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Stray Shadow · Chapter 2
Dustin Tigner

In times like these, frozen between moments of extreme dwarfism and enough water to eradicate New York City, one sometimes pauses to reflect on mistakes.

Or that was Dhane’s excuse while his brain desperately tried to do too many things at once, and in the end, did nothing at all.

The water didn’t rain down from above. No. These were not little droplets of springtime showers but hundreds of thousands of gallons, and millions of pounds of force, driven to an ecstatic need to equalize.

Second after fleeting second, the force of all the above lakes shot down toward the tiny, defenseless village. And that was when a very simple idea took hold. It was an obvious idea, an idea that even the dimwitted Knock could have come up with.

If shrinking the village was the problem, reverse it! The Inventory app worked by shrinking items and then regrowing them, so there had to be a symbol function for the effect.

Oh, no no no!” Knock yelled, clasping the sides of his head. Many of the other Cobalins were running into the forest while others started to pray to the great Mahai to save them.

Dhane turned toward the stone, but it was not the four or five-foot stone it was before. It had pushed out of the ground at least thirty feet high. Crystals the size of a Cobalin, jutted from the bottom, jagged and glowing.

So that’s where all the mana came from!

He summoned Pip’s book and it materialized from streams of smoke. There were pages after pages of symbols, but where was the one he needed? Numbers, connections, mana efficiency, death, light, force— force?

The first droplets hit, promising a whole lot more.

Octoralis soothed away the coiling, dense sensation of fear that pulled at his stomach and twisted through his legs. The world seemed to tilt, to wobble, and his chest ached in response to the coming, inescapable doom.

Dhane didn’t think, couldn’t think. Thinking only slowed things down. Instead, he reacted, trusting his instincts. He summoned a bead of mana at the end of his finger and drew the symbol of Force onto a crystal.

Water crashed down far out beyond the edges of their village. The ground shook and the air filled with a roaring rumble. Cobalins came running back out of the forest, away from the approaching tsunami only to find another coming from the other side.

Dhane drew the symbol for All Directions, then formed a T in the air. Just before drawing the triggering line—arm burning from the lack of mana—three more symbols appeared: a measurement unit for yards, a number with half a dozen modifiers, and some complex symbol he hadn’t seen before.

There was no time to ponder on the phenomena of self-drawing symbols. Dhane Linked his intent. The crystals dimmed, some cracked, and an energy buzzed in the air.

Among all the shrieking cries of two hundred Cobalins joined in their fear of imminent death, there was another sound: bleating Sumilians, Baaa. That . . . and the sound of water crashing against the forming shield of white energy.

The water filled in from all sides, pressing against a wall of force that protected the village from being crushed. Within fractions of a second, they were entirely submerged, the shadows of massive fish caught in the thrust of swirling currents overhead.

“We alive?” Knock asked, peeking out from fingers. “We alive!”

Everyone cheered! They jumped up and down, did cartwheels, and hugged each other. The teams working the cemetery slabs rushed back to their positions and the screams of launched Cobalins continued.

Dhane leaned against a smooth section of crystals before sliding down to the ground. The knotting tension in his stomach eased, replaced with relief. Relief, not only because they survived an idiotic man with an idiotic plan, but because it’d be practically impossible for anyone to find them now.

Daddy, smart. Protect nasty green food.

“The Cobalins?” he said with a chuckle.

Spider eaters!

“What the hell, man?” Devron asked, running up. “I leave ya alone for five whole minutes, and— Ya know, some poor Cobalin got all tiny-like mid toss. I can still hear his little scream fadin’ with distance. . . .”

“It was just a test,” Dhane said, defensively.

“Just a test?” Devron scanned the thousands of feet of forest and lakes trapped beneath the dome. “Damn, man. Next time you enact God-mode, give me a warning and I’ll head to the next zone.”

Dhane didn’t have anything to say to that. The symbols were a whole lot more powerful than they had any right to be. Of course, if it weren’t for the mana crystals, none of this would have happened.

He should have started with something simpler, but his sleep-deprived brain wasn’t making the best decisions. He inhaled a deep, slow breath and closed his eyes. He needed a moment; he earned a moment.

Warmth trickled into his back. Mana. . .? It swirled into the near-empty vessel that was his body, a touch of soothing tranquility. And there was something else there, a distant pulsing, rhythmic and constant.

The pressure at his back fell away. The smells of dirt and grass and water fell away. In a blur of a moment, he went from sitting against crystals to standing in an enormous bowl of a room.

Dedu Tedu. . .?

It didn’t glow with hundreds of torches and massive bonfires like the last time he was here. There were no Cobalins training in courtyards, cooking, or bartering at merchant booths.

Instead of the lively town, there was darkness and ruin. The towers and narrow bridges lay in rubble, a chaos of vibration lines revealing their shapes. Only a handful of the misaligned homes and stores remained.

In his one moment of respite, even his dreams wanted to remind him of what failure looked like. This was the death of a town. It left behind an emptiness, an echoing sadness of what was.

And now he stood there in the darkness, completely alone.

Except . . . he wasn’t alone.

Something was out there, undefined, but unmistakably present. Its essence felt ancient, tired, sad. Little waves of vibration seeped out from above, from the undulating ceiling of smoke.

Words formed in Dhane’s mind, slow and rumbling, like a storm cloud given voice. The words held such fervor, such overwhelming emotion that tears stung his eyes.

Save . . . them. . . .

“Yo!” Devron yelled.

Dhane snapped awake, his heart thudding, eyes blurry from tears. The crystal next to his head cracked and dimmed. He wiped his eyes.

What was that?

Octoralis sent a confused and worried sensation his way as if to ask what he meant. Didn’t she see everything that he saw? Even his dreams? But that didn’t feel like a normal dream.

“Check this out, man,” Devron said from the other side of the stone.

Dhane pushed himself to his feet, the echo of the deep, reverberating voice still bouncing in his mind. Save them. There was no question what the entity intended with those two small words: save the Cobalins.

But he was already doing that. . . .

He rounded the side of the stone to where Devron was pointing at a doorway, an entrance of perfectly cut stone. Stairs led down into blackness, the edges only visible by Dhane’s Vibration Sight.

“What is it?” Devron asked.

“I don’t know. . . .” Dhane said in ponderous awe, a spark of renewed energy jolting through his brain. It was an unexplored place, a mystery, and damn did he love mysteries.

Of course, then there was that voice again. Save them. It seemed stuck in a cycle, replaying over and over as if he didn’t understand the first time. Maybe it was a warning in relation to this?

“You tellin’ me,” Devron said, “this ain’t part of the village?”

“A hidden entrance? Why would this be a part of the village?”

“Don’t gotta clue how any of this stuff works.”

“It might be a dungeon,” Dhane said. The game guides he had read talked about dungeons and raids. He had assumed they were instanced locations full of mobs and loot, like a typical role-playing game.

“In the middle of the village! Oh, man. . . . There’s gonna be mobs down there, right?”

Knock stuck his head over the edge. “HELLO? ANYBODY TH—”

Devron grabbed Knock. “What’ya doin’? We don’t need an army of mobs attackin’ us right now.”

“Mobs? Big en scary?”

“Who knows. But you don’t gotta call them up here.”

Knock nodded, and Devron let him go.

“We need to know what’s down there,” Dhane said. Now that the village was effectively hidden from the Army of Light—and anyone else wanting to destroy them—this was the only variable, the only source of potential danger.

“If you’re goin’,” Devron said, “I’m goin’ with ya.”

“Dev, I need you up here. If something happens to me”—he grabbed Knock—“and Knock—”

“Me. . .?” the Cobalin asked, eyes wide.

“Yup. Great Shadows got to stick together, right?”

“Yes. Right!”

Dhane looked to Devron. “If anything happens to us, we need someone here in command. Guard the entrance and make sure the cemetery slabs aren’t all being used.”

Devron considered this while staring down the open maw of what—probably—was a place full of death. He scratched his chin, forehead furrowed. “Hells, man, are ya sure? I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t wanna go down there, but you’re the leader. You should stay.”

And that was what Dhane had feared. This was why he always declined leadership offers—that and the anxiety of being responsible for everyone. His joy came from taking chances, exploring dangerous places, being expendable.

The moment you pin the gold star of importance on someone, everyone else became determined to protect them. Protect was just another way to take the fun out of life.

Devron must have noticed Dhane’s disheartened expression for he quickly added, “Bah! You’re a madman. Go. I’ll take care of stuff here. But do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t die down there.”

Pfft. No promises,” Dhane said. “Hey, can you make sure I have a bed? I haven’t slept for almost two days.” And that dream or vision or whatever it was, most certainly didn’t count.

“Think our innkeeper already took care of it.”

“We have an innkeeper?”

“Yeah-yeah, some Cobalin named . . . Wendy I th—”

“Rendy!” Knock said. “She make best spider soup.”

Octoralis growled, or the psychic equivalent. It did nothing to improve Dhane’s desire to partake of such a delicacy. In fact, he vowed right then and there to never be in a position where spider soup sounded agreeable.

“Right,” Devron said. “This Rendy woman claimed to be the innkeeper, and what was I supposed to say to that? She saved us rooms and someone’s gotta do it, right?”

Dhane agreed. He sucked in a deep breath and took a step down into the dark stairway. “Well . . . may our deaths not be in screaming agony.”

“What?” Knock said, following from behind, more timid than before. “Agony? You-you say agony?”

“Great Shadows fear no death,” Dhane said and continued downward.

“Even scary death?”

“Even scary death.”

Knock balled his fists, puffed up his chest, and nodded, mouthing the words, I be great Shadow, I fear no scary, terrifying, te-terrible death.

“You’re not takin’ a torch?” Devron asked, to which Dhane said they didn’t need one.

Cobalins had perfect sight in perfect darkness. And as for Dhane, an arachnomancer, the tiniest of vibrations drew lines, illustrating the world in all directions.

Besides, a torch would alert enemies to them. This was a quest of exploration, of reconnaissance. It would be best to stay hidden in the shadows, especially because he didn’t have a weapon, not after Challenger Terry destroyed his dagger.

Octoralis humphed.

Okay. . . . he projected back to her. He had summons and spells, just no dagger. Most of his assassin skills would be useless. Maybe he should have invested in the Web Blade skill when he had the chance. Then again, there was always the next level.

The stairs led down and down, and the farther they went, the colder it became. The air held a stale dampness to it. Droplets of water tapped the stairs, disturbing the vibration lines to produce flashes of ripples.

The stone walls were carved with exacting care. They formed a bas-relief of skulls entwined in roots, half made of polished crystal, pulsing a dim, pink glow.

To any other adventurer, the walls promised death. They served as a constant warning to turn back. To Dhane, though, the sheer effort invested in the walls assured him there would be an exciting discovery at the end.

And what was death but a timeout? In fact, death right now might even be helpful. It’d give him a chance to talk to the Mother of Shadows, to compare notes, and make plans.

Apart from the growing excitement that tingled its way out from his chest and down his arms, the other emotion he felt was a pang of rippling guilt.

These beautiful carvings might have stood the test of time. Who knew how old they were. This would have been an archeologist’s dream discovery, one that assured their name would be remembered in history books.

And Dhane dropped it into a pit. . . .

The walls and delicate carvings were marred with cracks and chips. He was the destruction that he so hated from other players who didn’t care about the lore of the worlds they played in, they just wanted to kill and destroy everything.

Knock’s footsteps grated against the loose debris on the stairs. And that wasn’t the only sound coming from the little Cobalin. He seemed to wheeze with every breath, and his clothes rustled.

Dhane, on the other hand, glided down the stairway perfectly silent. It didn’t matter if he stepped into a puddle or crushed a stone underfoot, he was silent as a shadow.

Maybe bringing a Cobalin along was a mistake. But the little guy used to live underground, so he could have insights to any of the mobs they might find, or anything else.

After a time, the stairs ended at a platform, turned, and continued downward. Whatever was down here was far beneath the surface.

Would mobs this deep be a threat? The village might be perfectly safe, but that didn’t quell the unanswered question of why this staircase was even here.

It took ten minutes before they reached a room. The high ceiling was encrusted in crystals of all sizes, a natural chandelier of sorts, coursing with mana that draped the room in a veil of somber light.

The opposing wall held a formidable double-door. It stretched the height of the room and arched at the top. A large skull, from some kind of monster with elongated jaw and black fangs, was set at the center of the door, looking all intimidating-like.

There was a message beneath the skull. It was chiseled there in the heavy stonework, using a gothic style of lettering. And the message surely didn’t help the intimidation factor.

> Those who travel past this point will die a horrific death.

This is getting interesting.

A door with a warning meant there was something on the other side worth protecting. He was giddy in spite of the exhaustion that crept through his brain, making his eyelids heavy. Pure anticipation was an electric buzz, ready to unwrap this mystery, whether or not it meant for a painful end.

“Knock?” he asked.

“Yes, great Shadow?”

“You know, you can just call me Dhane, right?”

Hmm.

“You used to call me Dhanie. What changed?”

“You, King of Shadows. Important. I show respect.”

Dhane sighed. “Can you read?”

“No . . . great Shadow.”

“Good. Let’s open the door,” he said, then mentally told Octoralis to be prepared in case a swarm of mobs tried to rend his body and soul. Oh, and of course, protect Knock . . . in that order.

He would summon her now, but he didn’t want to summon her. As much as he loved her, she was still a spider, and in this situation, might prove more distracting than helpful.

Then again, did she like being cooped up in his soul? That hadn’t been something he considered before. Would she rather be free and move as she pleased?

I don’t mind, Daddy, she projected, but the longing that swirled into his chest told another story. She was a sentient being carved from his soul, and he knew—without a doubt—he would have hated being imprisoned to someone else’s will.

He needed to get over this unreasonable fear of spiders. He was, after all, an arachnomancer. Be it a curse or a blessing, it didn’t matter, this was who he was, now and for all eternity.

And besides, it was only Octoralis. He wasn’t about to go make friends with every creepy crawler out there.

Knock was shoving his full weight against the large door, grunting to no avail. “Could use . . . some . . . help.”

Dhane summoned Octoralis and took a step back. Wisps of smoke shifted from the air and formed into her full height, a dozen feet tall of horrendous spider, covered in black and orange fur.

She towered over Knock, who gulped, bug-eyed.

Cobalins make good soup! she projected, and from how Knock reacted—shrieking and sprinting to stand behind Dhane—he seemed to have understood her.

“You can talk to others?” Dhane asked.

Sometimes, she projected, and he understood. The connection they shared didn’t require in-depth explanations. He simply knew that she could talk to others, but it took more effort as if screaming at someone for them to hear a psychic whisper.

Octoralis lifted up onto her hind legs and shoved against the door. Despite the dire warning, the door wasn’t locked. It swung smoothly and silently on what had to be magical hinges.

Beyond was a room covered—from the curving floor to ceiling—in pink crystals. They glowed in blinding luminescence, like stepping into a radiant geode.

At the very center of the room, hovering above the floor and turning ever so slowly, were three massive diamonds. Massive, as in a good eight or nine feet tall and half that wide.

“Big shiny rocks!” Knock yelled. He ran forward on a smooth-cut path, all happy grins, and apparently having already forgotten his fear of Octoralis.

“Hey, be careful!” Dhane said. “There could be traps.”

Knock’s eyes widened. Both of his hands were already doing their best to defy reality and wrap around the center stone. “Trap? I see no trap. Stone warm and”—he . . . licked it—“taste yummy!”

“Why would you lick it?”

“To learn? How we know it yummy?”

Dhane shook his head. There was no sickness or germs in heaven, so why not lick everything. . . . Even so, Knock didn’t seem to have a self-preserving bone in his body.

So . . . they had three sweet diamonds, transparent with glowing, white centers. Fragments of that light broke into prismatic colors and appeared to soak into the pink crystals.

They were generators, producing what could only be mana. Mahai’s gift just kept on giving.

Save them! That deep voice reverberated in Dhane’s mind, louder than ever before, ringing, followed by an ice-pick of pain and -2 damage, dropping his health to 83/85.

He pinched his eyes shut and grabbed the sides of his head, sucking air through clenched teeth. The voice, the command, wasn’t about the Cobalins at all, it was about these diamonds.

“I keep it?” Knock asked, oblivious to everything that wasn’t big and shiny.

After three seconds, the pain stopped. And that was when Dhane saw it: another door. This one had long, swooping lines that formed, what appeared to be, defensive sigils.

Except they were broken. . . .

Large chunks of the door had fallen away, leading out into a chasm, a huge void of open space. There were things out there that scurried about the ground, tapping as they moved.

The ground shook, then again, and again. There was a pounding of rock on rock, the sound of a landslide, grating as it became louder. Then the door shattered into hundreds of shards.

Octoralis shoved Dhane to the side. Jagged pieces of stone struck her carapace. Her soul glistened a silvery-white. -34 in red text slipped up and through the cloud of dust, leaving her with 146/180 health.

Standing in the destroyed doorway was a giant golem, maybe two feet taller than Octoralis. It was made of stone and crystal. Its eyes blazed a furious pink. It opened its mouth and roared a booming sound.

Oh, shit brownies. . . .