Social Justice Theories: Original, Applied, and Reified Postmodernism

I read Cynical Theories (2020) on the advice of a friend whose advice seldom fails. It’s a helpful examination of certain theories and their relationship to postmodernism, which was bonkers in the first place but has mutated into the social justice agendas of the hard left.

The authors are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are hardly two peas in a pod. They had a considerable difference in opinion over the last election, with Lindsay deciding in the fall of 2020 to support Trump. I deeply admire Pluckrose, and whatever made Lindsay align himself on the other side of the electorate, that doesn’t undo his sound contributions in this book. In fact, his co-authorship tests the reader. Anyone who dismisses the book in advance because “Lindsay became a Trumpian” is subscribing to identity politics – judging a book not on the basis of its arguments, but who wrote it – which is what Cynical Theories is about.

Postmodernism’s Three Stages

Postmodernism has been hard to define, and the authors outline the core principles and corollaries shared in all three phases of the movement (pp 59-61).

The core principles —

A. The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.

B. The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.

And their corollaries —

1. The blurring of boundaries. Most evident in postcolonial and queer theories, which are centered on ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, indefinability, and hybridity – all of which blur or even demolish the boundaries between categories. The common concern is over “disruptive binaries”. This theme is less evident in critical race theory (which actually can be very black-and-white).

2. The power of language. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous – and can be just as harmful as physical violence – has become so widespread now to amount a near criminalization of the English language and making people (especially comedians) fear to speak at all. Concerns about verbal violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and politically-correct terminology all testify to the endurance of postmodernism in its applied and (especially) reified forms.

3. Cultural relativism. Most evident in postcolonial theory, but also more broadly in the context of social-justice scholarship. Put simply, western nations are the pinnacle of oppressive power, and the sins of cultural arrogance and western imperialism are as great as – if not greater than – customs like honor-killings and clitoridectomies.

4. The loss of the individual and the universal. As opposed to classical liberalism, which focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities (for all races, genders, and identities), so as to allow each individual to fulfill his or her potential, applied and reified postmodern activism is deeply skeptical of these values, if not openly hostile to them. Applied/reified postmodern scholarship regards classical liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities.

The original postmodernists (of the late 60s to the mid 80s) were a bit aimless, using irony and playfulness to reverse hierarchies and disrupt what they saw as unjust knowledge and power structures. The players are well known – Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard – and their treatises were mostly descriptive, of what has been and is (as they believed).

The applied postmodernists (of the 90s and the 00s) and the reified postmodernists (of the 10s to the present) have focused on dismantling hierarchies and making moral claims about language and oppression – thereby becoming an activist force, preaching about the evils of power and privilege. They have used postmodernist ideas for reconstructive purposes, in a prescriptive way – putting an “ought” ahead of what “is”. Applied and reified postmodernism have actively undermined public trust in the academy, and become more like a church, asserting what people ought to think and believe, irrespective of science and evidence which are seen as integral to power structures.

Put another way, the original postmodernists observed and lamented. The applied and reified postmodernists have sought to reorder society – and in the last decade, the reified incarnation has become a mighty effective force, and an authoritarian one.

The Social Justice Gospel of Reified Postmodernism

Social justice warriors frequently take umbrage at requests for evidence, because, as the authors explain, the scientific method is part of the discourse system and knowledge production that was built by powerful people who valued these approaches and designed them (it is said) to exclude alternative means of communicating and producing ‘knowledge’. Science, in other words, has been organized in a way to serve the interests of the powerful people who established it – white western men – while setting up barriers against the participation of others. To remedy this, applied/reified postmodernism has demanded “epistemic justice” and “research justice” in place of reason and evidence. Meaning that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural and/or religious traditions of minority groups, and consider them “knowledges” to be privileged alongside – or even over – reason and evidence-based knowledge.

If the applied postmodernism of the 90s and 00s remained confined mostly to academic fields and activist circles, the reified postmodernism of the last ten years has been aggressively mainstreamed. Say the authors:

“The reification of the postmodern principles means that the original postmodern radical skepticism that any knowledge can be reliable has been gradually transformed into a complete conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power, which is rooted in identity, and that this can be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. Therefore, in Social Justice scholarship, we continually read that patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and fatphobia are literally structuring society and infecting everything. They exist in a state of immanence – present always and everywhere, just beneath a nicer-seeming surface that can’t quite contain them.” (p 182)

And so it’s common now to hear that all white people are complicit in racism (if not racist), because of their automatic participation in the system of power and privilege described by critical race theory; that all men are likewise complicit in sexism (if not sexist); that sex is not biological, and it exists on a spectrum; that denial of gender identity is killing people; that the desire to cure disabilities and to remedy obesity is hateful; that criticism of the Islamic religion (describing it as a religion of violence) is hateful; and that language can be literal violence.

If that all sounds insane, or paranoid, or anti-factual, it is, and the authors compare the postmodernist view to a vast social conspiracy theory. A theory in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. Communicating with the applied/reified postmodernists (i.e. the wokes and social justice warriors) can be extremely difficult in this sense, say the authors, because they are so obsessed with knowledge, power, boundaries, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The past decade has brought this all home, as social justice scholarship treats these postmodernist principles as dogma, tolerates little dissent, and “cancels” those who disagree with it. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book thus comes as a welcoming corrective, and it’s especially useful for pulling together the core principles and corollaries of postmodernism that are sometimes elusive.

From Start to End

The book proceeds as a chronicle of the three stages. In chapter 1 the authors describe the tree trunk of original postmodernism, and its deconstructive project of despair and nihilism. In chapters 2-7 they outline the tree branches of applied postmodernism – postcolonial theory (which is exposed as often factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing, not to mention negligent and dangerous), queer theory (which often tries to modify or unmake the concepts of gender and sex in anti-scientific ways, so as to render itself baffling and irrelevant), critical race theory (in which racism is construed to be not merely prejudice, but “prejudice + power”), feminisms and gender studies (in which the classical liberal roots of feminism are seen to be replaced with the postmodern blurring of categories and an obsessive focus on language), and disability & fat studies (which advocate that disabled and obese people have a responsibility to celebrate their disabilities or fathood to subvert social norms, and even to refuse attempts at treatment or cure). In chapters 8-9 they paint the leaves of reified postmodernism, which is now an effective movement that has come to full fruition, taking the applied theories and cramming them down everyone’s throat.

And in that end game, a curious irony emerges – the “contradiction that lies at the heart of reified postmodernism: how can intelligent people profess both radical skepticism and radical relativism – which is the postmodern knowledge principle (1, above) – and at the same time assert the Truth According to Social Justice Theory with absolute certainty?” The authors offer the following explanation:

“The answer seems to be that the skepticism and relativism of the postmodern knowledge principle are now interpreted in a more restrictive fashion: that it is impossible for humans to obtain reliable knowledge by employing evidence and reason, but, it is now claimed, reliable knowledge can be obtained by listening to the ‘lived experiences’ of members of marginalized groups… The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice way of ‘knowing’ is, however, the same as that with all gnostic ‘epistemologies’ that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience. What should we do when peoples’ subjective experiences conflict? The overarching (classical) liberal principle of conflict resolution – to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible – is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.” (pp 209-210)

It’s thus no exaggeration, as the authors conclude, to say that the reified postmodernists – the social justice theorists – have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of almost any kind.

And it’s no accident that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this crazed reified PoMo. In the middle of the 2010s, the time was ripe for someone like him. Granted this happened for many reasons (not least the Democrats’ neglect of the middle-class), a big reason was this regressive-left authoritarianism. When social justice warriors portray themselves as the sole champions of the marginalized, advancing their cause – astonishingly – by rejecting classical liberalism as a form of oppression, and then on top of that by doing so in increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian means, it wasn’t surprising to see a Donald Trump emerge. Wokeism called him forth.

The Endurance of Classical Liberalism

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s alternative to social justice theories comes in the final tenth chapter, where they explain why classical liberalism has stood the test of time as the best political option, and how classical liberalism and reified postmodernism are not just in tension, they are almost 100% at odds with each other:

  • Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about objectively, with enough discipline; postmodernism sees knowledge as created by human beings – stories we tell ourselves to validate privilege and power.
  • Liberalism embraces categorizations and clarity of understanding; postmodernism blurs boundaries and erases categories, reveling in manufactured ambiguity.
  • Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; postmodernism rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics.
  • Liberals champion the underdog, but they center on human dignity across the board; SJWs and wokes focus on victimhood.
  • Liberals encourage disagreement and debate as a means of getting at the truth; postmodernism rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives – claiming that we can’t get to “the” truth but only “our” truths rooted in our values – and furthermore insists that most truth is just a language game.
  • Liberals believe in progress; postmodernists are skeptical of progress.
  • Most importantly, classical liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is thus self-correcting; reified postmodernism cannot be criticized. Which means that classical liberalism is inherently constructive because of the evolutionary process it engenders; SJW/woke postmodernism is inherently corrosive because of its cynicism and attachment to methods that torpedo the evolutionary process.

I have always been a classical liberal and Pluckrose & Lindsay’s book reinforces my stance. Liberalism holds to the values of individual liberty, democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, freedom of speech and expression and debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion – and these values have produced the freest societies over the past five centuries, with the least amounts of oppression. This is because liberalism is “intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and – despite what postmodernists think – genuinely progressive.” (p 243)

To those who insist that progress is a myth, I can only roll my eyes. Progress has always occurred the fastest (despite setbacks) under liberalism, not least in the 60s and 70s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal, homosexuality was decriminalized, and women gained access to contraception. This all happened during the time postmodernism was revving up and, incredibly, insisting that it was time to stop believing in progress, science, and reason. Maybe the postmodernists just genuinely didn’t know what progress was. Or perhaps PoMo thinkers never stop to reflect that without the “oppressive tools of the white male patriarchy”, they’d likely be dead or living in primitive squalor without the benefits provided by math and science over the past centuries.

Can anything be salvaged from postmodernism?

Very little. The authors acknowledge kernels of truth to the core principles of postmodernism and the four corollaries, but it amounts to damning the PoMo project with faint praise. There is literally nothing postmodernism can do, that liberalism cannot do better. The authors consider each (see pp 252-258):

A. The postmodern knowledge principle. The principle assumes that knowledge is a socially constructed cultural artifact, which is only true in a banal sense. The principle does tell us to do a better job of listening and considering alternative ideas. Fair enough. But it certainly doesn’t obligate us to “listen and believe” or to “shut up and listen”.

B. The postmodern political principle. The principle assumes that the world is a zero-sum power game and a conspiracy theory without individual conspirators. It can’t accept that progress is incremental and fallible, and practically resents scientists’ lack of omniscience. It is correct, however, that harmful discourses can gain tyrannical power and harm people. And guess what? Reified postmodernism is one such discourse. It’s good that liberalism fights back against it and its social justice theories, as this book does.

  • The blurring of boundaries. Granted it is wise to be skeptical of rigid boundaries. They should be tested always. But categories themselves are not inherently oppressive. If you want to argue that men and women don’t fit neatly into boxes, use science to show that, not your wishes.
  • The power of language. Language can indeed be dangerous, but regulating language, censoring speech, or manufacturing offense in language is even more dangerous. Liberalism advocates a marketplace of ideas; the idea that social justice is served by restricting what is said or banning some ideas or terminologies is unsupported by history or reason.
  • Cultural relativism. There are indeed profound differences across cultures. As a former Peace Corps volunteer I’m aware of that more than many. But it’s just as dangerous and ridiculous to pretend that we cannot make judgments about the practices of a culture other than our own. Despite our variances across culture, we are first and foremost human beings with a universal nature.
  • The loss of the individual and the universal. There is some truth to the idea that individualism and universalism is limited, but there is more truth in the idea that everyone of is is an individual and share a common human nature. Identity politics is simply a lousy way to empowerment. Imagine, say the authors, if Martin Luther King Jr. had asked white Americans to “be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant” (like Robin DiAngelo asks in White Fragility). The fact that King, liberal feminists, and gay pride activists of the 60s and 70s grounded their social-justice protests in appeals to liberal, individual, and universal dreams is what made them successful. Making common cause with others is the enlightened approach to social justice.

Principled Oppositions

The authors conclude with a set of “principled oppositions” which illustrate their approach to social justice (the classical liberal one) compared to the postmodern approach to Social Justice (with a capital S and J). I’ll cite the third one, for sexual identity:

We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires addressing.

We deny that this problem can be solved by queer theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.

We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.

We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.

We contend that sexual minorities are also normal and represent a natural occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.

They also do sets like this for racism, sexism, and social justice in general. Affirmations, denials, and contentions that I agree with entirely.

Afterthoughts

Alongside Cynical Theories, I recommend another book that I never got around to reviewing: The Coddling of the American Mind (2019), by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book describes the alarming decrease in people’s ability to cope with debate, challenges to precious ideas, and hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s hardly the students’ fault, and Cynical Theories helps us see why: the culture of reified postmodernism is so suffocating and omnipresent these days, that it’s simply how students are conditioned: they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn’t have to be threatened by challenging or difficult or different ideas – especially not those that go against social justice dogmas.

Watch your language

And on another related note, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the second corollary of postmodernism, regarding the power of language, and how people are so willing to let language unnerve and upset them to debilitating degrees. I speak as a minority on the subject. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and know first-hand the power of derisive speech. It’s human nature to be bothered by hostile language or hate speech – and tempting for many to want to censor or deplatform it altogether. But we have to be better than that, and refuse to allow language to get the better of us. The reified postmodern idea that language is literally violent is only true if the listener allows it to be true. Decrying politically incorrect speech at every turn grants language way too much power over us. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have empathy as speakers; simply that we need more resilience as listeners.

The Lost City: Mushroom Madness

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                      The Lost City — Chapter Four:

                         Mushroom Madness

 

“That trap is pretty obvious,” said Demetrius.

“Yeah, if you’re looking for it,” said Mike.

It was a pressure plate in the floor twenty feet before the door, easily spotted in a stop and search. If you stood on the plate, the walls ahead of you – ten feet before the door – would crash together and then fly back apart, which triggered an alarm bell down in Darius’ room. It was also a deadly trap for those coming out the door who forgot about it: stepping on the pressure plate would then kill anyone who followed ten feet behind. The Cynidicean natives would obviously know to walk around the plate, but Mike wondered about casualties. Behind this door was the recreational complex where people came to get baked out of their minds.

“Shrewd bastard,” muttered Demetrius.

“What?” said Will.

“My brother. He was no dummy, making this area his hideout. Last place anyone would look.”

“I’m guessing he’s not the party animal,” said Mike.

“He despises acid-heads. He’s not even a minor addict. He purifies what he drinks from the common water supply. He’s one of the few Zargonites who has a clear head.”

“Well, let’s do this,” said Lucas. “After a ghost and hell hounds, party rooms with drug-heads should be a cakewalk.”

They had returned to the fifth tier, and gone through a chapel, and then down a corridor to the abandoned quarters Demetrius had mentioned. Mike, Lucas, and Demetrius had found clothes and footwear for their adult bodies and now looked like “proper” exotic Cynidiceans, though they refused to wear masks. Then they backtracked to the corridor that took them where they were now. Mike remembered this encounter area with immaculate clarity. The first room was a lounge: a hang out joint for acid heads. Inside the lounge were two doors: one leading to a ball room, the other to a gambling room. In the gambling room was a secret door that led to Darius’s chambers; his secret hideaway.

Mike expected things to get interesting now. If Lucas was expecting a cakewalk, he’d either forgotten or didn’t take seriously the D&D torments Mike had inflicted on him in these rooms. Acid heads were unpredictable, and sometimes dangerously so.

“Follow me,” said Demetrius. He led them around the pressure plate – an easy feat, unlike hugging the walls above the pit trap – and through the door. They entered the lounge and stopped at what they saw.

“Whoa,” said Lucas.

The lounge was huge, at least fifty feet ahead and eighty feet wide. Ten people sat in divans about thirty feet ahead, in a semicircle facing the entry door. A coffee table had trays of food, and glasses of water and wine. Behind them to the right, against the far wall stood a line of desks. The people on the couches were robed and masked. Their masks were fearsome animals, covering the whole face except the mouth. Some of these men and women were eating off a tray and drinking; others stared straight ahead at the intruders without seeming to register their presence.

“Hello there,” said Demetrius, waving his hand.

A woman in a wolf mask turned from her food tray to look casually at Demetrius. She promptly lost interest. A man in a bird mask sat up straight and stared raptly at the intruders. The other eight Cynidiceans may as well have been comatose. One of them screamed at the ceiling.

“God, it’s just like our game,” said Will.

“Yeah,” said Lucas. “You role played these stoners pretty well, Mike.”

“Think we should join them?” asked Mike, trying for levity. He was trying to see the food on the trays, which had to include mushrooms. The drugs were cultivated down in the city, in gardens the size of two football fields.

“You and Lucas will be tripping on something else,” said Demetrius. He led them further into the room and stopped. “Do not, and I mean not, eat anything on those trays if you’re offered.” Now they were close enough to see the food on the platters: crackers, cheese, pickles, and, yes, plenty of mushrooms. Most of the shrooms were dark blue, though some were yellow-and-orange spotted, and one was red-and-white spotted. That one was on the wolf lady’s tray.

“Dark blue is your everyday acid trip,” explained Demetrius. “The most common shroom in Cynidicea.”

“How many kinds of mushrooms are there?” asked Mike. The Lost City module hadn’t gone into any detail about the drugs.

Demetrius laughed. “At least thirty, maybe even more. Most of which you’d be wise to avoid.”

“What are the yellow and orange ones?” asked Will.

“Those make you sex crazed,” said Demetrius.

“Oh brother,” said Lucas.

“The red-and-white spotted is rare,” said Demetrius. “It alters your senses entirely. You end up seeing sounds, hearing sights, smelling touches – or any recombination of those.”

“I’m not taking anything that fucks me up that way,” said Lucas.

“Of course not,” scoffed Demetrius. “I need you guys effective, not hallucinating. We need the amphetamine shrooms, but they’re locked away in those desks.” He lowered his voice. “There’s a key hidden in one of the unlocked drawers. Stay here, I’ll be back.” He crossed the room and walked around the divans. The acid heads ignored him. At the far wall he began trying desk drawers.

“That’s the door we want, right?” Will was pointing to the wall on their right.

“Yep,” said Mike. “It goes to the gambling room, which leads to Darius’ hideout.”

“What about that door?” asked Lucas, pointing left. “Did we go through that one in the game?”

“Yeah,” said Will. “The ball room. Remember we -”

“Uh-oh,” said Lucas.

The bird man had risen from his couch and was walking toward them. His eyes were fixed on Will.

“Hey,” said Mike. “Can we help you?”

The bird man ignored Mike and peered down at Will trough the eye-holes of his mask. “Are you the fiddler?”

“The fiddler?” asked Will.

“Ignore him, Will,” said Lucas.

The Cynidicean rubbed his groin. “Are you here to fiddle with me, you handsome runt?”

“Hey!” said Mike. “Get lost.”

The bird man opened his robe and let it fall to the floor. They all gasped. He was stark nude and displayed a fully erect penis. “I want that boy to fiddle with me, do you hear!” He hopped left and right, not taking his eyes off Will.

Mike couldn’t believe his eyes. As dungeon master he had gone wild in role-playing these acid heads, and made them do crazy things. But this was X-rated land.

Lucas stepped in front of the bird man. “Tough shit for what you want. Back off.”

The bird man cawed, skipped backwards, and then jumped back close to Lucas. He tore off his bird mask and threw it violently aside. A wild-looking face stared at them. He was in his twenties, white-haired, red-eyed and completely baked. His gaze went from Lucas to Mike, and then lingered again on Will, smiling. Mike didn’t like that smile.

Demetrius called from across the room: “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah,” said Will, shaken.

“No!” said Mike and Lucas.

“Hang onto yourselves,” said Demetrius. He was rummaging through a desk drawer and seemed to find something.

The bird man shucked to the left and shucked to the right, dodging Lucas in order to address Will: “I want you to FIDDLE with me, boy!” His penis was a huge exclamation point. Lucas blocked him and told him to shut up. The man feinted one way and then leaped the other. “FIDDLE with me, you sweet sugar!” He was stroking his erection now. Mike was appalled. If that pud got any harder it would burst.

Lucas was fed up. He told the man to put his robe on and sit back down. The man frowned, crestfallen. Then he giggled and slapped Lucas across the face. Lucas batted away his hand and gave him a final warning. The man put his face in his hands, pretended to cry, and made weird noises; then he looked up deviously. He leaned forward at Lucas, opened his mouth, and exhaled a cloud of white powder. Before Lucas could react, he was choking. He gagged and fell to his knees.

Mike yelled in outrage and rushed without thinking to help Lucas. The bird man saw his opening: he leaped forward and snatched Will’s arms. Will protested as the man pulled him into a lover’s embrace – and kissed him wetly on the lips. Will gaped in shock. The man kissed him again, forcing his tongue deep into Will’s mouth. Will gagged, terrified out of his mind. Then the man grabbed Will’s fingers, caressing them one by one while ranting nonsense in Will’s face:

“These are your FINGERS, sweetie be-DINGERS! Rub them HERE, little DEAR!”

From Lucas’s side, Mike saw Will’s hand being forced to rub the man’s phallus. Mike went nuclear. He abandoned Lucas and charged the man, tearing him off Will. Full of rage, he drew his sword and swung. The man was decapitated in a clean stroke. The head went flying as the body fell. Mike’s fury didn’t abate; he hacked at the headless corpse non-stop.

Demetrius was running across the room, enraged. “What the hell is going on here!!!”

Mike kept hacking, swearing furiously. The image of Will being molested was overwhelming; on some level he felt violated himself. He (and Lucas) had been thrust into adulthood as no human being ever should. At twelve years old he had barely understood the concept of sexual assault. Now he was in a body chock full of sexual urges, with no idea how to process them. The bird man’s indecent exposure had sickened him, confused him, and even aroused him against his will. He hated himself, and his hate needed an outlet. A child molester qualified.

“Stop it, you idiot!”

Mike barely heard Demetrius and kept bringing down his sword. The floor was a gore-streaked mess. It was about to get messier. Then suddenly he couldn’t move; he dropped his sword, paralyzed. Hold person. The cleric had cast that spell on him. Mike couldn’t even speak.

“Okay now?” asked Demetrius.

Mike’s rage slowly subsided and he became aware of his surroundings. The acid heads were much as before: most of them sprawled on their couches, oblivious to the carnage. One was standing. He wore the mask of a honey bee, and was gazing at the intruders curiously. Mike heard Lucas retching behind him. The bird man had blown a toxic powder in his face. Hopefully not deadly.

At his side Demetrius asked again: “Are you calm? Blink twice if yes, and I’ll cancel the spell.”

I’ll cancel you, asshole. But he blinked twice and was released.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” demanded Demetrius. “Are you a barbarian?”

“He was molesting Will!” shouted Mike.

“He was high on acid, dumbass!”

“You think that’s an excuse?” said Lucas. He was on his feet now and wiping his mouth.

“I’m not justifying!” said Demetrius. “But he didn’t deserve to have his fucking head chopped off! He was probably a decent enough guy.” He looked down at the corpse. “What a fucking mess.”

“Are you okay, Lucas?” asked Mike.

“Never mind me,” said Lucas, coughing.

That left Will, who was still in shock and couldn’t find his voice. “Hey,” said Mike, coming over to him. Will yelped and jumped back. It took minutes for Mike to talk him down. At one point Will threw up. The poor kid was still twelve. Sexual coercion on top of watching his friend decapitate a human being had traumatized him. It ended with Mike hugging him and Will crying against his shoulder. Jesus, this is fucked. We need to get home. Especially Will.

There was a buzzing noise, and Mike and Will stood up. The bee man had come over to them, holding a jar with a spoon in it. Lucas had his sword drawn, but Demetrius told him to put it away. The bee man offered the jar to Lucas. It was full of sparkling honey.

“Go ahead and eat it,” said Demetrius. “It’s from the bee nests up on the second tier. It has curing powers that should neutralize any poison you inhaled.”

Lucas grabbed the spoon and fed himself a huge glob of the honey. He began feeling better at once, and he thanked the bee man. The bee man snatched the jar back as if mortally insulted. He spat on Lucas’ feet, and then “flew” off, buzzing around the room in a mad sprint.

“All right,” said Demetrius. “Everyone with me, back to the desks. You’re the most fucked up novices in the world. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

Mike couldn’t argue. As he walked by the mess he made, it started catching up to him. Jesus, I killed a man. Murdered him. He stopped and threw up on the corpse. Everyone turned and stared.

“All three of you,” said Demetrius, shaking his head. Lucas from poison; Will from trauma; Mike from doing the unspeakable. “Please get your shit together. We’re this close to the end.”

Yeah, your end. Mike wanted Dustin back more than anything.

At the desks, Demetrius resumed his search. He had left a bottom drawer open, filled with pouches and boxes. He examined their contents. Mike saw mushrooms of at least a dozen different colors.

“What color do we need?” asked Lucas.

“Blood red,” said Demetrius.

A scream of pure agony filled the room. They looked over at the couches. The wolf woman was on her knees, trying to fend off a phantom assault.

“Anyway,” said Demetrius. “They should be in here somewhere.”

“Blood red will make us go berserk?” asked Lucas.

“Berserk like Mike when he killed that poor sod. Except your heads will be clear. You’ll be able to think straight – even sharper than you usually do. You’ll be driven by rage but not blinded by it. Or at least not too much. Hopefully.” Demetrius stopped suddenly as he peered into one of the pouches; he reached in and pulled out a handful of shrooms. They were blood red. “Score!” He tossed one at Mike and another at Lucas. “Eat them now. It takes ten to forty minutes for the effects to kick in. We’ll strategize in the meantime.”

Mike examined his mushroom, turning it over. He looked at Lucas. “You ready for this?”

Lucas glared at Demetrius. “If I get berserker flashbacks for the rest of my life, I’m taking you with me to Hell.” He bit off half his mushroom and began chewing.

Mike shoved the whole thing in his mouth. He expected something nasty and bitter, but it didn’t taste that bad. Pretty good actually; a bit earthy.

“Chew them up good,” said Demetrius. “Let your bodies process it. Ah-hah!” He had found another pouch. He emptied into his hand two mushrooms that were light pink.”

“What kind are those?” asked Will.

“Piggy pink,” said Demetrius. “Otherwise known as comedowns. They’re the strongest sedative grown in the city. Mike and Lucas will need these to come down from berserking after we take care of Darius. Otherwise they’ll be raving psychos for a long time – anywhere between six to fifteen hours.”

“Give them to us,” demanded Lucas, holding out his hand.

“I think not,” said the cleric. “They stay with me until Darius is dead.” He pocketed them in his belt pouch. “Now, in the time we have to kill, let’s check out the ball room.”

They crossed over to the left door. Most of the acid-heads were still staring off into space. None had reacted to the headless corpse. The bee man was standing – “hovering” in the air, as he believed – buzzing frantically and flapping his arms. The wolf woman who had screamed was still kneeling on the floor, crying now. Mike wondered what sights she heard and sounds she saw. At the door, Demetrius opened it and they passed through.

They walked in on a masked ball. Nine men and women in costumes were either dancing, talking, or drinking. Those who danced had invisible partners. Those who talked spoke to themselves. Those who drank had empty glasses. Mike caught snatches of “conversation” that made no sense. Christ, these poor folks.

“I’m going to get a drink,” said Demetrius. The others looked at him. “That was a joke,” he said. “Honestly, guys. Walk around, meander, have a dance with your wettest imagination. We’ve got some time to kill before you two become killing machines.”

Lucas and Will started onto the floor, careful to give the dancers their space. The costumes were stately and the masks more fearsome than those worn in the lounge. One was a vampire that looked too real for Mike’s comfort. He tried feeling any change from the mushroom, but so far nothing.

“I envy them,” said Demetrius, hanging back with Mike.

Mike turned to him. “What?”

“These fools. Real friends are a pain in the ass. I prefer imaginary ones myself. When you’re tired of them, you can switch them off.”

Mike wasn’t sure these people could do that. The mind could become a prison when you faded from reality. “Is that why you became a cleric?”

Demetrius laughed. He sounded just like Dustin. “Usamigarus doesn’t require chastity from his priests. We’re as sexually libertine as the Zargonites. Only the clerics of Gorm are celibate. I guess your ‘module’ didn’t cover that.”

“What about the Maidens of Madarua?”

“Their priestesses have sex – even homoerotic sex – but it’s carefully regulated. They’re not tight-asses like the Brothers of Gorm, but not exactly libertine either.”

“Oh shit,” said Mike.

“What?”

“That.”

Out on the floor, a regal dancer wearing a crown had ditched his invisible partner and glided up to Will. The king asked Will a question Mike couldn’t hear, and Will, looking apprehensive, paused and then nodded. He reached up and let the king take his hands, and the two began a slow waltz.

Mike swore. Lucas, where the hell are you? He looked around and saw Lucas at the bar. The vampire had disengaged from an imaginary conversation was now pouring Lucas a fantasy beverage.

“Enough of this shit,” said Mike, fingering the hilt of his sword.

“Enough of your shit,” retorted Demetrius. “Put it away. That guy is no threat.”

Mike’s blood was starting to boil. What kind of a homo pervert liked dancing with boys? He restrained himself as Demetrius ordered, but watched the king closely for any signs of predation.

“Gods, but you’re paranoid,” said Demetrius.

“Did you or did you not see the guy who tried to rape Will in the lounge?”

“I was groped as a kid,” said the cleric. “It happens.”

Jesus. “In my world it’s a serious offense. Kids are scarred by sexual assault.”

“Kids are obviously mollycoddled in your world. Worst thing you can do is pander to kids and spoil them. They crave discipline. My brother and I – Hey! You go, Will!” Demetrius was applauding the floor performance.

Mike felt his fury rebuild. The king had picked up Will and was holding him in the way couples do when slow-dancing. Will’s legs wrapped themselves around the king’s waist, so their heads were level. Then the king pirouetted, leaped high in the air, and propelled them both around the room in a dance that was foreign to Mike but stunningly graceful.

Mike had no room for graces. Nor for his best friend who sat uselessly, yakking with a vampire. Nor for Will himself, who despite his traumatic ordeal seemed to be enjoying the hell out this little ride. Mike’s temple throbbed; his fists felt like bricks; he burned to deal damage to someone. He drew his sword.

Demetrius shouted but Mike ignored him. Blood rushed in his ears. His steps felt light and quick as he moved across the dance floor. His sword felt light, even for a magic sword; almost like plastic. Things looked clear, impossibly clear, as if he had 20/10 vision: the heightened colors of the dancers’ costumes, the transparent happiness on Will’s face as he spun in the king’s arms, the lines and curves of the king’s mask … oh, I’m going to cut his majesty open –

He was tackled from behind and brought down. Demetrius, damn him. The cleric grappled Mike with Dustin’s arms, cursed him through Dustin’s mouth. Mike had had enough of this possessor. He felt like he could throw a mountain off his back; he bucked and sent Demetrius flying. He picked up his fallen sword and stood up, whirling to confront the cleric… and then was slammed from behind again. He fell, again, and was restrained successfully this time. Lucas. Damn him.

“Get off me!” yelled Mike, furious.

Lucas ground him into the floor. “Stop it, Mike.”

“I said get off, Lucas! I’m not kidding.”

Lucas didn’t budge. How had he gotten so strong? How had they both gotten so strong?

Footsteps shuffled, and a lilting voice spoke down to him: “I intended your son no harm.”

Then Will: “He’s cool, Mike. It’s okay.”

Mike tried turning his head to see. My son? Jesus Christ. He gave up fighting, and Lucas hauled him to his feet. The Cynidicean with the king mask was standing there, looking almost apologetic. Most of the other dancers were still waltzing, oblivious to the altercation they had to step around. It was as surreal as the way Mike’s head felt right now.

“We’re sorry for crashing your party,” said Demetrius. “Our friend here is overprotective of… his son.”

The Cynidicean smiled and curtsied without a word, and then faced Will to bow even lower. Will beamed. The king turned and rejoined the dance, locking arms with an imaginary partner.

Everyone looked at Mike.

“All right,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m fine now. I just – I don’t know why I acted like that. I can’t get that bird man out of my head.” He still wanted to beat the shit out of someone. His ears thundered with blood. Then he realized: “Jesus, I think I’m going -”

“Berserk,” said Lucas. “I’m feeling it too. I wanted to smash someone. I almost pounded your head into the floor. I’m dying for violence.”

“Excellent,” said Demetrius.

“No, not excellent,” said Lucas. “I don’t want to become a psycho.”

“That’s exactly what you’re going to become,” said Demetrius. “We talked about this. You’re going to murder a guard of hobgoblins.”

“Then let’s do it already,” said Mike. “We’re ready. Right, Lucas?”

Lucas swore, breathing heavily. “Let’s get it over with.”

“Back to the lounge,” said Demetrius. “And through the other door.”

“The gambling room,” said Mike.

“Yes,” said Demetrius. “And the people in there will leave us alone, as long as we don’t provoke them or steal any money. Believe me, there’s shitloads of it in there. Will, you can join a table and play cards, while the rest of us look for the secret door to my brother’s room.”

“Uh, no,” said Mike. “I know I lost control just now over nothing, but we’re not leaving Will alone with any Cynidiceans.”

“Then what do you suggest?” asked Demetrius. “He’s not coming with us into Darius’s room.”

“Mike, is the gambling room even dangerous?” asked Lucas. “When you put us through the module, I don’t recall there being a drug party in there, like in the lounge. It was more like this room.”

“Most Cynidiceans are baked during any part of the day,” said Mike. “These people” – he gestured at the dancers and drinkers – “are plenty out of touch. The acid is in the water supply so everyone’s addicted. But they’re strangers anyway. I don’t trust Will alone with any stranger, baked or not.”

Will was tired of being a burden. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine at the tables. I’ve got all this money to spend.” He jingled the bag of holding.

“You should be fine,” agreed Demetrius. “But just to be safe, I’m going to cast a sanctuary spell on you before I go into Darius’s room. That will keep you safe from any harm – at least for a while – as long as you don’t break the spell by attacking anyone, which you obviously won’t.”

Mike didn’t like it, but he saw no alternative.

They returned to the lounge, where one of the acid-heads was singing. He wore a jackal mask and sat on the floor beside the wolf woman, who lay supine and was stripped naked except for her mask. The jackal “played” one of her legs and vagina like a banjo, while shouting vulgar lyrics. Is she hearing the song or seeing it? Is she feeling those strokes on her twat or smelling them? It didn’t seem to matter. She was on a high plane of ecstasy. Mike felt his groin stir. His berserker state was growing and fueled sexual desires that were new to him.

They crossed the lounge and entered the casino. It was a large sixty by sixty foot room, full of tables and gambling action. Twelve masked Cynidiceans played cards and dice games, cheering and punching the air whether they won or lost. In the center of the room was a wheel of fortune, run by a man in a devil mask. Mike gaped as the money changed hands. There was loads of it – silver, gold, gems, and jewels – piled carelessly at the elbows of their owners. It was enough to make him rich back home. But he remembered: these gamblers were friendly, but would murder thieves in a flash.

There was a card table with an empty seat, and Lucas motioned to Will. Will nodded and got out the bag of holding. Mike studied the table. Two men (a camel and a snake) and a woman (a vulture) were pondering three cards turned face up. They each had two cards face down, which they peeked at occasionally. There was already about 200 gold pieces in the pot. The camel checked; the snake raised 40 gold pieces; the vulture called; the camel folded. The vulture – evidently the dealer in this hand – took a card from the deck and flipped it over, adding it to the three face up. To Mike this looked like a version of poker that his mother and father played.

“No limit hold ’em,” he muttered.

“What?” said Demetrius.

“We call this game No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em,” said Mike.

“Interesting. Here we call it Bluff or Cry. If you wait for good hands in this game, you’re cooked. Is Will a good bluffer?”

Mike snorted. “Will’s an open book. He can’t bluff to save himself.”

“Oh. He’ll lose his stacks pretty fast. Lucas, get over here! Let’s roll.”

“Hold on!” Lucas was making sure that Will was welcome at the table. When the camel, snake, and vulture saw Will’s mountain of money – and his immature age – they smiled and welcomed him with looks of rapture.

Fucking sharks, thought Mike. He was bottling his drug-induced rage, but it was getting hard now. He needed to attack someone.

Lucas joined them. “He’ll be fine… probably. He’ll lose all our money, but who cares. There’s plenty more in this pyramid.”

“I’m going to cast sanctuary on him and then look for the secret door,” said Demetrius. “How are you both feeling?”

“Itching to use my sword,” said Lucas. “Everything around me seems slower.”

“Yeah,” said Mike, panting. “Those shrooms work.” Everyone in the room seemed to be moving at half speed; and his vision was impossibly clear: 20/10 vision, maybe even 20/7.

“When I find the secret door, I’m going to drink the potion of invisibility and go through, and leave it open a crack. At that point go over and wait. When you hear the shit hit the fan, come charging through.”

“Roger that,” said Lucas.

“Yeah,” affirmed Mike. “But don’t bother blessing Will with your prayers. The players will think you’re casting a spell to help him cheat.”

Demetrius agreed and then left them to search for the door. Mike and Lucas waited, watching the poker table. Will was anteing up and looked confident. Mike shook his head. They’ll eat him for breakfast.

“Can you believe this is us?” asked Lucas.

Mike turned to him. “What? Oh… well. I’m thinking we’re in a dream most of the time. But I know we’re not. Imagine if Nancy could see us like this. Or how about Erica?”

“Nancy would shit her pants,” laughed Lucas. “Erica would just think that we’re grown-up nerds.”

“And our parents! Can you imagine?”

“Mike, do you think we’re going to see our families again? Even if we survive these hobgoblins?”

“Well, yeah. Demetrius said he’d let Dustin go.”

“I hope he was telling the truth,” said Lucas. “But even if he plays fair, we can’t go back like this. We’re ten years older. Everyone in Hawkins – hell, everyone in the country – would lose their shit.”

There was a sudden crash from Darius’s room. Followed by furious shouts.

“That’s us,” breathed Mike. “You ready?”

“Hell yeah. Let’s kill some hobgoblins.”

“Yell at the top of your lungs as we rush them.”

“Loud as a motherfucker.”

And with that, the die was cast. Mike Wheeler and Lucas Sinclair surrendered to the rage burning inside them, drew their swords, and burst into Darius’s chamber screaming.

Mike didn’t pause to register what was going on. He noticed Demetrius confronting a middle-aged man, but ignored them. The hobgoblins were closer and he rushed them like a lunatic. He heard Lucas do the same. Two hobgoblins were immobile, courtesy of Zenobia’s scepter. Their yellow eyes burned with fury. The other four had been closing in on Demetrius. Now they spun in outrage to face two reckless maniacs.

Mike was on the nearest one before it could raise its war cleaver. His sword slashed deep into the hobgoblin’s shoulder and neck, bursting an artery. The creature fell back in astonishment as much as pain, roaring an alien obscenity. Mike’s arms moved like lightning, his muscles feeling like rocks, and he whirled the sword again and sent it most of the way through the goblin’s neck. It fell and died on the spot, having made not a single counterattack.

“Yeah!” bellowed Mike, looking down at the corpse in triumphant rage. “You wretched piece of -”

Something heavy and sharp slammed into Mike’s back. He bellowed and spun to see another hobgoblin brandishing its war cleaver. It had dealt Mike a blow that would have put most opponents on the defensive if not the floor. It was readying for another strike, but to Mike its movements were slow; clumsily slow. He saw and felt everything as if the world itself had slowed down. Blood ran down his back, but he felt galvanized – empowered – by his injury. He exulted in the pain. If Mike had to guess, he would say that in D&D terms the berserker drug had inflicted him with a masochism that caused wounds to add to his hit point score instead of subtract from it. Or at least, as long as the wounds weren’t fatal.

Whatever the mechanics of the drug, Mike was strengthened, not weakened. He threw himself against the hobgoblin, swinging and swinging; it fell back in unbelief. On his third stroke Mike sliced open the creature’s weapon hand. The war cleaver fell to the floor, and the hobgoblin barely evaded a fourth stroke that would have taken its head off. Mike’s sword cut this way and that as the hobgoblin continued backing away (so slowly, it seemed) with its arms raised. With each stroke Mike shouted:

“Die, you fucker! Die, you fucker! Die, you fucker! Die, you fucker!”

The hobgoblin was furious. This absurdly inexperienced fighter was clobbering him – beating him backwards on the sheer force of rage. As he bled from a deadly back wound. And wasted breath on vulgarities. The creature stumbled, and Mike’s sword found its mark, cutting deep – and deep again – and then leaving the hobgoblin dead. Mike went on hacking the corpse:

“Die, you fucker! Die, you fucker! Die, you fucker! Die, you –“

“MIKE!”

It was Lucas, telling him to stop. He ceased and looked around, trying to let his head clear. Two more hobgoblins lay dead, thanks to Lucas. His arm had been scratched but nothing more. The two friends looked at each other and smiled, reveling in their blood lust. Then they turned to the far side of the room.

Twenty-five or thirty feet away, Demetrius and Darius were pulverizing each other, one with a mace, the other a flail. Mike and Lucas began moving toward them. As they passed the two paralyzed hobgoblins, Mike whirled his sword and decapitated one; Lucas ran the other through. Darius saw them close the distance and hesitated, indecisive. Then he dropped his flail on the ground and raised his hands. “Fine,” he said to his brother. “I surrender.”

Demetrius kept his mace raised. “Surrender?” he scorned. “You admit no such concept.” Mike saw that Dustin’s body had taken a pounding: bruises covered his body, his ears were bleeding, and he struggled to breathe. From an evil priest spell. But Darius was hurting too. His robe had enough blood on it; Demetrius’s mace had proven itself.

“I admit defeat when it’s evident,” said Darius. And it was. Against each other alone, the twin priests were evenly matched. With psychos Mike and Lucas on standby, it wasn’t a contest anymore. “As I’ve told you before, brother: pragmatism. Zargonites are that above all.”

“Zargonites are assholes,” said Demetrius, “and you the biggest one.”

“Allow me to leave,” said his brother. “I’ll depart the city. Go into the desert. You’ll never see me again.”

“Seriously?” asked Demetrius.

“I’m dead serious.”

Demetrius looked hard at Darius, then held out his hand.

Darius frowned. “What?”

“Your flail,” said Demetrius. “Give it to me.”

“Of course.” Darius picked up his flail and handed it over. Mike and Lucas watched him carefully.

Demetrius took the weapon, sheathing his mace. He looked the flail over, and gestured to the door. “Then go ahead. You have eight hours to leave Cynidicea. And give my regards to Hazor. I assume he’s still alive and running the temple?”

Darius smiled. “He is. And if you ever reconsider your allegiances, go see him. You’re wasted on the old gods.”

“You may be right,” said Demetrius. And then, as his brother turned to go – and with a sudden swiftness that took even Mike and Lucas by surprise – Demetrius whirled the flail and smashed the back of his brother’s head.

Brains and gore showered them all as the priest’s head burst like rotten fruit. Darius’s body fell and thudded at Demetrius’s feet.

“Shit!” yelled Mike.

“What the fuck, Demetrius!” said Lucas, poleaxed by the priest’s treachery.

Mike was stunned too, but in a good way; thrilled by Demetrius’s deception and approving it. God, I’ll burn in Hell. Whatever my D&D alignment is, it can’t be good. I murdered a man and now I love a guy who backstabbed his brother.

Demetrius looked down on his brother’s corpse, holding the dripping flail. “He got what he earned: a treacherous death by his own weapon. Now I’m properly avenged.”

Preach it, brother, thought Mike. I wish you were mine.

 

 

Next Chapter: A Special Place

(Previous Chapter: Terror Gaze)

The Lost City: Terror Gaze

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                       The Lost City — Chapter Three:

                                Terror Gaze

 

It’s fine if you don’t look down.

Mike told himself that as he hugged the wall around the pit trap. It was twenty feet deep and filled with iron spikes, waiting to impale the brave and foolish. Mike and his friends were neither. They certainly weren’t brave, though in their games they’d pretended to be. The past few hours had proven, with merciless severity, that they were galaxies away from the heroes of their fantasies. They were snot-nosed kids and scared a thousand percent shitless. But neither were they fools. They pushed forward on the path of suicide because it was literally the only path.

“Watch it, damn you!”

Mike missed a foothold and slipped, and was barely caught by Dustin’s arm. The priest cursed again and yanked Mike to safety. Then Mike did look down – and almost fainted. Those spikes would have killed him. Messily and painfully. For the fifth or sixth time in the last hour, he wanted to be home and out of this nightmare. His eyes teared thinking of Nancy and baby Holly. I won’t ever see them again. Yesterday that idea would have filled him with joy. Now he wished he could hug his sisters and say how much he loved them.

“You’re almost there,” said the priest, releasing his arm. “Watch where you reach and step. I’m right behind you. Go.”

It was Dustin’s possessor who kept them alive, who had made Lucas alive, who made the most of being alive after a year of dormancy. Demetrius was a bona fide hero, though it chafed Mike to admit it.

“How old are you, Demetrius?” Will had asked during their feast in the cleric’s bedroom. They had returned there after Lucas’s resurrection and taken mugs and dishes from Demetrius’s desk. The cleric’s spell had created a repast that put a Karen Wheeler Thanksgiving dinner to shame.

“I was thirty-seven when Darius killed me last year. He and I are the same age, so he’s thirty-eight now.”

“Did you live up in the temple or down in the city?” asked Will.

“In the stronghold, down in the city. I served with a priestess under the Magi’s high priest. We were exorcists and healers for the Usamigaran community.”

Mike remembered the division of labor: the temples of the old gods were up on Tier 3 in the pyramid, while the communities of their followers lived in the city strongholds. The strongholds were led by priests like Demetrius. The temples were run by magi (for Usamigaras) or warriors (for Gorm and Madarua), far from the Zargonites who controlled the underground.

“Is this a roast pork?” asked Lucas, shoving meat drenched with gravy into his mouth.

“It’s manyan,” said the priest. “From a grubel.”

“What’s that?” asked Lucas, licking his fingers.

“You don’t have grubels in your world? Their like small piglets, but the meat’s more tender.”

“It’s good,” said Mike, his mouth full. He was eating ravenously.

Lucas poured himself more water from a pitcher. “I just realized this you guys, but you probably know by now. We’re not speaking English.”

“What do you mean?” said Mike. “Yes we are… oh, shit, we’re not.” He heard it as soon as Lucas called attention to it. An alien language rolled fluently off their tongues. They were thinking in English, but the words automatically translated in the output.

“I’d wondered about that,” said Demetrius. “It’s why I didn’t believe you boys at first, when you said you were from another world. Our native tongue is evidently a conferred benefit of the ‘Black Passage’ spell on that scroll.”

“That’s incredible,” said Will.

“It’s trippy,” said Lucas.

Mike laughed. “Hey Demetrius,” he said, around a mouthful of red lentils, “if I call you a ‘worthless motherfucking piece of shit’, am I pronouncing that right?”

“For the record,” said Demetrius, devouring his last chunk of manyan, “you’re speaking flawless Cynidicean. But ‘fuck’ isn’t vulgar for us, as it apparently is for you. ‘Worthless shit’, on the other hand, is extremely offensive.” He wiped his greasy hands on Dustin’s pants, and swallowed a mug of water in two gulps. “Now. We need to move on. Take a few minutes to rest.”

They had piled onto Demetrius’ bed for a nap that lasted twenty minutes, before the cleric prodded them awake. Then they had set out on the quest for Darius, proceeding through rooms that would have murdered them if not for priestly protection. In the kitchen, two giant rock pythons: Demetrius prayed a snake charm spell, and they rushed past the pythons to the next door. In the living room, two statues, programmed to attack guests when the entry door shut; Demetrius and Mike knew the trap and so jammed the doors open. Then came the room of the gargoyles. Mike’s bowels had churned at the sight of them: winged demon-like humanoids that could tear warriors to pieces. Demetrius had used Zenobia’s scepter to paralyze each gargoyle; the creatures would be immobile for an hour.

 

From the gargoyle hoard, Demetrius had acquired a weapon: a mace +1 (Mike remembered the bonus from the module) and a scroll of dispel evil, which was a very powerful cleric spell. As a magic weapon, the mace was light enough for Dustin’s arms to lift, though too long to swing effectively. Demetrius was physically a child. His years of fighting experience were stifled in the body of Dustin Henderson.

The gargoyle room had forced them all to face their inadequacies. They couldn’t rely forever on Zenobia’s scepter. It had few charges to begin with, and after zapping the gargoyles probably had less than six shots left. Darius might not even be paralyzed by it; as a high level priest, he had good saving-throw odds.

“There’s no way, Demetrius,” Mike had said, watching him struggle to swing the mace. “You’re a kid like us, when it comes to fighting.”

“We’re useless,” agreed Lucas. “Your brother and his bodyguards will slaughter us.”

“Six hobgoblins,” said Will, referring to Darius’s bodyguards. “We can’t fight them. And that dispel evil scroll is useless against them.” Dispel evil was powerful, but it worked on enchanted beings, by banishing them to their home plane. It would have worked on Zenobia. Not on orcs and hobgoblins.

“I know you’re bound by your vow,” said Lucas. “But this party is a joke.”

“We need, like, a mega-powerful artifact,” said Mike.

“Like Daoud’s Wondrous Lanthorn,” said Will.

“Who the hell is Daoud?” asked Demetrius.

“A wizard who created this –”

“Never mind!” Demetrius put down his mace and swore.

“I’m sorry, Demetrius,” said Mike. “We can’t survive this pyramid.”

Demetrius began pacing the room. He went back and forth, passing close to the paralyzed gargoyles.

“Demetrius,” repeated Mike.

“Yeah, I’m thinking,” said the cleric. He paced more and then stopped suddenly. “Oh,” he said. “Well, there’s that.”

“What?” said Mike. “Do you have something?”

“Tell us you have something,” said Lucas.

Dustin’s eyes stared ahead. “Yeah,” said the cleric finally, clearly not liking what he was thinking. “Yeah, I have something.”

“An artifact?” asked Mike.

Demetrius looked at him.

“Where is it?” asked Lucas. “Where do we go?”

Demetrius stood up. “The lower levels. Tier 8.”

 

Now, having barely navigated the pit trap, Mike wondered at the obduracy – and outright stupidity – of priests under vows. Here they were, powerless to take on Darius and his hobgoblins, so naturally they were going down to places far worse.

Zargon is down there too. Jesus, we’ve gone from crazy to insane.

The Cthulhu-like god made the bottom tenth tier his home. Tentacled, horned, and bloated, rising thirty-five feet tall. They weren’t going that deep, thank the old gods, but all of the lower tiers were death zones. Even worse, Mike didn’t know much about them. The rooms were barely detailed in the gaming module, left mostly for the dungeon master to flesh out. He didn’t know their secrets. What he did remember was enough to know this was a fool’s errand: there were wraiths, golems, minotaurs, medusae, mummies, trolls – even a goddamn thessalhydra.

Damn you, Demetrius.

They walked down a corridor over two hundred feet long, putting the pit trap behind. Ahead was a secret door that led to a room with stairs descending. For all his fear and fury, Mike had to admit he’d love to see a thessalhydra. He was pretty sure he remembered it being on the eighth tier. A beast like that would at least provide a death worth dying. But Demetrius wouldn’t confirm the hydra’s location. Demetrius had gone utterly silent. His looks told everyone to shut up.

He hates this plan, whatever it is.

They went down the stairs and were able to bypass most of the sixth tier. From an empty room the priest led them down a corridor into another room with a trap door in the floor’s center. He opened the door, and they saw the ladder to the seventh tier.

“Me first,” said Demetrius, “in case something nasty happens. But I think we’ll be okay. Will, you next, and I want you to take out some of the gold you took from my chest. We’ll need it. Lucas, you after Will. Mike, watch our backs.”

“What we do we need gold for?” asked Will, digging into his pouch.

“There are two hell hounds waiting below, by a mountain of coins.”

“Hell hounds?” asked Lucas. “Are you serious?”

“Those things breathe fire!” said Mike.

“Calm your bowels,” said Demetrius. “I’ve never been down here, but I have it on good authority that the hell hounds will let you keep going down the ladder to Tier 8 if you throw a few coins on the treasure pile. It’s the ‘password’, so to speak.”

“Assuming that nothing’s changed in a year,” said Lucas.

“Mike?” asked Demetrius. “What does your game say about the hell hounds?”

“I don’t remember,” said Mike. “I only skimmed the lower tiers, and they weren’t that detailed anyway.”

“Here you go, everyone,” said Will, giving them five gold pieces each.

“And here we go,” said Demetrius, disappearing down the ladder. They were left mostly in darkness as the necklace light trailed him.

“He’d better be right about this,” muttered Lucas.

“Fucking hell hounds,” said Mike.

“Do you think we –?”

Will was cut off by a shout from below. They all peered down the ladder hole. The light from Demetrius’s necklace shone upwards. “Get your asses down here, boys.”

Will went down, followed by Lucas and Mike. They found Demetrius in a hexagonal room about fifty feet long and wide, with three doors, and a mountainous pile of treasure on one side. They froze when they saw the hounds: a pair of red-brown hyena creatures with flaming red eyes. The beasts sat about twenty feet from the ladder, staring at the intruders, their soot-black tongues hanging from canine smiles. They reeked of smoke and sulfur.

“Stay calm,” said Demetrius softly. Mike wasn’t sure if he was talking to them or the hounds. “Take your coins and toss them into the pile. That should allow us to keep going down.”

“Yeah?” whispered Mike, sweating. “And what’s down in the next room?”

“Nothing, I think,” said Demetrius. He walked ahead a few steps and tossed his gold pieces on the treasure pile. There were coins of three colors in the pile: copper, silver, and gold.

“Do we need silver and copper too?” asked Lucas.

“No,” said Demetrius. “The kind of coinage doesn’t matter. You could be cheap and just leave copper, but all we have on us is gold.”

Everyone else threw their gold onto the pile. Mike noticed the hilt of a glowing blade sticking out of the treasure. Magic sword. I want it. He looked at the hounds. They were still smiling fiendishly. Getting the sword was a fantasy.

“I’m shitting my pants right now,” said Lucas.

“We’re okay,” said Demetrius, eyeing the hounds, “and I think we’re good to go. Reverse direction this time. Sorry, Mike, I’m sending you first, but the room below is empty (I think), so you should be fine. I want to go last, in case these hounds decide to charge us at the last second.”

Will was looking at the walls. “Look at the paintings,” he said.

Mike paused on the ladder and looked. The necklace light shone on images showing various stages of natural death: embalming procedures, funerals, graves, and mourning processions. “Yeah, Will. Totally. Let’s go.”

They proceeded down the ladder into a square chamber that looked empty. It had two doors, and the ladder stopped on this tier.

“I’m going to have nightmares from those hounds,” said Lucas, as Will and Demetrius stepped off the ladder.

You and me both, thought Mike. And we have to come back this way.

Will was looking up. As in the room they came from, paintings covered the walls and ceiling. Here they showed a group of dead spirits in a ferry boat crossing an underground river. “This is cool.”

“I’ve already died, thank you,” said Lucas.

“Were you anywhere like this?” asked Will. The underground river was like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

“Don’t remember,” said Lucas. “And I don’t want to.”

“Were these burial rooms at some point?” asked Will.

“Sort of,” said Demetrius. “The lower tiers were originally built to show the journey of the spirit after death. Not the sixth tier – those rooms were slave quarters – but below that, all the rooms were designed for ritual purposes. Tier 7 is about the funereal aspects of death. Tier 8 is about crossing the underworld. And Tier 9 is about judgment of the soul.”

“None of that sounds Zargonite,” said Mike. It sounded like the Egyptian mythology from his world, not the nihilism of Cthulhu deities.

“Of course not,” said Demetrius. “Zargon came after. He’s been the ruling god of Cynidicea for 1182 years now. Since the year Alexander and Zenobia were assassinated. They were the last monarchs of Cynidicea. That’s when the Zargonites took control. This stuff -” the priest gestured around the cavern walls – “goes back six or seven hundred years before that. When the old gods were on the rise.”

“1182 years is a long time,” said Will.

“Yes, my friend, it is,” said Demetrius.

“It’s forever,” said Mike. “How have the old cults survived that long?”

Demetrius smiled coldly. “Some beliefs aren’t subject to erosion. Or eradication. The Zargonites will fall. Some day. And the stuff you see on these walls will be the way of things again.”

That may require killing the Zargonite god. Whose lair isn’t that far below us now. 

“Mike, isn’t Zargon on the bottom tier?” asked Will, as if reading Mike’s mind.

“Yes,” said Mike bluntly. “Have you ever seen him, Demetrius?”

“No one sees Zargon and lives,” said the priest. “Only the Zargonite high priest goes down to the tenth tier.”

“Zargon never leaves his chamber?” asked Lucas.

“Only once a century,” said Demetrius. “During a centennial feeding.”

“What’s a centennial feeding?” asked Mike.

“A topic for a later discussion. We need to move.”

He led them through one of the doors and into a hallway that went ahead a short distance and then branched left and right. He took the right corridor and they followed him down to a door, where he paused and turned to face them.

“All right, listen. What we need is inside this room. I’ll go in first and you guys follow, and stay very close. I mean it. Don’t get any farther from me than fifteen feet. You may see a shadowy fog-like creature inside. If you do, get a good look at it. Make sure it doesn’t drift towards you. But if you hear me say ‘drop’ at any point, then fall to the floor face down. Is that clear?”

It was not clear. Not in the least. What were they trying to accomplish in this room? What was the fog-like creature? Where was the artifact? Why should they fall to the floor instead of run away? The boys fired questions, talked over each other, and demanded that Demetrius explain himself for a change.

“Keep your voices down!” Demetrius hissed. “There are things on this tier you don’t want coming to find you!”

Mike had to agree. The dungeon-master in him knew they were behaving like babbling idiots. Still, they needed more details.

“No,” said the priest. “It’s better this way. I’m trying to keep you guys alive, and I need you to do exactly as I say. Will you trust me?”

It’s he who doesn’t trust us, Mike suddenly realized. He thinks we’d refuse to go in the room if he told us what’s in there. What the almighty fuck is behind that door?

“I trust you, Demetrius,” said Will.

“Thank you, Will.”

Mike looked at Lucas, who nodded reluctantly. “Fine,” he said, facing the priest. “Stay close to you, keep an eye on the fog-creature, make sure it doesn’t drift close, and fall face down to the floor if you say ‘drop’.”

“We’re trusting you, Demetrius,” said Lucas, in a warning tone that didn’t bespeak trust at all.

“Thank you boys. Ready?”

They nodded.

Demetrius swung open the door and looked inside. Mike tried desperately to see into the room, but Dustin’s body was blocking the doorway. Then Demetrius marched straight in. They boys followed behind, maybe six or seven feet, and then fanned out a bit when they got inside. It was a huge room with almost nothing in it. Paintings covered the wall and ceiling, showing spirits who waited on the bank of a bloody river. Across the room was a golden chest lying on the floor.

Then they saw the fog-like creature.

It was a human-shaped form, translucent and wispy, that seemed to form out of nowhere in the center of the room. It looked like a man; a native Cynidicean. Was he a dead spirit? Get a good look at it. Mike followed Demetrius’s orders, looking hard. The figure’s eyes were a burning crimson. Its gaze –

NO!

– its gaze went through Mike and filled him like fluid. Terror was suddenly living inside him; panic pounded his heart. His muscles contracted then expanded. He heard his clothes rip; felt them rip, and his arms and legs expand to obscene lengths. Lucas and Will were screaming, and he joined them to reclaim his sanity and being.

Almost at once, through their hysterical shouting came Demetrius’s shout:

“DROP!”

Mike threw himself forward, against the kick of his fear and corrupted flesh. The shock was so great that he blacked out as he hit the floor.

 

He came to almost right away, and called out hoarsely to his friends. Screams still filled the cavern. Mike Wheeler didn’t know what the hell was going on, but he knew one thing: he wasn’t himself anymore. He was a long humanoid with long hair and a deep voice he didn’t recognize. He was unnaturally terrified – under a fear spell of some kind. He cowered on the floor and yelled at the fog creature to leave him be.

“Don’t look at it!” Demetrius was yelling in an altered voice of his own. “Close your eyes!” 

Mike didn’t need to be told that. He cringed and hugged the floor in his elongated form, unable to stop caterwauling.

Lucas and Will kept wailing too, and Lucas sounded outright mad; his howls ricocheted off the cavern walls like an aerial bombardment. His voice sounded throaty and bottomless. Will sounded more familiar. Demetrius was the only one who had self-control. Dustin’s voice (and his body, presumably) had undergone a change, but his possessor was somehow immune to the fear that pulverized the rest of them.

Mike heard chanting. It was Demetrius, praying a spell. His holy words were barely audible against the screams, but they worked to a swift purpose. In less than a minute everyone’s terror dissolved. Mike cried his own prayer of thanks. Remove fear. That first-level spell, so basic and mundane, felt to him like salvation. He could breathe normally and think again. He uncurled himself on the floor, turned over, and –

“Keep your eyes closed!” yelled Demetrius. “Don’t you dare look at that thing again! It’s a ghost!”

Mike caught himself in time. A ghost? A ghost? That was worse than bad news. That was –

Lucas called out: “Then what are we supposed to do?”

Mike suddenly wondered: Lucas’s voice sounded deep and resonant… and mature and baritone… like…

Demetrius, you asshole.

… like an adult’s.

You cannot be serious.

He examined his new body by peeking and not looking beyond it. He felt himself over with his hands. There was no question: he was still human. They hadn’t been shape-changed or polymorphed into humanoids; they’d been aged into adults. Because…

Because looking at a ghost did that to you.

Bloody asshole.

Mike recalled ghosts with vivid clarity from the D&D Monster Manual. They were spirits of people so terrible in life that they had been “rewarded” with undead status – the very worst and most powerful of the undead, aside from a lich. A ghost’s mission was to complete some unresolved task from life, whether revenge, fulfilling an oath, or relaying a message to someone. But that mission was often thwarted by the restriction of locale, since ghosts haunted a particular area and never moved from it. You could “kill” or dispel a ghost (if you were powerful and very lucky), but usually all that did was banish the creature to the ethereal plane for a limited time. It would return to its haunt eventually – days later, weeks later, whatever. It took a cleric’s exorcism (which took hours to cast) to kill a ghost permanently. Shy of that, the best way to deal with a ghost was to run your sorry ass away from it. It attacked one of two ways, either by possession or by touch, the latter of which aged a victim ten to forty years. The necklace Demetrius wore would have kept them protected from these direct attacks, just as it had protected them from the wight of Queen Zenobia. It was still protecting them now, as they lay helpless on the floor.

But the necklace was apparently useless against a ghost’s gazing power. Mike remembered: the mere sight of a ghost caused fear, and also aged a victim by ten years, though high-level clerics were immune to the fear part. That’s why Demetrius had been able to keep his wits and remove fear from the rest of them.

Where was the ghost now? Surely still fifteen feet away, close by.

“Demetrius!” yelled Lucas. “We can’t just lie here blind!”

“Shut your pothole!” said Demetrius. “And do exactly as I say!”

“I’ll shut your pothole!” said Lucas. “Mike! Will! Are you guys all right?”

“Yeah!” called Will. “I’m fine.”

Mike cleared his throat. “Yeah. Fine. Just swell. Demetrius, you put us in a load of shit here.” His adult voice sounded foreign; it may as well have been humanoid. He was now, what, twenty-two years old?

“Your shit will get deeper if you don’t pay attention!” said Demetrius. “I want you all to stay on the floor with your eyes closed. Don’t open your eyes or stand up until I say.”

“Why?” asked Will.

“Because we’ll keep aging ten fucking years every round we see that ghost!” shouted Mike.

“Exactly!” said Demetrius.

There was a long pause from everyone.

“Motherfucker, Demetrius!” yelled Lucas. “This was your goddamn plan?”

Of course it was. This was his solution to the problem of their feeble twelve-year old bodies. They had assumed he was after some magical artifact that could rain fire, when all along he intended to throw them into a fire.

“You’re an asshole, Demetrius,” said Mike. “If we get out of this, I’ll kill you.”

“If we get out of this, you’ll thank me. Now shut your yap. I’m going to try and dispel this fucker. That scroll I took from the gargoyle room? That’s when I got this idea.”

“To rob us ten years of our lives?” asked Lucas.

“To save your goddamn lives,” retorted the cleric. “Now shut up, all of you. I need to concentrate to get this right.”

“You need to do more than concentrate,” said Mike. “You need to see what you’re trying to dispel. Not to mention read the scroll.”

“You’ll have to open your eyes,” agreed Will.

“I know that! But I don’t have to look directly at the thing’s face. I’ll try to be circumspect.”

They kept quiet on the floor as he chanted from the scroll. It was a sonorous prayer, channeling cryptic forces. Despite his outrage at being so shamelessly manipulated, Mike was feeling better about the situation. Dispel evil was a mighty spell. If it worked it would banish the ghost to the ethereal plane, for days if not weeks. He wished he could open his eyes to see the fog-like bastard as he got vaporized. Then he almost shat his pants as Demetrius screamed.

“Demetrius!” called Lucas. “What the fuck is going on?”

No answer.

Mike’s voice quavered. “Demetrius? Are you still there?”

More silence, and then the cleric finally gasped. “Yeah… yeah, it’s gone. You guys can get up and look now.”

They stood and opened their eyes – and stared at themselves, stunned. Their clothes had ripped to accommodate older bodies. Just like Bruce Banner. Mike couldn’t believe how tall he was. He towered close to six feet. His feet were in agony; his kiddie sneakers mangled his toes. They all needed new clothes and shoes…

… all of them, that is, except one.

“Uh oh,” said Demetrius. “This complicates things.”

What -?

Three heads turned and looked down at Will.

Oh, great.

William Byers hadn’t aged a day. He was still a twelve-year-old boy.

“Jesus, Will,” said Lucas. “How did you manage to not look at that thing?”

“I did look at it,” said Will.

“Then how -?”

“He made his saving throw,” said Mike.

“He made what?” asked Demetrius.

“His saving throw,” said Mike. “He… resisted the ghost’s aging effect. He was lucky.”

“No, he was unlucky,” said Demetrius. “Why do you think I brought us down to this shithole? Looking at a ghost is the only way I knew to age us into adults.”

“You’re an asshole,” Mike repeated. “But you dispelled it too fast. You could have had Will look at it again. He would have had to make another saving throw.”

“Your language is bizarre. But I had no idea Will hadn’t aged. Even if I’d known, there was no way I was taking the chance that thing would possess any one of us. I knew it couldn’t touch us, but I wasn’t completely sure about its possession attacks.”

“You’re one to talk about possession,” said Lucas.

“What about my opinion?” said Will. “I don’t want to be ten years older. What if you guys never change back?”

“I would have given my left nut to skip over my teenage years,” said Demetrius. “Sorry, but we need adult bodies. Now you’re going to be baggage on the rest of us.”

“Hey, fuck you,” said Lucas. “You’re baggage on our friend Dustin. And you had no right doing this to us without telling us first.”

“I agree,” said Mike. “He should have told us. But he’s right. We need to survive this place, and as kids we didn’t have a prayer.”

Thank you, Mike,” said Demetrius. “And if it makes you all feel any better, I was aged twice. When you heard me scream just now? I couldn’t avoid another look at the fucker to complete the spell.”

“You mean you’re thirty-two years old?” asked Will.

Yes, thought Mike. Now that he mentioned it, Dustin’s body did look older than Mike’s and Lucas’.

“Why would that make us feel better?” asked Lucas. “That body isn’t yours. It’s our friend you shafted, you jerk.”

“All right, Lucas,” said Mike.

“Twenty years of Dustin’s life!” yelled Lucas.

“Then here’s something that should make you all feel better,” said Demetrius. “Our rewards: that chest over there in the corner. It’s bound to have things we can use.”

“I’ll bet it’s trapped,” said Will.

“Why?” asked Demetrius.

“I don’t know. It’s a ghost’s lair. Mike, what did the module say?”

“As I said, I don’t remember much about these lower tiers. I didn’t use them in our game.”

“Yeah, ’cause we would have died,” said Lucas. “Fucking ghosts.”

“No matter,” said Demetrius, “I have a spell that will find any traps.”

“Cast away,” said Mike. “I need to take a piss and take off these fucking shoes.”

“No shit,” said Lucas, already sitting down and removing his sneakers. Demetrius kicked off Dustin’s footwear, and then walked barefoot to the other side of the room. Will followed him.

Mike left the room, through the door on the right wall. It led to a dungeon corridor which he used to relieve himself. As he pissed on the floor he admired his adult cock. It was long, like the rest of his lanky body. When he finished, he stroked himself a bit, feeling an unexpected desire. His cock began to stiffen. Then he swore, hurriedly tucking it back inside his shredded pants. He returned to the room.

Demetrius had pronounced the chest free of traps. It was open and everyone marveled at its contents. Lucas was trying on a helm, and Will was holding a bottle. Demetrius lifted a sword from the chest as Mike walked in. The blade shed a light as bright as Demetrius’ necklace.

Fuck yeah, thought Mike. A magic sword. He wanted it.

Demetrius was already handing it to him. “A long sword to match your long arms. And long legs. Gods, you grew like a giant.”

Mike took the sword and for a moment thought it was a toy. Not only did it give off light; it was light, not at all weighty like a serious weapon. Of course, that’s how magic swords were in D&D. Just like the mace Demetrius had taken from the gargoyle room. That was part of their benefit. Mike needed that benefit. He was an adult now, yes, but still an inexperienced weakling. He couldn’t have wielded a normal sword effectively.

“How does your helm feel?” he asked Lucas.

“Light,” said Lucas. “Really nice. Magical obviously.”

“Will?” said Mike. “Is that a potion?”

“Healing potion,” said Demetrius. “I opened it and sniffed. It’s the standard healing concoction made in the under city.”

“Sweet,” said Mike, swishing his sword in the air. “We scored well here.”

“And finally,” announced Demetrius, “a bag of holding. I owned one of these before I was killed. Big on the inside, small on the outside. It’ll hold up to 50,000 coin pieces and weigh only 25 pounds when you carry it. Here you go, Will. You’re our treasurer. Load it up.”

“How much money is there?” asked Mike. A bag of holding was very convenient indeed.

“See for yourself. I estimate about 12,000 silver pieces and 5,000 gold. And a nice piece of jewelry — got to be worth at least 1,000 in gold.”

Will scooped the mountain of coins and jewelry piece into the bag of holding, and then dumped in the 300 gold pieces he’d already been carrying.

Mike couldn’t stop examining himself. “Christ, look how huge I am.”

“You’re tall but not huge,” said Lucas, “You’re wiry, dude.”

“I can kick your ass in a sword fight,” said Mike, swishing his magic sword through the air.

“Give me a sword,” said Lucas. “And we’ll see.”

Mike ran his finger over the glowing blade. “Well, we need to find you one. These magic swords are awesome, they hardly weigh anything.”

“All right, you guys,” said Demetrius. “We need to move on.”

“We’ll move when we’re ready,” said Lucas.

“We’ll move now,” said Demetrius. “There are things almost as bad as ghosts on this tier.”

“Yeah,” said Mike, “I think there’s a thessalhydra. I want to see it.”

“A thessalhydra?” asked Will. “Are you crazy?”

“Yes, he is,” said Demetrius.

“C’mon, you guys,” said Mike. “It’s a thessalhydra. Eight fucking heads.”

“That’s a magic sword you’re holding,” said Lucas, “but probably not a vorpal sword of hydra-slaying.”

“Moron, I don’t want to fight the fucker, I want to see it.”

“No,” said Demetrius. “Now listen to me. We’re going back the way we came, and I want you both – Mike, Lucas – to get your fighting hands dirty.”

“I still need a weapon,” said Lucas.

“And we need shoes,” said Mike. They were all barefoot except for Will. “Clothes would be nice too. We’re half naked in these tatters.”

“I think I know where we can pick up some shoes and clothes that fit,” said Demetrius. “When we get back to Tier 5. There’s an old cleric’s quarters not far from where Darius hides out in the party rooms. As for a weapon, Lucas, remember the sword sticking up from the coin pile guarded by those hell hounds? We’re returning that way next: Tier 7.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. “That’s got to be a magic sword. We’ll get it for you, Lucas.”

“Those hounds will kill you, Mike,” said Will.

“No they won’t,” said Demetrius. “Mike and I will each take on a hound as Lucas gets the sword out of the pile. When you have the sword, Lucas, help Mike. Between my mace and my prayers, I can take on the other hound alone.”

“Those hounds breathe fire,” said Lucas.

“I have a fire resistance spell that I’ll cast on Mike.”

Which puts Lucas most at risk. “Fuck that.” Mike handed Lucas his sword, and Lucas’s eyes widened. “You already died once, I’m not letting it happen again – no, shut up, Lucas, take the sword. This cleric is going to give you the fire resistance, and I’ll go for the sword in the treasure pile.”

“It’s up to you guys,” said Demetrius.

Lucas took the sword from Mike, nodding. “Okay. I’ll kill the bastard before he has chance to breathe on you.”

Mike wasn’t counting on it. He made a mental calculation. Hell hounds were vicious creatures in D&D, 5 hit dice creatures, with around 25 hit points a piece. He knew that Demetrius had 31 hit points, so Dustin’s body was in good enough hands. But he and Lucas were wholly inexperienced. They couldn’t possibly have more than 3 or 4 hit points each. Will probably had a single hit point, and with his puny child’s strength was ineffective for dealing out damage.

Will began: “I’ve got the dagger –”

“Don’t even think about it,” snapped Mike. “You don’t come in the room until we’re done.” He looked down at Will. Was I really that small only minutes ago? You didn’t realize how vulnerable kids were until you were no longer one.

They retraced their steps to the ladder room, where Mike told Will to stay unless a wandering monster intruded. Demetrius intoned a spell, laying his hands on Lucas’s head, bestowing the benefit of fire resistance. The three new adults then climbed the ladder.

The hell hounds were waiting. They were ugly fuckers, and their predatory smiles promised the same misery as before. Mike had eyes only for the sword hilt protruding from the treasure pile. He could see the blade glowing. It was magic all right.

“I’m ready when you guys are,” he said.

Demetrius and Lucas nodded, drawing their weapons. The hounds growled, perceiving the clear threat, and rose to attack as Demetrius and Lucas charged. The beasts leaped angrily to evade the swinging weapons. Lucas’ sword missed by a mile. Demetrius’ mace smashed the other hound’s head; the beast scrambled back yowling, but was far from incapacitated.

Mike ignored all of this as he rushed for the treasure pile. He fell on the pile of coins and grabbed the sword hilt, yanking with all his might; it barely budged. He heard what sounded like a roar of flame and Lucas scream. Mike swore ferociously, hoping the spell kept Lucas safe, and kept pulling, ignoring the melee around him. The sword was buried deep; finally it started to slide. Mike yanked again — and suddenly flew backwards as the sword came free. He fell on his ass and dropped the sword, which spun across the floor. He cursed again, scrambling to his feet — and then heard Lucas shout his name. His bowels turned to liquid when he saw the hound right in front of him. It had made him a priority, bounding away from Lucas the moment the sword was removed. Its jaws gaped open like a furnace, and Mike knew he was about to be cooked.

“Kill it, Lucas!” yelled Demetrius. He had slain the other hound but his torso was savaged, and he was too far away to help.

Lucas acted fast but not fast enough. As he hacked the hound from behind, Mike was smacked by a tongue of flame. He fell to the floor, in more pain than he’d ever experienced. Crying for help, he cursed this alternate world and the game of Dungeons & Dragons, and prayed that Gary Gygax would roast in Hell and feel as Mike felt right now. Through his agony he thought he heard the hound making dying noises, and Lucas shouting in triumph. Mike rolled on the floor, screaming, begging… and then someone was over him, smothering him and pounding out the fire.

“You’re okay… you’re going to be fine, Mike.” It was Demetrius, whose priestly powers he needed desperately, otherwise he was not going to be fine. The fire was out but he had burns ranging from first to third-degree. The torment was searing and Mike cried like a child. His first real D&D combat had smashed him.

Lucas gasped at the sight of Mike. “Heal him, for Christ’s sake!”

Demetrius was already reaching into his pouch. He popped the lid of the healing potion and held the bottle to Mike’s blistered lips. Mike reached for it but Demetrius pushed his hands away. “Slowly,” he said. Mike slurped greedily. The liquid bubbled and tasted like club soda with a dash of strawberry and something indescribable. It effervesced in his throat, and Mike felt the pain in his body compress and then start to fade. He murmured for more, still crying, and Demetrius kept pouring. Now Mike’s tears were of relief. As he chugged, he felt the burns over his body evaporate, as if the air were peeling away his pain. His veins filled with vitality, and by the end of the bottle Mike Wheeler was a healed man.

“Holy shit,” said Lucas. “Why doesn’t our world have magic healing?”

Because our world sucks, thought Mike, forgetting that he had thought the opposite only moments ago. He sat up and gave Demetrius a hug.

“Don’t thank me,” gasped Demetrius. “Thank the potion. I saved my spells very selfishly, to heal Dustin’s body.”

Mike pulled away and saw the blood seeping. The hound had bitten a chunk from Dustin’s left side. “Well then Jesus, dude, get to it.”

Demetrius knelt on the floor and invoked a spell – the cure wounds in every cleric’s repertoire of prayers – and as his body began to heal, Will’s head appeared from the ladder below. Lucas told him to get his ass up into the room. They all took a few minutes to rest and rejuvenate, grateful for their lives. Will went over to the mountain of treasure and began scooping it all into the bag of holding. Mike looked at the slain hounds, feeling his anger rise. He had hated feeling so helpless. But he was glad he let Lucas have the fire resistance.

“It’s almost ten thousand coin,” said Will, loving his job. “Maybe nine.”

“Give us an inventory,” said Mike.

“We have a total of about 5,000 copper, 15,000 silver, and 6,300 gold.”

“And that bag can hold plenty more,” said Demetrius. “Now listen up. We’re going back up to the fifth tier, and I’m going to kill Darius. Mike, you said he has a guard of six hobgoblins, and that sounds right. You and Lucas are going to kill those hobgoblins while I deal with my brother.”

“Excuse me?” asked Mike.

“That’s three hobgoblins on each of them,” said Will.

Lucas was shaking his head. “You’re dreaming. We may be adults and have magic swords, but we’re not warrior trained. You saw what just happened here.”

“I’d try one hobgoblin with my magic sword,” said Mike. “But three is suicide.”

“If you’d all shut up and listen,” said Demetrius, “you’ll see that I’m not stupid. You’re going to take on two hobgoblins each, not three, and at a big advantage.”

“Seriously,” said Mike.

“Dead serious. I’m going to drink my potion of invisibility, and enter Darius’s room before you. You’ll both charge in once you hear the fighting begin and my invisibility is canceled. By that time I’ll have paralyzed two of the hobgoblins with Zenobia’s scepter. And you guys will be maniac fighters – berserkers – worth twice what you are now.”

“How’s that?” asked Lucas.

“You’re going to eat something I hope to find in the room of the acid-trippers.”

“Whoa,” said Lucas. “I’m not eating any mushrooms!”

“You’ll eat what I tell you, if you want to survive.”

Lucas looked ready to explode.

“Hold on,” said Mike. “Even if we become psycho killers, how can you guarantee to do all that? Darius is a powerful priest like you. He might spot you right away, invisible or not.”

“Welcome to the world of risk,” said Demetrius. “When you run your ‘D&D games’, do you dumb them down for babies? Or do the dice you roll actually matter? You’re adults now, you’ve grown a pair of balls. Use them.”

Mike choked back a furious reply. If you weren’t inside Dustin’s body, I’d kick your smart-ass mouth until your teeth fell out.

 

Next Chapter: Mushroom Madness

(Previous Chapter: Holy Possessor)

The Lost City: Holy Possessor

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

 

                                   The Lost City — Chapter Two:

                           Holy Possessor

 

Mike Wheeler felt numb descending the ladder. He’d lost a part of himself and wouldn’t be made whole until Lucas was.

The conflict was too much to process. His ultimate wish had come true but it was a nightmare. He was sharing it with his friends, except his best friend who was killed by it. A D&D world was impossible, and yet it was real. When you were dreaming you couldn’t be sure, but when you weren’t dreaming you knew. And Mike Wheeler knew. He wasn’t dreaming. The Lost City was real.

The logistics of it mocked logic itself. Had TSR’s designers been to alternate worlds and repackaged their experiences as a game? Or was it the other way around? Did written adventure scenarios somehow call themselves into alternate existence?

They were in a portal fantasy like Narnia, but Cynidicea was no wonderland of talking animals. It was more like the portal world of The Land, from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where terrible things happened every other chapter. In the first trilogy of that series Covenant insisted the Land wasn’t real and that he was dreaming, but Covenant was a mental case. Guilt and self-loathing defined him; he had raped the first woman he met in the Land, as thanks for curing his disease. He refused to take responsibility for himself. Naturally he’d insist he was dreaming. Mike Wheeler had no room for delusions.

He stepped on a hand and Dustin swore up at him. “Watch your step, Mike. There’s a broken rung here.”

“Did you hear that, Will?” said Mike.

“Yeah,” said Will from above.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” said Will. “Did giants build this ladder?”

“No, just adults,” said Mike, swearing inwardly. He didn’t need a reminder of their puny sizes. Kids in the Lost City were about as safe as kids in the Vietnam War.

Dustin called up and said something inaudible.

“I can’t fucking hear you!” yelled Mike.

“I said I made it! You have to hug one of the sides to make it to the next rung!”

Mike started his descent again. He knew that hating Dustin was irrational, but he couldn’t help it. They were in an ocean of shit thanks to him, and they would all be joining Lucas in hell.

At the bottom was an empty square room, about twenty feet long and wide. If he remembered the module correctly, there were no traps or treasure here, just a secret door that led to an abandoned bedroom.

“Let’s see if my searching abilities have improved,” said Dustin.

“I think it’s that wall,” said Mike pointing. Dustin walked over and began searching.

Mike pictured the gaming map in his mind. They were in the southwestern area of the tier and needed to get to the huge chamber at the north end: the hall of mosaics. There was a trap door in that hall that led down to the underground city. It was a long way; they were kids in a murderous dungeon crawl. Death waited in every other room. If Dustin found the secret door, they would enter an abandoned bedroom, and from there a kitchen with giant snakes. After that a room where killer statues came to life, and beyond that a den of gargoyles. There was no way they were getting by a pair of gargoyles. This real-life game would be over in a snap.

“Hah,” said Dustin, pushing open a section of the wall. “I am getting better.”

“Well, we knew what we were looking for,” said Will.

“True,” admitted Dustin. “If you don’t know that it’s there, and exactly where to look, there’s no way to find these secret doors. It’s just like the game.”

“Let’s go,” said Mike. “This should be the abandoned bedroom. Nothing dangerous. Don’t get used to that idea.”

They entered a room forty by fifty feet with a door at the far side. There was a bed, a table, and a desk with a chair, and items lying on each: on the desk a lantern, on the chair a bathrobe, and on the table something they couldn’t make out. Mike frowned. There was something about this room he should be remembering. Will moved towards the table.

“Hold on, Will,” said Mike, grabbing his arm. “Don’t go near the table.”

“It’s just the holy symbol,” said Will. “Of Usamigaras.”

“Yeah Mike,” said Dustin. He was over at the desk, opening drawers. “In the game we picked it up and nothing bad happened.”

Mike released Will and they both approached the table. They saw the symbol and Mike remembered. It was a wooden carving of two intertwined snakes. Usamigaras was one of the old gods of Cynidicea, like Gorm and Madarua. The temples of these cults were in the pyramid’s upper tiers, far from the reach of the Zargonites who ruled the undercity. The former resident of this room had been a priest of Usamigaras. Something nagged at Mike. A priest…

Will was turning over the holy symbol. “I liked the Magi, even though we joined the Brotherhood.”

“The Brotherhood are solid,” said Mike. “I mean it, Will. We’re not asking the Magi for help.”

“I’m not saying we should,” said Will. But Mike knew he wanted to.

The Magi of Usamigaras were the most powerful of the three cults, but also the most internally divisive, and they had the least influence. Their leader was a sleaze. Full members were magic users, but other devotees included thieves and assassins, and of course it had its priests like the other cults. The Brotherhood of Gorm were the oldest cult with the most influence. Its warriors were all men; fearless and loyal to a fault. The Maidens of Madarua were the flip-side of that sexism: female warriors whose goal was a complete overturn of the patriarchy. In the game Will had been drawn to the Magi, but Lucas and Dustin overruled him, and they had thrown in with the Brotherhood. As dungeon master, Mike had approved.

“Better put it down,” said Mike. He half expected the snakes on the holy symbol to come to life and sink their teeth into Will’s hand.

Will tossed it back on the table.

“Nothing over here,” said Dustin, closing the last drawer of the desk.

“Then let’s move on,” said Mike. “The next room is the kitchen with those pythons -” He broke off when he saw Dustin leaning on the chair. “No, wait, Dustin – stop!”

It was too late. Mike had forgotten this nasty part, because in the game, none of the player characters had touched the robe draped on the chair. When he saw Dustin touch it now, he remembered: it was the robe, not the holy symbol, that contained the trap.

And a brutally unfair one.

Dustin. No.

Possession.

Dustin’s body spasmed. Tremors filled his muscles. His face contorted – like an adult’s on the brink of orgasm – and then he screamed and raised his fists. He closed his eyes, shuddering, breathing deeply, shaking his fists, trying desperately to wrest control of himself. Mike and Will shouted his name. Then Dustin froze. Slowly, he opened his eyes and lowered his hands… completely calm.

Will was shaken. “Dustin?” he asked.

Dustin my ass, thought Mike. They had just lost him. To a priest on a vengeance crusade.

Dustin’s face smiled at Will. It was a kind enough smile, but Mike knew it wasn’t their friend behind it. “I’m sorry, but I’m not Dustin,” spoke Dustin’s mouth. Will gasped. “An urgent matter requires that I borrow Dustin’s body. Please forgive me. I intend your friend no harm, and I’ll release him as soon as I can.”

“Mike?” said Will, horrified. “What’s going on?”

Mike swore. “What’s going on is that Dustin is possessed. By the priest who used to live in this room.” A priest of Usamigaras. Moderately high-level – seventh – if Mike remembered correctly. “He was killed by his brother and wants revenge. Isn’t that right?”

Dustin’s face looked astonished. “That’s correct, boy. But there’s no way you could have known that.”

“Well, I did,” said Mike. “Boy.”

“I’m no boy, boy.”

“You are now.”

“I don’t remember this in our game,” said Will.

“Your game?” asked the priest inside Dustin.

“That’s because none of you touched the robe,” said Mike. “That robe held the spirit of this cleric. His name is Dmitri or something, I forget. He was killed by his twin brother – another priest – who has a hideout on the other side of this tier.” The shock on Dustin’s face grew exponentially as Mike rattled off facts he had no way of knowing. “And he’s about to tell us that he needs Dustin’s body and our help so he can kill his brother.”

“Who are you boys?” demanded the priest.

“Who are you?” retorted Will. “We want Dustin back.”

“I am Demetrius Rhone,” said the priest. “And everything your friend just said is true. And I want you both to explain how you know who I am, how I was killed, and the location of my brother’s secret hideout.”

“I’m Will and he’s Mike,” said Will. “And we play this game -”

“We explain jack shit to you, motherfucker!” said Mike. “Get out of our friend!”

“That’s not happening,” said Demetrius. “I’m sorry – Mike, is it? – but I made a dying wish that my spirit live on, and the condition of that wish is that I use the next available body to fulfill my vow. Otherwise my soul is cursed.”

“What’s your vow?” asked Will.

“I don’t give a shit about his vow,” said Mike. “He and the other cults in this pyramid can go to hell.”

Will turned to him. “We should hear him out.”

Of course we should. We should lie down and die while we’re at it. “I guess we don’t have a shitload of choice about it, Will. We can’t exorcise this asshole.”

“Please,” said Demetrius. “Please do hear me out. My vow is to destroy my brother, Darius Rhone. That vow was interrupted when my brother caught on to me and killed me. I was able to preserve my spirit in my robe so that I could take over a body that happened by. It’s taken over a year for someone to come into this room and actually touch the robe. I’m assuming that Darius is still hiding on the other side of this tier – behind the party rooms – and Mike has just confirmed that.”

“Yeah, the party rooms,” said Mike. There were mushroom addicts over there. Acid heads. Baked out of their minds. The Cynidiceans were addicted to psychedelics. “Why is killing your brother so important?” The module hadn’t explained any details behind the fratricide.

“He’s a priest of Zargon, but also a skilled manipulator and assassin. He wants to wipe out the cults of the old gods, but he prosecutes that goal indirectly – and very effectively. When I was alive, he was rumored to have at least one spy inside each of the cults. I can only imagine the damage he’s done in a year’s time.”

“Is Darius the high priest of Zargon?” asked Will.

“No, that’s Hazor,” said Demetrius. “Unless there’s a new high priest now. Hazor’s powerful but not cunning; and not nearly as dangerous as my brother. And my brother avoids the city water supply. He’s paranoid about purifying his food and drink with his prayers. So he’s not a drug addict like most of the natives. That keeps his mind incredibly sharp.”

“Wait a minute,” said Mike, thinking of spells. “You and Darius are seventh level, right? Seventh level clerics?”

Demetrius blinked. “Excuse me?”

Shit. How to translate from game terminology. “I mean… what kind of spells do you pray?”

“I have a variety of prayers at my disposal. Healing and protective prayers, mostly, and I purify my meals too, like my brother. I was never addicted to mushrooms. What about you boys? I assume you’re addicted to some degree, but to be honest, Dustin’s body feels very healthy.”

“We don’t do drugs,” said Mike. “We’re not addicts.”

Demetrius frowned. “Well, that’s very rare. How have you managed that?”

“We’re not from this world,” said Will.

Demetrius raised his eyes.

He looks exactly like Dustin when he does that.

“We got transported here against our will,” continued Will. “We want to get back home, but another friend of ours died. He was killed by the wight – the queen upstairs. We had to leave him up there. After we killed her.”

Demetrius was stunned. “You destroyed the corpse of Queen Zenobia?”

“Dustin destroyed her,” said Mike with pride. “With an awesome spell. Better than any of yours, I guarantee.” Now that Dustin was a victim in jeopardy, Mike was done hating him.

“You’re lying,” said Demetrius. “You’re boys, not spell casters. The wight would have killed you all.”

“Do you have a detect lie spell?” asked Will.

Demetrius looked hard at Will. “No,” he said. “That’s not one of my prayers. But I know your friend Dustin is no spell caster. I can access his mind, and just gleaning its surface makes it obvious that he’s no cleric or mage. Not even an apprentice.”

“You have Dustin’s memories?” asked Mike.

“Yes.”

“Well then dig deeper, asshole, and you’ll see we’re telling the truth.”

Demetrius frowned and closed his eyes. He looked like he was trying to meditate. Minutes passed and Demetrius’s frown deepened. At one point he inhaled sharply. Finally he opened his eyes. He stared at Mike and Will for a long time.

Mike inclined his head. “Well?”

“Well,” said Demetrius.

“Yeah,” said Mike.

“I’m sorry about Lucas,” said the priest. “That was horrible.”

“We need to find a priest,” said Will. “Like you, but a more powerful priest, who has a resurrection spell.”

“Oh, I remember,” said Demetrius scornfully, tapping Dustin’s head. “Your ‘brilliant’ plan is to go down to the city and seek out a priest of Gorm to raise Lucas from the dead. Which proves in itself that you boys are from another world.”

“Why is that?” asked Mike.

“The Brotherhood of Gorm considers resurrection a sacrilege. Did your ‘gaming module’ not cover that?”

Mike swore. Resurrection a sacrilege? “The module is light on details, especially like those. Do any of the cults believe in resurrection?”

“Yes, but it’s a rare priest who’s powerful enough to invoke such a prayer. I guarantee you none of the Zargonite priests or Madaruan priestesses have resurrection powers. I’m pretty sure no one from my cult either; the last cleric of Usamigaras who could raise the dead died over twenty years ago.”

“Well shit!” yelled Mike, on the verge of tears. “We need Lucas back!”

“I’m sorry, Mike. And I’m sorry, Will.”

“There has to be something we can do!” said Will.

“There isn’t,” said Demetrius bluntly. “Now I want you boys to follow me and do exactly as I say.”

“Eat shit!” cried Mike. He wasn’t giving up on Lucas in a million years.

“The first order of business,” said Demetrius, unfazed, “is equipping ourselves. The gods have finally seen fit to pay off my dying wish, but with the body of a twelve-year old child. That’s a hard shroom to swallow.”

“Then swallow your own shit,” retorted Mike, still in tears.

“I was obsessed with scatological insults at your age,” admitted the priest. “They’re psychologically gratifying.”

Mike turned and stormed off toward the kitchen door. Snakes be damned.

“Mike,” commanded the cleric.

Mike stopped.

“Come back.” It was a voice of ironfire. Dustin’s voice still, but infused with compulsive power.

Against his will, Mike turned and walked back to where Demetrius and Will stood. It was a command spell. This piece-of-shit possessor had prayed a command on him.

“I understand your anger over Lucas, Mike, but I’m trying to save lives, including the lives of kids like Lucas. And you; and Will; and Dustin. Revenge isn’t all I want. If Darius doesn’t die, Cynidicea will. I know you don’t care, because this isn’t your world, but it’s as real as your own. You may treat our world as a game in yours, but I won’t abide your feelings of alien superiority, and I will absolutely not stand for temper tantrums. Am I clear?”

“You’re not my superior either,” grated Mike.

“Oh, I am,” said Demetrius. “But I’m not wasting time arguing the obvious. All that matters is that you do as I say, when I say it. Am I clear?”

“Perfectly, you Nazi,” snarled Mike.

“Will?” asked Demetrius.

Will nodded.

“Excellent,” said the priest jovially, clapping their backs. “We’ll be the best of friends in no time, just as if I were Dustin. Now as I said, the first order of business is equipping ourselves. Dustin has already been endowed with our queen’s scepter.” He pulled it from Dustin’s belt and examined it with admiration. “The royal wand of paralysis. Now that you have a priest inside Dustin, this wand can actually be put to use. You see what I mean? This is all turning out for the good.”

If it weren’t Dustin’s face the priest was wearing, Mike would have punched it.

Demetrius returned the scepter to Dustin’s belt. “And this necklace,” he said, lifting the medallion to get a good look at it.

“It shines light in darkness,” said Mike.

“Yes,” admired the priest. “Handy in a place like this. We don’t need a lantern.”

“It also protected us from the wight,” said Will.

“Once it was activated,” said Mike. “She got Lucas before its powers switched on.”

“I gathered that in Dustin’s memories. The necklace probably had to recalibrate after crossing worlds. Your shop owner said it protects the wearer from undead, and extends that protection to anyone within fifteen feet. If that’s true, which it seems to be, then this is a priceless defense against any undead creature. But we need a lot more.” He let the medallion fall against his chest. “We’ll start in my treasure room. Not much in there anymore, but I think a couple of items will help us out.”

That was another encounter Mike hadn’t run, because Lucas, Dustin, and Will hadn’t found the secret door to it. But he remembered the creature lurking inside. “Isn’t there a polymar in there?” he asked.

“You really do know this place,” said the priest, walking over to his desk. “Yes, a polymar. But it answers to me. I put it there to guard my treasure.” He opened the top drawer and grabbed a key.

“What’s a polymar?” asked Will.

“A creature that reshapes its body into whatever form it wants,” said Mike. “In the module it’s lurking in the form of a tapestry, then surprises intruders by changing into an ogre.”

Demetrius laughed. “It’s a very effective watch dog.” He pocketed the key and walked over to the north wall.

“Yeah, but will it recognize your scent?” asked Will. “In Dustin’s body?”

“Who knows?” said Demetrius. “Only one way to find out.” He ran his hand slowly along the north wall, stopped, and pushed. A secret door opened.

He does that just like Dustin. Mike wondered if Demetrius was subconsciously absorbing a part of Dustin’s persona.

Demetrius led them into a twenty-foot square room that was vacant except for a wooden chest on the other side. The chest lay on the floor against the wall, under a huge tapestry of a desert scene.

“And there it is,” said Mike.

“Stay here,” said Demetrius. “I’m going to open it.” He took the key from Dustin’s pocket. The chest was padlocked.

If that tapestry turns into an ogre, we’re all dead. Even Demetrius. He was an adult trapped in a kid’s body. An ogre would pound him into jelly. Unless he had some offensive spells up his sleeve.

But no ogre appeared. The tapestry moved slightly at Demetrius’s approach, but in the end must have recognized the spirit of its master.

The priest knelt down and opened the chest with his key. He looked inside and told Mike and Will to come over. They did so and looked over the priest’s shoulder. There were thousands of silver and gold pieces, a bottle, a dagger, and chainmail armor. The dagger was a magic weapon, the chainmail enchanted as well, and the bottle obviously a potion, but Mike forgot what the benefits were.

Demetrius pulled a sack from the chest and gave it to Will. “Here. Take as much money as you want. I’ll not be needing it again.”

Mike nodded to Will. If we can take gold back home with us, we’ll be rich. Will’s mother can buy a better house.

Will knelt next to Demetrius and began scooping gold pieces into the sack.

“I will however be needing this potion,” said the priest, opening the bottle cap and sniffing the mouth. “Hmm. Still fresh.” He replaced the cap and told Will to put it in the sack.

“That’s a potion of invisibility, right?” asked Mike.

“Indeed,” said Demetrius. “It will be useful against my brother.”

Not very, thought Mike. A potion of invisibility made you invisible only as long as you didn’t attack anyone. Demetrius was aiming to kill.

“This gold is heavy,” said Will. “I’m only taking 300 pieces.” That was six pounds of weight and the limit of what his pouch could hold. There was loads more in the chest – at least 5000 gold and 3000 silver pieces.

“Good plan,” said Mike. “Who gets the dagger? That chainmail is obviously too big for any of us.”

“Take it,” said Demetrius, handing it to him. The dagger had flared with light as soon as he picked it up.

Mike looked it over, marveling at the light and its practically non-existent weight. In D&D, magic weapons were light, and magic daggers and swords radiated light when their hilts were gripped. I don’t want a dagger, I want a sword. He gave the dagger to Will.

“Wow,” said Will, taking the blade. “Christmas came early. Is this a dagger +1?”

“I think so,” said Mike.

“You guys need weapons too,” said Will.

“We need a lot more than weapons,” said Demetrius, closing the chest. “We need magic items that can rain destruction. You’re kids and so am I now. We can’t fight for shit.”

“Dustin’s scroll has a spell we haven’t used,” said Mike. “The third one. We have no idea what it does.”

“Oh, I forgot,” said Demetrius, fingering Dustin’s belt. “I meant to check that out. I want to see this scroll.” He removed the cloth from the belt. “A scroll that you know-nothing kids used to hop across worlds and blast our queen to smithereens. Which is impossible.”

“You saw us do it,” said Mike. “In Dustin’s memories. And be careful with that thing. It’s our way home.”

“Home?” asked Demetrius. “Don’t be so sure.” He unrolled the scroll and began reading.

“What do you mean, ‘don’t be sure’?” asked Will.

The priest ignored Will’s question. “As I thought. These are Zargonite spells.” He read more and his eyes widened.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mike.

Demetrius was staring hard at the scroll. “You boys have no idea who the shop owner was?”

They shook their heads.

“And you used the first two spells but not the third.”

“You saw,” repeated Mike. “The first one brought us here and the second killed Zenobia.”

“You know so much and yet so little.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mike.

“In fact, you really don’t know your asses from your elbows.”

“What the fuck, Demetrius.”

“Mike, the solution to your dead friend Lucas has been staring at you from this scroll.”

Mike felt as if the ground had shifted. “What?”

“The third incantation. It’s a spell of resurrection.”

“What?!” said Mike and Will.

“Yes. And though I would have never believed it possible, it’s like the other two spells. It doesn’t require a spell user to cast it. Any one of you boys could read the incantation to resurrect Lucas.”

Mike was reeling. “The guy who sold it to Dustin said he didn’t know what the third spell did. But he said it was called ‘Zoombie’, and that it had something to do with zombies that are smarter and faster than usual. We don’t want Lucas raised into anything like a zombie!”

Demetrius laughed. “Yes, it’s called ‘Zoombie’, but that’s just a Zargonite swipe at crazy prejudices. As I said, the Brotherhood of Gorm thinks resurrection is sacrilegious. They call resurrected people zoombies, because to them a resurrected being is little more than a zombie – smarter and faster, as you say, to the extent they even seem normal, but to the Brothers they are spiritually deficient. I think it’s a bullshit belief, as do my fellow Magi. Almost thirty years ago one of our priests raised someone from death, and she came back fine. Don’t worry, boys. The Zargonites use the term ‘zoombie’ to mock the followers of Gorm. Not because their resurrection spells raise people into anything like zombies.”

Mike couldn’t believe he was hearing this. “Then what are we waiting for?”

“We have to go back for Lucas,” said Will. “Up to Tier 4.”

“Agreed,” said Demetrius, putting away the scroll. “I’d give anything to meet the priest who created that scroll. And your shop owner.”

“You think he’s a priest too?” asked Mike.

“I have no idea who in Hell he is,” said Demetrius. “But believe me, you don’t want him running loose in your world. Magic and spells are seen as games to you people. That makes you vulnerable, if not outright defenseless.”

 

Death diminished and it dignified. Mike felt the paradox looking down at his friend. Lucas Sinclair’s moment of terror was immortalized, the scream of a final breath frozen on dead lips. A wight’s touch stripped the soul, leaving a shamed corpse. And yet Lucas also looked strangely beautiful; nobly defiant in the way of the innocent. He hadn’t earned this road. Mike would have done anything to erase his path on it.

Now that erasure had come. But Mike didn’t trust the miracle spell. Zoombie. Fears he couldn’t name overrode Demetrius’s assurances.

“Best if I do this,” said Demetrius. He stood next to Mike by the table, flanked on the other side by Will.

Mike began: “You said -”

“Anyone can read these scroll spells and make them work, but the ‘Zoombie’ spell gets pretty dramatic. You have to put flare into it.”

Flare. Whatever that meant. “You’re the professional,” conceded Mike. He didn’t trust himself reading the spell anyway.

“Dustin did a good job with the other two spells,” said Demetrius. “Pronunciation matters and your friend nailed it.”

“He practiced a lot of the words, the night before,” said Mike. He was growing less angry about Dustin’s possession. The cleric was proving valuable to them. As long as he didn’t own Dustin for long.

Demetrius nodded. “But as I said, this third spell relies on more than pronunciation. Now both of you stand back and keep silent.”

“Wait a minute,” said Mike. “I want to be absolutely sure of this. You’re saying that Lucas will be raised exactly as he was before? That he won’t be changed at all?”

Demetrius looked thoughtful. “Not changed at all? Well. Do you want the long answer to that, or the short?”

“Jesus, Demetrius!”

“Mike, listen. No one comes back from the dead unchanged. Passing through death leaves a mark on people, and how it does that depends entirely on the individual. Theologians have a lot to say about it, and we could discuss it for hours. But if you’re asking whether or not Lucas will be a partial zombie, the answer is no. He won’t be undead at all, I promise you. This spell doesn’t animate, it resurrects.”

“Well… then okay,” said Mike. “That’s all I care about.”

“You sure?” asked Demetrius.

Mike nodded.

“Okay. Then both of you stand back.”

Mike and Will gave him space. And then, for the third time, they watched as Dustin chanted from the scroll. Only not Dustin this time. Don’t fuck this up, Demetrius. If Lucas came back resembling anything like a zombie…

The Zargonite words tumbled from Dustin’s mouth. They sounded both similar and dissimilar to the words of the other spells – the sacred tongue woven with much different purpose. The first spell had been creepy; the second aggressive. This one was a shot of adrenaline. Hearing the chant was like getting an injection of B-vitamins and caffeine. It sounded unnerving in the extreme.

“Eyf fie tyne la-hief sola wosh barite…”

Mike held his breath. At his side, Will grabbed his hand, and Mike squeezed it back. They watched the ritual, willing Lucas back to life through their own prayers. Please God, thought Mike. If you’re even in this world. Please bring Lucas back.

“… stahn my haer vesh o-lora hyme cryshar…”

Usamigaras was irrelevant here. Demetrius wasn’t channeling power from his patron deity. Whoever read from the scroll was a mere instrument, a trigger for contingency spells that had already been prayed into effect by a Zargonite. Which meant that if Lucas returned from the dead, it would be through the “blessings” of a Cthulhu-like deity. Mike didn’t like that idea, despite Demetrius’s guarantees. Please. Don’t let him be tainted by Zargon. Please –

“Maas taerikite! horbei! pringala-a-fine!”

The chant became frantic. Demetrius seemed almost taken over by the spell – the possessor becoming possessed. You have to put flare into it. That “flare” escalated for twenty seconds more, and then Demetrius was shouting at the top of his lungs:

“Bayglei-kam! Q’ozei! Q’ozei! Q’OZEI! Q’OOOOOO-ZEEIIIIIII!!!!”

Lucas suddenly sat upright, eyes wide. Will screamed in shock, and Mike stared with his hands in his mouth. It worked. Lucas lived. He gulped air as if he’d been drowning, but he lived. Mike shouted his friend’s name, wanting to rush over and hug him.

Demetrius put away the scroll. He was sweating profusely. He put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder and then looked back at Mike and Will, nodding. They joined him at the table. “Give him a few seconds,” said the cleric. Lucas continued inhaling air but he was stabilizing. Finally he breathed normally and took in his surroundings. He saw Mike and Will crying, and said Jesus, he was fine, and why the hell was he sitting on this table? Mike reached over and bear-hugged him, unable to speak.

“Whoa, Mike,” said Lucas. “It’s okay.” He pried Mike off… and then Will was on him. “What the hell, you guys? Was I out that long?”

“What do you last remember, Lucas?” asked Demetrius.

Lucas gently pushed Will away, and swung his legs over the table. “Nothing. I mean, it was dark. Completely. Then my arm felt like ice. And then my whole body… like my blood was becoming ice. And then… I don’t know, I don’t remember anything after that.” His look turned hard. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, Dustin.”

“Yeah, you don’t know the half of it,” said Mike. “But be nice to him. He’s not even Dustin, he’s a cleric inside Dustin. And he just resurrected you. You died, Lucas. You were dead.”

“It’s a miracle we got you back,” said Will.

Lucas sputtered questions and Demetrius held up a hand. “We’ll explain everything. But for now, let’s eat. I have a prayer that will create a feast for us. I don’t know about you boys, but living without a body for a whole year has left me starving. How about you, Lucas? Does death and resurrection work up any appetites?”

They stared at Demetrius, and then one by one began laughing. They were all famished. Especially Lucas.

 

Next Chapter: Terror Gaze

(Previous Chapter: Games That Kill)