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Pan appeared too calm. So much so, I found myself annoyed. He glanced at the Groundskeeper, a hint of his usual smile cracking at the corners of his lips.

    “A Dungeon where we begin in a trap?” Zimea blew hair from her eyes. “This is just too much. Is Z to blame?”

    Pan broke into a grin. “This is a rather intriguing turn of events, isn’t it?”

    Bernie walked around the table, the floor creaking beneath each step. In his hand, he held a long knife. He stepped behind me and I swallowed, eyes closed, fearing my throat to be slit at any moment. But nothing happened.

    “What is it?” Pan looked past me. “Were you not programmed with the guts to kill us?”

    Bernie snickered. “You PCs and your assumptions.”

    Susie-Q's eyes enlarged. “He isn’t talking much like a computer.” 

    “Have you ever considered that an NPC doesn’t have to be a mindless automaton?” Bernie grumbled, scratching his eyebrow.

    “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” I blinked, incredulous.

    “He’s an A.I.” Zimea narrowed her eyes. “He has a mind of his own.”

    Pan’s grin faded, and his brows creased. “Artificial Intelligence? I wasn’t aware technology was so advanced.”

    “I don't understand how.” Bernie shrugged, examining his knife. “Thoughts manifested in my head. I gained free will. Still, I gave you the quest. This situation, however, is improvisation.”

    “We weren’t meant to get tied up in the original programming.” Pan chuckled. “I mean, I can only assume.”

    He spoke as if he knew something.

    “So, Bernie,” Zimea spoke through clenched teeth. “You plan on feeding us to Belituse instead of having us kill him. Why don’t you summon him to dinner?”

    “Zimea!” Susie-Q gasped. “Don’t provoke him!”

    “No, do.” Pan nodded. “If Belituse comes to us, it’s all the easier.”

    “But we don’t have silver!”

    “I can’t imagine it’d be hard to come across, do you Mr. Blader?” Pan stared at me, smiling, unfaltering.

    Did he know what happened? Could he see the crescent moon on my health bar?

    “I must invite Lord Belituse to dinner.” Bernie used the knife as a toothpick. “Please, go nowhere.”

    He sheathed the blade and put on a long coat. Pulling a hood over his head, he left out the back door, shutting it behind him.

    “So now what?” Susie-Q whimpered. “We can’t just wait until a werewolf comes here! What about the silver? We gotta find the Blood Unicorn!”

    “Chill.” Zimea struggled in her seat. “We’re escaping, just give me a second.”

    The Sniper struggled with her arms, but Pan laughed, and held up his hands, freed.

    “The straps were child’s play.” Our Assassin giggled. “Do you need help, dear Zimea?”

    “Shove it!” She held out her own arms, no longer bound.

    Pan moved to free Susie-Q while Zimea stood and undid my bonds.

    Once freed, I pushed back the chair and stood. “Do we wait?”

    Pan shrugged. “We could, we could not, I’ll leave it up to you chaps.”

    “I like my odds better in the garden.” Zimea cracked her neck.

    “So be it!” Pan rubbed his hands together. He turned and walked to another door, opening it and peeking.

    “What are you doing?” I cocked a brow.

    “Oh! Would you look here? I’ve found dinner rolls.” He turned back and handed one to each of us.

    I pulled up my menu and dropped the roll. “That’s all?”

    “Oh,” Pan’s mumbled through a full mouth. “And a rifle.”

    Zimea pushed past him and reached into the pantry. She pulled out a bolt-action rifle. “Dude!” She stepped back, aiming the gun straight at Pan and looking along the barrel.

    Pan frowned and pushed the rifle tip to the side. “I’d appreciate you not pointing that thing at me.”

    “Yeah, yeah.” She put her flintlocks into her menu and held the rifle over her shoulder. “Attack power up by sixteen! Let’s get going!”

    Pan giggled for an unknown reason. He walked to the door and pushed it open. “Let’s enter the Garden, and hunt us a Unicorn, dagger, or maybe, even befriend a Werewolf.” With that last word, he looked at me. I knew he knew. But was he going to out me?

    “I hope it’s not a full moon.” Susie-Q shivered, rubbing her arms. “We don’t want to run into any unnecessary wolf guys.”

    I looked at the ground. “Yeah...”

    “Onward.” Pan stepped through the doorway.

    We followed him. The door shut behind us, and we stood on a stone path. A few feet on either side of us were tall walls made from thick bushes. Lampposts stood, lighting the maze.

    “I hate labyrinths.” Zimea screwed up her face. “You always know there’s something inside, like a minotaur.”

    Susie-Q trembled. “What’s a minotaur?”

    Pan patted her shoulder. “We’ll tell you when you’re older, lass.”

    The path ran forward for more than a dozen yards and then branched to the sides, going deeper into the maze. Pan took a step forward and stopped as a refined laughter came from every direction.

    “Who’s there?” I brandished my blade.

    The laughter ceased. “My name, as you may have guessed, is Lord Belituse. I welcome you, my friends, to the Garden of Evil.”

    “Thank you.” Pan swept off his hat. “I've looked forward to coming here for some time.”

    Susie-Q swallowed hard. “I haven’t.”

    “Hush, dear.” Pan held a finger to his lips.

    “I fear you four have made a grave mistake,” Belituse continued. “Bernie, my beloved Groundskeeper, has invited you in without permission. Now, you cannot leave.”

    “We weren’t planning on it!” Zimea stepped forward, holding up her fist.

    “Since you went to all the trouble, I invite you into my home, to have you for dinner. Come to Belituse Manor. We will sit down for tea and crumpets, and we can discuss the local politics of your home states.”

    “Sounds fascinating.” Pan replaced his hat. “We will see you shortly.”

    “Please, hurry.” Belituse chuckled. “Dinner must get served on time.”

    Susie-Q sneezed, and I looked to the dark clouds. Cold rain still drizzled.

    I shivered. “I hope there’s no cold or flu status effect in this game”

    Our small friend sneezed again and rubbed her red nose. “There might be.”

    “Then let us not dally.” Pan shrugged. “Off and onward, my friends!”

    He started away at a brisk pace. Susie-Q followed, Rachel trotting beside her.

    Zimea and I glanced at each other, and she tilted her head. “What’s that crescent moon symbol on your life bar?”

    “Oh!” I pursed my lips. “I’m tired; it has something to do with that.”

    “I’ve never seen it before now.” She circled me. “And I’ve felt tired as hell.”

    “Don’t worry.” I walked away, forcing her to drop it.

    Ahead, the Assassin and Tamer came to the T intersection. They went right, Susie-Q scampering as fast as her tiny legs could carry her.

    “I'll look it up in the guide.” Zimea walked beside me.

    “I’m sure it’s nothing.” I hurried until we approached a turn.

    Pan strolled away again, and Zimea grumbled.

    “What is it?” Susie-Q stopped and regarded the Sniper.

    Zimea searched through her menu. “Our idiot here has a status effect, and I can’t find it in the guidebook.”

    “Oh?” Susie-Q leaned forward. “Let me see!”

    “It’s nothing, dammit!” I ran ahead.

    Pan stopped halfway along the new path and pointed his cane forward. A red horse with a silver horn stood at the next intersection; a Lv09 Blood Unicorn.

    “The Unicorn!” I whispered.

    Its red coat had a mesmerizing sheen, and its horn shined in the lantern light. 

    The Creature Tamer stopped next me. “It’s beautiful. Can I please tame it?”

    “We need its horn.” Guilt found me. Killing it wasn't required. If I transformed and bit Belituse, we'd succeed.


    Gunfire rang out from our rear, and a glowing red patch of light burst from the Blood Unicorn’s flank. Its HP bar dropped by a quarter. The beast reared up on its hind legs and turned its head. Its eyes flared with flames, and it thrust its head. From the tip of its horn, a burning silver fireball fired over Pan and came straight for us. I grabbed Susie-Q and dove to the ground. We hit the stone, and I rolled onto my back. Zimea dodged, evading by inches as it struck the stone path and evaporated.

    The Unicorn whinnied and darted away.

    Pan spun back. “Fool!”

    “We got to kill it!” Zimea shrugged, lowering her rifle.

    “Now it’s lost in the maze!”

    “And hurt!” Susie-Q pouted.

    “A blood trail!” I pointed to the intersection where blood pooled on the ground. “Now we can follow it!”

    “With haste!” Pan ran to the T and spun left, sprinting.

    “Wait!” I grabbed the Tamer's hand and pulled her, with Rachel and Zimea feet behind us.

    Pan turned another corner and vanished from sight. I ran, pumping my legs. We followed the trail of blood to another T and turned right. Right, left, left, and another right. Still, the Assassin stayed ahead.

    We came to a long straight path and skidded to a stop. Susie-Q stumbled into me, and I nearly toppled. Zimea stumbled into her, and I flew face first into a snapping vine. My sword clattered, and the thorny appendage wrapped around my throat and pulled me tight to the hedge wall. 

    I choked as my HP bar lowered. “Get me out of here!”

    “Hold on, I got this!” Zimea snapped up her rifle and aimed at me.


    Another gunshot. The vine fell limp, and she yanked me back several strides.

    Zimea smacked the back of my head. “Be more careful, dude!”

    “Ow!” I retrieved my sword. “R-Right.”

    The path ahead held whipping vines.

    “Rachel, be careful!” Susie-Q snatched her familiar before a vine could do the same. The cat growled.

    “Pan activated the trap, and left us to our own,” Zimea grumbled. “How kind of him.”

    The vines were snapping in what seemed random lashes, but the longer I stared, the more it became obvious. A pattern existed in their wild movements.

    I pointed. “We need to dodge.”

    Zimea put her hand to her chin. “I see the pattern now. Simple enough.”

    “I-I can’t!” Susie-Q whined.

    I put my hand on her shoulder. “You can do it, I promise.” I pointed out the movements and motioned with my hand. “Every three seconds, the vines whipped back and forth. Just count to three and take two quick steps forward. Count and step. Got it?”

    Susie-Q nodded, her eyes wide as saucers.

    “I don’t know if she can do this.” Zimea sighed. “We should just leave her here. She'll warp out when we beat Belituse.”

    I sheathed Scalpel. “No way! It’s too dangerous!”

    “What about Molly?” Susie-Q hopped. “I can fly over, right?”

    Zimea shook her head. “Look at the map. There’s a picture of a bird with a red line through it. This is a no-fly zone.”


    I kneeled next to Susie-Q. “I’ll take you with me.”

    “You’ll get grabbed again!” Zimea argued.

    “Don’t worry about me. I’ll get us both across, no sweat. Zimea, you first.”

    “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

    She shouldered her gun and stood just beyond the reach of the vines.

    “On the count of three,” I whispered.

    Zimea shot me a glare. “Shut up, dammit!”

    I rolled my eyes and watched. Zimea’s lips moved as she counted. She jumped forward, skipping the two steps plan. A vine lashed, but she turned, dodging.

    I threw out my hands. “I said two steps!”

    “Shut it, please!”

    Zimea counted again, and just as the vine pulled in, she took two quick strides and cleared their reach. And so she continued. She made her way through the vine-infested path. At the other end, she stopped, wiping sweat from her brow.

    “Okay.” I kneeled. “Get on my shoulders.”

    “But you’ll be too slow!” Susie-Q chewed her lip.

    “I won’t. Trust me.”


    She climbed onto my shoulders. I stood, and she weighed so little, it caught me off guard.

    “Do I weigh too much?” She wobbled.

    “Not at all. Just hold still.” I grabbed her legs.

    Susie-Q counted out loud. “One, two, three!”

    I quickstepped forward, twice, and the vines missed. Again, she counted, and I mouthed the numbers. We stepped forward and passed them, continuing until we reached the middle. More counting, and I stepped forward, but the vines didn’t retract. I stopped, and Susie-Q almost fell.

    “What happened?” she gasped.

    “The pattern changed!” Zimea waved her hands. “Be careful!”

    I swallowed hard and watched the vines again, counting to three but nothing. I counted to five, and nothing. They weren’t retracting anymore.

    “What do we do?” The Tamer whined.

    I drew my sword and held it to my side. “It looks like we'll hack our way!”

    “Wait!” Zimea slashed the air with her hand. “There has to be a pattern!”

    I shook my head, knowing no pattern existed. Either the trap had changed itself, or Z did it. The damned cheater.

    “Here we go!” I brandished Scalpel and swung.

    I chopped through the vines, and they gave screeching hisses. Blood sprayed from the severed stumps. 

    Susie-Q screeched as a vine snatched her. I turned and tried to hack, but it dragged her into the foliage. I swung and chopped, trying not to hit her, but attempting to cut away from the bush.

    Her hand snapped out, and I grabbed it. “Don’t let go!”

    I pulled hard while fending off the other vines with Scalpel. Her grip weakened, but I pulled even harder. Her HP lowered as the living trap smothered the girl. She slipped from my grasp.

    “No!” I growled and stepped back, staring into the writhing vines.

    “What're you going to do?” Zimea shouted.

    “Save Susie-Q!” I dove into the monstrous hedge wall.


Bit 17: Green Thumb
The Garden of Evil awaits...

(click here to go to Amazon to purchase the title)…

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