In times of old, Athalon had been called the Hollow Realm. The people who had called it that were long gone, of course, but it was still true. The mountains were riddled with thousands of miles of tunnels, grottoes, crevasses, caverns and massive hollows, spiraling down through the islands and burrowing deep below the seafloor on which they stood.
Human cartographers had mapped at least five hundred and fifty-five levels, but the casualty rate for explorers was very high and nobody really knew for sure. After all, there were things down there that quite liked their privacy. And there were answers to questions that should never, ever be asked.
A tiny bald wizard raced through the echoing black depths. He was carrying a backpack nearly as big as he was, and accompanied only by an orb of light that bounced along above him. He had been running for days, maybe weeks. There was no day nor night in the tunnels. He’d passed through strange subterranean villages and evaded the hungry things that waited in the dark, and now he simply ran.
He had committed one of the best Imperial maps to memory, and he faithfully chose the correct fork of each tunnel, and scrambled through the right crevices. He was running too fast to look at a map anyways, and his hands were full with a giant leathery tome.
He was fighting with the book even as he ran, trying to scrub the title off of the gnarled cover. The letters bubbled up and reformed each time, always spelling out the same title: The Necronomicon.
Acid, magical razors and curses made no difference. The book insisted its title over and over.
“Bloody hell, you’re stubborn,” panted the wizard. He skidded to a stop, dropped the book, and put his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. The snake-venom potion that had given him his strength so far seemed to be wearing off a bit. He pulled a vial from his bag of holding.
Adder-All! The vial read. Solves all your problems! The wizard threw back the rest of the potion with a grimace and fumbled around for his blood-magic quill, dipping its tip in whiskey to sterilize it before stabbing it nervously into his quivering arm. The quill eagerly sipped up the dark venous blood.
The wizard wrote his new title over the reforming letters on the book’s cover.
|AdvEnture's GUide to ADvENtuRing
DUngEons in DRaGons
“You’re making a mistake there,” the book said, irritably.
“Shut your cursed book mouth!” the tiny wizard snapped. “I’m trying to save all of humanity, you leathery old beast!”
“Alright then, carry on with the mutilation. Hope you know what you’re doing,” said the book, cooly. “Altering my narrative is a dangerous undertaking.”
The wizard ignored the book, trying to orient himself. He ran through miles and miles of tunnels in his head, trying to figure out where exactly he was.
“Left, right, past the glowing pools of Gwend, down the third crevasse… where’s the damn tunnel?”
“You missed a right back past the forbidden sacrificial altar of the Gorefield,” the book said, tiredly.
The wizard cursed and turned back, finding his way once more. He was closer than he’d realized. Soon he entered a cavernous passageway with an arched ceiling curving up into blackness beyond his floating light. The stone was stained and blackened, and there were patches of greasy residue under his feet. Metal glimmered at the edge of his light, and he moved forwards to see a crumpled metal sign warped by heat. The metal had the unique luster of Ferrum handiwork; no ordinary flame could have melted it.
The sign had a single word embossed into it, letters painted chipped red: DRAGON.
There were more signs further in. DRAGON. DRAKON. ENTER AT YOUR OWN PERIL. OGNEVIKA. ДРАКОН. Skull-and-bones icons stared down at him along with alchemist sigils warning of fire and explosives. A mushrooming cloud that formed a heart had been painted directly onto the rock in dripping red.
There was a strange smell that intensified as the wizard advanced past the signs. It was sooty and rich, like the blackened grease dripping beneath a roasting beast on a spit.
The passage became narrow, the ceiling lower, the stone blacker. There were funny, lighter shapes on the walls that looked sort of like people frozen into startled poses. There was junk on the ground that the wizard suspected might have been people. Now it was impossible to tell where armor, clothing and flesh had been separate. He avoided looking down.
“Oh, this is nice,” the book said. The wizard jumped. “Plenty of free skeletons down here.”
The wizard hissed a silencing spell at the book, sparks spitting from his lips.
Now there were no more human remains, save for the thin layer of black grime. Only warped pieces of armor remained, and a handful of sorry-looking weapons.
“Look at all this free stuff,” the book whispered.
Indeed, there were more shining things up ahead. The narrow passage was opening up into a softly-glowing chamber piled high with glittering treasure. Above and around the hoard, fainter but no less breathtaking, flickered valuable crystals of mana, emerging from stalactites and stalagmites all around the immense cave.
The pile of treasure sloped up, as great piles of treasure tend to do, towards the massive coiled form of a sleeping dragon. The lustrous red scales shifted smoothly as the creature snored. The wizard extinguished his light and continued down the slope into the hoard cavern. When he reached the base of the treasure pile, the wizard shifted his grip on the book, cocked his arm back, and aimed at the dragon.
“Oi!” the book whispered hoarsely. “Don’t just chuck me, I’m extremely valu--”
The wizard launched the book upwards with an air spell, which flew in a decent arc, leather pages flapping as noisily as pigeon wings, and landed on the dragon’s forehead.
The dragon snorted out a streak of dragonfire in annoyance. A single golden eye opened.
“Seriously, who throws a book?” she muttered.
The wizard didn’t answer, as he was now on fire.
“Ahhhhckkhhkk,” he said.
“You know, normally adventurers try to take this stuff,” the dragon remarked. “This isn’t a dump, contrary to how it looks.” The wizard ignored her, desperately casting an aquacceo charm. Steam burst off of his body and the flames flared higher.
The dragon tutted at him. “That’s dragonfire for you,” she said. “Water only makes it worse.”
The wizard had fallen into a smoldering, unmoving heap. The dragon wrinkled her nose and went to investigate the book. She pinched it between two claws and held it up, turning it in the faint light.
“This better at least be valuable,” she muttered. “I’m not running a junkyard here. Evaluate item!” The Appraisal incantation merely displayed an empty frame in her field of vision. As the dragon stared at the utterly blank description, the book slithered out from between her claws and fell back down the sliding piles of gold. The dragon squinted suspiciously at it. The title was written in uneven, crooked letters. It smelled like musty leather armor, but… worse.
“And now there’s a questionable book in my hoard,” she griped. “Dungeons… in Dragons? Seriously? Hey, small wizard-- you still alive over there? Where’s your party? Who just wanders around in the catacombs with a sketchy book? You some kind of perv or something?”
The wizard was too dead to answer these questions.
There was a metallic clattering as a blue kobold came skidding into the hoard room, bounding across the loose and shifting mounds of treasure.
“Mistress Ognevika!” the kobold cried. “I heard a man and smelled his magics!”
Ognevika glanced over at the lump that had been the wizard.
“He’s magicked his last, I believe. Wizard-shaped barbeque, if you like it.”
The kobold grinned, showing rows of small, needle-sharp teeth.
“We can eat him?”
“You know the drill,” Ognevika said. “Undress it, dump any valuables into the hoard, eat the rest. Oh, and search him for rubies. I might be hungry later.”
She pointed at the book sitting in her hoard.
“While you’re at it, take this questionable book away. While hilariously named it's clearly worthless and now it’s interfering with my nap time.” She punctuated this last sentence with a cavernous yawn that made her massive jaws pop.
The blue kobold dutifully clambered up the hoard, taking a bit of time to claw the book out of the pile of other things. By the time she scampered back down, the wizard’s corpse was surrounded by other kobolds with colorful, crystalline scales.
One whipped around as she drew near and hissed in her face.
“Agate, the slowpoke! Last come, last get! You doesn’t deserve any manflesh!”
Agate could still smell the tasty roasted meat; her mouth watered. The others glowered at her, clearly waiting for her to shove off. They were all bigger than her. Without their blessing, she had no right to eat here.
Agate knew better than to stick around and test their patience. She fled with her stomach growling, scampering down the narrow kobold-sized passages leading out of Ognevika’s chamber, carrying the leathery tome along with her. She didn’t know what she was meant to do with it. She licked the book, seeking more information. It tasted of old tanned skins, with darker, bitter notes under that. Perhaps, it would make for a nice snack?
Agate carried the tasty book into the dense warren of tunnels leading through the solid rock to the second, larger chamber behind Ognevika’s hoard. She felt the rumble of the subterranean waterfall nearby as the tunnel widened and opened into a magnificent chamber the size of a city block. High above, the distant ceilings of the chamber were covered with glowing clusters of crystals. The air was cool and fresh from the waterfall, near which Agate had emerged. The water flowed between glittering sandbars and past the towering hollow columns that stretched up to the chamber ceiling. Agate hopped from sandbar to sandbar, splashing through cool, clear puddles as she made her way to one of the stone columns and entered another tunnel at its base.
The narrow spiralling passage led up and up into the cluster of kobold dens high above the ground, near the glowing ceiling.
Before she could retreat into her own den, she came upon another group blocking the tunnel ahead. She tried to make herself small and slip through undetected. The others laughed as she tried desperately to push past.
“Hey, dum-dum, whatcha got there? A book?”
“Trying to look smart? It won’t work! S’not like you can read!”
“I bet she already slobbered all over it, tryin’ to gain smarts by eatin’ it,” a big, unpleasantly green kobold drawled. The others cackled at this comical suggestion.
“That’s gotta be it, Screw,” another said to the big green kobold.
“You’re wasting your time trying to gain its power by eating it,” Screw told her. “Nobody’s fooled. Nobody wants a rock-licking moron like you as a mate.”
Agate focused on being small and inoffensive, pretending that she was a pointy cave rock instead of a kobold. She’d heard all the insults before, but her face flushed at the slobbering comment. She had planned to nibble on the book, but now she felt too ashamed to do so. Finally, she crept into the shelter of her own little moss nest. It was set a bit away from the other young females, which she’d learned was a wise strategy for her.
Bioluminescent patches of moss provided a soft and soothing light perfect for sensitive kobold eyes. Brighter crystal shards twinkled within the moss. At last Agate relaxed and set about investigating the item the Mistress had left with her.
Agate set the book down and squatted in front of it, flicking through the pages without much interest. It was true that she couldn’t read, and there weren’t many pictures. She decided to add some. She rummaged around in her nest of rags and tattered pelts until she found a charcoal stick that she sometimes liked to scribble with. And then she found a blank page.
“What are you doing, you little wretch?” the book demanded with a barely audible voice, still mostly muffled by the wizard’s spell. “You're supposed to read me, not write stuff in!” The kobold’s catlike pupils widened with surprise.
“A talking book?” she gasped, and shook the book as if expecting something to rattle around.
“First the wizard tampers with my title, and now this,” the book said. “Hey-- enough-- that’s enough of the shaking! All the words will fall out.”
The book was alive, it whispered words to her! Was it some sort of a sneaky, mimicky critter masquerading as a book? Did that make it okay to eat it? The commotion had gotten the attention of the nearest female neighbors. They were poking their heads out of their dens and watching Agate closely.
The book didn’t realise that these judgmental glares were saving it from certain consumption.
Agate contemplated the nature of talking books. Mimical critters did not chat, they bit you with fleshy insides, she recalled. Without a doubt this was a much more advanced form of dungeon life.
“...Do you want to be friends?” Agate whispered to the book.
“No,” the book answered, coldly, cleaving Agate’s little crystalline heart.
Agate angrily put the book down, and then grabbed her charcoal stick again. She was determined to draw in it now, talking or not. This book deserved to be drawn in! The book just sighed with annoyance.
Agate began to draw a happy picture. The ancient yellowed page accepted the charcoal with a slight hiss. She drew Ognevika her mistress flying above a human hive, burning it with dragonfire. Below that, she drew a lonely little kobold like herself, daydreaming, wishing for a best friend that could be as clever and wonderful as her mistress.
‘Yes, all your master’s charming personality, and none of her power,” the book sneered. “All of her memories, but no ability to smite you. Yeah. That’d make a great friend, I’m sure.”
Agate stared at the book with her plain, somewhat daft-looking face screwed up into her meanest look.
“Books taste bad,” she said. She wanted to say something much more hurtful, but she couldn’t think of these things on the spot.
“Well, from the mouths of idiots…” the book conceded. It didn’t offer any more comment on Agate’s artwork, but it whispered all the while in deep, foreboding undertones. Many voices overlapped and resonated. It went quiet when the kobold shut the book, her drawings hidden within.
. . .
Ognevika woke up feeling as though she was missing something important. Something was going deeply wrong within her subterranean universe. Historically, this meant only one thing: intruders.
"Again?" she thought blearily. "Annoying little bastards..." As she blinked and her vision cleared she felt even more uneasy. She lifted her head a little and looked about her to see what the matter could be and was startled to find herself surrounded by what appeared to be giant kobolds, as large as she was!
She leaped instantly to her feet, then fell over immediately in surprise when she found herself standing on two legs.
"What in the Gorefield...?" she snarled with a voice that felt much smaller and weaker than her usual thunderous timbre. She looked around at these giant kobolds more closely. Some of them were stirring around her in annoyance. Definitely kobolds; definitely larger than any she'd seen before.
She held up her front legs to see two slender, brilliant red arms instead. She waved her little arms around, incredulous. In her confusion she realised she was vocalising still, but all she could say was, "what, what, what WHAT?" over and over, as if she couldn't even finish a question. By now the giant kobolds were all awake and glaring at her.
“What is this?” she shrieked after gathering herself for a moment. She had finally arrived at the most concerning issue-- her hoard was not underneath her.
"Where's my hoard?!" she shrieked, spinning in a circle, trying to catch the soothing vibrations of the hoard’s magic. It was always singing in her head, telling her exactly where each item lay. Her hoard was still somewhere nearby, she felt it. She took off instantly, retreating towards the familiarity and safety of its resonant energy.
“Out of my way!” she bellowed at the oversized kobolds, barging past them towards her treasures. As she approached it, the wrongness only intensified. As she drew near her treasures became enormous, the piles towering above her like mountains. The chorus of the hoard vibrated at a far deeper, more ominous, perversely atonal intensity. She skidded to a halt in front of it, almost toppling in shock, overwhelmed by the overbearing chords of magic.
She tried to tune out the resonance and just stared at the hoard in frustration. A shiny polished plate was sticking up out of the pile. It was absurdly large, half as tall as she was!
A stranger’s reflection stared back at her out of the cold metal. It was a little red kobold with vivid golden eyes that locked onto hers. Its mouth hung dumbly open, and its chest heaved.
Ognevika saw a collar around the neck of the reflection, and when she reached up she felt it around her own neck. She turned it to see the engraved tag better. She lowly read the backwards reflection:
|PROPERTY OF OGNEVIKA. NAME: [ERROR]|
Ognevika clawed at the collar although she knew it would do no good. When she was composed enough, she rapped on the thrall collar with one claw to get it to speak.
“Level One Kobold, thrall of Ognevika the Red. Name: Error,” the collar announced in its smooth artificial voice.
“I’m not my own slave,” protested Ognevika, her voice cracking a little. “I am Ognevika! The feared guardian of the Nexus for millennia!” She thrust her slender chest out as she said it.
“Hi, Error,” said a voice from behind her and she jumped sideways in surprise to see the same blue kobold from earlier, the one who’d taken the book away. They were now about the same height. Ognevika just stared. After a moment of smiling blankly at her, the blue kobold jumped, clapping her hands together. “Oh! I forgot. I’m Agate!” she announced and resumed smiling expectantly, her little pointy teeth glinting.
“This is all a wizard dream spell,” Ognevika said. The blue kobold opened her mouth as if to speak, but Ognevika cut her off. “I’ve been magicked asleep and this horrible dream is going on while that foul little man steals my gold,” she told the blue kobold. She looked past the blue kobold, to the top of the hoard pile where she saw herself sleeping. Yes, that had to be it. She just needed to wake herself up.
She scrambled up the loot mountain, slipping and falling twice. She began to pant with effort.
“This is so much stuff,” she muttered. “Why am I hoarding all this stuff?” When she neared the top of the pile she rummaged for something nice and heavy. She pulled a jewel-encrusted crown loose of the pile and chucked it at her massive sleeping head, now seen from the third person.
“WAKE UP!” she commanded herself. Her dragon-self snuffled and twitched without waking. She ran closer, pelting her dragon-self with goblets, gilded armor, and a strange phallic shape carved from jade. Her dragon-self twitched again.
“COME ON!” Ognevika yelled in her puny kobold voice.
Her dragon-self moved her tail. “Here we go,” said Ognevika, trying to catch her breath. “C’mon, you big red lout. C’mon!” The tail lifted ponderously from the gold, and Ognevika smiled triumphantly, waiting for the spell to break.
The tail swayed, then drew back and whipped through the air. The red jewel-encrusted tail slammed into her chest and sent her flying. The sickening crack of impact rang in Ognevika’s ears.
“‘M napping,” her dragon-self mumbled. “Lemme sleep.”
Ognevika crashed down onto the side of the hoard pile and rolled down, her slender body bashing against hard, shiny things.
She yelped in pain until she came to a stop at the bottom of the pile, coins and relics sliding down after her, until she came to a sudden stop. She lay prone, stunned, for a moment.
“You’re an odd kobold, Error,” the blue kobold told her, staring at her from above. Ognevika realized that her tumble had been stopped by the blue kobold’s feet.
“Please, no bothering Mistress Ognevika. It is her naptime.”
“I… I hate all this stuff,” Ognevika groaned. “I have a problem. A hoarding problem. And a talking-to-myself problem.” At this point she was half-buried in coins and things with sharp bits. Her chest hurt fiercely from her dragon-self’s tail, making it hard to breathe.
“What have I been doing with my life?” she gasped, letting her head flop back against the pile. “And... why? Why do dragons hoard stuff? Why in Gorefield’s unholy name do I need all these things?”
“Error, why do you question this for?” asked the blue kobold, blinking in surprise. “And why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying!” Ognevika protested. “My face is just wet, you little fool.”
“It is wet from you crying,” said the blue kobold.
“Dragons don’t cry,” Ognevika said dismissively. The blue kobold wavered, looking uncertain for a moment.
“Kobolds aren’t dragons,” she said at last. “Maybe dragons don’t cry, but we do. Especially if the Mistress hits us with her tail. Fierce awful.”
“I don’t understand it anymore,” said Ognevika in a wrecked voice, gesturing to the vast expanses of treasure all around her. “This all made so much sense as a dragon. What sort of a magic dream tortures me with existential questions? And…” her breath hitched at the pain in her chest. “...Why do I have so many sharp things?”
“Come now,” said the blue kobold, extending a hand to Ognevika. “Let’s get you to the grotto. I’ll fix you right up, Error.”
“Right,” said the red kobold who remembered once being a dragon called Ognevika. Her new name echoed about in her head. Error. What did it mean?
Agate lifted her by the arm in support. "Kobold bones are made of what," Error winced, "spun sugar?"
Support "Error's Game"
I was born in the year 1984, in the 4th most polluted city of Soviet Union - Novokuznetsk of Siberian Russia.
On April 11/1997 fate has given me an unexpected twist and by means of aerial transportation I was thrown 5555 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Ontario, Canada, wherein I currently preside in an 1890 Presbyterian church and partake in writing and drawing things.