Copyright © 2020 Shaddoth
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination.
First printing edition 2020.
I awoke, still a little tired from all the hours I had been putting in recently at my main job. The project I had been working on had a ‘revision’ ordered by the customer, outside of the initial contract’s parameters (well outside!). Management accepted the huge bonus for the revision, forgetting to change the due date when accepting that revision. (Call me Dave strikes again!).
I recalled that Tuesday, seven weeks ago, in disgust.
With a promised bonus, my team of three reluctantly agreed to a month and a half of seventy-hour weeks. Susan, the team lead and a massive bitch, couldn’t handle the extra workload and crumpled three weeks into the month. Her explosive tirade when Mrs. Rowe, our company president, stopped by to personally check up on our progress, silenced the cube farm.
I just knew that every single cube’s prairie dogs (workers that looked up and over their cubicle walls en masse to see what was going on), suddenly ducked down, seeking the safety of anonymity.
Calling the President, who was the other half owner of the company that you work for an ‘Incompetent cunt who only cares about how far she can shove her three-foot iron dildo can up her ass…’, wasn’t the best move.
If her meltdown hadn’t fucked me over, I would have laughed.
Paula, the third of my team, fell out of her chair behind me. I wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying in fear.
I knew I was screwed.
There was no way in hell we would make our deadline now. With Susan’s imminent firing, the two of us would never make the already absurd deadline. Adding a new person to our team was unfeasible at this late stage, even before Susan’s suicidal stupidity. It would take our new member months to catch up to speed, and cost us (me) even more time guiding the newbie to what they would have to cover and why.
With Susan, we were on schedule to be two weeks overdue on delivery. Without her, two months.
Mrs. Rowe’s response was stellar. “Miss Hope, if you felt you were overworked you could have said so, but I do accept your resignation. I wish you luck on your next endeavor.”
My ultimate boss’s braids and brocade turned and walked away from the overwrought woman and headed toward our, my, cubicle. I could always tell when someone approached from the sounds in the incorrectly maintained floor in our section. The hollow creaking was a dead giveaway. The high heels which Mrs. Rowe always wore could not have been a stronger indicator of who was headed in my direction. No one else in the company would wear heels over two inches on a Tuesday. For us programmers, comfort beat fashion.
Pretending to not hear a thing, Paula scrambled to her chair. I knew her face was a study in misery at the company head’s approach. My teammate was shy to the extreme; I believed that was why she entered programming to begin with. This new added attention couldn’t be good for her heart.
“Mr. Blakely, how will losing your team leader affect the time table of the Truth Project?”
I swiveled to face our Unrealistic Programs company President, “we will need five or six weeks more. At 60 hours per week average.”
“I thought we agreed on 70-hour weeks?” she replied crisply.
“There is no way that Paula, nor I, can keep this pace for two more months without burning out.” I shrugged, “we will end up making mistakes. I’d rather take a day off now and then, than churn out sloppy code.”
While we were speaking, Max, our sole security guard, helped Susan pack up her desk and silently escorted the fuming woman out. No one else in the cube farm spoke loudly enough to carry beyond their four-foot-tall walls.
“Friday, I will require a status update.”
Lowering her voice and turning to my teammate behind me, “Miss Lovington, keep up the good work. If you need anything, even an extra day off, please let Mr. Blakely know.”
We both heard the murmured ‘yes, Ma’am.’ from the ever-quiet dishwater blonde behind me. I knew Paula’s face was devoid of blood and rigidly locked on to her monitor.
Nodding to herself, Mrs. Rowe’s beaded braids flew around her head, as she did an about face and exited my little corner of her kingdom.
The cube farm remained quiet, long after both the President’s and Susan’s departures.
“We’re fucked.” Popped up on my screen in the intercompany messenger. The company’s IM was guaranteed to be personal and without company oversight. We had been assured that no one else besides the intended would ever read them. No outside texting or messaging programs were allowed, but we knew we could use the company IM without worry. While Mrs. R. was strict, her policies typically were not overly draconian.
I replied ‘Lunch at Chang’s. No nos.’ she hated lunch in public, but at Chang’s, I could reserve a corner booth if I called now, which I did.
Thankfully, that was all in the past. Project Truth or Dare passed the preliminary tests with flying colors. I didn’t have to go into work until 11:00 today. Lying in bed with my eyes closed after 9:00 AM, for the first time in a year, was heavenly. Mrs. R. was bringing me along with the sales team, in case there was a customer question that she didn’t want them to answer, in hopes that my overly technical response would prohibit the customer from asking a follow through. Or something stupid like that. Our sales team, like the rest, were useless beyond golfing and smooching the customer’s asses.
Rumor was that Mrs. R. herself, was the actual closer of this job, not ‘Call me Dave’.
Hydraulic pressure made me open my blurry eyes, seeing a black and red Axe hovering inches above me, I panicked and swung my arm to bat it aside.
Upon contact, it vanished and my bad knee screamed at me. Viciously!
Curling up, I brought my left knee to my chest and held it in place with my arms wrapped around my calves. My knee hadn’t hurt that much since I tore my ACL, in my freshman year at Northwestern.
Puffing out to control my breathing, the pain soon diminished to merely excruciating. Laying back down, I slowly bent and stretched my leg. Ever since the surgery, I had lost 20% range of motion and 30% strength. Both losses were decent considering the severity of the injury after being speared by that OSU fuckhead, on a pick of all things.
Thankfully, I was at Northwestern on an academic scholarship, instead of a football one. I didn’t have to worry about losing my scholarship to an injury, not that my alma mater would mistreat me, yet the worry was there for most. I ended up only missing a few classes and postponed surgery until Christmas break. Thankfully, all of my professors were cool about my absences. Since I was in my first semester of my freshman year, none of my classes at that time were over the top, plus I didn’t have any labs.
Swearing at myself and at fictional floating axes, I hobbled to the shower, dressed, and sought out my old cane, before heading to the green-line a few blocks away. Praising the god of old football injuries that the pain was nowhere near of that when I woke, I found a seat and headed to work. Living at the end of the green line was a definite plus in times like today.
My late arrival and cane, brought curious glances and a few jokes from my coworkers, all in poor taste.
Mrs. Rowe drove me to the customer where we met up with ‘Call me Dave’.
“Yo! Jason Dude, were you attacked by a floating weapon too?”
I doubted that C.M. Dave would ever shed the drunken frat mentality stereotype. It had to be intentional.
I noticed him cradling his left arm in a sling, but didn’t respond. Mrs. Rowe didn’t give either of us any room for further conversation, leading us inside the customer’s office.
All went well with the handoff; I was given a week vacation, yet kept on standby for questions. Paid. Paula left for Florida to see her father for two weeks, abandoning me to take care of any customer issues.
News around the world quickly circulated. Millions of people worldwide awoke with a weapon floating above them, which somehow attacked them. Anyone with an old injury seemed to reaggravate it. As with all things net, more disinformation circulated than actual facts.
I followed my old trainer’s guide, rehabbing my knee for the next few days. The customer only called a half dozen times for nonsensical shit. ‘Will you hold my hand? I’m afraid of the dark and forgot where the light switch is.’ And my favorite: ‘where is the documentation for this?’ type questions.
After five days, there were no more calls. All good for my bonus.
The sixth day all hell broke loose. All across the world, Violet-colored energy-sparking spheres appeared, floating inches above sidewalks, streets, stores and even inside of houses. Anywhere that cement was poured, these new violet spheres could be found. Most were scattered around the major cities.
What worried pretty much everyone the most was that Big Ben began ticking backward. At 11:59 the previous night.
And it was inaccessible. No one could enter the majestic clock tower.
As for the purple energy spheres that hovered inches off the ground, no readings nor physical responses were detectable from them. They were like the tesla balls in a glass bulb set on high. Without the glass bulb. Or black plastic bases, or off switches, or energy sources.
Armies around the world surrounded the spheres and when Big Ben hit 12:00 again, the energy balls sparked, flared and then sat there doing nothing…
Seemingly, there was no change. The first few that tested the spheres to try and touch them had no response. Then one of the ‘victims’ of the unknown floating Weapon attacks touched one and disappeared. That same incident repeated itself in every inquisitive nation worldwide.
Only those who were chosen by a Weapon could enter.
The world held its breath. Two hours later, a Chinese officer exited the Gate he entered. Then another in Germany, then one in France. More and more found the exit. But not all. Only nine in ten exited that first trial.
Hundreds entered, yet ten percent never left.
Norway was the first government to broadcast the contents of the Gates on the TV and internet. Inside the Dimensional Portals were Dungeons, with giant bugs and treasure. Guns and electronics didn’t work. On entering, the Weapon that the person first saw hovering above them would appear. The entering soldier needed to use that Weapon as their only weapon to kill the bugs in the dungeons. They could not use any personal weapons such as a combat knife; those seemingly disappeared on entry. Gunpowder weapons did not fire and grenades would not explode. Watches, phones and flashlights, did not work either.
Soon, the other countries followed with what they found out. Giant insects; Ants, spiders and centipede populated the Labyrinths. At the end of the first floor, the soldiers (the armies of the worlds controlled the Gates and weren’t sharing), had a choice of continuing or exiting. So far no one had continued to the second floor, they all had exited.
That we knew of.
The suspicion running rampant was that the ones who did not make it out were the ones that entered the second or possible even lower floors of the Portals.
The public clamored to enter. Even the ones without Weapons. Regardless of what method was tried, the people without Weapons, which had mysteriously appeared that night over a week ago, were unable to enter.
People protested and demanded the right to enter. The governments declared that they were ‘unsafe’ and refused all entry outside of their control. Even citing the ten percent death rate of trained soldiers, which did not deter the public. (Not that anyone believed those numbers.)
Teams of six special Weapon soldiers began entering at the same time. We were told that they tried with larger teams, but that was all that the Labyrinths would accommodate at one time. Then they found out that once a team entered a portal, a ten-day cooldown was needed before anyone could reenter that particular purple Tesla-like Portal.
That information too was leaked, this time by the Japanese. The Labyrinths, were soon renamed Dungeons and the sparking energy spheres were called Portals.
And the protests increased. The people wanted to explore.
Laws were passed making it illegal for civilians to enter one, or to not report a location of a Portal to the authorities. Not just in the US, as most every country did the same. Besides the danger, the dungeons were also considered a hidden resource.
Rewards were offered for Portal locations that had not been discovered.
No one could figure out what the portals were made of. They gave off no known energy except for light, and even that, could not be detected by anything outside of human sight. The Portals could not be recorded by cameras of any type. Bugs, birds and animals would pass through them without notice or effect.
Magic was the popular explanation.
They didn’t tell us how many people were dying inside, but we knew. We could tell by the increasing military presence at the Gates and the seriousness of their watchers. The news played up the militaries’ heightened presence for the masses to consume.
Three months later, hundreds of Indigo-colored Portals appeared, scattered across the US alone, along with even more Violet ones. Unlike the first generation of Violet ones, these new Portals were not subject to staying near the major cities, they could appear anywhere. These ‘Portals to the Unknown’, frightened the powers that be, and search parties soon sought them out. ‘Protection from the unknown’ was still the official reason for not letting anyone outside of serving military enter them. The government was unscrupulous in its use of the MIA soldiers who died inside those Portals. They became their showpieces to convince the skeptical out there, but didn’t convince anyone.
We all understood that Greed was the real reason for denying the rest of us entry, but there was little the normal person could do. Arguing with guns was never a good idea.
I did my best to ignore the whole thing. I certainly did not want to tell anyone that I had a Green Portal in my basement.
I liked my house and didn’t want it confiscated.
Christmas arrived and as promised, my bonus was 25% of my regular salary. Decent, but nowhere near the million Mrs. Rowe’s company made from that contract alone. I also earned a third week of vacation, for that year only and to be taken within the next calendar month.
Paula, put her two-weeks’ notice in. She wanted to move to Florida to live with her father. Paula’s mother had passed away right before the previous year’s holidays, and Paula had been preparing for the move for months. She would also be able to work from home and contract out. My ultra-shy former coworker had enough experience now and could survive on her own.
She never said it directly, but I believed that the only reason she even took this job was that she needed the time served, allowing her to gain enough knowledge and experience to be able to work from home without support, far away from the corporate pressure cooker. Besides, she had added assistance from her father, who had worked in the field for his whole life. He had promised to get his daughter a good supply of contacts.
I no longer had a team, Mrs. Rowe’s P.A. (Personal Ass-kisser) instructed me to join a different one, another one months behind, and where I would be placed as the low rung and required to work extra overtime. Again.
I’d pass. I did put in for my two weeks of vacation, which was immediately approved.
I had quit my second job when we were asked to work unrealistic overtime with a promise of a large bonus on top of our regular ones. Besides, I knew I was done working two jobs for the time being.
I had some thinking to do. If Paula was willing, we could team up; she was even better than I was at certain subroutines. Between the two of us, we could make a decent living, and she could live in seclusion while helping her aging parent. Although I strongly suspected that it would be more of him helping her.
When I put my two weeks’ notice in the day after returning from my vacation, Mrs. Rowe was furious. Her reserved and refined image shattered. When she offered to double my salary, I knew she would end up firing me as soon as my replacement was trained. I could just tell. So too could anyone with half a brain. The pay raise was too extreme. She was never known for paying us chickens too much, just a few percentage points above the going rate to keep us happy, so to speak.
I thanked her politely in the presence of HR and passed off my current project, along with the notes for the huge past project files, which still encountered issues due to the constant changes by the customer.
No more overtime for this boy, which was almost mandatory since my hire at UP three years ago.
A week later, I was escorted out of the building; a very noticeable week early to the rest of the programmers. Vacation pay in hand. Her handling of me left a very bad taste in the cube farm. Everyone knew how hard I worked on that special project of Mrs. Rowe’s and how I was treated after. That one misstep of Mrs. Rowe would end up costing her the better programmers. We all knew that we were expendable; we just didn’t want it shoved in our faces.
The pay was not the reason I left. I didn’t have a team anymore and didn’t believe that I should start from the bottom in a new one. I also didn’t want the shit jobs that I knew were coming with being the low rung on an already slow team with an aging lead programmer who was set in his ways.
Besides, I decided to give the first floor a try in my very own personal Green Portal.
Carhartt overalls, thermal underwear, backpack, rope, hammer, pitons, rolled up wetsuit, dried food for a week, water canisters and the rest including a first aid kit. I had searched the net to make a list of what the soldiers took with them when exploring the Portals. There wasn’t much real information on the net, but some did filter out. Gear being one of them.
Since I couldn’t take a set of regulation army protective gear, I settled for football and soccer pads over sturdy winter clothes.
I hadn’t had a good look at the hovering Black Axe since the first day, but I guessed that a fire Axe was a suitable replacement for training.
The two weeks encompassing long days of practice in my garage with the fire axe I purchased for practice, passed by unnaturally easy. I spent more time adjusting to my new way of axe fighting, than I did learning to fight with the heavy weapon from scratch, something I felt was foolish. My magically-granted ability to wield a fire axe, or any two-handed axe, during my exercises and shadowboxing felt both right and wrong at the same time. It was as if my body already knew what to do and how to move, yet my brain didn’t understand why that was so.
Chop, hack, block, hammer spike, every move seemed to flow into the next. The use of my lower body, thighs, footwork, torso, swiveling, was nearly instinctual.
Too easily, the fighting flow came to me.
My makeshift agility course that I set up in my small back yard got plenty of use too. What my seen, but never spoken-to neighbors, thought of my training regimen, I had no clue, nor did I care. My body was moving and I was sweating. The pain of the burn felt great. Not since my injury had I worked so hard for so long, physically speaking. The hour-a-day regular workouts since my physical therapy ended, had only paused on the extra-long double days which led to work weeks of more than 90 hours.
I was in okay shape before the Weapon repaired me. Now, I felt like I could take on the world, just like when I was young and dumb.
Taking a deep calming breath, I took in my new, perfectly healthy body; it was better than new after the ‘Morning of Weapons’ or ‘Awakening Morning’. One week was all I had needed to perfectly heal my ACL. I knew that others reported the same after encountering their own Weapon or, in some cases, Weapons.
We were healed in preparation for entering the Portals. Someone wanted us to go inside. Making us healthy was the perfect incentive. Since freshman training camp at Northwestern, I had not been in this good of health, and maybe not even then. I had never noticed how many little tweaks and pricks that my body felt on a daily basis until they all disappeared.
I counted down from twenty-five in my basement, fully geared and ready to explore the unknown, “4…3…2…1... Here I go.”
Stepping into the Green lightning, I experienced a momentary disorientation. Blinded with sparks of brilliant green light even seconds later, I waited until my vision cleared. Standing straight, I looked around at the top of a dimly lit, six-foot wide, nine-foot tall, (exactly two by three meters, I found out later) stone staircase.
My Black Axe appeared, hovering three feet in the air before me. Thirty-inches tall, with a foot-and-a-half of the handle wrapped in leather. The dual-headed spiked axe had, from tip to tip, a six-inch crescent-blade that looked razor sharp, and which extended three inches from the shaft by a thick bar of the same black metal. Opposite the blade thrust a square flat-head hammer end. The short, squat, two-by-two-inch hammerhead provided a great counterweight to the crescent cutting end.
The uncovered section of pitch-black shaft, beginning where the black leather-wrapped handle left off, was inscribed by etched blood-red Runes. Both the hammer and blade shoulders too were inscribed with the in the same deep red as the Runes on the shaft.
After finishing admiring my new toy, I checked all of the items in my pack and double-checked their placement. All was in order.
Taking a chance, by suggestion of the net, I called out aloud, “Status.”
Before me, a twelve by twelve, green CRT glowing screen appeared, as if it were a floating sheet of letters and numbers with no glass behind it or plastic frame supporting it.
Jason Blakely. Axeman: Level 1 (0/1000)
Force Multiplier: 1
Pain resistance: 1
War Axe: Level 1
Krell’s Rune Axe:
“Status,” the window disappeared with the only residue was a faint green glow in my eyes in remembrance of it ever being there.
I’d play with the inventory once I picked up something, I hoped that my Axe could be stored and retrieved, but that was a test for later.
I knew how good of shape I was in in college, and really, if my Ability scores were ranked at 7s across the board, I wondered what would happen if I raised any them even one single point. What would happen if they were increased by three or more? Would I be the strongest person in the world? What about the other soldiers that had a three-month head start? How far had they advanced above other humans?
This was a challenge too good to pass up.
I walked the hundred steps down, ignoring the blank stone wall behind me. I already knew that there was only one exit and one exit only. My destination was at the other end of the dungeon, along with the means to journey down to the next floor. Unless this floor was overwhelmingly easy, I planned on returning to the real world after completing it.
Standing on the bottom step of the staircase, I was met by a curtain of darkness. I guessed that the staircase was a safe zone, and a one-way zone at that. Poking my head through the wall of darkness, my body instantly followed. A small group of trees abruptly surrounded me in the early morning sunlight. Insects buzzed and birds chirped in the distance. A pig oinked nearby, then another. Standing still, I waited and listened. More and more pigs started making a ruckus, there had to be a dozen of them.
I should see if I can make bacon…
Suddenly a voice barked at them, in an unfamiliar language. The voice was deep and harsh. In the dungeons of the other Weapons holders, the explorers had found giant ants, giant spiders and giant centipedes. No one had mentioned pigs.
Or deep, intelligent, masculine voices.
The pigs didn’t listen to the harsh voice, and kept with their complaining.
The voice barked out again, sounding like the owner was approaching my hiding spot, shouting something else.
Suddenly, a harsh, dark-green face appeared through the bushes and shouted something in that same unknown language. On seeing me, the Lord of the Rings type of Orc, swung his sword at me only to get caught up in the foliage.
Reflexively, I jabbed my new Axe at the Orc, to push him away, forgetting that it was spiked. The three-inch spike penetrated his chest, along with the tip of the crescent of the Axe blade.
Gurgling blood, the Orc, who was half a head shorter than my 6’3”, slumped.
Freezing in place from fear, I watched the Orc bleed and die before me.
I knew I would have to kill, but that Orc, THAT ORC, was all too real. All too human. All too scary. All too alive. I tried to justify to myself that he swung first. THAT Orc wasn’t a bug or a zombie; undead had been rumored to be found in the Indigo Portals. The internet had reported rogue dungeoneers encountering them, along with a half a dozen more fanciful creatures which held even less credence than the zombies.
Dragging the dead Orc’s body further into the small copse of trees (I thought that was what tree groupings were called), I searched the all-too-humanlike dark-green-skinned creature. The Orc had a leather pouch with three small silver nuggets and a foot and a half, five-inch high, thick brass machete and a leather skirt, no shirt. I didn’t find anything else of value. Not that I searched very hard.
A dead Orc with bladder issues didn’t encourage me to stick around.
Holding the Machete in my left hand, “Store in Inventory.” I called out. It disappeared. (I’d learn better ways to move items to my Inventory in the future.)
I opened and closed my hand a few times while staring at my palm in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that actually worked. I checked Status and it read 1/100. When I called out ‘Inventory’ again, it showed ten rows of ten empty boxes with only just that one box filled. That box held a small picture of a brass weapon; an exact 2D miniature pictured replica of the machete that the Orc used.
All the while, the pigs were squealing like mad. The smell of blood probably drove them to distraction. A minute later, I heard another Orc bellow the same thing that the first one said.
I guessed that it was Orcish, for ‘shut up’.
I rattled the bushes a bit, and waited. I heard stomping in my direction. A face appeared in the exact place as the first one. (I kid you not!)
With my Axe at the ready, I thrust again, aiming at the same area. The second Orc was a little shorter and broader than the first. The Axe tip went through his Adam’s apple. Feebly reaching for the shaft, the second Orc crumpled in place. When I removed the spike from its throat, the wound blew bubbles for a minute, before stopping. He didn’t thrash near as much as his friend while dying.
The second dead Orc was also pulled deeper into the copse of trees and searched. Their combined stench was terrible, their bodies must have relaxed, expelling their built-up waste. (Orc poo at its worst!)
A money pouch with two small silver nuggets and a near identical brass machete to the first were all that I found. The second had almost identical loot to the first Orc. Money and nuggets stored. I checked my Axe, no blood, dirt or anything remained on the blade or shaft. I double-checked and there was no blood anywhere on my new weapon in the slightest, my gloves had a little red blood spatter, yet none on my very cool new magical Axe!
The pigs kept squealing. Though they were putting less effort since they had been at it for five minutes straight and it didn’t seem like anyone cared.
Exiting the safety of the trees, I walked carefully toward the pigs. A small dirt and straw hut stood at the other side of the pig pen. Skulls on an ivy rope were hanging on either side of the blanket-guarded entrance. Yellowed human skulls hung on a rope. Six on one side and five on the other.
Suddenly, I felt less bad for killing them. Even my partial nausea vanished without a trace! So did all of my reluctance of wanting to kill more of them.
Peeking around the hanging rug door, the heavy smell of unwashed musk overwhelmed me. The winter ski mask helped block some of the odor, just not enough. With a quick once over, I found a stash of two silver nuggets inside the straw pillow, dirty leather clothes and underwear that I was getting nowhere near. The brass skinning knife and a large brass pot of clean water I couldn’t do much with. I left the haunch of smoked pig for the flies to have.
There had to be a good water source somewhere near here.
About to exit the hut, I noticed a something over the door header. The shorter visiting Orcs would have probably missed it unless they stood on the bunk.
A leather thong necklace sporting a gold face with an open mouth was poorly hidden in the mud used as a sealer of the door frame. Maybe not so poorly. I was a head taller than they were and barely noticed it.
I double-checked the small hut for anything else that stood out and came up empty of anything I would consider valuable. The necklace and silver entered my inventory. I searched on for the next Orc residence. The hut to the right was Orc-less. Searching it, I found nothing of value. The pigs didn’t even seem to care that I was there, outside of some chatter amongst themselves.
Exiting the hut, I was charged by an Orc, with her boobs hanging out for the world to see! And they too were Green, with thumb sized black nubs!
She was silent, until those large black eyes of the flat faced, sharp nosed lady Orc saw me looking back, then she screamed a different word than the others used on the pigs to shut them up.
I met her machete with my Axe. I outweighed her by a considerable amount. Instantly, I recognized that I was a foot taller and had a larger build. Even though she was stocky, her strength was not even close to mine.
Her weapon ricocheted off my Axe shaft and flew off, after encountering my aggressive block. That didn’t stop her momentum. I dodged her charge with unforgotten moves from my football days. Everything came back to me in a rush and I instinctively acted. Block avoidance had been drilled into me for years by my freshman year of college.
Too easily, I sidestepped her mad rush and followed through with my Axe.
The solid thunk in her spine dropped the lady Orc, cutting off the noise she made abruptly. Acting quickly, I dragged her into the hut, then ran out for the fallen weapon, just to hide it in my inventory.
Three more Orcs appeared soon after. They looked around. Only the bare-chested female was at all cautious. I waited silently inside the stinky hut. If worse came to worse, I could crash through the rear grass hut wall and run away.
Calling out what sounded like a name, one of the male Orcs entered the hut unguarded. A spike to the upper chest ended his life without a sound. Not that the Orc’s falling body went unnoticed by those outside.
With a yell, his companions rushed the blanket door shouting more unintelligible words.
I didn’t have much time. Squatting low, I swung at the first to enter, cutting deep into his thigh, resulting in blood spewing everywhere when I pulled the blade free of his flesh. Turning to the side and bringing up the haft of my weapon to block, I braced and took the female’s weapon’s swing against the shaft of my Axe.
I exploded into her, after her attack failed, pushing forward with the shaft, hoping, correctly, that she would trip over the fallen Orc behind her. She did. I brought the blade down in an arc through her chest. She died instantly.
Stupidly, I ignored the wounded, fallen, but not-dead Orc. His blade edge bounced off my shin guard, yet I still felt stinging at the side of my leg. He was killed with a follow up thunk of my Axe.
I dragged the half in and half out Orc inside of the small hut and waited. No one came in the following five minutes, in which I waited nervously yet unmoving. I decided to find a paper gas mask for the next run. Dead and dying Orcs with bladder issues were disgusting.
Taking out my mini first aid kit from my belt pouch, I rolled up the overalls pant leg after removing the shin guard. Treating the light scratch with isopropyl alcohol and bandaging it, I redressed and searched the Orcs and the hut itself.
More machetes and nuggets. The woman also had a small dull knife with a hook. That too was stored. I’d look it up when I got home. (It turned out to be a worthless skinning knife. I kept it anyway as a trophy.)
I found the dungeon exit on the second day, yet I was unable to use it.
I figured that I needed to clear more of the dungeon floor first. On the fifth day, I found the well. There was also an apple tree or three near it.
Using cover as much as possible, I hunted around the well.
After the eighth day, no one else came to the well. I was braver, and tried to be not too brave. I listened and searched. Thirty dead Orcs by my hand, one hundred and twenty-five nuggets, along with the corresponding machetes and a single unknown knife. Only the one gold necklace stood out as special.
As for wounds, I had more than a few. None them more than light cuts and none deep. I returned to the well on that last day on the way to the exit, only to see a taller Orc. This one was not bare chested; their leader had a full set of thick, short-sleeved, leather body-armor and a large machete in each hand.
And He was waiting for me…
Stepping out from behind the tree and into the open, I faced the floor boss.
Axe in hand, I saluted him.
He didn’t give a shit about being saluted and charged.
He was quick!
I never fought anyone with two machetes before. Granted, before entering the dungeon, I never fought anyone with just one machete, but, I wasn’t counting just then.
My football pads came in good use, the modified hard plastic soccer shin guards came in better use. They kept me from getting chopped apart, and allowed me to hold the boss off until I connected the first time. The edge of my Axe was miles sharper than his blades. The eight-inch slice on his left forearm hit bone. Unable to hold that weapon with several light wounds and the pain from the deep cut, he grimaced and focused on his primary hand’s weapon.
The Boss settled down and became more precise in his swings. I needed to do that too.
He was a little more skilled than I was, but I was stronger. What really decided the fight was that my endurance was higher than his. Not by much, but just enough. He slowed down before I did. His bleeding was also heavy, which probably played a bigger role in his fatigue than anything else.
His panic at the conclusion of the fight gave me an opening. The boss’s right hand flew off, followed by a solid thunk deep in his waist. Blood spurted everywhere out of the boss’s wrist, coating my face and chest.
No longer having a working arm, he angrily glared at me while dropping to his knees. Speaking something unintelligible at me the light began fading from his eyes, for the first time since I entered the dungeon, I was glad that I didn’t speak Orcish.
I put him out of his misery.
I thought fifty silver nuggets was a poor reward for such a difficult foe.
“You were a good foe, rest in peace, Orc Boss.” I gave a sincere short prayer over my fallen enemy.
Both the doorway to the exit and the stairs down were open. I had already spent nine days inside this dungeon. I wanted a shower and a pizza.
The inside of the Green Portal was miles larger than the others. (Or at least that we had been told by the internet.) Taking a last look at the morning sky, the dungeon felt all too real. An outdoor forest in the dungeon; who would have thought that could happen?
Inside the exit was a white stone-encased room. There was no way hell that I was going down to the next floor. One-hundred by one-hundred, with an insanely tall ceiling, one that I could only suspect of being a hundred feet high.
Each Orc was worth a fifteen experience points, 450, plus four-hundred from the boss. 850/1000. That last fight was hard. But I felt worth it, that Boss was a great training aide and a seriously good (and fun) fight.
I noticed a new icon on the Status screen. ‘Store.’
“Store.” I called out
The storefront was empty.
ISF was clearly written in the window. (Insufficient funds, I mentally translated.)
“At least let me know how much things cost,” I called out to the powers that be, who I suspected watched over the white room, if nothing else.
“Can I go home now, since I can’t buy anything?”
A Green Portal appeared before me. I started to exit with relief.
Stopping myself, I called out store again, then inventory, I sold the machetes at two silver each and the rest of the junk that I had picked up was worthless. With my 217 silver, two things unlocked in the store. 200 silver: Potion of; minor heal and a Scroll of: Identify.
I stared at the gold necklace that was worth a single silver. I knew it was worth more and had a good chance of being special in some way. Possibly magical. The necklace’s description even stated ‘Unknown’.
What the hell…
I purchased the scroll.
Opening the scroll, I read the words of: choose one item and name it.
Simple, I hoped. “Identify Unknown Gold Necklace,” I called out.
Necklace of the Maw: Consumable. Permanently increase one Main Weapon Skill one rank.
I stared at the dirty gold charm in disbelief. I had to eat that?
Saying to myself, it’s a magic world. I washed it off with what remained of my water and then bit into the quarter-sized, gold charm. It tasted like black licorice soaked in mead. Not completely terrible.
I’ve had worse.
The string necklace, I ate around. A deep bubbling feeling arose in my chest. Feeling sick, I sunk to my ass, sitting and waited it out the odd sensations. With the string in hand, I concentrated on myself. I felt different. The Axe in my hand felt different. It felt lighter and more solid. (Solid-er?) After the nausea settled, I rechecked my status. War Axe: Level 2.
I spent the next twenty minutes practicing and getting used to my new weapon comprehension. I would need hours more before I was comfortable. But shower, shave and pizza were calling. Loudly.
Storing my Axe in my inventory, I took it out again, just to make sure, I tried the sequence again.
I exited the Dungeon and returned home, for real this time.
I exited the shower feeling a thousand times better, and maybe a million times cleaner after a week in the wilderness fighting against Orcs who never even heard of a bath. While combing my hair, the doorbell rang. The pizza boy had arrived early.
A cute girl in a Moma Sobino’s windbreaker and threadbare sprayed-on jeans, stood on the porch carrying a bright-red warming bag. Opening the door in a towel, I asked her to wait a second, then hunted down my wallet from my bedroom and returned.
“Woah! Were you attacked by a rose bush or something?”
Glancing down at my chest, and arms, I realized that I did have plenty of scratches.
“A vicious one; it went ‘Rawr’, but I heroically prevailed,” I joked back.
Her voice dropped a few registers, “I bet you did.” Her knowing grin completely revealed her thoughts.
I chuckled, “how much do I owe you?”
“Forty-three ten,” the brunette teen didn’t even blink, while staring at my chest and rattling off the price of dinner.
“Here’s a fifty. Keep it.”
“Thanks,” she passed over my pizzas and salad. The teen hadn’t moved, since blocking the storm door open made passing the pies to me easier. As usual for early January in Chicago, it was windy with swirling light snow, more of the white stuff seemingly going up than down.
“Anything else I can help you with, miss?”
“Natalie, you can call me Nattie.”
I waited, quite amused. I knew my body returned to my early season days of my freshman year, but her reaction was a bit over the top.
“Okay, Nattie, it is. Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, I should go,” contrary to her words, she wasn’t moving.
“Aren’t you a bit young?”
“Not for those abs. Or chest.”
I laughed. Great line! “I’m a bit hungry and its cold out.”
“You look great in a towel. But you’re right. It is cold out. I’ll come back later and warm you up.” Turning adroitly in her cute, torn, low leather boots, she left my porch humming a tune.
I watched the teen saunter to the pizza company’s assigned car and drive off, but not before she waved once more. Shaking my head with amusement, I headed for the kitchen.
What the hell was up with that?
I dressed, seemingly inhaled a large deluxe pizza and half the salad, then texted Paula. I told her I would call in a minute, to let her come to terms with actually speaking with a live person the phone.
She was a tad bit better on the phone than face to face, and with me a great deal more than with anyone else. We had worked together since my hiring. She had five months seniority on me, and in those years that we worked on the same team, I had not seen her speak more than two sentences on non-work related topics to anyone else in one sitting. Type, yes. Speak, no.
Her father had ‘rustled up’ a few clients for her. More than she could handle. When I joked about her being the boss, she panicked.
“Paula, I was joking, okay?” silence on the other end. “We can either use your father or have me talk to anyone that needs it, okay?”
“Okay,” a long pause. “How was your ski trip?”
That was my excuse for my extended vacation. “Good, but I met a tree on the slope and it wasn’t very pretty.”
“Are you okay? Do you need a doctor? Did you break anything?” she shot out in a rush, something the ultra-shy Paula rarely did.
“I’m good. My tetanus shot is only a year old.” I had stepped on an old nail in the basement last year while searching for something, shortly after moving in.
Two years now, the date just changed…
Of course, after the rush of adrenaline, Paula hit her personal mute setting. I asked her to send me a project and after prying out the particulars, then hung up. Once upon a time, she’d had a crush on me. But after I dated my old girlfriend for more than a few weeks, I felt that it had completely vanished. She remained a friend, thankfully, or so I thought and hoped. She was nice, but not at all my type. For her, being adventurous was saying, ‘hi’ back, to the cashier or waiter.
I cleaned up and then booted my computers to check over the information that my partner sent me. A very straightforward automation program. My early guess for it was one hundred fifty to two hundred hours carrying a deadline of three months. The fee was even above what I hoped for. Paula’s father, David Lovington, came through in spades.
We decided that between Paula and her father, they would get a total of ten percent off the top, which she forgot to deduct on the handover. I would have to make sure that her father was paid his commission for drumming up business for us. It was only fair. Reading the requirements of what the customer wanted, I sketched out an outline, followed by an early flowchart. The required libraries needed and what not were all also jotted down.
Next thing I knew, it was 9:00 PM and I had missed a full day of football playoffs.
Kicking back, I turned on the TV, to catch the second half of the AFC Championship game and chilled with a Coke and popcorn.
Fifteen minutes later, the bell rang.
I so didn’t want to move.
The same pizza girl from earlier snuck under my arm after I opened the door to see who came calling this late on a Sunday evening, entering my house uninvited. She had changed clothes into a fluffy, short purple sweater and streaked, bleached, painted-on jeans. I did appreciate that small tight ass. But she was too young. I had no interest in jail.
My ‘guest’ took in the living room, then moved to the kitchen. She glanced longingly at the hall to the bedrooms but didn’t go further. The basement door received a glance, so too did the garage door. I followed the chocolate foot-long ponytail, as it took in the living area of my house. My eyes were well off her ass, at that point.
“The kitchen needs new cabinets. But you knew that. Before you ask, I’m seventeen. I haven’t seen my dad since I was four and my mom in two years. She went to live with her boyfriend and never returned home. I have to work if I want to eat.”
“You are still considered illegal in this state for someone my age.”
“I’m seventeen, no prosecutor will touch the case.”
That, I couldn’t argue.
“Now that that’s settled,” she plopped down on my oversized, overstuffed, favorite leather chair. “Ooh, warm and comfy. Don’t just stand there. Aren’t you going to offer me a Coke?”
“Natalie, would you like something to drink?”
“Yes, please. A Diet Coke, lite-ice.”
I was curious to see how far she wanted to take this, so I got her a Diet.
“Thanks,” she took a sip of the Diet Coke, mostly for show, “so really, how did you get all those cuts?”
“A tree while skiing.” It was my story and I was sticking to it.
“That was a nice tree, to not hit your face or the back of your arms.”
“I agree. What year are you in?”
“Senior.” Taking a breath, for the first time she looked unsure of herself. “Where is your portal?”
“What makes you think I have a one?”
“You have a title.”
“A title. If you pull up your Status screen you can see it. You need to disable it, so no one else sees it.”
“Which title do you think I have?”
Damn… Pulling up my Status, the line below my name stated clearly ‘Orc Slayer’ in white, I clicked on the ‘display Y/N’ and turned it off since Y was glowing green.
That could have been dangerous.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” the too thin girl offered, with more than a hint of innuendo.
“That’s fair,” I responded after some consideration. If Nattie could see my status, she had to have entered a Portal herself, for that was the only way of activating the Status screen and accessing our abilities, at least that the internet knew of.
Setting her mostly-untouched Diet on the coaster, my visitor pulled out her cell from an ultra-tight pocket and texted something. Reinserting her cell with a little effort, she stood and said “Come on.”
Grabbing my keys, wallet and phone, I followed her out. We walked the two miles in the swirling snow to an unfamiliar apartment complex. Mostly in silence. I passed over my jacket to my guide, since she was obviously freezing after the first block or three.
“What color is your Portal?”
“Indigo. My friends and I struggled. It’s too hard for just us. I’m a Fire Mage. Katie is a Healer and Jude is a Thief. She calls it a Rogue but I think it’s a Thief. She has daggers and stuff. What about you?”
“Really? That’s cool. We need a frontliner.”
“Oh? I’ve been drafted?”
“Oh. Yeah…” (I just could hear the direction her mind wandered.) “You have to protect us innocent girls. We are just waiting for a Big. Strong. Man. like you. You will need to take special care of us.”
I had to admit, that girl’s vocal register was spectacular. A few years older and I would have trouble not dragging off to the bedroom, based on her sultry voice alone.
Glancing down at the girl in my massively oversized college jacket, I needed to remind myself that she was only seventeen. Her petite frame and bobbing ponytail, helped.
Taking the rusted elevator to the six floor; we exited onto ruined carpeting, worse paint and an old odor. Nattie then led us to a corner apartment. She double knocked; the grey-white steel door was quickly opened. A girl dressed nearly identically to the one at my side, with a green sweater instead of a purple one, answered the door.
“Hi, Nat. You’re Jason, right? Come in.” Unlike her exuberant friend, this thin teen was quieter, less sure of herself and the situation.
I stepped into the small apartment to see the third of the trio. She wore a blue sweater. All the same make and model, along with the same bleached jeans. All three had similar shades of chocolate brown hair, petite builds and ponytails with matching scrunchies holding them in place.
I smelled a conspiracy.
Glancing around the clean, but poor, six hundred square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath apartment while standing in the doorway, I introduced myself.
I also smelled a catch. And fishhooks, three of them, with pretty, purple, green and blue lures.
“I’m Katie. I’m the Healer.” The soft-spoken girl in green, who answered the door responded to my greeting.
“I’m Jude the Rogue. Nat says you are an Axeman.” She was clear in her words, yet sounded worried.
I looked at the three teens, who suddenly were nervous. Even Nattie became uncomfortable at my presence here…
A Mage, a thief and a Healer. Where was the fourth? A Frontliner, Natalie called me.
“What happened to your friend?” I asked gently. She said she needed a fighter; they had to have had one and lost him somewhere. Probably in the dungeon itself.
They looked at each other guiltily.
“Kevin died. / He panicked when we got to the boss. / The boss killed him.” all three said at the same time.
“So, one of you died when you fought the boss and you want to go back in?” I took a seat in a threadbare chair and waited for an explanation.
“He said he knew Karate. And he was a swordsman,” Nat defended.
“We couldn’t exactly trust anyone else.” Jude added.
“What are the monsters in your Gate?” I asked, since the conversation died.
“We had zombies. But the boss was a ghoul. He was stronger, faster and harder to kill,” Nat volunteered.
A stronger boss of a different type of undead? I had played games and recognized the undead variant. Zombies were reported to be in Indigo Portals. No one had mentioned Ghouls.
“And you want to go back in with me at point. Aren’t you worried that I will do the same as your fallen teammate?”
Snort. Came from Jude.
Nat just said, “No.”
“You’re huge. I think you will be good. I can heal too.”
I nodded to myself; her healing would be a bonus. “How did Kevin die if you can heal?”
“Let Katie tell it; she is the Healer,” I interrupted Nat.
“He got hit in the face by a claw. He tried to run away and the ghoul pounced on him and ripped his head off. Even with Nat and Jude trying to knock the monster off, he was dead too quick.”
I believed them.
“How long ago was this?”
“Three weeks ago,” Katie continued.
“And you haven’t been back in?”
“We haven’t found anyone we could trust.”
“That, at least, makes sense.”
Unlike what you are trying to do now…
“How strong are zombies? Can any of you take them one on one?”
They could, but the zombies traveled in packs, I was informed. Five or more.
“Can any of you fight a group of five zombies, solo?” Five was the minimum size, from what they said.
“I might,” Nat stated with some bravado.
“Me too, if I catch ‘em off guard,” Jude thought aloud.
“I can’t. I only know how to heal.”
I asked about the layout, the numbers, their size and strength, any weakness and anything else they can remember.
The zombies were the typical humanlike monsters. Smelly, ugly, their heads and hearts were the weak spots. They weren’t fast, but they were strong and tough. They didn’t burn very well, and the daggers didn’t do a lot of damage unless Jude made a head or heart strike. There were twenty-five zombies in the dungeon for which they each received three experience per kill. The ghoul was worth fifty exp each.
So, multiply those numbers by three and divide by four, if we all went together, for how much experience I would earn.
I was curious if the lesser amount of experience was from the shared group exp or just weaker foes. I wagered that the lesser color meant that the dungeon was of a weaker variety. Easier monsters would be worth less. That meant my Green Portal was harder.
R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. Red the strongest and Violet the weakest.
These girls would get killed if they entered with a blowhard or someone with nefarious intentions.
“Where is this Gate of yours?” All three smiled brightly in joy. They heard the capitulation in my voice.
“My bedroom,” Katie happily volunteered.
Sure enough, in the middle of her bed was a four-foot wide Indigo Gate, sparking happily.
Reseated with a glass of water in hand. I pretended to not notice the destitute state of the apartment that Katie lived in. No mention of parent or supervision from any of the three.
“I need to ask for your stats. Will you share those with me?”
None had a Strength other than a three. Fives were baselines for a healthy adult male, the net reported. Two had an Agility of six, whereas Kate fell short with a five. For Endurance, Nat led with a five and the other two had fours. In Speed, Jude and Katie had sixes and Nat had a five. They skipped over the intelligence, though Katie flashed me a seven when the other two weren’t looking. I guessed a five for the pair, since they weren’t saying. Both Katie and Nat had 11 mana and 13 health, whereas Jude had 16 health and 1 mana. Their Skill rated a Level 1 with their Main Weapons. Jude had a pair of carbon black daggers, both Mage and Healer, had five-foot staffs to match their 5’2” or 5’3” heights.
“If you plan on continuing to go through the Gate, you will have to get in better shape. What will you do if the next floor is full of ghouls or skeletons instead of zombies, or double the amount of zombies and even more ghouls?”
“That’s what you’re for,” Nat stated hopefully.
“Until you can beat a zombie one on one 100% of the time. I wouldn’t think about going down a floor. You have no idea what might be there.”
“What about you?”
“I am following the same requirements. I don’t plan on descending any time soon. It took me nine days to clear my floor.”
“Nine! What were your monsters?” Jude jumped in.
“I had Orcs. The boss had dual machetes and was equal to me when we fought.”
“Oh,” they chorused.
“I ambushed most of them. I was afraid of getting ganged up on.”
They understood that. Maybe my warning made it through their thick, overambitious skulls. During the next couple of hours, we reviewed what to bring in and what was needed to take on the ghoul. They thought that the zombies wouldn’t be an issue with me there. I kind of agreed, but played the bad guy anyway with what-ifs.
If the monsters continued getting progressively stronger via the rainbow color increase, Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green and so on, that meant that the Orcs were two Portals more difficult than the zombies were. If I could beat the Orcs decently, the zombies should be less of an issue.
We agreed to a Friday after-school dungeon run. I left a hundred dollars for supplies and food other than the junk they ate, before calling it a night. They probably lived off of Natalie’s leftover pizza.
I checked my equipment and found that it wasn’t in too bad of shape. I’d have to swap out the heavy flannel shirt and turtleneck that I used last time, but the overalls could last a few more trips. Carhartts were built to last, and black duct tape was a plus for easy repairs. That and most of my cuts were on the arms, with only a few shallow cuts on the chest. Even against the Boss Orc, I never felt like I was in real danger.
Which made it all the more fun.
The next morning, Monday, I spent working on my new project. And chatting with Paula. She seemed to be in a good mood and even started as many conversations as I did, via IM.
While warming leftover pizza in the oven for dinner, I heard a soft knock on the front door. Katie stood shivering in the cold, wearing an old worn jacket and knitted gloves.
“Hi, come in. Can I take your jacket?”
I surmised that Nattie told her my address.
She nodded, followed by a quiet, “yes, please.” The shortest of the three brunettes stuffed her mittens in the pocket before handing it off to me, to hang in the front hall closet.
The jacket was too light for a long Chicago winter. I held my frown in.
I didn’t comment on my guest showing up unexpectedly in the exact same outfit she wore the previous evening. Green fluffy sweater, painted-on bleached blue jeans and worn sneakers.
“I’m making dinner; leftover pizza and chef salad. Care to join me?”
Her reticence was expected. What her goal was, I would let her tell me when she was ready. I didn’t think it would be simple. I did remember that she had the highest intelligence of the trio.
We ate in silence. Katie picked at her meal, barely finishing one slice of pizza, not the crust, and a small bowl of salad. The can of Coke was gulped down though.
“Are you okay?” I opened, after we finished eating. Mostly to draw her out.
“Want to tell me what brings you over?”
Standing, she quickly removed her sweater, up and over her head, immediately after she clutched it to her stomach, just under her exposed and over washed pink bra.
Bravely she faced me, “you can have me, just please make sure that Nat and Jude make it through the portal safe.”
For her peace of mind and self-esteem, I had to do this right. School girls and college girls were a different breed. It had been ages since I had a college girl throw herself at me sober. Never a seventeen-year old.
A hint of makeup, dark gray eyes, light brown hair, bunched back in a ponytail, thin, almost too thin, smaller breasts. As or maybe smaller Bs. With that push up bra, I wasn’t sure. Katie was pretty, I admitted privately.
I took a step towards her. Frightened, she stepped back a half step.
“You’re very pretty. Don’t you think I will do my best to keep all of you safe?”
“I don’t know.”
An honest reply. She didn’t know if I would bail on them to save myself. And she was worried.
“Come with me.”
She blanched fearfully, but followed. In the living room, I sat her on my sofa while I faced her from my leather chair. Nervously, she kept that sweater pressed against her stomach, as if it were armor shielding from my unwanted advances. Yet that slightly frayed pink bra stood out for me to see. Invitingly…
At first, she wanted to curl into herself to hide, but then straightened up. She was trying to save her friends after all.
“Why are you three in such a hurry to enter the Gate?”
“How did you know?”
“You made it obvious, insisting on this week for a run. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“My stepdad is coming home on Sunday.”
“And you are worried that he will report the Gate?”
“We need the money. He has a prosthetic left leg. Salesmen who limp, don’t do well.”
“He will take the reward for finding an undiscovered Gate, won’t he? Even if you ask him not to.”
“Tell me about Jude and Nattie.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Their home lives. Family school and what-not.”
Feeling that she had little choice, Katie started talking. Nattie used to live with her mom, who now lived in New Jersey with her new boyfriend. The new stepdad had three sons. When I asked why Nat didn’t move out there with her mother, she replied “her mom’s boyfriend’s sons are handsy. Nat was afraid of getting raped.”
“Did she tell her mom?”
“She said she did, but her mom went anyway. I guess that leaving an apartment here was her way of protecting Nat.”
Apparently, Nat lived by the skin of her teeth, eating the bare minimum to get by. All three did. They stuck to each other like glue in school to prevent bullying and predators.
My words, not Katie’s.
Jude was a little better off. Her mother was a nurse on the night shift while the long-divorced father was a cop on the other side of Evanston. She saw him once every few months for a weekend, if Jude’s dad wasn’t working. Which was most of the time.
Jude never spoke of her mother unless it was necessary, and rarely of her father. Neither of the girls spent any time at Jude’s house nor at Nat’s, preferring Katie’s cleaner home. Apparently, Nat wasn’t the best housekeeper.
None of the three had any real prospects of attending college. Their families were all too poor, and other than Katie, neither of the other two had any real desire.
She admitted, with questioning, that she wanted to be a nurse but didn’t see how it was possible. Even with scholarships, Kate couldn’t afford to live on or off campus. Money was the first, last and every issue with her and her friends.
“What would your friends think if they found out that you were here offering your body for their safety?”
“YOU CAN’T TELL THEM!” Panic and desperation mixed together in her protest.
“What makes you think that if I am a big enough asshole to abandon you three in a dungeon, a simple offer of sex from you will prevent me from doing it anyway?”
“I… I have to hope.”
Obviously, she didn’t consider that I might go back on my word if I slept with her.
“Katie, it’s most likely the opposite. I am more likely to sacrifice myself to save you than sacrifice you to save me. Even without your offered incentive, as nice as it is.”
She blushed and stiffened at my reminder, suddenly remembering her state of undress.
“You have my word. I will not abandon any of you. Why don’t you get dressed? You will feel better.”
She did. Quickly.
“Is there a day that you three all have off from work?”
“Tomorrow. Jude might have something, but if I call her now she can get out of it.”
“Do that then. I’ll take you shopping tomorrow. I know where the Army Surplus store is, then we can go to the sporting goods store and then the mall. I’ll pay. I also need all of your cell numbers.”
“Why are you doing all this for us?”
“Because I do not want three pretty girls to get hurt when I can do something about it.”
“Oh.” … “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Call them.”
I received a hug and a kiss on the cheek, before driving the messed-up girl home.
I kept my emotions and thoughts to myself until I had the doors locked and the TV on.
Tuesday at three thirty, all three of the girls appeared on my doorstep together. I had spent some time preparing and was itching to go. Earlier in the day, I routed out where I planned on taking the Terrible Trio shopping.
“Come in.” They were noisy in their thank yous, and willingly followed me to my car. They didn’t care for my choices at Carhartt; winter overalls, turtle necks and brown medium weight jackets for each of them. They all complained that it would be too warm, but when I mentioned that it would be safer if a rogue zombie attacked from their blind side, they caved in.
The guilty stare at Nat, screamed that they probably left something out of their report.
“Good thing that Katie could heal you enough after. Holding back vital information can get someone killed,” I commented aloud, once we were all inside my car after the first stop.
Three very guilty teenaged girls replied, ‘sorry’.
At the sporting goods store, they each were allocated a set of pads and guards. I didn’t care if it limited the mobility of the two Mages, they were not going into personal combat if I could help it.
For Jude the Rogue, her armor was more personalized. Thin, hard-plastic soccer shin guards were purchased for shins, thighs, and arms. I would have to cut them down for a better fit, but they beat nothing or the half inch padded foam, which I considered too easily cut or pierced. We were all more worried about frontal attacks than surprise side or rear attacks from the slow-moving zombies.
The ghoul would only be fought when the rest were defeated, and that was a one on one fight, the three others could stand back for support. I also found a few thin, padded neck braces that looked promising.
I bought one for myself, along with one each for the girls. I could see where they could come in handy.
They weren’t entirely pleased with my choices in protective wear, but tough. Safety came first. I decided last night that if I was going to help them, and myself honestly, that I would do it right.
After a quick meal at Micky D’s, I headed out to the mall near Evanston. I had shopped here enough to know my way around all of the major stores from my time in college and after. I even shopped here when furnishing my house, after moving out of that cramped apartment I shared with the three other spendthrifts.
First stop was VS.
I gestured at the entrance. “A hundred dollars each. Go buy the necessities. I will wait out here. Once you are ready one of you come get me and I will pay. Now hurry.”
“What the fuck?” Jude demanded.
“You are all growing ladies. I’m paying. No tricks. Go shopping. Shoo, Shoo.” Sending off the little ducklings, I sat down to read my email on my phone while ignoring their further protests. Lawrence wanted another bar night. My reply was an open ‘where and when’.
Nat dragged the reluctant Jude inside the lingerie store. Katie put up no protests, but did turn ghost white. She knew why I brought them here, her bra last night had been fraying, and it was probably her best one.
I spent a few hundred dollars more on clothing that evening on a very subdued group of girls, who followed me through the mall.
They were worried at the real price, dollar wise, and the price I would demand from them later. I dropped them off in order after our shopping expedition Jude, Katie then Nat. None of the three said much other than giving me a genuine, yet subdued, thank you.
Except Nat. She remained in my old Nissan. She had moved to the front seat after Katie was helped up to her apartment with the Carhartt’s for the three. The bags were bulky and numerous. More than one person could carry.
“What’s going on Jase?”
I didn’t hear any accusation in her voice.
“I had a friend in college. The one thing she complained most about was that she didn’t have bras. She was an odd size and too poor to buy ones that fit right. If I guessed correctly, all three of you fall into that same category.”
“And the rest?”
“The Overalls and pads, you can consider armor. They are much stronger and more durable than you think. If you are planning on diving into dungeons, I thought you needed them. I bought some for me. Both overalls, jacket and football pads and soccer shin guards.”
“oh.” a tiny sound escaped Natalie’s mouth.
“Since we were out. I added some normal clothes. Think of it as a late Christmas present.”
“We can’t pay you back. It’s too expensive.”
“I never asked you to. It’s my money, I can spend it how I want.”
She sat beside me, quiet. We idled in my car before her apartment complex. I wasn’t in a hurry and she needed time to consider my motives.
“You spent almost two thousand dollars on us. You just met us.”
“I promised to see you through your dungeon run safely, didn’t I?”
“Most of that money was spent for that.”
“Okay, but I will pay you back one day.”
“Good. I trust you to do that. Let me help you carry the bags up the stairs.”
Her apartment was trashed. She tried to prevent me from seeing the inside of it, but failed. I only raised an eyebrow at the sight. Her response had been said by nearly all teens worldwide. “I’ll clean it tomorrow.”
“Good night, Nattie.”
“Night Jase, and thanks.”
The four of us demolished the zombies in less than two hours. In her boredom from not needing to heal me, Katie discovered that healing zombies would kill them. That alone sped up our progress immensely at the end of our first run. Our total time inside the Gate was one and a half hours. The three of us killed the ghoul easily, with Kate keeping watch in case anything else arrived.
Nothing did. I allowed the girls to keep the silver from our kills on our first run. When we made it to the white room exit, which the girls fought against, they all wanted to keep going, I discovered that I had Leveled; giving me two Status points to place anywhere on my Status board. I postponed on deciding where to place the points until later.
“Why didn’t you want to go down? We were on a roll!” Nat demanded of me.
“What happens if the next floor is a large open area and Katie would not be back before her stepfather returned? Or you missed school? Or you came back and found out that the police or army were guarding the Portal, then what?”
They didn’t like it, but gave up arguing. Even Katie had wanted to go on. On my recommendation, none of them purchased the potion or scroll. They didn’t have enough money for anything else, the prices in the shop were all too high for us to even see what was for sale.
Since I claimed none of the silver, I couldn’t buy anything either. Leveling was good enough for me. This time.
The terrible trio were all in great spirits when we exited the white room. They were dancing and hugging. Even I received hugs from each padded, winter resistant girl.
“Why don’t I take those clothes to my house for you. You don’t want to get caught when Katie’s dad reports the Gate.”
Sexy striptease from three grinning teens in Carhartt overalls was a unique experience. Not a bad one by any means, when happy yet inexperienced teenaged girls were the perpetrators. They insisted that I sit on a threadbare grandma chair, while they took their clothes off.
Hot and sweaty bods in purple, green and blue small, tight lace undies teased me while giggling. Not that I minded.
Jude wasn’t as energetic as the rest, mostly just faced me while wiggling, but she smiled like the rest.
Playing along, I pulled out my wallet and ‘tipped’ each one as they neared. My singles quickly disappeared, followed by the three of twenties I carried.
“Sorry ladies, I am tapped. Maybe next time,” I smiled over their antics. I had not been to a strip bar since my twenty first birthday. Once was enough.
They all giggled and blushed before running off to dress. I would never tell that I found them all a bit undernourished, cute, but too thin. Their ribs showing against their skin was a telling sign that they needed to eat better.
“Jase can we go in yours?” Nat rushed out half dressed, asking loudly while snapping her jeans together.
“Ask me next week. My Portal is Green.”
Coming to a full stop, “Green?!” she screeched.
The other two came out and asked, ‘Green what?’.
“Jase has a Green Portal.”
I saw the worry in both Jude and Katie, while Nat was all for it.
“Can we do Green?”
“If we are very careful. Rampaging like we did against the zombies will get us all killed. How about we talk about this next week?”
“Okay.” Jude spoke first. Katie was still leery and didn’t reply.
None of the trio had the red Runes on their weapons like my Axe that I could see. I didn’t mention it and they didn’t bring it up. Maybe it was because they were not what Nat called, ‘frontline fighters. I wasn’t sure that was the case. I noticed that Katie was stronger than either Nat or Jude. Much stronger than Jude and ‘somewhat’ stronger than Nattie.
What that meant, I wasn’t sure.
“It’s been a long night. How about you gather up the Carhartt stuff and the armor? I can hide those at my house.
“Okay,” Katie volunteered to do the gathering.
Those were stuffed in empty heavy-duty garbage bags that I brought over. My football pads went in their carry bag. I left my overalls on. They didn’t need to see my stiffy and it was cold outside. Their dance was more effective than they knew, and the lack of oxygen short-circuited my brain.
Before leaving, I received a thank you hug and a brief kiss on the cheek from each.
I needed a shower and time to paint the shower walls with baby batter. I had to admit, those girls got to me.
Home in bed, I questioned the lack of strength of the zombies and the ghoul. My Axe easily sliced through the arms, head and well into the bodies of the undead on every swing. The ghoul boss didn’t do much better even with his speed. He avoided my blows for the most part, but when I did connect, he took about the same amount of damage as the zombies did.
Was it speed, agility, my weapon or something else, that was responsible for the difference in what the girls reported versus what I felt in that dungeon run? I believed that it had to have been more than I was simply that much physically stronger than the last person they ran with.
He died, I reminded myself. Those zombies were slow. Strong but slow. The ghoul was fast, just as strong, but not much faster than I was and probably not any stronger than me at my current state.
Also, I noted, the number of Undead differed from their initial run. They said twenty-five for the first time, we encountered thirty. Would the runs keep increasing on each entry or will it cap out? What about my Gate? Would that increase in numbers per visit and in layout too? I had to plan for it change on my next run.
I called Katie.
“Hi Jase!” Kate sounded cheery, and maybe a tad tipsy.
“If you are positive that your dad will turn in the Gate, tell everyone that you have it, FB, Instagram, whatever you use. Tell all of your friends, Nattie and Jude too.”
“When the feds get there, just say you got home with your friends tonight and it was there. When they ask you about it, plead ignorance; it’s a crime to use it, remember?”
“Oh. Okay. We are doing that now.”
“Can we call the hotline to get the reward?”
“Yes, do that too. Say you were at Nat’s house until 11:00 and just got home. Give those two a call on their cells, pretend you are calling them over from Nattie’s. Get your story straight. Just not perfectly straight. A little deviation is better. Think of the cop shows.”
“They’re here. Oh, I see what you mean. Okay. Bye.” *Click.
That was quick. I hope it worked out for them. The feds can count the days between usage. I sent that to Jude in a text along with asking them to stay away from me for a few weeks.
I didn’t know what else to do. So, I waited and worried.
The week passed and no mention of the Terrible Trio in either the forums, the net or the newsprint. Katie’s Gate was not mentioned either. But the net did mention a military presence surrounding an apartment building on Closter in west Chicago, which was where Katie lived.
On Sunday, I ordered a pizza and salad. Nattie delivered it and was totally professional. She shook her head after I opened the door. I paid and tipped.
That they were followed was not a surprise. I just hoped that they were free from the government’s lockup and fine. I did get a sassy butt wiggle on the way off the steps, which was a good sign.
The following Sunday, I ordered again and Nattie came for my delivery. The Hug I received spoke volumes.
“They arrested Katie but she was let go the same day. All three of us have been followed for the last week, but not this week. We were afraid of coming too close.
“It looks like you did well.” If she was let go hours later, she probably wasn’t really arrested. More like took to the precinct for questioning, then released.
“We decided to wait a week before talking to you again. Is that okay?”
“Sure. If you need to. That is fine by me. Being safe is the best way to do things.”
“Katie had to move, but they are paying for the hotel until her stepfather finds an apartment. He kept the reward. It was his apartment. Katie got nothing.”
“As expected, go, you don’t want your tail to suspect anything.”
“Thanks for the tip, Mr. Jase,” she grinned and fled carrying that red insulated pizza bag behind her.
I didn’t hear from them again until March second. Six weeks. I spent my time working on the project. I put too many hours in. Paula even commented strongly a few times, worried about me. I was fine though. I was used to working long hours. I took my days off, even an afternoon walking the Mile on Michigan Avenue on a sunny snowless day, browsing and taking an expensive lunch.
I made sure that my exercise equipment in the basement wasn’t lonely. Two hours a day kept me in shape. Not training camp shape, but enough to keep me decent.
On the first of March, exactly five months after the Weapons appeared, just under half of the Portals, or Gates, as some of the Netzens; internet dwellers, started calling them, opened. Giant bugs, zombies, and a few skeletons, came rushing out to attack anything nearby. Later we were informed that those creatures were from the unused Gates. New Portals also were discovered by their monster’s sudden presence.
The Weapon gifted part of the population went mad from irritation. They all wanted to go inside and had the perfect opening now. Lawsuits abounded. The government said that to go in was dangerous and they were kept closed for their own safety, yet not going in meant danger for the rest of the populace!
The original laws for Portal entry were closely worded to trespassing on old abandoned mines: Enter at your own risk. Those entering could be fined and or imprisoned. If anything happened once inside, it was all your own fault and responsibility.
There just were not enough active soldiers with Weapons to cover all of the Portals unless they went in solo. Solo was too dangerous in the deeper floors, that information was leaked to the press by numerous unnamed sources, and confirmed by countless other ‘anonymous sources’.
There were few countries that didn’t suffer massive loss of life from the Outburst, as the event was now called. They were all the ones that sold rights to enter a portal to groups of Weapons, who paid to play around with their friends in the upper levels of the new playgrounds for the rich.
Tide of public opinion, along with the danger of unused Portals, as they were now universally called, caused the military to change the way they dealt with the rules behind them now and in the future.
A new agency was brought to the US: USPRA, the United States Portal Regulatory Agency. A fee was introduced, of three silver per person on exit of a Violet Portal, increasing per color Level of Portal or Gate. Indigos; were seven silver per person, Blues; whenever they appeared, were to be fifteen silver and so on. Payment had to be registered with the PRA before any new reservations could be made.
The President acted swiftly, for once, and rightly. Using one of his Executive Orders, he formed a new agency to regulate and administer the Portals and the Weapon holders. He demanded that driver’s licenses be modified to show the magic profession of the Portal divers. If the applicant didn’t have a driver license, then an identity card issued by the new agency, the PRA, would be mandatory.
Cards would be issued for every wannabe Portal explorer. Of course (vomit) names, addresses, and professions (magical ones) were also required for said cards. It was no longer illegal to enter a Portal, just illegal to enter one without registering. Portal entry also required a team of at least three people. An upper limit of six was openly acknowledged as the maximum number of people who could enter at once now.
The states yelled, hollered and screamed. Mostly at the cost and the longer lines, in the already long lines. But wisely, the President threw money at them and, mostly, shut them up. Lost in the shuffle, at least initially, were the illegals. They were left without recourse. The Democrats were at a loss on how much of a stink to make of it in the early months. Yet for once, President Brown’s approval rating jumped above 40%, peaking at 79%. For everyone other than lawmakers and the mixed Mexican semi-legal and non-legal community, that was.
It even stayed there for a whole two weeks, until the party opposition reminded everyone that he was a scumbag, as if it were their obligation to do so.
On the day of the President’s announcement, I went online and made a reservation for the Secretary of State to get my license. I did the same for the other three. The first was a Friday, and I reserved the first four appointments that I could, starting at 9:00, which was when they opened.
Since the Trio was still in school, I sent a group text to the three and went back to work. There was a bug in my latest program that I was having a bitch finding. Paula’s father was a gold mine for both Paula and I, and keeping us busy with high paying, short turnover, contracts.
Jude had a baby-sitting job and couldn’t make it, but Katie and Natalie showed up right after school, bursting at the seams. They wanted to go in Katie’s old apartment right now and explore.
Right that second!
“It’s a locked apartment,” I burst their bubble, reminding them that Kate’s former apartment was still under guard. “Besides, don’t you think that the military will take all the Indigo’s? Those are the best ones.”
A stream of complaints came from the exuberant Nattie. Katie, sat and stared at me in consideration, “when does your Portal open next, Jase?”
“It’s open now.”
“What Level are you?”
“I’m on level one, still. I went in twice, the second time I needed five days to clear it, but taking a week off of work isn’t something I can do all the time.”
Nat perked up and shut her mouth, she knew when to let one of her best friends lead.
“How long will it take if all four of us go at once?” Kate asked quietly, after thinking it through.
“Four to six days. Probably five, unless the dungeon radically changes from last time.”
“We can go next weekend? Leave Thursday morning and return on Monday?”
“Friday is a PTA day. No school.”
“It’s still two days off.” I countered.
“None of our parents care and we only have two months left of school. No one cares on either end.” Kate played her ultimate trump to my objections.
I nodded. I had forgotten that these girls had little hope of a college education.
“What about Jude and her parents?”
“Won’t be a problem, she can stay at my house.”
“On April first, you three need to take a day off of school, the morning at least. I reserved an appointment at the S.S. to get your license.”
They all smiled at my acceptance and my assistance.
I reviewed the layout change in my dungeon, the extra seven Orcs were all female Orcs married to the hut owner, instead of finding mostly a single one per hut. The women were smarter and more cautious than the males, but not as strong. The boss didn’t change, but I did kill him easier the second time. The ten-minute fight from the first time ended three minutes earlier in the second dungeon run. The kicker was that a few of the hut placements had altered last time in. Something to watch out for.
The other note that I impressed on the girls was that the floor was much larger than theirs was. Probably a hundred times larger. We actively needed to search out the huts and not all the Orcs remained near their huts. Some roamed, one was chatting with his neighbor the last time, and one couple was eating dinner with another couple too. That last one, I left for a different day when they went their separate ways.
Four Orcs at once was a bit much for me without backup.
Nattie worked until midnight most days, so I saw little of her.
Jude visited a few days later, but sat stiffly as if she hurt her back. When I asked about it, she blew it off as a twinge, assuring that it would be ‘better by tomorrow. It always is’.
Katie frowned and changed the subject. She had lost her job when the clothes store she worked at closed at the end of January, and she hadn’t found a new job yet. I had the feeling she wasn’t looking too hard. Not that it was my place to say.
Ever since the announcement, Katie visited almost every day. The exceptions were when the trio had a collective day off, like on that following Monday. They spent the day at her and her stepfather’s new place, doing god knows what.
Jude’s prediction was right, the following visit, her back was in perfect health.
Sometimes, I wasn’t the brightest bulb…
Wednesday, the girls spent the night in my guest room in order for us to get an early start for Thursday’s dungeon run (or Portal run. The terminology was interchangeable to me. Portal, Gate and Dungeon were all the same).