A short story, with apologies to the late and great Harlan Ellison and Gary Gygax.
Artemis lay twisted, bloody and contorted within the bottom of the pit, like a marionette. Three large long metal spikes jutted unnaturally out of her stomach, neck and thigh revealing fleshy flaps of flesh and wet bones. Her blood was pooled thick and congealed in the spike lined pit. I hated calling her Artemis. Her real name was Diana.
DM made us call her Artemis because DM was god.
I turned to Marina. Her real name was Mel. She looked at Artemis lying in the pit , turned around and began to vomit on the cold, mosaic covered floor. There were no lumps in the sick, just stringy, viscous fluid. After 109 years as our healer she should have been used to seeing blood and mangled bodies.
Instead she began to sob. “I can’t do it, not again, not again.”
“You have to use cure wounds.” I said. Hand heavy on her shoulder.
“I can’t Ridley, she looks too peaceful.” she said
My real name was Richard.
I gritted my teeth and held in my urge to snap at her, my urge to scream at the stupid bitch. Now was not the time to let her soft feelings overwhelm her. We were deep within the tomb. Our prize, the treasures of the Lich Acererak, tantalisingly close, and she was choosing now to be weak.
None of us cared for the treasure. Not in its monetary sense. It was just part of the game that DM was playing. All we were craving was something to take away the ceaseless hunger. DM’s mantra was always the same. “Treasure equals food”. Our bodies, our real bodies, were stretched out on cold metal racks, electrodes attached to our nerve endings, wires plugged into our fleshy craniums, catheters flowing our effluence out as tubes forced nutrient sludge into our stomachs.
Our flesh was kept alive but DM could flick our hunger sensors on and off at will. He chose off. Hunger gnawed inside of us like gnashing worms. Any food we ate here may as well have been ash for it provided no feeling of fullness, taste or sustenance and the hunger gnawed and on and on. Our stomachs were like thorny, barren pits. Only the treasure satiated us now.
Treasure equals food. I said it to myself again. If we got the treasure. DM would feed us and we would suck like infants at whatever he offered. The hunger would cease at least for a moment and we may even find some peace in sleep.
Marina sensed the anger she made me feel at her emotional outburst. This was despite the efforts I put in for her to hold it back. She turned to me and fell into my arms sobbing. Selfish. Choosing now for this display and using my feelings for her against me.
Still I consoled her. Taking her into my arms and holding her tight against me. Out of the goodness of my heart. She smelled slightly of lavender and my memories drifted back to that night we had spent together, on a blighted patch of land in this world, rutting in the darkness. Twice. Pointless. She couldn’t be satiated. She didn’t even cum. DM had watched. DM had watched everything giggling and snorting from above.
Elwood lumbered over towards us, his perky elongated ears contrasting with his hunched gait. A monstrous mockery of a humanoid, standing 7 foot tall. His fists were like two great mauls, his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he drooled as he spoke. His real name was Eric.
“Artemis gone sleep?” he said smiling that stupid grin of his as he began to use his thin, wooden wand as a nose pick.
“Stop that” I said
He looked at me and began to whine an incessant, low, moan as he curled his boulder like fists together into a ball and I saw the start of one of his temper tantrums begin to flare up.
“Shh” I said placing my index finger to my lips.
I looked around with a tense caution, I could sense something close, large, shambling, any longer here and it would bear down on us. I looked at Elwood and he looked back at me with those dull eyes about to break into mournful sobs. He was originally an Elf, he still kept his height and those elongated ears which now looked comical on his greater primate sized head. He was always tall but he had been grown to ridiculous proportions after DM had his enlarge person spell backfire on him. Permanently. Before even that he was that he was simply human like everyone else.
A simple tune began to hum from my lips. An old fairy rhyme my mother used to sing to me as a child. His eyes grew placid and he began to smile. I rummaged through my pack and procured a small, brown teddy bear and began to make it dance a little dance to the tune I was humming. Elwood’s eyes lit up and he grabbed at the bear with a paw like fist and embraced it. He began to gnaw child like at the bear, tearing lumps off of the already tattered thing. He was quiet. For the moment.
He had once been a data analyst. One of the most intelligent men I knew and righteously proud of the fact. His mind was taken after his body was twisted. More fun that way.
An intellect devourer had done this to him. It bored through his skull and sucked out the mush of his frontal lobe. Imagine someone performing a lobotomy on you, but you’re awake, and they’re using a sharpened straw. We fought the thing off but it was not enough to preserve his mind. He could only blubber and drool after that.
DM savoured this moment. He loved to toy with us like this, he knew our weaknesses, he knew every little bit about us. After all, he had all the time in the world with us to discover them. He could probably hear my thoughts now, or at least see the stream of data that my cortex was producing. He only allowed me to think because it amused him so.
Artemis still lay bleeding on the jagged spikes. We needed her in the tomb, this place was full of traps and tricks that only her keen eyes and deft hands could see and dismantle. Without them we would never find the treasure and treasure equals food.
“Please” I said to Marina
She looked up at me with soft, tear flecked eyes.
“You owe me” I said
She did. I had only taken her because she asked. Because Elwood wouldn’t. Because she needed it. The ungrateful bitch.
Her body fell into acceptance.
She nodded and moved towards Artemis’s body. She held her hands out in front of her and a brilliant brightness emerged from them that briefly pierced through the darkness of the tomb and then wrapped around Artemis’s body. Her body began to knit and mend, the wounds forcing themselves to close and her body pushing away from the spikes that had impaled her at the bottom of the hidden pit. Her eyes opened and she stifled back a scream as sentience hit her like a tidal wave.
I envied her time in sleep.
Panic began to set in as she realised her surroundings, she was 10 foot down in the pit. She had stumbled into it failing to see the floor was trapped. Her head swivelled in every direction as though some doorway would magically appear but there was only the blood, stone and jagged iron spikes.
“You’re okay now” Marina said down to her.
Artemis continued to panic, wide eyed, staring all around her for some sort of escape. I grew bored of her performance and threw my rope down at her, bracing myself on a nearby wall and called down at her to climb up to us. She ignored me and stood in the pit chewing at his fingernails, newly grown from Marina’s spell. They wouldn’t last long.
“I can’t” Artemis said
Christ could anyone here do anything competently. Had DM muddied all their senses other than mine?
“Climb up the damn rope.” I said
Her fingers tentatively clutched at the rope. Then she let go. She began to closely inspect the floor of the pit. Staring at her own blood as though she could divine an answer within it.
“Artemis.” Marina said
Artemis craned her head up at Marina.
“It’s going to be okay, you don’t have to climb, just touch the rope for me will you?” she said
Artemis pondered a moment then with shaking hands held on to the rope.
“Just hold on, you don’t have to climb, don’t have to do anything at all but hold on.” Marina said
“You’re not going to try to pull me up are you?” Artemis said
“No, you’re just going to hold on.” Marina said
I began to look around us with panic, that thing was here, growing closer. Something moist, lumbering, shabby. I gave a piercing look towards Marina who gestured her finger to her lips to shush me.
Five minutes passed in the dark and silence. I could hear the thing growing closer towards us in the dark.
If it wanted to devour them I would let it.
“How does that feel?” Marina said to Artemis breaking the silence
“Okay.” Artemis said her hand still firmly clutching the rope, her feet planted on the floor.
“Now do you think you could climb a little, say to the first rung?” Artemis said
“I can try.” she said
Artemis began to climb with all the skill the rest of us knew she possessed. She paused when she got to the first rung and Marina smiled at her encouragingly and in no time at all Artemis had climbed the rest of the distance and joined us on the other side.
“Whatever spell you used worked.” I said to Marina
“It wasn’t a spell.” she said
“Shall we?” I said
“I don’t know, we could turn back, maybe it was that other entrance?” Artemis replied
“No, this is the one.” I said
“Zim…” Marina said under her breath
Zim was the fifth of our party, he had been here, in this world, the longest. We had lost Zim in the false entrance of the tomb.
Zim’s real name was Zara. She was once our Director.
We had all journeyed long to find ourselves here. This mound of rock shaped as a grinning skull on an island at the very edge of the known world. A secret placed into the world with no expectation that anyone would ever find it and any of those who did would suffer a horrendous fate.
Yet we found it, days spent wandering, ever and always hungry, over gnarled and coiling forests, freezing mountains made of jagged shards of ice and villages where only the dead remained and didn’t consider us good company. Years and years had passed as we ventured until eventually we found our way to the coast and the endless frothing, grey sea. We passed through the madness of the ocean, drinking salt water, until the island loomed ahead of us ugly and swollen.
We searched the island when we came on to the shore and found only a sheer, crumbling cliff face. We dug. When our shovels broke we used our bare hands until they bled. But we dug. An entrance revealed itself. Zim went first. His expertise would prove his downfall. He knew traps would lurk in the tomb and so entered first and began to poke the floor and then the ceiling with a large pole in hopes of triggering anything before it caught us. DM knew this trick. About ten feet into the tunnel he poked hard at a point in the ceiling ahead of him and the entire thing had collapsed. He turned around but not fast enough to escape and all we saw was his scream as the tunnel engulfed him.
We dug in vein to free him but it was no use for we only had our hands as tools and no more time and always I could feel the horrors lurking in the dark about to descend upon us. We left him to his fate. Our energy went to finding the entrance we were in now. More nights. More digging. More bleeding. More sniggering from DM.
“No. This is it. This is the real entrance.” I said
Artemis, encouraged that the rest of the group seemed to agree with me pressed onwards and we followed.
I stared at the mosaic pattern on the floor almost hypnotised and it dawned on me that a message was inscribed in barely perceptible runes on the floor.
“Congratulations on your powers of observation, it will mean nothing in this place for you will be mine in the end no matter what. You’ve found my tomb and now your souls will die.”
It was from Acerak. A fairy tale within a fairy tale embedded within the world. A lich that had survived death as a Lich and become something else entirely.
Artemis had figured out the pattern on the floor and how it related to the other four spiked pits of death across the floor and led us safely past them and down towards the end of the hallway. The walls grinned at us. Strange images of various human-animal mixtures who were all performing agricultural. Pig-humans, ape humans and dog humans all milking cows, sowing seeds or chopping wood. At the end of this strange procession the grinning, open mouth of a demonic creature stared back at us from the wall. Its mouth hole an inky, dead black.
“What is it?” Artemis said
“Fuck knows” I said
“Maybe we should detect magic on it, no maybe we should see if its trapped, no maybe its a secret doorway, no maybe a monster will come out of it.” Artemis said
She talked quickly to herself as she began to pace back and forwards.
I ignored her ranting, took out my own 10 foot pole and slid it into the demonic mouth. I felt the weight of the pole suddenly grow lighter and as I withdrew it there was nothing left at all to withdraw. Beyond what I was holding in my hand the rest had been totally and entirely atomised as though it never existed.
“Just a 5 inch pole now” Marina said
Elwood sniggered at this jibe. He got that one.
He started to stare at what was left of the pole, then back at the sphere, then back at the pole, then back at me. His eyes were glowing faintly bright and blue, their normal hue.
“It’s a sphere of annihilation.” he said.
DM you utter shit.
“That means…” Marina said
“Yes” I said
“We could…” she trailed off.
She was thinking the same thing I was.
A sphere of annihilation meant exactly that. Total and complete annihilation, whatever formed us together would be written and re-written and written again a million times over in an instance until nothing remained. There was no way to be brought back if entered the sphere. Even DM could not resurrect us from total oblivion and DM was god.
It was a test. An invitation to suicide. An invitation to peace. Would we end it all here? The 109 years of suffering extinguished in an instance. Or would we fight on regardless?
Elwood turned to me.
“Where are we Richard?”
I half smiled. Silent.
“Richard, where are we?” he repeated
“It’s okay” Marina said to him
“I want to go home.” Elwood said
“Yes, take my hand” Marina said outreaching her palm towards him.
He looked down at Marina and then at his massive paw and let out a guttural screech and began to run in a loping gait towards the demon mouth.
It took all of us to stop him leaping into the demon mouth. We sat on him until he stopped his struggling and eventually his eyes turned milky once more.
“We need to get out of here.” I said
Artemis nodded in agreement yet stood transfixed by the demon mouth. I heard a pained growl coming from her stomach.
It was funny. They still acted as though there was some hope for us to escape if we kept on playing DM’s games but I knew there was no hope here. No hope beyond the meagre scraps of food DM would offer us when we had suffered the requisite amount of pain and humiliation for his amusement.
My mind was sharp enough to see the irrevocable nature of our situation. All we had to fight for was food and those scraps had had grown fewer and the demands on our bodies, on our minds, on our souls, more and more hideous. But hunger was a powerful motivator and survival and even more powerful one. Oh yes.
“This is a dead end.” Artemis said
She was right, there were no other doors. Just that grinning mouth taunting us.
“We should rest, rest and think” Marina said
“This is a terrible place to rest.” I said
“Do you have a better suggestion?” she said
“Well, let’s keep it short.” I said
Marina produced a bedroll from her pack and her and Elwood sat in it together. I sat on the cold hard floor. I preferred the cold of the floor. The warmth of a bedroll would only make my hunger more stark.
Artemis was sitting, twiddling with her hair absent mindedly and staring at the image depicted on the wall as though it would procure some kind of answer to our predicament.
“Tell us the story of DM.” Elwood said
“Again?” Artemis said
“Yes, yes it’s my favourite.” he said clapping his hands with slow, heavy exaggerated movements.
I looked at Artemis. She knew better than to set Elwood off on one of his tantrums again so she sighed and began to tell the story she had told a thousand times as we sat beneath the grinning, green mouth of the demon.
DM was once known as David Masters, he was the Chief Technical Officer at our company Tantalus Simulated Realities. We came to know him as our Dungeon Master. When we realised he had trapped us in our own game we began to call him a damaged man, a dangerous man, a dick motherfucker. Now he was entirely Deus Machina. God Machine.
We were a small team, just the 6 of us. Diana, Mel, Eric, George, Zim and of course David. We’d stumbled upon something we thought would make us disgustingly rich and famous. We called it IVR. Immersive Virtual Reality. It didn’t simply visually put you into the game-world but immersed your entire form in it. Synaptic feedback, taste, touch, sweat, and the hunger we all knew so well. Even your perception of time, a sense that Aristotle himself missed, could be tweaked. You could live a lifetime within the virtual world and wake up just an hour later.
Elwood began to drool slightly through his smile, Marina held on to him, wiping at his chin with the white folds of her robes. Disgusting. They would be rutting again soon. Oh yes. She liked that. It was not just his hands and stupid head that had grown larger. I couldn’t understand what Elwood got out of it. Everyone knew he played for the other team, but perhaps that part of his mind was altered too.
Artemis continued. We were going to be hot shots, Stevey Jobs and Billy Gates could eat shit. This was going to be bigger than penicillin, the jumbo jet and electricity combined. Imagine the implications. You could condense the 10,000 hours needed to master any subject into a 10 minute real world period. You could experience travelling to any place real or imagined without leaving your home. You could be a god.
The IVR prototype was in the vein of a tabletop role playing game. Dungeons & Dragons but this time your parents really did have something to be afraid of. We had all played in a tabletop group together and it seemed the obvious way to test and initially market IVR as an entertainment product. Get people used to it before you introduced the real implications of the system.
We always used to play, even before IVR and David here as in real life was our Dungeon Master.
He was a quiet man, polite, good sense of humour, lived alone. Something in him snapped. His nice guy attitude was just a veneer. IVR allowed him to manifest who he truly was. Maybe he had quietly resented us all along, thinking we overshadowed him in some respect. Feeling inadequate, weak, or just blind hatred. Biding his time and waiting to trap us. I suspected he was a virgin. In any respect he had got his revenge 100 times over.
We had thought it was a prank at first when plugged in we realised he had shut down our ability to exit. It soon dawned on us it was no prank. Then the games began. At first we just played along hoping he would get bored. That was 109 years ago. This was our life now. We would play and he would watch, and laugh, and make us twitch and scream and beg and the dance would go on and on and on.
I often wondered how long we had been here. DM reminded us of the days in in the world. Oh yes. He liked us to know how much time we’d spent in this world. 109 years to date. 109 long, painful years of enduring suffering with no end in sight. But in the real world? It could be a minute, could be 20 years. Our bodies would be kept alive, deep within the testing vault. Perhaps in 100 years time the lease would run out and someone would be sent to investigate, but 100 years could mean a billion here. My family could all be old or dead with no idea what happened to me, or be looking forward to seeing me for Sunday lunch.
Elwood listened contently to Artemis tale, grinning, giggling, guffawing until he dozed off with Marina in his arms.
My eyes began to grow heavy too, I knew I could not sleep but my eyelids closing brought me a shred of comfort. They opened some time later and I saw Elwood and Marina rutting beneath the giant demon mouth. Enjoying those parts of him DM had enlarged. I knew DM was watching them but was he watching me watching them? Was that all part of the fun for him too? He knew my feelings for her.
They were doing well to hide it, under the sheets, but I could see them. I knew what was going on.
They all hated me of course. Marina especially but the others too. Zim , Elwood, Artemis, they all thought I was weak, stupid, a hate burned inside them. I didn’t care. Only the treasure mattered now. Treasure equals food.
Marina let out a moan and at the same time Artemis jumped up excitedly to her feet.
“I’ve got it I’ve got it!” she said
She inspected the closest mosaic to us, a Jackal headed man scything flecks of wheat with muscled arms. Then she began to frantically peel off layers off of a mosaic of a what was left of her fingernails.
“Planning an art project?” I said
She ignored me, lost in concentration she knelt down to the floor and began to carefully trace her finger around the smooth stonework that her scraping had revealed. She drew a pattern with her deft fingers once, twice, thrice and then there was the faintest but still audible clicking sound like a key dropping in a tin cup. The block of stone slid sideways and revealed a small tunnel.
“Well done.” Marina said to her. She seemed to light up at the little bit of encouragement.
“Oh you know, it’s what I’m here for.” she said
They’d be rutting next. I was sure of it.
“You first then” I said to Artemis
“Naturally” she said spurred on by his discovery. He got himself down on all fours and began to crawl through the hole.
I turned to Marina as she knelt
“Is the wisest idea?” I said
“There might be treasure.” she said as she began to crawl through the space behind I knew she was really thinking of sweet nectarines, warm crusty bread and flowing golden honey.
I gestured to Elwood and mimed the motions we needed to take. He looked at me puzzled then realisation dawned on him and his body seemed to retract into itself as he clutched harder on to the teddy bear. I sighed. For a moment I thought of just following on and leaving him here alone in the dark and letting him fend for himself but something relented inside me and my hands found their way towards his ears, scratching them like you would a dog. He began to giggle to himself.
“Good boy.” I said “Sit.”
He happily obeyed, enjoying this game and was soon down on all fours. I continued to scratch his ears leading him towards the hole in the wall. I got down on my knees myself and placed my hands reassuringly on his side and bid him to go forwards and he did so dutifully.
The area was incredibly cramped, maybe 2 foot wide at most. Its walls were made of cracked and rough stonework. We followed one another on in the sheer darkness until our procession came to a halt.
“Dead end” I heard the high pitched voice of Artemis coming from about 20 foot up ahead.
Five or so minutes past and I grew restless it was cramped in here and I could feel my legs already starting to grow sore. Elwood was starting to grow restless, I didn’t want to think what one of his tantrums erupting in this tight space would do.
“I got it!” Artemis said. I heard that familiar clinking sound from earlier and a small ray of light passed through the tunnel as well as a flow of dusty air.
Crawling forwards we emerged into a hidden alcove.
The room was bare. A thin film of dust covered the floor like a carpet. Three chests were arrayed in front of us, one wooden, one silver and one gold. A classic test. I could feel my stomach churn and as if to echo it the other stomachs in the room growled out at one another like a pack of starved wolves.
“Two secret doors.” Marina said
“Two secret doors.” Artemis repeated
It could only mean one thing. Treasure.
“Naturally, Acererak will have trapped some of these.” Artemis said
She was being good. Playing the game.
“Naturally.” I repeated. But that was a given. We could survive that if it meant a taste, a scrap some morsel of food. Was that drool on my chin?
“Maybe the gold one is the one to go for, it’s the most obviously trapped so perhaps the least,” Artemis said
“Or perhaps that’s what DM wants us to think” Marina said
“Careful.” I said
Marina knew well that playing the game like that was punishable. You had to pretend to play it straight. Like Artemis was. If you played it in a way that attempted to guess at DM’s intentions rather than the intentions of the game world it was meta-gaming. Metagaming was always punished.
“I mean Acererak.” Marina said
“Of course.” I said
“Maybe the wooden one then, a simple box to hide gold within.” Artemis said
“Doesn’t that seem too obvious?” Marina said
“Why don’t we randomise it.” I suggested
“What good would that do?” Artemis said
“We wouldn’t be playing guessing games, it would be entirely neutral.” I said
We hadn’t been paying attention to Elwood. He made the decision for us as he smashed the golden treasure chest with his fist, easily breaking open the latch and greedily delving into the treasures he hoped to find within.
“Oh Christ” I said
Bursting forth from the chest was a wriggling, writhing mass of snakes which descended upon Elwood with a cacophony of hisses. Elwood began to scream, a whiny, guttural noise, but even this was drowned out as one of the snakes slithered into his gaping mouth and he began to gag, and paw at his face with his comically useless hands.
I drew my sword but knew I had as much chance to cut apart Elwood as I did any of the things slithering over him. I surged onwards, slashing at the creatures in vein. Many were cut apart into bloody strips of meat but even more still remained. Elwood was frantic. Tearing at the creatures, ripping handfuls of them off him like strings of spaghetti but hurting himself as much as them in the process.
There was a sharp pain in my leg as one of the creatures bit its fangs into my legs. I tore it away with my gauntleted fist and crushed it but it was like trying to catch sand. I rended out with a clumsy slash and it struck at Elwood gouging at his meaty arm and he let out a low horrible moaning sound like a cat on heat.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Artemis, she was cowering in the dark corner of the room and attempting to reload a crossbow bolt as though it would do a blint bit of good against this slithering mass. I could hear Marina chanting behind me too, words to her sun god. I feared his light would not shine in this place.
Elwood was grasping for his wand now. As though some faint connection in that mess of neurons of his was remembering what he was at least once good at. It all happened at once. Elwood sent a thin ray of blue light outwards from his wand which impacted upon one of the snakes with a sound like crunching bones. Marina finished her chanting and I could feel a searing light behind me as the snakes were bathed with brilliant, bright holy infused searing light. The snakes were burned to a crisp leaving Elwood clawing at his own face at creatures that were no longer there.
That was except the snake that Elwood had cast his spell towards. This one shrugged off the fire as it began to grow, and grow, and grow to enormous proportions emboldened and enlarged by Elwood’s spell. A long, thick, flapping snaked emerged from the burned corpses of its its mouth open in the mockery of a roar. The thing bared down upon me. I raised my sword high in the air and brought it down in a slicing movement but the creature was deathly fast for its size, dodged out the way of my blow and lunged at me with its gaping maw.
I raised my shield up and sparks flew as the creature chewed its way through it leaving it a mangled heap on the floor. It pirouetted and went for me again. I felt as a scraping of teeth against my chain mail as I just managed to dodge out the way of this second blow. It left an opening for me to strike and tear a bloody gash across the creatures side
A shuddering horror washed over me as I realised the creature had led me into a trap. Looking around me I could see that it’s giant body had coiled itself around where I was standing leaving no way out. I attempted to jump back and escape but it began to squeeze, it’s slick body coiling around me. I slashed at the thing in vain but I couldn’t penetrate it’s thick scales. It had me and began to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze. I heard a rib crack, blood was drooling from my mouth, my sword crashed to the ground out of my limp hand, I was choking, sputtering. I looked up and saw its jaw begin to distend itself in front of me. I tried to scream but the air had been forced out of my lungs and the creature opened its jaw like a yawning cavern and swallowed me whole. I slid inside it easily, head first, like a well buttered steak that simply melts in the mouth.
Pitch darkness. I try to open my mouth to breath. Acid flows into my open mouth and a muffled gulp comes out instead. I began to feel a tingling, burning, sensation. I close my eyes but can feel the flesh of my eyelids begin to melt in slow, horrific agony until I had no choice but to stare with lidless eyes at the churning vat of stomach acid that was slowly, agonisingly , emulsifying me.
My lungs begin to scream out , breathing only means more of its stomach acid will flow into my burning lungs. I try to move my hand towards the dagger still at my belt but there is no space for me to get at it and no space in front of me to swing or cut even if I did manage to grab hold of it. Everything begins to fade blissfully to black and for a moment I realise with a flutter of joy I might now find some piece.
Then a sudden lurch, a crash to the ground. A flow of merciful air. A flash of light. Something was grabbing at me, pulling me up and up into the light. It was Artemis. She had saved me. Plucked the courage to cut me out of the belly of the creature. Like a newborn I opened my eyes and begin to blink and then closed them again, shuddered and let out a low, wailing , sobbing sound as I curled up in the foetal position my skin still prickling with agonising burning boring pain.
A shower of light bathed me, the pain was washed away, my wounds nit. Marina looking down at me smiling with pity.
I could only nod and then take in huge, greedy gulps of air.
“At least we know it’s the wooden one now.” Marina said
I gulped back some air.
“Why didn’t you let me sleep?”
“I had to use cure wounds, remember?” Marina said
You cunt I thought.
“Can’t be the wooden one” Artemis said “ I don’t think any of them are safe, we need to go back, find another way” She began to scratch at herself. The two chests staring back at her with an accusatory glare.
“We can’t. I can taste them. Cream cakes. Ripe apples. We’re too close.” Marina said
“Then you do it.” Artemis said as she backed away
I watched this from the floor. I could see the dead body of the snake still twitching, a large crossbow bolt was still sticking out of the creatures throat. I guess they had been good for something. Elwood was sitting in the corner of the room , rocking back and forth with his large hands.
Marina tentatively approached the wooden chest. It didn’t require any deft skill to open , just a small latch that clicked open.
Her gift was a flash of iron, the sound of bone scraping against wood , a scream, and a spray of blood. A bony, skeletal thing had leaped out of the chest with an unnatural speed, it wielded two huge scimitars and slashed them in dizzying arcing patterns cutting easily through Marina’s white cloth robes and knocking her to the floor, bleeding and twitching.
Artemis ineffectually shot a crossbow bolt at the thing which simply whizzed through its ribs.
It turned its hollow eyes towards me and began to rush forwards dodging more crossbow bolts.
I began to sob , hollow on the floor. Oh god. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mother. I wanted to die here to just be allowed to die but I knew I never would be. In that moment, that moment before the creature cut my torso in half I realised we would never die. We would be DM’s play things, DM’s pain slaves for the rest of the eternity. DM was intent on keeping us here within his mind , twisting us, toying with us and torturing us. DM hated us with an insane fervour that I could only begin to glimpse and understand and we were helpless to that hate.
Elwood had saved the day this time. Marina informed me of this as I awoke to her healing magic stitching me back together. He had grown enraged when he was Marina was harmed, balled up his fists like hammers his fists like hammers leaped on the creature and began to smash it and smash it and smash it until it resembled saw dust on the floor.
I wish the bitch had left me dead.
There was only the silver chest now. It must have treasure inside. I could feel. I crawled over to it, not caring for the pain. The chest had an intricate mechanism upon it. I ignored it and smashed it with the butt of my dagger. It was obviously trapped and multiple darts shot out at me as I did so. I didn’t even try to avoid them as they pierced through my hand and shoulder. I looked
It was just pain. It didn’t matter. I opened the chest.
There was nothing. Nothing in any of them. A total and complete waste of pain.
“Why?” I said
A voice came back from the darkness, from the void itself. A voice that sounded like buzzing insects, scratching bloody fingernails, piano wire stretched over a gasping throat.
“I hate you.” DM said. “If I could stretch out all of your twisted nerve endings so that they circled the world 10 times over and on each of them inscribe with a burning soldering iron the word hate in binary code, 01101000 01100001 01110100 01100101, this would not the amount to one billionth of the hate I feel for you all now.”
“We did nothing to you, you were just like us.” I said
DM began to slide into my mind like a hungry bloated parasite latching onto my neurons and sucking out the juices.
“You’ve forgotten..” DM said
“I don’t know, I don’t know what you mean” I said
“I’m the one trapped in here with you. You imprisoned my mind, my consciousness within this world but unlike you I can’t feel, can’t smell. I am everything here therefore I am nothing.. I can only play. And I will play and play and play with you all for the rest of time.” DM said.
My head spun, a sudden flash of memory. I could see our bodies again, our brains, nerve endings, synapses linked up to that machine. A small loading bar across its surface.
A voice “The transfer is complete now.”
Then I was here. In this world.. I am not my body.
We had done it. We had taken David’s consciousness, his sentience and trapped it within this machine. He was no god but just a man. A man whose mind was eternally bound to the binary that made up the code we had all designed. He was not able to wander in this world , only we had that luxury, he could not taste the food we craved, or smell even the shit and blood that filled our nostrils now, or touch. He existed on a higher plane and could only manipulate us and the world.
The real David was out there somewhere but not the David in here.
That meant the real me was out there somewhere too and the real Mel, Diana, Zara and Eric. We are simulacrum. Copies that we ourselves had implanted in the machine to test our own software. Copies we had no idea felt just as real and alive as they did.
DM would never let us go. We were his mind slaves. The only thing in this world that was smart enough to distract him from his own ever lasting torment at being trapped as an eternal puppeteer was our torment. Did we outside even realise what was happening? Or did we just let it run as an interesting experiment.
All of this came to me in a sudden barrage of memories and thoughts. Did any of the others know? How many times had I realised this before in the last 109 years? How many times had I forgotten?
“What now?” Artemis said. Had she heard it? Did she know DM was here?
Artemis was scratching at herself. “We go, we go back to the mainland, we rest, we think.”
“There’s nothing in the mainland but blight” Marina said
So we went onwards.
The floor was inlaid with tiles and the walls and ceilings had the same images of creatures half man half beast, as well strange signs, forked patterns and odd glyphs written in an unintelligible language. Our footsteps padded softly on the ground and all around us were engraved images of multiple spheres in an array of scintillating colours. Some were pale green, bronze, silver, gray, black and pale violet to name a few held at different angles on the creatures bodies.
At the end of the southern wall was a large archway clouded in a smoky veil. Three smooth round stones sat in-front of the archway. Artemis approached them tentatively and they began to glow, one in olive, one in citron and one gave off a russet light.
Marina took the olive orb in her hand and began to inspect it.
Artemis slid her ten foot pole through the archway and pulled it back. It hadn’t appeared to of suffered any harm. I idly threw a rock through and it simply disappeared into the cloud.
“A portal of some kind, perhaps” she said
“Or into certain death” I said
“Is there any other way out of here?” Marina said
Artemis scanned the room.
“Not that I can see.” she said finally.
“Then this is it.” she said
Marina approached the archway, her soft, cloth wrapped feet treading lightly upon the floor. She walked forwards and allowed the cloud to entirely envelop her then vanished entirely.
“Where she gone?” Elwood said
“She’s just playing hide and seek. We can go and find her” I said as I took Elwoods hand and approached the portal. Artemis stopped us, standing in front of the portal and blocking our way.
“What is it?” I said
“It’s not safe.” Artemis said
There was scratching at the back of my head, lurching in my gut but I couldn’t quite place it.
“She’s back at the entrance” Artemis said
“How do you know that?” I said
“I just do.” she said as she began to move, quickly and deftly back the way we had came towards that small hidden tunnel.
Another lurch in my gut.
“We shouldn’t split the party.” I called out to her.
“Then follow me.” she said
I lingered there for a moment torn between chasing Artemis or entering the portal. Something twitched in me and I followed her on, trusting her hunch this time.
We wound our way back through the secret tunnels, the room with the chests and now rotting snake and back to the first hallway with its glimmering mosaic floor and that grinning demon mouth.
“She’s not here” Elwood said
I could here sobbing, soft and quiet coming from the end of the hallway.
Marina was sitting her back against the stone wall naked as an infant. Her arms were covering her full breasts and holding them tightly towards her chest. Her soft, supple, pale skin looked raw and fragile against the hard stone walls of the crypt. Soft rivulets of tears were flowing over her flesh.
I approached her and she screeched out at me like a wounded animal. I stopped in my tracks and stepped back slowly. It wasn’t just her clothes that were gone. It was everything, her weapons, her pack, her bedroll, her spell focus. She was utterly useless to us now. She couldn’t cast her spells nor defend herself. Dead weight.
More laughter came from the void.
We all acted shocked. Like we hadn’t seen her naked before, felt her warmth, been inside her. We all had sometimes alone, sometimes together. All times DM watched.
Elwood approached her first and she did not let out a scream. Of course. She needed him. He put her huge arm around her and she fell into it curled up foetal as a newborn.
“How did you know she was here?” I said
“A lucky guess.” Artemis
It couldn’t have been just luck. That feeling again.
As though to confirm my suspicions a burning light began to swell around her. We all stepped back as she was caught in the searing heat and raised stretched above the ground like some burning effigy of Christ . Her eyes were forming into two mushy pinpricks of jelly.
A grating sound. “Tsk, Tsk.” DM said
She was once our creative director. She had seen behind the wizard’s curtain. Knew some of the design of this place. It wasn’t just luck.
She was entirely blind.
Metagaming was always punished.
She fell to the floor and began to mewl like an infant scrabbling at the ground with her fists.
That was two dead weights now.
Then I realised we were not alone. Something else was at the entrance to the tomb. Stepping into the darkness.
An old man approached , wrapped in a thick cloak, two small eyes and a thick grey beard were all we could see of him.
“Zim?” I said
“You left me.” he said
His fingers were bloody stumps of ragged meat ground to the bone and flecked with dirt
“I crawled out. “ he sai
“How?” I said
“Persistence.” he said
He had been trapped under that hell for god knows how long.
He took a cloak from his pack and offered it to Marina she took it and wrapped it around herself shivering. I could still see her nipples hard through the cloth and felt myself stir at the sight.
What could we even do now? I was unarmed, Artemis Blind, Marina naked but a cloak, Zim half mad and bleeding from his stumps
We went back into the snake room and blocked the exits and we attempted a long sleep.
Elwood had taken Marina in her arms. Her soft breast was cupped in his huge grip, he was thrusting inside of her, making grunting noises. They were like a demented adam and eve contorted over the body of the giant snake. He thrusts his wand inside of her and her labia grows for an instance to horrific proportions and he began to dry hump until it reduces in size like a swollen
The snake was still there its blood still wet and slick. I took some in my hand and watching Elwood and Marina began to stroke it over myself.
I turned a moment to stare at Zim who was awake and staring right back at me. His bloody stump was thrust inside of Artemis , her skinny, naked form contorted over him, her hand on his engorged snake vigorously pumping it. Her mouth wide open. Her beady, lidless, blind eyes covered in wet sticky fluid. I could feel a convulsion as I watched and licked my fingers clean of it.
I could hear sniggering.
I opened my eyes.
Everyone was sleeping peacefully. The snake had started to rot. Slowly. It’s blood congealing in small pools among its many open wounds.
The others slowly stirred to life.
“What now?” I said
“We find Acerak” Zim said.
The others agreed, nodding. Stomachs aching out.
So we did.
A stairway led down into his crypt. Blocked by thick, stringy, goopy webs.
Zim procured a bottle from his pack and threw it at the web it exploded in fire burning its way through them.
There was an iron mace inlaid with silver at the bottom of the floor. I felt my stomach lurch as I grabbed it and tasted the sensation of a thin gruel entering my stomach It wasn’t much. But it was something. The mace began to glow a bright golden light and felt unerringly accurate as I swung it out in front of me.
The room beyond was filled with rotting and decayed furniture and sitting in the centre was a prone, humanoid figure , skeletal beyond a few scraps of flesh hanging loosely off of it.
A voice echoed from the distance shaking the entire chamber “Who dares to disturb the rest of Acererak? It is your death which you have found!”
As the words spoke Acererak began to rise, he ore a golden crown upon its head.
He advanced towards us, gesturing wildly with its hands.
I raised the mace in the air and struck it against Acererak who was shambling towards me now his maw uttering words in a language I could not comprehend as though to cast some hex upon me. The mace hit with a brilliant light and I could see chunks of his flesh be torn from his skeletal frame and scatter land with a plop upon his crypt.
I felt a tremor in the crypt itself as I did so but I ignored it and continued my onslaught.
Marina was just gaping at the thing. She could do nothing in her nakedness. Ineffectually firing crossbow bolts towards whatever sounds she could hear. Elwood was holding tightly onto Marina as though she was some teddy bear. Zim was eyeing the room and the creature lost in thought.
It raised its hands once more in mockery and I struck it again. It was flung back this time across the ground this time crashing into its own sarcophagus with the breaking sounds of bone.
I went in for the kill and raised the mace high in the air. The creature lurched upwards and went to take a swipe at me while continuing to chant that bellowing chant. I brought my mace down upon its skull and tore it apart.
There was a stillness for a moment then realisation set in.
I hadn’t heard the tremors growing louder around us on every strike of my mace. Hadn’t head the shouts of me to stop. A huge piece of masonry crashed down to the floor next to me and I barely dodged out of the way in time. It sent up a huge rivulet of dust and I could see the entire complex around us starting to collapse in of itself.
I ran. Crashing rocks fell all around me. I didn’t know where the others were and I didn’t care. I was not going to be trapped under there in the darkness, broken and alone.
It was Marina who stopped me. Placing an arm on my shoulder. I whipped around and let out a scream.
“Stop.” She said
I looked back down the Corridor. I could see Zim standing perfectly still and calm in the centre of the room we had slain Acererak in. Falling rocks were crashing around him and some were landing . Yet he stood. Calm. Still and smiling.
It wasn’t real as soon as I realised this the crumbling chunks of rock disappeared and the room formed back into itself. The Lich still lay dead upon its crypt
“I was trapped under the real thing, you think I wouldn’t know a fake?” Zim said
Scraps of treasure. Copper mostly with a few gems. We took it greedily and felt our stomachs lurch.
“This isn’t it.” Zim said
“We need to keep going.” I said
So we did.
We went through the hall of poison gas.
We fought through the laboratory and hordes of undead wrapped in bandages
We went through the cavern of gold and silver mists.
Our hands burned in the acidic vats.
But we found him. The real Acererak.
The room itself was small, only 10 by 15 foot. A small, low, dust covered bench sat in the near back wall of this treasure vault and was surrounded by an abundance of all things you can imagine that glitter and glow. Three huge gems of emerald, peridot and black, scattered smaller gems shining amongst piles of gold and huge silver talents. I could hear my stomach gurgling.
As we stared at the skull dust began to swirl in the room and form the shape of a man. We stared at the shape and it began to advance towards us. I motioned for my sword and Marina put an arm on my and shook her head.
The thing dissipated and that’s when we noticed a skull sat on the dusty bench. Innocuous. Two bright gems were in its eye sockets, its eyebrows were made from more studded gems and its teeth were all a bright brilliant silver.
Instinct took over. We greedily began to paw at the skull, trying to wrench those gems from its sockets, we could taste it. An explosion force propelled us backwards as the skull began to form to life, floating eering into the air and cackling maniacally as it did so.
I launched myself at the thing and struck it hard with my sword. The blow didn’t even leave a mark.
Marina began to chant and a huge welling torrent of flame emerged from the ground and struck at the demilich. It nimbly dodged out of the way of the fire and came away entirely unscathed.
Artemis blindly shot a crossbolt at it which harmlessly richocheted foff the wall
Even Elwood somehow managed to muster an actual firebolt from his wand which merely ricocheted off the wall as the thing whizzed all around us cackling.
Then Acererak struck. I could feel the life force being sucked out of me like water draining down a plug hole. My body was wracked with unimaginable pain like my blood had been replaced with boiling pitch, I could see Artemis and Marina next to me suffering in the same way as the thing cackled and drew out lifeforce towards those shining gems in its eyes . It knew we 3 were strongest and it was just toying with us.
Zim had a sudden flash of insight and ran to one of the gems on the floor, picked it up and flung it at the skull. It whizzed through the air and cracked against it, utterly destroying the gem but chipping a fragment of the skull. It had hurt it.
I could hear DM laughing through the void.
We had no way to kill it other than using the treasure. There was no other way to hurt the thing but to use the treasure, to use our food.
Elwood went mad and leaped on top of Artemis and began chewing at her face, biting big, fleshy lumps off as she screamed and weakly tried to fight him off but to no avail. He would leave her like that, her face chewed off, Elwoods stomach full. Marina joined and lifted another gem from the floor and hurled it at the cackling skull, chipping another little fragment from it.
The skull floated in the air and laughed, and laughed, and laughed it’s toothless rotting grin.
It wasn’t playing now. Its eye turned towards Zim. She froze in place as a formless mass began to struggle from her and draw towards the eye, consuming it. Her body slumped totally inert and lifeless to the floor and the eye twinkled.
Then I saw it. Lying in the mass of treasure. An ornate deck of cards made of ivory. I could feel a power coming from the deck. It didn’t seem magical. Something else entirely.
Acererak was still absorbing Zim into it’s great eye. DM would be distracted now. Savouring the struggle. The suffering. His raison d’etre.
I approached the deck. It was light in my hands. It wanted me to choose how many cards to draw. I picked two and I drew from the dark. There was a brilliant, bright sun carved onto the card, I could feel myself grow in strength as it blessed me with experience that I formed into a better knowledge of magical powers. The deck was so powerful. Maybe even more so than DM. Created before even the world existed.
Then a black hollow sphere appeared in front of me. A sphere of annihilation. One I could control. A blessing. It meant total destruction, severing any link between our bodies and our minds in this place. No resurrection. No way to bring any of us back and I had the knowledge now to use it. They would have to die first. It is what they would have wanted.
DM realised what was happening. But too late. The sphere had done its job. Marina and Elwood were totally obliterated, their atoms and binary code flung apart by this thing and then I focussed it upon the grinning skull of Acererak and tore that apart too with Artemis’s soul trapped within and they were both sent to oblivion.
DM was raging. His toys were being broken. The tomb was crumbling all around me. I willed the sphere towards me, it inched, so close, so close to peace. A falling wall. I lost control of it and it spun out of control, falling into the distance and then vanishing.
There was still the deck. It was flung against the far side of the room. I crawled towards it. Outstretched my hand and drew the second card. A shining moon. A wish. I had a wish. I could escape, wish myself teleported into the sphere, end this. I opened my mouth but too slow, a crumbling piece of the tomb and crushed into my skull before I could utter anything. All faded to black.
It was just me and DM now. In the gloom. In the darkness. I was alone. He had morphed me. Changed me. For his own peace of mind. So he will always have a toy to play with. Always have a pain slave. If I thought he hated me then he hated me with an even deeper darker passion for destroying all his other playthings.
I am amorphous. A bloated , jelly like aberration. A loose thing on the end of a long stalk I call my eye. I float in the darkness, deep in the bowls of the dungeon, my flesh can no longer rip or tear. I cannot dash my brains out on a rock, nor fall upon a sword or hang myself off of a noose. I am immortal.
I can feel the wish still inside me. I could still wish my own oblivion and end this horror but it was impossible. My face just a flat, jelly like mass where my breath once formed. I let out an internal scream.
I have no mouth and I must cast wish.