Tom and James couldn’t stop moving. The floor was falling away wherever they stepped, giving them no time to breathe, no time to think.
Ahead, James spotted a crack in the ceiling. Reacting instantly, he cast the first spell that came to mind, and that section of ceiling lowered, giving them a place to stand. The two jumped, barely making it to the new platform. A little more manipulation allowed them to progress unaffected by the trap floor.
Ahead, a doorway stood out against the impressive darkness. It looked like the kind of door you didn’t want to go through, but every door in this place was that kind of door, so it didn’t exactly faze them.
Beyond the door was a normal-looking room, apparently empty at first glance. Before either of them could react, however, a figure stepped away from the far wall.
“You guys really don’t give up, do you?” Fallor hissed. “I guess I’ll just have to send you back in pieces myself.”
Not waiting for him to follow through on this threat, Tom drew something out of his pocket – James had time to note that it looked like a cup of some sort – and a beam of light erupted from it.
No good. The beam shot through the spot where Fallor had just been standing, but by now he wasn’t there anymore – he had gotten beside James, somehow. He began casting now –
“Oh, no you don’t!” James said, creating a barrier instantly and slinging his own attack. This met with no more success than Tom’s.
“James, stand back and keep our defenses up,” Tom said.
“You got a plan?”
“I… really hope so.”
Tom stepped forward, readying his weapon again. Then, he relaxed. He dropped both hands to his side, stood in a neutral position, and closed his eyes.
“…what the hell are you doing?” Fallor asked, just before James could ask the same thing.
“Waiting,” Tom replied.
Fallor shrugged. “Well, I guess that gives me time to get a real answer,” he said, and began to chant something quietly. Almost as soon as he’d begun, he stopped, eyes widening, and leapt out of the way as Tom’s weapon doubled in size and promptly fired. A mark was left on the wall, roughly twice as large as the first shot had been.
“Not bad,” said Fallor, “but I can still see your shots coming. And that means no matter how much you boost your weapon, I’ll have the advantage.”
As he spoke, Tom sidestepped, completely preempting the sneak attack Fallor was attempting – a torrent of some dark acidic fluid just missed him. “Maybe so, but that applies both ways,” he said.
Fallor gaped. “How did you know that was coming?” he asked, incredulous.
“Simple. You’re really, really predictable.”
The only reaction Fallor could muster was a sneer. “So be it. If that’s how this fight is going to go… let’s just see who can predict who the best!”
“I’ve been waiting for you guys for a while,” said Alexander. “Since shortly after you left campus, actually. I’ve explored up ahead, and there’s a trap over – this way,” he led them down a corridor on the left, “that I think must be protecting something, because that’s what traps do, right?”
“Yeah, most of the time,” Zac said.
A stone door stood in front of them. Alex prised it open, and they entered the room cautiously. “Watch this,” he said, stepping forward a bit.
Instantly, a spike jutted across the room, from one wall to the other. A little farther in, and more spikes appeared; at first, they didn’t seem like a threat, but the number that appeared for each movement, and the apparent danger they posed, increased the farther he went. A few barely missed his head, and by the time he was halfway across the room, he had managed to fit himself into a cage of spikes. He turned to look at the others. “See how to do this?” he asked, walking back; as he moved back, the spikes retracted into the walls.
Peepers nodded. “I think we can manage it,” he said.
“Right, so what I’m thinking is, you go that way, I go this way?” Zac added, gesturing.
“Works for me,” Peepers said, seeming undaunted, even enthusiastic about this whole situation.
Peepers pressed himself to the right wall and slid along it until several sets of spikes had appeared, stopping only when he was blocked by one. Zac now approached on the left, causing more to shoot across; he grabbed some of them and used them as a ladder, climbing up and over the mass. With each move they made, parts of the room became impassible, but on occasion other moves opened up as well.
After several minutes of work, the two had managed to reach the other side safely, and as soon as Peepers touched the door opposite where they had entered, the spikes retracted. The four were then able to move on, finding themselves in another unremarkable room – unremarkable except for the presence of the person they’d come to find.
“Hey, guys, good to see you,” said Fallor, “except you, Lee, and to a lesser extent the rest of you as well. So… I guess it’s not good to see you at all. Now get out.”
“You kidding? You locked the door behind us!” Lee exclaimed.
“Oh, yeah… I did, didn’t I. That’s right. Ah well. Guess that means I’ll just have to kill all of you.”
About this time, everyone suddenly became aware that the floor here wasn’t quite as much a solid surface as the floor elsewhere.
Gray objects began to shift along the floor, gathering in piles and surrounding the group. After a pause, during which everyone could see exactly what was about to happen, they streamed toward each of the infiltrators, pummeling and knocking the breath out of them.
This proceeded for several seconds before a flash of light enveloped the room. Lightning arced from Lee’s fingertips, striking each object, causing them to shrink back. Now that they were no longer attacking, the group was able to get a better look at them. Each one looked like a small stone fragment with eyes. The means of locomotion was not immediately visible, but they could guess.
The lightning held them back, as long as Lee sustained it, but beyond the radius a number of creatures remained unaffected.
Since everybody was worrying about this, nobody was quite prepared when Alex said, “I’m going in.”
Neither combatant was making any real headway; both seemed able to read each other perfectly, even before any movements had been made. Every time Fallor went high, Tom went low; and every time Tom went low, Fallor went high; and they missed each other by miles.
“It was a nice try,” Fallor said, “but you’re losing.”
“Say that again?”
“You don’t even know yet… you can’t win fighting defensively. I’ll prove it.” He disappeared, and reappeared behind Tom, who was already throwing a flaming punch in that direction – but with ease, Fallor caught the arm, and repelled the attack. He then proceeded to swing low, and Tom moved to dodge, but before he did, Fallor had already intercepted.
“See, I can fight defensively… but if I just go all-out, with my prescience, I don’t need to. All I need to see is how you’ll react to my attack, and you’ll never get a chance to make your own.”
Tom shook his head. “You’ve got it all figured out? Really?”
“Really. Will you remain skeptical to the end?”
A few more attacks immediately followed – and now Tom was on the ground. James tried to move to help, but at some point his feet had sunken into the stone. He had one chance to do something, whatever spell he cast would draw Fallor’s attention to him.
From a shadowy corner of the room ran a small creature – a single saproling. Not even bothering to look at it, Fallor caught it with his left hand and held it still, as it squirmed to get closer to him. He glanced at James over his shoulder. “This is your best shot? One saproling?”
James just stared in something like shock.
A moment later the saproling exploded. A massive fireball completely incinerated Fallor’s left arm, causing him to recoil. “Yeargh… what was that?!”
“That… was my best shot,” said a voice from the corner.
Fallor now turned to face the voice, his left arm quickly regenerating. A form was visible in the shadows; definitely human, but obscured.
“Oh? Heh… well, since it’s you, I’ll be happy to show you just how much I appreciate it!” Fallor cried, moving in for the attack. As he did so, a swarm of saprolings burst forth from everywhere around the figure. He didn’t even break a sweat; after all, by the time they appeared he knew where each one would be when it blew. He dodged easily through the crowd, approaching and finally seizing the newcomer.
“You thought that would take me down easily, did you? Well, too bad for you.” He threw the person against the opposite wall – it was Zeke… or at least, wearing Zeke’s clothes, with the addition of a wide-brimmed hat, completely obscuring any recognizable features.
“Nah, of course not. It’s never that easy,” replied Zeke. His voice sounded odd, harsh and sour, like he was trying to figure out how his vocal chords worked and it hurt. “I did have a few more tricks…”
“Let me save you the time. You got me once. But you’re not that lucky. You’ll never hit me again, because now that I’m aware of you, you no longer have the element of surprise.”
“I beg to differ.”
Fallor stared at Zeke’s slumped form, trying to figure out what that could possibly have meant. He never did. At precisely that moment, a beam larger than Fallor enveloped him, leaving no trace behind. Tom lowered his weapon, staring at the spot momentarily. Then he approached Zeke. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Well enough.” Zeke stood up. “Noir helped me come up with that one. Make sure you thank him properly when we get back. Now come on, I know the shortcuts so…”
Zeke paused. “We really don’t have time to discuss this, you know.”
“Just take off the hat.”
He hesitated at this. “Well, I am among friends.” After a few moments, he removed the hat. His face was no longer that of a human; it was rodentlike, complete with large ears and elongated incisors, and covered in red fur. He shook his head. “It’s something new. I can’t say I’m not afraid of it, but it does have its benefits.”
James, finally completing a spell to free his feet, now approached. “Benefits?”
“Well, if my guess is right,” he said, removing his coat (which, James noted, was somewhat insane to have worn for this long, since it was not particularly cold in here), “the tail will be a chick magnet.”
Zeke tended to avoid using slang, so the words “chick magnet” coming from him sounded a little bit strange. Strange or not, though, he did indeed have a large bushy tail, previously tucked into the coat.
“Now, if we’re all up to speed, let’s move on. We’re not done here just yet.”
As soon as Alex had left the circle of lightning, the creatures outside it set upon him, but there were fewer than before, and he was able to elude them. His agility was impressive, developed from many tennis games before the shift and much forest scouting after.
“…stay right here,” Peepers said to Lee, slipping out of the circle himself. He immediately began striking at the attacking creatures, swatting them into the lightning circle. Zac quickly joined him, wading into the monsters like they weren’t even there before beginning to beat at them. There were still too many to take down in this manner, though.
Alex had reached Fallor by now. The look on Fallor’s face was one of understandable displeasure. He raised a hand to cast something, but before he could manage it, Alex grabbed the arm and twisted it, nearly knocking Fallor off his feet. Peepers used the moment of distraction to charge, putting all his power into a slam that slammed Fallor into the wall.
“You finished already?” asked Peepers. “Your creatures are incapacitated, and you’re helpless against us…”
“Incapacitated, are they?” Fallor replied slowly. “You’re sure? Maybe they’re just… charging up?”
“I don’t think that’s…”
Before Peepers could continue this thought, Alex tackled him, pulling him away. At that moment, an unexpected flash came from the lightning circle. Zac stumbled back, clutching at one arm; Lee collapsed on the spot, to one knee, unable to right himself. The creatures looked like they might be laughing. Then, slowly, they began to pile on top of one another.
In no time, two full golems had taken form in the area where the circle had been. Peepers swore, abandoning the assault on Fallor to leap into the fight against the golems.
“He’s gonna break them, you know,” Alex commented, taunting Fallor. In response, Fallor merely smirked.
“What does it matter? There goes your backup.”
The spell Fallor had prepared was now unleashed. An intense aura radiated from him. Everyone else was struggling to remain conscious; it was as if some great pressure, like that of great ocean depths, was being exerted on each of their heads. Fallor raised his hand to finish it, a dagger appearing, preparing to strike down Alexander.
Then it was gone. A bang echoed, and Fallor stumbled. Zac was casting with his uninjured arm, interrupting Fallor’s concentration, distracting him from sustaining the aura and preventing further casting.
He was doing all this with a freshly-conjured pistol. So he wasn’t so much casting as emptying the ammunition into Fallor.
About half of Fallor’s face had been blown off before Zac stopped, but still he managed to stay on his feet and face them. As the wounds healed, impossibly fast, he seemed on the verge of laughter, but not quite willing to do so. “What, did you think that that would stop me?” he asked. “Well, come on, fire some more!”
“…what kind of shadow-thing are you?!” Zac demanded
A pause before Fallor replied. “The best kind.” He thought a bit. “If you were trying to draw my aim, I guess I could oblige, but if you were really hoping to accomplish something, you’d have been better off ghkt.”
That last sound was the sound he made as the dagger, stolen by Alex the moment he had looked away from it, pierced him. An instant later, Peepers, Lee, and Zac reacted simultaneously, each contributing their own lightning to the attack. There was a moment of anticipation, and then, all at once, Fallor’s body burst into ash. As it did, the golems crumbled, depositing a good deal of rubble gently on Peepers’ head.
“Wow, that was… a lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” Alex noted.
“Well, obviously it was a decoy. The real Fallor couldn’t have healed that quickly from those wounds, and he wouldn’t have fought us here,” Zac pointed out.
“Either way.” Alex brushed some ashes off himself, missing quite a lot more. “We’ve still got something to do.”
After wiping out the moths, Nick, Maytee, and Quiet Joe had uncovered yet another corridor; they had seen quite enough of these lately. They passed through without incident, arriving at a huge room, walls and ceiling farther away than they would have guessed possible in this part of the structure. Near the far wall sat Chris Fallor. He stood as they entered.
“Good timing,” he said. “You were almost later than you were.”
“Cut the crap, Fallor,” Nick said. “You know what happens now that I’m here, right?”
“Yes, yes, we fight, you have the absurd notion that you can kill me, and in the end I win.”
“…not… exactly how I was going to put it, I gotta say.”
“Well, yes, but my way was more to the point.”
Nick sighed. Yeah, this was about what he expected from Fallor, all right.