I felt the blood drip down my chin before the pain hit. I forced my eyes open. Hair draped over my face. I raised a hand to brush it away.
“He’s moving!” A shrill voice in my ear, a hand smacking my shoulder. Someone grabbed my wrist. Someone was yelling in a deeper voice, getting louder.
“What the hell was that. Hey!”
“Let go. He’s hurt.”
“I don’t fucking care. He’s going to explain what’s going on. Hey!”
I was pulled up and pushed against the wall. Something rattled on the wall, or was it in my head? My eyes weren’t adjusting well to the darkness. Of course they lose the lantern the moment I’m out. There were people gathering around me, shadows closing in. One of the men, wearing a lopsided cowl, had a grip on my shoulder. The cheap fabric hung low over his face. He shook me harder. “You’re supposed to be our guide, right? Then guide us.”
“Sire,” I croaked out. “One of you must recover the Holy Sword Mythicaliber from the Terribly Cursed Armory before the gods will guide us further.”
“You mean we need the big sword to make progress?”
“For your nobleness to complete this quest, slaying an unblessed shall be the first test.”
“Like hell I will.” The man let go of my tunic. “Like hell I will,” he repeated, jabbing a finger into my chest. “Why don’t you get it yourself?”
I winced as he poked the area where Stan’s horns had dug into my ribs. My head throbbed. “I am but a lowly squire,” I managed through gritted teeth. “The gods shan’t be pleased with my meddling…sire.”
“Can’t we quit?” Someone spoke up from further down the hall. “I wanna quit.”
You can’t quit a game that hasn’t started yet. I swallowed my retort. “Okay, I’m sorry guys, but the rules are that an exit path will appear only after the first quest item is in the party’s possession, excepting any emergencies.”
The man standing in front of me waved his arms around in the dark, “THIS doesn’t count as an emergency?”
Someone whimpered, “I think I scraped my knee. Does that count?”
“Light injuries such as scrapes and bruises are to be expected. I’m sorry this happened, but you were made aware of the risks when you registered for an 18+ questline, and when you signed the forms at the entrance.”
“But I’m bleeding!”
I threw up my hands. “So am I.”
The man in the cowl barked out a laugh. “This is your job. Why are you complaining?”
Because I don’t get paid enough to deal with this shit. “As your guide, I’m just trying to explain what you’re supposed to do.”
The asshole in the cowl jabbed me in the ribs again. “If you’re such an expert, why don’t you fetch that sword for us to prove it?”
“Fine. I’ll do it.” I straightened up and pushed my way through the group. “Since I’m the only one who knows what I’m doing anyways,” I muttered as I walked away.
“What did you just say to me?”
“Hey, leave the guy alone. The sooner he gets the Myth-thingy the sooner we can all go home.”
“Unbelievable. I dropped thousands of dollars to run around in the dark with some jackass…”
Their voices sank into the shadows surrounding me. At first, I ran, but every step I took jostled something in my head and the pulsating pressure came back. How hard did I hit my head? I picked at the dried blood under my nose. At least the bleeding stopped. I slowed down, creeping forward with my fingers tracing the decorative claw marks carved into the wall. I still couldn’t see more than an arm’s length ahead of myself, so I closed my eyes and let muscle memory guide me. Once I felt the stone walls switch to wooden planks, I knew I’d made it to the second armory. I tapped gently on the door. “Stan?” I called out. No response. I squatted down by the doorknob and peered through the decorative keyhole. No lights. Weird. I got up and headed for the main armory. Maybe he stayed behind thinking someone would go back for the sword. It was unlikely, but the only explanation for why he wasn’t in position yet.
This wasn’t the first party we’d had that ran out of the first room as soon as Stan started “attacking” people. Our back up plan was to have me lead the party in circles, pretending to be lost in the labyrinth, while Stan carried the Holy Sword Mythicaliber and other props to a second armory and donned a robe and dark glasses to cover his horns, hooves, and eyes. I would then “discover” the secret armory and Stan would give a long-winded speech while pretending to be a wise old wizard guarding the real Holy Sword Mythicaliber. Everybody would take turns posing with the sword and taking pictures. Finally, we’d let one of them, usually the one who paid for the session, pull it out of the ground. It was gimmicky, but fool-proof.
I could see a faint blue light at the end of the hall. The headache returned. I ignored it and broke into a jog, letting go of the wall. I had come all the way back to the beginning of the course.
“Stan!” I shouted. All I heard was my voice echoing down the hall and back.
I poked my head through the doorway. All the props were in their starting positions. All twelve weapon racks, two each for swords, daggers, clubs, bows, staffs, and musical instruments, were spaced evenly along the walls. Not even the silver braziers arranged around the Holy Sword Mythicaliber were off-center. I stepped inside and let the doors close behind me.
“Hey Stan?” No response. I was alone. “Good job setting the room back up, but you’re going to have to start moving things. They’re not coming back.” The blue fires burning from the open braziers flickered as I slipped between them. “I think we’ve got a difficult group. They’re already talking about quitting.” I was talking more to myself at that point. “Maybe they’ll change their minds after pictures with this one. You mind if we just give it to them without the whole sword-pulling ceremony?”
I waited three seconds, shrugged, and pushed my sleeves up. “He picked the perfect time to take a break,” I grumbled as I wrapped both hands around the ivory hilt and pulled. The sword didn’t budge. I pulled harder, grunting as a sharp pain shot up my sides. Nope. Maybe I could wiggle it loose. I put my hands on the pommel and tried to push the sword over like a lever. Nope. I let go, placing a hand over my sore ribcage. “One more thing,” I said, raising my voice since no one would hear me anyways. “Be more considerate of my fragile human bones and don’t fucking body slam me the next time we do this room.” I grabbed the guard and tried to pull the sword straight up. Fuck no.
I grit my teeth and sat down. I was either feeling lightheaded, agitated, or my headache was getting worse. Or all three. I leaned forward, swallowing continuously to keep the bile down. The pommel felt ice-cold against my forehead. I cracked open an eye. The blue firelight flickered wildly, reflected in the silver blade. Something is wrong. I tried to focus through the nausea. Can fire move that much on its own? The blue fires danced down the blade. I tried to focus. I’m not moving. The blue fires danced. It’s because there’s a draft. Someone has opened the door. A vague uneasiness coiled in my chest. I peeled my face away from the cold metal and glanced behind me.
Someone was standing in the entrance to the armory. I scrambled to my feet. “Stan?” I could see a brown muzzle emerging from the shadows. I heard the scrape of hooves on the stone floor. “Why are you still in costume? Take that mask off and help me…uh…”
It stepped into the room. Pale, translucent skin and blue veins. Coarse brown hair matted over its bare chest, stomach, thighs, arms. Knuckles scrapping the floor. Legs bent at two angles. Black hooves. Black horns twisting up from a broad forehead. Wide, wet eyes that darted left, right. They locked onto me. I froze. It flared its nostrils. If I don’t move, it won’t charge. It grabbed hold of the doorframe. If I don’t move, it won’t charge. It backed out of the room; the metal frame crumpled under its grip. If I don’t move—
It launched itself forward, toward me. I ducked. It landed, fingers prying chunks of stone out of the floor. I sprinted for the exit. It lobbed a rock at me. Missed. Another. Missed. It bellowed, sending tremors through the air. I reached for the mangled doorframe. A shadow loomed. I looked up into its gaping grin. Long grey tongue coated in drool. Bloodshot eyes. It grabbed for me. Incoming hands. I dove between its legs and lunged for the nearest wall. A weapon rack. Bows. Arrow, notched. It lowered its head and screamed. Its breath hit me from across the room. Damp. Rotting. I pressed my back against the wall and took aim. It charged at me on all fours. Three. Two. One.
It was only after I released the bowstring that I noticed the bright orange safety tip of the arrow I fired. Oh, right. These are props.
Then it grabbed me around the chest and squeezed.
“You’re telling me you were nearly crushed to death by a giant goatman.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged.
“And that’s why you didn’t come over last Friday?”
“And that’s why you’re canceling our plans today?”
“Not cancel, postpone. Hans asked me to come in today.”
“Today, as in Saturday?”
“The morning after you got discharged from the hospital?”
Em scowled, not at me but at whatever image of my boss she’d conjured in her mind. “I know you’re not lying, but he doesn’t know that. Do you think he’s going to take your report seriously? That an unblessed appeared in the backwaters of Missouri without anyone noticing up until now?”
“You could legit sue him for all the times you’ve gotten injured on the job.”
“He made me sign release forms before I started working for him.” I downed the rest of my coffee and left the mug by the sink with the painkillers. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to have caffeine because it might interfere with the meds, but I needed it to get through meeting with Hans.
Em leaned back in bed, twisting a stray curl of hair around and around her finger. “Hm,” she sighed.
“Nothing.” She smiled sweetly.
“Okay. I’ll be back soon.”
I turned back around to look at her. “What?”
“I’m not a mind reader, Em. You have to say stuff. Out loud.”
“Oh, well, I was just thinking back on your story, especially the part where you ducked between its legs. Actually, I wanted to ask you a question.” Her mouth twitched, threatening to turn from an innocent smile into a cheeky grin. “But you wouldn’t like it.”
“You don’t know that.”
She tapped the side of her head. “I do.”
“No, you can sense it, but you can’t know if I’ll hate the question until after you’ve asked me.”
“I mean, I can guess.”
“Just ask me.”
She sat up and rested her chin in her hands. “Okay! How big was its…y’know?”
I tossed one of my driving gloves at her. “That’s what you chose to focus on? The size of the junk of something that almost killed me?”
Em pulled the sheets up over her lap, hiding the glove, and flicked her forked tongue out at me. “What did I say? You wouldn’t like it.”
I sighed and gently pinched the bridge of my nose. “It didn’t have a dick.”
“Are you saying that because you checked for it, or because you didn’t check for it?”
“Who would check under those circumstances?”
“Under those circumstances?”
I threw the other glove at her. She grinned and tucked it under the pillows.
“Well, thank you for putting these wonderful, wholesome thoughts in my head. Bye.” I zipped up my coat.
“Goodbye! Have fun doing that report instead of me.”
“I’m sure I will.” I grabbed my keys and employee badge from the coat hook. “Can you give me my gloves?”
“Come and get ‘em,” she said, slithering deeper under the sheets. I rolled my eyes, crossed the room in three strides, and yanked the sheets up from the edges of the bed. Em gasped at the rush of cold air on her bare skin and flicked her tail at me. “Put that down, it’s so friggin’ cold!”
I smirked, lowering the sheets and walking my fingers under the covers, over the dip of her hips, where the blue scales softened into warm, brown skin. “That’s weird, I can’t seem to find my gloves.”
Em shivered. “Your fingers literally feel like ice.” She wrapped the lower half of her body around my waist and I let her pull me forward until I was leaning over her with my hands tangled in the long, dark curls of hair fanned across the pillows. When she breathed, her back arched and our bodies pressed closer together. She stared up at me; a steady, sober expression darkened her eyes. “Jay…I'm glad...” She trailed off. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to understand the rest of it.
I ducked down and kissed the corner of her lips. “Me too. And I wish we could stay like this but—” I lifted my hand from her hair and jostled the keys in my pocket. “I really can’t right now.”
“Okay.” Em loosened her grip just enough so I could pull myself free from her coils. She tossed my gloves on the bedside dresser and yanked the covers up to her chin, closing her eyes.
“I’ll be back in time for dinner, promise.”
I rolled off the bed, making sure to tuck the sheets over the lower half of Em’s body. I had to glance back at the bed one last time before I stepped outside. “Do you want the heat on?” I tapped the panel on the wall a couple times. “You know where the remote is if you need to change it.”
Em mumbled something under her breath and turned to face the wall. I pretended that she’d fallen asleep, and I closed the door.