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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Snared: Escape to the Above

Wily Snare (Volume 1)

Adam Jay Epstein





Giant-slug slime is a sticky mess to clean up. It isn’t like troll sweat, which forms yellow trickles along the cracks in the ground and can be easily soaked up with a rag. Or better yet, like dragon drool, which evaporates as soon as it makes contact with the ground. No, giant-slug slime hardens quickly into a thick sap that holds fast to every surface it touches.

With a sigh, Wily pulled out his pocket chisel and began to scrape the green-speckled gunk off the stone floor of the summoning chamber. Cleaning up was the most boring of all his trapsmith duties, but it was also really important. If Wily didn’t remove the fallen shields and weapons of the countless knights, wizards, and elves who were captured in the attempt to loot the legendary hidden treasures of Carrion Tomb, they’d be piled up all the way to the ceiling by now.

As trapsmith, Wily was responsible for keeping the underground tomb operating smoothly. First and foremost, he designed, built, and fixed all the traps that were hidden throughout the snaking corridors and gloomy chambers. But that was just the tip of the stalagmite. He also had to feed and train the magical beasts, sharpen the swords of the hobgoblets, and degrease the doors to make sure they squeaked spookily. He was in charge of decorating the tomb as well, carefully placing skulls and rusty shackles to set the spine-chilling mood. In spite of all these important duties, though, he seemed to spend most of his time cleaning.

“Many apologies for the mess,” burbled a giant slug in Gargletongue from a shadowy corner of the chamber. “When I’m nervous, I tend to slime a lot.”

The slug, which was three times as tall as Wily and had green and red stripes that stretched from her head to her tail, peeked out from behind a stone column.

“It’s nothing to feel bad about,” Wily gargled back. “You did a great job knocking out this gwarf. He was a sneaky one. Got past a lot of the traps. But not you.”

Wily gestured to the short and stocky gwarven warrior passed out in his equipment wagon, snoring heavily through his potato-size nose and braided nostril hair. The giant slug lifted her eyestalks proudly.

“I grabbed him with my tail and shook him just like you taught me,” the slug replied modestly.

Once the last glob of slug slime was finally dislodged, Wily grabbed a brush and dustpan off the side of his equipment wagon and swept the bits into a bucket he had made from the steel boot of a captured knight. Then he stepped back to survey his work; the ground glimmered ominously in the flickering light of the wall-mounted torches. Wily thought that Stalag, the master of Carrion Tomb and his surrogate father, would be pleased.

Bending down, Wily picked up a cloth satchel that had fallen off the shoulder of the gwarf during his battle with the slug. He loosened the drawstrings and peered inside to find a large chunk of unsalted meat. Although it smelled terrible, he threw it into a bin mounted on the side of his wagon. It would make a small but tasty treat for the amoebolith. (The trick with all monstrous blobs was to feed them just enough to prevent them from shriveling, while keeping them always hungry and eager to swallow up a trespassing knight.) Fortunately, they weren’t picky eaters.

“I’ll be more tidy next time,” the giant slug gargled as Wily wheeled the equipment cart toward the chamber’s exit archway.

Wily pushed the wheeled equipment cart down a wide hall, leaving the summoning chamber and giant slug behind. He was careful to avoid the pressure plates checkering the floor. If he accidentally stepped on just one, it would trigger a spike to drop down from the ceiling, and that would be very bad. Each spike was pointy enough to pierce through an iron helmet as if it were warm candle wax, leaving one with a rather nasty scrape. Wily knew because he regularly sharpened the spikes himself.

Twenty-three steps forward. Seven to the right. Another eighteen ahead. And finally five to the left.

For most people, making it down the hall without triggering a hailstorm of spikes was impossible. Yet for Wily it was second nature. He had been back and forth through this hallway thousands of times.

Wily Snare had lived inside Carrion Tomb for as long as he could remember. He wasn’t exactly sure how long that had been, because without ever seeing sunlight (or moonlight for that matter), it was very difficult to keep track of time. For all he knew, he could be ten years old or seventeen or a hundred. Though he was quite sure he wasn’t past one hundred, because that’s when hobgoblets lost their baby ears and started sprouting their grown-up ones, and that hadn’t happened to him yet. Then again, maybe he was a hundred, because not having grown his adult ears yet wouldn’t be the only thing that made him different from his hobgoblet brothers and sisters.

Much to his disappointment, Wily just didn’t look a lot like the rest of them. His front teeth were all funny, straight and barely poking out of his mouth. His posture was terrible as well: he stood upright and rigid like an arrow, lacking the graceful hunch that his warty-skinned companions possessed. Most embarrassing was the thick clump of long brown hair that sprouted from his head.

Yet the differences weren’t all bad; some of them made him uniquely qualified to be the tomb’s trapsmith. His long clawless fingers were nimble enough to unscrew the head of the tiniest dart. His small size allowed him to maneuver his way through the gears of the crushing walls when they were in need of greasing. Most important, he wasn’t easily frustrated or angered. When he encountered a difficult puzzle, he would simply try a bit harder until he figured it out, instead of smashing things with a spiked club while shouting curse words.

Wily continued pushing his equipment wagon down the hall toward the arched entrance to the library. As he passed through, he got tangled in a veil of silk webbing that had been barely visible in the near-darkness that permeated the entire tomb. Aggravated, he pulled the sticky strands from his cheeks and eyelashes and looked around.

The wooden bookcases lining the library walls were empty; the leather-bound tomes that had once filled them were scattered across the floor. Wily had long ago given up reshelving the books. Each time a new group of invaders made it this deep into the tomb, they’d pull out every single one and toss it on the floor, looking for the clue that would reveal the secret passage to the next hall.

Wily wheeled the equipment wagon to the center of the library, crunching over tattered scraps of parchment on which words had once been written. Before his days, spider saliva had caused the ink to run, leaving dark smudges all over the floor and the pages blank.

“Get out here!” Wily called to the dark recesses of the room.

Seven giant ghost spiders, each as large as a dining table, crawled out from the shadows and across a maze of webs overhead. They weren’t actually ghosts, they just looked like them: their exoskeletons glowed with the same pale green color as the spirits of the dead.

“How many times have I told you?” Wily clicked in Arachnid, one of the four languages a trapsmith had to learn along with Grunt, Abovespeak, and Gargletongue. “Webs can be on the walls and the ceiling and covering the secret exits but not across the entrance to the library. We don’t want to give invaders an early warning. Surprise is everything.”

The smallest of the spiders scurried toward Wily, its pointy legs plucking the silk strands of webbing like an out-of-tune harp.

“You never told me,” hissed the young ghost spider through his mandibles. “I just hatched yesterday.”

“Well, where’s your mother?” Wily asked, trying to stay calm.

“I ate her this morning,” the spider said sinisterly.

“Let’s make a new rule,” Wily clicked back. “Before you do that, make sure you have her tell you all the rules.”

Reaching into his trapsmith belt, Wily retrieved a dozen squirming turtle maggots. He tossed them up into a web that stretched between a bookshelf and the rusted chandelier. The ghost spiders skittered quickly down, racing to be the first to reach the crunchy treats.

Wily didn’t stick around to see them fight it out. Spiders really were terrible at sharing. He moved on to the far wall of the library where a dusty tapestry hung and brushed it aside, moving his fingers to a slight indentation in the stone wall. He pressed firmly until he heard the low rumble of rock sliding against stone. The secret exit opened just a few arm’s lengths away.

Leaving the ghost spiders to their savage bickering, Wily pushed the equipment wagon out of the library and into a narrow hallway—this was one of Carrion Tomb’s many maintenance passages. All the machinery that operated the dungeon’s traps was hidden inside these passages, which meant that Wily spent a lot of time in them. This was where he would go to oil the swirling blades of the chop-o-lot, reload the poison darts in the blowgun tunnel, clean the rat cages, stir the sleeping mists, and stoke the flames of the fire-flingers. These passages were also used by the tomb’s hobgoblet ambushers and the amphibious fish-headed oglodyte guards to reach their sleeping quarters without having to walk through some of the dungeon’s nastier traps, like the scorpion nesting grounds or the crypt filled with bone soldiers.

As he wheeled his wagon down the maintenance hallway, Wily peeked into the neighboring dungeon rooms to check that everything was operating smoothly. He also stopped to peer through a crack in the wall into the Den of Misery and saw that the crab dragon was sleeping soundly; both of its scaly heads snored loudly as it used its gigantic yellow claws as firm pillows. Lately, Wily had been attempting to train the crab dragon to perform simple tricks, but he wasn’t having a lot of success; crab dragons were the most dim-witted of all magical crustaceans and also the most temperamental. Wily knew he needed to find another hobby, but there weren’t a lot of options in the dungeon; the majority of its hideous inhabitants were single-mindedly concerned with destroying things. Maybe he would try his hand at learning the dragon claw flute.

Reaching a fork in the passage, Wily turned off the main hallway and entered the prison section of Carrion Tomb. His first stop would be the mine entrance, where he would hand over the captured gwarf to the work warden. But he needed to strip the new prisoner down before he handed him over. He unfastened the buckles that held the leather armor in place and tugged off the shoulder plates, exposing a pair of hairy arms and even hairier armpits. He had to turn away from the stink when he removed the boots from the gwarf’s four-toed feet. They filled the air with an odor stronger than boiled tunnel trout. He hurriedly peeled off the chest plate and backed away, his hand over his nose.

A journal bound in rat-skin fell to the ground. Wily looked around to see if anybody had noticed, but there wasn’t a hobgoblet or oglodyte in sight. He quickly snatched it up, unknotted its thick leather tie string and used his thumb to flip through the pages. To his delight, most of them were filled with maps and words. With a secretive glance, he slid the gwarf’s journal into his trapsmith belt, then proceeded into the mine entrance.

“What do you have for me this time?” asked Gu-Har, the wrinkled hobgoblet prison keeper whose dogteeth reached down to his chin.

“A brown-bearded gwarf with plenty of muscle,” Wily said as he stealthily shoved the journal deeper into his belt’s dangling pouch.

Gu-Har gave the gwarf’s arm a jab with his meaty thumb.

“A digger,” he said, hoisting the body up over his shoulder.

All the invaders captured in Carrion Tomb were sent to the mines below to live a useful and productive life. Everyone had a purpose. Captured gwarfs were well suited for digging for gold with pickaxes and shovels. Elf prisoners had a great talent for polishing rubies and silver ingots. Squatlings, with their small, round bodies and foldable fairy wings, were ideal for snagging silver nuggets in hard-to-reach places. Humans were perfect to do all the simple jobs that would be too dull for the others, like carrying bags of dirt to the bottomless pit.

The work warden disappeared down the sloping corridor that led to the mine with the gwarf slung over his shoulder, leaving Wily alone again. Like everyone who entered Carrion Tomb, the gwarf had been after one thing: treasure. Just beyond Stalag’s study on the lowest level of the dungeon was a vault cluttered with gold, emeralds, talking swords, and hovering crystal orbs. In fact, the vault was so stuffed that it was nearly impossible to enter. The cavern mage, who never threw anything away, had amassed quite a fortune during his questing youth. That had been many, many years ago, though; now, Stalag spent his hours at a stone table in his study, poring over magical texts with the hope of deciphering the secret spells of the ancient subterranean gods.

Wily grabbed the handles of the now nearly empty equipment wagon and wheeled it down the hall to the salvage room, which was packed tightly with bent swords, dented shields, grappling hooks, and extinguished torches, all of which had been collected from invaders who had foolishly entered the dungeon. Nobody in Carrion Tomb ever ventured to the Above for supplies, which made recycling a necessity. Metal swords were melted down and turned into snap traps for the drop pits. The ropes from grappling hooks were used to repair the constantly fraying dangling bridge over the lava lake. And torches were used as … torches.

Wily left the wagon in the middle of the salvage room. He would sort through the gwarf’s belongings later; first, he needed to take a closer look at the journal. The truth was, Wily was bored of the tomb. Despite it being all he had ever known, Wily felt as if he were wearing a pair of sandals three sizes too small. He had the strongest feeling that there was something more for him just waiting to be found, a life that would slip on comfortably and never leave him with blisters. In fact, the only time Wily was happy was when he designed a new trap, or when he caught a tiny flicker of life outside the tomb—like he just might with the gwarf’s journal.

He moved down a long hallway of heavy wooden doors, each one fitted with a double dead bolt. These were the sleeping chambers. Nine strides down on the left was one with the picture of a hammer carved above the handle. This was Wily’s chamber, his small pocket of privacy in the bustle of the tomb. He cautiously pushed the door open, peered inside, and sniffed to make sure there wasn’t anything waiting to jump on top of him.

Satisfied that he was alone, Wily shut the door behind him and double-locked it. He sat down on the furry gray rug he had woven out of slynx fur and emptied the pockets of his trapsmith belt, letting screwdrivers, spare gears, and a tube of lizard mucus tumble out. Pushing aside nails and a vial of unhardened slug slime, he eagerly scooped up the journal and opened it to the first page. He stared at the symbols and letters that danced across the page like fluttering bats.

It was beautiful.

He wished he knew what it said.

The thing was, Wily didn’t know how to read. He had a mentor who taught him about gears and levers and mechanisms too complicated to have names of their own, but Stalag had made reading off-limits to all but himself. No one in Carrion Tomb was permitted to even page through a book, let alone read one. Wily had once been daring enough to ask the wrathful mage to make an exception. But Stalag had just screamed at him. You have enough to learn without words clouding your mind! Back to the traps! Wily never asked again.

Even so, Wily loved books. He thought about them all the time, even when his attention should have been on his trapsmith duties. During the long, tedious hours cleaning the tomb, Wily imagined all the fascinating things books would tell him if he could only understand their cryptic scribbles. Perhaps it’d be tales, like the ones Stalag used as bedtime stories when he was younger, of the Above and the noble Infernal King who fought the creatures that lurked in the brightness with his mechanical gearfolk. Or maybe the books would describe a distant dungeon that was never invaded and had no need for traps or monsters. He hoped his books would hold tales of adventures with happy endings and stories of families reuniting after many years apart, but he was afraid he would never know. Nobody inside Carrion Tomb could ever tell him what they said.

Wily took his time examining every page of the gwarf’s journal, following the curves of the ink symbols with his fingertip. He studied the maps closely, imagining the distant places they depicted. Halfway through, he found a very detailed sketch of a gigantic hand reaching up from the earth, with dozens of pointy fingers sprouting more pointy fingers. He wondered what the rest of this horrifying and fascinating creature looked like. After eyeing every page twice, Wily closed the book.

Rather than unstitch his mattress and slip the gwarf’s journal next to the other dozen books he had swiped over the years from captured invaders of Carrion Tomb, Wily put the book back into the pouch of his trapsmith belt. He could steal looks at it later while he was mopping the crypt.

Wily walked over to his worktable and looked down at the model of the Fountain Room he had built. With his finger, Wily moved a small clay figure of a knight through the room. Halfway across, the figure pushed a button on the floor of the model. Two halves of a metal cage popped out of the walls on either side of the knight and came speeding to the center of the room. A cage formed, trapping the figure. Then a trapdoor opened beneath the cage, plunging it, along with the figure, into a pit full of sleeping gas. It was a beautiful trap. Wily had nicknamed it the Wake-No-More. He had just presented it to Stalag, but the cavern mage had brushed it off as being too slow to work. Wily had explained that he could get the two halves to slam shut a bit faster if he put wheels on the bottoms to help them slide. Stalag had told him to go back to the drawing board.

Wily lay down on his cot. He stared at the ceiling of his sleeping quarters and for the thousandth time wondered what might be lurking beyond the mouth of the tomb, in the Above. He desperately wanted to see for himself and, as a child, had often begged Stalag to let him peek. But, of course, that was impossible: Stalag warned him of the sun’s power and how its bright rays would melt his hobgoblet skin right off his bones. Stalag had proof of it, too, in the form of a large burn mark on Wily’s own arm from his right wrist all the way up to his elbow. When Wily was a toddler, Stalag explained, he had accidentally wandered out of the entrance corridor and into the Above. The sunlight would have left him as nothing more than a skeleton if Stalag hadn’t pulled him back inside before it was too late.

And yet, on more than one occasion, only his very keen desire to remain alive had kept him from creeping out for a peek. Wily could never erase the dim hope that somehow something would change, and he would be able to leave the tomb to travel through the mysterious Above.

Wily sighed. He was trapped here in Carrion Tomb like a knight in the Wake-No-More. Even with all his talents, his life was the one trap he couldn’t escape from.

He closed his eyes.

It took only a dozen breaths before he was fast asleep.

Copyright © 2018 by Adam Jay Epstein.