Peter jimmied the lock on a janitorial storage closet and procured some gear (they’d agreed that wheeling around cleaning supplies would enhance their camouflage). He was behind a plastic pushcart, Eun was steering a mop and squeeze-bucket. Kora had a large spray bottle filled with disinfectant.
They found themselves walking through a long corridor, marked by a seemingly endless row of doors. Each one had a small windowpane—six inches long, six inches wide.
Peter eyed them with increasing anxiety. “Guys…I feel like we’re about to meet the Demogorgon.”
“I know what you mean,” Eun murmured. She was walking with a slight hunch, looking from side to side, as if something might pounce at her.
“This is not unlike the Mordanian Dungeons,” Kora remarked. Unlike her friends she was standing erect, looking casually around.
“The Mordanian what?” Peter threw her an incredulous glance.
“Haunted catacombs,” Kora explained. “Beneath the Kuldoom Mountains, which are formed from the bones of Kyrothanx Smokesear.”
“Who the hell is Kyro—”
“The last Elder Wyrm,” Kora said. “Elithia has fire breathing dragons, but they are a poor shadow of their long-dead ancestors. Our world was once home to majestic lizards—hundreds of miles long and dozens of miles wide.”
“Damn.” Peter’s expression turned respectful. “Dinosaurs would barely register to something as big as that.”
Kora raised an eyebrow. “Dinosaurs?”
“Like war-raptors, only bigger. The tallest one was maybe sixty feet high.”
“Yes,” Kora agreed. “They’d look like insects next to an Elder Wyrm.”
“Cool,” Peter muttered. “Man, I’d love to visit Elithia.”
Something moved in the cell to his left. He ran up to the door and pressed his face against the glass. “What the—”
Eun snapped, “Peter, don’t.”
He found himself staring at a little girl—her hair was cut into a simple blond bob—sitting in the corner of a padded cell, hugging both knees tightly to her chest. The fractals in the cell looked super evil (they all had nasty edges, dripping with some kind of gangrenous goo) but Peter didn’t notice.
“Guys!” he shouted. “There’s a little girl in here! We gotta—”
Eun was speaking, but her voice sounded tinny and faint. All Peter saw was this little girl, staring intently into his eyes. Her pupils were spinning…how about that…it wasn’t just beautiful, it was…
[Feed me, fleshling.] Her demonic presence assaulted his mind, reverberating in ever-louder echoes. Inside her cell, the overhead lights fritzed and sparked. The shadows in the corners swirled to life, drawing together into sinuous black swoops. As they stretched and twined, half-formed faces emerged from their ends: impossibly black and twisted by pain.
“Nuuuhh…” Drool congealed on Peter’s lips, yawing down in shining strands. The world was puddling, melting away…holy shit, there had never been an Eun, there had never been a Kora…there had never been a Peter, even. All that mattered was this fucked-up girl and her desire to consume he only existed to feed her nightmares feed her marrow his blood-rich flesh and pulsing organs—
[PETER!] Kora’s voice boomed through his psyche, bringing him back for a short, sweet second. Almost instantly, the miasmic entrancement started back up.
[PETER!] Eun grabbed his arms, trying to pull him back. He bucked her off without consciously intending to.
Then Kora was by his side, chanting something fast and sibilant. Her speech was affecting the thing in the cell; it writhed and contorted, screamed and hissed. Its skin burst off in fluttering ribbons and its true form became hideously visible: a six-foot cockroach with chitinous udders, all dripping with sickly green discharge. Fat, quivering drops containing a swarm of wriggling larvae.
A grating squeal erupted from the roach-thing, along with accompanying whimpers from its chest-sac spawn. The noise they gave off picked up in volume, turning from a brain-curdling whine into a horrendous shriek.
Kora shoved Peter with both hands, sending him stumbling into the plastic pushcart. He hit the edge and spun into the wall, noting a feeling of warmth from his nose and his ears. Blood, he realized as it trickled down into his mouth.
[BACK!] Kora yelled, waving her arms in elegant patterns. Sparkling bands—ranging from light azure to twilight blue—trailed her fingers, forming glittering slashes around her right forearm. Six inches away from her knuckles, a ball of eye-searing red began to materialize. Glowing dots appeared around it and drew inward, enlarging the ball as it assimilated their mass.
Holy shit, Peter thought dazedly.
Kora had summoned a light-woven wrist-gun, like something out of the Starcraft II Protoss campaign. She leveled it at the window.
The roach-thing slammed against the glass. [Bow, fleshling! Bow to Rikokryke, Lord of the—]
[TLDR.] Kora hissed.
Imaginal ordnance leapt from her arm, splattering the roach into a mess of fragments. An anguished howl erupted from its mind, causing fresh blood to pour from Peter’s ears, and new streams to emerge from Kora and Eun’s. Amazingly enough, the glass remained pristine and untouched; the chaos remained in the psychic realm.
[That was fun.] Kora wiped her nose with the heel of her palm. [You guys okay?]
[Jesus Christ.] Peter projected shakily. [What the fuck was that?]
[A soul-eating fungus. They’re called Lykorithe.] Kora replied.
“Jesus.” Peter repeated, wiping blood off his upper lip.
“Keep moving.” Kora started walking. Eun and Peter fell in behind her.
“That spell…” Peter looked at Kora. “What’s it called?”
“Senkilo’s Cannon. It was invented by Hylinian Senkilo, an eccentric wizard and 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 it to me? Sikorsky’s Cannon?” He’d meant to ask for an intro to spells, but over the last few months, he’d been super busy with his psychedelics research.
“Senkilo’s,” she said. The wheels on the pushcart squeaked and grumbled. “And no, I can’t. Not unless you spend several years studying basic arcana. Magic is more than wands and phrases—it’s heavily dependent on releasing preconceptions.”
“ ‘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.”
“Who said that?” Kora asked.
“It’s from a movie called The Matrix,” Eun replied. “The hero learns how to shift reality. He does it by loosening his perception of causality.”
“That’s what magic is,” Kora said. “And speaking of, you should both know that my powers are diminishing. The zen zaps help, but—” she shrugged. “Causality is stricter here. 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 say something?”
Another shrug. “I wasn’t sure until I blasted the Lykorithe. When I formed Senkilo’s Cannon, I—”
“You need to cast a spell of translation. Will you—”
She waved dismissively. “Not an issue. If Senkilo’s Cannon is AP calculus, then a spell of translation is basic arithmetic.”
“Oh—okay. We’re good, then.”
Kora nodded. “Yep.”
Peter started forward. He clicked his phone on and studied the screen. “We’re almost there. Take a right—” he looked up as he swung the cart around a corner,
They stopped and stared. At the end of the hall was a vault-like door.