The old wardrobe rattled in place. A shimmy. A shake. Then the doors burst open and a great big lion of a man fell out of it, covered in snow. He got to his feet, brushing the snow off his shoulders and fixed his suit jacket. He closed the wardrobe behind him and, taking a moment to center himself, exited the room into Floor 5.
“Good morning, children. How is…”
The floor was a mess. There was debris everywhere and a hole in the ceiling that went two floors up. Another typical day for Hero Prep.
“That’s right, keep sweeping, kids,” Kavita said in a sing-song voice. “Remember, cleaning up is a part of growing up!”
“Oh, Leon! Um, what a great time… for you to join us… heh heh.”
“I see your first day as RA is going well,” Leon said, stepping out of the way of more falling debris.
“Oh this? Nah, this is just a hiccup. We’ll get this all sorted out in no time and then I can go look for…”
“The… missing… kids…”
Kavita’s face turned blue. Not literally of course. She fanned herself and tried her best not to hyperventilate.
“Kavita, are you alright?” Leon asked.
“Yes. Yes! Just remembered I have an important thing to do. Sorry I can’t stay and chat,” Kavita said, handing her broom off to Zamir.
“Kavita. Relax. You’re doing just fine. You stay here on your floor. I’ll locate our wayward youths.”
“Oh, thank you, Leon. Thank you. You’ve been so understanding through all this,” Kavita said, clapping her hands together in thanks.
“Nobody gets it right the first time. I remember when I was an RA here,” Leon wistfully mused.
“Did the ceiling ever come down on your head?” Kavita asked.
“No. It was quite boring actually. Nothing of note happened.”
“But, this is not the end of the world. Okay? You’re doing good,” Leon said. It was then he realized that the elevator was gone. “Um, where did the elevator…”
“Miss Kavita, I’m getting splinters,” Zamir whined.
“Splinters build character!” Kavita hissed.
“Right. I’ll leave you to it, then,” Leon said, sneaking away.
“New guy isn’t looking so good,” Deka said.
Esteban pulled at his hair, totally about to freak out.
“Jeez, relax, man. It’s just a giant gate,” Pedro said.
“Exactly! It’s huge! How is this here? Why is this here? How did you throw that giant snake? Why is there a giant snake? How did you survive the elevator crash?”
“How did you survive the elevator crash?” Pedro asked. Esteban paused at that.
“I… I don’t know.”
“He’s either really tough or really lucky,” Deka said, stretching her shoulder muscles. “Doesn’t matter. What does matter is we figure out what’s on the other side of that gate.”
“I thought we were trying to leave this place,” said Pedro.
“Yeah. Eventually,” Deka replied.
“Ugh, I’m not getting sucked into another one of these adventures,” Pedro huffed. “It’s Hero Prep, not LARP the heroes of old. Look at it. ‘Ooo’ and ‘aaa’ at it. Then let’s go.”
“You’re never going to move past Hero Prep with that kind of attitude,” Deka observed.
“Who says I want to?” Pedro shot back.
“How are both of you so okay with all of this? Are you… are you part of all this?” Esteban asked.
“You’re not being very specific, new guy,” Pedro commented.
“Why aren’t you freaking out like me? You know this isn’t normal, right?” Esteban asked.
“Of course it’s not normal. It’s a giant gate,” Pedro replied.
“A giant gate that demands to be opened,” Deka said, almost drooling.
“I’ve gotta be dreaming, right?” Esteban wondered.
“If you are, can you dream us up a way out of here? I want to get unpacking before it gets any later,” Pedro said with a yawn.
“Man, you two are so boring. I’m. Opening. This. Gate,” Deka said, clapping her last sentence for emphasis.
“How?” Pedro asked.
“Well, it’s got a giant lock. It must have a giant key that goes with it,” Deka said.
“Normally I’d agree, but it’s also got weird runes and sigils all over it. It might be mystically protected too,” Pedro offered.
“How did I survive that fall?” Esteban wondered to himself.
“Well then, I’ll just have to crack those too,” Deka said, before charging off toward the gate.
“Dang it. All right, let’s follow her. The longer she’s left alone, the more trouble she’ll get into.”
“It was six stories at least. Maybe more.”
“Hey, you coming, new guy?” Pedro asked.
“Yeah. Yeah. I guess.”
It took five whole minutes to get to the gate. Deka reached it first and had been punching it for a full minute before Pedro and Esteban arrived.
“This thing is super tough! I don’t know how I’m gonna get it open at this rate,” Deka said, still punching the gate.
“Maybe try using your head for once,” Pedro offered.
“You calling me dumb?” Deka snapped.
“No, just single minded.”
“Oh. That’s not so bad.”
Pedro reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a little gold cylinder. He twisted it and it popped, turning into two connected cylinders. Then he pulled it and it extended into a full set of binoculars. Esteban was dumbfounded. Again.
“I call it Flexi-glass,” Pedro said with a self-assured grin. “The lenses are so flexible I can make them as compact as I want.”
“But. Wha?” was all Esteban could muster.
Pedro scanned the face of the gate. “Up there,” he pointed. “There’s a platform with a bunch of warding sigils around it.”
“Nice going, Pedro,” Deka said.
“That’s so high up! How are we going to,” Esteban was cut off when Deka grabbed him by the waist and hoisted him and Pedro up under her arms. Then she leapt 40 feet straight up and onto the platform.
“That’s how it’s done,” Deka said.
“You can stop screaming now, new guy,” Pedro said.
Esteban chose to continue screaming.
“Whoa, what is all this stuff?” Deka wondered.
Before them was a pile of what appeared to be junk. But then Pedro took a closer look.
“I recognize some of this. That’s Carl’s pilot fish,” said Pedro.
“Really?” Deka asked.
“There’s the little diver guy in the tank. It’s definitely his. And this harmonica is for sure Zamir’s.”
“How do you know?” Deka asked.
“He never stops talking about the darn thing. I could recognize it blindfolded.”
“Harmonica?” Esteban asked, snapped out of his screams. “Zamir said he lost it.”
“Well, obviously. Here it is,” Pedro replied.
“Hey, my video game!” Deka said, grabbing a game disc labeled Super Pilot Flyer from the pile.
“Is there a journal and a shadow in there too?” Esteban asked, rummaging through the pile.
“What are you talking about?” Pedro asked.
“Everyone on Floor 5 had something of theirs taken. The journal belonged to… Chelo. Yeah and Sheridan lost her shadow.”
“Sheri lost her shadow?” Deka asked.
“Yeah. Well, she says it was stolen from her,” Esteban replied.
“That’s messed up! Who could have taken all this?” Deka wondered.
“And why did they leave it here?” Pedro asked.
“Wrong questions,” a tiny little voice said, giggling.
“What the? Who said that?” Esteban asked.
“Who said what?” Pedro asked.
“There was a little voice just now. I heard it before in the lobby. Right before I met you, actually,” Esteban said.
“Huh. Okay,” Pedro said with a shrug.
“Where’s the key?”
“Where’s the pilot?”
“Open the gate.”
“Okay, none of you heard all that?” Esteban asked.
“What does it sound like?” Pedro asked.
“Like tiny, little, whispery, voices,” Esteban replied.
“Hmm,” Pedro hummed, scratching his chin. “It could be a lot of things. Haunted brain syndrome, trans-dimensional phase imps, schizophrenia.”
“Haunted what? Imp what?” Esteban asked.
“He’s freaking out again,” Deka observed.
“Of course I am! How is any of this normal?” Esteban asked.
“Who said it was?” Pedro replied.
“But then why aren’t you freaking out?” Esteban asked.
“I don’t know. It’s more annoying than freaky,” Pedro shrugged.
“It’s wonderous! Marvelous! It’s a mystery begging to be solved!” Deka exclaimed.
“Not again. See what you did?” Pedro asked.
“Get me off this thing. I want out. I want to go home!” Esteban cried, looking for a way off the platform.
“Uh oh. I think you broke him,” Deka said.
“Don’t pin this on me!” Pedro snapped.
“Don’t run away,” the tiny voices said.
“Find the key.”
“Open the gate.”
“Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up!” Esteban screamed.
“Look!” Pedro said, pointing at the gate.
“What are you… Sheri’s shadow!” Deka exclaimed. A Sheri shaped shadow waved to them from her spot on the gate. Then she pointed at the stolen junk pile. A small video cassette tape was wriggling, catching Pedro’s attention.
“Hey. Is that… is that a tape from my Secrets of the Paranormal collection?” Pedro asked, his fury rising.
“You watch Secrets of the Paranormal too?” Esteban asked, snapping out of his panicked state.
“Of course! It’s the-” Pedro began.
“Best paranormal show-” Esteban continued.
“On any network! Of all time!” they said simultaneously.
“Wow you two are nerds,” Deka laughed.
“Thank you!” they said simultaneously again.
The cassette wriggled free of the pile and hopped a few paces away. That’s when everyone saw the source of the tape’s newfound mobility. A tiny winged creature, shimmering and delicate, and dancing to a silent melody.
“Tee hee hee!” it giggled.
“That’s the thief!” Esteban pointed.
“A pixie! It’s got my favorite episode! The pilot!” Pedro cried.
The pixie bounced away, tape in hand. The three of them dove for the kleptomaniacal creature, but it was too swift. It climbed up the face of the gate, finding tiny footholds in the etched and marred surface of that ancient structure.
“Don’t let it get away!” Pedro pleaded.
“You got it!” Deka replied.
“I’m not letting a pixie steal a man’s SotP tape. Even if it is on a vintage cassette tape!” Esteban declared.
The three of them climbed after the pixie. Sheri’s shadow followed close behind.
They reached another platform. Deka was ahead with Pedro close behind. Esteban lagged far behind, already out of breath.
“Stand still you little,” Pedro growled.
“I got it!” Deka declared, diving for the pixie. It hopped off her head and kept climbing.
“It’s getting away!” Pedro yelled.
“On it!” Deka replied.
“Wait! Hold it,” Esteban wheezed.
“You’re slowing me down, new guy,” Pedro said.
“It’s Esteban! My name is Esteban!”
Leon fell out of the broom closet, covered in pine needles. He stood, brushed himself off, and took in his surroundings. He was in Basement Level Two. The broken elevator sat in a pile of rubble. He followed the hall out of the elevator room and found a baby nidhogg, unconscious, but still alive. He caught the faintest whiff of leathers, furs, expensive cologne, and… pixie dust? He followed the trail until, his greatest fears confirmed, he entered the cavern of the Binding Gate, whose sigils were slowly lighting up as a trio of youths climbed the face of it, heading straight for the Pandora Lock; the only thing holding the Labyrinth and all of its monsters at bay!
“This could be a problem,” Leon mumbled to himself.