A plush leather couch sat comfortably on another sidewalk of suburban enclave, a lay of street barely distinguishable from any other on that grid. The house who hastily threw it aside was easily upper-middle class, with a lawn built into islands of rhododendrons in a sea of sparkling, white rocks. No grass, of course. This would completely contrast the type of men drawn to grab said couch, but these occasions were commonplace.

From just two blocks down the road, crust men emerged from their crust dens of stucco-concrete and gummy carpets: Hunter and Dollar Mel. They sized up the couch between their rheumy, cragged eyes. They knew how to treat leather, and didn’t stew everything in bleach like Laurie-Mae from three doors down.

“Almost perfect. Looks like some pen stains on that cushion. Some sweet-scented crust, too. Could be the kids spilled donut glaze, candy nummies, or somethin’,” Hunter said. His relatively soft fingers probed the furniture, but hovered over the cursed stain tentatively.

“Probably semen, depending on what they ate,” Dollar Mel rasped with an air of sagacity.

“I…Mel. I wouldn’t jump the gun on that,” Hunter replied after a moment.

“Mmh,” Mel grunted.

“Regardless, the stains’ll come out. You wanna take this one? I know Donna’s complaining about her lumpy bed.”

“That’s okay. She always complains of her lot. Besides, your chidduns need more spots to perch for gaming nights and reading.”

“Are you sure?” Hunter replied sharply, almost offended his generosity was reversed.

“Mmn. Hmm.”

Knowing this was a potential payday, Hunter and Mel took their time on couch restoration after carrying it together to Hunt’s garage. They agreed leather cream and saddle cleaner were overpriced chump-bait and settled on using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to tackle the stains. To avoid damaging the leather, Hunter’s less shaky fingers played the process like a game of Operation.

After finally agreeing on who takes the couch, they made off to the Lotto Labyrinth, out from the burbclave and through skeletal communities and bum dens of Old Main Street. Unlike many, they knew the locals well enough to feel comfortable around them. Especially Dollar Mel, who spared Quarter Bob a few dollars at his usual spot: a sleeping bag at the entrance of an old tire store, now boarded up and serving no one but rats and the abuse of teens during angsty, concerta fueled nights.

“Who do you think this month’s dungeoneer is?” Hunter asked as they neared the sterile whites of stacked office buildings and exponentially spawning antique shops of a commercial district.

“Uhm. If it’s Little Jeremy again, easy pickins,” Mel said.

“Oh yeah. Total consumer gomerite. Can’t set traps or map dungeons worth a damn,” Hunter said.

For once, Dollar Mel’s face twisted into a sardonic smile, his worn skin-creases stretching uncomfortably. “Still feel bad for the goblins he hired. Made them wear dresses. My lord.”

“Aww ha ha!” Hunter guffawed, “That was him? What did he arm his flankers with again; those little farming sickles on whip chains? No one used them for killing anyone, just scaling walls, but don’t tell the average drooler anime fan that. They’d shit themselves.”

“Uhm. Kusarigama? He also gave them oversized gloves and boots to change their ‘design.’ Wanted to make them more ‘Watanabe-esque.’”

Hunter was baffled by Mel’s ability to seemingly pronounce Japanese terms, then by implying he actually spoke to Little Jeremy without blood being spilled.

“What?” he asked.

“My kids. They like Digimon. Watanabe was the main artist for their designs. Used semi-deformed artwork for a sorta cartoonish, easily animatable look. It still lent itself to detailing, namely belt buckles, capes, machine gun arms, etc…”

“You’re losing me, Mel,” Hunter said.

“What about Jessica?” Mel hastily changed the subject. “She goes to your church still, yeah? She still a dungeoneer?”

Hunter stared into columns of equidistant palm trees lining the roads they walked. They were imported by city council at great expense from Los Vegas and delivered by truckers, he knew. Along with the cursed eucalyptus, he read that ecologists blamed them for raping California of its native marshes. They were once advertised as a modern landscaper’s best friend, as natural sponges. His mouth tightened into a line as he worked Mel’s question around his head, but found himself distracted by the city’s design decisions. It reminded him of mapping grids on their lotto papers. That, and the intentionally repetitive layout of the Lotto Labyrinths themselves, which often reeked with the sterility of Febreeze and other cleaners – just like this comm district – to sterilize any sense of granting oneself direction.

That’s just the way things went, he supposed.

“Jessica?” Hunter started, “She’s one of those literary types. Plays things very theatrically. She’s clever, but I dunno if she’ll get selected again.”

“She got around 70 kills, I thought. Those’re good numbers for gamified eugenics fucks,” Dollar Mel added.

“Yes, but the pin cameras. They know she intentionally leaves clues for certain traps. She likes playing with us, keeping us on edge. Her flanks and traps can be brutal, but she always leaves spaces for levity, safe spots regardless of budget.

“Even then, she’s inconsistent. Sometimes more spiteful. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the Lexapro.” Hunter said tightly and reluctantly.

“If you’re afraid of disrupting your social circles, fine, but we’re lesser men compared to them. And our lives are their evening sport,” Mel said sharply.

Hunter shook his head, knocking his worries loose. “You’re right. Old habits are hard to break.”


In the long running spirit of Lotto Labyrinth, Hunter and Dollar Mel met at the grimy, ad-plastered walls of a downtown Circle K. They paid their entrance fees and signed their names on a list. Then, got a 30-by-30 tiled scratcher card that resembled a sheet of graphing paper. In older days, this was a gaming necessity, Dollar Mel once learned from a computer repair bum. For games like Wizardry, the memory on computers was too sparse for intensive graphics, complex storylines, or masturbatable character designs (that man’s words, not Mel’s). There were only simple white lines to represent walls and open spaces. The player was left to draw a map out themselves, and even keep track where they were with no visual cues aside from room sizes, when there were rooms and not winding halls. The computer bum swore this defined how game designers presented themselves to players: as nefarious, obsessive wizards calculating brutal, sometimes unwinnable scenarios.

Combining this with the casual, but gripping addiction of scratchers spawned a mass market of desperados looking for easy money, and would-be dungeoneers acted as their architects of murder.

Another tradition required for entrée was a full party of four crawlers. As a new cashier fumbled his key ring for the labyrinth’s entrance, he was required to state that diverse talents were preferred by each member. As usual for a Midwestern migrant, Hunter had meager skills in archery, thanks to his namesake. Dollar Mel had enough dexterity and muscle memory left to swing a sword (or any simple tool of violence). As for the other two crawlers, they stepped forward after purchasing some Mountain Dews and a bag of Takis. One was a wiry red-head, barely 18 from the looks of him. He held a twitchy demeanor and wide doe-eyes. He signed his name as Ray, and revealed to the party and cashier a set of lockpicks. But starter kits for this hobby were cheap as dirt online, and Hunt and Mel were concerned about his jitteriness. Skills at picking chests and disarming traps were one thing, but the ability to spot them before getting picked off was an infinitely higher priority.

“You better not be on pep pills. We need a concentrated eye.” Hunter Mel said simply, but heavily to Lee.

“That’s just his disposition, Mel. He’s a sharp, fresh man, fresher than the rest of us and ready to be tested,” said the other party member. Hunter and Mel recognized him immediately as Shitty Daryl: a survivor of many earlier ‘test dungeons,’ back when various police districts rounded up their bums and bussed them away during major tourist seasons. Of course, places like San Francisco swarmed with tent cities under every turnpike. By the time people realized many were disappearing, the finger of accusation shot to the at-the-time state governor, who was pinned for the whole ordeal.

“It’s been a while, Shitty. How was Vegas?” Mel asked.

“Been a boon. The housing desert’s swarming with wannabe house flippers and the junkies migrated westward. I met Lee while pilfering condos. I trust him as much as I trust you, Dollar Mel.”

“Fine, lead the way,” Mel said.


This labyrinth had the fidelity of a well-established laser tag arena. Gone were the discount-haunted house stylings of hastily built plywood hallways of old, ones easily exploited and breakable. The Lotto Labyrinth resembled a warehouse-sized tumor at the back of the store, sturdy and well-crafted with assemblable tiles of brickwork. Unlike the ones in Arizona or Texas, this maze stood at several stories, partly due to naturally hilly terrain.

Stepping softly against the cross-patterned flagstones, Dollar Mel, Hunter, Lee, and Shitty Daryl displaced their bodies through the mists and dank of Lysol.

Another fine heuristic Mel picked up from the computer bum: many of these old dungeon crawler games—CRPGs, blobbers, whatever they’re called—had party members standing in rows, strategic formations. Their party stuck with two-by-twos. Some were more aggressive with three-by-ones. For the coldblooded, they hired desperate, expendable mercenaries for one-by-threes, knowing that if they died they needn’t be paid at all. These were fine logistics to be aware of, but the cramped walls made this a must by design. Naturally, Mel took the front row and Hunter took the back, where he kept a keen eye out with an assigned discount bow: a neon-pink monstrosity meant for training children with a string like nylon. He was granted four arrows, one less than the policy stated.

While a travesty of standards, this didn’t surprise Mel, what did was Lee standing at his side, practically hiding behind his decoration longsword (also assigned). The kid’s mouth was agape with complete, but untrained focus. As usual for a thief designated crawler, Lee was given no weapons, but brought his bag of Takis with him on the oversight of the cashier.

Shitty Daryl occasionally glanced at the sawdust and chili-powder snack safely from the back row. He smiled toothlessly.

There were a few long hallways and a spiral maze—a simple, continual set of left turns leading to a dead-end door that coiled back to the last corner. It was a filter to waste the time of only the dumbest of crawlers, sure, but the tight bends rendered Hunter useless and the maze’s solution was simply to turn back. A wise dungeoneer could easily set a solid flanking point. Even Lee, though fresh-blooded, suspected this. His leg muscles twanged tightly like a rabbit ready to flee.

Something called from the stonework. Was it a few corners back, or just around the bend? Daryl nudged Lee’s shoulder, forcing him forward to scout as their smallest and most nimble. The kid obeyed, but at first his limbs locked. It took him a moment to cut past instincts of self-preservation. The opposite went for Dollar Mel, who nearly stepped forward to take Lee’s place. He felt obligated, being the only man armed and ready. He shot a glare back at Daryl, and Hunter followed suit with a sideways glance.

No one heard the crunching of Lee’s jaws. There was something about this new generation who, like rodents, adapted keenly to the violent flavoring of modern snacks. His cheeks were stuffed like a squirrel’s as he opened his palm to the party: wait.

His feet soundlessly crept across the suburban driveway patterns that defined every floor, wall, and ceiling of the labyrinth, like an opossum searching for fresh garbage. He paused for a moment, then spat loudly and wetly before darting back to the group. He still kept his hand out, and pushed them back as far as quietly possible.

The pitter-patter of undersized feet and oversized armored boots loped near, but stopped shy of spotting the crawlers. Instinctively, Dollar Mel squatted to a low stance, his sword readied, which allowed Hunter to aim over him in case of an ambush.

Instead, gargling shrieks sung through the hall. After a quick peek, Lee waved the group forward, but Mel and Hunter’s readiness was unnecessary, because what they saw was a mass of shriveled limbs as lumpy and green as avocados writhing across the floor. In their years of gaming the Lotto Labyrinth, none of them saw goblins in such detail, not while they’re alive. Drawn to the moisture, these stumpy hellions (likely underfed by their bumbling city functionaries), leapt at a chance for any moisture at all, whether spit or the blood of their enemies.

Like mixing baking powder into sugar to kill ants, the well-mulched Takis overwhelmed their sensitive taste buds. Searing pain shot through their nerves like electricity, and they flexed every muscle and orifice possible, rolling along the mess until coated in more pain. One of them even smothered their own face and eyes. It was so overwhelmed, its metal-spurred claws gouged its face apart.

Whether an act of expedience or pity, Dollar Mel felled them with slashes to their throats.

“Thatta boy, Lee. Very clever,” Shitty Daryl broke the long silence after the goblins’ cries ended.


There were no water fountains in Lotto Labyrinth. Lee’s play was clever, but he paid for it with a wretched aftertaste and parched throat. He did his best to keep silent, but a single smack of his lips brought a well-placed throng of spear-gobs at the party of crawlers. The ambushers crashed through a false wall just behind Daryl. If they were of the mindset at the moment, they’d appreciate the craftsmanship: a plywood wall with dulled ceramic coating, sanded down by any number of potential neighborhood handymen to trick the eyes of crawlers otherwise mesmerized by repetitive gray maze.

From then on, the assured payday went to hell. All it took was a rough start. The gobs themselves didn’t nick anyone, but the crawlers winded through bends and halls. Hisses of compressed air from dart traps tickled their neck hairs, but a vicious breakaway step and bear trap shattered Dollar Mel’s ankle bones into useless shrapnel.

Somehow, they escaped, and a lull came over them.

“Fuck! Fuck!” Daryl cursed. As their cartographer, he struggled to work out where they were on the gridded map. The major point of the labyrinth—aside from completing it with all ones’ bits intact—was that each scratched-off tile revealed potential prizes. It was commonplace for lookie loos to step into a Lotto Labyrinth, only to flee at the first sign of danger, and even then at least have consolation prizes to partly make up for the entrée fee.

But now, the crawlers were lost, and if Daryl simply scratched off tiles haphazardly, numerous pin-sized cameras would catch the fraud, and all prizes would be forfeit.

Meanwhile, Hunter focused on his fallen friend. He had carried Mel dutifully as the old man struggled to hop along, and when clear, he looked over the damage. However, the injuries required more than just a splint or bandages, and there were traces of a white powder across the lips of the saw toothed wounds. Bromethalin. Rat poison. It only took less than a milligram to kill an adult within a day. Given that dust kicked up from the trap, it was powdered like a donut. Worst of all, tiny plastic capsules were also visible from the wounds, which meant the dungeoneer they dealt with wasn’t only brutal, but clever in placing them at the tips of each tooth. This ensured any amount of poison was injected directly into a target.

Dollar Mel was already weak. Blood dribbled from his lips. Hunter’s face was stone, but his mind bubbled with worries so fierce he couldn’t make out his projection. He knew from Mel’s locked limbs and twitches that the paralysis was already taking effect, which meant the increased cerebrospinal fluid pressure would take his brain, and life, soon enough. Hunter knew this because he once left rat poison in reach of their black lab several decades ago.

“Whelp. I’m sorry buddy,” Hunter’s dad said flatly. “Cry in your room, please. This was gonna happen sooner or later, Terry going away, I mean.”

“It’s Mrs. Allison!” Hunter shouted tightly. “Her husband’s an exterminator. They played tabletop games like crazy. She designs like a demon. We always left once we knew. She baited us deeper on purpose…” he trailed off, unsure if this was even worth saying, but what else could he say? This was what they did. This was what they spoke about.

“Mhmm,” Dollar Mel grunted. It wasn’t his last words, but his last voluntary utterance.


The sorrow of one crawler was swallowed by the joyous crest of others. As it turns out, Shitty Daryl nabbed the Takis in the chaos of their sprinting, and dropped handfuls of nuclear red shit-snacks as they fled. With some careful backtracking, they avoided the fierce, but dull patrols. and partly thanks to the trail scraps from Mel’s failing, the crawlers found their way again.

A familiar stretch of hallway led them toward the casually blue, reinforced door leading back to Circle K: to the world they lived among and thought they knew. While Daryl feverishly mapped their movements out on the scratcher, Hunter felt Lee’s giant eyes boring through him.

“It’s…okay.” Hunter said tightly, not wanting to weep yet. It was common for Circle K employees to allow failed crawlers five minutes to decompress in the bathrooms after a failed run, but the rabble didn’t deserve to see it. The average customer base of these convenience stores were gomerites, the type to mock the poor while buying overpriced diabetic indulges and ambling out in oversized sporting shirts, or consumer branding marks, as Mel would’ve called them.

“It’s not,” Lee said. “This is bullshit. Things are bad enough as they are! How is this okay? How do you guys do this so often?”

“We signed up for this. They want us dead, but we play by their rules. We get wilier while they get crazier. A rat’s trap still has bait, and if a tiny rodent can snake the bait, that leaves the trapper looking like a retard,” Shitty Daryl said cleanly. He rehearsed that saying.

“I didn’t think it could be this bad…no! This isn’t the same as sneaking into a house, or even flogging a private security officer before they whip out a taser. That’s just meant to kill us: a man’s touch, but with a claw on the trigger instead. The labyrinths don’t do anything else-!”

“Jackpot! Jackpot!” Daryl suddenly howled. His mind was focused on the grid, and the very tile where Mel passed away marked a three million dollar prize.