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    TheZot
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Dirty Basement - 1. Story

Dirty Basement

William slammed the basement door and leaned against it, panting and trembling with the adrenaline rush. From behind it came sounds; deep, wet thuds alternating with quiet sucking noises as the thing made its way up the stairs. There was a slow, inexorable quality to the slimy footfalls that made William shudder. He knew the door wouldn't hold.

He spun and laid his hands on the surface of the door. He could feel the smooth lacquered surface, and beneath it the wood. It had history, the wood, cut from a tree hundreds of years old, even in death strong and solid. Its strength was comforting, and in his mind's eye he could see the bright lines of the wards Ben had put on it weeks before, when they'd first moved in, pulse and glow.

With a deep breath he let the calm slip over him, let his Sight go. The wards in the door were clear now, but they were clearly not enough. He could see them flare up with the approach of the thing, whatever it was, a vague tangle of decay and fetid magics, and knew their fire wouldn't be enough.

It was nasty, whatever it was, and almost at the door. William grabbed the nearest threads of the wards, silently thanking Ben's paranoia. The existing spell was strong, and gave him what he needed, a link to the back side of the door.

William shouted four short, harsh words and poured mana through the threads of the ward and out the other side. There was no subtlety in what he did, no finesse. It was a blast of fire and lightning, the elements manifest raw and barely contained. All around him disks made of yellow-orange light spun and danced, and the air hummed a low note, three octaves below middle C. The creature on the other side shrieked and gibbered for a moment under the onslaught, then died with an ear-shattering pop. The miasma of fear that had come with the thing took longer to fade.

He staggered as he let go the wards, suddenly exhausted. The spell had drained him; he'd thrown everything he had into it and didn't have the mana left to light a match, and he hoped the creature, whatever it was, didn't have any friends. If it did he was in an awful lot of trouble.

William slid exhausted to the floor. His white hair was spread out around him in wild disarray, and his lithe body twitched involuntarily as the adrenaline drained away. The room was suddenly too bright, his eyes dilated from stress and magic, irises thin purple lines around wide pupils.

It was only moments later when Ben came thundering into the townhouse, broad shoulders barely clearing the doorway, the front door nearly breaking as he burst in. The door gave twin crashes as it bounced off the wall and slammed shut, nearly catching Ben's long braid as it went. He'd felt the massive amount of mana William had let loose, and could still feel the echoes of his fear.

William looked up at Ben as he stood over him and gave a weak smile.

"Hi," he said. "How was your day?"

"What happened?" Ben asked, ignoring the question.

"Oh," William said, trying to sound nonchalant, "I was just cleaning the basement some."

Ben looked at him. William was sitting on the ground, clearly exhausted and still twitching a little from the after-effects of his massive adrenaline rush. The door behind him had small light green and blue glowing spots. He gave a snort, and William shrugged and tried to grin.

"William," Ben said. Seeing William seemingly fine let his worry drain. His voice was thick with accusation. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," William protested. "And I think the assumption that I did something is completely unjustified."

Ben was clearly unimpressed with William's protestations of innocence.

"Its just that there's a pocket dimension in our basement," William said.

"Really," Ben answered.

"Yes," William replied, nodding hard.

"Where, exactly, was this pocket dimension?"

William started to fidget uncomfortably. "You know that back corner where the stone in the walls was discolored, the one you didn't like so you put extra wards over it and moved the traveling trunk in front of it for safe keeping?"

Ben just nodded.

"Well," William said brightly, "you need a new trunk."

Ben shook his head.

"There is one other thing..." William started.

Ben shot him a stare. Even without their link it was obvious William was hiding something.

"Erm... monster."

"From the basement."

"Yes. Well, in the basement, but not from the basement. Not as such."

"The pocket dimension."

"Yeah."

"Are there more?"

"Uh... I don't know?"

"Great," Ben said with a sigh. "We'd better change."

"Get the packs," William shouted after him as Ben climbed the stairs. "I'll get some food from the kitchen."

"It's in our basement," Ben said. "How big can this place be?"

"You didn't seriously just ask that did you?"

Ben winced. "Jerky's in the pantry on the left side, and there's some hard tack in a stasis bag on the top shelf." Ben sighed. "I'll get the waterskins."

* * *

The first thing that hit them as they opened the door was the stench of charred meat. The second was the smell of swamp water, and the third was a wave of hot humid air. This was in distinct contrast to the last time Ben had been in the basement, which he remembered being cooler and significantly more musty.

Ben knelt in the doorway, peering at the trail of slime that coated the stairs. It smelled of stagnant water and decaying plants, and in the light of his lantern it had an unhealthy rainbow sheen.

The heap at the bottom of the stairs was barely recognizable, a scorched lump of flesh that, paradoxically, stank of rot.

"That your monster?" he asked William.

William peered around Ben, sword drawn. "Yep, that's him," he said.

"Put that away," Ben said, looking at William's sword. "He's dead."

"That's fine. Is he still moving, that's what I want to know."

Ben just snorted as he walked down the stairs, careful to not step in the slime.

The corpse was laid out flat on the floor at the foot of the stair. It was vaguely humanoid, but it was hard to tell if that was because it started that way or if it was because of the magical attack William had launched at it. Besides the massive fire damage there were signs of electrical damage, criss-cross burns and ruptured flesh.

"I think you got him," said Ben as he surveyed the body. "Any traces of magic left?"

William squatted down next to the body, shuddering a little as he got close. His eyes defocused and the tip of his index finger started to glow gold as he traced a seven-point star in the air. His finger left a glowing trail behind it, outlining the star in shimmering nothingness. When the figure was complete it flashed gold, then each of the seven points filled in with waves and shades of color; yellow, green, brown, blue, red, orange, and gold. The center of the star was a faint, eye-twisting purple.

The orange, red, and blue points were bright and clear, each a single shade of color. The green point was a wash of verdant hues. Ben eyed the figure.

"Lightning and fire?"

William nodded vigorously. "Yes. Monster. In basement. Very, very bad."

Ben snorted -- for all its stench the corpse didn't look like it could have been, in life, anything that would've presented a problem for William. The man had faced down fire demons and elves. A single monster shouldn't present much of a challenge, even if William had been surprised.

"All that green," Ben said. "A plant creature of some sort."

"A shambling, oozing plant creature of evil!" William said, clearly agreeing.

"There's nothing else," Ben said with a sigh. "You blasted any other traces right out of it. Still..." he looked at the center of the star. Something about the color of it was disquieting, and the purple was difficult to look at directly. "Are you sure you got the spell right?"

"Yeah," William replied, his eyes a little unfocused as he examined the threads of magic making up the star. "It's right. I don't know why the center's not gold, but it isn't."

"That's... not good."

"No, it isn't," William agreed. The spell he'd used was a simple one, something first year students learned. It showed the shades and strengths of the seven different basic types of magic in its points, with the center showing the general amount of magic. Not as exact as observing the threads of a spell directly, but it was faster and less effort, and often showed traces of magic inherent in a thing that would otherwise go unseen. William had originally used it often as his Sight was poor, but recently he'd taken to using it so Ben could observe spells as well.

The star should have been gold in the center, not an unsettling purple.

William moved the star a little. The swirling pattern in the green point shifted, but its strength was basically unchanged. The purple faded in and out, and was strongest in the center of the creature's chest. William let the spell go, its passing leaving an imprint on the creature.

As the spell faded the corpse seemed to liquefy, collapsing into a puddle of goo. Ben took his knife out and dragged it through the slime until he heard a clink, then reached in and felt around. He pulled out a few pieces of stone and held them out for William to see.

The pieces were made glassy, like purple obsidian, and clearly fitted together into a sphere about an inch in diameter.

"That's strange," William said, poking at the pieces with his finger. "Think it animated the monster?" Something about the stone tickled the back of his mind, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Probably," Ben replied. "This one's dead," he added. "There may be more wherever it came from."

William shuddered at the thought. "We'd better go look."

The trail of slime led to the back corner of their basement. There was a hole in the stone of the wall, but instead of showing dirt it opened into a swamp. Greenish light, filtered through the lush vegetation visible, lent an eerie glow to the space.

"That looks like your gateway," Ben said.

"Yeah," William replied. "It opened up when I was over there. I don't know why, though."

"A trap? Triggered when you got close?"

"Maybe," William said, sounding unsure. "But why didn't it open when we moved all the stuff down here?"

"The other side, then," Ben said. "At least it was alone."

"Yeah."

"Ready?"

"No," William replied. The memory of the fear that had hit him when the monster had appeared was still strong. He held tight grip on it, not letting it go and not letting it spill across his link with Ben. "Not even close. Let's go anyway."

William shuddered as they crossed over, feeling as if icy fingers had run down his spine.

"Hold on a second Ben," he said. He knelt down and closed his eyes, running his hand around the opening they'd just passed through. On this side it was a hole in a rotting tree, covered with moss and wet algae. William's hand was green and slimy in a moment, though he ignored the sensation.

Instead he muttered a few soft words and let his Sight go. The edges of the gateway twisted and warped, in ways that made his brain ache, but he continued, trying to get a feel for the space they were in and the permanence of the gateway. It hadn't been clear from the other side.

He couldn't tell for sure, not nearly as well as he'd hoped, but the space they were in felt... small. Small, simple, confined, and corrupt; something about the very structure of the universe they were in left him feeling queasy. It also felt familiar, in a way he didn't like.

"Ben," he said. "I think..."

"What?"

"Remember that crypt we ran into a few months back? The one with the zombies?"

"Which one with the zombies?"

William looked up, confused. "Oh, right. The underground one." His partner still looked puzzled. "With the merchant caravan?"

Ben nodded.

"This place feels like that. It's... corrupt. Evil."

"Are we going to have zombies?" Ben asked warily. Zombies terrified him, past the point where he could think clearly. It had almost gotten them both killed the few times they'd come across the things. If there were some here he wanted to know, so he could prepare. Or possibly run.

William shot the other man a stern look. He knew Ben was afraid of them, but not why, or how much. "How should I know?"

"Just asking," Ben said gruffly.

He turned and surveyed the ground around the tree stump. There were tracks in the mud where something had come to the stump, but not many, and the path they had taken to get here was clear.

"Looks like just one, maybe two," he said. "They came from that way." He pointed off into the swamp.

"After you," William said, making a grand sweeping gesture towards the trail Ben had indicated.

The swamp was eerily silent, with only the sounds of dripping water and the plops of things falling from trees. The stench of rot and swamp gas was everywhere, not constant, but coming and going with the shifting breeze. The ground under foot was wet and made sucking sounds as they walked, grabbing at their boots.

Ben had cut an impromptu staff from one of the nearby trees and was probing the spongy ground ahead, testing the footing. The trail of footprints stopped a dozen yards into the swamp, and it was slow going as Ben did his best to find a land path through the marsh.

A loud croak broke the silence of the swamp and it was quickly followed by a whole chorus. Ben spun around to see a half dozen sets of eyes peering out at him from the edges of the clearing.

"Frogs?" asked William.

"Maybe..." Ben said. His voice trailed off as the first of the creatures hopped into view. It was a frog, but an enormous one, the size of a small pony. It was eyeing Ben and William in that inscrutable way frogs have, and in a way that was definitely disturbing if you were, like Ben and William, small enough to be lunch.

The frog's eyes glowed a fiery red and, with a great croak, it belched a ball of fire, a foot across, at Ben.

With a startled yell he batted at the slow-moving projectile with his sword. The sword flashed as the flames were deflected, arcing up and then down again into the water, going out with a hiss of steam.

As the frog opened its mouth again Ben threw a knife. His aim was true, and it lodged point-first in the roof of its mouth. The beast stopped mid-breath and toppled over into the water.

The thing's death triggered a frenzy, seven other monster frogs leaping out to savage the body of their fallen comrade, though it was only a moment before one of them eyed the pair. They gave each other a look, then took off at speed down the path.

"You didn't say anything about fire-breathing monsters, William!" Ben shouted as they ran, the cacophony of croaks providing incentive for haste.

"How should I have known about the fire-breathing monsters? I thought we were just dealing with slimy tentacled horrors. You don't normally get fire with slime and tentacles!"

"Is there anything else you don't know about that's going to surprise us?"

"Like I have a good answer for that. We..." Ben stopped abruptly, so fast that William almost ran into him.

"We've come in circles," Ben said, eyeing the rotting tree in front of them. There was worry in his voice. Not much, but he couldn't hide it from William. "And the gateway's closed."

William frowned. "That can't be right," he said. "I didn't close it. And I swear, we haven't circled..."

He trailed off as he ran his hand around the edge of the opening in the tree.

"Ben, I think we have a problem," William said, looking at Ben with a frown.

"Besides the frogs and monsters?"

"Yes. This isn't the gateway to our basement."

Ben looked puzzled for a moment. "Good?"

William shook his head. "Bad. It's a gateway to someone else's."

"Oh." Ben frowned and thought for a moment. The possibilities were disturbing, but he pushed them aside. They needed to concentrate on the immediate problem. "Whose? And has it been opened recently?"

William shook his head. "I can't tell, sorry. I just don't understand it all well enough. We'd have to open it up and go look, and I don't know how." He felt a tinge of inadequacy. It didn't matter that he could do more with gates than anyone in living memory. That still wasn't very much, and right now it wasn't enough.

"If there are two," Ben said slowly, "there are probably more. Can you tell if there are any?"

William stared at the tree, running his hands around the edges. They tingled under his fingers, and there was a matching tingle at the back of his head. He could, just barely, feel something. He didn't recognize it, but it felt familiar somehow, like the ragged edges of a torn cloth. It might be enough, a flaw he could use.

"Maybe," he finally said. "This realm is small. I could try something, but it'd make the whole place ring. The things would know we were here."

"They already do."

William opened his mouth to object, then closed it again.

"Good point," he allowed. "Get ready," he said. His hands were glowing orange as he prepared himself. He gave the side of the tree one sharp smack, forcing his impromptu mapping spell into the gate and along the edges of the realm.

The orange glow shattered into a thousand tiny fragments, the pieces coalescing in front of him. They forming an abstract image, a dozen circles of light in a rough circle with a larger circle in the center, the edge circles connected to the center by thin lines. Nine of the circles were solid, while three had empty centers. One of the solid circles was brighter than the others.

"Right. Us," he said, pointing at the bright circle, "the other solid ones are open gates, the hollow ones are closed gates, and the big thing in the center just scares me whatever it is."

"What now?"

"Now, I really think we need to run," William said as the sound of croaking frogs and gibbering monsters approached through the swamp.

"Can you do that again?" Ben made no move to leave, instead drawing his sword.

"Yeah," William said, his hands taking on an orange glow. "Why?"

"Because," Ben said, "I saw people on the other side"

"Great, swell," William said, a frantic tone in his voice as the sounds got nearer. He could feel the fear swirl in, like fog. It was faint, but growing, and he wasn't sure how long he could cope. "So?"

"Monster too."

"Ah, dammit!" William shouted, as he slammed his glowing hands onto the tree stump. Again the light shattered, but this time he paid it no attention. The gap in the tree shimmered and flickered, showing a room on the other side. William caught a glimpse of a woman, two children, and something green, slimy, and disturbingly humanoid when he felt Ben's hand on the small of his back pushing him through the gateway.

His vision flashed and pain arced through him as he and Ben went through the unstable gate, keeping it open as much through sheer presence as anything. It took William a second to clear his head.

Ben wasn't so distracted. The accident that had destroyed his Sight a decade ago, the one that nearly killed him and left him unable to do magic, had made him less susceptible to some of the side effects. Scant comfort, but it had served them in the past and did so now.

Ben's sword flashed out, cutting deep into the creature from behind. It gave off a keening wail as black ichor oozed out of the wound. The sound cut right to the center of William's brain, a combination of stabbing agony and dread, a deep terror he couldn't shake. It was unnatural, he knew that, but his head ached and the knowledge wasn't enough to push back the fear.

He tried to throw a frost spell, hoping the cold would slow down the monster, but the throbbing in his head threw him off and kept him from finishing before the monster slammed him with a tentacle and flung him against a wall. Stunned, he slid to the ground. Ben roared in anger and leapt at the thing, his sword flashing, the blade leaving trails of gold sparkles in the air as it moved. Small pieces of the thing flew around the room as he hacked it in blind fury.

The knock scrambled William's brain and left his vision blurry. He could See, as he sat there, the ever-present threads of magic overylaying everything, giving a kind of rainbow shimmer to the whole world. Viewed this way it was clear that the thing in front of him was a hybrid, a swamp creature twisted into the monster that was attacking them. Threads of purple and black were woven through it, and deep inside its head was a small purple tangle pulsing with a malevolent magic.

As important, the threads that wove through the creature twisted into a knot near the base of its skull, just above where its tentacle arms joined its torso. The weaving was loose and a little crude.

Ben! Neck, just above the shoulders, William thought at Ben, his head still dizzy from the impact.

Muddled as his head was, it almost made sense, the monster's weaving. It held the whole thing together, a magical bow tying a nasty present, but it had loose ends and tangles, and William felt like he could just reach out and tug and the whole thing would unravel. He could tug, he realized crazily, it was just a matter of drawing the right thread out and grabbing hold.

They struck together, Ben's sword piercing the creature's body as William's flung thread of mana yanked at the knot. Neither alone would have been enough, but their combined attack was more than the creature's form could handle, and with an ear-piercing shriek the thing fell to the ground and started to melt.

In the puddle of foul-smelling slime that was all that was left of the creature was a small sphere, deep purple in color. It wasn't glowing, as such, though it was pulsing, the purple fading to near black and back again, but seemed to suck the light from the space around it, casting shadows in places that they had no business being.

The room was quiet for a moment, the only sounds were Ben's heavy panting and the small whimpers of the children.

"Gods, I hate those things," William said as he struggled to get up.

The world seemed to crash in as he spoke, as if the silence had been holding reality back. The young girl shrieked and cowered against her mother, while the young boy peeked out from behind her skirts. Footsteps thundered down the stairs as three men-at-arms dressed in house livery burst into the room with swords drawn. Behind them came an older man, dressed in fine embroidered silks.

William recognized the livery, and the older man. They were in the house of Lord Bartell, First Minister of the city. Or in his basement, at least. Along with some rather nice furniture, and mildly disturbing taxidermy, from what William could see, as stuffed raptors and scowling foxes peered down from the tops of stored cabinets.

"Minster Bartell," William said as he struggled to his feet. He brought out his social smile and plastered it across his face. "What a pleasure to see you again."

"The pleasure is mine, I'm sure, Your Highness," he said. If he was surprised to see dead monsters and live princes in his basement you couldn't tell from his voice.

"Just William, please. No need for formality." He could feel Ben's discomfort. The man hated dealing with nobility, preferring to stay in the background.

Want to take care of the mess while I make nice with the scared people? William asked.

Gladly, Ben replied. The relief he felt washed over William, who smiled a little.

While William placated the worried minister and his terrified wife, Ben saw the young boy standing over the corpse-puddle. A blond little waif, the boy was clearly furious, his hands clenched into fists and his face in a tight scowl. The child was clearly talented, Ben could see the tips of his hair spark as the boy's anger let his magic trickle free.

He caught sight of the stone and raised his foot, intent on stomping it. The shadows around the thing seemed to give way under his foot, recoiling from the boy. From across the room Ben saw this and, too far away to stop it, flung one of his throwing knives at the boy's foot. The handle of the knife connected solidly with the arch of his foot and the boy fell back, screeching with pain.

"Why did you do that?" the boy cried, hopping as he clutched at his foot.

"I need this," Ben said. He moved forward and used the tip of his sword to nudge the stone out of the goo and onto a clean section of the floor.

"I hate it! It tried to kill us!" the boy shouted.

"Don't break what you don't understand," Ben said. He knelt down next to the stone and took out a hard case from a pocket in the side of his pack. Inside the case were a dozen colored chalks, each wrapped in silk and nestled in individual slots.

He hated this, having to resort to hedge magics and hope. It made him feel like a charlatan. Before his accident he could have sealed the stone in seconds, but now he couldn't See the threads of magic, couldn't touch his mana. He was left to brew potions, draw mystic symbols in chalk, and mutter magic words, teasing out spells indirectly. It was slow, and painstaking, and error prone. Worse yet, it was flashy, leaving spark trails and colored pinwheels, which got in the way.

Still, he didn't have an alternative. William, unfortunately, wasn't at all good with wards. At least he didn't need any eye of newt or dragon's blood for something like this. Ben selected three of the sticks and started drawing symbols on the floor around the sphere.

Almost immediately the unnatural shadows faded, contained within the seven pointed star Ben had drawn first. The sphere quivered and looked as if it were trying to move, straining towards the spot where the gateway to the swamps was. The boy looked on with interest.

"What'cha doing," he asked, the pain in his foot and the indignity of his thwarted attempt at destruction forgotten.

"Magic. Quiet," Ben replied. He had no attention free for the boy. The lines had to be exact, the shapes correct, or the mana wouldn't flow properly and the ward wouldn't work.

The terseness of his answer didn't deter the child, who watched Ben intently. The figures and symbols he traced flashed and glowed, providing the boy with something sparkly to fix on, the primitive techniques Ben was using engaging him in ways that true wizardry hadn't.

It took a few minutes, but when Ben was finished the purple stone floated three inches off the ground and rotated slowly. The shadows it had earlier cast were contained by the wards Ben had painstakingly constructed and it seemed that the sphere was somehow bigger than it really was, as if it were pushing against its confines with the force of darkness, the eye-warping spark of purple at the center nearly obscured.

"Need a hand?" William asked, as he looked down at the trapped stone.

"No, this is great, he has it all taken care of," said the boy as he simultaneously bounced with excitement and scowled at William.

You have an admirer, William sent. His amusement was evident.

I need the ward sealed, Ben replied, nonplussed. He hated people watching him as he struggled with magic.

William knelt down and looked at the ward. Even without letting his Sight slip he could make out the strands of the ward bound around the stone and its shadows, their gold lines making it look like a balloon tethered to the drawings on the ground. He Saw what needed to be done. It would be only a moment's work for him to finish it off, something that would take Ben ten minutes or more and still have a chance of failure.

He always marveled at Ben's spellwork. Even as handicapped as he was, the structures he built were clean and elegant, far beyond William's skills. Ben had done in five minutes what would've taken him an hour, and Ben's warding was still better.

You make this look so easy, William thought. I can never do anything like this. He reached out with his mind, letting two strands of silver snake out and connect with the spots on the ward where he'd need to apply a little pressure and finish the spell.

Well? Ben asked, his mental voice carrying his impatience. Sealing the ward was the last step, something he couldn't do directly, not without chalk that could draw in mid-air.

I'm waiting for you, Ben.

Why? Just finish the job, William. You don't have to rub it in.

William sighed. You're hopeless. Just... snap your fingers or something. Humor me.

Ben scowled at him, but reached out and snapped his fingers over the bound stone anyway. William pulled the ward tight as soon as he did.

The finished ward bound the stone tightly, the golden strands of the ward becoming visible to everyone as they squeezed against the darkness until, with a pop, they snapped in close, turning what was a disturbing purple sphere into a shiny golden marble that dropped to the ground, bounced once, and then lay still.

"Yeah!" The boy punched at the air with his fist. "See? We didn't need you," he said to William. William smiled and left Ben with his admirer.

Ben smiled. I'll always need you, he thought. He picked up the golden marble and handed it to the boy. The shadows around the stone had retreated from him earlier. Ben wasn't sure why, but it would probably give a little extra strength to the ward, and he didn't think it would do the boy any immediate harm, not with the ward in place. "Hold this," he said gruffly. "Keep it safe. If I don't return by tomorrow for it, give it to the president of Duquesne College. Can you do that, boy?"

The boy's eyes were wide and the expression on his face full of wonder. He was part of the adventure now, and he was eager to do his part.

"I'll wait right here until you get back!" He was quivering with excitement, unable to keep still.

"No," Ben corrected him. "If we don't come by tomorrow, you take that to the president of the college. Tell him what happened. Do you understand?"

The boy nodded so hard his head was in danger of flying off. "Yeah, yeah! Tomorrow, the president of the college, I promise!"

"Good," Ben said. Then after a moment's thought, he reached out and gave a small smile and awkwardly patted the boy's head.

He looked around. The girl was gone, but her mother was still in the basement, joined by a well dressed, distinguished looking man and a pair of men-at-arms. William was talking with them, gesturing around wildly as he spoke.

The gateway they'd come through was gone, but its trace was clear in the wall. The stone was back but its color was subtly off, and parts of the wall were impossible to look straight at, as if they only truly existed when you weren't looking. Ben frowned. It wasn't closed, and there wasn't much he could do about it, but as long as it was there the household was in danger.

"William!" Ben's voice was sharp, cutting through the conversation.

William turned and smiled at him. "Ben, this is Minister Bartell. He's on the..."

Ben cut him off impatiently. William could go on for hours if he wasn't distracted. "Monsters. Basement. Open portals."

"Oh, right," William said, blushing with embarrassment. "Sorry."

William turned and gave a short bow to the Minister. "You'll have to pardon us," he said. "Monsters. You understand."

"Certainly," the Minister said. If he was worried he didn't show it.

William shouldered his pack and grabbed his sword and jogged towards the back wall of the room where the portal lay. It was closed now, but the trail of muddy footprints and swamp debris that they'd left when they'd crossed made it clear where it was.

"Can you throw a ward on this?" William asked as he stood in front of the gateway. "Something that'll make a noise if anything crosses?"

Ben thought for a moment, ran his finger along the stone wall, then rubbed the dirt he'd picked up between his thumb and finger.

"Yes," he said. "Temporary. It'll last three days, maybe four."

"Good enough," William said, digging the case with the chalks out of Ben's pack and handing them to him.

As Ben started chalking off the ward, William turned to the people still in the room. Minister Bartell and his son were still there, as were two guards, who were looking around nervously, uncomfortable at the prospect of more monsters bursting out from the walls.

"Minister," William called, "The gate's being warded, but not sealed. If anything comes through it'll sound an alarm. The ward will last a few days if it's left untouched. We're going to go clean up the mess on the other side -- we should be done soon, but if we don't stop back by tomorrow have someone come and ward it properly. Professor Jenkins or Rawlins..."

"Rawlins is an idiot," Ben said absently as he worked on the ward.

"Right, Jenkins or Smythe should be fine."

William could feel Ben finishing behind him, the completed ward sending a tingle down the back of his neck.

"If you'll excuse us," he said, turning and readying the opening spell he'd used before, small orange discs humming and floating around his hands, "We really must be going."

With that he slapped the wall, the discs flowing across the surface of the stone and opening the gate like cosmic snails. William and Ben stepped through, the gate disappearing with a snap behind them.

They had a welcoming committee waiting for them on the other side. A half-dozen of the monsters rose out of the swamp. The terror radiated off them and hit William. It was more than he could take, and in a panic he turned and ran into the swamps, showering the creature closest to him with a wave of ice as he passed.

William! Ben called out after him. He could feel the edges of William's fear through his link. Unfortunately Ben was unprepared for is wild dash.

William! Help!

The desperation that came across the link caught William up short, pushing back the terror that had sunk into his bones. There was a flash of image, of Ben surrounded by the monsters. It was six on one, he was surprised, in a swamp, and his partner had just run away. Ben was beyond good, but that was too much.

Ben was in trouble. Real trouble, and William had put him there. He felt real fear, then. It drove off the terror the creatures radiated, turning quickly to anger. Anger at the creatures, and anger at himself for abandoning Ben.

He turned and came running with a yell. As soon as the creatures were in sight the fear hit again, slamming into him like a breaking wave. His rage sustained him, rage and the magic he was weaving. He flung his hands forward, and from them came threads of blue and orange which wrapped around each of the four monsters still standing.

As the threads settled on the last creature, William let loose a spell, crackling balls of lightning flying down the threads and hitting the monsters. Unlike the crude spell he had used in the house, this weaving was carefully crafted, powered by anger. The monsters had no chance and their own crude weavings, the only things that animated them, unraveled under the onslaught.

Ben looked at the corpses around him.

"You could have done that earlier," he said, as he cleaned the ichor off his sword.

William shook his head. "No, I couldn't. I can barely think when those things are around. There's something about them that..." he shivered, unable to complete the sentence. Ben laid a hand on his shoulder. He took comfort from the touch.

"What now?" Ben asked.

"The center. All the gates were connected to it. We need to find out what's keeping them open and close it again."

Ben reached over and touched William's face. "We can go, have someone else finish this."

William covered Ben's hand with his and smiled. "I'll be fine," he said. "We can't leave this, someone may get hurt."

Ben just nodded and stepped back. "Which way?"

William turned and pointed in the direction he had originally run. "That way. Not too far, couple of miles maybe." He straightened his shoulders and set off down the path. They had to stop this, and he wasn't going to let anything get in the way of that. Not monsters, and not himself.

Ben didn't say anything, and followed.

They walked for perhaps fifteen minutes. Twice William pulled them off the path and into the swamp beside it, letting groups of creatures pass. Ben could feel the tension in William as they went by, the fear in him palpable. William clearly didn't want to mention it, so Ben let it go. Luckily, while there was a wide variety of plant life, there were seemingly no creatures but the constructs and the giant frogs, sparing the pair both leeches and mosquitoes.

The path through the swamp rose abruptly and opened up into a clearing on a hillock. In the center was a short truncated stair-step pyramid in the middle of an old building complex that was all falling stonework and leaning walls. It exuded power, though, and with the hot humid air it left their skin crawling. A great green thing sat on top of the building, looking like nothing so much as a massive sea anemone with tentacles at its base snaking around the building like slimy vines. It swayed slightly, its tentacles bunching and stretching.

"Great. Tentacles. Quite a motif this thing's got going," William said, shuddering slightly.

"That's a hydra," Ben said.

"A what?"

"Hydra. Tiny creature, fraction of an inch long, lives in the water. You can barely see most of them."

William squinted at the thing. "Your inches are a lot bigger than mine," he said. Ben just frowned at him.

"Okay, so, it's a giant tiny water creature thing," William said. "What do they do?"

"They eat. A lot. Sting their prey, paralyze it, and swallow it whole."

"Huh. Nasty. Stingers in the tentacles I assume?"

"Yes." Ben scowled. "This isn't what I wanted to be doing with my afternoon. Tentacles in front, monsters behind us," he complained.

"Oh, don't even," William said. "I went to that welcome back faculty luncheon they had for you at the Academy. Tell me this is worse. I dare you. Besides," he said with a smirk, "you love every minute of this. Admit it."

Ben opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.

"I'll go left," he finally said, giving William a smile back. He'd been caught and he knew it. "Cover me?"

William gave a wicked grin and flexed his fingers, tight hot balls of flame forming in the palms of his hands. "Got twenty," he said. "Run fast."

Ben drew his sword and darted forward. William counted to five and followed. The creature on top of the pyramid shuddered and moved, its 'head' slowly starting to lean down as the tentacles on the side of the pyramid facing them started to move.

As Ben approached the base of the pyramid three tentacles whipped down at him. His sword sliced two clean through, while a pair of fire balls flew past him and seared the third. He started up the stairs as more tentacles moved towards them, his sword flashing in the dim sunlight, cleaving off tentacles like he was pruning a mutant rose bush.

William, from his vantage behind Ben, could see that only the parts of the creature on their side of the building were moving, though that was scant comfort as the center stalk of the thing was moving downward. It would catch them before they made it to the entrance mid-way up the steps and, no matter how good Ben was, there was no way they would be able to fight off the mass of tentacles that ringed its huge maw.

He was also running dangerously low on mana. He might, possibly, have enough to help Ben fend off the tentacles on this side, but that would leave them defenseless, and mere steel, no matter how enchanted, was no match for a mouth twenty feet in diameter, ringed with pulsing tentacles.

Ben, duck! he cried, the mental shout causing his partner to drop involuntarily. William let loose with the last of his power and a dozen white-hot balls of flame flew from the palms of his hand into the center of the beast's mouth.

The thing gave a near-ultrasonic shriek that hurt their ears, and its tentacles started flailing about wildly. Ben and William took the opportunity to run up the stairs as quickly as they could, their swords chopping at anything that moved too near. Half a minute later they reached the doorway and ran through, stopping a dozen feet inside to catch their breath and let the ache from muscles pushed hard drain away.

Well, guess they know we're here, William sent to Ben as he panted.

Maybe, Ben replied. No sign of anything.

William looked around as best he could. The building was still shaking as the hydra thrashed outside, but there was no apparent sign that anything had noticed.

The entranceway they were in showed the same signs of weathering and wear as the outside of the pyramid and the ruins surrounding it. The stone was pitted and worn, eaten away by centuries of rain, leaving the walls and floors rough, and the ceiling looking a little unstable. It opened up into a hallway, and at the end was a large room.

Nodding to each other they stalked down the corridor, swords drawn and ready.  As they moved they could see a stone altar in the center of the room. Above it was a huge wrinkled grey blob, floating like some sort of twisted balloon, tethered to the altar by a tail of bones. All around it were two dozen smaller grey blobs, darting around like a swarm of bees.

"It's a giant floating brain," William whispered. "With baby brains around it. What is this, freaky monster day?"

Ben handed him a small triangular talisman. "Here," he said. "Mind control protection."

"Figures," William said, attaching the talisman to his forehead with a quick spell.

"I'm about out of mana," he said. "I can tap yours, but I don't want to if I don't have to."

"What do you propose?"

William grinned. "Even after all the noise, it's not done anything yet. Probably doesn't know we're here. I say a good frontal assault and some straightforward violence."

Ben raised an eyebrow. "Simple. I like it."

As one they charged, swords drawn, running as softly as they could. Unfortunately the brain wasn't unprotected. The swarm of little brains froze for a moment, then darted towards them. They were in four loose groups of six, and in the center of each group a blue-white spark pulsed and grew.

The room filled with the tingling feeling of static, and William barely dove aside as the brains nearest him launched a bolt of lightning, the spark at the center of the group fading to almost nothing afterward.

Ben lunged at the group, his sword leaving a trail of sparks as it flashed through the air and split three of the brains in half. An uncomfortable shock ran up his arm as the remaining three brains fell to the floor. William, still on the ground from his dive, impaled one on his sword and flung it towards the second group. It connected with the spark at the center of that group and, with a burst of smoke, turned to ash. The cluster of brains fell to the ground with a 'squee' and a wet plop.

The remaining two clusters pulled back momentarily then, with bright flashes of their central sparks, flew straight at William and Ben. Little bolts of lightning arced between them as they came. They looked remarkably angry for things with no faces.

William and Ben just glanced at each other before they dropped to the ground and started flipping the now-immobile brains on the floor at the two clusters flying at them. The attacking brains tried to counter with electric bursts, but they were quickly felled by the corpses of their fallen comrades.

Throughout all this the monster brain just... floated, seemingly unaware of what was going on.

William, who was closest, moved forward and swung his sword. A foot from the brain it hit something unseen. There was a shimmer in the air outlining a part of a dome, and William was flung across the room. Ben ran to him, kneeling down and helping him sit.

"So, no frontal assault," William remarked, wincing as he got up. "Got an alternate plan?"

"What's protecting it?" asked Ben.

"Not sure," William said. "It doesn't seem to be doing anything. Can we take a few minutes? Maybe I can draw a little mana and probe it."

"Doubt it," Ben replied. "Probably summoning the monsters back."

William shuddered at the thought of dozens of those swamp golems coming back.

"Right. Fast. Got it."

He let his vision slip and his Sight come into focus. He was tired, completely depleted of mana, and had to draw on Ben's strength through their link to See anything.

Surrounding the brain was a lacework cage of silver strands. They were delicate and beautiful in their own way, dancing and shifting, looking like nothing so much as a monochromatic soap bubble. Dozens of strands ran from the brain to places outside the pyramid, most likely the brain's means of controlling its constructs. William saw one strand curled around Ben and another around himself, probing at them, only held at bay by the protective talismans they each wore.

"I have a plan," William said as he sheathed his sword and unbuckled his scabbard.

Ben lifted a questioning eyebrow at him. William handed the sword to him.

"It's simple. Nothing can possibly go wrong," he said. He had a hand at the small of Ben's back, pushing him towards the brain. "Your part is easy -- just stab it a lot. No problem."

"And you?"

"Oh," William said, retreating twenty feet back. He reached up to take hold of the talisman on his forehead, knowing it was the only thing keeping the spell trying to control him at bay. "I disrupt the ward and then try not to get taken over by the evil monster before you kill it. Ready?"

Ben's eyes widened but he took William's sword in his left hand and his own in his right.

As William ripped the talisman off and flung it towards the brain, he felt the cold threads of the mind control spell wrap around his head, probing at his brain, trying to get in. He fought as best he could, but depleted of mana as he was he knew he only had a few seconds.

Seconds were enough. The talisman flew straight and true. It hit the protective ward around the brain and passed right through it, disrupting the ward and letting Ben's twin swords stab deep into the thing.

William gasped as he felt the threads of the spell attacking him falter, then Ben gave a twist with each sword, ripping out the sides of the brain. William fell to the floor as the attack on him suddenly stopped.

The large brain pulsed for a moment, then collapsed in on itself with a shriek pitched so high they could barely hear it. Where it had floated was a small purple rip in space, twisting in ways that hurt to look at.

Everything was quiet for a few seconds.

"That was kind of anti-climactic," William remarked as he moved closer to the rip, reaching out to touch it.

Ben winced as William said that. "I don't think you should..." he started

As soon as William's finger got close the rift flashed a blinding purple, then disappeared. Twelve blobs of purple light flew out from where the rift had been, then a moment later there was an ear-splitting ringing noise and the whole universe felt like it was going to shake apart.

Wasting no time, the pair dashed for the door they'd entered through and ran as fast as they could down the side of the pyramid, taking the steps three at a time, reaching the ground in seconds. "The gates are going to close," William shouted as they ran. All around them the ground undulated. Waves rippled through the water and moss was flung down from the trees as they whipped back and forth, some crashing into the marsh around them.

There was one shimmering thread of purple visible to William, one end reaching back to the pyramid, the other into the depths of the swamp. He ran next to it, Ben keeping close behind, unable to see the thread William was following.

They ran hard, trying to reach their destination as the realm around them tried to rip itself apart. The path was leading back to the gateway they'd crossed through earlier, the one leading to the basement of the city's First Minister. William was slowing, clearly running on nothing but adrenaline and desperation. Ben let his stores of mana flow across their link, trying to give him enough strength to make it to the end.

The gateway in the tree trunk was open, the stone walls and stored furniture in the basement on the other side clearly visible. The gate itself wasn't stable, stretching and warping as the realm itself did, pulling impossibly wide one moment then twisting and bulging the next. It was their only way out so, following Ben, William pushed with the last bits of his strength and ran through.

They burst through into the basement of the Minster's house, surprising the boy they'd left there earlier. He was crouched down behind a fort he'd built from two old gilded couches and some chairs that had been stored in the basement. In one hand he had a wooden practice sword, in the other he held the warded stone Ben had given him earlier.

As William collapsed to the ground, Ben leapt forward. He grabbed the stone from the hand of the startled boy and threw it at the gateway in the wall. As soon as it passed through, the gateway gave one last rippling shudder and vanished, leaving behind nothing but a solid stone face.

As he lay on the floor, not even having the strength to sit up, William remarked "Well, that was easy."

* * *

"So much for a quiet life in town," William grumbled as they walked across town back to their home. "We've got monsters in our basement."

"Not in our basement," Ben corrected.

"Right, my mistake. Our next-door neighbor is a pocket dimension filled with horrors man was not meant to invite to dinner, with a connecting door into our basement. This is better how, exactly?"

Ben shrugged. "The gates are closed. Can they get back?"

William thought for a moment. "I don't think so. The gateways didn't seem to be tied to particular places, really. It was more that they opened wherever they happened to open, and when we destroyed the brain I'm pretty sure that scrambled things. They might be able to open up more gateways, but unless they were anchored on this side they'd be random. I think it'll be a while before the realm boundary stops ringing, too, and they won't be able to do anything until that happens."

"Good," Ben replied. "So we're safe."

"Well..." William said, then hesitated. "I wouldn't say that. The space where the gateway was is kind of mushy. Maybe they won't make it through, but something from somewhere else could."

William sighed. "I wondered why the townhouse was so cheap," he said.

"You knew about this?"

"Well, no, not as such," William protested. "Not this."

"What does that mean?"

"The agent said something about there being some... irregularities with the place."

"Like what?"

"Oh, you know, damp basement, cracked plaster in the upstairs hall, previous residents murdered horribly in their sleep and their organs scooped out. Nothing important."

"And you didn't think to mention that?"

"I thought she was trying to distract me from the kitchen. I mean, did you see the state of those cabinets?"

"What!"

"Hey," William said, "we got a really good deal!"

Ben glared at William.

"At least we don't have mice. The people next door, you should see the problem they have."

"I think," said Ben, "I could have lived with a cat."


With much thanks to Sherry, Jason, and Liz, for reading, advice, and editing. 

Copyright © 2011 TheZot; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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