Peter jimmied the lock on a janitorial storage closet and procured some gear (they’d all agreed that wheeling around supplies would enhance their camouflage). He was behind a plastic pushcart, while Eun was steering a mop and squeeze-bucket. Kora was holding a large spray bottle and a bristly scrubber.
They took a right and entered a long corridor, marked by a row of uniform doors. Each one had a small, head-level window.
Peter eyed them with increasing anxiety. “Guys…I feel like we’re about to fight the Demogorgon.”
“I know what you mean,” Eun murmured. She was walking with a slight hunch, as if something might pounce at her.
“This is not unlike the Mordanian Dungeons,” Kora remarked. Unlike her friends she wasn’t afraid; she was looking casually around.
“The Mordanian what?” Peter threw her an incredulous glance.
“Haunted catacombs,” she 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. “On Elithia, there are several tribes of fire breathing dragons, but they’re poor shadows 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. “Our biggest dinosaurs wouldn’t hold a candle.”
Kora raised an eyebrow. “Dinosaurs?”
“Like war-raptors, only taller. Maybe sixty feet high at the most.”
“Yes,” Kora agreed. “They would look like insects next to an Elder Wyrm.”
“Cool,” Peter muttered. “Man, I’d love to visit Elithia.”
Something moved in the cell to their left. He ran to the door and pressed his face against the glass. “What the—”
Eun warned, “Peter—don’t.”
He found himself staring at a little girl, sitting in the corner of a padded cell, hugging both knees tightly to her chest. The fractals in the cell looked super evil (they had nasty edges, dripping with some kind of gangrenous goo) but Peter didn’t notice.
“Guys!” he shouted. “There’s a kid 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 rang through 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 swoops. As they stretched and twined, half-formed faces emerged from their ends: impossibly black and twisted with pain.
“Nuuuhh…” Drool gathered 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 ravenous hunger. He only existed to feed her his fear, feed her his marrow and blood-rich flesh—
[PETER!] Kora brought him back for a short, sweet moment. Almost instantly, the miasmic entrancement started back up.
[PETER!] Eun grabbed his arm, trying to pull him back. He bucked her off without intending to.
Then Kora was there by his side, chanting something fast and sibilant. The thing in the cell writhed and contorted. Its skin burst off in fluttering ribbons, then its true form became hideously visible: a six-foot roach with chitinous udders, all dripping with pustulent discharge. Each drop was filled with larvae.
A grating squeal erupted from the roach-thing, accompanied by whimpers from its chest-sac spawn. The noise they gave off steadily grew, turning from a brain-curdling whine into a horrendous shriek.
Kora shoved Peter with both hands, sending him stumbling back into the pushcart. As he bounced off its edge and spun into a wall, warmth poured from his nose and ears. Blood, he realized as it trickled 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 in front of 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.
The roach-thing slammed against the glass. [Bow, fleshling! Bow to Rikokryke, Lord of the—]
[TLDR.] Kora hissed.
Imaginal ordnance leapt from her arm, exploding 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 was limited to the psychic realm.
[That was fun.] Kora wiped her nose with the heel of her palm. [You guys okay?]
[Jesus Christ.] Peter projected shakily. [The fuck was THAT?]
[A soul-eating fungus. They’re called Lykorithe.] Kora replied.
“Jesus.” Peter repeated, wiping blood off his upper lip.
“Let’s go.” Kora started walking. Eun and Peter fell in behind her.
“That spell…” Peter looked at Kora. “What’s it called?”
“An astral version of Senkilo’s Cannon. Invented by Hylinian Senkilo, an eccentric wizard and famous explorer. He was 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 her for lessons in sorcery, but over the last few months, he’d been super busy with psychedelics research.
“Senkilo’s,” she said. The wheels on the pushcart squeaked and grumbled. “And no, I can’t. Not unless you dedicate several years to basic arcana. Magic is more than just wands and phrases—it’s dependent on releasing your 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.
“Wait—what?” Peter stopped in his tracks. The squeaking from the push-cart ground to a halt. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Another shrug. “I wasn’t sure until I blasted the Lykorithe. When I formed Senkilo’s Cannon, I—”
“But 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. “We’re almost there. Take a right—” he swung the cart around a corner.
They stopped and stared. At the end of the hall was a vault-like door.