Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Six: Addie Hears Something Strange
With the lights off and the curtains drawn, descending into the dark first-floor offices under Nate’s apartment is like slipping into a mine. Despite the brightness of the afternoon, the thick folds of fabric do an excellent job of blotting out the sun, and features I know well contort and stretch into corners of the space hidden from view.
I pull the curtain open a crack, giving sunny Myrick a determined, if tenuous, smile, and attempt to channel the sunshine into my mood. I may be on a mission, but it’s not like the guys don’t have enough to keep them occupied until I get back. Then I give the sunshine a scowl and pull the heavy blinds shut with a whoof. The great outdoors has no business being so cheerful, not when I’m such a tightly wound ball of nerves and caffeine and dread.
Whatever happens—whatever Bradley says to try to get me to stay—this time, it isn’t going to work.
It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be better.
I’m going to be better.
Pep talk complete, I turn back around to hunt for the missing submissions, but the force of my spin catches the curtain and cracks it again. For a moment, a beam of light illuminates Tristan’s intricate Do Not Enter sign guarding the door to his secret basement lair, making it glow like a beacon.
But there’s something new, something I’ve never noticed about that door before.
I fumble at the wall to my left until I find plastic, then flip, flooding the NDP offices with light and staring with dread at the dark crack of space beyond the door. The sight of this cracked door—so unusual and out of place—unsettles me.
Excellent. Now I’m literally jumping at shadows.
But I can’t help it. Because the space between the forbidden door and the jamb it’s always, always bolted against feels like a cavern, its darkness is ominous, and I can’t help the pounding of my heart. What’s down there?
I’m not afraid of the dark. Not really. It’s just that I strongly prefer being able to see whenever I choose to in unfamiliar surroundings. And right now I have a very odd feeling that I’m not supposed to be familiar with this particular darkness.
I march over to the door, resolved to close it. Surely this is a mistake. Tristan would never leave that door cracked, right? Not without an excellent reason. A vision of Tristan comes to mind, a memory of him slipping furtively through that crack and closing it tightly the moment his body didn’t prevent it. If the fact that he was heading right back up wasn’t a good enough reason to leave it open, he definitely wanted it closed.
But as I set my palm against the smooth surface, I pause. He’s an engineer, isn’t he? What if he’s ventilating the room, or running some experiment requiring an air sampling? What if he has a pet down there?
What the hell does Tristan do down there?
And had I only imagined the hint of static buzz beneath my hand when my skin made contact with the door?
I consider the fact that maybe I should go down to investigate—after turning the lights on. I consider whether it is or isn’t my moral and civic duty to make sure nothing has exploded and no one has been electrocuted. But I decide to leave the door just as I found it. Much as I might want to, and as good as I am at rationalizing just about anything, I can’t go down there.
There’s only one way to look at it: rummaging through an ordinary storage closet for lost treasure is one thing; deliberately disregarding Tristan’s scrupulously lettered Do Not Enter sign is quite another. It would be like digging through Duc’s emails when he’s not looking, or reading Nate’s journal. I wonder if Nate keeps a journal…
With a sigh, a final look of longing at the crack of shadow under the door, and a hearty congratulations for my truly admirable restraint, I slide my hand from the door and pivot to flip another set of lights on (to help with my search, of course). Finally spotting Tristan’s missing box of submissions on the recessed bookshelf, I perch on the couch-turned-stepstool and grab the thing.
As I wrap my arms around it, my eye catches on a very old book on the shelf, inconspicuously nestled between Stephen King’s On Writing and some sort of bound Time Bandits screenplay I’ll have to investigate later. The dull shine of its leather cover reminds me of a pair of caramel suede boots I once loved into the ground, and the lettering looks vaguely German—that old-school, stylistic type you sometimes find in old dictionaries—though I don’t recognize any of the characters.
I smile. How have I never looked at this shelf before? All sorts of fun things to explore.
Then another title catches my eye, and I pull the paperback off the shelf on impulse before performing a disembarking maneuver. But as I stand in the middle of the empty No Dragons Press offices, smiling at the pixelated sheep on the cover, I hear a loud thump on the ceiling and the paperback falls to the floor with a slap. I freeze, holding my breath and listening for frantic footsteps or shouting, but no one seems to have injured themselves too badly, because I don’t hear any rushing around to help injured colleagues or shouting for help.
Relaxing my shoulders, which have migrated somewhere in the proximity of my ears, I recover the paperback. But the time has come to sort submissions, I remind myself as I hoist the box in my arms and turn back to the stairs, shoving aside thoughts of closing relationships and opening doors. And speaking of exploring, I hope there’s something from Democritus in here. I would dearly like to observe Tristan making that particular discovery firsthand.
When I catch a hint of voices through the floor above me, I smile: Duc must be back from his post office run. I pad up the stairs, both dreading and weirdly fascinated by seeing what all the subs pooled together might look like.
But when I hear a gruff “—what you’re calling yourself now?” I halt my two-stair stride so quickly I almost don’t stop myself in time, and only a rapidly outstretched arm saves me from ramming face-first into either stairs or boxes.
That voice had not been friendly. It was icy cold, and filled with a sneer, and it definitely does not belong to any of my friends.
Then a chuckle. “You’re a long way from home,” the voice says. At least, I think it does. The heavy door is between us, and the voice is speaking softer now. Is it talking to Nate, Tristan, or some other terrifying villain voice actor? “And now that you’ve found him for us, your usefulness has reached its end.”
That I definitely heard well enough, and even if I got it wrong, the tone fills in any gaps I may have in understanding the message. Something about that tone does something to my legs that I’m not prepared for, and before I know it I’ve bounded up the final stairs and flung the door open and launched myself halfway into the room.
Where three very large men stop aiming three very large guns at Nate and aim them at me instead.