Lights Out with a Click
Magnus the Mage dreams of leaving the dungeon. He sees himself walking down a dark hallway, and at the end of it is a square of light. One pixel becomes two, two become four, four turn into eight, and slowly, gradually, the square grows until the grey stone slabs of the dungeon are washed out and fall away, and the white square is all there is, and Magnus feels warm sunlight and a breeze upon his face, and he is outside.
He has left the dungeon.
But then he wakes up, and everything is as it was. He is standing when he wakes, the entire party seems to sleep on their feet. They do not waste time with bedding or a tent, they stop and that’s it. Lights out with a click.
The party is poorly chosen. Magnus can see this even if no one else can. Apart from Magnus there is Selena, a priestess; Hank, a barbarian; and Gothmog, another mage. Hank is stupid and coarse: he wears bearskin underwear and carries an axe that’s almost as tall as he is. Selena is well-meaning and good-natured, a holy woman and dispenser of healing spells, but she dies a lot. Magnus has lost count of the number of times they’ve had to carry her bones to the resurrection altar. And then there’s Gothmog.
Magnus hates Gothmog.
It’s not a jealousy thing. Magnus does not hate other wizards. It’s something else. Gothmog is evil. Plainly so. He wears a black robe, and Magnus has seen nothing of his face but a pair of red eyes, glowing beneath his cowl. Sure, his fireballs head in the right direction, but for how long? He never utters a word, hasn’t done in the whole time they’ve explored the dungeon.
Why is Magnus even here? Magnus doesn’t know. He doesn’t remember how the party came together. All he remembers is standing in front of a big black door with these three strangers, and the door opening and the four of them stepping inside.
The door closed behind them. He doesn’t have a clue what the purpose of it all is.
The dungeon is peculiar. Every surface is composed of the same grey slabs. The world is monotone everywhere Magnus turns. There are doors, some locked, and the keys have been scattered in random corners. They spend their time wandering in tight formation, picking up keys and unlocking doors, pressing sequences of buttons, and progressing towards staircases that always lead to more of the same.
Magnus has tried leaving his companions, striking out alone and heading back to the entrance, but he seems unable to step more than a metre from any of them. He is bound by something, he is not sure what, some unwritten rule, some code.
And there are monsters. They come lumbering from the darkness, grunting and growling, and Hank swipes at them with his axe while Magnus and Gothmog cast fireballs. Selena takes ineffective swings with her mace, and this is what usually leads to her death.
They press on, and the dungeon gets stranger. They find food scattered about: apples, bread, pieces of cooked meat. None of it seems to perish – everything seems fresh. They come across weapons and armour, potions of healing and potions of poison, but everything seems so accidental, so lacking in overall planning.
‘Have you noticed,’ Magnus says to no one in particular, ‘that when we kill these monsters, their corpses just disappear?’
It’s true. The monsters come in various sizes: there are the giant rats, the goblins, and the shrieking trees, but when they die they all just vanish.
‘It was as if they never were,’ Magnus says. Selena smiles, but she’ll be dead again soon, Magnus thinks. She’ll forget.
They slog on to the next level, and then the next. Grey halls, grey corridors, grey walls and grey floors. Everything is the same, the world is one-note. Magnus feels as if he is going insane. Then they hit the sixth floor – at least Magnus thinks it’s the sixth, it’s hard to keep count – and something new happens.
They all die.
It happens early on the sixth floor. So far, they have disposed of their opponents with relative ease, but now they encounter new enemies: the death worms. They travel in pairs and can be heard from afar, rumbling like two empty stomachs. They’re long and pink and have razor teeth. The party dispatches the first few they meet, but Selena dies and Hank is wounded. They run out of healing potions, and at the next encounter Hank dies too.
‘Just you and me,’ Magnus says to Gothmog, but one swipe from a worm and he’s gone too, collapsing into a pile of insta-bones neatly positioned behind Hank and Selena’s remains.
The worms growl and shuffle about, readying for an attack. Magnus fumbles a fireball, aware he’s almost dead, and he looks around at the grey walls and the grey floor and the grey ceiling, and he thinks: fuck, this is one way to leave the dungeon.
And then he is back by the stairs to level six. Hank is there, Selena is there, and Gothmog is there, and they are taking the steps down.
‘What happened?’ Magnus says. ‘We all just died.’
Selena smiles, Gothmog stares, and Hank lets out a barbarian war cry. The worms are back. Everything is as it was.
They die again, and come back again, and die again, and come back. Every time they take the same steps down into the same grey greyness, they meet the worms and they die. Sometimes they book it some way into the level, other times they die at the entrance. Hank swaps his axe for a club, Magnus and Gothmog try lightning bolts and poison clouds, Selena casts protective wards, but it all ends up the same. They meet the worms and they die. They meet the worms and they die.
‘Have you noticed,’ Magnus says, ‘that we’re stuck in some kind of loop?’
His companions don’t respond. They’re taking the stairs again. ‘Do any of you remember anything? We just did this. Why do we keep doing the same thing, knowing we’re going to die?’
No one responds. Gothmog stares, Selena smiles, and Hank lets out a barbarian war cry.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ Magnus says.
They die. They live. They die. Magnus becomes inured to it. It is almost painless, and it develops a kind of rhythm, their death and rebirth. It is routine, almost comforting.
But then, something happens. They start by the stairs to level six, but the party is changed. Hank is gone, and in his place is Lord Paladine, a six-foot seven knight in box-fresh armour; and Selena isn’t there either, instead there is Wu-Tse, a ninja with a katana and an infinite supply of shuriken. Magnus is dumbfounded, but when he looks to Gothmog’s spot, he is still more amazed.
Gothmog is still there.
‘Bah’ he says, and Gothmog nods, the first gesture of recognition Magnus has ever seen him give. They descend, and this time, when they come across the worms, Paladine and Wu-Tse slice them up into pieces before Gothmog or Magnus have said the first word of fireball.
‘You guys are good,’ says Magnus. ‘Where did you come from? What happened to Hank and Selena?’
The newcomers don’t answer. Paladine casts a healing spell on the party, and they march on. They move down a level, and they aren’t fazed by the fire-spitting beholders of level seven. Nor are they troubled by the death knights of level eight. The demons of level nine are a little tougher, but with Paladine’s healing spells and Wu-Tse’s shuriken, they’re never really in trouble. As they step down into level ten Magnus gets excited. Ten seems a significant number, a number of consequence, and he’s certain the dungeon has an end. There is a reason for all this, a pattern. Each previous step was a figuring-out, each death a single progression of a wheel deep in the workings of a vast machine. There is a reason, and Wu-Tse and Paladine, his taciturn new friends, will lead the way. There is a reason, and there is a way out.
They encounter more demons – wave after wave of quick succession. Even Paladine seems tired, but they make it through and into a chamber so large Magnus can’t see the walls in any direction. They head north and find a crude carving on the wall showing a menacing face above the words: ‘Prepare to meet your doom, Lord Chaos.’
There is a crackle of lightning. They turn around and there he is, the guy from the carving.
It seems an odd way to announce yourself, but so it goes.
They fight, because that’s all they’ve ever done. Magnus tried talking to a few of the monsters once, to reason it out, to reach an understanding, but they never seemed interested. Lord Chaos is no different. He starts casting lightning bolts, and Paladine’s protective wards don’t help. His two new friends are hitting for all their worth, but Lord Chaos doesn’t seem troubled, he just hits back. Magnus casts fireball, but it’s blocked. ‘Little help here?’ he says to Gothmog, but when he turns to look at his old rival he’s doing something strange, casting a spell Magnus has never heard before. It’s a high-level spell – Magnus can tell because there are lots of words and it’s taking Gothmog time to get through them all. Magnus turns back to Lord Chaos and casts another fireball. Paladine and Wu-Tse are weak. They’re almost gone.
Another lightning bolt, and the two new champions are toast.
‘Shit,’ Magnus says. Wu-Tse and Paladine collapse into the same bone piles Hank and Selena did. There’s no difference in the end. Gothmog is still casting his spell. Magnus is wounded, close to death, and then it happens.
Gothmog finishes his spell. There is a flash of light, and then everything goes black.
Magnus sighs, readies himself for the inevitable. They’ll be back on the stairs to level six, back with Hank and Selena. This was just a blip, there is no leaving the dungeon.
But the blip never bleeps, or whatever blips are supposed to do, and Magnus drinks a mana potion and casts an illumination spell. Gothmog is dead, but so is Lord Chaos. Magnus takes a few steps through the weak light. He gets the feeling something significant has happened. He approaches a passageway, at the end of which is a tiny square of light. The illumination spell expires, but Magnus keeps walking, and the square of light grows larger. The walls of the dungeon fade out, what detail there was sliding out into a kind of wireframe. The square gets bigger, size and proximity the same variable expressing the same value. It is only as the square begins to fill his entire field of vision that Magnus realises it is flat and unvariegated. It is pure white and has no depth. Magnus had dreamed of high mountains, deep tarns, green meadows and soft, rippling shores – the world as a limitless, fantastic expanse.
But now he knows. It’s not that there is no way out of the dungeon, it’s that there is nothing beyond the dungeon. He understands this as he feels himself begin to disintegrate, as everything that is him becomes lost in everything that is not him, as the borders between things break down and everything is suspended between zero and not-zero. And then, with no further warning, everything is gone, nothing remains. The world is ended as if by divine command.
Lights out with a click.