Short Stories

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Phantoms in Hardblaze Dungeon pt. 1


“...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

WESDRA

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.”

“Hmm.”

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?”

“Is it?”

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.

“Stay close.”

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.

Slicefoil.

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.”

“What?”

“She must give ferrum.”

“How?”

“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.

The threshold.

“Go ahead and let Zerx fly through,” Dad says. “Is he willing?”

“Ready, Zerx?”

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.

Lunadette.

The silver ferrum.

The slicefoil.

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.




Phantoms in Hardblaze Dungeon pt. 2

“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.

What else?

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.”

What else?

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.”

“Westda?”

“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—”

“What key?”

“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.”

“The clearest.”

“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.”

“Don’t interupt.”

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.

“Meaning what?”

“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—”

“Boost me.”

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.

“Show off.”

He caws.

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.

“Lunadette?”

Dungeon puzzles.

Magical technology.

Neon lights.

As the child of a refugee, Jeiah is determined to prove herself to the world by becoming a paladina defender of the last free city beneath the Rocky Mountains. All that stands in her way is the challenge. She must enter the dungeon of the long-dead champion Tevlok Bearcloak and race against the only other competitoran insulting and arrogant young man willing to do anything to win.


But the dungeon holds dangerous challenges and deadly puzzles. A blend of magical technology, powerful objects, and strange connections to the warped truth about the man whose death spawned the dungeon in the first place. Only a true paladin can unravel all of the secrets and reach the end of the dungeon.