5-4 Flaming… Because of Cheap Jokes
After watching his teammates disappear into different doorways, Champ turned to his own. Looking into the gloom beyond the small rectangle, he drew up his determination. Even if he was alone, he still had to pull his weight. Besides, he’d been doing this work for long enough. He could take whatever lay ahead.
After reassuring himself, he strengthened his grip on his rifle and moved forward cautiously. After creeping through the short corridor, he eventually merged into a small, cubic room. Quickly, he spun around to check his corners and found nothing.
Almost disappointed to not meet some deadly hazard, Champ let shoulders slump and lowered his gun. Then he turned to take in the details of what the room held. That, too, was nothing. The place was empty of anything useful and had no additional exits. Just an empty dead-end. The only interesting thing about the room was the piles of fine, grey dust that covered the floor. The stuff formed dunes and erupted into a cloud with every step he took.
Once he’d come to terms that his exploration had ended before it’d begun, h decided to scour the cramped room for whatever it could give him. He’d heard from Knot that some of these ruins had secret passages in the walls, so he started by aimlessly knocking on the bricks.
He didn’t entirely know what he was looking or with that, but he figured he’d understand when he saw it. After about a minute of this, he reached the room’s back wall and then he felt something. Not from his hands, but his feet. Like he’d kicked something that’d been hiding under the dust.
Cautiously, he bent down and thrust his hands into the grey dune beneath him. The dust was shockingly soft. Like baby skins… or something. He didn’t have a lot of baby experience, but he’d heard they were supposed to be soft. That surprising pleasantness lasted only a moment. Then he started to feel the stuff caking his questing hands. He shuddered at how literally dirty he was becoming and he could feel his skin dehydrating by the second.
He spent about a minute and a half exploring that sensation. Then, he felt his fingertips brush against something hard. Reaching for the object, he found it to be bigger than he’d expected. Probably about twice the size of his head.
Once he’d gotten a firm grip on it, he brought it up for inspection. What he saw was an unimpressive mass of grey. Shook off the stubborn dust coating it, he found himself holding a skull. It looked human-esque, but it was obviously too big and a little oblong. It also had some strange bulbous parts to it.
Champ was hardly an expert in monster skulls, but he was familiar with a lot of the heads they were under. This didn’t look like it’d fit any of the ones he could think of. Closest bet would be something trollish or ogre related, but as ugly as they were, at least they were symmetrical.
Unceremoniously dropping the skull back into the dust, Champ tried in vain to wipe his hands off on his pants. Then he went back to knocking the walls. Once that’d proven thoroughly fruitless, he gave up. He had no confidence in finding anything in there except, perhaps, more bones. So he left.
That was the protocol. Once he was done investigating, he was to return to the central cylinder room. After less than a minute, he had. Finding the place empty, he had nothing left to do, except wait. He gently lowered himself onto the floor and nervously anticipated the return of his colleagues. As he waited, he tried desperately not to think about what they’d do if no one found the way to lift the gate. That was mostly because he couldn’t think of anything accept starve.
It didn’t take long for Champ to lose track of time completely. Eventually he devolved into holding his rifle in his lap and worrying over the blemishes it’d collected in its years of service. As he was relentlessly picking at a particularly old scar, he felt something strange. It was like a very localized earthquake. Not enough shaking to make him fear for the ruin’s collapse, but enough to draw his attention.
As he looked around, he felt like the shaking should subside any minute, but it didn’t. It merely grew consistent. Then he felt like his perspective was growing weird. He felt like the ground in front of him was getting higher. When he focused, he could tell that the ground beneath him was too, along with what was behind him. It was all being lifted up, but at different rates. The whole area he was confined to was taking on a slope, quickly.
Champ furrowed his brow and attempted to stand. Then, a sudden jolt sent him falling onto his face. Without warning, everything started moving faster. Before he could get a hold of the change, Champ could feel himself start to slide.
At first it was a slow slip backwards towards the door he’d explored before. Then he started to pick up speed. The floor beneath him, growing ever steeper, had a lot less friction than he’d remembered. It was like he was sliding across a frozen lake. No matter how much he tried to kick his boot into the open slats between the bricks, he couldn’t slow himself at all.
Within seconds, Champ found himself passing through the door he’d just used. This time, against his will. With no need for justification, Champ felt that was a very bad thing. His body agreed. Without thought, he held his rifle up horizontally and was barely able to catch it on the door frame. Suddenly, with a force that barely avoided pulling his arms from their sockets, his movement stopped.
Desperately Champ held onto his trusted rifle as the ground beneath him continued to grow steeper. He winced as he could feel his gun getting more broken by the second. Then, that thought was forced from his head when he heard a loud roaring sound from behind him. Hurriedly, he turned to its author, expecting to find a lion rushing to devour him. Instead, he saw an orange glow doing much the same thing.
The small, empty room beneath him had been entirely engulfed in flames. Even as he thought it, he felt the comparison was a bit clichéd, but he couldn’t help calling the inferno a microcosm of hell. As he felt the dry, searing heat creep up his legs, Champ’s mind conjured images of a large, black dog with terrifyingly white teeth. The image of those burning red eyes would never leave his imagination. Gripped by a new wave of terror, he desperately clung to his rifle.
That was when a pressure on his hands caught his attention. When he looked away from the roaring flames, he noticed that the stones in front of him hadn’t stopped raising up. His slim line of support was slowly being forced up the doorframe. Within seconds, the floor of the cylindrical courtyard would completely eclipse the door, leaving him nothing to hold onto.
He could choose between having his hands crushed before falling into the fire or letting go of his rifle before falling into the fire. Neither sounded pleasant and he had to choose quickly. That was when his rifle’s shoulder strap, hanging down in front of him, caught his eye. That gave him a terrible idea that made his stomach launch a civil war.
No matter how stupid the idea was, his hands were marching ever closer to a hard, stony deadline. Champ took a deep breath and offered up a hopeless prayer. Then he released one of his hands from his rifle and brought it down to the shoulder strap.
Next, he tried to do the same with the other hand. As soon as he released it, he slipped down and couldn’t grab the strap in time. He slid about a foot until the strap pulled tight around his grip and he once again jerked to a stop. The force of that almost made him release his hand, but thankfully his fear gave him an iron grip,
A Champ felt the heat grow more intense, he reached up with his free hand to grasp the strap and hold fast. Looking up at his lifeline, his stomach refused to settle down. Leaving his life in the care of a thin strip of black cloth was hardly relaxing.
Champ closed his eyes and tried not to think of his own ashes. Then, the roaring of the flames and the heat died down. He opened his eyes and looked back to find the hellish inferno unceremoniously quenched.
The feeling of relief that washed over him was so powerful that he almost released his grip on the strap. Thankfully he didn’t however, because seconds later the flames roared to life again. Champ barely had any time to feel the dread of that revelation before they vanished for a second time.
After that, the floor started sinking back down. Champ refused to release his gun’s strap until he’d been lying on a completely flat surface for at least two minutes. Then, he cautiously stood before hurriedly grabbing his rifle and rushing out of the hallway.
Once he was back in the courtyard, Champ desperately searched for anything to protect himself from a second incineration attempt. At first he thought of climbing the iron gate and clinging for dear life until a solution was found. Then, he noticed something at the gate to his left. The cross-shaped gate had fallen right in front of one of the room’s exits. The doorway was bisected by the gate, but it looked like Champ would be able to fit through the opening if he tried hard enough.
He had no guarantee he wouldn’t find an even worse death trap, but he couldn’t guarantee he would either. He had mixed feelings on the matter, but the thought of a second round of roasting sealed it. After hanging on for dear life and having his arms nearly pulled off twice, he didn’t know if he had the upper body strength to save himself again. Even the cling to the gate plan seemed a bit much.
Champ approached the dark passage and turned sideways to slide himself through it. He was able to fit one arm and one leg in, but his progress stopped at his chest and abdomen. He’d like to think he was too impressively muscular to fit. That was the best explanation he could come up with.
As his completely vague hope died, Champ’s heart sank. In a last ditch effort, he pressed against the doorframe in hopes that ne could shrink himself somehow. As he strained, he felt some dust drift onto his face. He closed his eyes on reflex. Then he disobeyed his instincts to look directly at its source. It seemed to be falling from somewhere on the ceiling. That made him curious.
If he thought about it, it was strange to design to gate to bisect a door in the first place. If it was meant to secure the room beyond, it shouldn’t restrict it to only waif-life intruders. As he found his own reasoning increasingly persuasive, Knot braced his right hand and foot against the doorframe of the half exposed door. Then he lifted himself up and pushed with all his might against the gate behind him.
Half his muscles screeched for him to stop and his back was littered with sharp pains as he pressed into the gate. However, he was more focused on the shower of dust that kept coming down on him. Then, he heard a monstrous, earthen groan and the gate started to move. It wasn’t much. A distance that you’d be hard pressed to measure in inches. However, it definitely moved. The cross-shaped gate rotated along with the circular ceiling.
As Champ endured the pain, he marveled at his progress. He wondered if the whole team could actually move it if they worked together. That was something. It could be the key to meeting back up. As he contemplated how that would work, Champ scooted through the widened opening and into another hallway. After passing through the hall, he found himself in another small, dead end room. However, this one wasn’t empty or on fire. A marked improvement on both counts.
The entire back face of the room was dominated by what looked to be a large sheet of crystal. At least it should’ve been at one time. Now, the crystal was fragmented and only about half of it still clung to the wall. What didn’t, lay in shards on the floor. Champ had no idea what the crystal had once been. Perhaps both and excessive and minimalistic art piece? Whatever it was, it held nothing for him now.
Instead, Champ shifted his focus to what stood in front of and below the crystal. A wide table whose surface was inclined at a 45 degree angle and covered in multi-colored crystals. When he grew closer to it, Champ could recognize the crystals as buttons and could barely make out some runes around them.
Of course, Champ couldn’t read that, no matter how clear they were. Lotus had once tried to teach him that dwarf worshiper’s language, but he didn’t think he’d need it. Apparently he’d been wrong, but there was nothing he could do about that now.
In lieu of understanding the language, Champ could only look at the colors. There were a lot of them. The first one that stood out to him was a shiny red one. Brilliant like a well cut ruby. For a second, Champ thought to press it. Then the memory of a blazing inferno crossed his mind and he shied away from it.
Instead, he looked at a block of reassuringly dark grey buttons. Their color made him think of the black iron in the cylindrical courtyard. That seemed as good an option as any. He hesitantly applied pressure to the grey crystal. Then he heard a deep thunk, followed by a sudden crash that made him jump out of his skin.
He quickly rushed to the entrance of the room to trace the sound. He rushed to the entrance, but that was as far as he got. When he reached the doorway that should lead out into the cylindrical courtyard, he found his narrow path blocked by a fresh iron gate.
Looking over the obstacle, Champ’s blood ran cold. Instinctively, he gripped two of the iron bars and attempted to lift it up. Of course, that was fruitless. After one half-hearted attempt, Champ turned from the gate and rushed back to the button he’d just pressed.
After slamming his hand onto it again, he heard another heart thunk. This time, it was followed by a reassuringly gentle grinding. Once the noises had stopped, Champ returned to the door and found it now open.
Placing his hand on his chest and breathing a sigh of relief, he let loose a sigh of relief. Then he looked over the courtyard and thought of something. He counted the doors from where he stood to the exit and found it four from him. Then he went back to the console and pressed the grey button four over from the one he’d just pressed.
The now very familiar thunk rang out, followed by the same grinding as before. When the sounds had subsided completely, he left to investigate what’d changed. Once he had, he grinned at his own cleverness. Just as he’d hoped, the ruin’s exit was unlocked again.
Champ’s breast was filled with the exhilaration of progress and he immediately returned to the panel from before. Since he’d managed to raise the exit gate, he hoped to raise the cross gate next. Completely remove their obstructions.
Since there were six doors in the cylindrical courtyard, Champ counted over six buttons from the first. Then he pressed the seventh. Rather than the thunk he was expecting, he felt a sudden jolt that sent him stumbling forward. He almost slammed his face into several of the frighteningly colorful buttons, but he was able to throw up his hands to stop himself.
Once Champ regained himself, he was able to hear a cacophonous grinding that was nowhere near as soothing as the sounds of the gates lifting. After about a minute, the grinding had smoothed out to become more bearable, but it showed no signs of stopping.
Cautiously, Champ moved to the entrance of the control room and looked out into the courtyard. What he saw there was the coss-shaped gate slowly rotating around the room. Like a motorized revolving door. It wasn’t what he’d wanted, but he should be able to reach anywhere now. Even flee the area entirely.
For a second, Champ entertained the idea of returning to the large control console. There were a lot of unused buttons. One of them should raise the cross gate. It’d certainly be more convenient. However, this place was over a thousand years old. Just because a few of the buttons had worked, didn’t mean all of them still functioned properly. It could be he accidentally made a gate fall down somewhere that then broke and wouldn’t retract again. Then Champ remembered how well the inferno death trap had been functioning and his decision was made.
After grabbing one of the crystal shards room the floor for good measure, Champ left the control room behind. He stepped into the courtyard and followed the gate’s revolution until he reached the first door he hadn’t entered. Now that he’d single-handedly fixed everything and there were no problems forever, it was time to reunite with his teammates.
After passing through a shot hallway, Champ found himself in a small room, littered with rubble. He didn’t bother looking it over much, however. He was sure it’d already been searched enough. Instead, he headed for the door on the opposite side of the room.
As he neared it, he heard a strange squelching noise and immediately he took a few steps backwards. Readying his rifle, he pointed it at the door and waited. Whatever monster was coming, was getting closer. He tried to clear his mind and glared into the gloom. As it drew closer, a humanoid silhouette started to become visible from the darkness beyond. Champ held his breath and then…
“Mother Fucker, Champ! What’re you doing!?”
Seeing Lotus appear from the darkness, Champ forced his finger not to twitch as he swung his gun away as fast as he could. Looking back, he saw Lotus actually making a facial expression. A rarity for her. This time, it was not a pleasant one and Champ’s heart sank.
His eyes wandered as he tried to come up with something to distract from almost shooting her. As they did, they landed on her lower body and stuck. “Why’re you wet?” He asked curiously as he studied the soaked cloth around her legs.
“It’s a long story,” Lotus responded, her anger at Champ being redirected to a glare at her own pants.
“Did you find anything?” Champ asked quickly, hoping to press the conversation forward before she could remember that he almost removed her head.
“Not much,” She answered with an irritable shake of her head. “It’s huge back there, but we searched a lot of it. We didn’t find anything and decided to check if anyone else was done.”
“We stopped because Lotus is getting a blister,” the Newbie chimed in from behind Lotus.
“I’m not,” Lotus turned back to declare emphatically. “My feet are just sore.”
“Because you have a blister,” the Newbie responded, crossing his arms over his chest. “That’s why you don’t wander through the jungle with wet shoes.”
“Saved your damn life, didn’t I?” Lotus shoot back at the Newbie. “Don’t make me regret it.”
“Jungle?” Champ asked, furrowing his brow.
“It’s a long story,” Lotus repeated, turning back to Champ and shaking her head again. “Instead of that, how’re you here? Did someone lift the gates?”
“Yes, I did,” Champ answered, puffing up his chest proudly.
“I see,” Lotus responded, narrowing her eyes coldly. “That’s why you decided to come shoot us, then?”
Champ froze for a second. Then he collapsed into a slump and said, “Sorry…”
“Whatever. Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lotus responded, brushing past Champ and heading for the courtyard. “This place is definitely not a normal ruin. Let’s meet up with everyone and leave. Screw the job.”
Champ couldn’t help raising his eyebrows at that as he followed her. “It’s good money, even if the place is a problem.”
“She’s been like that since she started getting the blister,” the Newbie declared knowingly from behind.
“I don’t have a blister!” Lotus shouted, for certainly not the second time.
Author’s note: the chapter title doesn’t even fit Champ’s character, but I’m slowly running out of all creativity.