Peter, Eun, and Kora had decided that schlepping around equipment would add to their camouflage, and accordingly, had jimmied the lock on a nearby storage closet. Peter was now behind the main bar of a janitorial pushcart, driving it forward, while Eun was holding a mop and squeeze-bucket. Kora had a spray bottle that was filled with disinfectant.
The fractals in ANOS were way less cheery. They looked like malevolent sea creatures: sulky, dangerous, and ready to latch onto unwitting prey.
As the three teens made their way through a long, sterile corridor, rows of doors passed them by. Each door had a small windowpane—a little square of glass that was six inches long, six inches wide. Peter eyed the windows with increasing anxiety.
“Guys…I feel like we’re about to fight the Demogorgon.”
“Know exactly what you mean,” Eun murmured. She was walking with a slight hunch and looking furtively from side to side, as if she was afraid that something might jump out at her.
“This is not unlike the Mordanian Dungeons,” Kora remarked. Unlike Peter and Eun, her posture was erect, and she was looking casually around.
“The Mordanian what?” Peter threw an incredulous glance at her.
“A subterranean network of haunted catacombs,” Kora explained. “They’re located under the Kuldoom Mountains, which are formed from the bones of Kyrothanx Smokesear.”
“Who the hell is Kyro—”
“The last Elder Wyrm,” Kora said. “Present day Elithia is populated by dragons, but they’re poor shadows of their long-ago ancestors. Our world was once home to majestic lizards—their shadows stretched for hundreds of miles across the ground.”
“Damn.” Peter’s expression turned respectful, almost reverent. “Dinosaurs would look super tiny in comparison.”
Kora raised an eyebrow. “Dinosaurs?”
“Like war-raptors, only a lot bigger. The tallest one was maybe sixty feet high.”
“Yes,” Kora nodded in agreement. “They’d look like insects next to an Elder Wyrm.”
“Cool,” Peter muttered. “Man, I’d love to visit Elithia.”
At that moment, a flash of movement caught his eye. It had come from within one of the cells to his left. He ran up to the windowpane, declaring, “I’m gonna see what that is.”
Eun’s warning came too late. Peter was staring at a little girl—her hair was cut into a simple blond bob—who was sitting in the right-hand corner of a padded cell, hugging both knees tightly to her chest. The fractals in the cell looked way more evil (they had nasty edges, which were dripping with some kind of gangrenous goo) but Peter didn’t notice. ANOS was performing their vile-ass experiments on a little girl, for Chrissakes!
“Guys!” he shouted. “They’ve got a girl in here! We gotta—”
Eun was speaking, but her voice had faded into a faraway drone. All he could see was the little girl, who was now staring intently into his eyes. Her pupils were spinning…how about that…it wasn’t just beautiful, it was…it was…
[Feed me, fleshling.] A demonic voice vibrated through his mind, reverberating in ever-louder echoes. At the same time, the lights in the cell fritzed and dimmed, and emitted a grating, insectile buzz. The shadows in the corners swirled to life, drawing together into black, sinuous swoops. As they stretched and twined, the semblance of faces formed on their ends. They looked like the ghosts from Raiders of the Lost Ark, only these weren’t wispy smoke strands, they were impossibly black.
“Nuuuhh…” Drool congealed on Peter’s lips, yawing down from them in long, shining strands. The world was puddling into a nonsensical blob…holy shit, there had never been an Eun there had never been a Kora…there had never been a Peter, even. There was only this fucked-in-the-head girl and her desire to consume and who was he to think about resisting he only existed to feed her his nightmares and his blood-rich flesh—
[PETER!] Kora’s voice sounded loudly in his psyche, bringing him back for a short, sweet moment. Almost immediately, the miasmic entrancement started back up.
[PETER!] He felt Eun grab his arms, trying to pull him away from the cell. He bucked her off without intending to.
He wanted to stop, wanted to pull away…but he couldn’t do it.
Then Kora was by his side, chanting something fast and silibant under her breath. From the corner of his eye, he could see her face, grim and shadowy with determination. Her words were affecting the thing in the cell; it was writhing and contorting. Its skin burst off in fluttering ribbons, and then its true form became hideously visible: it looked like a giant cockroach with chitinous udders, all of which were dripping with sickly green discharge—fat quivering droplets agleam with tiny, wriggling larvae.
A grating squeal erupted from the roach-thing. As it rose in volume, it was joined by accompanying whimpers from the unholy spawn that dotted its chest sacs. The sacs began quivering, picking up speed at an alarming rate. The noise they gave off also picked up, turning from a brain-curdling whine into a horrendous shriek.
Kora shoved Peter with both hands, sending him stumbling back into the janitorial push-cart. He hit its lip and spun into the wall, disconnectedly noting that warm liquid had sprouted from his nose and his ears. Blood, he realized as it trickled into his mouth.
[BACK!] Kora yelled, waving her arms in elegant patterns that looked like Tai Chi. A series of sparkling bands—they ranged from light azure to twilight blue—trailed from her fingers, forming an intricate series of glittering slashes around her right forearm. Approximately six inches in front of her knuckles, a ball of eye-searing energy began to form. Incandescent motes appeared around it and drew inward toward its surface, increasing its diameter and brightness as it assimilated their light.
Holy shit, Peter thought. Kora’s forearm was now sporting a light-woven wrist-gun; it looked like something out of the Starcraft II Protoss campaign.
She leveled it at the window, steadying her right wrist with her left hand. [Back away, pit-spawn.]
The roach-thing twitched forward, slamming its mandibles against the glass. [Bow, fleshling! Bow to Rikokryke, Lord of the—]
[TLDR.] Kora hissed.
Psychogenic ordnance blasted the roach-thing right in its face. An anguished howl erupted from its psyche, causing fresh blood to pour from Peter’s ears and nose, and new streams to emerge from Kora and Eun’s. Amazingly, the glass remained pristine and untouched; the ruckus had been constrained to the psychic realm.
[That was fun.] Kora wiped the blood off her nose with the heel of her palm, then sniffed up the rest. [You guys okay?]
[Jesus Christ.] Peter projected shakily. [What the fuck was THAT?]
[On Elithia, there exists a psychic fungus called a Lykorithe.] Kora replied. [Whatever’s in there isn’t one of them—it had ten larva-sacs instead of four—but it was a close cousin. Its other features were pretty much identical.]
“Jesus.” Peter wiped away the blood on his upper lip. He examined it uncertainly, then looked at Eun and Kora. “Our uniforms…they’re stained with blood. Should we get some new ones?”
“Nah,” Eun said. “It’s only a few spots here and there. The guards won’t care.”
“That could change any second,” Peter said.
“Let’s keep moving.” Kora started walking. Eun and Peter fell in behind her.
“What about the spell?” Peter asked Kora. “What do you call it?”
She threw him a sideways glance. “Senkilo’s Cannon. It was invented by an eccentric wizard named Hylinian Senkilo. He was a famous explorer—Elithia’s version of your Invertebrate Jones. My nan-ma would tell me stories about him before I went to sleep.”
“Indiana Jones,” Peter corrected. “Could you teach me how to do that? Sikorsky’s Cannon?” He’d been meaning to ask her to show him some spells, but over the last few months, he’d been preoccupied with other stuff—Blake, the Timekeeper, his psychedelics research—and it had slipped his mind.
“Senkilo,” she corrected. The wheels on the pushcart squeaked and grumbled as they turned a corner. “And no, I can’t. Not unless you spent several years studying basic arcana. Magic is more than wands and special phrases—it depends on reducing preconceptions from the veneer of your consciousness. That’s the only to convert your intent into an expression of energy.”
“ ‘Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.’ ” Eun quoted.
“Yeah yeah,” Peter grumbled. “Heard it before.”
“What’s that from?” Kora asked.
“A movie called The Matrix,” Eun replied. “In that scene, the hero’s trying to manipulate the physical world by loosening up his idea of causality.”
“That’s exactly what magic is,” Kora said. “And while we’re on the subject: you should both know that my powers are diminishing. The zen zaps help, but—” she shrugged. “I suspect the causality is much stricter here, which makes magic a lot harder.”
“Wait—what?” Peter stopped in his tracks. The squeaking from the push-cart ground to a halt. “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
Another shrug. “I wasn’t sure until I blasted the Lykorithe. When I formed Senkilo’s Cannon, I—”
“You still need to cast a spell of translation. Will you be able to—”
She waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not a problem. If Senkilo’s Cannon is AP calculus, then a spell of translation is first grade arithmetic.”
“Oh—okay.” Peter started forward. He clicked his phone open and looked down at its screen. “We’re almost there. Take this right—” he looked up as he swung the cart around a corner, “—and boom.”
They stopped and stared. A thick, steely door marked the end of the hallway.