“He could be in danger. He could be in danger and it’s up to us. But... this is it, Zerx. I can show Dad what I’m capable of. He’ll let me visit other dungeons. Give me more freedom, like he has. We just have to—”
I don’t know this room though. My dad has shown me how to solve dozens of the dungeon’s puzzles, get past a handful of dangerous obstacles, but what else is in the dungeon? There are no wraiths, keep Ide, but the dungeon is said to generate phantoms. Phantoms of the silverslaves that gave Hardblaze his power.
The muscles against my spine contract, tremble, and my back straightens without my conscious direction.
Zerx caws, bringing my head spinning around again to face the door. “I’m not afraid of this place, of-of phantoms.” Then under my breath. “I’ll show this dungeon.”
I go over what I know of Hardblaze dungeon, over the patterns I’ve learned both from my father and from the leafs he assigns me weekly.
Hardblaze was cruel, master of silverslaves, he looked down on everyone, and kept many secrets. In his dungeon, even numbers are suspicious, they are easily divisible and suggest compromise. Only the phantoms come in even numbers.
Very few solutions or clues to a room can be found below his height.
“But what’s his height? Three past a loam, maybe. Four past? Bones and beards.”
The pipes rumble overhead, something rattling them from outside the room. But they draw my attention. Besides the iron door, I hadn’t seen any other craftable metal until that moment. “Gold. Hardblaze favors goldcraft, but it was a weakness for him.”
Goldcraft isn’t my strength, not like coppercraft, but it’s not a weakness for me. A large gold fitting rests around one of the pipes.
I’m tall enough, or maybe the room is short enough, that if I stand on my toes and stretch out my hands I can just reach the pipes with the tips of my fingers, just graze the surface. But I’ve got to keep enough contact with the gold fitting to use the object's power. The second my finger grazes the gold fitting, I feel the effect of the goldcraft: The tightening of my skin, the sensation of burning without any of the fire, just skin toughening, or changing.
As my fingertips slip from the fitting, the sensation flees, but not before I understand what this object does. Like other goldcraft objects, it will let me manipulate my physical body. In this case, turning my solid form into a liquid. I can tell because as I pull my hand away it droops just a bit.
I use this to my advantage. When I touch the fitting again, I send my now gooey flesh around the pipe but I keep contact with the fitting. At the end of one pipe, I see an opening where steam is rolling outward. My now liquid hand feels for the gap, stretched like gum around the fitting, then around the pipes, then snaking inward.
It takes me only another second to grab a hold of something inside, a mass of fur—no maybe not fur, but the sensation of fur. The gooey ends of my fingers now ten feet into the pipe wrap around the object and drag it toward the opening. I pull it free and my hand returns to its normal shape.
Zerx caws at the beam of fuzzy light dancing around my fingers. The light leaps to the floor, transfiguring into a whole person. No, not a person. A phantom. Zerx flaps frantically for the back of the room, but I take a deep breath, round back my shoulders, and stare at the woman.
I know at least this much about the dungeon: the phantoms of the silverslaves can help you solve a puzzle. But they are made of pure imagination. I try to take a deep breath.
The woman, dressed in simple linen pants and a shirt, moves straight for the wall. Her fingers feel along the bricks, hand extended revealing a pair of rings, one silver one iron. After another breath, I seize her shoulders and guide her toward the door. When her fingers touch the iron, her shoulders fall in relief.
“There,” I say. “Stay there I—”
More rumbling pipes.
Following the same procedure as before, I pull another tingling orb of light from the pipes. This silverslave is the same as before, moving toward the door. When it contacts the door, the locking mechanism squeals, groans, and then clicks loudly. There’s a hiss of steam as it hinges open a hair. Then, both phantoms drift into the frame of the door—absorbed.
That was the solution. Lining up the phantoms against the door.
Zerx hasn’t come back from the far side of the room. He’s strutting over the ground confidently, but of course, I know he’s afraid of the sound of pipes, the movement of his own shadow.
“Come on you little coward”—holding out my arm—“next room.”
He swoops over to me. When he lands, he nuzzles against my body.
“It’s an adventure Zerx. It’s supposed to be a little intimidating.”
I push the door open.
A small gasp leaves my mouth. It must be eight bars to the ceiling, maybe even a whole fifth block. Usually, around other people, I feel tall—at four past a half-bar—so the height is intimidating. Equally intimidating is the maze of pipes. They’re everywhere, rumbling, hissing with steam, and dripping water down to pools where the concrete has eroded from a million consecutive droplets.
So much for the normal patterns. All these challenges are above Hardblaze’s height when he lived.
Zerx must like the height. He zips from my arm and weaves upward through the pipes. His call is clear, echoing around the room. My eyes had been drawn to the pipes and the height of the room, but up a single step toward the center of the massive industrial room... “Dad?”
“Dad!” I leap the step and charge him, expecting his arms to catch me. But the second before I reach him he blinks confused. I skid to a halt, and though he catches me, he moves me back at arm's length.
“Do I... do you know where I am?” he says, “Where you are? I-I don’t... is this a workplace of some type? I’m-I’m sorry. Who are you? What did you call me? Not... I don’t...”
“Dad, it’s me. Wesdra.”
“No, no Dad. Wesdra. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know this place. I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“Um...” my thoughts rush toward the walls, toward the distant ceiling where the pipes jut out in all directions. “You what? No. I don’t understand...”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “Maybe you can help me. Where am I? What is this place?”
He’s playing a joke. A rare occurrence, but it can be the only explanation. “Dad, stop this. Come on.” I pull on his sleeve, but he steps back.
I see it in his eyes. Confusion. He really doesn’t know who I am. “You’re serious. You’ve forgotten me?”
“I-I’ve forgotten me. I don’t know who I am? Where are we?”
“Hardblaze dungeon. You’re the keeper here.”
“It doesn’t seem like a dungeon. Am I free?”
“No, Dad, a champion’s dungeon.”
“I don’t understand.”
I stare at him. “Do you have your key? There has to be a way to reverse this. It’s probably silvercraft or—”
“Your key Dad. You usually keep it around your neck.”
He pats his neckline and shakes his head.
“Well, find it. We need it.”
He searches all his pockets but comes up empty. “What does it look like?”
“It's aluminum, but also glass. I... this is going to be difficult. The challenge in this room must be helping you find the key, getting it back.”
Dad rubs his chin. “Okay, so this, uh, key thing... it’s lost. And my memories... they’re lost. Do you think—”
“Find the key, find the memories. Smart. See, you're definitely my dad.”
“Great,” he says, watching Zerx swish down from above and land on my arm. “Strange place though. How about answering my first question. Where are we?”
“You want the long or the short version.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely still my dad.” I settle into a more comfortable position, rounding off my shoulders, widening my stance. “Okay, sure. We’re in a dungeon.”
“You said that much.”
A frown grows on his face, but something like satisfaction and joy creeps into my heart. Now he’s the one that will need a lesson today. Funny how quickly we switched roles.
“Gharxil Hardblaze lived about six hundred years ago. He became a very powerful user of craft.” Dad opens his mouth and shuts it, but it's clear what he was going to ask. “What’s craft? We use metal objects to control things. Like that iron door, I just came out of. Works by craft. Ironcraft to be precise. Anyway, Hardblaze is what we call a champion. So powerful that his death created this place. A dungeon. Everchanging, filled with traps, puzzles, mazes, wraiths, phantoms, and of course craft.”
“Why would someone come to such a place?”
At that, I can’t stop the giggle that surges from deep inside of me. “Why? Well, tradition, sport, worship. We’re Hardblaze’s descendants. You’ve taken on the name of Hardkeeer. Because you are the keeper of this dungeon. You run this place. Well, as much as a dungeon can be run. I’m not sure why Hardblaze would take your keeper’s key though.”
“I thought you said Hardblaze died?”
“Technically yes, but his soul, his life force runs this place. You always tell me not to underestimate Hardblaze. Or any champion for that matter.”
“Other champions. If there are more champions, then are there other dungeons?”
“Yes, other dungeons, other keepers. Can we move on now? We have this challenge to take care of.”
“By challenge you mean finding my key? Escaping the dungeon?”
“Exactly. Now what do you think?”
He purses his lips. It’s strange seeing the confusion and unbalance on his face. If I didn’t have the fear that his condition may become permanent, I would be enjoying this whole process.
“Help me understand what I’m looking at. There are all these pipes above us. There are fifteen iron doors on the edges of the room, including the one you came out of. And the bird.”
“Zerx isn’t part of the dungeon. But I think I’m starting to piece this together. Let’s try something. Follow me.”
He obeys me. It’s thrilling and terrifying. I want him to be back to being my overbearing dad, but the faster rhythm of the blood pumping through my veins is sending a different signal. Something at once both dangerous and hopeful. For a heartbeat, I’m in charge of what happens here. I’m responsible.
Marching back to the iron door, I run my hand around the frame, searching.
“This side of the frame is all silver, “ I tell him.
“Huh? Oh. Silvercraft. Power over the mind. Yours and sometimes others.” He blinks at me. I whisper under my breath. “Like instructing a latchmage.”
He catches this. “Latchmage?”
“Sorry.” I won’t live that down if he remembers any of this. It will be extra leafs for me to review. Days of work.
He gestures for me to go on. “So, silvercraft. It’s like mind control?”
“Sometimes. There are lots of applications based on your skill and the object itself. This one. This one... I’m not sure. I think it’s paired with iron. Though.... no, it’s not an alloy.”
“So the door... Ironcraft I’m guessing?”
“Yeah, and combined with the silvercraft makes sense. That’s how Hardblaze designed the process of silver servitude. Iron and silver. It’s what made him a champion, brought him fame and glory during the Mithrium War.”
A great sigh gushes from my dad. “Ugh, I’m not keeping up with any of this. Craft, dungeons, champions, now the Mithrium War.”
I wave a hand at him. “No, don’t worry about all that. Worry about this.” I point to a rusted pipe just above the door frame, about center. It shoots off ten feet, then joins with the rest of the pipes in the tangled maze above. “We trace the pipe to its end, see what we find.”
“That I can do. What about the other doors?”
“Well, I had to pull a couple of phantoms out of the pipes when I was stuck in there. They connected with... with the iron, I think, and the silver of the door frame. That unlocked it. Maybe we have to reverse the process on the other doors. No, one thing at a time. We’re looking for either the end of this pipe or a metal fitting that will require some challenge. Honestly, I’m not completely sure.”
“But we’ll find these phantoms?”
His face is calm. Phantoms have never scared Dad. Even without his memories, he’s still him.
“Yeah. I think. They’ll help us open—I don’t know—whatever’s next.”
Nodding thoughtfully, he steps back, and then tips his chin upward, scanning the maze of pipes.”Not going to be easy.”
“Hmph.” I unleash Zerx. Using the power of coppercraft in his mount, I connect my mind with his. As always, I feel a slight tickle of goosebumps on my skin, the hair on the back of my neck prickling. Breathe in through my nose, close my eyes, breathe out. My eyes become his eyes, my focus sharpens. The world sharpens. The layers of rust over the maze of pipes become topographic. Dad’s finger twitching. The slow beating of his eyelashes.
Then the light shifts. Bright neon blues and purples reveal themselves. Orbs of light dancing through the pipes, rhythmic and humming. The phantoms.
“So many.” I hear my own voice amplified beneath me.
The pipe leading from the open iron door bends a dozen times, then meets the stone ceiling, absorbed. The orbs of light, the phantoms stuck in the pipes, none of them leave through the ceiling, though some dart past the other doors. Maybe there will be a way to open the others.
“Something about the silver, and the iron, and the number of orbs...” I start counting them, but instead, I find a tin fitting at the center of the pipe leading again from the open door. Tincraft.
Through Zerx, I circle the room to pinpoint the tincraft fitting. It’s not too far from the ground, but it will be a climb, a delicately balanced climb. I leave Zerx’s mind and retreat to my own.
“There.” I point up to the fitting.
Dad looks up and up. “I could maybe—”
He laughs, and it’s strange and foreign. I capture the moment in my memory. I’ve never seen him truly laugh, but this is right. It’s the twitch of his mouth into a smile, multiplied. Extrapolated out to its natural conclusion. I know at once that this is what he hides from me. This is what he hides under his keeper mask, his council mask.
“I’m not sure,” he says, “if I should approve of this. I don’t have any memory of being your father, except what you told me, but a father... well, that looks supremely dangerous.”
What did he tell me about this trip into Hardblaze? It would be routine.
“We do stuff like this all this time,” I lie.
He shrugs, laces his fingers together, comes to stand beneath the correct pipe, and then hoists me up.
In between all the leafs I review each day, I get an hour of physical exercise. But as I stand, my toes and calf flexed, my heart racing, I realize none of that has prepared me for this task. Perhaps if I had some goldcraft object that gave me more grace and speed? I reach for the next horizontal pipe and catch my breath.
“Do this all the time huh?” Dad says.
I don’t look down at him. “I’m fine.”
This will work. It has to. Dad is relying on me to find his key, his memories, and get him out of here. My hand finds a vertical pipe leading upward toward the tin fitting. Hooking my leg around it, I climb. And climb and climb. The palms of my hands seem to find every rusted edge on the pipe. By the time I reach the next horizontal pipe they’re raw and scratched.
But it should be easier now. The pipes, now more densely packed, give me places to put both my feet, my arms, lean my back against. Upward, I crawl into the maze until the tincraft fitting is a foot from my face.
“Got it?” Dad calls out.
“Yep. Let’s see what this does.” I call down.
“You don’t know? I thought—”
“Not exactly. But, seems like the best choice.”
Through the pipes I see him throw up his hands, start pacing. My dad does this when he’s lecturing me. His mumbled words are indecipherable from here. I really hope he doesn’t remember all of this when it’s over.
Zerx lands next to me, balanced on the pipe easily.
My hand finds the tincraft fitting, and another physical sensation floods my body. Tincraft always feels like light and heat, the focal point seemingly above me like a heat lamp or the powerful rays from a brightstorm. All sparkling energy, filtering through air particles, dancing on my skin.
Two fingers on my opposite hand transform into vines. The whole tincraft fitting drops into my other hand, leaving a hole in the pipe. Before I can do anything else, Zerx flaps over me and settles next to the hole. He inclines his head peering inside, looks at me then caws.
“I get it. I do. But, what choice do I have?”
The vine-fingers snake into the depths of the pipe. There’s still sensation in them and I can feel the cool inside of the tube, as it tickles the tiny leaves that were my fingers only a second ago. The tube angles sharply downward, and my fingers follow.
I shudder the moment my feelers rub against something I can only describe as blurry. Can something feel blurry? It doesn’t make sense. It’s a phantom.
The tendrils seem to reach forward out of instinct, my arm lurches closer to the pipe opening and I have to fight to stay balanced. But I have the blurry thing wrapped in the vines.
The vines shrink rapidly, traveling through the pipe with an audible zip. The moment the blurry ball of light emerges, it wrestles itself from my fingers, which have returned to normal, and falls to the floor.
Dad yells and jumps back as the bulb of light transforms into the shape of an old man. Another phantom. The phantom drifts wordlessly back toward the open iron door. The second it crosses, the two other phantoms reappear. In a flash, they all combine themselves and, as one monstrous thing they cut sideways through the wall toward the next door. It hisses open. More phantoms combine with the three.
Soon the mass of translucent bodies have opened every door but one. Each time adding two more phantoms to their body. Slowly, I work my way down the pipes, keep one eye on the phantoms and another on Dad whose body, spinning in circles, must be a representation of his mind as well.
The moment I drop to the ground the swollen mass of ghostly bodies reaches the second to last door. It opens. Two more phantoms emerge and join the press. Then, as one, they pass the last door.
It stays closed. We wait for something, anything to happen, but the door stays closed.
Another heartbeat and Dad says, “Does all that mean it worked. What you did up there? It worked?”
“Progress, I think. Getting closer to finding that key and hopefully your memories. If only—”
The last iron door hinges open. Outlined in the frame stands the graceful form of a woman. Not a phantom, a woman. And I know her.