“...there are things and men and devices and craft which, collectively, our world would rather have expunged from every record. Gharxil Hardblaze and his reinvention of the practice of silverslaves rank foul and incomprehensible in the Media of the Champions. But tell the story we must. For his dungeon will always be with us.”
Pival Shatterkeg, Chief Historian of the Champions
Entering another world isn’t part of my normal routine: breakfast, budgecraft lessons, lunch, mentorship, then a walk in the meadow high atop our castlestack. But today, after mentorship, I escape my parents’ schedule, return to my room, and cross a threshold into the world of Tungsten City.
Not really though. I wish. It’s only the childhood dream of a young woman.
I can sorta go there, through bluelink—the digital heart and mind of our modern world. My access is typically restricted. I’m a citizen of Whurrimduum, not Tungsten City. But I paid good ferrum for a workaround. Where did I get it? I’d never give up my source. Tungsten City is Whurrimduum’s opposite, our family’s opposite. If my parents found out... no, I won’t think about it. I’ll just make the most of the time I’m stealing back from my busy schedule.
Besides this is my third trip into this virtual world. I’ll be fine.
This time, I’m bringing Zerx—my falcon—with me to the fake Tungsten City. By linking his consciousness with my own, he can join me on top of the skyscrapers that rim the exterior wall of the city. We can fly over the grain farms in the center of the cavern, beneath the great yellow-white brightstorm that sheds light over the city at the bottom of the massive, barrelled-out wells we live in.
Dropping my mentoring leafs on my bed, I open his cage. “Ready Zerx?”
He caws, his feathers shivering out of confinement. He takes a wide circle around the vaulted ceiling, his gray body a blur against the granite. He settles on the gilded chest at the foot of my bed, and caws loudly, fluffing his downy chest.
“I know. I know. That cage. Come on.”
From under my bed, I draw a single, fist-sized blue glass marble. “This is our ticket to escape, Zerx. You’re coming with me this time. At least for an afternoon.” I hold my arm out and his talons find their natural perch around my leather and coppercraft band.
Our minds become one. He pictures looping around the skies of Whurrimduum searching for piperats.
“No, I’ve got something better planned,” I tell him.
I push the doors of the balcony open and step out into the soft light of a day under Whurrimduum’s brightstorm. If I squint hard enough, past the brightstorm, I can see the top of the city cavern enclosing the world. Tungsten City obviously has a ceiling above its brightstorm too, but because of the freedom they enjoy, it’s easier to imagine that it’s as open as the surface of Ide itself.
The castlestacks of the city rise in bland uniformity all around us, upright rectangular prisms, various in width and height. Altogether, they loom like some sprawling sandcastle as if the latcher who made it had only one tool to shape everything.
I close my eyes and activate the blue marble. Electricity tingles across my body.
The colors bleed through before I can even pull back my eyelids. Zerx pushes off against my wrist and caws so loud and deep I think people might be able to hear him in the real Tungsten City. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I opened my mouth and blasted the world with such a caw, a ferocious bark of freedom and hope.
If Whurrimduum is a maze of rectangles and piperats, Tungsten City is the glory of a thousand brightstorms all reaching nightchange at the same exact moment—a flash of brilliance. A ring of buildings in glass and neon light, brown stone, and globes of ivy and gold. But it’s the people who catch my eye, their movement. Here, budgecraft isn’t restricted. They budge anywhere, everywhere they want. One man exits a building and budges to a food stall only three bars away.
It’s free and floating and fantastic. Incredible. Now I truly join Zerx in his cawing announcement. Through our bond, I feel his excitement at the new world. Or maybe he feels mine.
“K-caw!” My voice is swallowed up in the void of the ever-changing city.
Hands—hands in the real world—sink into my shoulders.
My vision shifts and I’m back looking over Whurimduum.
My dad reaches over me and plucks the bluecraft marble from my hand. Tungsten City disappears.
“Wesdra, what is this?”
Zerx must sense my distress. He dives for us from far above, the angle of his trajectory fast and purposeful. My voice doesn’t return until he’s safe on my arm again. “Dad? You were leaving. I—you nearly melted me. I—”
A deep frown cuts his mouth. “We can”—chewing his words—“discuss this object later. I came to bring you to Hardblaze dungeon with me today. Routine, but safe for you to learn at my side.”
A groan leaves my lips freely. “Translation: extremely boring, even to latchmages.”
“Wesdra, please.” He turns back to my room and places the bluecraft marble safely on my bed. “You are coming with me. Yes, you have passed summation, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Doesn't mean I’m free to do whatever I want. Yeah, I know, but—”
“Don’t interrupt. What I was saying is that that does not mean you are prepared for every eventuality life can press upon you as a child of the champions.”
“And you are?”
His eyes widen, but then slowly, slowly, he works his mouth open. “Yes. I was well trained, as you will be.”
What would it be like to enter a dungeon on my own for once? To search for relics with my friends. Some of them are already allowed to go on their own. But the argument is lost on my parents. The best I can do is accept my fate for another two years, then I’ll be sixteen, and I can make my own way in the world. Maybe even find a way to Tungsten City.
“If it’s so safe today,” I say, “then let me bring Zerx in with us.”
I smile at my Dad, framing my lips and eyes in pure innocence. “He was well trained too.”
A touch of humor reaches my Dad’s mouth. He huffs. “Fine. Bring him.”
Dad draws his necklace out from under his shirt. I’ve seen his keeper’s key a thousand times, but it always excites me. Each keeper’s dungeon key is unique, special, but this one is my favorite. Sharp shining aluminum grip, slowly changing into transparent aluminum, almost as clear as glass along the keyed end. Inside both the metal and glass, holograms shimmer with iridescence.
‘We’re budging now?” I say.
“Yes. I have a council meeting late in the afternoon so I have to be back by—”
“Do I need any relics? Oh, I have the copper buttons that grandfather—”
“Interrupting again. And no, you will not need any relics. In fact, I’ll be showing you how to distill one of the more uncommon relics from Hardblaze. That’s why I’m going. The council wants me to get something.”
My shoulders fall. Zerx’s feathers flatten closer to his body.
“I really need to try out the buttons sometime.”
He weighs this, tilting his head back and forth as if he can toss the idea between the two sides of his brain. “I can arrange a private lesson with—”
He’s taken a needle and punctured my hopes again. “A real test, Dad. Not a lesson. Forget it. Can we just go?”
My dad is capable of wiping every thought, every misdeed, and every feeling from his mind and moving onward like nothing has happened at all. He does this now. I can always tell when his chin straightens out. He enters full council/keeper mode. It’s the mask of his I hate the most.
But we budge. I feel the extra weight of gravity on my calves, a wave of nausea swims through my stomach, but these physical sensations subside the moment we disappear from the room and reappear at the budgeport in the entrance lobby of Hardblaze dungeon.
This is the part I love about dungeons. The crowds.
Dozens and dozens of people swarm the entrance.
Adoring fans, many dressed in the colors of Hardblaze dungeon: first silver, second silver-white, and third a muddy brown. A cheer even rises from the front of the line near what I know to be dozens of individual alcoves that lead to the threshold of the dungeon, the point of no return.
My dad grins then looks at me, then looks at the crowd, then frowns. “Still can not believe your summation was in Bronzeshield dungeon.”
“Why is that always the first thing you say, every time you bring me here?”
Zerx shifts on his perch and cocks his head toward my dad.
“Right,” he says. “Well, it was surprising that is all. Not saying it had to be here in Hardblaze, but maybe...”
Continuing from where he left off last time I mimic his voice. “...Waramber, Grudgeleather, even Forgebreath would have made more sense.”
Now my dad cocks his head, thinking. “Okay, message received. I will not bring it up again. Come.”
He leads us to the edge of the crowd.
One man, hand on his son’s shoulders, laughing, speaking with friends, turns his head towards us. His mouth stops working. His eyelids peel back. But the woman closest to him continues talking excitedly. She hasn’t noticed us. The man clears his throat, slaps his friend’s arm, and inclines his head.
Like a flame out of control, the crowd catches on. Reverence replaces the noise and fanfare. A keeper has this effect. My dad has this effect.
“Please,” one man says, motioning us in front of his group.
My father sticks out his chin a fingertip’s length, enough to make himself more keeper than father. “No,” he says. “A keeper has no special rights in the lobby. We will go in order.”
The crowd all blinks in unison, but they return to their places, to the conversations, though now muted and whispered. We take our place at the back of the line and let the minutes slip away, but, as always, waiting here, shuffling forward toward the alcoves, builds a physical mass of something inside of me. My hands sweat, my breathing gets choppy, noticeable.
One breath seems to overtake every other sensation, as more people arrive and line up behind us. Fifteen minutes goes by, my father nudging me inch-by-inch toward the threshold, when suddenly there's a cheer from behind us. The crowd rustles like stocks of grass as a figure parts them, moving as graceful and slippery as the lizard mounts of old.
“Lunadette?” I whisper the name. It takes the rest of my breath and casts it out to the air above me.
My dad hisses. “By my bones.”
The seer of Hardblaze dungeon, Lunadette, slinks forward. I’ve seen her on bluelink and she’s everything I’ve imagined her to be. A woman of Tungsten City. Her movement is free, her words, her smile. She’s wearing a simple shirt with the emblem of Hardblaze dungeon, and a heavily pocketed pair of pants. The bag slung over her shoulder is bejeweled with white gemstones.
When she reaches us, Dad widens his stance. Her eyes turn on him like he’s prey.
“Hardkeeper. Not unexpected. Council send you?”
“You should wait your turn in line,” he says.
“Pft. I have no intention of letting you enter the dungeon first.”
“Typical seer. Arrogant. Impatient.”
“Me?” she laughs. “What does that make the council? They want that slicefoil just as much as I do.”
There are gasps from behind me. Then a whisper ripples over the crowd.
I’ve heard Dad talk about this object before. It’s a relic that can be duplicated in Hardkeeper and pulled into the real world. But what does it do? Is there a specific day it can be accessed? Today? That seems right, but my memory won’t otherwise cooperate with details.
Dad’s face reveals nothing. “Wait your turn in line.”
She nudges around him. He stares at her, but otherwise does nothing to prevent her progress through the crowd.
“Seer coming through,” she announces.
Another cheer from the crowd. They clap her on the back, test strengths with a clasp of her forearm. They respect my father but they adore her. Most of these people are from Tungsten City, not Whurrimduum. Anyone from Whurimduum is here out of duty or fear, like me. The rest of them come as a form of worship or entertainment.
Grabbing Dad’s hand, I try pulling him forward. “Let’s get in there. She’s made it a race. Dad?”
He’s not moving. “Ceremony must stand. A line is a line.”
“But she’s ignoring it. If she can—”
“We are better than that.”
For the smallest second, the idea of running ahead of Dad soars through my mind, but reason sends a jolt from the outer part of my brain to my fight reflex. It snatches the thought away. Zerx was ready, his claws had tensed on my forearm. He twists his head as if to ask me if I’m sure.
“Oh, shut up, you,” I tell him. With a few movements, I reposition him and dig into Dad’s bag for something to feed him. Nothing. I sigh and toss the flap back down.
“Our turn will come,” Dad says, “and Ide will keep us.”
After another silent moment with the crowd, the floor begins to slope downward, enough to make it uncomfortable to stand on the incline. But this is how the lobby was designed. What’s the phrase Dad always says about Hardblaze? Discomfort always leads to reward.
The scowl forming on my face disagrees.
Then Lunadette reaches an alcove. Another wave of murmurs shakes free of the crowd, this time packed with disbelief and fear. I hear their words but I don’t believe them.
“She’s not leaving a donation.”
“She must give ferrum.”
“Will Hardblaze let her in?”
And the echo of the same fear-filled idea over and over again.
They all turn with me to the only person who can explain Lunadette’s action, Dad.
His large hands come up to settle the crowd. “Paying one silver ferrum is part of the ritual of Hardblaze dungeon. The seer, Lunadette, may be able to cross the threshold, but without a donation she will be in great danger. She could be lost inside. She could starve in there, die, or worse. She could become as cursed as any wraith, doomed to spend her life in the dungeon.”
Everyone watches quietly as Lunadette reaches the back wall of the alcove and climbs the ladder through the threshold. One second, then two, then three.
His voice, raised to be heard, states calmly, “Please, resume the line.”
And they do because they respect him.
And they fear because they adore her.
When we reach the alcoves, we enter together. We don’t take from the stone box of silver ferrum set out for the poor. Dad takes two silver ferrum from his own purse, and sets them at the foot of our alcoves. The thin metallic rectangle, usually used as currency in Whurrimduum, proves a different form of payment here. Hardblaze is the only dungeon that requires a payment of money before entering, though my father keeps the stone box stocked for those who can’t make the sacrifice, unlike his father before him—progress I suppose.
I cross the alcove to the far side and look up, and up, and up the rungs of the ladder to where a glowing brown field of light blocks the small space.
“Go ahead and let Zerx fly through,” Dad says. “Is he willing?”
Zerx caws, then takes flight like lightning up the tunnel and through the threshold, disappearing.
Gone. But I know he’s not gone, just waiting for me in the dungeon.
Dad nudges me forward. “Our turn.”
“I know what to do, Dad,” I hear the unintended edge to my voice. “Sorry.”
Dad steps back with a heavy sigh. “I’ll lead us in.”
He climbs and climbs then disappears. The first few metal rungs of the ladder always seem further spaced out than the rest, at least to me. The bars have been adhered to the stone wall, sturdy, almost as ancient as the dungeon itself. Each one colder than the next.
Normally, I would feel nothing entering Hardblaze, another routine check-in by the keeper, where he can instruct his child in the ways of supreme caution and boredom. But something picks at the back of my mind.
The silver ferrum.
I swallow, my mouth dry. I haven’t felt like this since I entered Bronzeshield dungeon for my own summation—my dad wasn’t allowed to follow me. Anything could’ve happened. Everything happened. I learn more about myself in half a day than in my entire lifetime. Would today be like that? It feels that way. Dangerous and open.
It’s odd moving through the field. Inch-by-inch, darkness surrounds my head, then my shoulders and arms, then my waist, until I’m only a disconnected pair of legs. My knees bend one at a time, coming the rest of the way through the field. There’s the sensation that my hands rest on a cold metal bar, that my toes still flex to support me on the rungs of the ladder. But I’m in the blackest of places.
And then, forcibly, I’m budged to an entirely different location.
This is a strange start for the dungeon. One I’ve never experienced before.
The narrow room is made of concrete bricks. Industrial pipes, rusted but white or pale yellow, run the length of the ceiling. A single cast iron door stands at one side. Steam hisses from the seams of the pipes here and there. And it’s cold, so cold my teeth begin chattering.
Xerx is there, sharpening his beak against the iron door between pecks.
“To me,” I command him.
In the small space, it seems as if he hunches over as he lifts from the floor and flaps once, twice, and then settles on my arm. “Where’s Dad, Zerx? Through the door already?”
I try the door. Locked. How would the door be locked if Dad came—
“We’re not in the same place. That’s new. I’ve never been in this room before.”
My body is suddenly lighter. I could faint. I spin around in a circle. Then again, and again, until Zerx caws and hops to the ground. “We’re free, Zerx! The dungeon is giving me my own chance to test my strength. And...wait...”
Lunadette. My Dad. The slicefoil.