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“Okay, here’s what we gotta do,” I said after I finished my training. “Step one is to find all the other crawlers and make sure we’re all on the same page. Step two is to figure out who they have locked up in the town hall. It’s probably the gnome leader guy’s kid or something.”

“Maybe it’s his pet,” Donut said. “Nobody wants to bomb their pet. What eats mushrooms?”

“Lots of things,” Mordecai said. “And we should find out where they’re getting these mushrooms. There are many types of edible desert fungi. They often grow in patches with other foliage. Those areas are frequently rife with rare potion supplies. This is the first floor we’ve seen with a more natural setting. The sixth floor will be the big one, but any floor with flora will be a treasure trove.”

“So, we go out in there, and if it turns out it’s this gnome guy’s kid or something, what’s the next move?” Katia asked. She was doing her best dromedarian impersonation. It was almost flawless. The system pegged it at 95%.

“It’s going to depend on what it is, but after we find out, we’ll have to go over to that other town and do the same thing again, I think. It sounds like they also have something to keep themselves safe. Plus the rest of the crawlers are probably over there. So far we only know a little kid’s version of the story. We need to understand as much as possible before we move on.”

“Okay, but before you go out there, let’s do a quick tour of the new upgrades,” Mordecai said, indicating the new kitchen renovation, which was nothing more than three cabinets sitting in a row against the blank wall of the kitchen. “We’ll be able to upgrade this into something much better once we get to the tier-two upgrades. I’m looking forward to that, mostly because of the magic room. But we’ll talk about that later. These are food synthesizers, bought with Katia’s coupon. You can only use one a day, but this upgrade came with three different cabinets, so it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner or whatever. I know from experience these things can be a little buggy. I suggest not picking the same item twice in a row, or suddenly you’ll find yourself with that as your only choice. Otherwise the selection changes every day and is customized to you. It’ll learn your tastes.”

I walked up to the first cabinet, put my hand on the door, and a menu popped up. There were about twenty choices listed, all of them breakfast items, from cornflakes to bacon to hominy grits. I clicked on Sausage Bagel Sandwich, opened the door, and the kinda-hot sandwich was sitting there, like the wooden cabinet was a microwave.

“Hey, cool,” I said.

“Don’t get too excited,” Katia said. “Wait until you try it.”

I took a bite. It tasted like a microwave biscuit sandwich, which I’d probably eaten a thousand of over the years.

“It’s not bad,” I said, chewing. “It’s not great, either. Bopca food is better.”

A new buff notification appeared.

You are full! Your warm tummy increases your healing speed by 5%. It decreases debuff times by 5%. It lowers all indirect damage by 5%.

“The food buff lasts all day, so you don’t have to eat all three meals here,” Mordecai said.

“Thank god,” Katia said. “I had it give me skyr and jam, and it tasted like bad sour cream mixed with Jolly Ranchers.”

“What the hell is skyr?” I asked.

“The second upgrade is just as important,” Mordecai said, interrupting. “It is the marketplace interface.”

“Marketplace?” I asked. “So we can buy stuff?”

“Yes and no,” he said. “We bought the marketplace upgrade early, and it doesn’t really open up until the next floor. For now it’s like having a virtual general store interface. The second-tier version is the same thing but twice as expensive, so we had to buy it now. You can purchase basic potions and scrolls, and random items will also pop up for sale. You can sell things. Carl, this was your coupon, but we gave it to Donut to use, so she got credit for it. It is her account. We did this because her Charisma bonus is automatically added to the prices.”

Donut had actually told me they were doing this as they did it, and I had said it was okay. If she died or we separated parties, I’d lose the upgrade. But at this point, our shit was so intertwined, losing this particular upgrade would be the least of my worries.

“How does it work?” I asked. I already knew the answer to this question, but I wanted Mordecai to state it.

He pointed with his wing over at a screen sitting against the wall next to his door. I hadn’t noticed it until now.

“It’s a simple interface. It’s like buying and selling on Ebay. There will even be bid auctions available next floor. If you want to sell anything magical, like those low-tier clothing items you keep receiving, I’d wait until then. For regular junk, just toss it to the AI storekeeper, and you’ll get a good price thanks to Donut.”

“I don’t like it,” Donut said. “It doesn’t let you haggle. Also, it’s broken. It says my hats are only worth one gold piece each. We need to get it fixed.”

“Bid auctions?” I asked. “The customer base gets smaller and smaller each floor. How many of us have this thing? Do people actually use it?”

“Oh, yes. The tourists and the factions will be able to start trading using the system once the sixth floor opens. You’ll see. The marketplace will be flooded. Some of the factions will be snatching up anything magical that appears, so you’ll make some good money selling your loot. Much more than you would get selling it to a store.”

“Wait,” I said. “Are we going to have to fight the guys we’re selling this gear to?”

“Yes,” he said. “This is how they outfit their armies. But if you don’t sell it, somebody else will. Go over there and check it out.”

“I will in a bit,” I said. “We got work to do.”

I actually really wanted to go over there and take a look at the interface, mostly because it would finally give me a definitive gold value for most of the items in my inventory. However, I’d been warned by The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook against using the marketplace interface while the book was in my inventory. Currently, the book showed itself as having almost no value. Certain things, like that unexploded nuke also showed themselves as having no value in my inventory. However, the cookbook included this warning:

<Note added by Crawler Batbilge, 12th Edition>

Be careful with the marketplace interface. It uses a different system to value items than whatever you might have installed into your UI. It tags this tome as a unique, heirloom item, giving it a ridiculous value, something like 50 million gold. Nothing has happened yet, but I am afraid of giving a third party access to my inventory like that.

<Note added by Crawler Allister, 13th Edition >

I don’t know if this is the cause, but this appears to be Batbilge’s last entry into the Cookbook. I’ve been leaving the cards casually on my bed whenever I use the marketplace. Make sure you don’t have it on you to be safe.

I knew the cookbook manifested itself in different forms. For Allister, it appeared as a massive deck of playing cards from his home planet. They were for a game called T’Ghee, which seemed to be a mix between chess and go fish from the little information Allister gave. The game was also a part of their meditation-based religion, which made it easy for Allister to spend hours studying the cards.

I had a little bedside table in my room, though I barely ever went in there. Donut still insisted on us sleeping together. I would try to leave the book in there and then go use the marketplace later.

But for now, we had work to do.

First up, seeing if these other crawlers were worth a damn.


The first two crawlers were a pair of humans who’d set themselves up at a brothel bar called Spit and Swallow. The bar’s logo was a bird skewered on a stick. We entered the dark, incense-smelling saferoom. Mongo was in his carrier. Donut stood on my shoulder. Katia stood beside me. A dromedarian barkeep looked up at us. Multiple dromedarians were here, sitting at tables and drinking at the bar. Quiet music wafted through the large, L-shaped room. I saw it was a young, teenaged changeling playing a stringed instrument that was like a square-shaped guitar. The music was subtle, but haunting. It had kind of an Asian vibe. It was completely out-of-place for such a dive.

The two crawlers were the same guys we saw when we went into the Toe earlier. The first was a thin and tall man with an angular face, about 25 years old. He had olive skin and looked he might be of middle eastern origin. He was a level-22 Hammersmith named Firas M. The second was an overweight, balding guy about the same age. He looked maybe Spanish. He was a level-22 Pest Exterminator named Louis Santiago 2.

Sitting on Louis’s lap was a prostitute. She was doing a rough approximation of Jessica Rabbit. Louis and Firas were laughing as we came in. “This is much better than the slave Leia,” Louis said.

The woman pouted. “You said that was good. What about my….” She trailed off, seeing us stop at the table.

“They’re making her change into different famous people,” Katia said, sounding disgusted. They could hear what she was saying, but she spoke as if they couldn’t.

“Yup,” I said. Each time they would have to describe the character like they were doing a sketch for a police artist. Their Jessica Rabbit was close, but the woman’s forehead was too small, and the nose was much too big. Plus the dress was all wrong.

The prostitute, a level 14 “Human” was looking at Katia up and down with a sour expression. She spit on the ground before getting up and moving to the other side of the room.

“Why I never,” Donut said. “Did you see that? I don’t think she likes you, Katia.”

“Mordecai warned me,” Katia said, watching the prostitute move away. The woman melded back into the weird, changeling shape before leaning up against the bar. She was the only prostitute in the room. “He said sometimes shapeshifters don’t like each other very much.”

“She’s probably just jealous,” Donut said. “You can turn into anything you want, and they can only do regular monsters they’ve touched.”

“Maybe,” Katia said. “They can still change their features, obviously. Plus they gain some of the abilities of the race they choose. Sometimes I think that’s better. I’m never going to be able to fly, not like them.”

We’d discussed this earlier. Katia, as a doppelganger, could change into a flying creature and possibly get herself off the ground. But even with no mass added, she weighed more than most flying creatures anywhere close to her size, making liftoff a problem. She’d have to go big, like a dragon or something, but that would take a lot of work and time to get right, time we simply didn’t have. A changeling’s mass changed wildly from body to body. I asked Mordecai about it, and he said simply, “Magic.”

The two crawlers were just looking up at us, wide-eyed the whole time.

“You’re Carl,” Louis said. He turned to Firas. “I told you that was Carl.”

“I believed you,” he said.

“We’re working on a plan to get off this floor,” I said. “I’m collecting everybody in town so we can discuss it. We’re all going to meet up at the Toe after the recap episode.”

“Toe,” Louis said, cracking up. “Get it?” he said to Firas.

“Get what?” Firas asked.

“The joke? The name of the bar is a joke.”

“The Toe is a joke?”

“Yes, man. Come on. It’s a camel town. You wouldn’t call a restaurant back home the human finger, would you? You’d just call it the finger.”

“What?” Firas said. “I don’t get it.”

I finally realized both of these guys were drunk off their asses. There was no debuff warning over their heads. I still didn’t understand why it was there sometimes and not others. The shitfaced debuff only appeared in specific circumstances, I guessed.

“Look,” I said, leaning in. “We need to all work together. The recap is in like six hours. Meet us there.”

“Or what?” Louis said, suddenly sounding inexplicably hostile. “You gonna blow us up?”

“No,” Donut said, jumping on the table and scattering their glasses. Vodka spilled everywhere. “Carl won’t hurt you. But if you’re not a part of the team, we are going to make sure you are kicked out of town. Have you seen the mobs out there in the desert? I haven’t seen anything lower than level 30. And since you two chuckleheads are level 22, I don’t think that will go so well. Now say, ‘We’ll be there, Carl.’”

“We’ll be there, Carl,” Louis said, swallowing.

“Lovely,” Donut said.


“Chuckleheads?” Katia asked. “Another Elle term?”

“I got that one from the AI!” she said. “I’ve been waiting to use it.”

“Those guys aren’t going to help,” I said. “They’ve already given up, and they’re coasting.”

“I want to know how they got this far,” Katia said.

It’d only been dark for two hours, and dawn was already starting to crack in the distance as we left the Spit and Swallow.

“Hey,” I asked a passing dromedarian who walked with a massive bundle of reeds on his back. He stopped to look at us impassively.

“Is it only dark for two hours here?”

He looked at me like it was the dumbest question anyone had ever asked. “Taranis strolls across the sky, chased by his red brother, Hellik, who catches him four hours before dark. Taranis dismisses his evil brother with the storm before descending to rest for two hours before it happens again.”

“How long does Taranis take to move across the sky?” Katia asked. “And how long before Hellik appears?”

“You are truly new to this world, like they say,” the dromedarian said. “Taranis’s stroll is about twenty-two hours, except in dark months after his brother finally catches and betrays him. Hellik is only in the sky for eight hours a day. You don’t wish to be out there when both are in the sky, as the heat is unbearable.”

“So there are two suns it sounds like,” Katia said. “How long until the red sun rises?”

“You have 12 hours,” he said. “But we approach the time of the switch. In eleven days is the Red Equinox. That is when Taranis will be caught, and he will be gone for but four hours a day. The light of Hellik will wash the world for eight hours, but four of them will be the blowing season. Now leave me be.” He turned and walked off.

“Did you understand that?” I asked Katia.

“I think so,” she said. “Days are 24 hours long like on earth. It’s only dark for two hours. The storms come every day at four hours before sunset and last two hours. The second sun is up for eight hours, and it gets really hot during that time. It sounds like our last three days here will be mostly dark, and the storms will last twice as long.”

“So, he said we have 12 hours until it gets super hot?” I asked.

“That’s right,” she said. “And we have 18 until the next sandstorm. I think.”

“It’s already super hot,” Donut complained.

“We better hurry then,” I said. Time was always weird here in the dungeon. The dungeon timers were mostly based on earth’s 24-hour clock, but the recap episode and some of the spell cooldowns worked on the Syndicate Standard day, which was something weird like 30 hours and 17 and a half seconds. It reminded me of having to deal with both metric and imperial measurements, something I’d had to cope with daily before all of this.

After Louis and Firas, we found another group of six crawlers in another bar. These guys were a party of half-elves and humans. They were all level 21-24, and they all seemed older, mostly in their thirties and forties. They were all Archers. All six of them had the exact same class. Archer. All six were male. It turned out they were a group of automobile salesmen from Helsinki. They worked at neighboring dealerships and had been at lunch when the collapse happened. On the first floor, they’d been beset by bow-wielding goblins, and their group had been decimated. But after striking back, bow-and-arrow themed weapons had been the only thing they received in their lootboxes. They had swords and knives and clubs, but the only weapon they all excelled at were the bows.

Them all choosing the exact same class had to be one of the dumbest things I’d seen since entering the dungeon, but knowing how this place worked, it probably wasn’t entirely their fault.

They’d hooked up with a much larger group the previous two floors, but they kept their own party. The archer thing had worked well on the third floor, but it had severely hindered them on the subway level. The “leader” was a stocky man, about 45-years old with greying blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. His name was Langley, and he was the highest at level-24.

These guys were more serious about their predicament despite their lower levels. They’d also received the quest to find out what was in the Town Hall and had been discussing what to do about it when we’d arrived. I talked them into holding off for a bit and to start stepping out of town to train themselves up while we walked over to the Bactrian town, which was about four miles away on the other side of the dunes. We’d all meet up later.

The town’s door was wide open, and there was no guard when we left. Katia added extra mass, rising up and hulking out. She pulled her riot shield and wore it on her left arm.

“I’m not gonna lie,” I said as we left town. “It still freaks me out when you change.”

“That’s because you’re used to being the biggest guy in the room,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe it’s because it’s fucking weird. How is this our lives now?”

Nobody had an answer for that.

The sand dunes spread out in all directions. Here on the ground, it was hard to see how small this world really was. I knew the Bactrian town wasn’t too far, and it was straight ahead. We had to just keep walking, up and down through the dunes. The town’s walls would soon appear.

The Wasteland floated high above, having moved almost directly over the desert. A handful of other flying machines circled about, brushing the top of the bubble, but none were directly over the “bowl” as we called it. A v-formation of birds flocked away in the distance, heading up and over the lip of the bowl, diving out of sight and toward the land area.

Donut released Mongo and rode on his back while we attempted to navigate south toward the other town. I was expecting to immediately fall waist-deep into sand, but other than the random dunes, it was mostly hard packed and no more than an inch or two deep. In some spots, bare stone was exposed. We truly were walking atop a massive tomb. I hoped the team working their way through it below our feet didn’t do anything stupid that caused our world to collapse.

The ground wasn’t flat. I’d been assuming the up and down of the bowl’s surface was caused by the dunes, but the ground itself was stepped in places, creating a low, hilly landscape.

Rusted-out hunks of crashed flying machines dotted the bowl like forgotten and scattered toys. There didn’t seem to be anything lootable in the old wrecks.

“There’s a mob coming,” Katia said after about five minutes of walking. “Coming in fast.”

“It’s big,” Donut added.

“Okay guys,” I said as the dot appeared on my own map. “Counter.”

Katia moved to my right while Donut leaped to my shoulder. Mongo moved to my left just as two Clockwork Mongos appeared. The two automatons spread out ahead of us and to the sides as Donut barked orders at them. I prepared my Bang Bro spell, but I wanted to wait to see what we were facing first. Katia widened, and her crossbow clicked into place over her shoulder.

The monster crested the dune, looked at us, and hissed.

“Holy shit,” I said as Donut started pelting it with Magic Missiles. A moment later, crossbow bolts commenced hitting the creature’s armored surface, most of them bouncing off and away.

The monster was a brown and orange, speckled lizard covered with angry, 10-inch spikes. Its long, red tongue darted at us. The thing was the size of a goddamned grizzly bear. It hissed again and moved at us, its body undulating back and forth like a crocodile running across land.

Male Thorny Devil. Level 34.

These pokey fuckers are pretty common in desert-themed worlds. They’re big and fast and dumb and angry. Their bodies are covered in defensive spikes, which begs the question, how did something so big develop such a defense mechanism in the first place?

These guys tend to have a reverse harem thing going on. Odds are good you’ll recognize the queen when you see her. Odds are even better she’ll be the last thing you’ll ever see.

Warning: This is a lizard-class mob. It will inflict 20% more damage against you thanks to your Extinction Sigil. That’s what you get for killing so many poor, innocent monsters.

“Outstanding,” I muttered. Katia’s crossbow bolts weren’t doing shit, but Donut’s newly-enhanced Magic Missile blasts were taking large chunks of health away with each bullseye. The creature stopped at the top of the hill, suddenly realizing he might’ve bit off more than he can chew. He started to back up as I unsummoned my gauntlet and loaded a banger sphere. I twirled and fired, scoring a hit on the monster’s head. It dealt solid damage, almost as much as one of Donut’s missiles.

Donut held off killing it while we allowed the clockwork Mongos to attack. I wanted to see how they’d do. It roared defiantly, continuing to back up while we kept pace, moving up the small hill. The two dinosaurs leaped upon the larger creature, mouths biting at its armored body. It kept moving, thrashing its tail and snapping back at the dinosaurs.

They did no damage. The thorny devil reached around and caught one of the Mongos and crunched like a kid chomping onto a lollipop. The automaton exploded. The other Mongo screamed and dug at the creature with his claws, scrabbling ferociously while the real Mongo howled in outrage. Donut cried for him to stay back. The remaining automaton managed to open up a tear on the creature’s side, which started gushing blood. The monster whipped around, rolling onto its back and to its feet, moving astonishingly fast. It chomped on the second Mongo, also causing it to blow.

“Their armor is really thick,” Katia said. She aimed her crossbow at the tear in the creature, finally scoring some damage. Its health was deep red now, almost gone. Donut could kill him with one more shot, but she held off. We needed to experiment with all new mobs, see what worked and what didn’t.

“Stay back,” I said, judging the distance. I loaded a quarter-strength hoblobber as the creature desperately tried to flee back over the hill. I tossed the explosive in an arc, sinking it just past the horizon of the hill.

Bam!

A red geyser of lizard gore showered, mixed in with a bigger cloud of dust. The ground shook with the small explosion. Debris and lizard bits smacked into us like rain. The red dot turned to an X.

“Nice shot,” Katia said.

“I do like explosions, but why does it always have to be so disgusting?” Donut asked from my shoulder. “Sand and blood is a terrible combination.” She returned to Mongo’s back and started cleaning herself.

“Those quarter strengths are still a little too strong for close combat. That guy was what? Thirty feet away? Any closer, and we’d get some shrapnel. I need to make some maybe half that strength.”

We walked up to investigate the corpse. Mongo whimpered at the sight of the clockwork pieces, which started to whiff away. The monster dropped twenty gold, a thorny devil liver, and several teeth, which appeared to be moderately valuable. It all went into the inventory.

“Can you see the other town yet?” I asked Katia.

“Yes,” she said. “Once we left the gates, most of the bowl showed up on my map. We should see the town after we crest the next hill.”

“Do you hear that?” Donut said, suddenly looking up into the sky. She pointed up with her paw. “Look, there!”

“I think we attracted some attention with that explosion,” I said, shielding my eyes. “Whoa!” I ducked as the plane rocketed by a hundred feet over our heads.

The flying machine whined loudly, like a flying buzzsaw. It’d come from nowhere. The thing must’ve dropped from the Wasteland. It looked like a goddamn, open-air, twin-engine biplane, with each engine nestled between the wings. I saw the distinctive red hat of the pilot along with a second gnome passenger, facing backward. The creature pointed down at us and shouted. Two ominous shapes hung under the main fuselage, hanging vertically. Both of the egg-shaped objects were smaller than a knock-knock, but not by much. Each were attached to the bottom of the plane by a small net.

The plane started to bank back toward us. There was nowhere to hide.

I tossed three smoke curtains—I only had four left after this—and we doubled back the way we’d come so we’d have a small dune between us the plane. The smoke started billowing into the air, twirling in eddies and pushing out in all directions.

The plane lowered as it curved through the air. I could see it well now through the smoke. The nose of the plane had a face painted on the side, some sort of gray, screaming animal. It looked almost like a jacked-up, rabid koala.

Gnomish Drop Bear. Contraption.

This is one of the Dirigible Gnome’s earliest fast-attack planes. There are only a handful of these still in service. While able to quickly reach most targets when drop-launched from home base, the twin engines of these early models were famously underpowered. Damaged Drop Bears oftentimes had difficulty obtaining enough altitude to reach home, even after ditching their payload. This is why most of these planes carry rapid-deploying, quick-escape balloons, making them sitting targets for enemy aircraft and flak.

That information is not going to do you any good when you’re sitting there on the ground watching this thing barrel at you like a robin descending upon a glistening, fat worm.

Don’t worry, these guys don’t drop bombs. Their standard payload is something much more entertaining.

The twin objects hanging under the plane sure as hell looked like bombs, but my explosives handling skill didn’t activate. That did not make me feel better.

The plane leveled out about thirty feet off the ground, lining up for a bomb run. We only had seconds.

“Fuck,” I said, seeing how perfectly the plane was lined up with our position. They could either sense us through the smoke, or they’d guessed we’d backtrack. I pointed at the ridge to the right of us, back where we’d encountered the Thorny Devil, now a good 300 feet away. “Donut.”

“That’s a little too close, Carl.”

“Do it,” I said. “We’ll jump behind the hill after. Katia. Make a shield.”

“On it,” she said, already starting to change shape. She formed into a half-shell, something she’d been working on. She faced herself 90 degrees away from the plane. I pulled a fused hoblobber and prepared to light it. I also turned to the left.

The plane’s twin, rotary engines sounded like chainsaws cutting through metal, all grinding gears and pistons. They could clearly see our position, despite the smoke. We’d discussed this possibility of being attacked by a plane and had a contingency, but we hadn’t planned on the smoke bombs not working. That was going to be a problem. If we fucked this up, we wouldn’t have an escape.

“It’s cast,” Donut said. “Three, two, one.”

Thwum.

We teleported away just before the plane dropped one of its two objects right on top of us. We appeared atop the small hill. I lit and tossed the hoblobber, trying to lead the plane best I could.

The dropped object clanged loudly into the ground and bounced once. Nothing else happened.

The full-strength hoblobber detonated in mid-air, much too low and behind the fast-moving airplane, though it was enough to knock me and Donut back. It sounded like I’d blasted a shotgun right by my ear. Katia didn’t budge. The biplane shuddered in the air. The engine whined even louder, and smoke started to trail from one of the two engines. The drop bear banked away and started to climb. It was fleeing the fight.

Jesus, I thought, pulling myself up. My bombs were getting stronger.

“Carl, that hurt Mongo’s ears,” Donut said. Mongo croaked in a agreement.

“Did you hit it?” Katia asked as she watched the plane go.

“I don’t think so,” I said, brushing myself off. I kept my eyes on the spot where the object had landed. The metallic egg was the size of a garbage can. Nothing was happening. Nothing moved.

“Look, it’s turning into a balloon,” Katia said, still watching the plane. “They just dropped the second bomb way over there. It didn’t go off either.”

“Their engine went out. They’re deploying their escape balloon,” I said.

“Donut,” I said after a few more seconds of nothing happening. “Do me a favor and create some more clockwork Mongos and send them over to that bomb thing.”

She complied. A moment later, the two Mongos ranged forward, coming up to the dented bomb as we backed away, putting even more distance between us. The metallic egg sat on its side. There was a clear line through it, like it was one of those eggs they used to store candy at Easter. If it was supposed to pop open, it hadn’t. The two clockwork dinosaurs banged on the side of the object while we continued to flee even further. After a minute of this, nothing still happened. They continued to jump and attack at it.

The duplicates only lasted ten minutes. After eight minutes passed, there was still no indication that the egg actually did anything.

“Wait,” Katia said a moment later. She’d returned to her she-hulk form, but she kept the crossbow out. “I see something on the map now. I think they cracked it.” She let out a stream of breath. “It’s a dead boss. I think there’s a neighborhood map there.”

I felt relief. I was expecting something awful, like acid gas or a swarm of bees or a magical blast. “Okay, let’s go check it out.”

We returned to the spot, keeping a wary eye on the distant location of the second bomb. The two mongos stood proudly over the egg, which had popped upon. They timed out and exploded as we approached.

A single corpse lay dead inside of the egg. It looked like it had been run over by a truck.

It was a goose. A Canadian Goose with the distinctive brown body and black head with the white stripe.

Lootable Corpse. Feral Goose. Level 45 Neighborhood Boss. Killed by getting splattered against the ground.

You are goddamn lucky this thing is dead.

I kicked at the egg, which was labeled as an Altitude-Based Deployment Device – This Item is Broken. “The egg thing didn’t work. Look how rusty it is. It didn’t open, and it killed it.”

“I think you’re right,” Katia said, looking over her shoulder at the distant hills. “I’m pretty sure the other one didn’t open either. It bounced a few times.”

Carl: Hey, Mordecai. Do you know what a feral goose is?

Mordecai: Not specifically, but anything with feral in the name is usually bad news.

I reached down and looted the neighborhood map. Several red dots appeared in the area. They were all Thorny Devils. None were moving in our direction. I didn’t see the other boss, living or dead.

I couldn’t help but feel as if we were on rails. There was a storyline here, and we were being forced along the path of the narrative. Them dropping a boss on us, only for the boss to be dead didn’t seem so much an accident as a clue. We were being forced along a scripted path. I did not like that one bit. We needed to break away as quickly as possible.

“Yeah, let’s leave that other egg alone,” I said. “No use tempting fate.” I picked up the corpse of the dead goose and stuck it in my inventory.

“That’s really gross, Carl,” Donut said.

I now had a tab in my inventory called Mob Morgue. The monsters’ bodies were all worthless, but one never knew when something might be useful.

Even though the egg was broken, the mechanism that popped it open looked interesting. There was a dial apparatus that I wanted to look at. I tried picking up the entire shell, and while it had some heft to it, I lifted it easily. I pulled the whole thing into my inventory.

“Okay, let’s keep moving,” I said.

Donut was looking up at the sky. “There are more airplanes up there all of a sudden. I think we made them mad.”

“Oh, hell. We need to get our hands on some of those camel rocket launchers,” I said.

“I count eight of them,” Katia said, shading her eyes. “They’re being more cautious than the last one.”

These were different planes than the last. This was an eclectic mix of vehicles, though they were too far up there to examine properly. They were circling down, almost casually, like a flock of birds. At this rate it’d take them several minutes to get here. We would never get to the Bactrian town now. We had to run.

“Change of plans. Back to Hump Town,” I said. “Go, go.”

Donut and Mongo took off, heading back to the city as we followed and started to run.

I looked up over my shoulder as we ran. I caught sight of the drop bear, which was continuing to rise into the sky. A separate airship deployed from the Wasteland, on its way to intercept.

“Katia, you still have those engine parts in your inventory? From that interdiction cart we disassembled on the last floor?”

“I do,” she said, huffing as we ran. We’d taken apart one of the smaller rail carts from the previous floor. I had most of the cart’s body in my inventory. Katia had taken the mechanical parts. Her Earth Hobby potion gave her an enormous wealth of knowledge regarding engines.

“Good,” I said. “We need to build ourselves a dune buggy. And fast. We don’t have time for this shit. They’re making it so we can’t get to the other town while the weather is good. They want us out here while it’s super-hot, dark, or during the storm. I don’t want to do any of those.”

The walls of Hump Town loomed. The swooping airships stopped their descent, though they kept a holding pattern a thousand feet up.

“We’ll need defenses,” I added. “You work on the engine, and I’ll come up with an anti-aircraft system.”

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A note from DoctorHepa

Howdy ya'll! The world is still ending, but at least we have our entertainment. I'm all caught up on Mandalorian, which I really like. I also watched the Queen's Gambit, which I thought I would hate. It was one of those shows where you just know it's going to win every award next year. It blew my mind when I realized that one guy in it was Dudley from the Harry Potter movies. I've also been on a Kung-Fu movie kick. I just watched the Flying Guillotine movies, which are pure schlock entertainment. 

Here's the current workup of the book II cover. Cover art by Luciano Fleitas and typography by Toby Dinniman. The same artist will be redoing the book 1 cover so it looks less like Joey from Friends. 


Toby and recruit Penelope have been hard at work on their secret weapon. I caught them in the skunkworks laboratory taking a quick nap. 



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About the author

DoctorHepa

Bio: Doctor Hepa is person who likes angels, demons, pugs, and cats.

He's also known as Matt Dinniman, the author of Dominion of Blades and Kaiju: Battlefield Surgeon. He's here to read stuff and to post stuff.

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