This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.
This prequel serves as an alternate season 4. It assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer, though she did not become one of the flayed.
Endless Night — Chapter Three
In the Depths of Dol Guldur
Looking back on it later, Mike felt they had brought the whole shadow invasion down on their heads — the Illithid, the shadow worms, the bombing of Hawkins’ Police Station — with that stupid Southern Mirkwood campaign. Breaking into Sauron’s home was the ultimate orgasm for a D&D player, but by going against one Dark Lord, they had channeled another. Mike was convinced of this, and he carried that conviction to both of his graves.
Lucas would have scorned such superstition. Will was obliged to agree with Mike: he had born the brunt of the Upside Down’s terrors, and those too started with a D&D game.
But on that Wednesday night of January 21, 1987, demogorgons and shadow monsters were the last thing on Mike Wheeler’s mind. All he knew was that Vijay Agarwal had a module called Southern Mirkwood. The module mapped out Sauron’s mountain — the domain of the Lord of the Rings himself — in complete sadistic detail. To not play it would have been a criminal waste; Mike would have regretted it.
He regretted it anyway. And wondered how things might have turned out otherwise.
For now he lived it up in his basement with his friends and the new guest. Bona fide nerds, high on camaraderie. Armed with dice, character sheets, dungeon master screens, and the obligatory junk food. Eager to kill orcs and the vilest creatures in the abyss of Dol Guldur — the worst place to be in Middle-Earth. Only true Tolkien fans knew that Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, spent most of the Third Age living not in Mordor, but Mirkwood Forest, where he called himself the Necromancer. His mountain of Dol Guldur was reached by a stone stairway that went up the mountain’s outer face, and then, from the top, descended down into his lifeless domain.
Vijay had outlined their mission in advance. The year was 1321, early in the Third Age. They were hired by the Rhovanian King to rescue his son the Prince, who was captured by orcs and imprisoned in the Necromancer’s mountain. Their party was six: Mikael the paladin (Mike); Elia the elf mage (El); Luc the ranger (Lucas); Dulin the dwarf warrior (Dustin); High Priest Will the Wise (Will); and Maisie the hobbit thief (Max).
It was a suicide mission, warned the king in fairness, for no one escaped Dol Guldur alive, far less had the balls (or stupidity) to break into. But he would reward them handsomely if they succeeded, and, after all, what high-level characters didn’t thrill to the dare of a “suicide mission” in Dungeons & Dragons?
By God, Mike was looking forward to this.
Red Fangs lay dead. And deep in the mountain’s bowels, Sauron stirred from meditation. Something had broken his thoughts, disrupted his brooding; a source of power he couldn’t define. It seemed as if half-forgotten dreams rose from his thoughts… and then fury seized him. There were intruders in his mountain. He linked his mind to Khamul up on level three, and gave the Nazgul clear orders: the infiltrators were to be caught at once; slain if necessary.
Mike and the other players were unaware of this, but they knew something was coming. El had used her spells. She had killed the Great Warg; her magic would rouse the Necromancer. They had poked the Lord of the Rings, killed his favorite pet, and were about to pay the drastic price.
“Time to shag ass,” said Dustin.
“Up the main shaft?” asked Will.
“No choice,” said Mike, not liking it, but seeing no alternative. They had found what they came for, and the mission was a bust.
“Okay,” said Vijay. “As you leave the guard room, you hear distant shouts and clamor. It’s sounds like a lot more orcs mobilizing somewhere.”
“I can’t even believe this,” said Mike. They had rescued the Rhovanian Prince, and he had been killed right away; savaged and torn apart. Their quest failed at the point of success.
“Believe it,” said Dustin. “Vijay is like you. He rolls the dice and doesn’t fudge.”
“Now you know how it feels, Mike,” said Lucas, from his isolation on the couch. He was browsing through Vijay’s other modules while the others played at the table. He had been out of the game as soon as it began, and was still stewing over it.
Max joined him, falling against him. “Now I know what it feels like,” she said. It was her first D&D game, and her character — like the prince they rescued — had been killed by the Great Warg. “We’re both dead,” she said. “Don’t we go to Valinor now?”
“Uh, no,” said Dustin. “Only the elves go to paradise.”
“Hobbits go there too,” said Max. “Bilbo and Frodo –”
“You guys need to be quiet,” said Vijay to Lucas and Max. “You’re dead.”
Lucas had died a most insulting and indignant death, by a floor trap in the mountain’s entry hall. His corpse lay thousands of feet below that trap; probably somewhere around the level they were on now. He had thought himself shrewd and clever, using his ring of jumping to leap over what looked like a double pit trap. It had turned out to be a triple pit trap. The floor past the two pits was no floor at all, but paper that was painted to resemble the stone floor. That “floor” gave way at once, and Ranger Luc fell three thousand feet down a chute. Jelly on rocks.
Lucas was pissed, but Mike knew they were all lucky. More of them could have easily died in that hall, if not for Max. Her character — the hobbit thief Maisie Brandybuck — had proven her use, disarming four other nasty traps. Will the Wise, for his part, had wisely advised that they walk single file, which saved them from triggering a chill trap; it would have entombed every one of them in a wall of ice. Only Ranger Luc had been claimed by the Hall of Many Deaths.
From that point the party had proceeded down the main shaft, the interior winding stair that provided access to the eight levels of the mountain. It had no railings, and the chasm was vast, gaping thousands of feet beneath them; it would kill any clumsy fool who fell in. It was easy to imagine drunk orcs dying this way as Sauron laughed his ass off.
It was a hive down on level two. Orcs swarmed everywhere, making a din to match the silence of the first level. The party members were disguised as orcs, thanks to El’s illusion spells (cast well in advance of coming near Sauron’s mountain), and Will could speak the orc language. From this advantage they had prodded for information and learned that the prison cells were down on level six. They proceeded there directly, bypassing levels three, four, and five.
Level six was a hell-hole, and Vijay reveled in its horrors. What he described happening to an elf maiden in a torture hall shocked even Mike — and certainly El, who had minimal exposure to themes of rape (and worse). Games weren’t supposed to be this ugly. El had insisted on rescuing the elf, but was firmly overridden by the veteran players. To survive Dol Guldur, you stuck to the mission and no more. The Prince of Rhovanion was their target; they couldn’t be everyone’s saviors in this dungeon. Not if they wanted to leave it.
When they found their target, they almost abandoned ship. He was guarded by the unholiest of unholies, Caran Carach, or “Red Fangs” — the Great Warg who had savaged countless armies across the southern Rhovanian plains. Keeping him company was a ten-foot troll and a nasty squad of eight Uruk-hai. Going all in was the only play. Weapons alone wouldn’t bring down these nasties. El and Will had to start using spells.
The king had told them the rumors: in Dol Guldur spell casting was an automatic alarm trip. The Necromancer smelled it on all levels of his mountain. No way around it.
El cast a death spell that dropped five of the Uruk-hai before they could draw their scimitars. Then Mike led the charge, and everyone crashed into the chamber, weapons drawn.
It was ugly. Max’s hobbit and the rescued prince died almost right away. Dustin’s character would have gone down too, but Will cured him in time with a healing spell. The party was now four: Mikael, Elia, Dulin, and Will the Wise. Getting the hell out of Dodge was the immediate new priority. Their disguises were shattered, and they had a long way up.
“Let’s move,” said Mike. “Back the way we came. El, be ready with more spells. I’m thinking chain lightning.” Every orc that lived in the mountain was about to descend on them.
“Dustin, we’ll need shock waves,” said Mike.
“No shit, Sherlock,” said Dustin.
“And don’t hit us while you’re at it,” snapped Mike.
“Ye of little faith,” said Dustin. His dwarf had a magical war hammer called Grimjaw. Twice a day Grimjaw could be used to strike the ground and send a shock wave out from the point of impact, stunning and paralyzing anyone on the ground within a hundred feet. But if you weren’t careful, the shock wave could rebound on you and your friends. End the game right there.
They rushed back to the central shaft.
Twelve hundred stairs to level five, and no higher. Scores of orcs poured down from level four, screaming battle cries. Leaving the shaft, the heroes ran in search of another escape route. But not Dulin; he turned and raised Grimjaw, and like a dwarven king of old heaped virulent curses on the servants of Darkness. The orcs screamed louder, ready to tear the dwarf apart. Dulin brought down Grimjaw. The shock wave rippled up the stair, knocking orcs off their feet; more than a hundred plunged into the endless chasm. Roars of outrage filled the shaft. Dulin lifted his finger to the remaining orcs, cursed them again, and then chased after his friends down the hall.
Dustin kept laughing. He had just killed a hundred plus orcs with a single stroke of his war hammer.
“Enjoy yourself,” said Will. “Hundreds more are coming. We’re going to be trapped on this level — way too deep.”
“We’re not giving up,” said Mike. “There have to be other ways up. Where does this hall take us?”
Vijay grabbed a marker and used the whiteboard. “The hallway ends at a huge underground lake and becomes a bridge.” He drew a rough rectangular-shaped room. “The lake is about six hundred feet wide and four hundred fifty feet across.”
“The mountain’s water supply, maybe,” said Dustin.
“Can we see any passages on the other side?” asked Mike.
“Hold on,” said Vijay, sketching in more details. “The bridge zigzags a path across the lake, and you can hear noise on the far side. It sounds like groaning and churning metal. It’s too far away, and too dark in the cavern, for most of you to see that far, but El can, with her elvish sight.”
“And?” asked Mike.
“El can see some kind of pulley system next to the bridge, going down into the lake and then up into the ceiling.”
“Interesting,” said Dustin.
“What do we do?” asked Will.
“You’d better decide fast,” said Vijay. “The orcs aren’t far behind.”
“What a clusterfuck,” said Mike. “We’re rats in a maze. Check for traps, Will. If the bridge is clean, we’ll run across.”
“I cast a ‘find traps’ spell,” said Will.
“No traps on the bridge,” said Vijay. “And the orcs are coming.”
“We run to the fork and turn left,” said Mike. “We’ll see what’s up with these pulleys, but I have a feeling this bridge will be our last stand. Get ready with chain lightning, El.”
“What does that do, again?” she asked.
“Same as a regular lightning bolt, except that the bolt arcs from one target to another, like a chain, for as many targets as you have mage levels. You’re 16th level, so in effect you’ll be blasting the orcs with sixteen lightning bolts.”
Lucas called from the couch: “Did you pull that out of your ass, Mike? I don’t remember a spell called ‘chain lightning’.”
“It’s from Unearthed Arcana,” said Mike. That was the supplement to The Player’s Handbook, published in ’85, when they were hardly playing the game anymore. Except Will.
“Ready with chain lightning,” said El.
The water flashed with reflected lightning as the orcs were blasted, killed, knocked off the bridge, or driven back. The survivors screamed and began to flee, terrified of the electric bolt that was jumping from one orc to the next and exploding each time. The heroes dared to hope. Then suddenly the hordes charged with renewed strength, as a dark and terrible Captain appeared behind them, forcing them on. It was a Nazgul. Elia’s lightning spell had called it like a mute summons. The Ringwraith now took full charge of the bridge attack, ravenous for payback.
Dustin swore violently. “I knew there had to be a Nazgul in this mountain!”
They had made their stand at the lake’s center, where the bridge turned at a right angle; the pulleys were about two hundred feet away.
“Time for blood,” said Mike. “I draw my holy avenger.”
“Avenger shit,” said Dustin. “You’re not sword-fighting a Nazgul. You’d die in two rounds. And Nazgul don’t bleed.”
“I cast ‘insect plague,'” said Will.
“That’s a good start,” said Mike. Swarms of insects wouldn’t harm the Nazgul, but they would make things very difficult on the orcs — obscuring their vision and stinging them every round.
Behind his screen Vijay rolled dice. “The insect swarms are pissing off the orcs for sure. Some of them even lose their balance and fall in the lake.” He looked at Eleven. “The Nazgul pushes to the front. He has you in his sights, El.”
Dustin looked at her. “He senses your power, El. Blast the fucker.”
“What do I do?” asked El, looking down at her spell list.
“Fire,” said Mike and Dustin at once.
“You mean fireball?” she asked.
Mike and Dustin started talking at once again, and Mike told Dustin to shut up. “Nazgul are undead,” he explained to El, “so they’re immune to cold and only half affected by lightning. Fire hurts them completely.”
“And if I can speak now,” said Dustin, “according to Tolkien, natural fire does them even more harm than magic fire.”
“Is that true?” asked Will. They all looked at Vijay, who didn’t answer.
“Of course it’s true,” said Dustin.
Mike scoffed. “What are we going to do, throw torches at this range?” They hadn’t used any of their torches yet in Dol Guldur, because Mike’s holy avenger provided enough light. “Fireball him, El. The explosion will take out a shitload of orcs too. That’s serious collateral.”
“Co-lat-er-al?” asked El.
“Yeah. Do it.”
Elia’s hand surged with power and a ball of flame shot from it, hitting the Nazgul and exploding in a blinding flare. Her friends on the bridge cheered as at least a dozen orcs died in the blast, burnt to a crisp, and many others fell into the water. Screams ricocheted over the lake’s surface. Then she watched in horror as the Nazgul stood unharmed. It held forth a broadsword that spat blue frost and absorbed the flame around it. The Ringwraith stared at Elia…and advanced.
“Son of a bitch!” said Dustin.
“We’re going to die on this bridge,” said Mike. “Let’s run to the end and check out the pulleys.” They were two hundred feet away.
“The Nazgul and orcs chase you, of course,” said Vijay.
“Of course,” said Mike.
“As you get closer to the other side,” continued Vijay, “the pulleys look like a system designed to carry water to the levels above. You can also see a passage beyond the pulleys, that slopes down and leads out of the cavern.”
“When we get there,” said Will, “I cast ‘find the path’.”
Mike approved. “The rest of us turn and fight while Will is casting his spell.”
Vijay nodded. “The Nazgul and orcs stop about fifteen feet away from you, ready to attack. Will’s ‘find the path’ reveals that the passageway leads only deeper into the mountain, and that the pulleys are your quickest way out.”
“How do they work?” asked Eleven.
“They’re in constant motion,” said Vijay. He scrawled a diagram on the white board. “The three chains drop from a circular opening in the ceiling and connect to three gears you can see just below the surface of the water. There are troughs attached to the chains that scoop water from the lake and carry it up through the ceiling.”
“Are the troughs big enough to hold people?” asked Will.
“Yes,” said Vijay. “One person at a time.”
“And there are only three,” said Mike. “You guys go, I’ll stay behind and follow after.”
“You’ll die if you stay behind,” said Dustin.
“Someone has to fend off the Nazgul while the others ride the pulleys. Otherwise they’re sitting ducks.”
“Fine,” said Dustin. “We’re all dead anyway.”
The chains ground along in ceaseless rhythm: down from the ceiling, into the water, and up again. The three giant scoops filled with water as they passed beneath the lake and were carried aloft. Elia, Will the Wise, and Dulin son of Fundin each leaped to a chain and landed in a trough, splashing water. As the chains slowly carried them upwards, Mikael faced the Nazgul on the bridge.
“Go back to the Shadow!” he cried, drawing his holy avenger.
The Nazgul hissed, tormented by the sword’s holiness. It raised its own sword, spitting blue frost. Behind it on the bridge, orcs cried for Mikael’s blood.
Mikael lunged. The Nazgul cried and drew back, wounded. Incanting Black Speech, it lifted its free hand in the air and made a fist. Mikael screamed, assaulted by some evil magic, but his holy avenger warded him. Halfway to the ceiling, his friends watched helplessly, unable to shoot missiles or spells for fear of hitting him.
Mikael swung his sword again, and missed. The Nazgul clenched its fist a second time — this time prevailing against the holy avenger’s power. Abruptly, all the moisture went out of Mikael’s body. Shrieking horribly, he shriveled into a dry husk and collapsed on the bridge. The orcs roared in triumph. Elia screamed Mikael’s name. The Nazgul raised its frost brand, and with both hands stabbed the blade down into Mikael’s withered form. Cheers thundered over the lake; orcs pounded their shields. Mikael jerked under the cold blade, and breathed his last.
“For fuck’s sake,” said Mike. He crumpled up his character sheet and threw it in the wastebasket.
“That was a nasty spell,” said Dustin. “Whatever it was.”
“Yeah,” said Will. ” ‘Power word dehydrate’?”
“Will, you’re a shit cleric,” said Mike. “I could use a ‘power word resurrection’ right now.”
“I don’t allow resurrection spells in my games,” said Vijay. They already knew this.
“Well you’re a shit dungeon master,” said Mike.
“Stop talking, Mike,” said Vijay. “You’re dead. On the bed.” They were calling the couch the “dead bed”.
“The bed’s overcrowded,” said Mike. Lucas and Max were spread out in each other’s arms. Mike got up from his chair. “Anyone want more food?”
“Yeah,” said Dustin, waving an empty bag. “We need more Cheetos.”
“You’re getting crumbs on my floor!”
“Chill out!” said Dustin. “You died, so what? It’s a game.”
“Bring some more Dr. Pepper, if you have it,” said Lucas. He had drunk two cans already. He knew better than to ask for New Coke, which was his favorite soda. Mike thought New Coke was toxic syrup.
“Jesus, it’s getting cold,” said Max. She grabbed a blanket at the end of the couch, and put it over her and Lucas.
“It’s called a basement,” said Dustin. “We’re underground.”
Mike swore and went upstairs. He needed to be away from this goddamn game for a few minutes. Power word fucking dehydrate. He shouldn’t have felt bad. Going against a Nazgul was suicide. But Mike hadn’t played as a player since… well, almost never. He had a dungeon master’s complex, and thought himself protected. He swore up a storm. Dustin was right: Vijay didn’t fudge any dice rolls. He was fair to a fault.
Max was right too, he realized. It was suddenly a lot colder, not just in the basement, but here in the kitchen. If the furnace broke he was moving out. He checked the nearest vent and felt the blast of warm air. The heat was fine. It’s the Nazgul. Here in my house, spraying cold with that goddamn sword.
He went upstairs and put on a sweatshirt, and also grabbed the small sweater lying on his bed. He smiled. El seemed to like D&D. He realized how much he missed playing. He recalled the summer of ’85, when he had ripped Will a new one. We’re not kids anymore. What did you think, that we were just going to sit in my basement all day and play games for the rest of our lives? It’s not my fault you don’t like girls. Jesus. Telling Will, of all people, to grow up. Every one of them was still growing up.
He returned to the kitchen and ransacked the fridge. No more Dr. Pepper, but plenty of Coke. Classic. Mike smiled vindictively, grabbed a six-pack, and then dug out a fresh bag of Cheetos from the chip cabinet.
Down in the basement, everyone whooped. Something wild had just happened. Mike prayed with all his heart that Dustin was getting killed.
He stood up — and almost dropped the chips and soda. For the briefest moment he saw a shadowy form outside the kitchen window. Someone or something was looking in at him. Then Mike blinked, and the figure was gone. He went up to the window and looked out. Nothing.
He dismissed it as the result of gaming imagination and went back downstairs.
Mike’s prayers had misfired. It wasn’t Dustin who died, but Will.
“Details,” he demanded, setting down the soda and food. “Vijay, we need a game pause.”
“That’s fine,” said Vijay. “I need to take a shit. And no peeking behind my screen while I’m gone.” He went into the bathroom on the other side of the basement.
“What got you?” asked Mike. He reached behind Vijay’s dungeon master screen and grabbed a third bag of M&Ms. He tore it open and replenished their bowl, picking a red one to eat right away. After eleven years, red M&Ms were back. Most stores wouldn’t have them until February, but Indianapolis was selling them already, and Vijay’s father had been to the capital over the week-end.
Will was stretching out on the floor. “Ask them. I’m disgusted.”
Dustin tore into the Cheetos bag. “Will the Wise looked at a symbol of death, and his bones dissolved inside his body.”
“He turned to mush,” said El. “Right in front of us.”
“Brutal,” said Mike.
After Mikael’s fall, the remaining survivors — Dulin, Elia, and Will the Wise — had ascended over 1500 feet and jumped off the water troughs on level three, not daring to ride the pulleys any higher. Terrible noises were coming down from the pulleys on level two, and they remembered the swarming orc hive up there. The plan was now to find the central stair on level three and resume their escape, before the hordes on level five could race up to intercept them.
Their entry point on level three was a room with nothing in it, except for a death symbol scrawled on one of the walls. Will the Wise had the misfortune of seeing that symbol. He failed his saving throw — rolling a putrid “2” on the 20-sided die — and his skeleton had liquefied on the spot, turning him, as Eleven said, into a steaming pile of mush.
That left El and Dustin in the game: elf mage and dwarf warrior. They had gone into a network of rich-looking rooms, apparently the chambers of some high ranking official. Probably filled with treasure, but they didn’t waste time looking. When they found the audience chamber containing a black throne, it was obvious these rooms belonged to the Nazgul. They had debarked in the lion’s den.
They ran away fast, down a hallway in the direction of the stair shaft. They were blocked by an Easterling sorcerer and had to fight him. It was a time sink, but he eventually died under Dulin’s hammer.
“I hope you got in some blows, El,” said Mike.
“I cast magic missiles at him,” she said.
“She did him the most damage,” said Max. “Dustin just moved in for the kill.”
“You lie,” said Dustin. “I was pounding the shit out of that sorcerer every other round.”
The toilet flushed and the bathroom door banged open. Vijay came back, trailing a noxious odor. Everyone pretended not to notice. Mike made a mental note to avoid Indian cuisine.
“Okay,” said Vijay, “let’s finish this. The stair is about a hundred feet ahead. And you can already hear the hordes from below. They’re coming, and they’re going to make it first.”
“Damn that sorcerer,” swore Dustin. “He made us take too long.” He turned to El. “All right, listen. They beat us and we have to fight. So you’re going to kill that fucker Nazgul for killing Mike.” He looked at Mike. “Mikael,” he amended sarcastically.
Mike flipped him the finger.
El was dubious. “How?”
“You have a ‘telekinesis’ spell,” said Dustin. “It does the same things you do in real life. Both of us are going to light up our pairs of torches, and you’re going to fire them all straight into that Nazgul shithead.”
“The same things she does in real life?” asked Vijay.
“Oh… inside joke,” said Dustin. “El can do magic tricks.”
“You’re an idiot, Dustin,” said Mike. “Fire is useless against the Nazgul as long as he has that fucking sword.”
“You’re dead and you can’t talk!” yelled Dustin. He turned back to El. “I’m hoping — praying — that the Nazgul’s sword only absorbs magic fire. Nazgul magic isn’t supposed to work against natural fire.”
Mike made an obscene noise.
“Okay,” said El.
“And your necklace protects you from projectile missiles, so I’ll let you lead first.”
Dustin held out his hand for a diagonal handshake. “Dwarf and elf power?”
El grasped it and shook.
They stared at each other for a long moment: mage and Nazgul; elf and undead. Behind Elia lay Dulin’s corpse, a black arrow in his back. Before her, the Ringwraith and its horde, blocking the vortical shaft. She didn’t care. Escape no longer mattered. She would avenge Mikael and all her friends.
She had done as Dulin ordered; two torches each; four total, suspended in the air in front of her. As the Nazgul advanced, she loosed the firebrands at it. One by one they hit, and lit up the wraith like kerosene. The Nazgul dropped its sword and let out a shriek that seemed to shake the walls of the mountain. It jumped and spun and wailed like a child stung by thousands of bees. It was an avatar of undead pain; a wound in Sauron’s eye.
Vijay was caught up in the act, enacting the Ringwraith’s trauma. Mike had to admit he was a good dungeon master.
His prayers against Dustin had been answered. The dwarf had been shot from behind — from the direction he and El came — by an arrow of slaying. Some assassin had spotted them around the Nazgul’s throne room fighting the sorcerer, and then quietly followed them. The irony was cruel: Dustin had put himself behind El to avoid being shot, and he got shot anyway. Might as well blame it on Mike’s facetious prayers.
But Dustin had been spot-on about natural fire. The Nazgul was completely helpless now.
“I fireball the Nazgul to finish him off,” said El. She had one more fireball spell, and no worries about the sword of blue frost absorbing it. The sword was on the floor.
“The orcs are surging toward you,” warned Vijay. “An endless wall of them.”
“Well…” She panicked, looking down at her character sheet. Mike cursed under his breath. Cast your repulsion spell. But he couldn’t advise her. He was dead, like everyone else. She was on her own.
Vijay gave her a nudge. “Do you remember what all your high-level spells do?” Mike had explained her spells before the game started.
She saw a spell on her list and remembered what it did. “I cast ‘repulsion’, to keep everyone away.”
“Good,” said Vijay. “The orcs suddenly look confused and move away from you, in various directions.”
“How long does the spell last?” asked El.
“You’re a sixteenth level mage, so it will last thirty-two minutes.”
“Is the Nazgul affected?” she asked.
“No,” said Vijay. “But he may as well be. He’s burning like an inferno and can’t do anything useful — stumbling in every direction, banging against the walls, trying to put the flames out.”
There you go, El. Finish him off. Mike was proud. His girlfriend was actually going to kill one of the Nine Ringwraiths.
“I fireball the Nazgul,” she said.
“Your fireball hits the already-burning Nazgul and explodes like a bomb.” Vijay stood up dramatically, and everyone leaned forward. “The Nazgul wails. It shrieks. It howls in madness. It jerks forward. It lurches backward. It grabs an orc within reach and sets it on fire. It snaps the orc’s neck. It falls on its face –”
Vijay never finished. A deafening concussion rocked the Wheeler house. An inside thunderclap, shaking the walls and ceiling.
Everyone screamed and jumped from their seats. The floor rumbled and made their bones and teeth vibrate. The house was about to collapse.
“Holy shit!” yelled Max.
“What’s happening?” Vijay was cowering in terror.
The shaking of the walls, floor, and ceiling escalated… and then stopped. No one in the room moved or breathed.
Mike broke the silence. “Just wait,” he said in a shaking voice.
“Wait?” said Lucas. “For what?”
“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Maybe it’s an earthquake. They’re usually over in, what, less than a minute?”
“That’s no earthquake, my friend,” said Dustin softly. “Earthquakes don’t sound like thunder and lightning inside your house.”
“Something’s very wrong,” said Eleven.
Will started moving. “We need to get out of –”
Another monstrous clap — it sounded like a blast of lightning right upstairs in the kitchen — and the house shook longer this time; for almost fifteen seconds.
When it stopped, everyone’s paralysis broke. They shouted and ran for the basement door next to the gaming table. It led directly outside.
“Stop!” said Mike.
Everyone froze, looking at him.
“Don’t go out there,” he said. “When I made the food run, I saw something outside the kitchen window. It was… weird. It could be right outside the house waiting for us.”
“Thanks for telling us,” said Dustin.
“It was only for a second, and I thought I imagined it.” He knew it wasn’t the worm from Sunday night. That thing had been huge. But he wondered about the face in last night’s dream. Aqueous, octopus-looking, full of hate.
“Whatever you saw seems to be inside your house now, not outside,” said Max. “Like, right upstairs in the kitchen. We need to get the hell out of here.”
Vijay agreed. “I’m not waiting for your house to cave in, Mike.” He was no longer the dispassionate dungeon-master; he was the most frantic person in the room.
“Hold on,” said Will. “Maybe it’s stopped.” Over a minute had passed since the last tremors.
Mike took control. “El, you and me. We’re going upstairs. Just us. We’re going to make sure nothing nasty is in the house. When we call down with the all-clear, everyone can come up.”
Lucas began: “I don’t –”
“Stay by the door. If another blast goes off, or the house starts shaking, don’t wait for us. Just run outside. But not yet; not unless you have to. If that thing is out there, El can’t protect you from it when she’s searching the house with me.”
They reluctantly agreed, and he and El went up.
“Upside Down,” she said, when they reached the kitchen.
“You think?” She had to be right. The sudden coldness had been another tip-off he ignored. He likes it cold. Mike remembered Will’s possession. But while the Mind Flayer had thrived in coldness, it had never caused it. As far as Mike knew, none of the creatures from the Upside Down had ever altered the weather or made air temperatures drop.
This is a different creature, he thought with a certainty. And much more powerful.
They went through every room together, and found no structural damage. Windows, walls, and ceilings were intact. A few things were out of place. In the living room, books had fallen from their shelves; in his parent’s bedroom, a table lamp was knocked over; in the kitchen, a broken glass on the floor (courtesy of Holly, who had left it close to the edge of the counter); in one of the bathrooms, bottles of shampoo and conditioner had fallen into the tub.
They opened every door, every closet, and looked under every bed and piece of unlikely furniture. If there was an unwanted guest in the house, it was invisible. Mike declared the house free of intruders.
“It could be outside,” said El.
“We’re going there next,” said Mike. If this had been a B-grade horror movie, they would have checked outside first, declared the grounds safe, and then locked themselves inside the house with whatever was stalking them. People were stupid in horror films.
They returned to the kitchen. Everyone had come up from the basement.
“We weren’t waiting anymore,” said Lucas. “What did you find?”
“Nothing,” said El. “Aside from us, the house is empty.”
“Then what the hell was that? It was no fucking earthquake.”
“Let’s look outside,” said Mike.
“It’s not as cold anymore,” said Max. “For like, the last two minutes.”
“I noticed,” said El.
Mike had felt the change too.
They searched outside around the house and found nothing out of the ordinary. Mike checked with two neighbors, who said they had heard thunder from the direction of the Wheeler house, which made no sense to them. Mike told them they were fine, thanked them and returned home.
They argued more and agreed on nothing. Mike was sure of one thing: something from the Upside Down had been outside his window, and then inside his house. That being, whatever it was, had nearly brought his home down. It was starting again. But how? Had someone opened another Gate?
“There’s something else I have to tell you guys,” he said. “You too, El.”
“By all means,” said Dustin. “It’s always nice when you share.”
“I had a dream last night,” said Mike. “El was at Max’s and I was alone. It was a bad nightmare. Worse than my nightmares of Starcourt, even. I mean, it seemed real. It really freaked me out.”
“What was it?” asked Lucas.
Mike walked over to the gaming table and grabbed Vijay’s Monster Manual. He opened it to the “M’s”, flipped a page, and lay the book down on the table, pointing to the picture of the monster.
They all looked.
“‘Your mind flayer’?” asked Vijay.
“Yeah,” said Will. “There was an actual mind flayer that attacked Hawkins.”
“We called it the Mind Flayer,” said Mike. “But only because Dustin gave it that name, and we couldn’t think of a better analogy from D&D.”
“Shut up, you guys,” said Vijay.
“We’re not bullshitting you,” said Dustin.
“You expect me to believe this?” asked Vijay.
“It was a creature from another dimension,” said Will. “And not the first we’ve dealt with. This one was really bad, and it invaded Hawkins twice. We called it the Mind Flayer, but like Mike said, we were just using the best analogy we could think of. The thing was huge — like, thirty feet long with floating tentacles. The second time it was this gross-looking inside-out creature, made up of mutilated people. People from Hawkins.”
“If you don’t want me around anymore, then just say so,” said Vijay.
“If you don’t want to believe us, you probably should go home,” said Mike.
“But this thing,” said Max, pointing to the book, “is human sized. That’s a pretty puny mind flayer.”
“D&D mind flayers aren’t ‘puny’ just because they’re our size,” said Mike. “They’re nasty as hell. They ‘mind blast’ people with psychic power and then eat their brains. They’re just as powerful as the huge creature we called the ‘Mind Flayer’ — maybe even more so.”
“But Mike, you only dreamed this,” said Lucas.
“It wasn’t like any nightmare I’ve had before, Lucas. It seemed real — like the monster projected itself into my mind. I’m not shitting you, I almost had a heart attack in my sleep.” Mike had never seen eyes filled with so much hate. “And when I woke up, I was just dreaming waking up, and it was there waiting for me. And then I did really wake up. It was scary — and real. Now my house almost collapsed. I’m sure my dream was coming from an outside force.”
“You think this mind flayer is what you saw outside the kitchen window?” asked Lucas.
“Probably,” said Mike. Probably, shit. He was sure of it.
“Well,” said Dustin, “we can’t call this thing a mind flayer, even if it is. We called the thirty-foot long shadow monster the Mind Flayer for too long. We’ll just confuse ourselves.”
“I agree,” said Mike. “We’ll call it by its other name: an illithid.”
“Ill-uh-thid?” asked El.
“It’s an insider term,” said Mike. “It’s what’s what the D&D mind flayers call themselves.”
“Yeah,” said Vijay. “”Mind flayer’ is the colloquial term for ‘illithid’.”
Lucas was reading the description in the Monster Manual. “I don’t see any reference to that term.”
Mike had researched it all last night. “It was first used in the D-modules, in the late ’70s. You know, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Vault of the Drow –“
“Oh, I remember all right,” said Dustin. “The dark elves. That underworld was insane.”
Mike had run a brutal campaign. Lucas, Dustin, and Will had been subject to an unspeakable nightmare world. A city miles underground, where dark elves plotted against each other, demons and vampires walked the streets, and obscene sacrifices were offered in back alleys, all under a weird purple light. They had gone into torture parlors, bordellos, drug saloons. One of the torture saunas was run by an illithid; a mind flayer. It had devoured the brains of its clientele, and almost did the same to Dustin before Lucas and Will killed it. An illithid incapacitated a victim with psychic power, and then latched its mouth tentacles around the victim’s head, squeezing the brain out and eating it live. Mike’s role-playing had conveyed the procedure dramatically.
“I’d forgotten that word,” said Lucas. “‘Illithid’ it is.”
“So what’s our plan?” asked Will. “How are we going to stop the Illithid?”
“We don’t even know what it wants,” said Max.
It wants me. Mike had no idea why but didn’t doubt it. The worm — probably the Illithid’s pet — had been stalking him out from the Drapers’ front lawn, and the Illithid had infected his dreams. Now it was terrorizing his home. But he wasn’t ready to talk about the worm yet.
“Are you in with us or not, Vijay?” asked Dustin.
Vijay was studying them all carefully. “I don’t believe any of this, but I don’t think you guys are lying. And I don’t think you’re crazy. I guess I want to find out what this is about.”
Dustin clapped his back, smiling. “Then you’re one of us now. Get ready for dungeons and death. Your life as you know it is over.”
“I think we need to call it a night,” said Max. “We’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Let’s go,” said Lucas. “I’ll get you all home.”
“Mazda-man,” said Dustin.
“Mike,” she said later, when they were in bed and everyone had left.
“Why didn’t he come after us?”
“I don’t know. The Illithid is probably warming up for something.”
“I mean the Necromancer,” she said. “In the game. If my spells made him aware of us, why didn’t he come to kill us personally?”
He couldn’t believe she was still thinking about the game. “Because he’s Sauron. The Lord of the Rings. He was killed at the end of the Second Age and he wants everyone to think he’s still dead. He can’t take the chance of showing himself. So he calls himself the Necromancer — it’s his disguise — and he lets his dogs do the dirty work.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly not understanding.
“In the game we kept calling him Sauron, but we were kind of cheating there. Or at least we weren’t role-playing well. Technically, our characters wouldn’t know that Sauron and the Nazgul were alive. Vijay set our game in the 1300s. No one finds out the Necromancer is Sauron until 2850, and it’s not until 2951 that he moves to Mordor. Our game took place centuries before the story of The Lord of the Rings.”
All of this sailed completely over El’s head.
“I’ll read you Lord of the Rings sometime,” said Mike. “If you want.”
She closed her hand around his, but didn’t answer.
“Hey,” he said. “El. You okay?”
She turned to look at him in the darkness. His night-light bathed their skin in deep blue. “Can we make love now?” she asked.
What’s going on with you? Even after the camaraderie of that evening, she sounded isolated; abandoned. It was the same depressive cloud that had been over her for weeks.
He pulled her closer. “You know I love you, right?” he asked.
“Nothing will change that.”
He caressed her face in the cerulean rays.
“Mike,” she said, as if searching for words to say something.
“Shh,” he said, stopping her mouth with kisses. At first she just let herself be kissed, and then she was devouring him back. She slid her arms around him, holding him and tonguing him as hard as she could, until he was ready to do his thing — the thing he never tired at, and that brought her to a place that left misery behind.
Next Chapter: Under a Raging Moon
(Previous Chapter: MLK)