Readers have been noting my absence as of late, and I’m coming up for air to share the first chapter of my new novel. Yes, it’s a Stranger Things piece (which I know will please many), but also something else, and a bit different from my previous six novellas. It’s a full length novel, for one (about 102,000 words), and it takes place before the events of the TV series, about three months before Will disappears and the boys meet Eleven. So Eleven doesn’t appear in this story.
Most significantly, it’s a portal fantasy. The boys travel to the Lost City of Cynidicea, where they encounter acid heads, magi, rival cults, and jihadists from the desert. I’ve wanted to see a novel written about The Lost City for almost forty years now. I consider Tom Moldvay’s module one of the best (if not the best) D&D modules ever written, and when only recently I realized how I could use the Stranger Things boys in that world, I knew it was a story I had to tell.
So here is the first chapter of sixteen. I’ll post a new one every week, and the epilogue on August 21. And as per usual, for purpose of disclaimer, this is a work of fanfiction that I do not profit from in any way. If I learn that either the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fanfiction of their property, I will gladly pull the story down.
The Lost City – Chapter One:
Games That Kill
Monday, August 1, 1983
“Will, get your ass down here!” shouted Dustin.
“I’m down here!”
“Well then go upstairs and come down again, and faster this time! Jesus Christ, we’ve been waiting on you. Did you bike to Chicago before coming here?”
Will took his seat at the gaming table, sweating and out of breath. I almost killed myself coming over here, thanks for asking. And mom’s going to kill me anyway. Whatever had Dustin so excited, it had best be worth biking across Hawkins in 95-degree heat, an almost-collision with a car, and a guaranteed grounding. William Byers was having the lousiest day so far of his summer vacation. At least it was cooler down here in Mike’s basement. His favorite place in the world.
He said hi to Mike and Lucas, who all but ignored him, though Mike slid him a can of Coke. They were fixated on three items spread out before Dustin on the gaming table: a folded poster, a silver chain necklace, and what looked like a scroll made of durable cloth.
“We’re all here now, Dustin,” said Mike. “What is this stuff?”
“Well, all-righty,” said Dustin. “As you all know, I’ve been making frequent trips to Rotten Gargoyle since the new clerk has been there.” Rotten Gargoyle was the gaming shop that fed their nerdy passions. Comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, mostly.
“That new guy is weird,” said Lucas. “His breath stinks and he never showers.”
“Yeah, but the manager left him in charge for the summer, so he’s buying all the gaming products, and there’s pretty cool shit we’ve never seen.”
“Who cares?” said Mike. “Nothing competes with D&D.”
Will agreed. He had no interest in any of the other role-playing games he’d seen on display at Rotten Gargoyle, except for the occasional Gamma World supplement. They’d played that post-apocalyptic nightmare a few times and had a blast. But it still wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons.
“But I am talking about D&D,” said Dustin. “The paraphernalia that guy is selling is incredible.”
“Is that what this stuff is?” asked Mike, reaching for the silver necklace.
“Hands off, Wheeler,” said Dustin, smacking him away. “Wait for me to show you.”
Mike rolled his eyes.
Dustin drum rolled. “These – get ready – are playing supplements for The Lost City.”
They stared at him.
“The module we played last month, remember?” said Dustin. “The pyramid in the desert? The underground city? The acid heads? The wacko religious cults?”
Will remembered all right. The Lost City had been their best campaign of all time. Mike had been in top form as dungeon master, the rest of them in rare form as players. (And Lucas in morbid form by the journey’s end: his character had died brutally.)
“Yeah, we remember,” said Mike. “What good is this stuff to us now?”
“It’s not really part of the game,” said Dustin. “It’s for fans of the module who’ve played it already, and want something, well… a little more real.”
“A little more real?” asked Lucas.
“Bear with me. The guy at Rotten Gargoyle showed me what this stuff does and it’s amazing. But you need to have an open mind. It’s psychic stuff. Ouija Board territory.”
“Ouija Board territory?” said Mike, incredulous. “Are you serious?”
Lucas swore. “You called an emergency meeting for this load of crap?”
Will was getting annoyed too. He had biked over here in the sweltering heat and nearly got clipped by a car, right after his mother insisted on chores that couldn’t wait. All for a voodoo stunt. Dustin was usually better than this.
“I thought it was crap too, until I saw with my own eyes,” said Dustin.
“Show us or shove out,” said Mike. “And this better be good.”
“All right, all right,” said Dustin. He grabbed the huge poster folded into four sections and unfolded it, holding it up in front of him. They all gasped.
“Holy shit,” said Mike.
It was a painting of something terrible, and yet terribly familiar: the corpse of the queen who had once ruled the Lost City of Cynidicea, now an undead wight.
“Queen Zenobia,” said Will, shuddering. He remembered in the game how the wight’s touch had drained him a level. (It had drained his character a level, precisely speaking, but like many D&D addicts, Will had come to think of his game character as an extension of himself.) It would have killed him on the spot if he hadn’t gained previous levels on the upper tiers of the pyramid. The painting made him feel uneasy. It resembled the module drawing Mike had shown them as they battled the wight, but it looked much more real, as if the undead queen was about to leap out of the poster.
“Yeah, the queen,” said Dustin. “Mike had us shitting our pants when he role-played this bitch. How would you like to see her really come to life?”
Mike barked a laugh. “That’d be a good trick.” Aiming for scorn but sounding unnerved.
“You’re going to make Zenobia live?” asked Will.
“Technically a bad choice of words,” admitted Dustin. “She’s undead and can’t live. By ‘live’ I mean, you know, animate – move, shriek, touch, attack -”
“Attack?” said Mike, startled.
“Of course,” said Dustin. “You don’t think I brought you guys here for a load of crap, do you?” He set the poster down on the table and grabbed the scroll, unrolling it. “When I read the incantation off this scroll, Zenobia will animate and come out of the poster.”
Lucas scoffed. “You’re saying that scroll has a magic spell on it?”
“I know, I know,” said Dustin, flattening the scroll cloth on the table. “It sounds crazy. But the clerk did the same thing for me with a poster of a blue dragon. I kid you not, he took me into the manager’s office and the poster was hanging on the wall. He had me stand in front of it about five feet, and then he read a spell off a scroll like this. It sounded creepy as hell and suddenly I was in a 3D movie. But it was more than visuals. The dragon was moving; its throat was making noises. And then it lashed its head out at me – I am not shitting you guys – and its jaws were wide open. I almost shit my pants.”
“How long did it last?” asked Will. His annoyance had given way to a guarded fascination. He had actually once seen a Ouija board work, and he believed there were things unexplained by science. And Dustin was neither a fool nor a liar.
“Not more than two minutes,” said Dustin. “Which was plenty. I wanted to buy the poster but the guy wasn’t selling it. He offered me Queen Zenobia instead. It came with a scroll and this necklace. The scroll has three incantations. The first one is called ‘Black Passage’. It brings the poster to life. The second one is called ‘Ashes to Dust’. You read it if Zenobia gets out of control; the spell banishes her or destroys her in some way. The third one is ‘Zoombie’. The clerk said that a zoombie is a zombie with more awareness and mobility – smarter and can move fast, I guess – but also said that he didn’t know what the spell was for, and it’s probably wise to ignore it.”
Lucas was shaking his head. “Magic doesn’t exist, Dustin.”
“Lucas, I saw what I saw.”
“What’s the necklace for?” asked Mike.
“Well, that’s for one of us to wear – that will be me – while the rest of you stay close. Within fifteen feet, the guy said. The necklace will protect us from evil or harm from any undead. Which I guess makes the second and third spells unnecessary.”
“I can’t believe we’re listening to this,” said Lucas.
“I can’t believe you waited for us,” said Mike. “I would have tried this as soon as I got home.”
“Believe me,” said Dustin, “it was hard to sleep last night with this stuff lying there in my room. But I had to wait for you guys. Each of the spells works once a month. Once you read it from the scroll, the incantation is void for twenty-eight days.”
“According to Stinky Breath,” said Lucas.
“I have great faith in Stinky Breath,” said Dustin. “You will too in a few seconds.”
“Let’s do this,” said Mike, impatient.
“Here we go,” said Dustin, donning the necklace. The medallion on it was a circle of glimmering crystal. “Mike, take down the Thing. Will, put Zenobia in its place. Lucas, try to be excited for Christ’s sake.”
Mike went over to the wall and began peeling down his poster of the Thing. Will looked for some tape in a desk under the staircase. He found thumb tacks instead, and used them to stick Zenobia where The Thing had been hanging for a full year now. Critics had panned the film as “nihilistic pornographic gore”, and there were parents in Hawkins still banning their kids from watching it. Will had loved it. But the Thing was more disgusting than scary. What hung on the wall in its place now was genuinely unsettling. Queen Zenobia was like Regan in The Exorcist or the ladies in The Evil Dead. There was something about females taken over by the supernatural that utterly terrified William Byers, though he was at a loss to explain why.
“Gather ’round,” said Dustin, holding the scroll. “And I need you guys to be absolutely silent. Not a sound, you understand? These words are weird and I practiced a lot of them last night. Don’t break my concentration. Yes?”
They murmured obedience and positioned themselves five or six feet in front of the poster, two or three feet apart from each other.
Dustin began reading the incantation: “Ama strobin pazarta…
The alien words tumbled and soon had a subtle effect: Will felt his limbs stiffen. In the poster – for a brief moment – Queen Zenobia’s eyes flared. This didn’t seem like trickery at all.
“… tantir manook somanzar…”
After a minute the air in Mike’s basement seemed to darken. Will felt a chill pass through his abdomen, light but sharp. The wight queen now had a 3D appearance… and she moved suddenly, sitting up straighter in her coffin. Ouija territory. What the hell were they getting into?
“… darheesha pikar danz derosiar…”
As Dustin kept chanting, a horrified gasp came from Mike. Will tried looking over at him, but his head wouldn’t turn from the image that was now badly frightening him. Zenobia was no longer confined by a poster boundary. The poster was gone – the basement wall was gone, for that matter – and in their place a tunnel of blackness at least ten feet high and wide. The wight had stepped out of her coffin and looked very real. Her eyes flared again, and at that moment Will knew they were making a terrible mistake. He opened his mouth to tell Dustin to stop… but it was too late.
“… raman lagesh tandahar!”
The spell finished and the world turned. Everything went pitch dark. Will screamed. He heard the others cry out but couldn’t see them. The darkness was absolute; the kids were blind. The air suddenly felt cool and dry, not the sweltering humidity of an Indiana summer. We’re not in Hawkins anymore. Will knew this beyond a doubt. Jesus God, what happened?
“DUSTIN!” roared Lucas. “What the fuck is going on?!”
“Put the lights back on!” yelled Mike.
“Oh Christ,” said Dustin. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. This is -”
There was a loud bang, and a crash against the floor. The boys screamed. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet away.
“Hello!” yelled Dustin.
“Who’s there?” demanded Mike.
“Will, are you with us?” asked Lucas. “Are you okay?”
No. Will was hyperventilating. I am not okay. “We’re not in the basement, you guys. I’m scared -”
He was cut off by a long tormented scream. A scream that would fill months of his nightmares. Lucas. Will knew – knew with sickening certainty – that Lucas had just been killed.
“Lucas!” screamed Mike. “What happened to you?!”
Dustin was swearing fiercely. “Why isn’t this motherfucking thing working?”
“What thing?!” yelled Mike.
“THIS thing!” shouted Dustin. “What else? It’s supposed to protect us – oh!”
They were suddenly bathed in a bright light radiating from Dustin’s necklace. The medallion was luminous. The kids blinked furiously as their eyes adjusted to the light… and then they screamed at what they saw.
Mike’s basement was indeed gone. They were in a room of stone walls, maybe thirty feet long and wide, with an open coffin at the center. A stone slab lay on the floor; the coffin lid that made the crashing noise. Standing about fifteen feet away was their poster nightmare made real: Queen Zenobia, the undead wight. She clawed the air and growled furiously, held back from the kids by an unseen force: the necklace.
“Lucas!” cried Mike.
He lay motionless on the floor. Zenobia had evidently singled him out before the necklace’s powers activated. That was disaster. A touch from a wight was instant death, unless you were high level. None of them were high level. They were kids, for Christ’s sake; zero-level bitch-queen fodder.
Mike knelt over his friend, begging him to wake up. Dustin fell next to him, adding his appeals. He put his ear to Lucas’s chest, listening. Mike cried, demanding that Lucas wake up. Will watched, unable to say the words. He’s not getting up, Mike. Ever again. He began crying too. They had been transported to a real D&D world, their ultimate dream, and death was already mocking them.
“Oh my God,” said Dustin, lifting his head up. He too was in tears. “He’s dead. Lucas is dead.”
Fifteen feet away, the wight snarled and bared her teeth.
Mike hammered his fists on the floor in rage. Then he turned and grabbed Dustin, pulling him up close. “You fix this, you understand? You brought us here to die! What is wrong with you? WHAT is WRONG with you?”
“Mike!” shouted Will. “Don’t do this.” Please. “We have to stick together.”
“Together?” spat Mike, standing up. “Lucas is dead! Because of Dustin! That leaves you and me, Will. That’s our ‘together’!”
Dustin was picking up the scroll he dropped upon arrival. As he unrolled it, a shriek rent the air. They looked over at Zenobia. Her eyes burned with murder – but now also with fear. Will recalled Dustin’s words: The second incantation is called ‘Ashes to Dust’. You read it if Zenobia gets out of control; the spell banishes her or destroys her in some way. That was according to the clerk at Rotten Gargoyle. That slippery shit must have known the poster was a gate to another world where an actual wight was waiting. Psychic phantoms and Ouija spirits didn’t require spells of destruction. Who the hell was that store clerk?
“Are you going to read the second spell?” asked Will.
“It’s supposed to banish or kill her,” said Dustin. “But who knows for sure. I mean, Jesus, all bets are off.”
“I’m going to kill that fucking clerk,” said Mike. “After I kill you.”
“Mike, stop it!” said Will.
“Keep quiet, you guys,” said Dustin. “I need to get this right.” He began chanting the second incantation.
At once Queen Zenobia shrieked, throwing herself against the protective force. Whatever the spell did, she feared it with a vengeance. Will felt a surge of righteous fury. I hope it blasts you into a billion atoms.
“… ash dahg reyku mek grimbador kush…”
The words were harsh and grating. If “Back Passage” was chilling (it had sounded like that Evil Dead incantation), “Ashes to Dust” was an assault. Zenobia felt it like a rain of fire. She leaped around the room and screeched, trying to shake off the burning pain. Will and Mike relished her agony. As Dustin finished the abrasive chant, her howls spiraled into an ear-splitting caterwaul, and then all at once she dissolved, collapsing in a pile of dust. Her crown clattered on the floor. Mike yelled in triumphant rage. Will’s anger fizzled out until he felt only emptiness. Lucas. This had to be a bad dream.
Dustin rolled up the scroll and squeezed it under his belt. “Thank God that worked.”
Will walked over to Lucas’s corpse. He knelt over and hugged his friend for a long time. When he was done, he looked up and Mike and Dustin. “How do we get home?” he asked.
“By reading that first spell again,” said Dustin. “Presumably. But we have to wait a whole month. Shit!”
“We’re not going home,” countered Mike. “Not until we find a way to get Lucas back from the dead. Even if that takes more than a month.”
“How do we do that?” asked Will.
“I don’t know!” said Mike. “I mean, are we actually in the Lost City? Is that what happened here? Is this a real D&D world that we’ve come to? This room looks exactly like the way Zenobia’s tomb is described in the module. How can there be an alternate world that replicates a D&D setting?”
“There’s one way to find out,” said Dustin. He pointed across the room. They all looked and saw a door. “You know the layout of the pyramid better than us, Mike. You were the dungeon master. And you remember all those modules by heart.”
Mike walked over to the door. “If we’re in the Lost City, then we need to find a cleric who can raise the dead.”
“Is there a high-level cleric in the Lost City?” asked Will.
“None mentioned in the module,” said Mike. “But the underground city wasn’t fleshed out with detail. Just the pyramid.”
“Which tier are we on?” asked Dustin.
“The fourth,” said Mike. “I mean, assuming this is all true.”
“It seems incredible,” said Dustin. “But we did disappear from your house. We’re in a place where magic works and the dead rise from their coffins.”
“And kill people with their touch, you asshole!” slammed Mike.
“Mike, I will do whatever it takes to get Lucas back! He was my friend too! I had no idea this stuff involved anything real.”
“Fucking store clerk,” said Mike. “He’s dead.”
“So behind that door,” said Will. “It leads to the false crypt, and then the king’s tomb, right?”
“Yeah,” said Dustin. “Alexander’s coffin has the plate mail armor +1 and the sword +2. We’re too small for the armor, but that sword would sure come in handy.”
“Forget it,” Mike snapped. “You’re forgetting the banshee in that room. Or do you want to get another one of us killed?”
“Maybe the necklace would protect us,” said Will.
“I doubt it,” said Dustin. “The clerk said this necklace protects against any undead, but a banshee isn’t undead. That sucks. We need magic items if we want a hope of surviving this pyramid.”
“Wait a minute,” muttered Mike. He walked over to Zenobia’s coffin and looked inside. “Dustin, get over here with the light.”
Dustin came over, followed by Will. The light from the medallion filled the inside of the coffin. They saw the item at the bottom and remembered it from their game.
“Hell yeah,” breathed Dustin. “The queen’s scepter.”
Mike lifted the long wand and examined it. “Your character had fun with this thing, Will.”
How could I forget? The scepter functioned as a wand of paralysis, and Will the Wise had used it to paralyze a few creatures throughout the pyramid. There was only one problem. “It’s useless to us. You have to be a mage or priest to use it.”
“I don’t know, Will,” said Dustin. “I was able to cast two spells from that scroll.”
“That scroll is exceptional, I guarantee you,” said Mike. “It was obviously made to be read by people in our world. This wand is native to the D&D world. I mean, how do you trigger it?” He waved it around. “Will’s right. It takes a command word that’s known to spell users.”
“Let me see,” said Dustin. Mike handed it to him. Dustin looked it over and waved it a few times. “Shit,” he said, handing it back to Mike.
“Keep it,” said Mike. “You have a belt to put it in. In case we do find a way to use it.”
“What’s our plan here?” asked Will. “Are we leaving Lucas in this room?”
Mike looked down at his best friend’s body, and the tears came again. Will cried too, knowing Lucas was gone for good. He wouldn’t say it out loud, and he’d follow Mike no matter what, but it was a no-brainer: there was a thousand to one chance against them finding a high level priest who had a resurrection spell and who was willing to cast it for their benefit.
Then he saw that Dustin was crying, and they all stayed like that for a while, mourning Lucas Sinclair. Mike doesn’t hate you, Dustin. He had to know that.
Dustin finally broke the ice: “Tell us what to do, Mike.”
Mike wiped his eyes and stood up. “We’re not leaving him in this room. We killed Zenobia but I don’t care. I don’t want him left in this crypt.” Mike grabbed under Lucas’s arms and lifted. “Give me a hand, Will. And don’t touch that bitch’s crown.” It was still on the floor, not far from them.
Will moved to get Lucas’s legs. Dustin came over to help.
“Don’t you touch him!” snapped Mike. “Get the door for us.” He and Will lifted the body.
Dustin backed off and did as ordered, walking over to the door and opening it. The light from his necklace revealed a hallway that went immediately right.
“You lead,” said Mike. “You have the light.”
Dustin nodded and went down the corridor. Mike and Will followed, carrying Lucas. The crystal shined bright light for twenty feet, and then dimmer light beyond. After forty feet the corridor turned right again, and then down another thirty feet to a dead end. There’s a secret door down there. It was all coming back.
Will didn’t like how life was imitating art. When they had played the Lost City last month, Lucas’s character had died. Not from Zenobia (it was Will the Wise who almost died from her touch), but from an flame strike spell cast by the Zargonite high priest down in the city. Still, the similarities were close. And Lucas’s character had stayed dead. There were no get-out-of-hell free cards in Mike Wheeler’s campaigns. Will didn’t expect one now either.
They stopped at the dead end, and Dustin searched for the door. “Our first real secret door, guys,” he said, moving his hands along the wall and looking closely for cracks. “Thank God for this light.”
“Hurry it up,” said Mike.
“My arms are killing me,” said Will, “I need to put him down.” He rested Lucas’s legs on the floor.
Dustin was muttering curses. “Son of a bitch. How do you find a secret door?”
“Kick the wall, you jerk,” said Mike, impatient. “If you -”
“Ah!” Dustin leaned into a portion of the wall and it gave way. He led them into the false crypt of the king and queen.
This room was bigger than Zenobia’s crypt, at least forty by forty feet, and was covered in bones that hid the floor. Two large sarcophagi gleamed with golden highlights. One was marked “Alexander,” the other “Zenobia.” Surrounding the sarcophagi were four wooden chests. There was a table with heaps of gold on it. Littered throughout the bones on the floor were a variety of broken objects: two smashed thrones, a broken chariot, smashed pottery, and torn clothing. Mosaics covered the walls, displaying dramatic (and traumatic) events. Images of war; rape; blood sacrifice. Mike knew these were historical episodes from the reign of Alexander and Zenobia. From over a thousand years ago.
“Wow,” said Dustin. “Just as I remember you describing it, Mike. The money looks real.”
In the game, Dustin, Lucas, and Will had been initially fooled by this false crypt. All the treasure on the table and in the chests – thousands of silver, gold, and platinum pieces, plus gems and jewels – was fake, and the corpses inside the sarcophagi weren’t those of Alexander and Zenobia, rather the bodies of slaves.
“Clear the table, Dustin,” said Mike, breathing heavily. “That’s where we’ll put him, Will.”
Will nodded, and Dustin upended the table. The coins fell with a raining crash, and the table smacked on its side. Dustin returned it to its standing position, and Lucas’s body was placed on top. They all looked down at him, and Mike touched his cheek. “We’re going to get you back, Lucas. I promise.”
“We need a plan for that, Mike,” said Will.
Mike walked across the room to a door. “This door leads to the crypt annex.” It was the huge hallway – and the only way into these crypts. They were probably the first people to get inside the crypts without first passing through the annex. “We need to go down the annex, and then through the secret door on the left.”
“You said we’re on Tier 4, right?” asked Dustin.
Will recalled the pyramid having five tiers. The first tier was the top of the pyramid that connected to the desert surface. The fifth tier was the lowest and connected to the underground city.
“Yeah,” said Mike. “Tier 4. It has all the burial rooms, not just of Alexander and Zenobia, but all the nobles who lived during their reign. And a lot of nasty shit haunting those tombs. We want to get off this tier ASAP.”
“Up or down?” asked Dustin.
“Down,” said Mike. “To the underground city. I said the secret door, it goes to the hallway with the trap door in the floor, and the ladder going down to Tier 5. On Tier 5 we’ll have to find the entrance to the city, and then look for a high priest who can raise the dead.”
“Why not up to Tier 3?” asked Will. “We could ask for help from one of the cults.” That’s what they had done in Mike’s game. Their characters had allied with the Brotherhood of Gorm against the Zargonites who ruled down in the city.
Mike shook his head. “Some of the cultists may be helpful, but none of them are high level. And outside the pyramid is just miles of desert. We have to go down. To the city.”
“Then let’s do it,” said Dustin. “And pray we don’t die like Lucas. Tier 5 is a bitch as I recall. Aren’t the acid heads down there?”
“Yeah, well, we’re steering clear of them,” said Mike.
Will groaned. He had forgotten the whole drug culture of the Cynidiceans. The mushroom gardens. The fearsome masks and exotic costumes. The natives baked out of their minds, living their dreams and nightmares. If we’re stuck here for a month, acid might start to look attractive. William Byers didn’t want to become a drug addict.
They left the false crypt, and went to find the ladder down to the fifth tier.
Next chapter: Holy Possessor