Some eight months previously.
Frog threw himself behind the parked Lexus and winced at the sound of his hog scraping across the pavement and crashing into the wall behind him. What the fuck had he just ridden into, it sounded like a war zone. He crawled until he was sheltering behind the Lexus’ engine block and cringed trying to make himself small as several bullets tore right through the luxury car’s body.
He cradled his head and broke into a cold sweat when he realised a chunk of his helmet was simply missing. ‘Fuck that was close.’
Frog removed his destroyed helmet and produced his phone. He hit 911. He was busy trying not to die, which exasperated his stress levels as he tried to tell the nice lady on the end of the line what was going on and all but begging for help.
Then he felt a wrenching, almost as if someone was ripping him in half. He gasped, half screamed and fainted.
* * *
Frog felt dizzy, what in hells name was going on? He seemed to be in a huge nebulous room, or was he? He didn’t seem to have a body, was he just another of those airy glowing spheres that he was surrounded by? Did this mean those lunatics had killed him? Was this the afterlife?
He ignored the babble of incoherent voices that seemed to bypass his non-existent ears. He focused and forced them out as he tried to examine his surroundings. He noticed a lectern had appeared in the space he and the others were sharing. Or maybe it and the tall slender big-breasted blue haired woman had always been there and he simply hadn’t noticed them. Frog found himself ogling those breasts with approval.
« teeheehee! My new helpers are all here, don’t worry dears, you did not die! As you all are, or maybe were all atheists none of you had any attachments to your local gods whoever they were, and as your world has so many people you are all new souls and thus devoid even of lingering attachments. So I merely appropriated your souls for my use. Teeheehee. »
Frog got the distinct impression that the woman floating behind the podium was smirking at him.
« Don’t worry dears, I left a scrap of your soul behind, just enough to keep your bodies from dying, it should regenerate in time. Possibly. Maybe. Teeheehee. »
« I’m Azurea, Goddess of dungeons and you are all my new subjects. If you want to succeed you need to hurry up and worship me already. »
« Forget your names, you are now ANS 1 through ANS 100 – stands for Atheist New Soul. Teeheehee. »
Deep in his head Frog heard, or maybe he sensed ‘ANS 96’.
« I’m sending the dungeon cores ANS 1 to ANS 25 to the planet Diavlo, you are needed there and will be a blessing to the locals. »
« As for the cores ANS 26 through ANS 50 you are going to the Planet Parthia. »
« ANS 51 to ANS 75, you are going to help Ambuila. »
« ANS 76 to ANS 100, Teeheehee, you will be needed on Tarifax. Teeheehee. »
* * *
Frog was in freefall, below him was a planet, a green and blue cloudy planet. Frog due to his acrophobia fainted.
ANS 96 woke with a blank mind. He gazed incuriously around the dark cave he found himself in and apathetically accepted the demand of partnership from Deepsix the wisp.
Deepsix for his part cursed. This was worse than anything he had been told. The dungeon core was all but empty of anything, it certainly had no personality worth mentioning.
« Azurea my goddess, how am I supposed to fulfil your will with ANS 96. It’s a blank, there is nothing here. Please Azurea I pray, advise me. »
« Ok dear, Teeheehee, the poor thing fainted and the mindwipe had nothing to fight against so it was a little too successful. Teeheehee. Sorry dear, just do the best you can for now. »
Some two months later, six months before the present.
Magister Rufus Calitroglia received his visitor in his mansion in the noble quarter of Conimbriga. He offered Bartold Kennings wine, Bartold smiled in pleasure and accepted.
“My friend, several new dungeons have appeared. I have um, mislaid the details of one of them. It lies just within the great swamp, about one hundred and fifty kilometres from our fair city.”
Rufus felt a bolt of pure greed but was careful to show no sign of it. “So Bartold my friend, how long do I have before you have to, find this mislaid dungeon?”
“I have a review coming, so I can give you two weeks but to be quite honest the sooner the better as far as I am concerned.”
“Excellent, personally I don’t think I’ll need more than a week for something that close.”
* * *
As soon as Bartold Kennings had left, Rufus stated spewing orders preparing to fulfil one of his long held ambitions. Then donning his breather mask he left his home noting with pleasure that the filter spell was still functioning perfectly. Latrox Caldane might be expensive but he did do good work.
He climbed into his firewagon and gestured for to Driver II to proceed. The firewagon started with a subdued chuff and was soon edging its way through the thick yellow tinted fog that coated Conimbriga.
Rufus made his way into the Caradix Emporium and handed his breather and cape to one of the footmen. Then he made his way to the exotics section.
Sales XV smiled politely and bowed deeply to the prosperous looking gentleman who walked into his department. He held the bow for the appropriate length of time and straightened. “How may the Caradix Emporium serve you master?”
Rufus looked indifferently through the silver collared slave and replied. “I have need of a female pixie or sprite for an experiment. Please understand I am not sure it will survive the experiment so I am not after your best stock.”
Sales XV bowed again, grateful to be able to hide his expression. “Certainly sir, please come this way.”
Rufus examined the half dozen sprites and four pixies on offer. Three didn’t look healthy or strong so he ignored those. He also ignored the dungeon sprite. “How much do you want for the scar faced one?”
Sales XV glanced at the disk hanging from its grok hide collar, “Two guineas master.”
Rufus narrowed his eyes in displeasure and checked the notation himself. After checking the price of the other options he had considered he grunted. “Bloody expensive for a one eyed slave,” he grumbled. “Don’t you have anything cheaper?”
“The males of this species are cheaper master.”
“No! Females are easier to manage,” Rufus snapped as he glared at the unfortunates presented for his inspection.
Sales XV merely bowed and remained silent his face blank.
“Very well, clean it up and replace that collar with a bronze one. My man’s got a filter cage in my firewagon. Use that, see to it while I go and pay.”
“Yes master, your will be done.”
* * *
Strelitzia was still feeling numb at the destruction of her colony. She was indifferent to her fate and frankly surprised to be alive. She just hoped that some of her friends and relatives had managed to escape in the brief, very brief delay she and a few of the more desperate of her friends had bought at the cost of their lives and freedom.
And now she’d been sold to some arrogant free-born parasite. His words still echoed in her head, ‘females are easier to manage’ she’d give him ‘easier to manage’ even if it killed her.
Strelitzia endured being washed down by a surprisingly gentle older slave and endured having her collar exchanged. She fingered the bronze band wondering why if the bastard who bought her as a potential expendable experimental subject he had upgraded her status. Leather collars had virtually no rights, bronze collars had far more being guaranteed two meals a day and exempt from being killed at their master’s whim.
The filter cage was clean and surprisingly roomy. It even had a built in chair. She tried to avoid looking out at the yellowish fog outside her new owner’s firewagon. She knew she wouldn’t last fifteen minutes out in that poisonous atmosphere.
Then the journey ended and the firewagon’s stoker was carrying her cage in her owner’s wake. They crossed what she thought might be the floor of an amphitheatre to the armed yacht resting on the sands with black smoke pouring out of its tall chimney.
As soon as Rufus was on board his prized Grey Gull Stoker III passed the filter cage containing the pixie to Steward III before returning to the firewagon. Strelitza’s cage was fastened down in the Steward’s office and she watched fascinated as the balancers went about their trade meticulously turning the liftwood planks that enabled the Grey Gull to take to the skies even as her engines started turning the large propellers at her stern.
* * *
Rufus Calitroglia stared down at the crude hole at the centre of the miserable excuse for an island in the mosquito infested isle near the Sothern border of the Great Swamp. The Grey Gull was easily able to maintain station above the entrance to the new dungeon.
Rufus sipped from his glass of fine whisky as he watched a party of his gladiators descend the rope ladder to the isle where they primed their rifles before making their way into the dungeon.
Less than an hour later they emerged helping two of their number. Rufus noted approvingly that they had suffered no fatalities, not that he had expected any but accidents could always happen. He ordered the crane rigged and stretchers lowered. Then he waited until the leader of his capture squad climbed the rope ladder and returned back on board.
“Everything went well I trust Leanna Fireseed?”
“Yes sir, we faced lizardfolk and giant bugs. Nothing very difficult. The hornets were the nastiest things down there. The companion was a wisp and I think it was the driving force in the defence of the dungeon. The core seems very lacklustre sir, I hope you can use it.”
Rufus accepted the dull Tiger Eye that barely flickered. He narrowed his eyes and examined it carefully.
“Well it’s still alive, and I don’t need anything that can think for itself so it should do. Pray congratulate your team. You have all earned your rewards.”
Leanna Fireseed watched her boss leave carrying the dormant dungeon core, then turned to look after her team.
= = O = =
In her heaven Azurea watched as one of her newest dungeons was enslaved. She narrowed her eyes in displeasure and contemplated her options.
‘And now little pixie I can use that roiling fury and despair to salvage something from this debacle. So some knowledge, if you are to bond to one of my dungeons you need knowledge. Let me give you vision and the claws you will need to – interact with divine magics. Risky yes but then I can’t see a way to save Tarifax. Pity there is only one Mary Silvestre.’
Azurea lounged in her comfortable couch and used her divine sight. Slowly a cold smile grew on her face. ‘Risky, oh so risky but it might work especially as there are two of her. And both of her are dungeons... Oh so ambitious dungeons... rogues... And it is to save two worlds... well one... I really can’t see how Tarifax can be saved.’ Azurea shuddered at that thought. ‘What can I do, if we loose another world... The Great Gods will...’
= = O = =
Strelitzia froze in shock as information poured into her head, information about dungeon cores and the dungeons they controlled and became. Her destroyed right eye stung and burned causing her to cover her face with her hands.
She raised her head when she heard footsteps on the wooden deck of the cabin. She watched as her hated owner opened a small hatch in her cage and shoved a large dull Tiger Eye gem into the cage with her.
“Well Scarface, if you want to live bond with this dungeon core. It’s very young and very lacking in anything resembling intelligence and ego. So you are going to run it for me. Do well and I’ll upgrade you to silver. Fail and I’ll replace you. Understand?”
A blue flame flickered at the bottom of the pixie’s empty eyesocket and Strelitzia realized that the dungeon core’s being was bound. ‘It should be possible to free it – him, how do I know this?’
“Um, master, how do I do this bonding thing, I know dungeon pixies bond but, how?”
“You think at the core Scarface, then when you connect you offer to bond. If it accepts, then the bond is done. I suggest you be convincing as I have no use for a damaged pixie.”
“Yes master. I will try,” replied Strelitzia.
Strelitzia used her new knowledge and abilities for the first time. She offered the bond to the empty core even as she slipped a thread through the barrier and did the same to Frog? Ah Fredrick Richards Olpe-Garrison.
Frog stirred and linked to the thought that was, had, ever so slightly woken him. Knowledge flowed in both directions and the bond was formed with just enough spill into the vacant awake part of the core to allow Strelitzia to drive the core’s abilities.
Rufus relaxed his magical sight and smiled. “Well done Scarface. Now we will return to town where you will claim my amphitheatre so that you can generate beasts for the games and clean the air for my clients.”
One month before the present
By now Strelitzia knew far more than she wanted to of Arena games, gladiatorial combat and beast and monster hunts. The coldblooded slaughter of the injured and unsuccessful that Rufus had ordered to feed his new spell chained dungeon had made Frog powerful. It also turned her stomach.
Frog had gained many levels in a remarkably short time. They, well she, had been using Frog’s core to filter the air and create the monsters and beasts destined to die in Arena. More experiences she wished she could forget.
At least she had finally managed to find a few weak points in Azurea’s barrier and she was making slow progress. Then there would be Rufus’ spell chains to defeat. She just hoped that she would be able to persuade Frog to proceed cautiously when she finally managed to free him.
At least they now had lots of monsters and creatures in their data banks.
Strelitzia merged with Frog’s core and examined the Arena. Up above the rising banks of seats around the round sand floored arena the yellow stained fog pressed against their domain seeking to poison all life. Strelitzia shudder and swept her gaze around the arena and assured herself all was in order for the next day’s spectacle. She sincerely hoped that Rufus wouldn’t be hosting any of his so called light relief specials. His truly sadistic specials.
Then it happened. The intruder was in their heart chamber. Strelitzia’s eye flew open in shock. The intruder was in the core, in Frog’s core together with a strange echo of her Frog. It was another dungeon, a terrifyingly strong dungeon.
‘Is this going to be the end of us? Gods it’s SO unfair.’ Strelitzia despaired.
« ‘Lo little one. Do you need any help? This is a truly unpleasant world I’m surprised it still has pixies. »
Strelitzia shuddered and dared to hope. « There aren’t many of us left. Many creatures only exist in the various arena monster reserves. Why are you offering help? »
« I’m becoming a goddess, the more world’s I and my consort have a foothold in the better. So anything I can help you with? »
And back to the present
Charlie was supervising the installation of his babies on captain Bordal’s Silver Sparrow when he heard a gasp of surprise. He turned languidly, ably suppressing his surprise, to regard the young runner who was staring at him through the visor of a bulky respirator.
“May I be of assistance youngster? Why the big eyes?”
The runner stared in astonishment but remembering his duty, he said, “Excuse me sir, are you Charlie Parsons?”
“But of course my dear chap. Do you see any other erudite wolf ’folk around here?” drawled Charlie.
“I have a message for sir Rich Burton from the master of the guild of truth readers. Can you tell me where to find him?”
“Not at this precise moment, no. But I am fairly sure he said he was planning to pass by the yard to personally assess my progress in an hour or so. So pray excuse me youngster while I get on with it.”
* * *
Captain Bordal for his part was haunting the scene. He could see the advantages of having two propellers in place of the singleton, and he approved in the abstract at the changes Charlie had supervised. The gearings were interesting but he was very dubious that the two small strange looking steam engines would provide enough power to turn the two big metal propellers. The lack of pistons and crankshafts also worried him.
He was more than happy with everything else regarding his Silver Sparrow, the sky shipyard had done an excellent job. He had rounded up many of his old crew and even signed on some new stokers and deckhands. He had been keeping his trimsmen on half pay in the hopes of retaining them. Luckily this charter had come up in time to prevent them signing on with anyone else.
Provisions were being packed and they would be ready to go by the end of the week. Always assuming those weedy looking engines would work as advertised. He had been unable to get the opinion of his former engineer because the drunken sot had got himself killed in a tavern brawl.
= = O = =
Rich Burton dropped down from the hansom cab and assisted Minnow to descend. His new bodyguard, visibly disgruntled descended from the hansom cab that had been trailing his. She was followed by Eldaan. All four of them were using the new enchanted earrings and surrounded by clear air not needing breather masks.
Eldaan paid the cabbies and trailed them into the rather poky looking soot stained building that housed the truth reader’s guild.
They were ushered into a comfortable meeting room, where they were soon joined by a tall, somewhat stooped man with short grey hair and a young, neatly dressed bronze collared woman with pad and pencil.
“Sit, sit, do you wish for some tea or maybe something stronger,” the elderly man asked with a smile. “I’m Dinobar Voorman and my charming stenographer is Giina.”
Rich took one of the offered chairs. Cinders took up position behind him. Minnow seated herself in one of the other chairs, while Eldaan remained hovering by the door.
Rich smiled, “So Mr Voorman, might I ask why you seem so anxious to see me?”
“It’s not very important, but I had to be seen to do something once the guild of lawyers came to me with a formal complaint,” Dinobar grinned. “You put their noses out of joint. They have no grounds for complaint as you acted on your own behalf, but I have been forced to remind you, that as a unregistered truth reader you are not allowed to charge for your services.”
Rich got the distinct impression that the old man was very pleased with the lawyer’s discomfort. “Just that? Can’t charge. I thought I wouldn’t have been allowed to help anyone but myself.”
Dinobar chuckled. “That’s what most think. But the law merely states that unregistered truth readers may not charge to use their abilities. Oh, and please call me Dinobar.”
“Thank you Dinobar, please feel free to call me Rich.” Rich sat back in his chair, “do you have any advice for me? Not charging seems hard to prove.”
“True, but we are truth readers. It makes things easier.”
A loud, sustained, peal of bells rang through the town of Conimbriga bringing the conversation to a halt. It continued for several long minutes. Rich noted that Dinobar was looking shocked. He glanced around and noted that Cinders also looked ashen and shocked. She seemed to be counting. Minnow was holding her ears, Eldaan was gazing at the ceiling, and he too seemed to be counting. Giina had collapsed into a chair and looked frightened.
When the bells finally fell silent a full ten minutes had passed.
“What?!” asked Rich still stunned by the cessation of the incredible noise.
“The full count... that was a full count... one of the bound dungeons has broken free... and it is still free...” half whispered Cinders.
“Yes,” agreed Dinobar.
Then the peal of bells resumed for another minute.
“Oh gods, it has started killing everybody within its domain and the mages weren’t able to reimpose the binding,” stated Cinders.
Rich bowed his head, ‘Mother, is it Frog?’ he prayed.
« Yes Rich, Frog and Strelitzia have broken their chains. You couldn’t be in a better place if you had planned it. Go to the dwarven embassy next. »
Minnow jerked upright in her chair. A look of surprise flashed across her face.
“I think the most disturbing thing I found when I arrived in town was the... the bound dungeons. The great market, and the various arenas among others; it seems reckless to me to treat such beings as tame chattel.”
“I’m afraid it is inevitable given greed and gods like Feltax, Holistos the Tinkerer and Vortexius Blackbeard,” said Dinobar sadly. “I suspect this puts paid to our meeting. We are going to be needed when all the recriminations start flying. I’m glad to have met you Rich. And remember,” he said with a wink, “you have been formally warned by the guild that you are not allowed to charge for your services.”
= = O = =
Frog separated his mind from his Earthbound half. He beamed his satisfaction at Strelitzia and merged with her briefly. He felt joy as she smiled in glee. His Earthbound half had claimed a patch of swampy ground in Louisiana. He/they had been careful and followed Mary’s suggestions and accepted that this act might limit his/their freedom on Earth soon. Mary had warned him/them that she had found herself bound to her core a few months after first claiming a domain. But then she had gifted him/them with her secrets in regards to her avatars. And hopefully they would gain the ability to form a useful avatar soon. After their rebellion in fact, he/they now had full knowledge of the Allin-designed trapdoor breech-loading mechanism that allowed the conversion of the local muzzle loading rifles to breach loaders. In fact he/they had a simplified more rugged version than the original and he had suitably equipped Springfields for his troops too.
Strelitzia and Frog watched as Magister Rufus Calitroglia entered their domain. They noted with amusement as he tested his bindings on them, his magical slave chains. Several bodyguards, his friend Bartold Kennings and several other self-important dignitaries accompanied him.
They were soon ensconced in the luxurious owner’s box and watching the opening ceremonies. Strelitzia and Frog waited patiently until the benches and stands were full and the gates closed. The gladiatorial matches started and the bloodthirsty crowd became entranced with the betting and the spectacle.
Frog summoned his monsters and waited, then he summoned some more. Standard fare for a day at the circus. But he was summoning more than usual, and his current master and owner Magister Rufus Calitroglia hadn’t noticed anything, occupied as he was with his most recent sex slave.
Strelitzia was grinning savagely and Frog wished he could do likewise. It was time, he twisted his will and stretched his mental limbs. His master’s magical chains shattered and evaporated in a swirl of foul magic.
They were free! Time for revenge!
Squads of crocodile ’folk armed with his breach loaders and bayonets trotted to the entrances to the arena where they set up barricades and assumed guard. Further squads headed up the stairs to the highest point of the banked seating behind groups of feathered Deinonychus.
A tide of lizardmen flooded onto the arena sands and killed any gladiator that resisted while two of their shamans targeted the owner’s box with offensive spells. The confusion allowed some croc ’folk snipers to infiltrate the arena and start taking pot shots at the inhabitants of the luxury boxes.
The crowd cheered at first, very few of them liked the arrogant wealthy folk in their private boxes. But then realizing that the magic barriers that held the action in the arena had vanished, they began to recoil and force their way up the stairs towards the exits at the top of the arena. Only to be met by the rampaging Deinonychus heading down. Those that got past the rampaging Deinonychus were met with crashing volleys and sporadic sniper fire.
Strelitzia shrieked in glee when Magister Rufus Calitroglia who had been successfully defending himself and his guests from the lizardman shamans failed to spot the rifle armed snipers and was killed when two .58 calibre bullets struck him.
In all the confusion few noticed the arena’s entertainers sneaking out of the luxury boxes and encouraging many but not all of the slaves that had been brought along by their owners to leave and scurry down the rough cramped undecorated underways. Soon as they were clear more of the feathered Deinonychus flooded up the slave ways and into the boxes of the rich and powerful.