“So, tell me about this Dungeon Rush,” Harold said, pouring everyone another round of Pina Colada.
“Well,” Tch’naztt said, the translator on her wrist turning the unintelligible clicking into recognizable human-speech, “Whenever a new universe is added to the sphere, the kipling have to invade the worlds again, and they always do it the same way, with dungeons.” The drunk ant-woman sloshed a bit of her drink as she spoke.
One of Tch’naztt’s companions, a lovely Nymph (apparently) by the name of Tit’chitet, jostled her elbow joint.
“That is a secret!” he insisted.
“Maybe back home, but this human lives in this universe. She’ll find out whether she wants to or not, now stop interrupting, lovely.” Harold tapped his fingers on the bar and considered correcting the ant-woman about his gender, but thought better of it. While it rankled him, he had noticed the sexual dimorphism, with Tit’chitet being about half her size. Chances were, in their culture, men were pretty faces with sperm sacs attached. He didn’t need to make her think less of him this early in the game.
“Anyway, where was I?”
“Ah yes. This story was passed down through the queens of our hive for seven thousand years in the hopes that when the next Rush happened, we could compete with the Inner Spheres and maybe get some Mythic Cores for ourselves.”
“Yes, they are the life force of the most powerful artifacts. In a few days, stars will begin to drop from the sky, landing on the ground all around the universe, but mostly where there is intelligent life to provide the psychic energy to sustain them.”
“When a core is first born, it is actually at its most powerful, a Mythic Core. It is a golden orb about this big.” She put her thumb and chitinous forefinger together, indicating a size a bit bigger than a quarter.
“It lands on the ground in a wave of fire, if anyone is close to it when it falls, they are burned.” Tit’chitet supplied, getting into it now. Their third companion, a guard for the young mistress by the name of Itet’chi’zzt watched them with narrowed eyes, sipping the drink in silence.
“Right, lovely, but let the women talk.”
“So your queen seven thousand years back saw mercenaries coming from the other realities, like you are now, searching for these cores?”
“Just so. If the core can be removed from the earth before it had had a chance to burrow into the soil and create a dungeon, it can be used to create objects of wondrous power.”
“Huh.” Harold grunted. “Can I get some more ice?” Tch’naztt reached out, a bloom of cold blue light blossoming on her finger before a block of solid ice appeared in front of him. He set about shattering it and grinding it up for more drinks. It was laborious work, but at least there was enough liquor to go around due to most of humankind being dead already.
“So these dungeons, are you using the right words? Because in my language, dungeon is a fancy word for underground prison.”
“Dungeons are deep, underground labyrinthine structures that house monsters. They are dangerous and vile.”
That sparked a fleeting fragment of memory in Harold. Grampa, wanna play the fighter? You could be Earl Rusty kickasso, lover of women, delver of dungeons and slaughterer of orcs.
“Huh. Sooo, I hate to ask all these stupid questions-”
“No, it’s only natural for a universe that’s only just joined the sphere.”
“Right. So…Why do these dungeons form. What is their purpose? To make geeks feel important?”
“No, think of the core as a spore. It burrows into the earth, trying to make it to the center of the planet, where it can use the incredible amount of magical energy there to tear open a hole in reality, sending more spores into limitless other universes. It needs fresh air on it while it does its evil work, so there is always a path between the core and the surface, but it is never a straight shot. The dungeon grows around it as a means to defend against the planet’s natural defences – that’s us – putting out monsters and traps, dead ends, sometimes buying off the adventurers with wealth until the dungeon grows too large to stop.”
“And what happens when the core reaches the center of the planet?”
“First, all but the most powerful have their life force drawn out of their body, then, a group of enforcers from the Inner Spheres are dispatched to try to remove the core. If they fail, the entire planet implodes into the resulting tear in space.”
“Damn,” Harold said, shaking his head. “I thought the pasty people-eaters were bad.”
“They’re just the first wave, a symbiotic species that breeds fear, creating a fertile psychic soil in which the core germinates.”
“So let me see if I got this right. these Mythic Cores are worth tons of money in the right hands.”
“Your hive scraped together all their cash to send you out here.” Translation: Nobody’s gonna come looking for you.
“We’ve been under the heel of the Inner Sphere banks for generations, it took the concerted effort of all eight thousand of us for years to afford three tickets to the newest layer of the Sphere. I was selected as the representative of our hive, as I am the finest warrior and sorceress of our generation.”
“It shows. That translator on your wrist has a map function showing the location of the outposts, and it can be used by anyone?”
“The psychic energy transmits directly to the brain, yes, why do you ask?” Tch’naztt cocked her head in a motion that suggested curiosity and confusion, but her bodyguard was tensed, slowly setting down her drink. Looked like the jig was up.
“Just thought I should buy one at one of the outposts,” Harold said. “Let me fix you a different drink to celebrate your first day of adventuring. This one has a bit more kick to it.”
“Oh, thanks, there’s an outpost just a few miles west where you can-“
Harold stood up from behind the counter with Jim’s fifty caliber Desert Eagle right in Tch’naztt’s face. Jim was a nice guy. Owned the bar. Probably got eaten because of greedy, selfish fucking aliens like this one.
Harold pulled the trigger.
Itet’chi’zzt was already moving when the fleshy creature ducked behind the wooden counter, as it had so many times before. This time, something was wrong.
“Itet’chi’zzt, I have chosen you because of your fear and mistrust of others.” Her Queen had made the declaration.
“What?” she’d asked, stunned. “Why not T’chetizz or Sh’tizit? They are far better fighters than I.” Perhaps her role as the pariah was finally forcing her hive to exile her, the worst punishment that could be bestowed. They’d simply leave her on their adventures, less dead weight for the hive.
“There, I felt your doubt again.” Her queen said, antenna twitching in the unmistakable pattern of amusement. “That is what we need more than anything.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The other two have nothing but trust. Trust in themselves, and trust in others. This is an incredible power, but it is also an incredible weakness. Other races of the sphere are not like us. They will deceive, say things that are not true, turn on us seemingly from nowhere. Only one such as you, who sees malice in every action, will be able to see these things before they happen. It is a trait necessary for a Queen.”
Itet’chi’zzt was truly confused. Was this some kind of trick played on the pariah, a promise to put her at the center of Tzetin society despite a lifetime spent as an outcast. It didn’t make sense. The Queen would never do something like this as a prank. She couldn’t make any sense of the actions.
“But I thought-“
“Teach her how to doubt, and if you cannot, then when you return, it will be you who takes my place, and not her.”
Itet’chi’zzt ran through the wooden box the human female had called a ‘bar’, rushing to intercept her and put a rest to whatever this dread feeling was. She unsheathed two of her swords while her primary arms reached toward Tch’naztt. The flawless gem of their hive could not be allowed to be lost here.
They might laugh at her, reveal Itet’chi’zzt’s shameful incongruous behavior, but if there was even a chance…
The human raised a silver, blocky thing to Tch’naztt’s head while Itet’chi’zzt was still an arm’s length away, causing her antenna to shiver in horror.
Tch’naztt sent a curious glance toward Itet’chi’zzt when the blocky silver thing exploded, and in an instant, a large portion of the confident warrior’s head was torn away.
“Noo!” Itet’chi’zzt hissed, pushing her charge out of the way and swinging one of her blades at the treacherous outsider, deflecting the silver weapon it tried to aim at her with a metallic ringing.
The human leaped backward, a scar running up the side of the silver weapon as it raised it again, intent on killing them all.
Itet’chi’zzt ducked behind the wooden box separating them, grabbing Tch’naztt and dragging her backwards with one hand while readying her bow with the other three.
“Aw, come on, we were just getting started!” She heard the human call out in her disgusting, grunting speech.
Itet’chi’zzt grabbed one of the three legged wooden contraptions the human had called a ‘stool’, tossing it out the other side of the bar. With an ear splitting series of explosions, the stool was ripped to pieces as Itet’chi’zzt stood, taking aim at the hateful outsider.
Her human eyes widened as Itet’chi’zzt unleashed one, two and then three arrows before she could respond. The arrows sank deep into the human’s flesh, and it let out a cry of pain as it rolled backward, deeper into this ‘Bar’ that now felt more like a T’zicktet’s lair, designed to trap unsuspecting victims with honey.
Time to leave. Itet’chi’zzt dragged Tch’naztt backwards out of the bar by a limp arm while peppering the doorway with arrows so the human didn’t stick its fleshy head out and try to use that horrible contraption on them again.
“Come on!” She screamed at Tit’chitet, who stared at his lover’s limp body. Tch’naztt had brought him on the reasoning that they could use a male to tend their fire, mend their gear and provide companionship, but Itet’chi’zzt knew there was more to it than that. They had bonded, and he would be found out if they left him behind.
Tch’naztt had taken responsibility in a way by bringing him with her. If they had returned after consuming numerous heartstones there wouldn’t be a male who could compete with him, making her choice for consort a forgone conclusion. The fact that they’d bonded already would be meaningless.
Tit’chitet, frozen by terror for his bondmate, was unable to move, letting out a keening sound of fear.
“Now, Tit’chitet!” She did not have time for his male hysterics.
“Die!” a guttural grunt sounded from the doorway as the human peeked around and raised its little silver death-box in the moment Itet’chi’zzt was distracted.
Somehow, Tit’chitet moved faster than both of them, placing himself in front of Itet’chi’zzt and Tch’naztt, standing on his hind legs and flattening his thorax to make himself larger, his antenna making the sign of self-sacrifice.
Six concussive blasts sounded, and Tit’chitet fell to the ground, his antenna twitching with the meaningless gibberish of death.
“Shit,” the human said, and a little black box fell out of the bottom of the silver death-box. It began tugging something out of the cloth around its thorax.
“AAAA!” Itet’chi’zzt screamed, firing all the remaining arrows in her quiver as she dragged Tch’naztt out of the bar.
The human ducked inside with a curse and she took the opportunity to turn all of her attention to getting her charge out of here, keeping half of her vision on the evil bar as she tried to drag the heavy warrior to safety.
A minute later, she felt a gentle tapping on her leg, and looked down at Tch’naztt.
Tch’naztt’s large, beautiful eye had been torn out, along with the nerve cluster that processed her sight. It was a mortal wound that rendered her blind and bleeding to death, but the brain housed at the base of her thorax was still functioning.
The warrior couldn’t see, and her antenna were partially lost, cutting off most of her other senses. Still, she spoke Itet’chi’zzt’s name, motioning her closer.
Itet’chi’zzt knelt, putting her face within reach to soothe the dying warrior. She should know that one of her people would witness her death. She was not alone.
Tch’naztt touched her face with her four hands, discerning the shape of her failed protector.
“I’m sorry.” Itet’chi’zzt said, her body convulsing in shame.
The four hands gripped her tightly, and a roiling blue energy began shoving itself inside her, cooling her insides.
“What’s this?” She demanded, trying to pull away, but the dying Tzetin held her with the firmness of iron.
Feeling as though something was prying under each and every plate of her exoskeleton, Itet’chi’zzt screamed, thrashing in pain. The torment didn’t ebb and flow, only growing stronger in a maddening climax of ice.
She felt like she was being frozen from the inside out.
Itet’chi’zzt wasn’t sure whether she stopped screaming first, or the pain went away first, but eventually the pain did go away, and with it, her companion’s hands fell away from her body lifelessly.
Itet’chi’zzt felt… different, somehow, but she didn’t know how to describe it. The nagging sensation was an unimportant side note to one earth-shattering realization: She was on a planet full of things eager to kill her, and responsible for the fate of her entire hive.
And she was alone.