Dhane broke free of the tight gripping stone that had wrapped around him. Crumbled pieces of shale, pieces that looked identical to him, lay in green grass. His stone-carved face—a bit of statue that could withstand the test of time—revealed his eyes half shut, mouth contorted in protest.
“A warning would have been nice.”
The grass swayed in a soft breeze, dancing along rolling hills. The trees had bunched up tops like pink balls of cotton candy. Boulders and jutting stones carved through the land, surrounded by bushes, sprinkled with flowers.
There wasn’t a person in sight. But what a wondrous world! The way the trees grew with twisting branches; the birds and their metallic blue wings, shimmering in sunlight; the vast stretch of green and pink in every direction . . .
Yet, what was he supposed to do?
It was one thing to get lost on purpose and a totally different thing to be truly lost. When he went hiking in the mountains, there had always been an anchor that tethered him to society: roads, trails, people, his compass, and the general understanding of where things were. Walk far enough east, he’d hit the city. Easy peasy.
That was all he needed, a map. And wasn’t there an app for that?
Oh . . . shit brownies! Where was his phone? He had it right before being turned into a statue. His pockets were empty. The only things around him were the crumbled bits of shale.
But it was supposed to be a piece of his soul! Could he have lost it . . . dropped it on the mountaintop when he fell? Of course he did. That was what happened with all new phones: get the pristine box, the pretty screen, and five minutes later, a crack down the center.
Did they sell screen protectors in heaven?
If there ever was a time for a handy Find My Phone app, this was that time. Then again, he wasn’t on a mountain top anymore. Who knew how far away Gameus had sent him.
With that thought, he turned. There, soaring into the stratosphere, was a dull gray of a shape like an upside-down funnel, distinct from all other mountains, and no doubt, the mountain he had—moments ago—been standing on.
It would be impossible to climb that, a dozen miles of cliffs. To even reach it would take weeks.
“Gameus?” Dhane tried and waited. The only reply was flittering leaves. Then—feeling silly for the thought but enough on the verge of panic that it was worth a try—he called out, “Customer support?”
Just thinking heaven had game masters made him cringe. And yet, there had obviously been a mistake, a glitch in the matrix.
Not only did he not get to choose a divinity, but he was also now without the single device that contained any hope of finding information.
A footstep, tiny as it was, crinkled leaves from behind. Dhane spun around, a pulse of hope in his chest. That pulse quickly diminished when the entity was not a god of the realm, but a green . . . goblin?—for lack of a better term.
The small guy had his head poked out from behind a tree. He wore a leather helmet that left enough room for two Dumbo-sized ears lined with brass rings.
The goblin arched an eyebrow, seemingly confused. It then slowly moved back behind the tree, as if by moving slowly, it couldn’t be seen.
“Coru burrah . . .” came a whisper.
A different goblin stuck her head out from the other side of the tree. This one didn’t wear a helmet. She had spiky black hair like a green Barbie doll with her hair chopped off by a five-year-old playing dress-up. Her eyes were large and expressive, a mixture of gray tones.
She carried a tiny bow, an arrow already nocked and at the ready, dangerously pointing where it could do the most harm. And just in case one deadly sharp projectile wasn’t enough for the job, she had a full quiver hanging from her waist.
Dhane raised his hands. He had already died once today. There was no knowing what would happen if he died again, besides the obvious: it would hurt, and it would be non-too fun.
The goblin squinted for a long moment. Something touched him, like a feather drawn through his chest. She loosened her arrow and looked back behind the tree. “Au, coru burrah.”
“Au au!” the other said and jumped out with a broad, crooked tooth smile. They approached slowly, barely three feet tall.
The archer looped the bow over her head into a more casual placement. The other goblin sheathed his sword—well, sword for a goblin, more like a slightly long dagger to any human-sized person.
The archer made a soothing, shushing sound. She held her hands out in front of herself, padding the air. When Dhane didn’t move, she smiled and hooked a thumb at her chest. “Aia, Desley,” she said.
“Aia, Knock,” the other said.
Usually, in a video game, goblins weren’t your friends. But having no weapon, no phone, and a complete lack of knowledge about how the world worked, Dhane played along. He hooked a thumb toward his chest and said, “Aia, Dhane.”
The goblins smiled and nodded.
Desley held out her hand, palm up, and mimed pushing buttons.
“My phone?” he asked.
She nodded again, ears wiggling in anticipation.
“I don’t know where it is.”
She frowned and shook her head, then pointed to her ear. She didn’t understand what he was saying. For a goblin, she seemed rather smart.
Desley reached out her little, green hands with black nails and took his hand gently. She turned his palm up, pointed to her head, and squinted as if in thought before tapping his palm like it was a phone.
Dhane considered this for a moment. Things like telepathy or telekinesis just weren’t real. Though neither was turning into stone, teleportation, or imps and goblins.
He looked at his hand and, dubiously, imagined his phone. Something tugged deep within, snagged on a fishing line. Now curious, he gave it a bit more thought, digging into that sensation.
In a blink, his phone appeared. Nothing special about it. There were no shimmering lights, no brush of cold air, no crack down the center. It merely existed.
Maybe heaven did have game masters. . . .
Desley laughed and threw her arms up in celebration. She tried to touch the screen, but her finger went through the device, blurring the material.
Dhane, having an inkling of what she was after, swiped the screen. It filled with more apps, the top-left of which was Translate.
He opened the app and three white spheres projected off the screen. Two were listed as free. To buy another would cost 1 silver.
Desley held her hand out, palm up.
He pulled on one of the glowing spheres, and it popped out of the screen, warm, radiant, and feather-light. He dropped it into her hand and she . . . ate it.
Huh. Perhaps that wasn’t too unexpected. He repeated the process with Knock, then paused. Would everyone need one? Dhane didn’t have any money to buy the third sphere. But if he did, what would it taste like?
Taste the rainbow.
“Ho, Dhane of corruption,” Desley said.
“Corruption?” he asked.
“Yes. You like us. From Shadow, not Light.”
“Shadow, Shadow,” Knock said, nodding vigorously.
“I don’t understand,” Dhane said. “I’m not from this world.”
“Ah.” Desley nodded, examining the ill-fitted vest. “You be fresh Shadow, I see. But you strong, fresh Shadow.”
“Yes, new. We show you the way.”
And with that, she hurried back to the tree they had been hiding behind, waving for him to follow. The other side had a rather large hole, big enough for him to crawl into. It was a tunnel that wound around the roots of the tree.
Desley nodded and pointed to the hole. “Inside. You see, you will.”
There was a good chance he wouldn’t see anything inside of a dark hole. There was also a good chance these goblins were just trying to get him back to where they could more easily butcher him.
He pushed away, shaking his head. “I . . . You know what? I quite like being up here. Fresh air, sunlight—”
“You must!” she said. “You be fresh Shadow, lost Shadow. We find you for reason. Take you to Mother of Shadows.”
Oh, yeah. . . . That sounded terrible.
Knock moved behind him and started pushing. “You. Go. In. Hole! In hole! In hole!”
“Knock!” Desley yelled. “He be strong Shadow. You respect!”
Bushes shook from behind them, maybe twenty or so feet away. The two goblins immediately drew their weapons, crouching.
“What’s wrong?” Dhane asked in a whisper, really wishing he had something sharp or dense or anything at all. Why hadn’t Gameus given him a weapon, or was that what the divinity was supposed to do?
Desley shushed him then nocked an arrow. Knock, on the other hand, drew his sword and moved out in front. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled sharply.
A boar, no smaller than the two goblins were tall, plowed through the bushes, snorting angry snorts. It had large, jagged tusks, and its head was covered in bone, like an exoskeleton.
The very dangerous-looking monster completely ignored the obvious target—Knock, waving his arms—and decided to charge the innocent bystander instead.
Dhane yelped. Boars, even the ones without the crazy face mask of bone and glinting red eyes, were dangerous animals. He had operated on an extremely simple set of rules when hiking, the first of which was never, ever disturb the wildlife.
He sprinted out from the tree and its dark hole, perpendicular to the charging boar, only to have it change direction and give chase.
Desley yelled something that was lost to the pounding of fat hooves on dirt and grass.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
He should have run around the tree.
An arrow whistled from behind and struck the boar. A -4 in red text materialized, and the boar’s health . . . health? The boar had a health bar showing 49/53.
It was at this point that the angry monster slammed into the back of his legs, launching him up and over itself.
He twisted in the air—yelling random profanities—and landed heavily on his neck. Something cracked, something popped, and a whole lot of dense pain shot through his body, taking his breath with it.
A moment later, the pain was gone. This brought about the alarming thought that he might be paralyzed. Mere minutes into this afterlife, this heaven, and he would soon be dead, or worse, forever a cripple in a fantasy world that begged to be explored, begged to have its mysteries discovered.
Could he move?
Could he feel his toes?
Yes. . . .
This all happened in a span of three seconds, long enough for the boar to turn and start its charge again and long enough to see the -6 above him fade, displaying his own health bar as 34/40.
“Fresh Shadow!” Desley called. “Move!”
He didn’t need more encouragement than that. Really, he didn’t need anything more than the enraged boar charging. Dhane rolled twice, barely escaping the edge of a jagged tusk, then pushed himself back to his feet.
Knock yelled a war cry, then dove off a rock with all the courage of a berserker charging into battle. He held his small sword with both hands, angled down. His body made an audible slap against the dirt, a perfect bellyflop two feet from the boar.
“Idiot!” Desley yelled, releasing another arrow. This one caught the boar in the left hind leg. -6 in damage lifted from the creature, dropping it to 43/53.
It tried to tear the arrow out, though couldn’t reach it. But just as pain had quickly stopped affecting Dhane, it seemed to have stop affecting the boar. It turned and this time charged Desley.
Dhane ran to Knock and took his sword.
“Did. I. Kill it?” Knock asked, trying to push himself to his feet.
Desley shot at the boar and missed. She started to shoot again but decided to abandon her spot and jump into the hole. Unfortunately, the boar had no problem with this and followed.
Dhane went in after the boar on hands and knees, knocking bits of dirt loose. After a dozen or so feet, the tunnel opened up a lot more. He could almost stand.
Desley yelled, followed by the telltale whistle of another arrow. The boar made a snorting noise, dug at the dirt, and charged.
While everything should have been pitch-black down here, Dhane had no problem seeing. It was as if everything gave off the slightest amount of glow, not enough to see colors, though enough that all the details of rocks and roots and . . . freaking bugs!—spiders and worms and centipedes squirmed from all around, enough to give anyone a nightmare.
What was he thinking!
And yet, the boar was not that far ahead. Who would just let random friendly . . . monsters—but that was beside the point; friendly entities—die without doing something?
He ducked his head and ran, short blade in hand. Knock was somewhere behind, scurrying to catch up. Desley screamed, and something like bone scraped against rock.
The tunnel opened into a room of sorts. Platforms lined the walls, and there was a dip in the middle, like a cramped court or arena.
Desley was down below, her leg pierced by the boar’s tusk, her bow snapped into two pieces, arrows scattered about. She was trying to crawl away, though the jagged spines along the boar’s tusk made that impossible.
She punched the boar’s exoskeleton snout, which didn’t seem to do anything but hurt her hand.
The boar’s life sat at 34/53. It yanked at its tusks, tearing at her leg. Little red -1s and -2s drained from her wound. She only had a maximum of 24 health, and it was now down to 10/24, glowing red.
Dhane charged. The dip of the arena made it so he could stand upright or sprint without worrying about smashing his head on one of the gnarled roots that twisted along the ceiling.
He crashed into the boar, knocking it to its side. It writhed, twisting to reclaim a foothold, tearing life from Desley.
Dhane slammed the blade into the boar over and over, slicing chunks of numbers from it, but not blood. Each cut seemed to open slits of light, showing its . . . soul?
With one last hit, the boar stopped moving. A screeching Knock jumped from one of the side platforms, somehow having another dagger in hand, and promptly bellyflopped to the ground, three feet from the boar.
“Idiot,” Desley said through clenched teeth. Her leg remained speared through, but the damage had stopped, and luckily so since her life had dropped to 4/24.
The challenge, now, was how to get her leg free without killing her. Maybe they had a health potion or healing spell, or—
The inner lights of the boar seeped from its wounds and seemed to coat its hide, hair, tusks, and exoskeleton snout. Then all at once, it burst into a shimmer of lights and was gone, releasing Desley’s leg.
Various items hovered in the air.
- 2x Durum Boar Meat
- 1x Leather Scrap
- 32 copper
“Can you see that?” Dhane asked, pointing to the items.
“Yes,” Desley said. “We see our loot, but no see your loot.”
“Did. I. Kill it?” Knock asked, peeling himself off the stone floor. His eyes lit up when he saw the loot and quickly fished invisible things out of the air with a wide smile. “Meat, meat, meat!”
Desley rolled her eyes, then focused on Dhane. “I don’t get you. Why you no use Shadow?”
Dhane tapped the items, and they turned into balls of light that shot into his chest. “I don’t know what you mean by my shadow. I didn’t have any weapons, so I took this from Knock,” he said and handed the dagger back to the goblin.
“No, strong Shadow,” Knock said, waggling a finger. “You save my Desley. You take great sword. Gift. I find other!”
Desley stood without any pain. Her leg wasn’t bleeding light anymore. In fact, her health had already increased to 8/24. “You had sword but no Shadow?”
There was a very good chance his phone would tell him about this shadow. Perhaps it was a skill, a way to deal damage by using mana or some sort of resource.
He shook his head.
“Most curious. It be why you need to see Shadow Mother. She show you.” Desley marched up the sloping ground to the other side of the pit, where the tunnel continued.
“What is this place?” Dhane asked. It really did look like an arena with indistinct stone seats lining the walls.
“Fodder pit.” At the confused look he gave her, she continued, “Adventurers of Light kill we Cobalins. They be evil, but dumb. We sacrifice ourselves. Give treasure to appease their needs. You see.”
Desley led the way. They were moving downward, and the tunnel’s ceiling was now a good seven feet high.
She stopped and pointed at a pit that covered the entire width of the tunnel. Jagged spikes jutted from the bottom. “This be great Cobalin illusion,” she said with wiggly, magical fingers. “You see only tunnel stone, but—”
“It’s a pit,” he said.
“You see pit?” Desley looked to Knock, and Knock shrugged. “More curious. You have sight through illusion. Can you see illusion?”
Now that she asked, there did seem to be something unique about the pit: itty-bitty sparks of purple flickered here and there, barely noticeable. He focused on them, and the pit disappeared, covered by stone and dirt, perfectly matching the floor. “It’s a really good illusion.”
Desley smiled with a bit of pride and hooked her thumb at her chest. “Me and Knock cast illusion. Fodder responsible for renewing magics.”
“Wait, you guys are fodder?”
“Yes. You understand, good good! We die to appease evil adventurers.” She jumped over the pit, and Knock followed.
How could their village just send its people here to die? Desley seemed quite smart, capable of fighting, and could create illusions. But to her people, she was only fodder.
He followed them to a room at the end of the tunnel. Attached to the far wall was a stone platform, surrounded by a pit in the shape of a horseshoe. And on this platform was an old wooden treasure chest.
“Fodder,” Desley said, “responsible for treasure. We each give one item to gain entry to town. It be passage tax. If adventurers are appeased by items, they no more reason to look further.”
Both Desley and Knock dropped a scrap piece of leather into the chest, then looked at him expectantly.
Dhane summoned his phone and opened the Inventory app. The scrap of leather he had received, when tapped, displayed additional information.
Low-quality leather that may be used for crafting or armor repair without durability loss.
He could sell it to the System for 16 copper, which just so happened to be 1 copper more than the red-laced bra. As such, he selected the bra instead and tapped Withdraw.
A ball of light jumped from his phone and morphed into an outline of the bra. When he touched it, the outline filled in with the silky soft material.
Desley scrunched her brow. “Boar drop . . . sexy cloth? Poor boar. . . . See! Adventurers evil, do nasty things.”
“Gah. It’s a long story,” he said and tossed the bra.
Knock caught it and grinned.
“Knock!” Desley said. “You no take from treasure!”
“Was not in treasure!” He pressed something in his pocket, and boar meat materialized in front of him. He dropped it into the chest.
“Sexy cloth more important than meat?” This most definitely surprised Desley. However, with the entry tax paid, she didn’t seem to have an argument to stand on and shrugged.
She closed the treasure chest’s lid and drew a symbol in the air above it. The symbol glowed green for a moment, then the bits of light shifted toward the chest.
Below, stone grated on stone.
“Doors to Dedu Tedu,” Desley said, “accept we offerings and give welcome.” She walked to the pit on the right, swung her legs over the side, turned, and climbed down what appeared to be a ladder. The floor of spikes had moved to the side, providing a long vertical shaft.
Knock slapped Dhane on the butt and smiled. “Get in my hole. I follow.”
Those words aside . . . there was something about a deep, dark unknown that was exciting. A place to get lost in. A place of mystery. And since he was of Shadow, perhaps he was the only human that could experience it.
And so, driven by curiosity, he swung his legs over the side, turned, and climbed down into a new world waiting to be discovered.