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Adventure Fantasy

“I can’t believe you made me a dog.”

Ryber glanced down at the small animal padding along beside him. “A puppy, Griss. Not a dog.”

“But why?” the puppy asked, his tone that of an exasperated man, for all that he looked like a little beagle. “I had everything ready for the Delve. All my gear and weapons. Now I don’t even have hands.” He lifted a paw.

“I told you why,” Ryber said. “In your true form, you’re a hulking, bearded, scarred pirate. If the subject saw you coming, you’d scare him awake, rules of the game notwithstanding. Besides, gear and weapons would be useless in this place. Now, please shut up. I have to concentrate.”

He did indeed need to concentrate. It was no easy task, Delving into a mind, even if that mind was fast asleep. The castle through which they now travelled was a maze, a construct of a dreaming mind, prey to all the illogical whims of a dream. Up and down had little meaning, walls could be ceilings and ceilings floor and floors walls. Corridors of nearly featureless grey stone could branch and turn in strange ways, leading off in impossible directions, or simply deposit you back where you were a moment earlier. Stairways could lead upwards while taking you down in new depths, or curve and twist like ribbons across vast, open spaces.

And everywhere there were places to hide.

The hallways and rooms they passed through were stuffed to bursting with cabinets, chests, and armoires, all polished wood with gilt edging. Stacks of crates and rows of barrel stood in corners or lined the passages, covered in a thick layer of dust and draped in old cobwebs. The place might have been abandoned for centuries, but Ryber knew it hadn’t even existed until mere hours ago.

Ryber stood at the juncture of several corridors, lit by flickering torches set into brackets on the walls. He focused his senses, trying to decipher the currents and eddies of thought and emotion that wound through the dream construct. Delving wasn’t a precise art, and a lot of it depended on the Delver’s intuition. Hunches and gut feelings were important, as was a sense of the subject’s state of mind and desires.

“This way,” Ryber said, deciding on a hallway that seemed to slope upwards, while at the same time spiraling like a corkscrew.

Griss, in his puppy form, scrambled to keep up, tripping over his clumsy paws. “I’ll never get used to this,” he growled in frustration. “Couldn’t you have made me something that can at least keep its limbs straight?”

“I could have,” Ryber muttered distractedly. “But it wouldn’t have been nearly as amusing.”

“Ha, ha,” Griss said, his voice dripping sarcasm.

They followed the corridor, along the strange curving that turned them upside down and then rightside up again. Ryber took the oddity in stride, but his companion clearly didn’t.

“This is strange beyond belief,” Griss complained. “Why is it so bizarre?”

Ryber sighed and gritted his teeth. “Because the mark creates the construct in a dream. Dreams are strange, Griss. Deal with it.”

A room stood before them, filled with boxes and bins, within any of which their mark could be hiding. Ryber paused, frowning, letting his sense for the magic do its work.

“And what is with all the hiding?” Griss’ voice shattered his delicate concentration.

Ryber mastered himself with an effort. It wouldn’t do to infuriate Griss. Granted, the man was a puppy right now, but back in the waking world, he was still a large, brutal man, accustomed to doing violence to those who crossed him. “It’s a game, Griss. The Dreaming Game, a game of hide and seek. Our mark, I’ll remind you, is a young boy, for all his age. He took something from you, and to get it back we have to play the game. Find the Princeling Thief, and we find what you want. Is that so complicated?”

“Huh?” the puppy grunted, looking up at Ryber and cocking his head.

A grin tugged at the corners of the Delver’s mouth. “You know, as a puppy, you’re precious when you’re confused.”

The puppy’s big, brown eyes narrowed. “I can still bite you, you know?”

Another sighed hissed from between Ryber’s teeth. “Look, the Princeling Thief is hiding somewhere in the construct. If we find him, we win the game, and he must give us something as a prize.”

Comprehension dawned on Griss cute little puppy face. “Oh. Like my map.”

“Precisely.”

When he wasn’t a puppy with big paws and floppy ears, Griss was one of the more infamous pirates plying the world’s seas. Only a few days ago, he’d come across a map, one that purported to show the way to the buried treasure of another infamous pirate. Griss wanted to find it, so that he could add it to his own hoard, and then bury the whole lot somewhere else. Chances were he’d make a map to it, that would one day find its way into the hands of another pirate. It was often the way such things went.

Only there’d been a little interruption.

Ryber felt a faint sensation, like a hand caressing his cheek or a breath of moving air. It tugged him toward a doorway on the far side of the room, which opened onto a stairway leading down. The Delver frowned; their mark wasn’t hiding in this room, apparently.

“How exactly did you let the Princeling steal your map?” Ryber asked as he followed his intuition down the stairs. “Didn’t you lock it up, set your crew to guard it?”

“Of course I did,” Griss said. “Well, sort of. I pretended to hide it away, to… throw off thieves. But really I kept it on me.” He sighed. “And then I went to have a drink. I don’t know how the dirty little fetcher saw through my cunning ploy, but he waited until I was passed out drunk, and lifted it off me neat as you please.”

Ryber had some idea of how Griss had lost the map, and it likely had involved a lot of drunken boasting before he reached the state of unconsciousness.

Then, between one step and the next, they were no longer heading down, but up. Ryber’s steps faltered for an instant, then, with a frown, he continued on. After a few more turns, the stairway opened onto yet another confusing room, this one a vast space, with floor, walls, and ceiling alike covered in old, cobwebbed cupboards.

“This is getting so tiresome,” Griss complained, plopping down on his haunches and scratching behind one ear with a hind paw.

“It is indeed,” Ryber agreed. It was beyond odd, as well. The rules of the Dreaming Game were not exactly set in stone, but it always had to be possible to win it, to find what you were seeking. This place, however, simply offered too many hiding spots, an embarrassment of them. Far more than could be searched, especially if new rooms and corridors were being constantly spawned.

Ryber’s frown deepened, and he reached out to feel that mysterious compulsion again. It was still leading him onward. Still focusing carefully, he took a few steps into the room. Then, for just an instant, the pull seemed to reverse, to be coming from behind him.

Now a smile crossed his face.

Without turning around, without giving any sign of what he was about to do, Ryber reached behind him, and closed his hand on what appeared to be empty air.

His fingers closed on soft cloth, and warm flesh beneath it.

A startled yelp sounded, and whatever he had grabbed tried to twist away. But Ryber held on tight, turning to face his captive.

As he had suspected, the Princeling Thief squirmed and struggled in his grasp. He looked like a child, a boy of perhaps seven years of age, with pale skin, golden hair, and deep green eyes. But looking into those eyes revealed a startling depth of wisdom and cunning. The Princeling Thief had been alive for centuries, a being that wore the guise and mannerisms of a child, all the while using his innocent appearance to dupe his victims and relieve them of what they valued most.

When Griss saw what Ryber had found, he leapt about, barking, forgetting himself in his excitement. “You found him!” he said at last, finding his voice. “You actually found him!”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Ryber looked down at the struggling figure he held. “Your Highness, I am Ryber Trone, Master Delver. I’ve found you, and won the Dreaming Game.”

The Princeling Thief went still, gazing up at Ryber, a petulant scowl on his face. For a moment, he glared, but then his expression shifted into a disarming smile. “So you did, Master Delver, and by the rules, I must give you what you want. So, what’ll it be? I’ve got some very fine stargems, lifted them just last week. Or would you prefer a few barrels of good brandy, aged to perfection? Why, the tale of how I purloined an entire wagon, right out from under its owner’s nose, might be reward enough—”

“I want my map back,” Griss said, cutting the Princeling off. “And I’ll have it now.”

The Princeling Thief looked at him. “Map? What map? I don’t recall stealing a map, especially not from a puppy.” His expression shifted, a covetous gleam flashing in his eyes. “An especially cute little puppy, at that.”

“Now, don’t go and lie about it, you little—”

“Hold a moment, Griss,” Ryber interrupted him. “Your Highness, there are a few things I need to sort out here. See, I don’t want anything from you; I want you to take something from me.”

“What?” said the Princeling.

“What?” yelped Griss, turning his head toward Ryber so swiftly that his ears flapped.

Ryber ignored the puppy. “Up until a few days ago, I was quite a contented Delver. Had everything I wanted. Then Griss here showed up, and… invited me, at sword point, to help him find a certain map. Since then, I’ve been Delving one mind after another, until we finally found what he wanted.” His lips twisted in a wry grin. “And what was to be my reward for my enforced assistance? I’d get to live. Not much in the way of payment, now, is it?”

The Princeling’s face lit up with understanding. “You stole his map, didn’t you?”

“Indeed. And then I spun a little fable, blaming the theft on you. Griss was all insistence that we find you and steal it back. I told him the best way to do that was to sneak into your dreams, to Delve your sleeping mind. Naturally, he demanded to accompany me on the Delve.” Ryber’s smile widened. “And here we are. Your Highness, how would you like a puppy?”

“You… you…” Griss sputtered, unable to frame a reply that encompassed his fury. He lunged forward, snarling, jaws snapping, latching on to the hem of Ryber’s robe and worrying at it.

Ryber barely spared him a glance. “Your Highness?”

The Princeling pursed his lips, eyeing the growling puppy askance. “But he’ll only be a puppy as long as we’re both asleep and dreaming.”

“True. But isn’t that the best place to keep him? That way, he can go with you anywhere you go. Keep his real form asleep long enough, and soon enough he’ll forget that he was ever anything other than a cute, little puppy.”

For a moment longer, the Princeling considered, stroking his chin. Then he snapped his fingers. “All right, I’ll take him. Have to find someplace to stash Griss’ real body, but I know a thing or two about hiding what I’ve stolen. It’s a deal, Master Delver Ryber Trone.” He held out a small hand.

Ryber clasped it. “Excellent.” He gave a satisfied sigh and took one last look around. “I’ll be going now. I do have things to do in the waking world.” Especially now that he had a map to a priceless treasure, and no one to share it with.

The Princeling detached the snarling puppy from Ryber’s cloak, stroking its head and murmuring soothingly to it. “Goodbye, Ryber. Perhaps we’ll see each other again sometime.” A cunning glint entered his eyes. “Maybe we can play another game.”

Ryber smiled. “Maybe. I’m always up for a good dream.”

December 17, 2021 16:00

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1 comment

Stuart Sanders
09:30 Dec 27, 2021

I don't read fantasy so it took me a short while to adjust to the style. The writing is straightforward and easy to follow. I liked the way you described the quirky locations and environment. I especially like the way you described the dog's mannerisms, I pictured it perfectly. The twist at the end was excellent and it left the story sufficiently open ended to allow a follow-on. If anything, this was the weak part, as the story felt slightly incomplete when I finished reading. Otherwise, very well written.

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