The Wyrm’s Lair
by Fahim Farook
Part 3 appears|
in this issue.
Mission control to Romeo, she’s talking about you, dum-dum! broke in his own private little tormentor. Duh-Li started and tried not to look guilty.
But Nisha was continuing her story, unaware of his thoughts. “He’s usually so careful about stuff and he wouldn’t dream of breaking the laws. But for some idiotic reason he seems to have gone and done the stupidest thing possible!”
Duh-Li’s mind raced. “OK, that I get, but how’d you learn all of this? And what good is deleting the LILAC records gonna do?”
“My brother isn’t at home. A friend of his, one of the wizards who works with him, was trying to contact him. This guy...” she paused as if unsure how to proceed, “... well, I guess he kinda likes me. He’s been to our place a couple of times and he’s been very friendly. So I asked him what was going on and he told me that he’d discovered evidence that my brother was sneaking somebody into the domain...”
“This guy said that he had to report it but he wanted to give my brother some warning. I asked him not to do that but he wouldn’t budge. The wretch! What kind of a friend is he?” She was gritting her teeth.
“And by destroying all LILAC records you hope to do what?” Duh-Li looked at Nisha, arms akimbo, head on a side, chin jutting out.
“If the records aren’t there, then they’ll just have this guy’s word against my brother’s, right? And besides, they’ll be busy worrying about their records and not my brother!”
“You just have no idea what the LILAC guys can do, do you?” asked Duh-Li, shaking his head.
“Of course I do!” snapped the girl. “That’s exactly why I’m doing this. He may be an idiot, but he’s still my brother. I’ve heard enough about LILAC to know that when they say termination it might not mean just losing his job...”
“Yeah, they play hardball,” agreed Duh-Li. He certainly did not want to be the target of a LILAC witch-hunt, but then again, he owed Ro. If it hadn’t been for him, neither Ro nor Nisha would be in this mess. Besides, even with the major attitude, she is kind of cute, he said to himself, smiling. This time, even the imp nodded grudgingly.
“What are you smiling about?” Nisha was scowling at him.
“Oh nothing, nothing! Just mulling things over. I think I have a better solution...”
“Oh you do, do you? What is it? Just turn back and go home?”
“No, though that’s not a bad idea either. But instead of deleting all the records, why don’t we simply delete the records of your brother’s activities?”
“You can do that?” asked the girl, hope radiating from her every pore.
“Of course, I can!” responded Duh-Li with more conviction than he had. It was one thing to get in here, but to crack whatever security they might have, get in to their database, delete the records and then get out with no trace? That might be more than he’d bargained for. But there was no help for it now, was there?
“So what’re you waiting for, let’s go!” Nisha was reaching out to take the cylinder again.
“Hold on, will you?” Duh-Li grabbed her arm again. “As I said, I know this scenario. If you take the cylinder off the pedestal, some sort of trap will activate...”
“Why can’t you quickly swap the cylinder with something of equal weight?” suggested the girl.
“You think this is the holovids?” Duh-Li snickered, but stopped abruptly as the girl glared at him. “Erm... It’s not that easy. You need the correct pass codes to take the cylinder off the pedestal. But the codes are probably locked in the cylinder itself. If you don’t have the codes, you just can’t take it and hope to leave here... we’ll be trapped.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am! You think LILAC wants somebody waltzing in and walking off with all their secrets?”
“So what do we do?”
“Well, we can’t take it off the pedestal but what if we work with it while it’s on the pedestal?”
“But won’t there be some sort of security mechanism, like a hidden switch in the floor that detects if you get close to the cylinder as well?”
“Yeah, probably...” Duh-Li smiled. “But I have just the solution for that too!”
“Let me guess? Another worm? A basilisk? Or a salamander?”
“Close.” Duh-Li grinned and pulled another container from his belt. “It’s a gerrymander.” He showed her a wizened little creature with a long tubular snout and many tendril-like arms.
“A gerrymander?” asked Nisha, a look of curiosity mixed with revulsion on her face.
“Yep, it’s another one of my inventions. It can get into any system and redistribute the security spells so that they are least effective. Then it draws out all the necessary data through its snout. Neat, huh?”
“I guess,” was the not too enthusiastic reply.
Duh-Li held the creature aloft, made a couple of adjustments to its parameters and gently threw it towards the cylinder. “Watch!”
The gerrymander spread out two of its filament arms. A thin membrane of skin tucked between its arms and body unfolded like a lady’s parasol. It glided towards the cylinder, soft as thistledown. Duh-Li watched with pride. He’d show them that he was better at dark wizardry than all the other so called adepts! Sure, he might not be able to talk about this particular exploit for a while, but he’d know. He’d know!
The moments flew by. Neither of them spoke. Duh-Li watched the girl watch the gerrymander. He wanted to ask her a lot of things, but now didn’t seem to be the time. Perhaps once they got out?
But what about Ro? the imp prodded.
Duh-Li scowled. If she knew who he was and what he’d done, would she even want to talk to him?
Yeah, she probably would — to give you a piece of mind! And you certainly can use some! the imp responded.
His internal debate was interrupted at this point. The gerrymander appeared to have drunk its fill. It raised its snout from the cylinder, a sure sign that it had found what it was looking for. It launched itself away from the cylinder and floated down to the floor near Duh-Li’s feet. He picked it up and petted it, then put it back in its container. Nisha looked at him, an eyebrow raised.
“So?” she asked, verbalizing her look.
“It’s done. The gerrymander found all the details of Ro’s activities and deleted them. As an added bonus, it wiped any traces of our own entry!”
“That’s great!” She smiled, relief flooding her face. Then, the relief ebbed as another replaced it — suspicion and anger. “Ro? How’d you know my brother’s name?”
Duh-Li cursed himself silently. He’d been so relieved at getting through this ordeal that he’d botched everything at the end! “Didn’t you mention his name before?” he floundered.
“No! I never told you his name because I didn’t want you getting your claws into him. What’s your game? Come on...” and then, as palpably as a slap across the face, he could see realization dawning. “You! It was you, wasn’t it?” She lunged at him, arms outstretched as if to throttle him.
Duh-Li evaded her attack but, flailing his arms, fell sideways towards the pedestal. Nisha towered over him, trembling in rage. He struggled to get up. Then they heard it — a loud, audible “click”, a noise louder than the crack of doom. Duh-Li froze, but it was too late.
Yeah, stable door, meet the horse’s ass, jeered the imp.
Blazing lights came on, shredding the darkness to bits and blinding him. A slithering noise accompanied the lights. Duh-Li struggled to adjust to the glare of the lights, trying to see what the slithering noise had been. His first clue was a horrendous shriek, followed a moment later by a high-pitched scream from Nisha, who suddenly appeared beside him, pulling at him. Duh-Li shook his head. His vision slowly cleared while Nisha dragged him sideways along the cavern floor.
He finally saw what had made the slithering noise and he wished he hadn’t. There, slavering and waddling towards them in great eagerness, was a great wyrm. It was the biggest wyrm he had ever seen — twisting coils of its scaly body slithered along the floor, long yellow fangs gnashing while gouts of fire belched out of its maw like a volcano working triple shifts.
Duh-Li scrambled to his feet. Nisha was staring at the wyrm in horrified fascination and holding on to his arm as if it was a lifeline. “Snap out of it!” He yelled at her over the shrieking of the wyrm and the whooshing noise made by its flame. “We have to get out of this cave!”
Nisha nodded but Duh-Li was already looking away, searching for some place to hide, or at least where they’d be safe from the wyrm’s flames. There was no exit at this end. The only way out, the cave entrance, was so far away! He needed a little bit of time to think, to come up with a litany which would get them to the domain’s portal. But the wyrm was not about to give them any time. He grabbed Nisha’s arm and began running towards the entrance. It seemed so far away. He could almost feel the wyrm’s flames snapping at their heels like a pack of hungry hounds.
Hang on, dummy! LILAC’s not going to have a slow as molasses wyrm be their only protection, are they? If an alarm was tripped and a wyrm was after you, where are you going to go? It was the mental imp again.
For the umpteenth time that day, Duh-Li cursed himself. Of course, there had to be a trap at the entrance! Maybe a stasis spell? Or some sort of transmat switch which would send an intruder to a holding cell? Everybody knew that the LILAC guys were tricky.
But there was no time to stop — the wyrm was almost upon them. The thought flashed through his mind that he should tell Nisha all this.
You can coo to her later, but do something now! Fast!
They were drawing closer to the cavern mouth with every stride. Think! Think!! An idea occurred to him. It was absurd! The wyrm wouldn’t fall for that one now would it? It was such a simple thing, but then again, sometimes it was better to go with the simple approach when dealing with complications. He’d not used that spell in years. It was one of the simplest ones you learnt on the path to dark wizardry, one that they used to break one of the simplest forms of encryption — a mirror spell. He fumbled for the correct motions and the words. The spell took form and he aimed it at a spot just in front of them.
He could feel Nisha start. He turned to her quickly and whispered, “Shh, not a word!”
“But... but...” she whispered back, “There’s us running in front of us! What is happening?”
“Shhh! I’ll explain in a moment...” He didn’t want to tip the wyrm off. He wasn’t even sure that it would actually work. They were almost to the entrance now. He had to time this exactly right. Yes, now! He cast a masking spell to hide Nisha and himself and at the same time, changed direction and pulled Nisha over to the side, away from the beeline they’d been making towards the entrance. Their doppelgangers kept running on and out beyond the cave entrance and the wyrm followed them through. Or at least, tried to.
There was a brilliant flash, the lights within the cave dimmed and everything shimmered for a moment. The wyrm disappeared, as if it had never been. Nisha was staring, first at the doorway where the wyrm had disappeared and then at him. “What... what just happened?” she asked finally.
“No time to lose! The field might be gone for only a few seconds. Or it might not be gone at all! I’ll explain in a moment...” Duh-Li summoned one of his familiars. He hated to lose a familiar but better a burnt familiar than being burnt himself! The familiar moved towards the entrance and then through it. Duh-Li watched the doorway intently, wondering if the familiar would return or not. He was about to try attuning himself to it when, to Duh-Li’s relief, it returned through the doorway. He let out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding and dashed through the cave mouth, dragging Nisha behind him.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” she asked, annoyance clear in her voice.
“Again, no time right now! They might already be closing the doorways. We have to get out! Now! So hang on for a bit and I’ll explain later.” He struggled to get the litany right and had to re-check it a couple of times before he got it correct. The cave entrance vanished, replaced by the familiar gateway through which they’d entered LILAC’s domain. Duh-Li vowed that if he ever got through this mess, he’d never want to enter LILAC’s domain ever again!
The portcullis was rumbling down and Duh-Li did not waste any time explaining matters to Nisha. He just pointed to the portcullis, she nodded and they both dived under it and sprinted towards the slowly closing gateway. Once through that, Duh-Li pointed at one of the many available destinations at random and gestured. He sighed in relief as the LILAC portal finally dissolved into nothingness behind them.
Their new destination appeared to be a domain devoted to childcare. Or then again, perhaps it was cattle farming, Duh-Li wasn’t sure. There was an open field where a couple of simulacra of children were gambolling and there were even a few calves munching on the grass. It was all idyllic and peaceful, a far cry from what they’d left behind.
“Well, I’m glad to be out of there!” Nisha looked around, as if fearful that LILAC goons would follow them here as well.
“Me, too!” agreed Duh-Li, with heartfelt sincerity.
“Sorry about... you know...” Nisha was obviously trying to find the right words.
“For getting us into that whole mess with the wyrm?” Duh-Li was enjoying her discomfort.
“Yeah, but you totally deserved it! You’re the one who got Ro into trouble aren’t you?” She was looking at him, eyes flashing, lips compressed into a thin line.
“Yes, but I didn’t mean to... I am sorry. I thought it was all a game but now I see how serious it can be...”
“Yeah, all that dork... dark wizard stuff, it’s totally boneheaded!” Nisha looked severe. Then she smiled, looking at him. “But there’s hope for some of them.”
“Does that mean you might consider going out with me one of these days?” asked Duh-Li, not sure why he was doing it. He just knew that he had to do it or spend his whole life wondering.
“You won’t know unless you ask, will you?” She smiled at him for a long moment and then, made a gesture and vanished.
Duh-Li smiled, ruefully. Well, he certainly knew where to find her. But he’d had enough excitement to last for the day. One day at a time was probably the way to take it. Perhaps tomorrow, he thought to himself, making the gesture to take him back to his own portal.
Yeah, you’ve got enough trouble already without girl-trouble, the imp groused but for once, Duh-Li was oblivious.
Copyright © 2007 by Fahim Farook