Welcome to the Dungeon — The Story of Strappin’ Jack Hawthorne

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“Bart’s Best Burn Butter is the best,” said RockNass, the pasty faced dwarf with the big booty, as he adjusted his two horned helm.

“It’s not the best,” said Kragnar. The tall, dark barbarian wore a helm with a short, curved single horn coming out of his forehead.

“What do you use?” asked the dwarf.

“Barney’s Badass Burn Butter. Barney told me his mother swears by it. It’s gotta be good if a mom would put it on her kid.”

RockNass gave him a stare as blank as a freshly painted wall. Then he asked, “Does it have milk of poppy?”

“Of course.”

“How does it taste on burnt toast?”

“You put burn butter on burnt toast?” asked Kragnar, as he scratched his beard.

“Burnt toast settles your stomach, and I like my toast like I like my women. Nice and dark,” said the dwarf. “Hey, why does your helm have one horn? All beasts have two horns.”

“Not unicorns,” said Kragnar.

“That’s not a unicorn horn. There’s no such thing,” said RockNass.

“The word unicorn means one horn,” said Kragnar. “This is one horn.”

RockNass opened his mouth to say something, thought about it, and shut his pie hole.

A tall, wiry guy stood to off to the side, dressed in tight fitting black leathers. He casually leaned on a black, leather umbrella, as he listened to his colleagues babbling like a brook.

Barbarian’s got a point. He knows his etymology, and I bet he has a wicked head butt too, thought Professor ‘Strappin’ Jack Hawthorne, barely noticing the din of the crowd outside the tent.

Nobody could have known that under Jack’s black leathers, he was hairless. He had purchased the deluxe package last night at the Naked Barber where two topless nymphs had shaved his whole body. Jack couldn’t bear the smell of burning hair. It made him wanna puke, ever since…well, best not to go there.

Jack was one of four fighter thieves who had ‘volunteered’ for The Belman Crawl. Folks called them Crawlers, but Jack preferred the term Adventurers. Crawlers were unprepared idiots who crawled back out of the dungeon on their hands and knees. Not Jack.

The Belman Crawl was world re-knowned for one reason. The infamous Nictrotraxian had built a Pipe Organ of Pain® into it’s dungeon walls. The dragon used the nefarious contraption to direct his fiery breath into any room or corridor, with the press of a few buttons.

Jack, and the other three ‘volunteers’, were about to enter his hellish oven where they would be slow roasted like chickens, as they raced to retrieve a lucky artifact that would guarantee Belman’s success for the coming year. If they retrieved one, they would be let out of the labyrinth, and celebrated as heros. If they didn’t return with a boon, they were sacrificed to the dragon.

Each gold trophy was worth a small fortune, but Crawlers were contractually obligated to return their boon in exchange for a generous bounty.

Yeah right, thought Jack. We put our lives on the line. You can’t be generous enough.

“Twenty minutes to showtime,” shouted an assistant from the main stage entrance.

A large MageMirror, hanging on a nearby wall, caught Jack’s eyes as the words “The Magic Mirror Network” flashed across it in big golden letters. The scene faded to a fly over of the raucous crowd, then cut to two buxom peasant girls holding a sign that said “We Luv U Felicity”. One of the hotties was taking a selfie with her eyeMirror, probably to post to Magebook.

That’s a bit of a meta moment, he thought. She’s taking a picture of herself as somebody else takes one of her.

Jack’s mind drifted as he considered what was really going on here in Belman. Every year the “rescued” artifacts are exactly the same. That means the Mayor returns them to Nictotraxian. They must have a deal. No doubt the goddess Mycelia has her fingers in the pie too. She’s everywhere, literally. You can’t leave a bowl of porridge out without her getting in on the action.

There was just one problem.

Jack wasn’t going to return his artifact. Tonight, around midnight, he was going to hop on his magic sawhorse and fly out of town carrying his trophy, a cluster of golden bananas. It would save his floundering academic career and prove he wasn’t a nutter.

People usually laughed when he told them he studied “Primate Devolution”. Nobody wanted to fund his research. They thought he was a looney bird. Everybody “knew” humans evolved from monkeys. They were smarter, so they were better. Duh! The idea that people had devolved from monkeys was absurd.

But Jack had collected substantial body of evidence proving that a vast, ancient monkey civilization that had lasted more than ten million cycles. The key to its enduring success was that it hadn’t been too smart for its own damn good, unlike it’s human counterparts.

In just a few hours, I will have the Golden Bananas. Then they’ll know I’m not a fruitcake.

A tall red headed woman slipped into the tent. Nobody else noticed her sudden appearance.

Felicity has arrived.

Goddess, she is spectacular.

Her fiery red hair was tucked under a leather cap and she wore skintight leathers. Black coal outlined her eyes. Blood red runes from the ice tribes of the south covered her forehead, marking her as a shield maiden. He recognized Elhaz, a protection rune that looked like elk horns.

Jack’s heart felt like a freshly baked croissant every time he saw her. This woman had more guts than the three guy crawlers combined. She was dying of cancer, but kept crawling so she could pay her daughter’s way through technomagical school.

He nodded in deference, and she nodded back.

Stevnil Kroklheim, ace reporter with the Magic Mirror Network, stepped between them and the moment vanished into time like a twig thrown into a raging stream.

“We’re live backstage with Felicity the Fierce,” said Stev.

Jack turned to watch her MMN interview live on the big mirror.

The MMN paid a fukton of gold for exclusive rights to broadcast this “sacred rite” to the huge audience of humans, and monsters, who tuned in to watch the festival on their eyeMirrors.

“They are something, aren’t they?” said an elderly voice.

Jack turned to see Jasper Witherspoon, his personal assistant for the day. The old man’s eyes gleamed brightly.

“Magemirrors?” asked Jack, as he turned back to watching the show. “Yes, they are technofantabulous.”

“When I was a boy only rich people could afford a hand mirror. Then the technomagi invented silvering, now every peasant has one,” said the old spry coot.

“I remember huddling around the family’s tiny black and white hand mirror trying to watch my favorite plays. Now everybody carries a color MageMirror in their pocket,” said Jack, as he paused to think. “How did folks use to see their reflections?”

“Poorly. When I was a boy, all we had was ponds, puddles and buckets,” said Jasper.

“I don’t mind what it did for the women folk though,” said Jack.

The old geezer laughed, glancing over at Felicity. “Made ’em a might bit prettier, if I do say so myself.”

“Who could have guessed that putting a hand mirror in every home would cause a Beauty Revolution?” said Jack.

“Now we have the prettiest women in the world,” said Jasper. “And it’s all possible because of the power of Mycelia, Goddess of Connections. Mycelia be praised!”

“Indeed. Her mycelial network already connected her priests throughout the kingdom,” said Jack. “Together, with the Technomagi, she created the greatest communication network ever.”

“Are you old enough to remember when every shire had an oracle?” asked Jasper.

“Yeah,” said Jack. “But now none of them can compete with the Great Googol Oracle.”

“She’s the most trusted adviser in the land,” said Jasper.

“I consult her every day. It’s so bizarre you can ask her any question and she’ll tell you the answer,” said Jack. “It’s the closest to omniscience our species has ever been.”

“Now she’s starting to answer questions before you ask them…” said Jasper.

“She tries,” said Jack. “Some folks think she might be the death of books.”

Jasper just shook his head sadly, as the two men stood watching Felicity’s interview on the big mirror.

“Know what the wyrdest part is?” asked Jack, noticing a movement out of the corner of his eye.

“Waz that?” asked Jasper.

“Sky Eyes. Technomagi are watching me all day through invisible, flying eyeMirrors,” said Jack. “And everybody with a MageMirror can see what they see.”

“Like that one hovering next to Stev as he interviews Felicity?” asked Jasper nonchalantly.

“Yea,” Jack saw a Sky Eye out of the corner of his eye. He looked directly at it and it disappeared. When he looked off to the side again, the floating eye was still there. “Damn strange.”

“Don’t they get annoying?” asked Jasper. “They seem kind of like big eye flies.”

“The only time I got any privacy today was when I used the Facilitrees. It’s the price of fame I reckon,” said Jack. “I’m glad they only follow me for a day.”

Jack pulled out a piece of paper. “One moment. I need to make sure I have everything.“ He began going through his checklist on last time.

Gold wire. Check.

10 lbs of sand. Check.

Walking stick with a steel rod core. Check.

Sepsis cream. Check.

60 feet of climbing rope knotted at 2 foot intervals. Check.

“Sticks to Everything Except Skin and Hair” tape. Check.

Leather gloves coated in hardened tree sap. Check.

Metal sheet. Check.

Waterskin. Check.

Leather umbrella. Check.

He smiled at that one. It was the ace up his sleeve.

For the past six months, Strappin’ Jack had been planning and preparing for the Belman Crawl. He had made countless practice runs in a dungeon mockup, and could navigate the route blind.

“Mind giving me a hand with this?” asked Jack. Jasper grunted as he helped lift the heavy pack, then Jack adjusted it’s shoulder and waist straps to ensure optimal weight distribution.

“That’s a nice backpack,” said Jasper.

“Thanks. I think it’s the most perfect backpack ever built. I know, because I designed it,” Jack said with a smile. “It has easy to access pockets in all the right places. Oops, looks like it’s showtime.”

Jasper stepped off to the side, as Stev finished interviewing Felicity and came over to talk with Jack.

“We’re here with world reknowned explorer, Strappin’ Jack,” said Stev. “He’s is one of the Belman heroes. Jack, why are you risking your life to bring fertility to this small town?”

“It’s something to do when I’m not reading,” said Jack.

A shiver visibly ran through Stev’s body. “I love it when you talk that, Jack. Folks, for those of you who don’t know, Jack reads A LOT. Jack, you’re about to match wits with the dragon Nictotraxian and his minions. What are you going to do when the sadistic showman begins playing his Pipe Organ of Pain and fireballs start shooting down the corridors?”

“I have a surprise or two up my sleeves,” said Jack.

“Oooohhhh. Surprises! We love a good surprise!” said Stev. “Make sure to tune into Jack’s feed so you can see what he has in store for Nicto and his minions. When the first Crawler…”

“I prefer adventurer…” said Jack.

“Of course,” said Stev. “After the first adventurer grabs an artifact, Nicto begins escalating his savage song of fire, in a growing crescendo of pain. How do our heros protect themselves from dragon fire AND monsters?”

“Well Stev, chain mail offers protection from monsters, but its heavy and hot. Dragon hide armor is ideal. It’s lightweight and fireproof, but costs a King’s ransom. The deeper we get into the dungeon, the hotter it gets. We prefer a light breathable layer of leather that balances comfort and protection with mobility. Most of us try to get in and out as fast as possible, and focus on pain management.”

“Like burn butter. What’s your favorite brand?”

“I don’t use burn butter. I prefer to not get burned.”

“You’re always thinking outside the box! I love it,” said Stev. “Jack you’re an expert on Belman history. How did all this begin?”

“The Belman Crawl started out as an equinox rite celebrating the spring planting. Farming families gathered to beseech Mycelia for her mycorrhizal blessing upon the community.”

“Praise be to Mycelia!” said Stev. “Jack, I love the history lesson, but we only have one minute left, so I have to ask again. Why are you here?”

“Stev,” Jack said, then paused. He knew nobody cared he was about to make the greatest anthropological discovery in history. So he said, not untruthfully, “I had to go to bed hungry when I was a kid. It sucked poopie cow udders. I want to put food in those kids bellies, so they don’t ever have to feel like I did.”

“You’re a real hero Jack, and Belman can’t thank you enough. I know everyone is dying to tune into your eye feed and see what surprises you have in store for us. May the Players favor you! Back to you Aidel,” said Stev.

“Showtime!” shouted an assistant.

“Best of luck to you master,” said Jasper, as he bowed slightly.

Jack nodded appreciatively. Hearing the rich baritone voice of the Mayor begin to introduce him, he headed to the stage entrance.

“He has a Master’s in Dungeon Environmentalism and a Doctorate in Primal Anthropology from Hedgington University, where he studies Human Devolution from Monkeys. Let’s give a warm Belman welcome to our first hero, Strappin’ Jack,” said the Mayor.

Jack strolled out onto stage and was greeted with moderate applause and the usual chuckles, which he ignored.

“Hope it doesn’t rain in the dungeon,” shouted an oaf in the front row.

Jack just smiled. Between clenched teeth he said, “I am not a looney bird,” as he waved, then stood by the Mayor’s podium.

The Mayor was a short, fat man’s with the top hat was the tallest Jack had ever seen.

He’s probably overcompensating…

Jack glanced at the robust guard standing by the iron grated door to the dungeon. A sign over the threshold read “Die UnterWelt.”

His mind filled with visions of glory. In a few hours, the Players willing, he would present that man with his golden boon. Then he would step out of the dungeon, artifact held high, and the crowd….

The crowd exploded in applause and cheers. Kragnar and RockNass were already on stage. Felicity was making her big entrance.

Running across the stage, she slapped fan hands then pumped her hands up and down, hooting and hollering. The face of the warrioress filled the big screen mirrors surrounding the town square. Another wave of raucous shouting and hand waving swept through the crowd.

That woman knows showbiz, thought Jack. Good for her. She’s the scion of hope we need so badly in these dark times.

“Lots have been drawn and Felicity the Fierce, will be the first to enter the Dungeon. May the Players favor you!” the Mayor said as the savvy red head disappeared into the gloomy tunnel.

“Strappin Jack, you are second,” said the Mayor. “May the Players favor you!”

As he descended the steps into the dungeon, he began singing his favorite Wands and Roses song. It was the one he sang to pump himself up. “Welcome to the Dungeon, we’ve got fun and games…”

The air was breathable near the entrance, but soon it would be stifling.

Nearing the bottom of the stairs, Jack smelled bleach. It was indicative of Purpura Lumens, a purple bioluminescent fungi that grew near dungeon entrances.

As his eyes adapted to the darkness, Jack was impressed by their light. Fungi didn’t usually glow this brightly, but the Belman dungeon was known for its vibrant and diverse ecosystem.

I wish I could grab a sample. But time’s a wasting. he thought.

In the first room he entered, two hench guides stood waiting for him, thanks be to the Players.

Henchfolk were employees of Dungeon Master Inc., or DMI, the company that ran the kingdom’s dungeons. As such, they were protected by worker safety laws. Henchies could be stabbed, sliced and jabbed, but they couldn’t be burnt, singed, dismembered, gorged, maimed, tortured or killed. Even better, they got free healing for any job related injuries.

I wish I had their benefit plan, thought Jack.

These hench guys were skilled fighters and navigators. They would be saving his ass today.

The first man stepped forward to shake Jack’s hand. He had a red beard and carried a two handed axe. “I’m Cackledee Doodlewax, but you can call me Number One,” he said.

The second henchman had a handsome blond mullet. He carried a sword in his hand and a shield on his back. “Uberrogerstein Heckltisnog, but you can call me Number Two,” he smiled, and Jack shook his hand firmly.

Both wore winged helmets as charms of speed to carry their sacred charge through his trial as fast as possible.

After reviewing the game plan, the small crew headed down the next passage, with the swordsman taking point.

Ye Old Cave O’ Crystal

From the sounds of fighting coming down the tunnel, Number Two had just killed a goblin.

As Jack waited for the tunnel to be cleared, visions of last night’s party at The Naked Barber drifted into his head.

That was a top ten experience for sure, he mused as he thought about the two comely lasses and their razors. I’m glad I did that. Burnt hair makes me…

His stomach felt like a rocking boat on a wide open sea.

Head in the game! he mentally slapped his face as the hench dude tossed him a bloody coin he’d pulled off the dead goblin.

All goblins carried a gold coin to pay Gobiltigax, the goblin Lord of the Dead. It was the entry fee into Arsalla, the great amusement park of the afterlife. For the price of one measly gold coin, they got an eternity of free entertainment and “all you can eat” buffets.

Taking their admission coin usually meant some poor goblin would spend eternity waiting in line to get in, but never being able to do so.

Jack should have cared about what Monster Rights activists called “the native people”. As an anthropologist, he was super sensitive to other cultures. But he hated goblins, especially after what they had done to his mother and father. Anyhow, they had a “respawn while in dungeon” clause in their contract, so it wasn’t like they really died.

The end of the passage glowed blue. It was one of many crystal caverns scattered throughout this dungeon. Movement through these treacherous areas was always slow.

I should have brought kneepads, Jack thought.

Within the hour, Jack would enter the Chamber of the Three Wise Monkeys. After he grabbed a “Speak No Evil” statue, completing his set, he would go get The Golden Bananas.

As he entered the crystalline chamber, Jack scanned the floor. It was covered in glowing crystalline daggers. He cringed as he thought about landing on one of those with a knee, then he noisily jammed his heavy walking stick into the floor to balance himself.

Hench pro numero uno put a finger over his lips and pointed into a far corner. Jack saw a large mound moving up and down. It was the cavern guardian, a dormant crystal golem.

Jack struggled to see the path in front of him. Jagged crystals pressed painfully into the soles of his feet as he made his way towards the cavern’s exit.

If that thing wakes up, it’s gonna to be a nightmare trying to fight it as we make our way out.

As if by deus ex machina, Jack glanced down and noticed the dim outline of a pair of boots by the chamber exit.

Blessed be the Players!

They had sent him a minor boon. He grabbed them as he headed into the tunnel.

The boots fit perfectly, had great ankle support and thick soles. Wow, that’s unbelievably convenient, he thought.

His hench bro walked up, handed him another gold piece, then headed back down the tunnel. Jack’s eyes were now accustomed to the dark, and the golden light of this tunnel’s fungus was almost uncomfortable.

I’ve never seen so many species of fungi in one dungeon, he thought. How do they survive the dragon fire?

Strappin’ Jack was starting to feel giddy. Gods I’m psyched. This is my big day!

A blast of hot air hit him in the face.

Dragon’s breath could be headed his way.

It’s just a drill. Soon it will be real.

Jack calmly ‘dropped and popped’. The black umbrella burst open in front of him.

Muffled curses of pain echoed in the distance. He imagined RockNass the dwarf trying to extinguish his smoking beard and almost gagged.

Hope Bart’s Best Burn Butter is working for you buddy, he thought. Butter on burns? That’s so last century. Anybody with half a brain knows a wand of Lesser Frost provides superior first aid. Better yet, don’t get burned in the first place!

Sweat stung his eyes, and he paused to wipe his brow.

“All clear,” Hench bro #1 said. The man hadn’t even flinched at the threat of dragon fire.

Lucky bastard.

Jack paid particular attention to his weight distribution as he got to his feet. He didn’t want to throw his back out. Gods this pack is heavy. I can’t wait to dump some of this weight.

“Mind carrying this for a bit?” he said.

“What’s in here?” groaned the henchie as he hoisted the pack onto his back.

“Our ticket out of here,” Jack said, as he took a giant swig of water. “Guard it with your life.”

The Unusual Trap

Jack checked his bandages. The last three rooms had been rough. They had fought a large brown bear with a preying mantis head.

I hate bugbears, he thought. I wonder what drugs The Monster Creation division at DMI was on when they genetically engineered those things?

He pulled out his sepsis cream and began applying it to a small bite on his calf.

A goblin had snuck up behind him and bit him as he fought a four headed snake that spat lightning. He’d crushed the little bugger with his steel cored walking stick. The bite was barely noticeable, but it would have killed him in two weeks. Thanks to modern advances in healing, he’d be okay.

The Chamber of the Three Wise Monkeys had included a puzzle trap. Jack hated puzzles. Fortunately he found the solution on MeTube.

While there he had grabbed the third statue, See No Evil, and completed his collection. He triggered a poison dart trap, but fortunately his leather umbrella caught the hallucinogenic Kalijari dart before it stabbed him. Otherwise things would be getting seriously mythical right about now. He stuffed the dart in his pack for later, when the set and setting were better. It was a really bad idea to go on a shamanic journey in a place like this.

Now here he was in THE room. It felt as hot and humid as the northern jungles felt on the worst of days. But he was excited. Minutes from now, he would be holding an honest to gods revelation in his hand. Then everybody would know he wasn’t a nutter.

A forty foot statue loomed above him. The Great Ape glowed with a purple light. It’s yellow eyes were eerily lit, and the giant statue seemed to be watching him.

This had once been the second most important deity in the ancient monkey civilization. Inside it’s head was a priceless artifact that would topple the long held belief that people were the only species that mattered.

He snapped a quick selfie with his eyeMirror, making sure to get the head in the background.

Hench bro numero uno scaled its nose, then climbed into the left eye.

“Watch out for that upper lip. It’s a bit slippery,” he said as he tossed down the knotted climbing rope.

Minutes later Jack clambered over the edge and slid into a chamber that was about 20 feet across and 8 feet tall.

In the middle of the room was a raised dais and an altar. A cluster of golden bananas, nestled in a tripod, sat on top of it. They glowed like concentrated sunlight.

Jack had drilled this scenario countless times in his dungeon mockup. He had studied every recording on MeTube, and interviewed every Crawler he could find. Now, his training kicked in.

First he put his walking stick in the groove where the portcullis would drop. It’s steel core would keep the gate from barring his escape.

Next, he cast a “Reveal Magic” cantrip. Cantrips were low level utility spells even thieves could use. It confirmed there were no magical traps in this room.

He avoided the obvious pressure plate on the floor in front of the Golden Bananas. If it was depressed, it would drop the portcullis. Everybody knew about this trap. It was designed to be obvious.

It was the more subtle traps he had to watch out for.

A few good whacks on the edge of the altar stone shaped his metal sheet. Then he attached it over the vent hole using his “Sticks to Everything Except Skin and Hair” tape. It would redirect any surprise blasts of dragon fire. Then he stepped behind the dais.

The “Golden Banana Fails” on MeTube showed crawlers trying to grab the bananas. Their body would go rigid, and anybody who tried to help them would get shocked too. One crawler had tied a rope around his waist and had his hench wench pull him away, but a blast of dragon fire had still roasted him like a chicken. Nobody had successfully deactivated the trap.

Jack hoped he would be the first.

He pulled on the leather gloves coated with the milky sap of a special tree. It’s sap formed a flexible covering that would protect him from the electricity running through the stand.

“This is your moment,” he breathed deeply. “You are about to make the most important anthropological discovery of all time. Fuck yeah.”

He opened his dragon hide firebrella and set it next to the pedestal. Always have a plan A,B,C and D.

This trap had a hidden trigger and Jack thought he knew what it was. Carefully he wove the gold wire between the arms of the tripod. Now the electrical circuit wouldn’t break and alert the dragon.

Next, Strappin’ Jack had to quick swap the statue with the sand bag.

He calculated the average volume of a banana, used mathemagic to figure out its weight in gold then converted that into sand. He made ten marks up the side of his sand bag, each representing the weight of one banana. So, how many marks worth of sand did Jack remove from his bag?

He’d been working out his left arm so it could heft the heavy bag, while his right arm grabbed the bananas.

Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose as he reverently reached out, and quick swapped the bag. Then he stuck the bananas in his bag and grabbed the firebrella.

As he shifted his feet, he heard a stone click and froze.

Goblin poo. It was hidden trap.

But nothing happened.

It’s probably a release trap. He tried not to shift his weight.

Or it could just be an alarm button.

Jack felt the blast of hot air before fire exploded from the vent, curving around the edge of the chamber.

The sharp sting of a Fire Wasp stung Jack in his lower back. He almost blacked out as agony filled his body with an electric pain.

What the…?

Time slowed, as the flame slowly unfurled around the room.

His heart thundered like a war drum and each beat pumped more of IT into his system, whatever IT was.

He tried to crouch behind the firebrella and brace for the blast, but his hands and arms weren’t moving fast enough. The jet of flame hit an outcropping of stone at the back of the room, and billowed towards him. The orange, yellows and blacks were as hypnotic as snake eyes.

The pain…unimagineable…can’t….

Move! He felt entombed in a block of ice.

Another heartbeat moved the juice out of his chest and into his arms.

The fire billowed closer.

His heart beat again, and he could feel the juice flow into his forearm.

Not the face! Please…not the face.

Another heartbeat, and the warming power of the juice was in his wrists. They barely moved, but it was enough.

Jack blinked. It felt like he had jumped off a cliff into a fiery lake of lava and would never come up for air again.

Not going to do die! Not going to die!!!

When he opened his eyes, the dragon hide firebrella was the center of a giant orange and yellow sunflower stretching from the floor to the ceiling.

Then he was flying backward and a hammer crashed into the back of his head.

When he awoke, his head felt like a tiny homonculous was nailing a picture to the inside of his skull. He was being lowered out of the Great Ape’s eye.

A muffled voice, like somebody had their head stuck in a bucket of water, was shouting “gggggeeeeeeddddd oooooouuuuu eeeefffoooorrr…nnnoottthhhherrr bbbrrrraaassstttt.”

Jack hated speed poisons. They caused serious temporal distortions. They made everything seem super slow, but in reality he was just going faster.

If I can survive the next ten minutes without my heart exploding in my rib cage…

No doubt, the dragon had meant for a would be thief to watch their doom unfurl before them, knowing they were going to die horribly. Instead, it had probably saved Jack’s life.

“Uuuuuuuuuuuu ggggggaaaaaaaa dddddddiiiiissssss,” said Number Two.

These henchies are going to get a hell of a tip if I make it out of here alive.

Thank the Players, Jack’s wizard pal had loaned him that dragon hide umbrella. He just might get out of here without being roasted like a kakamara.

Kakamara? Where did that come from?

Then Jack noticed the third eye in hench bro numero uno’s forehead. It blinked lazily. Jack shifted his gaze downwards.

Uh oh.

He must have jabbed himself with the hallucinogenic Kalijari dart.

Shit…is…about…to…get…mythical. Seriously mythical. And there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.

The Hero’s Journey Plus Eleven

Jack had studied with the shamans of the northern jungles in the lands where night and day were always the same length.

They taught him Rule #1 on a shamanic journey is: “When the plant teachers speak, you listen.”

Rule #2 is: “No matter what happens, no matter how terrifying, say thank you.” If you fought their lesson you would lose and maybe even go insane.

The purple fungi on the walls were the most vibrant purple he had ever seen.

How can purple be more purple?

Jack felt the ancient intelligence of the fungus covering the walls. It’s species had survived for hundreds of millions of years. Now it thrived in dragon fire.

The ominous sound of beating drums resonated in the tunnel like a heartbeat. No wait, that was his heartbeat. A wave of golden light flew through tunnel’s fungus, followed by another pulse.

Then Jack had an epiphany.

The ancient monkey civilization is calling me.

He wasn’t just walking through a tunnel anymore he was…

How do I know I’m walking back through time?

Jack breathed deeply. Alrighty then. Here we go.

The golden waves were shooting through the tunnel faster and faster now.

Jack watched as the wings on his henchmens’ helms flapped to life. He sensed that the shutters on his windows of perception had opened and he was seeing things for how they really were. These men were messengers of the gods sent to protect him on his sacred journey.

“We got you sire,” Hench baby sitter #2 stood in front of the next corridor. “Don’t worry. You’re safe with us…”

There was a burst of golden light and suddenly Jack was climbing a step pyramid in the deep jungles. He was cradling the golden bananas in his hands when he heard the voice.

“You presume to be the Keeper of the Golden Bananas.”

Jack bowed his head, and said “Yes. I humbly seek their wisdom so that I might save my people from certain doom.”

A giant fruit cake shaman stood squarely in front of him, his black diamond eyes glittering as he held a giant banana staff.

“We’ll see,” he said flatly.

Then he hit Jack hard in the gut.

Jack folded like an envelope and began puking.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Whapow! Keerack!!!

The fruit cake turned into a nut and whacked Jack right in the kidneys. Jack reeled with pain, puking over and over.

“Thank you?” it asked.

The nut shape shifted into a very awkward looking bird with a massive beak. “Don’t be clever. You are not worthy. You are nothing compared to the noble Felicity.”

“I…I am trying,” said Jack.

“There is no try. Either do or do not. Duh dude!”

The loony bird whacked him again, this time with his very, very long beak. Jack struggled to breathe.

Gods this jungle air is hot.

His mouth was stuffed with bird feathers. A waterfall of hot saltwater poured into his eyes, blinding him. He closed his eyes and to find himself swimming in an ocean of fiery pain.

The muffled voice of a henchmen in the background said, “Just keep walking boss. We’re close to the crystal cave.”

The vision sucked him back in as the shaman’s staff blossomed into seven huge golden bananas. Their skin looked like living, breathing jewels. Each banana wore a different expression. One glowered. One had his hands over his mouth in a look of surprise. Another had huge eyelashes and the biggest most luscious red lips Jack had ever seen.

“We are the Seven Great Bananas gods of the monkey people. For thirteen million cycles, we lived together in harmony.

“We taught them to harness fire and mold metal. So they made this magical container in the only metal that glows with the golden light of the Sky God, the great Giver of Life. Then they invited us into the relic we now call home.”

“Boss,” came a voice. “We need you to focus. The crystal golem is awake.”

The seven bananas melted into each other and became one. A burst of fire erupted behind them, almost searing Jack’s face off.

His jaw dropped in awe as the shimmering blue fist of the Guardian of the Bananas swung at his head. He was yanked back by his shirt, and noticed how good the breeze felt as the hammer nearly missed him.

“Boss. Boss!”

Jack was being shaken. The hallucination faded and Jack saw a huge pile of crystals about to crush Hench Bro Numero Uno. The blow deflected off his shield, but sent the man painfully down on one knee.

“Your boots! The Players foresaw this moment. Cross the room while we distract this golem. We’ll catch up if we can. You got this?”

“I do,” said Strappin’ Jack.

Jack struggled to maintain his balance. His eyes swam in a kaleidoscopic cascade as pretty waves of light flowed through the crystalline floor. He felt like a sea anemone swirling in an ocean tide pool. Fortunately, his footing was true and he made it to the other side.

Thank the Players. If not for their gifts…

He looked over his shoulder. His noble henchmen were fighting fiercely.

Hot damn they look manly. They are the manliest men I’ve ever seen. Ever. In my entire life. No men are manlier than these men.

Jack stumbled forward down the corridor. If he hadn’t practiced it so many times…but he had, and the path was etched in his muscle memory.

Moments later, he was in the first room where he had met his manly hench heroes.

Getting close now. If only I had some water…

A ball of fire burst out of the wall, hitting him on the back, knocking him to the floor. He crawled towards the exit tunnel.

The smell of bleach was almost overwhelming. Purple waves flowed along the floor, pulling him in their current. The ancient intelligence seemed to be cheering him on. His queasiness had vanished.

There is no try, he thought as he crawled up the steps of this pyramid. Only this time it was different.

Jack’s lungs filled with cool, sweet air.

He pulled himself up on the iron gate at the top of the stairs, and stood on wobbly legs. There was no way in the seven hells he was going to crawl out of this place. By the gods, he was an adventurer, not a crawler.

Struggling, he pulled the artifact out of his pack, and showed it to the guard. The robust, armor clad banana examined them.

Keep your shit together, man.

Then the bellicose banana flung the grated door open.

“Our champion has returned victorious!” he announced.

Trumpets blared as Jack stepped out in front of a crowd of wildly cheering bananas. Their golden light was as bright as the sun, and he winced in their glory. Then he stumbled forward, grinning stupidly from ear to ear.

A visible Sky Eye floated in front of him and Jack yelled at it triumphantly. His face reflected on the jumbo mirrors surrounding the town square. Another cheer went up.

A short, fat plantain, wearing an absurdly tall top hat, came over and raised Jack’s arm in victorious celebration. “The Players be praised! Strappin’ Jack Hawthorne has returned with a boon!”

The bananas went wild.

I am worthy. Thank you! Thank you!!!

Two medical bananas escorted the deliriously triumphant Jack to a cot back stage to lie down, get healing and rehydrate.

Jack lay on his stomach on a cot, quenching his thirst with hearty draughts of the finest root beer he had ever had. It had hints of wintergreen, sassafras, and juniper berries.

I wish that healer would hurry up, he thought.

It took a while for everybody to stop looking like bananas, during which time Felicity and RockNass emerged from that treacherous hell hole, treasures in hand. Kragnar’s feed had just stopped and things didn’t look good for the barbarian.

When it came time to exchange his artifact for his reward, Jack reached into his bag’s secret pouch. He pulled out the counterfeit cluster of lead bananas he had painted gold, and casually exchanged them for his bounty of fifteen gold coins.

There’s no way I’m parting with the real artifact, not after what I sacrificed today. Not with what is at stake.

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

Jack walked out back to the hitching post where people kept their flying wheels, brooms and butter churns.

It was midnight and the town’s celebration was in full swing. Sounds of drunken joy floated out of the potion saloon as the piano played a bawdy tune.

Jack slung his treasure bags over his enchanted sawhorse, swung into its saddle, and put his feet in its stirrups.

Uttering the magic word “Heeeeyah!”, he leaned left as his mount rose and flew over Belman’s rooftops.

I did it! I actually fucking did it.

Jack thought about the look on the Mayor’s face when he returned the artifact to Nictotraxian. The dragon wouldn’t be happy when he smelled the “gold” statue. But Jack didn’t give a goblin’s poo about that damn dragon, not after what it had done to his brother.

But he should have.

There are few things one can know for certain in this world, but one of them is that if you steal from a dragon, it will come back to bite you.


For now, though, the only thing on Jack’s mind was publishing his revolutionary findings. Folks would never see themselves in a mirror the same way again.

Then the world would know, Jack wasn’t bananas.

— — —

I put a fukton of work into writing these. Now it’s your turn to give back. I would appreciate it if you give me a clap and share this with a friend so I can grow my audience. Thanks!

Explore the technomagical world of the Belman Chronicles in these other installments:

Welcome to the Dungeon — The Story of Strappin’ Jack Hawthorne

Kragnar the Barbarian — Kragnar goes hunting for the most valuable bushmeat in the kingdom, at the Belman Crawl.

Why Cheesus is My Lord and Savor — Dinosaurs, asteroids and the reason we can love.

The Strange Gift — There’s a sucker born every minute.

The Butterfly’s Shitstorm — Monster right’s activists’ small actions have big consequences when they help free a gobblin.



Donovan is a copywriter. He uses pomodoros every day, and writes the technomagical Belman Chronicles. He knows so much his brain is going to burst any day now.

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Donovan Rittenbach

Donovan Rittenbach


Donovan is a copywriter. He uses pomodoros every day, and writes the technomagical Belman Chronicles. He knows so much his brain is going to burst any day now.