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Shadowcroft Academy For Dungeons: Year One

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Build a Dungeon. Slay Heroes. Survive Finals. 


Wounded Army vet Logan Murray thought mimics were the stuff of board games and dungeon manuals… right up until one ate him. 


In a flash of snapping teeth, Logan suddenly finds himself on the doorstep to another world. He's been unwittingly recruited into the Shadowcroft Academy for Dungeons—the most prestigious interdimensional school dedicated to training the monstrous guardians who protect the Tree of Souls from so-called heroes. Heroes who would destroy the universe if it meant a shot at advancement.


Unfortunately, as a bottom-tier cultivator with a laughably weak core, Logan's dungeon options aren't exactly stellar, and he finds himself reincarnated as a lowly fungaloid, a three-foot-tall mass of spongy mushroom with fewer skills than a typical sewer rat. If he's going to survive the grueling challenges the academy has in store, he'll need to ace the odd assortment of classes—Fiendish Fabrication, Dungeon Feng Shui, the Ethics of Murder 101—and learn how to turn his unusual guardian form into an asset instead of a liability.


And that's only if the gargoyle professor doesn't demote him to a doomed wandering monster first… 


From James A. Hunter—bestselling author of Rogue Dungeon, Bibliomancer (Completionist Chronicles Expanded Universe), and the LitRPG epic Viridian Gate Online—and Dragon Award Finalist Aaron Michael Ritchey, comes a brand new Dungeon Core novel, like nothing you've ever seen before. Funny, funky, and full of Gamelit goodness, this is one novel you won't want to put down.

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Shadowcroft Academy For Dungeons: Year Two

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Table of Contents
Shadow Alley Press Mailing List
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Dungeon Core Grimoire, Appendix 1
Books, Mailing List, and Reviews
Books by Shadow Alley Press
Books by Black Forge
LitRPG on Facebook
Even More LitRPG on Facebook
GameLit and Cultivation on Facebook
About the Author
About the Publisher


BUILD A DUNGEON. SLAY Heroes. Survive Finals.
Wounded Army vet Logan Murray thought mimics were the stuff
of board games and dungeon manuals... right up until one ate him.
In a flash of snapping teeth, Logan suddenly finds himself on the
doorstep to another world. He’s been unwittingly recruited into the
Shadowcroft Academy for Dungeons—the most prestigious
interdimensional school dedicated to training the monstrous
guardians who protect the Tree of Souls from so-called heroes.
Heroes who would destroy the universe if it meant a shot at
Unfortunately, as a bottom-tier cultivator with a laughably weak
core, Logan’s dungeon options aren’t exactly stellar, and he finds
himself reincarnated as a lowly fungaloid, a three-foot-tall mass of
spongy mushroom with fewer skills than a typical sewer rat. If he’s
going to survive the grueling challenges the academy has in store,
he’ll need to ace the odd assortment of classes—Fiendish
Fabrication, Dungeon Feng Shui, the Ethics of Murder 101—and
learn how to turn his unusual guardian form;  into an asset instead of
a liability.
And that’s only if the gargoyle professor doesn’t demote him to a
doomed wandering monster first...

Shadow Alley Press Mailing List

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Shadow Alley Press and subscribe to our mailing list!

Chapter One

LOGAN MURRAY PULLED his truck into the driveway of his ranch
house in Arvada, Colorado. The suspension creaked as the tires
crunched onto the gravel beside his garage. The garage itself was
full of tools, lawn mowers, replacement parts, and a big woodchipper
named Wanda—not to mention a variety of equipment he only pulled
out when he had specialty jobs to run. But that was fine. His big F350 didn’t need a comfortable place to live. His business did.
Logan’s Landscaping, though physically demanding work, kept food
on the table and him out of trouble.
He killed the engine, but just sat there for a long beat. He rubbed
his tired eyes with calloused hands and sighed.
It had been a long day, and he was glad to be done with it. The
work had been the same as always, but he’d had to fire Tyler
McWiggins. HR was easily the worst part of running his own
business. But Tyler had it coming. The kid had three major issues in
his life: he drank too much, worked too little, and complained like a
defendant in divorce court.
Out of the three issues, the complaining was the worst. Tyler had
called in to complain how sick he was. Logan knew better. His
employee had the Monday flu after a weekend of Coors Light and
kvetching, red wine and whining, Bud Light and bellyaching.
So Logan had to work the day alone, which he hated. His other
guys were hammering together a deck in Cherry Creek. Logan had
spent most of the day bidding jobs and most of the evening digging
postholes for Grady Henderson in Thornton.
The setting sun streaked red and gold across the sky. After
spending hours in the heat, Logan was sweaty, dirty, and his belly
rang empty like the bell in an abandoned church. Dirt covered his
hands and clothes, and mud encrusted his boots. When digging

postholes, you soaked them down first, before you used the digger.
One of the first rules of landscaping? Let water do the heavy lifting
for you. Still, even with the water, digging postholes was
backbreaking work.
His uncle had disagreed with Logan’s choice of careers. Uncle
Bud called picks and shovels idiot sticks. Logan shrugged that off.
He found the long hours, the heat, and the labor fun. Besides, any
kind of manual labor was a thousand times easier than the grunt
work and never-ending hours he’d pulled overseas in the Army.
Logan had been a 25B, once upon a time—an Information Tech
Specialist. Sounded fancy, though in reality it amounted to being a
radio operator attached to an Infantry unit.
Now that had been work. Running line. Going on patrol. Lugging
around the oversized PRC-77 radio—affectionately referred to as the
Prick-77 by the poor souls who had to carry it. Landscaping had
nothing on that. The work was fulfilling in its way. And the hours went
by fast when he was with his workers, listening to the radio, talking
trash, and building things. Nothing was as satisfying as taking
nothing and leaving behind a masterpiece of wood, sod, and flowers.
Working with plants was fascinating.
Logan spent hours researching flowers, climbing vines,
mushrooms, and different kinds of fertilizers. After five years of
running his own business, he knew, down to the week, the life cycle
of your typical lawn.
He popped open the door of his truck, stepped out, and winced
as he put weight on his prosthetic leg. Unlike Tyler, he wasn’t a
complainer. However, if he did have a mind to whine, it would be
about his leg. Not losing it. He was lucky to be alive. But by god, it
hurt after a long day. Phantom tingles raced up and down the skin
that wasn’t there. The tingles were better than the raw pain that often
lingered in his stump. They’d taken the leg just below the knee.
Why? That was a long story, too long for a summer night when there
were beer and voicemails to attend to.
Moving with a slight limp, he headed through his back gate and
into the weeds and grass of his backyard. It was a jungle—the only
thing it was missing was Tarzan and a few stray lions strolling

through the savannah near the back fence. Logan spent his days
perfecting the yards of his customers, but his own was liable to get a
notice from the HOA any day. What was that old proverb? The
shoemaker’s children have no shoes. It was like that but with more
He strode across the cracked patio cement and through the back
The scratch of nails on tile announced the presence of his three
slobber hounds. The trio were only too happy to see him. He felt the
same. Patting their heads and ruffling their fur, he let them race out
into the wilds of his backyard.
The fridge gave him beer and some leftover fried chicken. He
stuck a leg in his teeth and stood at the sink watching his dogs race
through the tracks they’d created in the jungle. Those puppies were
the best: Noodle Doodle, Princess Peach, and Booker DeWitt.
He caught a whiff of himself. “That’s the smell of money for a
working man,” he muttered under his breath.
He’d get a shower. Eventually. But first he had voicemails to
suffer through. His foreman, Ramon Garcia, said the deck was going
well and that the team got more work done without him. It was an old
joke between the two.
Then there were the clients, asking for updates or wanting him for
more work. Always more, which was a good problem to have at the
end of the day. Denver and its suburbs were booming. He’d have to
replace Tyler—despite the kid’s failings, he hated having to let him
go. He sighed again, resigned. Such was life. Truthfully, finding help
was always an issue when you ran your own business, but it needed
to be done. Hard work was always made easier by many hands. Too
bad he couldn’t cast a spell and turn his dogs into people.
Speaking of spells, he had something special planned for tonight.
He would chew down some chicken, wash it down with a cold
one, then grab a fresh beer for an evening of murder and magic. He
was so damned close to beating the game, and what a game it was.
He grunted and sat down in a wood chair at the same dinner
table he’d grown up eating at. His parents were gone now, both

passed on, but they’d left him the house and a fair amount of their
personal effects in the will.
Slowly, he unlaced his boots then threw them on the welcome rug
by the back door. His pups were done with their jungle expedition
and whining for dinner. He’d feed them outside so they could enjoy
the night. He limped out, one foot in a holey sock, the other bare
plastic. From the garage, he grabbed the food and filled their bowls
on the back porch. They joined him, tails waggling, mouths drooling,
nails clicking on the cement. The fragrance of dog and dry grass
reminded him that he’d need to give them baths soon.
“Good dogs,” he said. Having the puppies kept him from feeling
too alone. He’d have to try that dating thing again at some point. He
still had his lapsed OkCupid account and a Lizzy-sized hole in his
That was a worry for another night, or maybe another year
For now? He had a date with destiny.
Beer in hand, he ambled back into the house and through the
kitchen. His living room was bachelor sparse. Over the years, he’d
cleaned out his mother’s stuff, then his father’s stuff, and now all that
remained was his stuff—two big La-Z-Boys, flanked by end tables,
faced a seventy-five-inch TV sitting on a shelf above his game
consoles. The walls had some pictures of Logan, his dad, and Uncle
Bud, but mainly they were for the speakers, which gave him perfect,
crystal-clear surround sound and enough bass to stop the heart in
your chest.
His newest game console awaited him, and it was strange to say
the least.
It was a purple cube he’d picked up at a pawnshop for twenty-five
bucks. Old-school. The single controller had a long wire—that told
you exactly how old the unit was. He liked to think of it as a lost
classic, probably some knockoff of the old-school systems like Atari
and Intellivision. Maybe the purple cube had been one of Nintendo’s
first competitors. He hadn’t been able to find anything out about the
thing on Google, which was shocking in its own right, but he didn’t
really care.

Logan liked the classic gaming experience. His Army buddies
were all probably shooting it up in Blood Warfare 4: Blood Debt.
Logan needed to keep in better touch with his buddies. Growing
up as an only child, struggling through high school, he hadn’t found
true friends until he’d enlisted. Then? It was what the military called
the esprit de corps, a fancy French term for morale. But it was more
than that. It was that feeling of camaraderie that Logan missed.
Going through hell with your buddies made you love every single
one of them... Well, maybe some more than others. He would never
miss Wheeler getting black-out drunk and barfing all over his bunk.
There was plenty he did miss, though.
With a sigh, Logan promised himself he’d send more texts and
make more calls. Just as soon as he beat this game.
He’d been hooked on the thing for the past month.
Only one controller. Only one game: The Shadowcroft Academy
for Dungeons. Zany. Wild. It had character. It was an outdated 2D
Dungeon Keeper-style game. The graphics weren’t great, but the
game play was fun and that was all that mattered in the end. And he
was so close to finishing it. Stuck on the last level.
A stylized S, the black logo of the company, decorated the front
of the purple cube. The power button was nestled in the top swoop
of the S. He pressed the button and a mauve light winked on in the
bottom swoop.
As the old game console rattled to life, he plopped down on his
favorite La-Z-Boy. He unstrapped his fake leg and propped it beside
his chair. It felt good to be free of the prosthesis—like taking off ski
boots after a long day on the slopes.
He sipped his beer and set it on the end table. No coasters. If the
dating thing turned into the girlfriend thing, she might insist on
coasters. He wasn’t sure he could handle that kind of action.
The screen flashed, music tinkled out with 8-bit beauty, and his
current progress showed him at 97% complete. He’d kept his
dungeon safe from dozens of waves of greedy dungeoneers looking
to steal his dungeon core from out of the inner sanctum. Tonight
would be the night he’d kill the last, most powerful group. It was

made up of five raiders, each a different class, all bent on his
Logan had prepared his dungeon carefully.
It was a deadly place, full of traps, monsters, and mazes. Logan
had chosen the Spider King Guardian, so he had access to webs
and arachnids of every size and shape.
Logan licked his lips and hunched forward, allowing the lead
fighter to effortlessly hack through cobwebs he’d placed in an inner
stairwell. Sure, let the tank through. Logan didn’t much care about
that guy. However, the cleric in the party? His healing spells would
only make Logan’s life harder.
At the perfect time, Logan pushed the X button. The floor opened
up like a yawning maw and the pixel-y cleric fell onto venom-coated
“Hell yeah!” Logan crowed.
The cleric gushed blocky blood before flashing and
dematerializing. The cube gave out the kill sound, “Wah-wah,” before
promptly notifying him that only four dungeoneers remained.
The party’s magic-user, an Inferno Hellreaver, cast a fireball that
fried a room full of giant spiders. That was the bad news. The good
news? They’d missed the secret room that Logan had put behind
them. One of his largest minions, Debbie the Drider—his name for
her—scurried out of the hidden room on a host of arachnoid legs,
raising her bow and unleashing a hail of poisoned arrows. The
magic-user’s days of fireballs were over. Two arrows pierced him,
shattering him like the glass cannon he was. Debbie was also
critically wounded, thanks to the efforts of an elven ranger, before
the party’s rogue managed to stab her in the back.
Poor Debbie.
The rogue undid Logan’s pressure-plate trap in the next room,
and the tank took out his giant spider, Shelly Shelob. Logan frowned.
Three raiders were still alive. He’d wanted to keep the party out of
the inner sanctum. They’d taken a fair bit of damage, but was it
The tank and the ranger slashed through the webs covering the
entryway to the innermost chamber. Logan’s boss, a spidery wizard

with web spells, poison missiles, and hard chitinous armor, waited for
the raiders, protecting the dark gem floating over the sanctum’s
pedestal. That dark gem was the heart of the dungeon, and if he lost
that, the game was over. This was risky, and the fight could go either
way, but he was too close now not to at least try.
Logan focused his efforts on the rogue, riddling him with arcane
missiles. The wah-wah of the kill was sweet, but the battle was far
from over.
Logan quickly spawned a pair of level-two Spiderkin. They never
stood a chance against the invaders, but he used them to split the
remainder of the party just long enough to snare the elven ranger in
his Web Lock spell. He used the last of his magic—called Apothos
instead of the more typical mana—to summon an additional round of
Spiderkin, which rappelled in from the ceiling on strands of silver silk.
The tank had his big two-handed sword raised, ready to slash
Logan’s dungeon lord to pieces.
The cube squawked and hissed as the spiders descended and
killed the ranger. Wah-wah. The tank hit Logan’s arachnoid wizard,
halving his hit points.
Logan clicked to his menu, found the melee option, and chose his
only weapon, a Black Widow dagger.
Logan toggled the directional pad, narrowly avoiding an overhand
slash, then smashed X, driving his blade home even as the tank
pivoted and ran him through with his sword.
Breathless, the Army vet turned landscaper winced, waiting for
either the wah-wah or the more sinister tones of his own destruction.
He had to grin. He was a combat veteran, and yet he felt like a
twelve-year-old boy. This was fun. This was so much better than
being in a real firefight—so much less was on the line.
His stomach clenched into a knot.
Logan’s character had single-digit hit points but the tank was
dead. Dead. Gone. TPK. And his fragile dungeon core had survived
every single dungeoneer the game had thrown at it. Supposedly,
something called the Tree of Souls was now safe from the raiders.

Logan wasn’t sure what that meant—great game play, but the world
building lacked the substance of some of the more modern dungeon
crawlers out there on the market. The game was over, though. He
grabbed his beer and raised the tip of the bottle in a salute.
“Debbie. Shelly. We did it.”
His eyes narrowed. The screen was flashing, almost like the
dang thing was glitching. That would suck—to beat the game and be
denied the endgame cutscene. At least he hoped there was an
endgame cutscene.
Suddenly, the cube went crazy with blips and bloops, and then a
new song started, the victory song. Logan let out a sigh of relief as
he waited for the end credits to roll. But something else happened. A
purple glow slowly filled in the room. The cube looked like a
radioactive bomb about to explode.
The screen itself went black.
Words formed in the darkness, growing larger and brighter.
Congratulations, Neophyte. Welcome to the Shadowcroft Academy
for Dungeons!
Huh? That was a strange message. Why did it say welcome
when he’d just beaten the game?
The cube wasn’t just glowing purple anymore, it was twitching,
shaking, and rattling on the shelf next to his Xbox and Playstation.
Uh-oh. Seriously, what in the heck was going on?
Blisters bubbled across the plastic of the cube, and plumes of
fine gray smoke curled up.
No, no, no. It was overheating. Catching fire maybe. Logan
wasn’t about to lose his TV and his other gaming consoles. He threw
himself off the sofa and hit the carpet, lunging forward to try to knock
the boiling plastic away. He was too late.
Tentacles exploded out of the purple cube. His TV careened
backward as the cube grew and split the shelf and smacked away
the other consoles.
The cube itself, now the size of a sofa, was covered with a slick
purple skin. The horror, whatever it was, opened like a mouth as
wide as his woodchipper. Too many jagged teeth filled that glowing

Logan skittered back, hit the chair, and used it to stand. He was
moving so slow—he’d taken his leg off! The pups were still outside.
Thank goodness for that. But things were looking bleak.
No, he couldn’t afford to think like that.
The battle was only over when you gave up, and he wasn’t going
to do that. Not ever.
Resolve hardened, he hopped toward the bedroom to get to the
Mossberg 500 shotgun by his nightstand. That would put a damper
on the purple monster in his living room—tentacles, teeth, that garish
purple glow.
He would grab the Colt 1911, his father’s pistol, as well as the
scattergun, but that meant getting there. He got three hops in before
a tentacle whipped around his single leg and pulled it out from under
him. He hit the ground with a thud, teeth biting into his tongue in a
bright flash of pain.
Logan spit out a mouthful of blood, dug his fingers into the carpet,
and began to pull himself forward. The air had a hot, fetid smell, like
a dead raccoon stuck in a truck engine on a hot summer’s day. He
couldn’t see the creature now—his eyes were fixed on the door at
the end of the hall—but he could feel it looming over him.
With a jerk, Logan was yanked across his carpet. He felt teeth
sink into his good calf, a jagged lance of pain shooting through his
body. The mouth opened and chomped back down, ripping into both
his thighs. When he felt the teeth rise for a third bite, he turned and
kicked at it. He wouldn’t be taken by this monster cube without a
The thing had grown a single eye—in the same place where the
power button had been. It roared in defiance, flinging greasy saliva
into Logan’s face.
Logan grimaced then roared back. He lashed out again with his
remaining leg, but the kick felt weak and uncoordinated. He was
losing blood, and his vision was narrowing. Tentacles slithered out,
wrapping around his arms, his neck, and what was left of his legs.
Logan struggled and thrashed, still fighting toward his bedroom,
determined to get to the gun. He was losing consciousness.

The last thing he saw was the thing’s fangs, and then it was all

Chapter Two

LOGAN BLINKED HIS EYES open. He was glad he still had eyes,
but having a head wasn’t so great. A migraine banged away on the
inside of his skull.
Where in the hell was he? What happened?
Things were sort of hazy in his head. He remembered teeth,
glowing purple tentacles, and a single large eye. Was it a nightmare
maybe? It wouldn’t be the first.
Surviving Iraq often meant nightmares.
He glanced down and saw he was sitting on a padded leather
chair with ornate wooden armrests. For reasons he couldn’t even
begin to guess at, he wore a rough-spun cotton tunic. At least he
wasn’t naked. Everything felt strange enough as it was.
The place smelled like lemon oil and wood polish. Brass lanterns
hanging from the wall cast the room in a soft light. It kind of looked
like a waiting room, but this was no doctor’s office. This reception
area belonged in a fantasy novel—sort of medieval, from the stone
floors, to the long ebony tables, to the brass lanterns attached to the
corners of the square room. Four tapestries covered the walls: a
snarling blue dragon, a crimson phoenix in flight, a crystalline tiger
ready to pounce, and a gleaming black tortoise with chin raised high.
The blue dragon tapestry curled up as if on its own, and a heavy
door, impossibly tall and covered in brass rivets, swung open.
Something strolled in. And it was definitely a something, not a
someone, since it wasn’t even remotely human. It was a giant tree
creature, at least eleven feet tall, wearing flowing robes, blue cloth
with gold runes. Guy had a very wizardly look about him. A lightgreen mossy beard swung from a creased and weathered face made
of bark. His nose was a sharp branch. Wild green grass, full of

flowers, sprouted from his head. Golden specks floated in curiously
bright blue eyes.
Logan was beyond flabbergasted. He didn’t know if he should
fight or run.
The wizened old tree man noticed Logan’s sweat.
“Be calm, Logan Murray,” the creature said, his voice deep and
sage. “I’m Headmaster Shadowcroft, and you are safe.” As he
spoke, swirls of colorful light filled the air, settling over Logan like a
cloud of pollen. Had those lights come from the flowers on
Shadowcroft’s head?
Suddenly, Logan felt strangely at ease, his worry melting away in
an instant. Had the tree wizard just done something to him? Sedated
him somehow? The thought seemed curiously unimportant and
drifted away. Instead, Logan found himself thinking about the name.
Shadowcroft. That name seemed familiar.
The tree-like wizard continued with a nod. “That’s better. Should
be a little more at ease. Now, I’m sure you have many questions, Mr.
Murray, the first of which is usually... where am I? I do appreciate
that you aren’t yelling, shrieking, or weeping. I get that a lot.” He
paused and frowned. “It is very sad, but you seem to be taking your
death in stride. Quite remarkable, all things considered.”
The words stopped Logan cold. Taking your death in stride. No,
that couldn’t be right. He couldn’t be dead. He was here. Sitting here.
Alive. Yet he couldn’t forget the feel of slashing teeth and curling
tentacles. Couldn’t forget the creature looming over him.
“You’re wrong,” he said flatly, gripping the ornate armrests in a
white-knuckled grip. “I can’t be dead if I’m here.”
Mossbeard sniffed. “Nonsense, Mr. Murray. Of course you can. I
restored your corporeal form when you transitioned across the soul
barrier—though I really should’ve removed your glands. Mammalian
perspiration is rather repugnant.” He wrinkled his nose in clear
distaste. “Regardless of your state, I would like to welcome you to
the Shadowcroft Academy for Dungeons. We are the finest dungeon
core academy in the entirety of the Ashvattha.”
Logan shivered. “That’s where I’ve heard that word before.
Shadowcroft. Okay, I’m definitely not going to play any more

pawnshop video gaming systems.” He blinked and ran a hand
through his short-cropped hair. Then it hit him. “You Jumanji’d me...
Or it’s sunstroke,” he muttered to himself. “Probably sunstroke.”
“You’re talking to yourself,” Shadowcroft said gently. “If you talk
directly to me, I can give you answers. As long as there is no
weeping. I detest the weeping.”
“No weeping,” Logan agreed numbly. He just sat there for a beat,
replaying everything he could remember about the day. Firing Tyler...
Digging posts... Feeding the pups... Beating Shadowcroft... That...
that thing unfolding from the box and tearing after him down the hall.
“This is a dream, right?” he finally said. “I must’ve hit my head. Or
fallen asleep. Bad chicken? That chicken was from Thursday—
definitely could’ve been the chicken. Or maybe too much time
inhaling the fertilizer in my garage. There has to be a way to explain
Shadowcroft shook his head. More glowing pollen leaked from
his skull-flowers. “No, no, nothing of the sort. I can assure you, Mr.
Murray, this is no dream. Nor is it a fantasy. This, my intrepid young
student, is all quite real. Which segues nicely into the second
question new recruits usually have. How did I get here?”
Memories hit Logan like a five-pound sledge. “The crazy monster
thing. The video game frickin’ ate me.”
“Ah. Yes. That would be the mimic.” The headmaster nodded
sagely as though this should all make perfect sense. “Hopefully, your
transition didn’t hurt too much.” He paused and frowned. “Those
mimics can be overzealous at times, I fear.”
“Wait.” Logan recalled the teeth and blood in grisly detail. “Are
you telling me you sent that thing to eat me?” he growled, leaning
forward in his seat, hands balling into tight fists.
“Well, not you personally, please understand. But someone with
your skills, yes.” Shadowcroft’s moss-covered face split into a grin.
He had white wooden teeth. “If you’ll kindly follow me, I’ll explain
why.” He motioned toward the open door, previously concealed by
the rolled-up dragon tapestry.
Logan rose from his seat to stand on unsteady feet. He froze. He
had both his legs. Both legs and no pain. Despite what ol’

Mossbeard said, this had to be a dream. He didn’t particularly care
right then. He was simply glad not to be hopping around.
He remembered waking up in the hospital, at the medical base.
The first person he’d seen was Dave Baker, his command sergeant
major. Sergeant Major Baker worked for the Battalion and was a
good man—he’d come in to check on Logan and to tell him the bad
news. Baker had a high-and-tight haircut, a scar splitting his lips, and
steel-gray eyes. Baker was a straight shooter, and he gave it to
Logan straight as an arrow. Logan had lost his left leg below the
knee. An IED—improvised explosive device—attack outside of AlFallujah. He’d get a purple heart, sure, but it would come with a
medical discharge. He was also up for a Bronze Star.
And Logan would get it if the sergeant major had any say.
No one in his unit would ever forget what Logan had done. The
weird thing was, Logan felt his leg, and he kept wanting to scratch
his nonexistent toes. The idea he was missing a limb hadn’t seemed
as harsh as being discharged. He’d leave both Iraq and his friends
without finishing the job. It was a hard idea to take.
In the medieval waiting room, Logan stared at both his feet. It
was as surreal as feeling the itch of a phantom limb.
Sergeant Major Baker, ever blunt, had said Logan shouldn’t
waste a moment second-guessing himself or what he’d done. He
said plain as day that Logan should value the rest of his limbs as
well as his life because it was precious. Not every soldier got to go
home with a heartbeat.
Logan swore to himself that he wouldn’t let his injury ruin his life.
Sergeant Major Baker was exactly right: living in regret would kill
Yet if this was real and not a) food poisoning or b) some kind of
fever dream, then that meant his whole life was gone. Unless...
unless the tree guy could send him home. Was that possible?
Logan didn’t know, but he was glad his dogs were outside and
they had plenty of water. It would save on the carpet cleaning.
Shadowcroft sighed—it sounded like wind rustling through pines.
“Perhaps I was wrong in my initial assessment. Clearly, the transition
is going to be hard on you after all. I can’t blame you, Mr. Murray.

You come from a severely backward planet with an extremely limited
understanding of the universe. To call it myopic is the
understatement of the century.”
Traveling overseas, Logan was used to defending the United
States. Now, he had to defend his whole world, and he was up for
the task. “Slow your roll there,” he said, holding up his hands. “Earth
is better than whatever this place is. For example, on my planet it’s
considered bad manners to murder someone. So don’t come at me,
talking about backwards.”
They stood in front of the doorway.
The moss-bearded tree man stooped down to speak. He smelled
like spring flowers. “My apologies, Mr. Murray. I did not mean to give
offense. I’m merely speaking from an analytic standpoint. Please, tell
me of the awe you have for your world. I do so like it when creatures
show pride in their homes.”
Logan raised his chin defiantly and stared Shadowcroft right in
his twinkling eyes. “What’s not to be in awe of? Until you’ve seen the
sun rise over the Atlantic or set over the Rockies, you ain’t seen shit.
We have people—good people who care for each other. People that
are willing to risk their lives for one another, to shelter those that
need it, to serve others even at the expense of themselves. We have
nurses, police officers, firemen, and soldiers who would give you the
shirt off their backs. Earth is a place of dreams and dreamers. And
best of all, we have cold beer and dogs, so I think that it’s you who
are backwards.”
Shadowcroft was silent for a moment. “Perhaps you will do well
here after all. Now come. I can appreciate you taking a moment to
enjoy both of your two fleshy leg stalks.”
“Fleshy leg stalks.” Logan said each word carefully.
Shadowcroft walked on long, skinny tree trunks with twigs and
leaves poking out here and there.
In a haze, Logan followed the tree man into a plush office.
Unlike the waiting room, the office had wooden floors, as
polished as the walls. Stained-glass windows showed different
forests in a variety of seasons, though each had a domineering
central tree. The ceiling was a dome thirty feet above his head. More

stained glass decorated the peak. Shelves stood against the walls
stuffed full of books, statues—even a sword or two. A crystal figure
danced on a nearby table, swaying her gemstone hips to silent
music. On another table was a rose in a vase, only the rose had a
face, complete with fangs, and leafy fingers.
The rose flipped him the bird, then chuckled, which made its
petals shake.
Logan smiled. He’d always thought roses were overrated. He
wasn’t even remotely surprised by the flower’s obscene finger
A gigantic chair, encircled in ivy, grew out of the floor behind a
vast desk. The desktop was a map, showing a circular island that
floated in the clouds. To the north was a desert, then mountains,
then a lake, with swamps to the southeast and a massive forest to
the west. The details of the map were flawless—it almost looked like
a video screen.
Behind the ivy chair, on a pedestal all its own, floated a crazy
crystal several feet long and at least a foot wide. Glyphs, runes, and
images appeared on the facets. It rotated, flashing constantly, like a
Shadowcroft took a seat on the ivy throne. He gestured to an
equally green chair in front of the desk. The wood looked soft. Those
green leaves, though, made Logan nervous. He could imagine them
snagging him, securing him so the tree guy could torture him.
The headmaster appraised him with his ageless blue eyes, so
interesting with those flecks of gold. In those eyes were patience,
wisdom, and understanding—sometimes one of Logan’s dogs would
look at him like that. Anything that had a dog’s eyes should be
trustworthy. After a moment of hesitation, Logan took a seat, the ivy
leaves moving so he wouldn’t crush them.
“So, let me get this straight. You sent a mimic to kill me. Is that
“No. Not at all,” the headmaster said. “We sent it to recruit you.”
“Did recruiting me involve murdering me?” Logan replied, feeling
a dull fury burning inside him.

Shadowcroft considered the question, brows knit. “Well, I
suppose if you looked at it in a certain light, it might appear that way.
But what is one death when balanced against all of reality, hmm?
This is an honor. You have been chosen, Logan Murray. Chosen to
fight in a battle older than the universe itself.”
That sounded a whole lot like murder with extra steps. Logan
clenched his teeth, thinking about what kind of monster would do
such a thing to him. What kind of asshole would deploy a
supernatural assassin to kill a civilian noncombatant in the sanctity of
his own home? Suddenly, he was pissed, and Shadowcroft seemed
to know it.
“Please, Mr. Murray. Let us not be hasty.”
“You were awfully hasty in murdering me,” he spat back.
“There is more going on than you see. Than you could ever begin
to imagine. There are thousands of worlds, young one, all connected
to the Ashvattha, the Tree of Souls. You come from such a world,
however distant, and we need you to help save the universe.”
Logan narrowed his eyes. “You have about two minutes to spell
this out for me in plain English before I get out of this chair and rip
your arms from your body and beat you with ’em. Now tell me what
in the hell all of that means.”

Chapter Three

SHADOWCROFT CHUCKLED and relaxed in his throne-like chair.
“Rip my arms from my body and beat me with them,”
Shadowcroft repeated the threat good-naturedly. “That is a most
unlikely outcome, but I admire your spunk. Give me just a moment
and all shall be made clear.”
Ropes of ivy caressed Shadowcroft’s arms, and Logan thought
that the headmaster’s grassy hair had joined with the bark of his
seat, intertwining in some way. Looking at him, it was hard to tell
where the headmaster ended and the chair started—almost as
though they were two parts of the same whole.
Light from one of the stained-glass windows spilled across the
desk in front of Logan. The gem behind Shadowcroft continued to
spin, glimmering like a disco ball. The crystal ballerina continued her
dance while the rose in the glass case snored softly, apparently
bored to sleep by the goings-on of the office. Beneath the wood
polish and lemon were the smells of spring: growing grass, flowers,
and the scent of trees budding.
Ivy leaves shivered next to Logan’s elbow.
The mossy-bearded tree man chuckled. “It is very simple, young
one. You were chosen by the Reaper Box. The boxes are my
servants in recruitment. They are alive. Sentient. A special type of
mimic, known as Reapers. I send the Reapers out across the
multiverse, to every known world that connects to the Tree of Souls.
Even those only tenuously connected like your own world. They find
those candidates who are worthy enough to serve as dungeon
cores, and if the candidate passes their test, then they are
processed and reaped. Harvested if you will.”
“Harvested,” Logan repeated hollowly. “Like I’m corn.”

Shadowcroft wrinkled his wooden brow. “Corn? Let me see...” He
paused, pressing his eyes shut, and mumbled quietly under his
breath. “Ah yes. Corn. A grain on your planet, that comes on the cob,
in a can, or creamed. Creamed corn. Is this something you value?
Does this fill you with awe?”
Logan raised his hands. “Creamed corn? Do you really think
that’s what we should be talking about right now? Countdown timer
is still ticking. I was reaped. How’s about you tell me more about
“As I said, it is a simple thing. You completed the Reaper’s
Challenge. In this case the game, which was a crude simulation of
what is going on, right now, across the multiverse. As I said before,
your world is a crude, backward place, starved nearly to death for
Apothos. The mimic knew that creating an actual dungeon would
cause great suspicion, and so it blended in—as is its way—
searching, always searching, for a hero who would be worthy.”
Logan’s mouth fell open. “You didn’t Jumanji me, you dirty SOB.
You Last Starfighter’d me. Are you seriously telling me that beating
that stupid 8-bit game is the whole reason I’m here? Not because I’m
a war hero or because I’m some sort of chosen one? Because of a
stupid game I picked up at a pawnshop?”
Shadowcroft held up a branchy finger. “I am familiar with corn,
but unfortunately I am unfamiliar with this last starfighter. Was he
some sort of hero on your world?”
“It’s a movie,” Logan grumbled. “And you totally Last Starfighter’d
“Ah, film, yes, we have heard of your Marvel movies. People say
the second Thor movie was the very best. And the most historically
Logan didn’t know where to start with that argument. First, totally
wrong—Ragnarök was obviously the best—and second, historically
accurate? In what possible way could The Dark World be considered
historically accurate?
The headmaster leaned forward. “As to the second part of your
question. Yes, you are here because you alone completed the
mimic’s challenge. You beat the game and thus proved your potential

worth to our illustrious cause. It truly is the greatest of honors. Now,
let us move on shall we, hmm?”
“Yeah, about that. I’m not ready to move on. Still sort of caught up
on that whole you unleashed a monster to kill me in my home thing.”
Shadowcroft sighed and rolled his eyes. “The Ethics of Murder
class will really be of benefit to you, I’ll wager,” he grumbled under
his breath before growing somber. “This is not a game, Mr. Murray.
Perhaps you do not condone our methods of recruitment, but that is
only because you do not realize what is at stake. This is not for a
single life, nor even the lives of your fellow countrymen. We deal not
in the fate of a nation or a planet, but in the fate of the universe itself.
There is no work more valuable than what we do. You said that on
your world there are good people. People willing to risk life and limb
for one another, to sacrifice at the expense of themselves. That is
what I am asking of you.”
Logan sat there, mulling over the words. He wasn’t sure about
this Shadowcroft guy, but the idea of serving in some sort of galactic
defense force didn’t sound terrible. Not really. The Last Starfighter
had worked out pretty well for Alex Rogan.
“Fine,” he finally said, crossing his arms. “I can at least finish
hearing you out.”
“Excellent.” Shadowcroft beamed, leaning back in his chair. “Let
us just pull up your file.” He waved a spindly hand. The spinning
crystal behind the tree man threw a complicated sheet of numbers
and glyphs into the air above their heads. At first, it was unreadable,
but after a second it shimmered and shifted, taking the form of an
evaluation sheet of sorts.
It reminded Logan of the menus from the Shadowcroft game.
“Do not be alarmed, Mr. Murray. The Arcane Lexicon of the Tree
of Souls is indecipherable to all but those closest to the Tree Spirit.
As a result, your mind will interpret the report in a way that makes
sense to you,” Shadowcroft explained. “Let’s see what we have to
work with.” His fingers flicked through the air. Information scrolled by.
“Ah, an elite warrior. Good. Decorated for heroism in combat.
Excellent. No long-term relationships to get hung up on, other than
the uncle. Yes, that should make the transition easier.”

The tree man beamed more brightly than ever, seeming quite
pleased. He swept through more pages until he got to one that
detailed Logan’s core, whatever that was.
His smile evaporated like water in the scorching desert sun.
Shadowcroft sighed and pointed. “Oh dear. Now here, you see, is
the real problem. The mimic must’ve been truly desperate to have
taken you.” He faltered and tapped at his chin. “Perhaps we might
have to rethink the quota system.”
“I’m sorry. What’s the problem?” Logan asked, hunching forward,
forearms resting on his thighs.
“No, no, that can’t be right,” Shadowcroft said, ignoring Logan’s
prodding. He stood, walked to the crystal, and flicked it with a finger
several times.
The crystal went dark, then reignited, even brighter. The
information was the same. The headmaster shook his head. A few
flowers swayed. “It says you are a Deep Root cultivator, Rank 9? Am
I reading this right?”
“Deep Root cultivator sounds promising,” Logan said. “Not sure if
being a Rank 9 is good or not.”
Once more, Shadowcroft didn’t respond. Clearly troubled, he
stole a sidelong glance at Logan.
“Okay, seriously. What the hell is going on?” Logan asked,
starting to get annoyed. “Do I get to keep the leg? Or do I have to
give it back? I’ve kinda grown attached to it.” The bad joke didn’t
clear the air.
“Not to pad it, Mr. Murray, but your core is just... well, terrible. I’m
honestly shocked you survived the transition at all. You are
supposed to be an elite warrior, yet to be honest, there are peasants
—literal serfs—on Eritreus with more robust cores than you. I knew
your world had troubles, but I didn’t think it was so severe. Let’s
check it again.”
The crystal flickered, as did the screen hanging in the air.
Shadowcroft, standing next to his desk, appraised it carefully. “Now
isn’t that interesting. You call it Earth, but we have it classified as
Uroth, a world on one of the far branches of the Theta Arcturus. Yes,

I understand your comments more. It does indeed appear to be a
beautiful planet, though a wretched one in many ways.”
“Not wretched,” Logan said forcefully.
Shadowcroft shook his head, sending his mossy beard waving.
“By the Tree, look here. No wonder your core is so terrible. While
once a great place, full of promise, your planet is now dying. I don’t
think I’ve ever seen a more Apothos-poor world since I first started
the academy. The fact that you even reached Deep Root status is
amazing, considering the circumstances. Yes, so far, your world’s
greatest contribution to the multiverse has been the Marvel movies.”
Logan let out a grunt of frustration. “All I’m hearing is a whole lot
of bad-mouthing and not a whole lot of answers. How about you tell
me why you seem to think my planet sucks so much. You mentioned
Apothos. That’s the energy I used in the game to build the dungeon
that protected the Tree of Souls. Which, given where I am, is
probably important. Care to fill in some of the blanks for me?”
“Fair points. And yes, both Apothos and the Tree of Souls are
extremely important,” Shadowcroft agreed. “The Tree of Souls
supports all of reality. Every aspect, every version. You played the
game, so you understand the basics. I’m relieved, at least, to see
you are putting things together quickly. Astute of you—a trait that will
carry you far.”
“Appreciate the compliment, but maybe you can just circle back
around to the part about my world dying and you recruiting me into
your little academy by having something eat me. I remember the
fangs quite clearly.”
“Yes, the fangs, regrettable.” The headmaster stroked his beard,
musing hard. “As to your world. To put it candidly, your world, Mr.
Murray, has become incredibly weak. Amazingly, your species has
adapted some impressive technology to compensate for its many
deficiencies. Let me clarify. It’s quite rudimentary by our standards,
but fairly impressive by your standards.”
Logan blew out a breath. “Okay, Mr. Shadowcroft. You call me Mr.
Murray. I’ll call you Mr. Shadowcroft. Tell me everything I need to

The headmaster nodded. “Good. Good. You wish for more
information. Sit back, Mr. Murray, while I reveal the very secrets of
the universe to you.”
He snapped his tree fingers, and a resonating crack like a gun
report echoed off the domed ceiling. The crystal brightened, spilling
stars, planets, and space across the room.
Logan flashed back to trips to the planetarium in elementary
The headmaster’s rich voice filled the room. “The Ashvattha,
otherwise known as the Tree of Souls, is rich with Apothos—the
fundamental energy of creation. The tree is not root, bark, nor
branch, like I am, but invisible dark matter that holds the multiverse
Shadowcroft gestured to the branching darkness that wove
endless, twisting limbs through stars and planets. “Every world, in
every dimension, is sustained through its connection to the Tree of
Souls. Those worlds are basically the fruit of the Tree, hanging from
its branches, being nourished. But no piece of fruit can survive long
apart from the Tree, yes? And, if the Tree of Souls were ever to fall,
it would be the death of reality itself.” He nodded his head grimly.
After a beat, Shadowcroft snapped his fingers. The tree—that
dark thread twisting through the entire multiverse—vanished. The
results were immediate. Stars winked out. Green planets turned
brown, then black, then crumbled into nothing. Dust, blown away into
less than nothing. Whole galaxies stopped spinning and grew dark.
With a word, Shadowcroft directed the crystal to restore the
simulated Tree of Souls. The picture of the multiverse reappeared as
it had before, in all its shimmering glory. He then moved aside
various versions of galaxies until he reached Logan’s home section
of the Milky Way—or what Shadowcroft referred to as the Theta
The sun was a yellow ball shining across the planets, and there,
attached to a weak looking branch of darkness, the dull green
continents sat on dirty blue oceans.
“This, then, is your Earth,” Shadowcroft said. “Though Earth is
such an odd name, don’t you think? Uroth sounds far more natural.

You see, your world is barely connected to that far-flung branch of
the Ashvattha. The limb has withered away to almost nothing.
Hence, it is an Apothos-poor environment. My records indicate that it
used to be more powerful, but as the Apothos began to die, you
replaced it with technology.
“Magic and magic cultivation was forgotten. Now Uroth is a
withered piece of fruit hanging on to existence by the skin of its
teeth. True, there are still a few Celestial Nodes present, but not
many. The nodes are where your world is connected to the Tree. You
might consider them strange places full of strange beasts and
creatures of lore—all of which are guardians of the Tree, as you shall
be one day. Dragons, werewolves, cyclops... Your myths and
legends are from a time when there were more nodes, protected by
guardians and the dungeons they built. Let me show you by simply
turning back the clock a few thousand years, hmm?”
With every one of Shadowcroft’s motions, the Earth spun
backward through time. Cities receded, clusters of lights blinking out.
The air cleared. Large swatches of gray strip malls and black asphalt
were replaced with fields and forests. The dark limb connecting the
planet to the Tree of Souls thickened and the whole world glowed—
almost buzzed—with tangible energy. The greens were greener. The
ocean blues were far more vibrant.
The headmaster focused on a certain island in the Mediterranean
Sea. He was able to zoom in until Logan saw a dusty city with
narrow alleys and stone buildings. People in tunics, robes, and
cloaks meandered through a marketplace full of squawking chickens,
bins of fruit, and hanging wineskins.
“This is Knossos on the island of Crete,” Shadowcroft said,
eyeing the world with great interest. “There was a rather weak
minotaur there named Asterion. I assure you... the god Zeus was not
involved. Asterion was a dungeon core, an Iron Trunk cultivator, who
protected the node there.”
The headmaster lifted his hands to show Logan the vast stone
corridors of a labyrinth underneath the city. There, the dark branches
of the Tree of Souls were connected to the world.

“I’ll show you the dungeoneers,” Shadowcroft said. “A motley
crew of greedy villains, though your stories don’t mention that. As
they say, history is written by the victors.”
The scene changed to show a collection of armor-clad warriors
standing in front of an archway underground. A young Greek man
with a lopsided grin swaggered up with a bunch of other roughlooking soldiers. Accompanying them was a fat old man in a stained
toga swilling wine. The old man finished his wineskin and then used
it to smack the smirking swaggerer on the back of the head. The
entire group laughed. They weren’t laughing when the young Greek
turned on his heel and ran the old man through with a glimmering
gladius. The curly-haired hero then rummaged through the old man’s
robes and removed a big spool of thread, while the rest of the
ruffians looted the body.
Logan sighed. “Well, this is sobering. Heroes are terrible. Got it.”
The headmaster said nothing, merely watching Logan’s
Once done ransacking the old man’s corpse, the dungeoneers
laughed and headed into the impressive labyrinth of stone and iron,
all without a care in the world. The maze itself was far more than just
stone corridors—there were traps and minions. One hallway had a
machine that smashed the walls together. Another cul-de-sac held
dozens of rat men in ragged robes armed with stick spears. Not all of
the raiders made it to the center of the labyrinth, but Theseus did.
Along with a pair of olive-skinned flunkies carrying polearms.
In the central square room—lava burbling around the edges—
stood the minotaur, ten feet tall, wearing gilded armor and wielding a
golden axe. Asterion was protecting a vermillion crystal floating over
a gorgeously carved pedestal. From his time playing the
Shadowcroft console, Logan knew this was the dungeon’s inner
With careless cruelty, Theseus sent his friends to be slaughtered
by the minotaur while he lingered back, waiting for the perfect
moment to strike. When it came, he rushed forward and stabbed
Asterion in the heart. The horned beast fell, gasping while he tried to
fight off the invaders with his last breath.

The raiders strutted contemptuously past him and over to the
crystal. Theseus plucked it from its pedestal. Golden light flooded
from the gem and into the hero like a surge of lightning, the crystal
crumbling to dust in his outstretched palm.
Shadowcroft zoomed out, showing its effect on the shadowy
branch tethering ancient Earth to the Tree of Souls. The limb
connecting Earth to the Ashvattha withered and darkened. Large
sections of the world lost its glow.
Logan’s mind whirled. It seemed his high school classes had
gotten a lot wrong about the world, the heroes, the whole deal.
Shadowcroft fast-forwarded through history. Other dungeons and
their assorted guardians fell. A tiger-headed man in a temple in India
was killed by laughing raiders. A demon lord in a Chinese cave fell to
an army of sneering men. A dragon in Europe during the Middle
Ages was murdered by a strutting knight. When each dungeon fell,
Earth lost more of that healthy gleam until once again, the postindustrial Earth spun in space, growing weaker and dimmer.
Logan felt sick. “Oh. You weren’t joking. My world really is dying.”
“Yes. Unfortunately.” The headmaster shook his head sadly. “It’s
not irreversible, but it is on the cusp.”
“Is there a way to stop that from happening?” Logan asked. “You
guys will miss out on the phase-four Marvel movies if Earth dies.”
The headmaster let a sly grin split his mossy beard. “We can’t let
that happen. Why do you think the academy exists, lad?”
“First young one and now lad. I don’t know if I should be grateful
or insulted.” Logan inhaled and nodded. “I’ll go with grateful. Tell me
more, old-timer. Tell me how to save my world.”

Chapter Four

“UNFORTUNATELY, THERE is too much to tell and too little time to
tell it.” Shadowcroft swept the simulated galaxy back into the crystal.
“We are preparing for new recruit orientation, and you, my boy, are
the last to arrive. But I can assure you all your questions will be
answered in full during your time here at the academy.” Shadowcroft
paused and canted his malformed head, stealing a measuring,
sidelong glance at Logan. “Admittedly, you are starting off at a
decided disadvantage, but I believe we can expect great things from
you. Your zest and pep are admirable.”
The little rose guy yawned and made loud smacking sounds.
“Yes, yes of course,” the headmaster mumbled under his breath.
“She’s quite the needy little thing—but it’s best to keep her happy
and well fed.” He stooped and opened a desk drawer, retrieved a
glowing bead the size of a marble, and flicked it to the rose with a
gnarled thumb. The surly plant chewed it down and belched. “Last
time I forgot to feed her, she grew thirty feet and devoured part of a
dormitory wing.”
The crystal dancer put her hands on her hips, tapping her foot,
clearly angry she didn’t get a treat. Shadowcroft produced a
glimmering sunshine snack for her as well.
“Let me guess,” Logan said, eyeballing the beads. “That was an
Apothos popper, right?”
Shadowcroft thought for a moment. “Not even remotely,” he
replied. “If I understand correctly, I believe it is something akin to
your jalapeno poppers? Snack food. Though”—he shrugged—“I
could be wrong, since accessing your very specific cultural language
isn’t easy. Now, if we could continue...”
The former soldier had to put a few things together in his head
first. “If I’m tracking with you so far, we have to protect the Tree of

Souls from dungeoneers across a billion worlds. But my little planet
is already pretty messed up. Can we just create new Celestial
Nodes? Maybe we can turn shopping malls into dungeons. The way
online shopping is going, I’m not sure we’re going to be using them
much anymore.”
“In time, such a thing might be possible.” The headmaster
stroked his mossy beard thoughtfully. “But first, you must survive.
Survive and advance in your classes to get the power you need to
reconnect Uroth to the Ashvattha. It is no small thing to do.”
“Survive? Classes? What exactly do you have in store for me?”
Logan said slowly. His thoughts flashed back to his time in Iraq.
Riding behind a .50 Cal in a steel-ringed turret. Kicking in doors and
hurling flashbangs while he and his brothers flooded in through a
cloud of smoke, M4 muzzles sweeping the room. If the recruitment
process involved being murdered, he couldn’t even imagine what
Shadowcroft had prepared. But Logan had gone through some of the
toughest training on the planet, and if he could survive that, he could
survive this too.
Shadowcroft raised a hand before he could ask any other
questions. “In time, all will be revealed. Truly, I wish we had more
time to talk, but I am a very busy tree, and you have places to be. I
must admit, however, I haven’t enjoyed an interview this much in
ages. If ever.”
Logan stood up. “You’re right. Let’s get on with it. I don’t want to
get a demerit for being tardy.”
“Sit, young one. As I said, I applaud your zeal, but you can’t use
that body for the work we have to do.”
“Why?” Logan asked, eyes narrowing. “It’s served me pretty well
up until now. I have two feet, a pair of hands with working digits, and
everything in between. Hell, the legs even work.” He stomped them
before returning to his seat.
“For one, it’s wholly insufficient for the task to come. For another,
it’s not real,” Shadowcroft replied. “In truth, that form you wear is little
more than a mask—a construct of light and illusion I conjured to put
you at ease during the initial interview. But now... Well, now it is time
to shed the old and put on the new. For the mortal to clothe thyself

with immortality. Which brings us to the third reason. This is an
institute dedicated to dungeon cores. Before you can leave my
office, you must pick your guardian form. Then, and only then, can
you enter into the academy proper.”
With a flick of his hand, the gem behind Shadowcroft erupted with
opalescent light, revealing a crystalline screen of monstrous-looking
figures that could’ve been plucked from the pages of any DM
manual. Unfortunately, the six creatures all looked like terrible
choices to get saddled with: Putrid Ratling. Stink Slime. Muck Crab.
Goober Changeling. Anemic Strig. Fungaloid.
Logan squinted, bleakly surveying the first few options. By
touching the guardian form, he was able to select the class details.
Putrid Ratling: Small and aggressive, Putrid Ratlings are a
humanoid rat-like creatures that often dwell in small burrows with
others of their kind. They are hardworking and industrious in nature
and are well known for their ability to make innovative traps, but their
fragile bodies and brittle bones mean they are no challenge
physically for even the weakest dungeoneers. Putrid Ratlings are
bipedal and can utilize simple weapons like swords and shields, but
they are severely weakened by sunlight, and dungeoneers with
clean hands and good hygiene inflict more damage when attacking.
Because they are so physically weak, they are rarely able to kill
even small animals on their own, so rely predominately on
scavenging and foraging for meals and supplies. On the plus side,
because of their steady diet of carrion, Putrid Ratlings have
developed iron-clad stomachs and are immune to almost all poisons
and diseases! Moreover, when push comes to shove, they can also
summon a small army of feverishly sick rodents to fight at their
Would you like to know more? Yes/No
No. Logan definitely, totally, completely did not want to know
more. The negatives far outweighed the positives on this one, and
he seriously didn’t want to lose out to simple handwashing. His gaze
skipped to the next option in line.

Stink Slime: Stink Slimes are amorphous blobs and fill out the
lowest rung in the Slime/Ooze evolutionary tree. Since Stink Slimes
are both blind and deaf at the Deep Root Level, they have a wide
range of severe disadvantages, but they are able to sense nearby
creatures through vibrational noise that carries through the ground,
allowing them to seek out prey over time.
As Stink Slimes are not particularly fast or agile, catching prey
may be difficult, so they secrete a variety of pheromones to lure in
small, vulnerable creatures, while conversely utilizing potent stink
sacs to scare off more dangerous predators. Using sticky tentacles,
they immobilize their prey, then use a weak acid to slowly dissolve
the hapless creature over a period of days or even weeks—during
which time the slime must remain completely immobile.
Would you like to know more? Yes/No
This time, he felt the color drain from his face as he read over the
Perfect. Great. So, he could go from being a fully functional
combat trigger puller to an amorphous puddle of blind and deaf goo
that could slowly and ineptly hunt rabbits. Maybe. If he got lucky.
Yeah, hard pass.
“Where are the other choices? The good ones.”
“These are your only choices,” Shadowcroft replied.
“These six. You’re saying I only have those six options?” Logan
asked after a moment. “But can I become human again when I’m not
in my dungeon?”
Shadowcroft shook his head. “Once you choose your class, you
will be forever in that form, though as you progress in your cultivation
practices, your body will improve. Assuming you survive long enough
to advance.”
Logan studied the six figures: An emaciated rat man in tattered
rags. A puddle of stinky goo. A filth-covered, green-shelled
crustacean. A grinning little goblin with electric blue skin. A scrawny,
bird-like creature with a long proboscis and a bad case of eczema.

Terrible. Just terrible. He paused at the last option. A tiny red-andwhite mushroom with a dopey grin on his face.
“So my character class, otherwise known as my guardian form,
wouldn’t just be Ratling, but a Putrid Ratling.” He let the sarcasm
flow. “Cool. Who wouldn’t want to be putrid? I didn’t read everything,
but I would imagine my bite would cause a cholera outbreak.”
“Something like that.” The headmaster shifted in his seat. He was
getting antsy. Uncomfortable. It was clear he was in a hurry to get
Ironic. Shadowcroft wanted to hurry things along. Logan had to
pick his new body, which he might have for a long time, if he
“Good thing this isn’t stressful,” he muttered darkly.
“Once you choose your guardian form,” the headmaster
explained, “we will take your essence and store it in your core. That
core, in turn, will transmute the energy into your guardian form,
giving it substance and shape. Material reality.”
“Gee. You don’t say. And, if I understand correctly, I’ll be stuck as
a Muck Crab for the rest of my foreseeable life. Dreams do come
true.” He was trying to keep his sense of humor.
“You wouldn’t be the small crab you see there forever.” The
headmaster tapped the image. “Your form will change and evolve
into a greater, more formidable version of the guardian as your core
advances from level to level. It is the way of all guardians.”
Logan sat back, thinking. “But why are there only six choices?
I’ve played DnD since the seventh grade, and these are all newb
monsters for level-one dungeons. Why can’t I pick a dragon or
something that doesn’t absolutely suck ass?”
“DnD. Dungeons and Dragons. At best, a simulation of how the
real world works. At worst, it’s a game designed to sell pizza and
dice.” Shadowcroft nodded. “Yet there is some truth in your words,
young one. Sadly, because of your crippled core, you are limited to
lower-class guardians. Here is the full list of all options available to
all cultivation levels.”
With a flick of Shadowcroft’s wooden fingers, the gem showed
Logan thousands of monsters—a dizzying array that included a

Terror Strig, a Slime Prince, and more normal dungeon denizens:
lich kings, insect royalty, eldritch horrors, ancient dragons of every
size, shape, and color, and yes, there was the Spider Sorcerer he’d
beaten the game with.
Most of the creatures were amazing, powerful, and scary. Many
were so bizarre that Logan had to do a quick sanity check.
Gelatinous Knight? Cleanup on aisle five.
Then, just as quick as the options appeared, Shadowcroft
dismissed the menagerie. “Yes, we have an impressive list of
possible guardian forms, but, as I said, you cannot choose any of
them. I would change things if I could, but the situation is this—you
are a Deep Root cultivator, Class E, Rank 9. The guardian forms you
have access to are directly proportional to your Core Class at the
time of selection. These are the only possible forms for you to use.”
The six bland figures flickered back into sight. The Goober
Changeling emitted a goblinny giggle and a new blue pimple
appeared on its face.
“Can I upgrade my form when my core improves?” Logan asked.
“Advances is the term,” the headmaster said. “When your core
advances. And I’m afraid not. However, as previously mentioned,
your guardian form will evolve as your cultivation improves.”
“But that’s just it,” Logan said. “Evolving is hard to do when you’re
dead. How the heck am I supposed to advance as a Putrid Ratling?”
Shadowcroft softened. “Your worry is understandable. And,
truthfully, this situation pains me, Mr. Murray. I am sorry your options
are so terribly limited, your chances are poor, and that there is a
good chance that the Reaper Box I sent out into the multiverse has
doomed you. However, the Tree of Souls has a wisdom that defies
our mortal understanding. The Tree knows how to protect itself. I
believe that you were chosen to fight in this war for a reason, even if
it is hard to glean that reason in the here and now.”
Logan hardly listened. He reviewed the pathetic classes again.
He stood and shook his head. “Nope. You’re talking about my life
and death. I’m not going to fight your war as a newb sewer rat or
shower mold. Just send me back.”

“Back?” Shadowcroft looked shocked. “No, no. I’m afraid you
misunderstand. There is no going back. I can dissolve your core and
feed your energy into the Tree if you’d like, but your body is gone.
Devoured. Your flesh was converted into the energy that is powering
you at this very moment. There is only forward.”

Chapter Five

THERE IS NO GOING BACK. There is only forward. The words
echoed in his head like the clarion chime of a struck bell.
Wow. Now that was a hell of a gut punch.
Logan sat down. He swallowed hard and pressed his eyes shut.
There was no going back. Others might get an afterlife, but he got a
temporary body and a one-way ticket into a dungeon core academy.
He thought about the people who would miss him. Upon
reflection, it was a rather short list. Uncle Bud would inherit the
house and the dogs. Ramon could take over the landscaping
business. His military buddies would see his obituary or read about
his messy death on Facebook, and they’d raise a glass in his honor.
Lizzy, his old girlfriend, had already moved on. His parents were
For a minute he felt alone, a bit lost, but then remembered what
Sergeant Major Baker had said to him after his accident. Not every
soldier got to go home with a heartbeat. There was no going back,
and if he lived in regret and resentment, that would kill him just as
surely as the mimic had. If he was going to make it here, he needed
to find the silver lining. That was the only way to deal.
So maybe this wasn’t perfect. Maybe he was starting out at a
disadvantage, and maybe he’d have to climb his way up from the
very bottom, rung by bloody rung. But he also had the opportunity to
do some real good. To save the world—his world—and protect the
Tree of Souls. At the same time, his imagination was fired up and
blasting on all cylinders. What in the hell was a dungeon core
academy anyway? How was this going to work? What were the
classes going to be like?
He’d been out of the Army for a while, and though he’d been
running his landscaping business, he’d always secretly nursed the

dream of using his GI Bill benefits to go to college at some point.
What the hell. He might as well get a degree in advanced
dungeoneering. It would be more interesting than a business and
marketing degree.
Above all, Logan was a survivor, and though his choices were
bad, he’d never been one to stew or sulk. If these were his options...
Well, he’d find the one that would give him the best chance. An
edge. Then? Then he’d improvise, adapt, and overcome. His unit
had always had to do more with less. He could do the same here. He
just needed to be smart about it.
Logan opened his eyes. “So I need to pick a guardian form and
level up so I can eventually save the Earth.” He nodded. “The only
way is forward. Show me my options again.”
Shadowcroft put his hands together, and it was the sound of twoby-fours clapping. “Yes, now there is that enthusiasm I so enjoy. Feel
free to study your options. I will try to give you all the time you need,
but you should hurry.”
Logan shook his head. “I’m on the clock, got it.”
He skipped over Putrid Ratling without a second thought and flew
by the Stink Slime options—he had absolutely no desire to spend the
next century as sentient nose mucus. Next up was the Muck Crab,
and though the creature didn’t sound overly appealing, it was a far
cry better than the other options he’d seen so far.
The Muck Crab guardian form was perfect for underwater
dungeons, and he would be able to summon a variety of aquatic
minions. The deadly beastie could also engineer interesting coral
traps and cast sand-based spells. The melee attacks were okay, and
the physical armor stat was decent enough, but at the lowest level,
some hungry dungeoneers might come looking for a seafood buffet.
One-on-one, the Muck Crab wasn’t the worst option. Against a bevy
of raiders? Logan wouldn’t last five minutes. And weren’t
crustaceans just the spiders of the sea? He’d gotten used to walking
around as a bipedal animal with four limbs and an internal skeleton.
The Goober Changeling was bipedal, and it started off with the
amazing ability to grow three inches and add ten pounds to its
chubby frame. It was basically an uncoordinated baby troll without

any natural armor. It did have the physical ability to turn its fingers
into scissors—short, stubby scissors with the blunt ends like the
ones Logan had used in the third grade. Unfortunately, as terrible as
the Changeling was, it went onto the maybe list.
The Anemic Strig was actually rather promising. Part feathered
bat, part mosquito with a skin condition, the two-foot-long monster
could suck blood, fly, and swell its body so much that physical
attacks would bounce off its thick, metallic feathers. It could also
summon insect clouds and set up bloodsucker traps, but in the end,
the thing was crazy ugly and didn’t seem to have much versatility. It
was a one-trick pony with a mediocre trick at best.
While Logan read and pondered, the headmaster sat quietly at
his desk, wooden fingers folded. New flowers budded on the grassy
knoll of his head. It was like sitting in a room with a Hayao Miyazaki
“So, there’s a real problem with all these things,” Logan said,
glancing up at Shadowcroft. “You might get more powerful as you
go, but my chances of surviving first-level encounters are terrible.”
Shadowcroft adjusted a flower on his head. “You aren’t wrong,
Mr. Murray. However, your core simply can’t power anything better.
Now, if you’d have come from an Apothos-rich world, like Eritreus,
and if you were an Iron Trunk cultivator, C-Class—even a lowranking one—you would have far more options with a much better
chance of long-term success. Better still would’ve been the Azure
Branch cultivator, B-Class, at any rank. We have some of those
higher-level cultivators at our school. One of our top students in your
class is a B-Class Abyss Lord, immune to non-magical weapons,
able to summon hordes of devils and demons. He’s nearly
“And I get to be a used Kleenex, a Red Lobster entrée, or
Batman’s more mosquito cousin.” Logan blew out a breath and
made his lips flap. “Great.”
The last in the line was the fungaloid class. Just looking at the
image of the mopey little mushroom man made him depressed. He
took a break to study the leveling system, which seemed to apply to

both Dungeons and Raiders, so at least he’d have some sense of
how he could progress.
Ranks: All Classes are subdivided into ten ranks, starting at level
10, then proceeding incrementally to level 1. When a dungeon core
or dungeoneer surpasses level 1, they advance to the next Class
and begin the process over again.
U-Class (Dirt Cultivators): The masses. The vast majority of
sentient fauna and flora fall into this category. U-Class creatures
barely have enough Apothos to keep their hearts beating. Not
particularly hardy, they are easily injured, cannot heal quickly, and
are prone to sickness and death. U-Class do not have ranks. This is
the foundational state of existence, only slightly more advanced than
the dirt underfoot.
E-Class (Deep Root Cultivators): This is a starting hero. Deep
Root cultivators have taken the first step to opening their cores to the
power undergirding creation and have begun to passively cultivate
small amounts of Apothos. They are slightly stronger than average
creatures of the same type, but they have yet to commit to a
cultivation path. Most cannot form an energy attack.
Elite soldiers or war-hardened athletes might have progressed to
this level. Without training, such a dungeon core would be
overwhelmed in minutes by even the weakest dungeoneers. The
Deep Root cultivators, as with the rest of the cultivation levels, are
ranked from 10 to 1, 10 being the highest, and 1 being on the cusp
of advancement.
Logan frowned. “So I’m a Deep Root cultivator, Class E, Rank 9.
Some of that is probably thanks to the pawnshop game. Most of that
is the Army. Hooah.” He kept on reading, though it was rather
sobering to think that he was just a notch better than literal dirt. More
daunting was how far he had to go until he advanced to an Iron
Trunk cultivator—the basic entry level required for a successful
dungeon core.

C-Class (Iron Trunk Cultivators): This is the “average” dungeon
core. They are just beginning but are still much stronger than most
other creatures. Their bodies are harder and more powerful, and
they have begun to actively cultivate the divine energy of the
cosmos, putting them firmly on a class/cultivation path. No single CClass dungeoneer could clear even the most basic C-Class dungeon
singlehandedly—a group of Iron Trunk cultivators can be dangerous
Iron Trunk is the foundational class for most dungeons and
dungeoneers because the Iron Trunk class transforms the body in
dramatic ways, making those at this class sturdier and able to heal
dramatically faster than those at lower classes. Those at higher tiers
can heal grievous wounds quickly, while those in the highest Class
Tier are even said to be able to regrow limbs. Most C-Class
dungeoneers are still too squishy to survive alone in even low-level
B-Class (Azure Branch Cultivators): At the third-strongest
level, these cultivators are extremely powerful and dangerous. With
focus and determination, they can externally shape their Apothos
into devastating energy and magical attacks. A group of B- and CClass dungeoneers is nothing to scoff at, especially for a new
dungeon without much experience. Typically, Azure Branch
cultivators comprise the majority of mid-ranged dungeoneers:
successful and working their way up but nowhere near the top.
A-Class (Jade Leaf Cultivators): The second-strongest class,
Jade Leaf cultivators are extremely powerful. Dungeon cores at the
A-Class level are often entrusted with the defense of the most
prestigious Celestial Nodes and are almost guaranteed any
assignment they desire.
As for the Jade Leaf dungeoneers—even a single dungeoneer
can clear a C-Class dungeon alone. Jade Leaf dungeoneers are
both masters and specialists of their craft. Thanks to the hardy
strength of Iron Trunk and the active cycling abilities of Azure
Branch, these dungeoneers are nearly impossible to kill and can
effortlessly shape their Apothos into attacks that defy explanation.
Jade Leaf raiders frequently serve as powerful lords and ladies to

the Monarch-Level S-Class. They often run powerful organizations or
are senior guild members.
S-Class (Heartwood Cultivators): The strongest and rarest
class of dungeons and dungeoneers. Every Heartwood cultivator is
equivalent to a small army. Heartwood dungeons can span miles of
territory and descend miles below the ground.
SS–Class (Crown): Little is known about Crown-level dungeon
cores and dungeoneers or what they are capable of, in part because
they rarely involve themselves in typical human affairs. Some
dungeons, however, do achieve this ranking since they are capable
of fighting more than one Heartwood dungeoneer at a time. The
strongest Heartwood dungeoneer is approximately ten times weaker
than the weakest Crown-class cultivator.
SSS–Class (Immortal Crown): Mythical beings with god-tier
power. They are ascended masters of legend, and no one knows
whether they even truly exist.
Logan paused to think about the levels. Both dungeons and
raiders were ranked in similar ways. The A-Class, or Jade Leaf
cultivators, were like the B-Tier heroes of the Justice League while
the S-Class, or Heartwood cultivators, were like the A-Tier. Logan
figured the Heartwood cultivators would be like Superman deciding
to do a dungeon crawl.
It was strange to think that these dungeoneers were actively
raiding dungeons and destroying worlds. Did they know and not
care? And why raid these places at all if it was so dangerous? What
were their end goals? What did they get out of the arrangement that
made it worth the risk?
He glanced at Shadowcroft, who was massaging the grass
around one of his skull flowers. “So, hey, old-timer, what class of
dungeon core are you? I’m assuming you’re a dungeon core, right?”
“Indeed, I am.” Shadowcroft smiled. “But what I am matters not to
you. You must pick your guardian form, Mr. Murray. We have run out
of time.”
Logan wasn’t going to press the question. Afterall, Shadowcroft
he had to be at least S-Class since he was running the show.

But stalling for answers wasn’t going to change his situation. He
needed to pick a guardian form, and he needed to do it quickly. The
only other guardian left for Logan to study was the fungaloid.
Reluctantly, he clicked on the image of the stumpy creature and
pulled up its details. It wasn’t much at first glance. Little humanoid
dude, about three feet tall, with a red-and-white toadstool head. Not
only did the thing look silly, it had bad mobility and was super weak
against fire. The little guy was as flammable as a newspaper soaked
in lighter fluid. It also didn’t have any kind of physical attack, not at
the first level, and its defenses were next to nonexistent.
However, owning his own landscaping business had led Logan
into the wacky world of mushrooms a time or two, since some fungi
could harm lawns and destroy gardens.
Back on Earth, fungal spores were everywhere, floating around in
the air humans breathed. Most were harmless, simply waiting for a
dark, wet place to grow—like under a log or between your toes—but
some fungi were so nasty it took powerful poisons to remove them.
Logan felt a shiver. Yes, the fungaloid was pathetic at first. But
what kind of terrifying mushrooms could it grow down the road?
Logan saw that the list of fungaloid abilities was stupidly short.
Almost laughably so.
“Hey, Shadowcroft,” Logan said. “Why isn’t there more
information about the fungaloid?”
Shadowcroft cleared his wooden throat. “Well, now, Mr. Murray,
that is an unlikely choice. I don’t recommend it. Granted, at higher
levels, the fungaloid can be extremely powerful, but very few have
ever progressed that far. I’ve had six students who chose that
guardian form. One died immediately in the Threshing—his core
pulverized into powder. Three were expelled and later slain by
various raiders. One did graduate, started his fungal dungeon, and
was exterminated by five Iron Trunk dungeoneers. The last student?
I lost track of him, though last I heard, he was able to survive and
even thrive, protecting his Celestial Node.”
“Six people chose this form,” Logan said. “How long have you
been running this school?”

“It has been ten thousand of your Uroth years since I first
founded the school.”
That made Logan pause. He read the description again:
Fungaloid: The fungaloid guardian form is a small humanoid
creature composed of a white, spongy material capable of emitting a
variety of spore types. Although fungaloids are mobile, in the early
stages of life they are weak, slow, and susceptible to many natural
dangers, including fire, heat, and sunlight. Additionally, they have
few offensive abilities early on and are often harvested by overeager
dungeoneers due to their ability to produce highly profitable narcotic,
hallucinogenic, and alchemic potion ingredients.
Fungaloids can evolve to hardier and deadlier versions as they
cultivate Apothos and refine their cores. These higher-level forms
are rarely, if ever, seen, however. This is due, in large part, to a
unique facet of the race: Because of the pathway mechanics
involved in fungaloid biology, only Deep Root cultivators (E-Class) or
lower can pick fungaloid as a starting race.
Would you like to know more? Yes/No
“E-Class or lower,” Logan mused out loud.
“That is correct,” Shadowcroft agreed. “Some students have
drunk potions to limit their cores to become a Putrid Ratling, but that
is not possible for the fungaloid class. Hence, it is very rare. Please,
Mr. Murray, I would suggest the Anemic Strig or, yes, the Putrid
Ratling. Even the Stink Slime would be better.”
Logan didn’t comment. Instead, he selected Yes. He absolutely
wanted to know more.
More information populated, replacing the initial fungaloid
description. Quickly, he read about the fungaloid’s Initial Active
Ability in his Fungal Form:
Fungal Form 1: Harden. Trigger Harden to temporarily calcify
your exterior by 25%, reducing damage, though at a 20% reduction
to speed. Harden is a stackable ability and can stack up to four
times. At higher levels, this turns into Chitin Armor, creating

hardened plates of chitin similar to an insect’s exoskeleton. Light but
resilient, the chitin reinforces the body without being cumbersome.
Available at: E-Class, Rank 10+
Logan had to laugh. That was so much like the dumb Caterpie
Pokémon. Basically, you could turn yourself into a semi-soft brick.
People could still beat on you because you were too slow to scurry
away. He rolled his eyes.
Reading on, he saw other initial abilities:
Spore Halo, General Ability: Although fungaloids can become
physically powerful at higher evolutionary stages, their most potent
weapon lies in their ability to release a variety of spore types. Unlike
many caster creatures who use single-target spells, fungaloids
release spore clouds that are always Area of Effect. Any creature or
dungeoneer in the area will be affected—unless the creature has a
symbiotic relationship with the caster, causing them to be immune.
Hey, now. This was promising, or so Logan thought. At least until
he read about the first spore he’d be able to emit.
Pollen: Release a toxin into the air that causes slight physical
discomfort for all creatures in the Area of Effect. At lower levels this
causes irritation of the skin and eyes, difficulty breathing, sneezing,
and can even lead to swollen joints.
Available at: E-Class, Rank 9+
Logan was about to give up on the mushroom guy when he two
words jumped out at him: symbiotic relationship.
He flicked through screens, tracking down the reference. Bingo.
He’d found it. He could emit something called Symbiosis spores:
Symbiosis: This is a unique and powerful ability. The fungaloid
can create a symbiotic relationship with a host—or even more than
one host, at higher levels—giving the host a wide range of unique
fungaloid-based abilities and advantages in exchange for the

fungaloid leeching off a portion of the host’s absorbed Apothos
energy. Typically, Symbiosis is used to find a Dungeoneer Champion
who willingly serves the dungeon. In this case, the fungaloid
becomes an Eldritch Patron/Fungus Warlock. Though rare, it is also
possible to use the Symbiosis ability in tandem with other dungeon
cores, creating a unique relationship where a single dungeon could
host multiple cores.
Available at: E-Class, Rank 9+
Logan again felt a shiver. Okay, now they were cooking.
Magic and support users were always weak up front, but they
paid off in the long run—if you could survive long enough to power
up. If he could find a partner, he just might have an edge. He would
need help, and a lot of it. At the first level, he could transform into a
brick and he could make dungeoneers sneeze—not exactly a
promising ability set—but with a partner in crime, he could maybe
survive long enough to truly make something of himself.
Many hands make light work. Uncle Bud always said that life’s
burdens were easier to bear when you found other people to help
share the load. Logan was going to bet his life on it.
“Fungaloid,” he said, feeling sure about his decision.
Shadowcroft winced, those magical blue eyes losing a bit of their
sparkle. “Are you certain? You might think teaming up with another
dungeon core would be easy, but I can assure you, no one will want
to link their fate to yours. What the description doesn’t say is that in
cases of symbiotic dungeon cores, only the fungaloid can terminate
the relationship—the host would be at your mercy, and no other
dungeon would ever be foolish enough to do such a thing.”
“That’s what you think,” Logan said, “but I’m likeable. And if you
don’t like me, as a fungus, I’ll grow on you.”
“Yes, the puns,” Shadowcroft said with some distaste. “I
remember the puns were an issue for these dungeons.” The
headmaster’s mood shifted, and he laughed. “All in all, it’s an
interesting choice. Unconventional. Odd. You will certainly be one to
watch. Now, prepare yourself. The academy awaits!”

Strangely enough, Logan was perfectly at ease with his decision.
However, he was still human, even in his temporary form. He might
have extreme buyer’s remorse once he was given his shroomy little
“Now, young one,” the ancient tree man said, “this next part might
sting a bit...”
Logan nodded but was in no way prepared when his heart
abruptly exploded out of his chest, leaving a gaping hole behind. The
immediate sting was actually less than he would’ve guessed, all
things considered. The mind-altering agony afterward, however, was
definitely going to leave a mark.

Chapter Six

THE PAIN SPUN LOGAN Murray into a dark void. The second time
in less than twenty-four hours he’d visited Abysstown. Population
ouch. Well, no one ever said that dying and becoming a dungeon
core would be easy.
This time, at least, the darkness was fleeting—there one minute,
gone the next.
And this time, Logan didn’t wake up human. Not even close. He
was lying on his back, and he felt smooth cold stone under him. His
eyes fluttered open and he found himself looking at his pudgy white
hands. The three fingers and a stump-like thumb came in and out of
focus. No fingernails. Not even any proper joints to speak of. He
opened and closed his hands and balled his fingers into loose fists.
He was made of the spongey gray-white material of your gardenvariety fungus. No pun intended.
This was wickedly weird. He also felt terrible.
What wasn’t numb tingled, and he wanted everything that tingled
to be numb. He dropped his arms, letting them flop like rubber tubes
against the floor, and stared up at the arching black stone of a highvaulted ceiling. He turned his head to the left and spotted huge
columns rising up, up, up into the air like monstrous redwoods.
Those columns were a bit fuzzy, though, blurry around the edges
since his eyes felt like they were rebooting. A turn to his right
showed him arches crafted from black stone framing long windows
glowing with amber light. He’d gone to France with a few enlisted
buddies, and this felt like the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
He groaned and pushed himself to his feet, both feet, though he
stood on elephant pads with four toes sticking out. There went
counting to ten. Though having two legs was still a win in his book.
Better two legs and eight toes than one leg and five. Sure, his legs

were just spongy white twigs, but in the sheer numbers department,
he was killing it!
Still... He was short. He was wide. And he wore white cotton
pants that ended in the middle of his jointless legs. A red shirt, soft
and comfortable, hung from his round, sloping shoulders—the shirt,
too short, showed a swatch of pasty white belly. He was as skinless
and boneless as discount chicken.
His pudgy hands went to his head, and he felt his cap. At first, it
felt like he was wearing a big round hat. Then he felt at the gills
underneath the cap, the weird ridges that most mushrooms had. His
fingers traveled south, and he hesitantly touched his face—bulbous
eyes, a tiny little nose, and a narrow mouth without very much lip. He
didn’t have ears. Another strike in the body part ledger. But it
could’ve been worse, he reminded himself. He could’ve been a
puddle of goo with no limbs at all, devoid of sight, sound, and taste.
Compared to that unfortunate fate, he was doing pretty well.
He took one step. Then another. Then stopped. Something itched
on his belly and he scratched at it absently. Again, he felt his
spongey new flesh. He was a mushroom. A fungaloid. He’d known
this was coming, but wow... Hopefully he’d made a wise choice.
His other senses were slow to come around. Without ears, did he
hear through his gills? At first, things were indistinct, but after a few
moments he heard the murmuring, laughter, and conversations
going on around him. A mixture of odors reached his buttonmushroom nose. Puns were definitely going to be a problem.
He smelled a variety of things, some animal, some vegetable,
some mineral. Eventually, his knobby eyes cleared, giving him a very
Mos Eisley moment. There were monsters everywhere. Big, terrible,
strange. Hearing Shadowcroft talk about Lich Priests and Abyss
Lords had been one thing, but seeing it was something else entirely.
He realized with a jolt exactly how much the deck was stacked
against him. These things could crush him underfoot without missing
a step. If he wanted to survive and thrive here, he was going to have
to work harder than everyone else, smarter than everyone else, and
fight for every single inch.

He was going to have to become the undisputed King of the
Several long tables had been pushed to the side of the vast
hallway, the space cleared so the incoming dungeon cores in their
guardian forms could mingle. Schmooze.
Two hulking werewolves, covered in coarse tawny-colored fur,
stood on their hind legs, wearing red robes, chatting amicably while
they passed a big leg of beef between them. Dragons the size of
horses snorted flames and chatted. An enormous creature that
looked equal parts fire demon and shadow nightmare yakked it up
with a cold-faced undead queen, who glowed with a greasy, queasy
jade light. Both were drinking from golden cups encrusted with
jewels. They looked like dungeon core royalty, all right.
What was the name of that Apothos-rich world that Shadowcroft
had mentioned? Logan couldn’t quite recall, but he bet dollars to
donuts that those two were former residents.
A centaur clopped by, his mane fluttering in some unfelt breeze.
Logan stumbled back on instinct, craning his neck. Well, trying to.
His neck didn’t really crane. He sort of bowed his whole body to get
a better look. Majestic looking. Regal. Also stinky with a capital S.
Another figure ambled past, a suit of armor made from what looked
like lime Jell-O, leaving behind a trail of goo.
“Gelatinous Knight,” Logan whispered in shock.
Everything was bigger, taller, and more powerful than Logan,
including a depressed-looking minotaur with his huge arms folded
across his massive beef-slab chest. The bullheaded man leaned
against the wall, sighing every once in a while, his ears fluttering in
obvious annoyance. Near him was a tall, slender woman with blueblack moth wings poking out from her back and lacy antennae
protruding from her brows. She looked about as uncomfortable as
Logan felt and radiated social awkwardness in waves.
A jubilant voice echoed through the hall, reverberating off the
high ceilings. “No, guys! I’m telling you. With my new hooves, I can
slide through that slime trail!”
In a clatter of hoof clops, a toga-wearing satyr went zipping
through the goo the Gelatinous Knight had left in his wake as though

it were a Slip ’N Slide.
The satyr had the furry legs of a goat but the muscled torso of a
man. The hair around his wrists half-covered his human hands. His
face was also humanish, with a pointed beard covering a chiseled
jaw, a wide nose, and a mouth that looked like it would always be
smiling. He had goat eyes—horizontal pupils—and two big curling
horns spiraling around pointed ears capped with tufts of golden hair.
A fuzzy tail stuck straight out, then curled up like an overgrown pug.
In one hand was a comically oversized flagon—the thing was dang
near a punch bowl—which he somehow managed to hold with
perfect balance despite careening through the slime. Something was
printed on his toga, but Logan couldn’t quite make out the words.
The satyr finally slid to a stop. He deftly leapt from the goop,
landing on his clopping hooves. “Haha! See that?”
No one seemed especially impressed by his antics, not that the
satyr seemed to notice or care. Instead, the goat-footed man took a
huge gulp from his cup and scanned the crowd. He zeroed in on
Logan almost at once.
“Hey, bro,” he boomed, clopping over with a lopsided grin on his
face, “I bet you’re like me. A fun-guy. Get it? You’re a little mushroom
dude. A literal fungi.”
The satyr was a little under six feet tall. Normally Logan would’ve
been looking down into the horizontal slit of his beast eyes.
Now? Logan had his head back. He smiled. Well, he attempted to
smile; it was hard to tell if it worked with his new face. “Shadowcroft
said to keep the puns to a minimum,” he replied. “And for the record,
those hooves are perfect for sliding. I never would’ve doubted you.
I’m Logan Murray.” He extended one pudgy hand in greeting.
The satyr stepped over and bent down on one goat knee. “Well,
Logan Murray,” he said, accepting the proffered limb, “I’m Marko
Laskarelis. The pleasure is all yours.” He paused and dropped
Logan’s hand, his eyes going hazy for a beat. “Do you realize the
first letter in your last name is the first letter of my first name? And
vice-versa for the other names involved in this interesting bit of
wordplay. It’s destiny that we have met, I think. Yes. Yes! I can feel it
in the bottom of my wine cup. Destiny.”

The furry-wristed guy, already a bit drunk, took another long slog
from the punch bowl turned chalice. From this close, Logan could
finally see what was printed on the front of his toga—THE PARTY
STARTS HERE with an arrow pointing down.
Logan had to laugh. “How did you customize your toga?”
Marko shrugged. “When the S-man, old crafty crofty, let me
choose my guardian form, I saw my chance to do a little decorating. I
have a keen eye for such things, you know. And I do like to party. So,
put the two together and bam! A little embroidery later and I’m
walking around with a surefire conversation starter. I’m just glad they
have booze here. So, which world are you from?”
“Uroth,” Logan replied. “Or we call it Earth. It’s, uh, far away and
having issues.”
“I dated a girl like that... far away and having issues. I’m from
Sangretta myself, which is like Eritreus, only stupider. But I had fun
there, so it wasn’t that stupid.”
“Sangretta?” Logan had to smile. “That kind of sounds like
sangria—red wine and chopped fruit.”
“Yes!” Marko drank some more. “I’ll have two. Make both a
double. Quadruple me, barkeep, and don’t stop until breakfast. I
might as well party it up since I don’t suppose I’ll survive very long.
I’m not what you would call competent. Honestly, it’s an absolute
miracle I can cultivate as well as I can. I suppose that old saying is
true, the gods watch over children, drunks, and fools. I am certainly
the last two. Still, I doubt I’ll make it long, even with divine
intervention. It’s not like a satyr is anyone’s first choice as far as
quality guardian forms are concerned.”
“Better than being a mushroom,” Logan said, sighing.
“No, guy, mushrooms are awesome. I’ve spent some great nights
with mushrooms, I can assure you.”
“I don’t know.” Logan’s hands went to his cap. “Is there a mirror in
the hall? I haven’t gotten a chance to look at myself.”
Marko laughed. “Gods, I know just what you mean.” He grabbed
one of his horns and wiggled his head. “How in the inferno below am
I supposed to sleep with these things, hmm? I like to sleep on my
side, you know. Not anymore. I wonder if I can sleep standing up?

Goats do that—sleep standing up. That would be useful! I’d save a
ton of money on beds. At least, I think so.” He tapped at his curly
goatee. “Or maybe I’m thinking of elephants.”
A gruff voice interrupted their conversation, slashing through the
low murmuring and the uncertain shuffle of feet. “Quiet, all of you.
Eyes front and center.”
A formidable gargoyle-griffin-like creature stood on a raised dais
at the far end of the hall. He stood upright, legs reverse hinged, his
feet ending in bone-crushing, flesh-rending eagle talons. He had
huge wings and a lionesque head with a lush mane. He wore heavy
silver plate mail, with some sort of blue enamel running around the
edges and an intricate dragon crest at the center. A wicked mace
hung from his hip, the flanged head the size of a large melon. He
looked terrifying, mean, and as dark as the inside of a coffin on
Halloween night.
His voice boomed out, sharp and precise. “I said quiet! From this
point on, we are watching you, every one of you, and we are grading
you. So, you will all be on your best behavior, or you will suffer.”
That sure seemed to get everyone’s attention.
Suddenly, Logan felt like he was in middle school. “I think my vice
principal said that same thing to us at one point.”
Marko lightly punched Logan’s arm. “Looks like we’re getting
started. Good luck, Logan Murray. I hope you make it. You seem like
you’re one all-right toadstool.” The satyr left to go stand with the
friends he’d already made. Marko was clearly someone who could
make friends with anyone, anywhere.
Logan liked that.
The room fell quiet, and the various monsters shuffled forward.
There was no way Logan would be able to see.
He hurried to the side, near where the minotaur and the moth girl
loitered, and climbed up on a stack of chairs. Again, he felt his
incredible shortness and how fragile his body was.
The gargoyle-griffin raised his claws and spread his wings wide,
showing off the spectacular golden plumage.
“Better,” he snapped. “Welcome to Shadowcroft’s Academy for
Dungeons. I am Professor Yullis Rockheart, the rector prime here at

Shadowcroft’s. We are the finest dungeon academy in all the
Dungeon Corps. You may have heard good things about Gadsore’s
Institute of Defense or the Crossworld Academy of the Arcane, but
they do not have our legacy of excellence.
“Saudrian’s School of Guardians is third-rate, and the Waldorf
School of Strategic Learning is a joke—a JOKE!” he roared, the
noise shaking the floor. “And don’t even get me started on the
shortsighted, myopic curriculum at the Plaguebringer College of the
Undead! Nightfall University has given us a run for our money a time
or two, this is true, but there’s a reason we’ve won the dungeon
games the past three years running.”
Several of the guardians in the place let out a triumphant yell.
Logan put two and two together. Somehow, many of the monsters
here already knew what was going on and were probably at
Shadowcroft Academy by choice.
Logan had to wonder if any of these other dungeon core schools
had people who’d chosen the fungaloid guardian form. Maybe
mushroom dungeons had fared better at these other institutions.
Professor Rockheart continued. “Shadowcroft’s is the best
because we have three things. One”—he stuck a talon-tipped finger
into the air—“the best headmaster and staff of any dungeon core
academy. Period. Full stop. Two”—another finger joined the first
—“the most well-rounded and forward-thinking dungeon curriculum
in all the realms. And three.” He paused, face a thunderhead, tone
turning dark. “We have absolutely no mercy. Not a shred. You will
conform. You will succeed. Or you will be crushed under heel.
“At Shadowcroft,” he continued, “we strictly adhere to Cemoyre’s
Constant: only the fit survive. It is our firm belief that only the worthy
should be allowed the honor to serve. You will not be coddled at this
institution, but pushed to your uttermost limits. Pushed to your
breaking point and beyond. My job as rector prime is to ensure this.
Many of you will die during your time at Shadowcroft—and likely at
my hands no less. Better in here than out there in the real world,” he
said. There was no malice in his words but rather a cool indifference
—a statement of absolute fact.

“The truth is, all of you—even the most powerful among your
number—are replaceable, one grain of sand on an endless seashore
of souls. There are no special snowflakes at Shadowcroft, only
motes in an endless avalanche that crushes our enemies. You do
not matter. The Tree of Souls matters, and to that end, I will do
everything within my power to weed out the fit from the weak. Let
there be no doubt, this is a school for winners. Time will tell which of
you don’t belong here.” He scanned the crowd, gaze resting
especially long on Logan. “And that time starts now! By standing in
this room, you’ve already passed through the Reaper. Now... Now
comes the Threshing. Prepare to fight for your life.”
Logan didn’t like the sound of that. “What’s the Threshing?” he
asked himself out loud.
The nearby minotaur heard him, ears twitching manically. The
bull man sighed like he’d just crashed his first car, gotten fired from a
great job, and dropped his ice cream cone.
“It’s our first solo dungeon run in our new guardian forms,” he
replied, sounding for all the world like Eeyore’s clinically depressed
little brother. “Don’t tell me your name,” he said, raising a calloused
hand. “I don’t care, and I don’t want to know it. You’re probably going
to die, and I know I will. That would be funny... me living and you
Logan went to protest, but then the itching on his stomach turned
into a searing burn. He jerked up his short little shirt to see a
gleaming ruby where his belly button should’ve been. It was about
the size of his shroomy fist and reminded him of the gems in those
old Troll dolls.
Logan gently touched the gemstone. The minute he did, he was
sent reeling back into the void—third verse same as the first. This
time, however, there was no pain.
And just like that, Logan found himself excited. A solo dungeon
run? He was going into an actual dungeon. Awesome! Too bad he
was doing it as a pizza topping.

Chapter Seven

LOGAN FOUND HIMSELF in a classic dungeon hallway with only
one way to go. He padded forward slowly and silently on his fat
Gumby feet. He had to move slowly, of course, because his little
mushroom frame simply wasn’t built for speed; it was obviously built
for sitting around on rotten trees and germinating. He metaphorically
gritted his teeth—unfortunately, he was missing teeth too, so he’d be
gumming all his food for a while. He was determined to show both
Shadowcroft and this new gargoyle professor that he belonged here.
This fungaloid was going places in the academy, even if he had to
take his sweet time gett