Once again, the Nidhoggr had the look of a pug that was choking on something. It swayed like a rope bridge after its suspension cables had snapped. Elf tried to maintain her balance on the saddle but after a backwards sway, the dragon pitched forward, down and… it burst.
Even as the dragon slapped against the ground, it transformed into gold coins. A whole lot of them. A king’s ransom or, even more, a dragon’s weight in gold. Elf found herself riding a sculpture of coins glued together with spit, disengaging as they hit the ground, scattering in all directions and making a deafening jangle. The next thing she knew she was gently back on solid ground, squatting above a saddle on a carpet of coins. Three-dimensional letters that spelled “619 GOLD” appeared a foot above the fortune and then vanished just as swiftly.
A shocked hush had settled on all the questers as the coins made their final soft clinks.
“WE DID IT!!!” Blacksmith screamed as he jumped for joy and threw both arms in the air. Ranger followed with a whoop and then Warrior started doing some victory dance, totally spontaneous and quite unbecoming of someone his size. The only ones who didn’t show any sign of jubilation were Mage and Elf, the second because she was still too shocked to feel anything.
“Guys, look…” Warrior whispered in amazement. As everyone turned to him, they saw a slim tape that floated at the level of the berserker’s ankles. It announced like a 360-degree, revolving LED news ticker: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: ADRENALINE RUSH.
“Whoa…” everyone mumbled. The phenomenon was similar to what Elf and Blacksmith had experienced earlier.
The ribbon vanished after a couple more heartbeats.
“Waitwaitwait!” Blacksmith said. “Where’s the Orc?”
“There is no need for concern,” Mage pacified them. He was one step ahead and had sashayed to where the Orc rider had fallen. Now he was crouching over something suggestive of a chalk outline in a crime scene, filled with a smaller heap of coins. “The Orc took a spill from which he never rose. This was a drone type, which means its fate was linked to that of its mount. Till death.”
Mage looked like some kind of medieval detective especially after producing a long stem pipe of an unknown weed from deep within the wide sleeves of his robe. He was puffing thoughtfully on it while poking through the coins. He revealed the Orc’s horn trumpet from underneath.
“A branch node,” he announced curtly.
“Um, that looks like a horn, not a branch,” Elf said as she walked – trudged through all the coins – to where Mage was inspecting their loot. She peered over Mage’s shoulder.
Blacksmith was sucking all the shiny treasure into his charmed satchel. He was bent over and pointing the mouth around like a very powerful vacuum cleaner and every coin in its path was instantly swept inside, but the satchel didn’t put on any weight or bulk.
“That’s gaming jargon,” Blacksmith jumped in. “A branch node a.k.a. internal node. It means a structure that contains a condition or leads to a tree of its own.”
“Meaning what exactly?” Ranger asked.
Blacksmith was at a loss what to say next. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure where his particular piece of knowledge came from, and where it lead.
“Does anyone have any recollection of the Lord Thorne?” Mage asked without looking or getting up.
“Nope,” Elf said. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Never heard that name before in my entire…”
Like a dazzling firefly alighting and then taking off, déjà vu visited Elf’s brain. And from the looks of the other questers, theirs, too.
Elf winced and shuddered.
“This world doesn’t follow the physics of the surface world,” Mage explained. “On the surface world, a royal retinue travelling at 20 kilometers per day is bound to cross paths with us in Birkwood Forest. But because this Orc drone failed to blow his horn, there will be no Lord Thorne and goblin party passing by us. In fact, it is highly likely that there will be no Orc-Goblin alliance in this particular game tree.”
“An alternate reality,” Blacksmith said to himself.
“All that for failing to blow a sounding horn,” Ranger said. “How do you know all these things?”
“I see very differently than you,” Mage answered. He had risen from where he crouched and, for the briefest moment, his eyes appeared to glint from within his hood. “Where you see a sounding horn, I see position and sacrifice, moves and counter-moves, programs and patterns.”
“Is that so?” Ranger asked. “Then can you teach us a shortcut or a cheat code out of this mess?”
“My prime directive is to assist all of you in exiting Dreamscape with optimal safety and efficiency. There are no ways to circumvent the system, if that is what you are referring to, but trust that I have analyzed the farthest levels of the game tree from our current position using Minimax algorithms. It is actually quite similar to how you plot your ascent along a saddle or col.”
“From our current position,” Ranger repeated. “You mean, one way to beat the game is to cover as much ground as possible?”
“To explore the map, yes,” Mage agreed.
Ranger fell quiet as he pondered their situation. Blacksmith, meanwhile, bounced over to the horn trumpet and picked it up. He then offered it to his charmed satchel, which promptly gobbled it up and, amazingly enough, burped and announced in a dour bass voice: “Inventory full.”
All the others looked at Blacksmith with shock and indecision in their faces.
“What?” Blacksmith said sheepishly. “A bag’s gotta eat.”
“Well, you heard Mage, Dreamwalkers,” Ranger finally said. “Let’s start heading North. First stop, Birkwood Forest.”
Birkwood Forest was dark and creepy. Between two massive oak trees, a footpath ran through the middle which had been trodden by many feet and hooves but had remained untouched by any road surfacing.
Inside, they encountered other unusual creatures. Blacksmith spotted a hairy frog which hopped away before he could tell the others, but everyone saw the warthog wearing yellow slippers as it scurried up a pear tree. Then they were alerted by the angry hooting of an owl that looked like it had just been roused from sleep, the ear-like tufts on the top of its head clumped forward and tail of purple foxgloves hanging down.
There was an invisible mischievous entity that kept throwing twigs and branches at them, a feline with a dangerous club-like protrusion at the end of its tail, an ape that gave off an unbearable stench and had a constant aura of flies, a rodent that made a noise like the sound of a tea kettle, a jackalope, a hoop snake, a fanged koala, a hammerhead civet cat, a kangaroo with telescopic and springy legs, and stick insects that spun like whirligigs.
Just as Mage predicted, they saw no sign of the Lord Thorne who, from all their combined dim memories, was supposed to be this fat, grotesque goblin who ordered to have Blacksmith’s arm separated from his body in the first ever spawning. Apparently, goblins had a penchant for human flesh. The questers silently thanked whichever god was watching over them in that artificial world.
Their trek through Birkwood Forest was much shorter than they anticipated: less than fifteen minutes. Blacksmith wondered if it was another effect of the severed branch node but he looked forward to their next stop on the map: Hordo’s Wayside Inn.
It was a two-storey timber-framed building with steep roofs. The establishment was announced by a board swinging from a wooden pole in the courtyard. The sign bore the coat of arms of a boar’s head.
Inside, the common room was open to the beamed ceiling and its walls were decorated with an odd assortment of coat-of-arms plus one well-preserved, splayed-out Nidhoggr skin. The floor was strewn with a carpet of rushes to, apparently, soak up the mud and horse dung from the boots of travelers. The whole place was dimly lit with a wooden hanging-wheel candelabra, rushlights on metal stands and hanging grease lamps.
<Good day give thou our Lord!> the proprietor greeted. He was speaking a form of archaic Scandinavian language that sounded like a murmuring brook. Thanks to Mage’s telepathic abilities, they heard the original sound with an overlay of instant translation. <Thou art the first Dreamwalkers to wander thro’ this lonesome parts of Erebus and thou art my first patrons. I live to render thou a service.>
The Dreamwalkers were quiet but it didn’t escape them that the proprietor, Hordo, had referred to the dream world as Erebus.
They were the only customers as far as they could see but there were more than enough slyphian barmaids stalking in the shadows. There was a grand hearth with a roaring log fire, the skull and horns of an unidentified monster above it and a high-backed settle next to it. There was a bar with barrels of beer and ale and various tankards and bottles. To the left, makeshift tables had been set on sawhorses. There were benches, stools, and a cut-down barrel used as a table for cards and dice.
Hordo looked as eclectic as his furniture. He was a troll, according to the 5G-fast sitrep that all of them got mentally, as was common in dreams. He was a troll, an inn-keeper, a brewmaster, a fence, a loan shark and a pimp; and he looked every single one of his varied experiences. He had the odious aura of someone who had his finger in too many pies.
Trolls had a similar complexion as orcs. But while the second were moss-green, the first were closer to basil or pine. They also had this baby face – a small, round one with chubby cheeks which, in Hordo’s case, had been enhanced by the impression of someone who had grown up too fast. With his vertical reptilian pupils, pointy ears pierced and laden with gold, and high top hairstyle that was centuries ahead of its time and vertical reptilian pupils, he looked like someone who’d write your firstborn as collateral in the fine print. For sure, the lettice trims of his robe had looked immaculate at one point but now they looked like the yellowed hair of a literal trash panda.
<We require lodgings,> Mage said. <Only one room. We can do without board.>
“Only one room?!” Elf echoed.
“No food?!” was Blacksmith’s concern. “But I’m starving!”
“You don’t need to worry about that, Blacksmith,” Elf said. “After slaying the dragon, all our health meters have been replenished. I can assure you that all of them are full right now.”
“Our what now?” Warrior asked.
Elf couldn’t answer because she wasn’t sure how she knew such a thing. Somehow she was able to keep track of everyone’s health status and even felt it was her responsibility to nurse everyone if ever the need arose.
“Elf is correct, Blacksmith,” Mage said. “What you are experiencing is merely phantom hunger. In this world, our physical forms do not require nourishment or rest. This also addresses Elf’s misgivings with respect to shared accommodation.”
“How about peeing?” Blacksmith asked sarcastically. “Am I forbidden from doing that, too?”
“You do know what happens when you pee in dream state, don’t you?” Ranger asked.
“No, I don’t. Why? Is this one of those water-flushes-down-the-toilet-clockwise-or-counter-clockwise factoid?”
Ranger didn’t answer and just looked at Blacksmith as though he was incredibly naïve.
“What? I’ve never done it so how would I know?”
<Any baggage? Horses to take to the stable?> Hordo the Inn-keeper asked.
<No, we travel lightly,> Mage replied.
<Would you like the River Naiad or Woodland Dryad view?>
<Woodland!> Blacksmith jumped in. Then he explained: “If I’m not supposed to pee on this quest then I better avoid thinking about flowing, rushing, gushing and splashing things.”
<We are interested in purchasing some wine,> Mage said. <May we request a private tasting?>
<Ah! A true connoisseur!> Hordo’s eyes gleamed. <We would forthwith to the vaults if I weren’t certain that the dampness would bother you.>
<Not at all. We pray thee lead the way.>
<As you wish,> Hordo said with a conspirational smile.
They walked to the kitchen door from which wafted many exotic and curious odors. The door was the type that separated into two halves and at the moment the upper section was open. The Dreamwalkers saw a hag with eight tentacles holding a struggling fish, a cleaver, a trencher, a ladle, a wooden spoon, a mortar and pestle, and a flesh hook. Various meats hung from metal hooks and a set of shelves was laden with jars, ceramic bowls, plates and goblets.
Blacksmith was fascinated by the mishmash of odors. In a remote part of his brain, he recognized this as the newest dimension of immersive VR tech and pictured smell-emitting nozzles fitted in sim-chairs. Elf, who knew about food sanitation from her cobwebby memories of the surface world, felt her stomach doing somersaults.
But Hordo’s real target was the large and heavy chest next to the door. Turning his back to his customers to hide his next actions, Hordo opened one of the middle drawers with a key hanging around his neck and then, instead of picking up the piles of pewter dishes inside, turned them certain ways and degrees. The chest was like the medieval version of a combination lock.
The effect was reflected not on the chest but all the way across the room, on the fireplace, whose flames sputtered and turned blue before a dark maw gaped behind them.
<Shall we?> Hordo gestured after locking the drawer again. The Dreamwalkers followed with a great deal of uncertainty.
<It’s quite all right. These flames were crafted by the Salamanders themselves. They’re perfectly harmless. Here, let me show you.>
Without the slightest hesitation, the innkeeper bent over and entered the fireplace, stepping right on top of the smoldering logs which shrugged off blue sparks upon his approach. Although he was wearing boots and he made an effort to hitch up the skirt of his robe away from the ashes, he didn’t cry out in pain and his fur didn’t catch fire. He tucked his head into the back of the firebox and disappeared.
“Remember, Dreamwalkers,” Mage said as encouragement, “everything in this realm is merely an illusion.” He then followed Hordo without looking back or flinching.
“Yeah, right,” Blacksmith said. “Everything is just an illusion but illusions can still pack a punch.” Then a puzzled look dawned on his face because he couldn’t remember where he had heard the concept before.
“Oh quit pussyfooting,” Ranger said and walked over to step on the fire himself. “If the illusions get too hot, you could always pee on them.”
His parting shot wasn’t completely lost on Blacksmith and elicited sniggers from Elf and Warrior.
Insulted, Blacksmith overcame his apprehension and stepped up to the challenge. Gingerly stepping over the blue flames, soon he, too, was swallowed by the darkness.