The Wyrm’s Lair
by Fahim Farook
Part 1 and part 2|
appeared in issue 251.
|part 3 of 4|
The girl stared at him for a moment with those blue eyes of hers as if she was going to respond with another scathing remark, but then, she shrugged. “What’s with you dork wizards and your lupin names?”
The names people assumed took when in the astralNet were known as “lupin names” or “handles.” The origin of the terms had been long lost in the mists of history.
Then she smiled that faint smile of hers that Duh-Li was getting used to. “You think I’ll have power over you if I know your true name?”
Duh-Li grinned in return. “Nah, but given that you don’t really know me and that I don’t really know you, I think Demon’s fine for the moment.”
“Fine, Demon it is then,” said Nisha, nodding her assent. “Now that we’ve been introduced, shall we dance?” she continued, smiling impishly.
“Sure.” Duh-Li was about to step forward again before he recalled Nisha’s earlier words. He turned to her. “After you!”
“So much for chivalry!” She grinned. “Just want to make sure that I get burned before you do, eh?”
“Hey, you’re the one with the mysterious ifrit-binding spell...”
The girl stepped out on to the road leading up to the castle gates. After a moment’s hesitation, Duh-Li joined her. The ifrits seemed unaware of their presence. “It’s not exactly a binding spell,” said Nisha while making the gesture that would transport them both to the castle gates.
“What is it then?” asked Duh-Li, as they appeared at the gates. They looked ancient, massive and immovable. If judged on appearance alone, it looked as if the gates had never been opened. But then again, it wasn’t easy to judge anything by appearance in the astralNet.
That’s something you should keep in mind about this girlie-girl too! chimed his ever-vocal imp.
“Just can’t let it go, can you? You wizard-boys and your insane curiosity!” Duh-Li noticed that she wasn’t scowling as she had earlier when she’d mentioned dark wizards, or dork wizards as she called them.
“Oh fine, I’ll share the secret. I got somebody to alter the DNA encoding for my eidolon,” said Nisha, while executing the moves for the secondary pass. Duh-Li stared. Those were the same moves he had so painstakingly memorized for breaking into LILAC! There were so many possible combinations to a finger-pass. How was it that this girl had the same secondary pass as Ro? Was this Ro in disguise, trying to teach him a lesson? But why such an elaborate charade then?
“Wha...? How’d you find DNA that would work? Know anybody who works for LILAC?” asked Duh-Li, still struggling to make sense of things.
The massive iron gates swung wide. There was no creaking timber, no protestations from iron rusted shut by years of inactivity. Unlike Duh-Li, who liked a touch of realism for his portal, the wizards at LILAC appeared to be content with looks alone. As some would say, realism was highly overrated.
Silky silence surrounded them. Nisha was already stepping forward through the open gateway but she glanced back for a moment at him to reply. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Who?” Duh-Li pounced. Nisha was already drawing away and Duh-Li hurried to catch up with her. For the millionth time since getting on the aNet, he wished that he could make a gesture and get to the desired destination within a domain. It was so easy to get to a domain, but then you had to move around at a snail’s pace. It was annoying! But then again, he couldn’t expect them to give him a map to the place, could he? Of course, he could, and would, but it wasn’t realistic to do so. But as has been noted before, realism is highly overrated.
Walls reared up to the sky like grim guardians, losing themselves in the gloom, on two sides. The passageway they were on stretched on forever. Duh-Li called out to Nisha to stop. She turned to faced him.
“This place is a maze. We’d better not get separated,” he said, drawing up to her.
“I thought you’d been here before?” She was looking at him with suspicion etched clearly on her face.
“I have, don’t worry.” Duh-Li waved his hands to encompass the surroundings. “But this place is still a maze. This passageway connects to many others and all of them stretch on into eternity. It’s the same featureless passages everywhere. If you don’t know where you’re going, you could be lost for ages in here, trying to get out.”
Nisha’s eyes widened and she wet her lips. She’s frightened. She’s not pretending, Duh-Li thought.
Ah, she’s faking it! Women are good at that kind of thing, snapped his own little inner demon.
“How horrible! There’s no way to get out if you get stuck in here?”
“Nope.” Duh-Li watched Nisha shudder again. “You have to get out of the domain to break the connection with the aNet and if you can’t find your way out, then you’ll never make it out... Alive, that is.”
It certainly wasn’t any fun being not-alive in the astralNet — the joys of the aNet were dead to you.
“Are you sure you know where to go?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve been here before and I came prepared... But where exactly do you want to go?”
“Oh, come on! If you don’t tell me where you want to go, how can we get there? And we’d better hurry. Who knows what else is prowling these passages?” Duh-Li was annoyed by her wavering. Shouldn’t she trust him by now? He was helping her after all!
“Fine. Let’s get this over with and get out of this awful place! Do you know where the central records repository is?”
Duh-Li stared. “Central records? What do you want there?”
“Is this a time for questions?” she snapped in reply, but then appeared to reconsider. “OK, tell you what. I’ll tell you everything once we get there. I’ll need your help anyway. But let’s get going first!”
Duh-Li pulled out a container from his belt and smiled. “Here’s the solution to our problems.”
“A canister? That’s your big solution?”
“Watch!” Duh-Li opened the cylinder and a stream of white, gooey material oozed out on to the floor. Then, as they watched, the glob of white sped up to the nearest intersection in the passageway and appeared to fork, one portion sped down the intersection and the other continued on up the passageway.
“What is that stuff?”
“It’s a lindworm.”
“A worm?” There was distaste in Nisha’s voice.
“Yeah, a worm.” Duh-Li grinned. “It’s a personal creation of mine, containing a few different strains. I bred it for speed. The lindworm will go through the whole domain and map out the place faster than we can get to the end of this passage!”
Nisha was looking at him, if not quite with approval, at least with an absence of the scorn she’d shown before. “That’s a neat trick! I don’t like worms, mind you. They’re nasty, slimy things. But if it’ll help us get out of here faster, I’m all in favour of worms.”
It’s funny how often people embrace nasty, slimy things just to get somewhere, said his imp. Duh-Li decided that it might not be advisable for him to repeat that. Instead, he said, “Well, we’ve got a few minutes to kill while it worms out the location of central records.”
“Oh, no! now I’m to be punned to death?” asked Nisha, in mock horror. At least, Duh-Li hoped it was mock horror.
“You still haven’t told me who...”
“The LILAC employee, the one you said you knew...”
“Oh, that! Well, if you must know, it’s my brother.”
Her brother! Could it be? No, it couldn’t!
But it did all make sense! She was the one who’d asked him about Ro. She knew Ro’s secondary pass. It all fit so well. But maybe it fit too well? Maybe this was some sort of elaborate trap for him after all? But what did she (or Ro, he amended) have to gain by such a convoluted game? A chime from his wrist amulet broke in on his contemplations.
“What is it?” Nisha was looking around furtively as if she expected an attack any moment now.
“Oh, nothing to worry about,” replied Duh-Li, reassuringly. “The lindworm has finished mapping out the domain...”
“So what are we waiting for? Let’s get going!”
“Hang on, I still need to tabulate the litany of motions necessary to get there...” he began.
“Oh fine, do your mumbo-jumbo! But hurry up.”
Duh-Li wondered what the urgency was. Perhaps she was just spooked by the LILAC domain? Or perhaps there was another reason? He put speculation aside and concentrated on the litany. If he made even one mistake, they might end up some place completely different from the central records archive and have to start all over again. He double-checked the litany and then he motioned Nisha to draw close. He made the gestures and the passageway dissolved... and solidified again in a new form.
A cave. Darkness dropped upon them like a smothering cloak as they ventured in. The only light was behind them, through the entrance. There was nothing but velvety blackness all around them. Duh-Li hesitated. There was no saying what lurked in that darkness, but the lindworm had indicated that this was the central records repository. There was no help for it but to go on.
Duh-Li felt Nisha draw closer to him. He reached out and took her hand and felt her fingers tighten over his. They stepped forward into the satin darkness. There! There was a glimmer of light somewhere far ahead in the distance. They walked towards the pinpoint of light in silence.
“What?” she whispered.
“Be quiet!” he whispered back fiercely. “There’s something in here with us.”
“Don’t tell me you’re scared of the dark?” She scoffed, laughter evident in her voice.
“I’m not scared of the dark!” Duh-Li retorted fiercely. “But I tell you, there is something in this cave. I heard a rustling noise and I don’t like it. Do you honestly think that LILAC would just keep their central records in a dark, unguarded cave?”
The girl paused. “Well, you’ve got a point there. But maybe the security is up ahead and this cave is just some sort of a psychological deterrent? If you weren’t supposed to be here, wouldn’t you be scared of going through this place?”
Duh-Li thought about it for a second. She did make sense. That was exactly the kind of thing LILAC would do. Besides, they were now much closer to the light they’d seen from the entrance, close enough to see that it was a pedestal lit by some invisible light source. There was a shining golden cylinder lying on top of the pedestal.
That had to be LILAC’s central records repository. So the lindworm had been right! This was the place. He turned to Nisha, who was staring at the golden cylinder. “Here we are! Now what was it that you wanted to do?”
“We need to erase all their records.”
Duh-Li stared at her, wondering if he’d heard right. Maybe she was joking? She certainly seemed serious.
“You’re kidding, right?”
He wondered if this was a test or if he’d fallen in with some sort of suicidal maniac. Did she have any idea what LILAC would do to them if he deleted all their records?
“No. I’m serious. It’s the only way!”
“Only way? For what?”
She hesitated for a moment, appeared about to speak, hesitated again and then burst out, “To save my brother!”
Duh-Li stared. Her brother? What was she talking about? “Can we rewind a little bit? What is this about saving your brother?”
“There is no time! We’ve got to do it now!” She reached out, ready to take the cylinder.
“Woah, woah!” Duh-Li grabbed her arm and stopped her. “I know this scenario. You don’t want to go messing with that pedestal unless you know what you’re doing!” He tried to sound reasonable while his mind raced, trying to figure the situation out. “Look, I said I’ll help you and I’ve gotten you this far, right? I’ll help you with this but deleting all of LILAC’s records isn’t the way. They’ll never stop looking for us if we do that...”
“But my brother... “ She paused and tried again. “OK, what do you suggest?”
“First, tell me what this is all about. Then I might have a better idea as to how to deal with the situation.”
“OK, it’s like this. You see, my brother works for LILAC and apparently, he’s been showing some low-life dork wizard around the LILAC domains. I don’t know what he could have been thinking!”
Duh-Li, even as his mind reeled, couldn’t but help admire the way her eyes flashed when she was angry. And the cute little frown on her forehead.
Copyright © 2007 by Fahim Farook