Peter, Eun, and Kora had decided that schlepping around equipment would add to their camouflage, so Peter had jimmied the lock on a janitorial storage closet. Peter was now behind the main bar of a plastic pushcart, driving it forward, while Eun was holding a mop and squeeze-bucket. Kora had a spray bottle filled with disinfectant.
The fractals in ANOS 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, six inches long, six inches wide. Peter eyed them with increasing anxiety.
“Guys…I feel like we’re about to fight the Demogorgon.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Eun murmured. She was walking with a slight hunch, 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 her an incredulous glance.
“A subterranean network of haunted catacombs,” Kora explained. “Located 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 is home to fire breathing dragons, but they’re poor shadows of their long-ago ancestors. Our world was once home to majestic lizards—hundreds of miles long, dozens of miles wide.”
“Damn.” Peter’s expression turned respectful “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.”
“Yeah,” Kora agreed. “They’d look like insects next to an Elder Wyrm.”
“Cool,” Peter muttered. “Man, I’d love to visit Elithia.”
A flash of movement caught his eye. It had come from one of the cells to his left. He ran up to the windowpane and pressed his face against the glass. “What the—”
Eun’s warning came too late. Peter was 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 way more evil (they had nasty edges, which were dripping with some kind of gangrenous goo) but Peter didn’t notice. ANOS was experimenting on a goddamn kid!
“Guys!” he shouted. “They’ve got a girl in here! We gotta—”
Eun’s voice faded away into a faraway drone. All he could see was the little girl, now staring intently into his eyes. Her pupils were spinning…how about that…it wasn’t just beautiful, 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 emitted a grating, insectile buzz. The shadows in the corners swirled to life, drawing together into black, sinuous swoops. As they stretched and twined, half-formed faces emerged from 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 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-up girl and her desire to consume and who was he to resist her 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. An instant later, the miasmic entrancement started back up.
[PETER!] Eun grabbed his arms, trying to pull him away from the cell. He bucked her off without intending to.
Then Kora was by his side, chanting something fast and sibilant 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 six-foot cockroach with chitinous udders, all of which were dripping with sickly green discharge—fat quivering droplets gleaming with tiny, wriggling larvae.
A grating squeal erupted from the roach-thing. It was joined by accompanying whimpers from the unholy spawn inside 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 plastic push-cart. He hit the edge 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 Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. 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 red began to form. Incandescent motes appeared around it and drew toward its surface, increasing its diameter as it assimilated their light.
Holy shit, Peter thought dazedly. 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 OFF, pit-spawn!]
The roach-thing slammed 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 eyes. 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 was limited 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?]
[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.]
“Jesus.” Peter wiped the blood off his upper lip.
“Let’s 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 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’s,” she said. The wheels on the pushcart squeaked and grumbled as they turned a corner. “And no, I can’t. Not unless you spend several years studying basic arcana. Magic is more than wands and special phrases—it’s contingent on wiping preconceptions off the veneer of your consciousness. That’s the only way to convert your intent into 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, curious.
“A movie called The Matrix,” Eun replied. “The hero’s trying to manipulate reality by loosening up his perception 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, and 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 still need to cast a spell of translation. Will you be able to—”
She waved dismissively. “Not an issue. 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 at the screen. “We’re almost there. Take a 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.