Underneath the steel plates of armor, his muscles burn. Wearily, he swings the sword, dismembering the last shadow creature. Beneath him, it writhes on the floor, blackness spilling out like a ruptured wineskin, seeping into the cracks of the stonework. In a minute, like all the others, it would be gone without a trace. Gone, but for how long?
They were bigger this time, the deeper he went the larger they grew. Those last three fought like animals. Their shoulders and arms were massive, and they walked around as gorillas do, balancing upon their knuckles. Behind his metal mask, the man smiles, remembering his luck at coming up behind them. He lets himself rest a moment, sliding down the wall.
Before they knew he was there he had thrust his sword through the back of the biggest one. He hit the heart and the monster exploded. The other two were quick after that. The one to his left reared up and brought those gargantuan fists down like a mountain upon his shield. The other one tried to rush him, but he put his sword up as a defense.
Meeting the first blow with the shield had been a mistake. The arm won’t move now, just hangs by his side. As he catches his breath, he goes over the fight. When they stand up to swing their arms down on your head like a pair of clubs, there is a moment when you can slash open their bellies. It was terrifying, walking under the blow, knowing that if he missed, his head would be bashed open, helmet or not.
But he got the second one as it reared up, cutting it open with one swift swipe. Its blackness spilled over him, a flood of shadows disintegrating all around. Like the dumb creatures that they are, they don’t learn. The last one started into the same attack.
It was all gone now, all the shadows had disappeared, but they would be back. If he stayed here too long, he knew, they’d come up out of the floor, reassembling themselves before his very eyes. Groaning, he pushes against the wall, making his way to his feet. Too tired to fight anymore, he looks for a door. All the worlds he’s visited through these doors, all the peoples enslaved to the shadows.
He reads the plaque on the first door he comes to. Frowning, he slowly deciphers a few of the words. Forest, evergreen, lake, population—he still didn’t understand their numbering, but it looked like the size of a small village—and then that mark. Always, at the bottom, there was one of three marks. On the door to his world there had been a sword, on some he had seen a flute player, but now and again there was just the skull.
He looked at this warning, weighing the options. There was no time to find another portal—the old man called them portals—they would be back soon, but he still remembered the last skull marked door he had passed. The aching numbness in his arm was turning into a burning, he needed help. A popping sound, like a cork flying from a bottle, signaled the returning creatures.
“The Intraworld is made out of your mind, Johnny,” the old man always told him. “What do you see?”
“A hallway, everything is stonework, like we are in a castle. There are torches everywhere. Now and again I see these large oak doors with metal plaques on them. I see you. I see me.”
“And what about the monsters? What do you see?”
“They are like shadows, but not cast against anything. They just sort of are there.”
“They are a virus, Johnny, made from dragon’s breath.”
Behind him, Johnny hears the sizzling of their solidifying flesh. Shoving his shoulder into the door, he jumps into the unknown. Unbearable light surrounds him—the old man called it, reprograming—and he steps out of a rotting tree into the middle of a forest.
Johnny only wanted to know one thing, “How do I kill them? How do I make them stop?”
The old man had sighed. Stroking his beard he spoke, “You said you see this world as if it were a castle? Well, at the bottom of the castle there will be a dragon, the biggest shadow you’ve ever seen. She is the mother of the darkness, and it flows from her night and day. That is the source, but there is no hope of destroying her. She has eaten up the gods, and I may be the only one left.”