs or the goblins he’d already faced, or that John, Shay and Ken had already faced while he cowered behind them.
Charles slammed his mace hard down on the skull of the first one. Despite the hobgoblin’s helmet, he went down like a felled tree. Shay and Ken stood back to back, sparring with three of the hobgoblins. The other two were trying to catch John.
One of them split away from John and charged at Charles. The hobgoblin’s broadsword whistled down in a powerful blow. Charles barely blocked it. He cursed loudly as the blade slid along the mace and pinched his fingers. The enspelled blade didn’t cut into his flesh, but it still hurt. The hobgoblin pulled its sword back for another blow.
Meanwhile John had slipped past the hobgoblin chasing him and stabbed one of the trio fighting Shay and Ken. Shay took down the one facing her easily and turned to help Charles while John dueled with the hobgoblin that had finally caught up with him. Dagger against broadsword is tricky, but John countered the hobgoblin’s superior reach with his superior mobility. He gave ground willingly. Ken and the last hobgoblin were still dueling.
The hobgoblin facing Charles slipped through his guard and knocked him to the ground before turning to face the rushing Shay. While they dueled, Charles lay on the floor, semiconscious.
John continued to retreat until he hit the wall. When he felt his back slam into the wall, he instantly pushed forward and charged the hobgoblin.
His opponent reacted immediately, swinging his sword in a wide arc, trying to force John back against the wall. John just rolled under the sword, past the hobgoblin. He lost the dagger as he stopped behind the hobgoblin and slammed his balled fists against the back of the hobgoblin’s knees. As the they folded, John grabbed his dagger again and shot to his feet, slamming the blunt tip of the dagger against the underside of his jaw. Instantaneously, he went still and collapsed at John’s feet, almost pulling his dagger out of his hand.
Ken and his opponent had been swapping blows, matching strength and skill. Several blows had slipped through Ken’s guard, but each time he twisted out of the way with a grace that mimicked John’s and Shay’s. The hobgoblin he was fighting was not so lucky. Each of Ken’s blows that landed slowed him down significantly. Finally he collapsed to its knees and took a final blow to the skull before falling to the ground and lying still.
While Ken and John had been taking down their opponents, Shay had taken hers down and was checking on Charles.
“How is he?” John asked as he walked over to them.
“Semiconscious,” she said, glancing at Ken.
“I say we leave him here. He’ll slow us down, and this way Ken gets to keep his spells for helping us or hurting them,” John gestured at the frozen hobgoblins. “We do two more rooms, take our money, and dump him at a hospital.”
“Patch him up,” Shay commanded Ken.
Ken nodded and stepped forward, his hands weaving through patterns and his voice raised in praise of his goddess.
“Shay, in case you missed it, my orb of shadows—“ John began.
“The DJ has made it useless, I know,” Shay said. “But we can manage. It’s just six more rooms; we cleared this one easily enough.”
“Shay, we both know dungeons don’t really get started in the first rooms. They’re just there to get the audience warmed up. After ten everything gets a lot harder,” John said. “And in case you’ve forgotten, we aren’t heroes or Xcrawlers, we’re just Testers.”
“What happened to the John who wanted to keep going after sixteen rooms?” Shay teased.
“He was almost gutted with a broadsword,” John said crankily.
“It wouldn’t have killed you,” Shay said.
“It would have hurt like hell,” John countered.
While he spoke, he glanced at the next door and produced a thin glass vial. He slowly pulled out the stopper. Shay nodded approvingly at him. The stopper had an odd glass brush sticking out of the bottom and John slowly pushed the brush into the wood of the door. It steamed and melted under minor pressure.
“What is that?” Charles asked, after thanking Ken for healing him.
“Extremely potent acid,” John replied.
He carefully returned the stopper to the vial and even more carefully looked through the hole he’d made in the door. The acid he’d used was very powerful and he didn’t want to lose an eye.
“Biiiig ogre,” he said. “With an even bigger axe.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Ken said, stepping toward the peephole John had just made.
John moved back toward Shay and Charles while Ken prayed.
“If it continues like this, the next room’s going to have a hill giant,” John muttered.
“Nah, I’m guessing after the ogre we go down a level, then either necromancers and undead or traps and bandits,” Shay said.
“Really?” Charles asked. “I’m expecting giants, then we go down another level and find the mages behind this.”
“You better hope not,” John said nervously. “I don’t do giants.”
“I remember,” Shay said.
“Good. I don’t do giants,” John repeated emphatically.
“I remember,” Shay said again.
“You don’t do giants?” Charles asked.
“The last time we fought a giant, he tried to use me as a toothpick. I still have nightmares about the stench,” John said, wincing melodramatically.
“I can’t tell if you’re joking,” Charles noted
“He likes it that way,” Shay interposed.
John just smiled.
Ken finished praying and there was a flash of light and the loud thump of something large collapsing on the ground.
“The ogre’s asleep,” Ken said, before opening the door.
John led them into the room, checking for traps. There weren’t any in the room itself, though the room did have a stairwell going up to the next level that was heavily trapped.
While John worked on clearing a path through the snares, Charles and Ken took up positions near the ogre’s head and Shay stood next to its chest. She held up her left hand and counted down, 3...2…1. At 1 she stabbed the ogre in the chest while Charles and Ken slammed their maces down on its throat. The ogre stopped snoring.
It took about half an hour before John was confident enough to let them proceed up the stairs.
“We’re going up, not down,” John pointed out.
“Yes, yes, I was wrong,” Shay admitted with a small smile.
John returned her smile as he cautiously made a hole in the door at the top of the stairs.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
Everyone else carefully peeked through the hole, mindful of the potency of the acid. None of them saw anything either.
“Traps?” John asked.
“Traps,” Shay agreed.
Ken stepped forward and pulled the door open after John checked it for wires and spells.
John walked slowly forward, carefully probing the floor. His eyes moved constantly over the floor, the walls and the ceiling.
While John did his thing, Shay’s left hand moved slowly, but ceaselessly. The dagger in it flipped over the back of her hand, but she caught it with effortless ease. The dagger seemed to be moving very fast, but her hand seemed to be moving extremely slow, almost as if her hand were moving before the dagger. Ken stood silently, communing with his goddess, seeking guidance and more spells. Charles leaned on his mace, catching his breath. He was used to lots of physical exertion, but there was a difference between dodging football players trying to tackle you and hobgoblins trying to kill you.
Without warning the wall to the right of the door swung open. John was rolling back before the wall even finished swinging open. He wasn’t fast enough and a crossbow bolt slammed into his calf, knocking him out of his roll. Shay grabbed his arm and pulled him the rest of the way out. Ken slammed the door shut again. Several bolts slammed against the door making hollow thudding noises just moments after Ken shut the door.
The bolt was wickedly barbed and sticking out of his calf. John’s jaw was clenched and his blood was dripping off the edge of the bolt. He was cursing in half a dozen different languages. Ken moved forward pushing past Shay.
“What happened?” Charles asked, his voice taking on an unpleasant screeching quality.
“I got hit in the calf wi—“ John began.
Ken ripped the bolt out of John’s calf, which stopped John’s speech.
John actually hissed at him.
Blood welled out of the open wound, but it didn’t fountain out. No arteries were severed.
“I thought that—“
Shay grabbed him and slammed him hard against the wall. “Shut up, and let Ken work,” she whispered in his ear.
Ken’s hands and lips moved quickly and the wound slowly shut. Ken pulled John to his feet. John carefully stretched, testing the injured area. When he was done, he smiled over at Ken and said “Thanks Ken.”
Shay let Charles go.
“You all right?” she asked, her voice showing concern.
“Always, love,” John said confidently. “But we have a problem. I counted at least four goblins with some sort of weird repeating crossbows. They’ve got cover and we have no ranged weapons.”
Shay nodded thoughtfully.
“John, you’re distraction. You go in first, pull their fire. Charles, you’re the fastest. You’ll charge them while John distracts them. Understand?”
“No. Why did that bolt hurt John? I thought the monsters couldn’t hurt us?”
“We got farther than an aristo wanted,” John said very quietly. “Maybe it’s a wager, maybe the designer doesn’t get paid if we get far enough, there are hundreds of possibilities and it doesn’t really matter which actually happened.”
“Nothing’s changed,” Shay said. “We need to get through five more rooms. We will succeed,” she stated confidently.
John produced a vial filled with a black potion. “Love, I hate to nitpick your plan, but are you sure he’s fast enough?” he asked gesturing at Charles.
“The Seattle game. He ran more than three hundred yards in one game. He can do it,” Shay said.
“If you say so.”
He downed the potion in one swift swallow. His edges were suddenly blurry and the colors of his silks all ran together. It wasn’t clear where John ended and the wall behind him began.
“Let’s go,” John stated.
“Are you forgetting something?” Charles asked drily.
Shay and John turned as one while Ken carefully peeked through the hole John had made.
They stared at him. Well, Shay stared at him. What John was doing was less clear because of the spell that blurred his outline and his face beyond recognition. Shay was staring at him with a confused expression on her face.
“I never said I would do this,” Charles said.
“You’ll do it,” Shay said, her voice filled with absolute confidence.
Charles met her eyes and nodded. He couldn’t have put in words what he saw in her eyes, but he knew he wasn’t going to disagree with her.
“Whenever you’re ready,” John said to Ken.
“One minute,” Shay said, grabbing Charles and pulling him back a couple of steps.
Ken nodded in response and turned back to the peephole.
“No rush or anything, but my potion won’t last forever you know,” John warned.
Shay nodded and dragged Charles out of earshot.
“Listen carefully; what’s going to happen is simple. John will charge. He’ll make them fire on him, focus on him. I’ll tell you when to go, you charge them, take them down. They’re just goblins; you can take them down easily.”
Charles looked at her coolly, his earlier caution forgotten. “You’re sending your love into that hornets’ nest for money. I don’t think I want anything to do with you.”
“Don’t speak about what you don’t understand,” Shay said coldly. “Just do your job. If you don’t, then I will kill you. If you do your best and John still dies, I will kill you. Do you understand?”
He met her eyes again and just nodded. He couldn’t say how, but he knew, not thought, not hoped, but knew that her threats weren’t mere words. She would carry them out if she had too.
“Fine,” he said, before glancing up at the camera. “I’ll do it, not because of your threats, but because I think that John and Ken don’t deserve to have to try to do it on their own.”
Shay opened her mouth to respond, but John spoke loudly from the door, “Are we doing this or not?”
“We’re doing this,” Shay said, gesturing for Charles to go to the door.
“Good,” John said. “I guess,” he muttered.
Charles stood by the door, tensing up, like he always did before the big play, but this was much worse. Linebackers aren’t usually armed with crossbows, though he did remember one tackle where it felt like someone had shot him with a crossbow. A twinge in his back reminded him.
“Warrior, Firegiver, Tortured, Freed, Wise. Prometheus if you’re listening, any inspiration you’d care to share would be really appreciated,” John said.
“Anything?” Ken asked curiously.
John waited for a moment.
“Nope. I guess we do it Shay’s way then. On one, Ken,” John said. Ken nodded. “3…2…1…Now!”
Ken yanked the door open and John rolled through. He was constantly shifting direction. Several crossbow bolts ricocheted off the ground or the wall near him, but the combination of his constant movement, changing directions and the potion kept him from getting hit.
Shay tapped Charles hard on the shoulder, “GO!” she commanded. Her voice was quiet but absolutely commanding.
Charles burst into motion. He sprinted through the door and across the room, easily clearing the barrier that protected the goblins. He slammed his fist down hard on the nearest goblin, who collapsed. Shay and Ken followed him through the door, charged the barrier. John charged it as well. By the time they reached it, Charles had put down two more of the goblins but the last one was aiming its crossbow at him. Charles raised his hands as he tried to surrender. His whole world narrowed down to the goblin’s beady eyes, which flashed with inhuman joy at the sight of Charles’ defenselessness. The goblin’s finger began to pull the trigger and Charles’ arms crossed over his chest in a futile effort to protect himself from the oncoming crossbow bolt.
One of John’s blades slammed against the goblin’s chest, knocking him backwards to the ground where he lay still.
“Good timing,” Charles gasped, his eyes flickering from the cameras back to John. He didn’t show any of the fear he’d been feeling.
John flashed a smile as he vaulted over the barrier and grabbed his knife. “Next time, I suggest you charge or dodge. Just standing there like a fool is,” his face twitched slightly, “well, foolish.”
Finally, Charles realized what the shift in John’s attitude meant. Charles was finally in. John wasn’t treating him with the charming babble that he used on strangers. He was treating Charles as one of them. With all the sarcasm and teasing that goes with that position.
“I’ll remember that,” Charles said, a small smile appearing on his lips. It had been a while since he’d felt that--like part of a team. Shay and Ken stood on the other side of the barrier a short distance away having a little discussion, looking over the crossbow that John had given them while Charles was distracted by his discovery.
“You mind if I ask you something?” Charles asked.
“Ask away,” John said as he flipped the knife into its sheath.
“Isn’t it tricky, loving an elf?” John looked at him curiously. “She’ll live long after you’re dead.”
John shrugged. “You can’t control your emotions, but you can choose how you express them. I love Shay too much for it to be anything but words.”
“Okay,” Charles said uncomprehendingly.
“Besides,” John smiled. “I’m a charming fellow. I can get sex anywhere…”
“If you say so, but I still—,” Charles began.
“If you ladies are through chatting, can we move on to the next room?” Shay asked, interrupting Charles.
“Love, I still say we take our money now and we get out of here,” John said. “Come on Charles, you don’t need the money. Be a sport and take the hit for the team.”
Charles opened his mouth. Not even he knew what he was going to say, but before he could say anything a massive explosion filled the room with flying shrapnel.
John grabbed Shay and pulled her back over the barrier. Charles automatically dropped to the floor. Ken followed, his pendant glowed blindingly bright, deflecting most of the shrapnel away from him. The entire wall opposite the barrier was blown open. Sporadic gunfire flew through the hole. Ken clambered over the barrier, collapsing on the other side. Shrapnel had made it through his protections in several places and blood was beginning to pool on the floor.
John began to pull out the shrapnel while Ken forced himself to lie still.
“Ken. can you heal yourself?” he asked while his hands moved quickly.
Ken just shook his head; he couldn’t speak.
John pulled out the last piece of shrapnel, deftly avoiding the small shower of blood that sprang up as he pulled the metal out. He poured another potion down Ken’s throat and the about two-thirds of the wounds closed.
While he’d been doing that, Charles was cowering against the barrier and Shay was peeking over the top.
“Can’t see anything. John, take a look,” she said.
John poked his head over the barrier, while carefully trying to expose the smallest available part of himself to the sporadic gunfire.
“Don’t see anything useful. Just a couple of really expensive guns and the goons holding them,” John said.
A voice spoke and the gunfire stopped. The words were indistinct from where Charles was hiding. The accent was rough, revealing that the speaker was lower class, but the tone, the intonation, everything about that conveyed two things. The speaker was used to being obeyed and he liked to inspire fear.
A man stepped into the room, wearing an expensive tailor-made suit. His body said that he was a laborer, but his eyes said that he was a killer. They looked warm, until you looked more deeply, then you saw that the warmth was just a front. His eyes were empty under that mask. Four half-orcs surrounded him. They were carrying assault rifles, but their clothing, while not approaching the quality of the man in the middle’s, was more suited to a day in an office than a battlefield.
“Give me Charles Wood,” the man commanded. His powerful voice filled the room.
Shay, John and Ken turned as one to look at Charles.
“If you give me Charles Wood, I will leave the rest of you in peace,” he said. “I will give you two minutes to decide.” He turned his gaze ostentatiously to the pocket watch that hung from his coat. He pushed a button and the top sprung off, presenting the dazzling platinum to the people hiding behind the barrier. They might have been impressed, if they hadn’t been busy staring at Charles.
“They’re Light Shadows,” Charles stated anticipating their next question. “I annoyed them by making some bets and then not paying them,” he spoke bluntly, not trying to hide what he’d done. He’d hidden it for a long time. When it finally came out, it had ruined his career. He was done hiding.
“You cheated the mob?” John asked incredulously.
“Back when I was a celebrity, I cheated a lot of people,” Charles stated. “I did whatever I could get away with.”
“So now the Light Shadows want payback,” Shay stated.
“That would be my guess,” Charles replied as if she’d been asking a question.
“Fight,” Shay said.
“Fight,” Ken said. While they’d been talking, he’d finished healing himself.
John glanced over the top again, “Since the Light Shadows don’t leave witnesses, fight,” he said in an unhappy tone.
“Resources?” Shay asked.
John pulled out four of his juggling knives. “Four sharp knives, one dull knife, a vial of acid, the smoke orb. That’s it,” he shrugged. “I was going to restock after we got paid.”
Charles suddenly realized that, throughout the entire trip, John had been using one dull knife. He’d used it to trick the magus into thinking all his knives were dull.
Ken pulled a thin tube out of the handle of his mace. “Zip gun. One shot. Just smack the bottom and bang.”
“All right,” Shay said in a contemplative tone. “Here’s the plan—“
“By the way, one of my mages has banished all magic from this area. No spells will work around here for at least another half hour,” the leader said.
Shay blinked. “New plan.” She grabbed two of John’s sharp knives. “Here’s what we’re going to do. John, you hit the guard on the right. I’ll take the one on the left. Ken, take out the leader. We follow the knives and the bullet over the top.”
“They have automatic weapons,” Charles argued.
“You get close enough and a gun is just an awkwardly shaped club. We just have to get close fast. Very fast. I trust you can manage that?” Shay replied.
“Thirty seconds,” the leader said.
“Now,” Shay said quietly.
Time seemed to slow as everyone moved. John’s knives flew through the air, slamming into the throat of the guard to the right of the leader. One of Shay’s blades hit the guard to the left in the throat, the other hit him in the chest. Both guards collapsed to the ground, choking on the blades. The leader dropped to the ground, barely avoiding Ken’s shot.
While the two remaining guards began to raise their rifles, everyone vaulted over the barrier. Charles charged the remaining guard on the left. He tackled him before the guard could bring his gun to bear. The other guard got off two shots, knocking Ken back over the barrier before Shay’s sword came down, neatly cutting his gun in half. In getting rid of the magic, the Light Shadows had also made everyone’s weapons effective again.
The guard dropped the remnants of his rifle and swung the two ugly looking daggers that were the symbol of the Light Shadows out of sheaths underneath his coat. He engaged Shay in a rapid duel, twin daggers against her sword and dagger.
The leader snapped back to his feet, flipping out two daggers as well. He spun attempting to engage Shay as well, but he ran into John before he could reach her. John was wielding the dull knife, not having had a chance to reach one of the knives protruding from the dead guards.
While Shay dueled with one of the guards and John tried to hold back the leader, Charles was brawling with the last guard on the floor. He punched, kicked, kneed, elbowed, he slammed every bit of his body against every bit of the guard’s body, trying to keep the guard from gathering his wits long enough to fight back.
The leader’s daggers curved toward John in swift arcs, but John refused to give any ground. He appeared to be trying to hold the leader back by sheer force of will. Even more impressively, it was working so far, though the blurring potion that was still in effect may have had something to do with his success. Shay traded blows with the guard, her superior weaponry and skill counteracting his superior strength. John and Shay were almost back to back. If either of them moved the other would be exposed.
For two long minutes they fought. For two long minutes there was no space for fancy footwork, no time for brilliant tactics.
For two long minutes it was just tenacity, stamina, strength and will. For two long minutes John managed to keep the leader’s blades away from his throat. For two long minutes the guard kept Shay’s blades from his chest. For two long minutes Charles and the other guard bashed at each other. For two long minutes Ken lay on the ground bleeding and begging for his goddess’s aid. She gave it, despite the anti-magic spell.
Then a break came. Charles grabbed the hilt of one of the guard’s daggers, pulled it out from under the guard’s coat and drove it into his throat. He ripped it to the right and the guard collapsed. A moment later he was on his feet, the bloodstained dagger clenched in his hand. He charged the leader’s back. The leader spun quickly; a foot lashed out, knocking Charles to the ground. As the leader spun back, John tossed his last knife at the leader’s chest. The dull blade didn’t do much, but it was enough to knock the mobster off balance. While he was rolling back to his feet, John pulled both of his knives out of the corpse of the guard he’d killed. Now they were more evenly matched. Charles was lying on the ground, trying to make his eyes focus after the leader’s powerful kick. Finally Shay drove her sword into her guard’s stomach and twisted savagely upwards before she pulled it out.
She spun, ignoring the guard who collapsed to the floor; and charged the leader as well. Facing both John and Shay, he was driven back on his heels. Shay’s and John’s movements were almost perfectly synchronized. If the leader had been even slightly less skilled, he’d have been dead in the first moments; but he held them both off. Thirty seconds passed in a room that was silent except for the sound of steel clanging on steel. Suddenly John threw himself forward, almost driving himself onto the leader’s dagger. The leader spun, trying to recover, but Shay’s dagger slid past his guard and into his throat. As he collapsed there was this look of absolute astonishment on his face. He had dealt out death for years, but he’d never imagined that anyone would get the better of him.
John moved quickly over to Ken who was slowly sitting up and fingering the holes the bullets had made in his robes. The Light Shadows mage had fled rather than face the Testers without his magic.
“Your goddess is far more generous than you really have any right to expect,” he said as he helped the priest to his feet.
Ken just smiled.
“Can we get out of here now?” John asked Shay plaintively as he gathered his knives, cleaned and sheathed them.
“We still need four more rooms,” Shay noted.
“I think we’ve more than earned his share,” John said, gesturing at the semi-conscious Charles.
“Patch him up,” she commanded Ken. “We’ll hear what he has to say.”
Ken stood over Charles, hands and mouth working overtime.
“Shay,” John said irritably. “I hate to be blunt, but we aren’t in any shape to keep going. Ken’s running low on spells. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. That last fight was…”
“Too close,” Shay agreed.
“So?” John prodded.
“I won’t steal from someone who fought under my command,” she stated.
“I will,” John said pocketing the platinum pocket-watch easily. “Don’t worry about it, we get the cash, we split it up, then I lift his. Easy as pie.”
“No,” Shay stated. “It’s not that I won’t personally do it. It’s that I won’t let it be done. We are not going to—“
“Take my share,” Charles interjected from the floor. “I owe you a lot more than that.”
“Good,” John said. “Can we go now?”
Shay nodded and she produced an amulet that the DJ had given her as Team Three’s leader. After they retreated outside the zone of no-magic that the Light Shadows mage had produced, she had them all link hands as she spoke the command word. A moment and an extremely unpleasant transport spell later, they were in an expensively appointed sitting room.
An elegantly dressed woman sat behind a hand-carved desk, in a chair that might best be described as a throne.
John swept her an elegant bow. “Milady, we made it through twelve rooms of your exquisitely crafted dungeon.”
“You also caused a good portion of my dungeon to be destroyed. Why should I pay you anything at all?” she inquired acidly.
“Because, milady,” John began stepping forward and sweeping another, even deeper bow. “Your honor is legendary. We know you would never agree to payment and then break your word.”
She stared at him, clearly surprised that he’d actually answered what she had intended as a rhetorical question.
“Besides, milady, we merely acted to repel intruders from your property. We were no more than your most humble servants in this endeavor. They exposed a weakness in your defenses. Surely those extra services are worth a bonus, not a penalty,” he argued quite convincingly.
She laughed warmly for a moment, waiting for everyone else in the room to smile before she exploded to her feet, “DO YOU THINK ME A FOOL?” she bellowed. “I know why the Light Shadows were here. I know they were here for Charles Wood and—”
“Milady,” John interrupted smoothly, “I doubt neither your information, nor your intellect. How could I? The spike trap within the crossbow trap? Sheer genius. That’s a trick I’ve never seen before,” he paused for a moment to let the veiled threat to reveal the tricks of her dungeon sink in before he continued. “Milady, I know you are an honorable woman, you don’t want to hold back our payment. You are justifiably angry about the damage to your brilliantly designed dungeon, but consider what will make your dungeon most popular, not opening on time because of repair work or including a room that was the scene of an actual battle? The death of five members of the Light Shadows? The dungeon that the mob tried to close before it could open. Isn’t that a good story for the public, milady?” he asked, bowing a third time and politely kissing her hand.
She pulled her hand away, opened a drawer and tossed a bag of coins on the floor. Gold coins rolled everywhere. “Collect your fee and leave,” she commanded.
John gestured for the others to stay put and collected each and every coin. His face showed no particular shame as he collected the money off the floor.
They turned to leave. When they reached the door, the DJ spoke up. “What do you say?” she asked in a cruel tone.
John spun on his heel and bowed yet again. “Thank you milady for your generosity,” he said before they left.
Twenty minutes later they were on the street.
Shay and Ken had pushed ahead, taking the cash, discussing what to buy. Charles looked over at John, something surprisingly close to contempt in his eyes. “Don’t you have any pride?” he asked.
John laughed coldly. “You think I demeaned myself, humbled myself before that aristo back there?” he asked.
Charles raised his chin defiantly. “Yes, I do,” he said.
John smiled. “Words aren’t a measure of respect. I called her ‘milady,’ a term of respect, when I think she is a greedy pig providing circuses to the masses. I tease Shay, who I respect more than anyone I’ve ever known, mercilessly. Words aren’t a measure of respect, actions are. I obey Shay, well, usually. That woman couldn’t have gotten me to breathe by ordering it. Nothing humiliates me unless I let it. It doesn’t matter whether or not she thinks she humiliated me or not.”
Charles stared at him, unsure how to respond.
“Now you have a choice, child,” John said arrogantly. “I hope…I hope that whatever choice you make, you end up happy. Good luck,” he concluded before turning and walking away.
Charles’ head gaze switched from John’s back to the DJ’s mansion. He could do it. He knew he could do it. He’d dealt with nobles like her for the entire period he’d been a celebrity, he knew how to play her, how to convince her to help him, to fund his return to celebrity status and he was damn sure he could do it without having to scrape around on the floor. He glanced back to John. John wasn’t offering status. Charles didn’t even know what John was offering.
His eyes moved back and forth as he tried to decide what path his life would take in just a little more than a minute. He stopped, froze, closed his eyes and thought for a moment. When his eyes opened, he knew what he would do, he knew who he would be.