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The Wyrm’s Lair

by Fahim Farook

Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 4

Duh-Li smiled wryly. The act of drawing breath did help calm his other presence, the one which wasn’t in this reality but which controlled the eidolon. He took another deep breath and then made the first set of finger-pass entries he’d filched from Ro. The gates of the portal opened at a slow, lumbering pace with a low rumbling noise like thunder in the mountains.

Beyond the portal, he could see the destinations open up. This time, in addition to all the other familiar destinations, he could also see a sign post for LILAC, just like there had been when Ro had taken him through.

He pointed at the sign and made a gesture. The portal dissolved into mist and from the vanishing mists appeared his destination, the LILAC domain.

The dark, gloomy and forbidding fortress towered over the landscape like a wrathful giant. It seemed to be a law of nature that fortresses be dark, forbidding and gloomy, just as school cafeterias always had bad food.

The wall of ifrits was visible even at this distance, their fiery bodies lighting up the barren landscape and casting an eerie, reddish tinge on everything. The entrance to the castle was at the end of the road he stood on.

Other than for the wall of ifrits, he could see no other guards or security measures in place. He’d asked Ro about it the first time they’d visited LILAC’s domain, but Ro had been evasive.

Duh-Li had learnt through years of hard earned experience (usually accompanied by a smack on the head — hence the term, “learning in the school of hard knocks”) that appearances could be deceiving. LILAC just wouldn’t leave things guarded in such a lax fashion, now would they? There had to be something...

Duh-Li summoned one of his familiars. Better to do some reconnaissance via proxy first. Proxies were always good — a proxy meant that you weren’t the one getting beaten up or burnt alive.

He sent the familiar soaring out towards the blazing line of ifrits, instructing it to stay far away enough so as not to get burnt — those familiars were expensive and he’d had to save up a lot of credits to buy one. This wasn’t even the latest model with the super-diviner add-on. But he’d made a few modifications to the familiar and that should be enough in this instance.

He attuned himself with the familiar and saw the domain up close through the familiar’s eyes. One by one, he turned on each of the divination features he’d built into the familiar. Nothing at all showed up. It looked as if the domain was indeed unguarded. Strange! Perhaps LILAC depended on their reputation of playing rough to defend their domain? Well, tonight they were going to learn that a reputation alone was not enough!

Yep, another one in the top ten list of famous last words! heckled his unrelenting mental imp. Duh-Li shrugged the interruption aside and disengaged himself from the familiar, dismissing it. He looked around one final time. It was time to go forth and conquer!

Ah, that one missed the top ten list of famous last words by just one vote! It was the imp again. But this was no time for hesitating — he stepped out of the shadows, ready to make the gesture that would apport him to the castle gates. He was just raising his hands when the whole world tilted crazily and the ground came rushing up at him.

What in the name of UNIVAC was going on? Was he under attack? Why had his eidolon fallen to the ground? Duh-Li attempted to get the eidolon upright again.

“Stay down, you idiot! You’re going to get us both burnt!” hissed a low voice in what he assumed was his ear — it was difficult to judge positions and distances in astral space. It was surprising how many times in his life he’d heard those words, or similar words to that effect.

Duh-Li turned around slowly, not getting up. There, next to him, was a girl. Yes, definitely a girl. He looked twice to make certain. He probably would have looked a third time too if she hadn’t been glowering at him.

Of course, that didn’t mean she really was a girl — looking like a girl never meant that you were actually a girl. There were way too many men on the aNet who had fallen into that trap! You could make your eidolon look like anything you wanted, not that he’d ever seen the point in doing that with his own eidolon. Now he wished that he’d used a different eidolon though — they might be able to track him down using his own eidolon’s likeness. He cursed himself for a fool.

It’s unfortunate that a curse can’t affect you if you are already afflicted by the condition! said the imp, butting in.

He returned to contemplating the girl. He wasn’t sure if she was really that pretty in real-life, but the long golden hair, the blue eyes, the tiny nose and her perky face sure ensured that her eidolon at least was good-looking.

Her? prompted the imp. Duh-li nodded agreement with his own self, for all he knew, the owner of the other eidolon could be a guy.

“Wha... What do you mean?” asked Duh-Li, finally finding his voice.

“Well, you sure aren’t a LILAC employee, that’s for sure. So you’re probably one of those stupid, dork wizards trying to break in! When will you guys ever learn that it’s not as easy as you think?”

The scorn in her voice cut Duh-Li to the core. She thought he was stupid, did she? He’ll show her! “Oh yeah, and you’re just a LILAC employee who’s protecting me from my own stupidity, I suppose?”

“Err... yes, that’s right! Now be a good boy and go on home. I wouldn’t want to have to report you to your parents...”

Duh-Li, confused and a little frightened, was about to turn away and do just as she’d ordered when the imp spoke up again. Wait a minute, she isn’t any older than you are! And what was she doing hiding in the shadows if she was a LILAC employee? Use your noodle, dum-dum!

“So you’re a LILAC employee, huh?” asked Duh-Li, trying to still the trembling in his voice. He was almost sure, kind of, about being certain that she wasn’t a LILAC employee. “Mind showing me some ID?”

The girl appeared to hesitate. “Are you trying to be fresh with me?” she snapped. “You’re in enough trouble as it is, young man! Now go on home and stop giving me any further lip!”

“Young man? You’re not much older than I am!” The acorns of doubt in Duh-Li’s mind were growing into stout oaks — it wasn’t as if there wasn’t room in his mind for things to grow. There were vast tracts of barren land.

She probably was as young as her eidolon looked! She sure didn’t speak or act like an adult. He wasn’t sure who she was, but she sure wasn’t a LILAC employee. “You’re not with LILAC, are you?” he asked, staring accusingly at her.

“OK, fine! I don’t work for LILAC! Are you happy now?” The girl scowled. “But you’d better get out of here quickly, or we are both going to get burnt by the ifrits... if not worse.”

“And what are you going to do?” asked Duh-Li, his curiosity overcoming his fear.

“I... I have something to do here. It’s important! Not like your stupid games!”

“Dark wizardry is not stupid!” burst out Duh-Li, his anger flaring again. “Do you know how much skill it takes to invade a domain? Besides, what’s your oh-so-important-and-secret mission? If you don’t work for LILAC, then you don’t have any access to their domain either! Admit it, you’re just trying to invade their domain, aren’t you?”

“I... am... not... here... to... play... games!” the girl gritted out each word as if it was forced out of her.

“What are you here for then?”

“That’s my business! Just go away and let me do what I have to do!”

“Do you even know how to get in there? I don’t know how you got the primary finger-pass to get in, but did you know that there’s a secondary pass as well?” Duh-Li was torn between irritation at the way she treated him and a strange desire to impress the girl. He couldn’t understand why her opinion would matter but he felt compelled to change her opinion of him. “If you want, I can help you get in...”

“You? Help me? Don’t make me laugh!”

Duh-Li felt a flush spread over his face. Why’d she have to be so scathing? He’d gotten in here, hadn’t he?

“Do you know anything about the security in here? I don’t think you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t have tried to walk out into the open like you were!” She was looking at him as if he was a child — a bumbling, ineffectual one who couldn’t do anything right. Duh-Li’s irritation fanned the flames of his anger.

“There’s nothing out there besides the ifrits! I already scanned the place. And the ifrits won’t do you any harm as long as you have the secondary pass...” he spluttered. He had half a mind to storm out of there and never speak to this annoying girl again.

She’d probably agree with you — or worse, say that that was half a mind too much, the imp broke in.

Duh-Li hesitated. There again was that perverse desire — the need to justify himself and to have her appreciate how adept he was in the dark arts.

“Yes, there’s nothing out there that your divinations can pick up,” nodded the girl. “But did you think that LILAC would really leave their domain so completely unguarded? Do you think hundreds, if not thousands, of wanna-be dork wizards have not tried the same thing that you’re trying now? You think that a secondary-pass, however complex it is, would keep LILAC’s domain safe?”

Duh-Li was about to make a flippant remark when the logical side of his brain stopped him. She was right! He’d thought the same thing, hadn’t he? Too bad he hadn’t spent more time on actually following through on that thought! He nodded grudgingly, “You’re right. I should have thought of that.”

The girl favoured him with a brief smile. “Well, at least you’re not like most of the other boys. They won’t admit when they are wrong.”

This was probably because they never even believed in the possibility that they could be wrong. How can you believe in something that didn’t exist?

“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” Duh-Li growled, scowling. “I should have examined their defences more carefully!”

“You wouldn’t have found it!”

“Wanna bet?” Duh-Li was nettled. Why did she have to keep doubting his ability?

“You wouldn’t have found it because it’s not a worm, or a gremlin, or an imp or any sort of digitoid that enforces security,” she explained patiently, as if to a stubborn child. “This is part of the functionality built into the ifrits that LILAC uses.” She paused and then asked, apparently at a tangent, “Did you know that our eidolons are encoded with our DNA?”

“Huh? I didn’t know that. But what’s that got to do with... Oh, I see! Clever! So the ifrits check everybody who approaches for their DNA fingerprint as well?”

“You’re quick on the uptake, I’ll grant you that,” said the girl, treating Duh-Li to another one of her fleeting smiles. She perhaps was the only person in existence to grant him that. “Not many people know that LILAC encodes all eidolons with the owner’s DNA. I guess they figure it’s a good-safety measure.”

Duh-Li felt the urge to smile back, but resisted — he was still irritated at the way she treated him. But his curiosity won out over his irritation. “How do you know so much about LILAC security? And how do you plan to get around the DNA check?”

“That’s none of your business, now is it?” replied the girl tartly. “Now that you know it won’t work, why don’t you just go on home?”

He was tempted. He was sorely tempted to just turn around and go away without a word. But the nagging feeling that she was in deep water, despite her superior knowledge of LILAC security, persisted. Despite how bossy and rude she was, he just didn’t want to see her in trouble — especially not with the LILAC goons. He decided to make one last effort.

“OK, obviously you know more about LILAC security than I do. But have you ever been inside their domain before?”

The girl hesitated. That was enough for Duh-Li. “You haven’t, have you?” he pounced triumphantly. “Well, I have been in there. Several times. I don’t know what you’re up to, but let me help you.”

She stared at him for a few moments in silence, as if trying to make up her mind. “You’re not lying to me, are you?” Her gaze sharpened. “You don’t know Ro, do you?”

“Who?” asked Duh-Li. He was surprised to hear Ro’s name and decided to play dumb.

Yeah, that shouldn’t be hard since it comes naturally to you! jeered his mental imp.

How did she know about Ro? Was this some sort of elaborate trap? It was unsettling to hear Ro’s name even though his instincts told him that she was genuine. But the only way out was to play the game out and see what the score was.

“Never mind!” She shook her head as if trying to dispel a thought. Then she smiled again. “OK, since you’ve been in there before and you actually seem to know this dork wizard stuff better than I do, I’d be stupid not to accept your help. But you’ve got to promise me, no imping around when we’re in there. We go in, do what I have to do and get out quickly. Agreed?”

Duh-Li was tempted to ask her what they were supposed to do inside, but figured the response would be another ‘None of your business’. He kept quiet and nodded. She was looking speculatively at him again. People tended to do that when he was around — probably wondering what he’d get into next.

“But what do you get out of it? Why are you helping me?”

“Well, you don’t look as if you know your way around a domain despite your knowledge of LILAC security. Besides, this way, I can at least say that I was in the LILAC domain.”

She smiled, a bit more warmly, at Duh-Li. “Oh, fine. And thank you!” She looked at him for a moment as if saying ‘what now?’ and then continued, “We might as well get to know each other if we’re going to be in this together. My name’s Nisha. What’s yours?”

“Du... Demon, SpeedDemon,” replied Duh-Li, deciding caution was called for.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2007 by Fahim Farook

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