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    Just beyond the bleak, scorched tunnel leading to Ognevika’s hoard chamber, an adventurer’s camp was forming. A Probability Knight marched between the makeshift tents and groups of people, looking over his assembled troops. In addition to being the appointed leader of the expedition, he was the only Probability Knight with the party. Therefore he’d been upgraded from the fearsome status of being a Probability Knight to the even more fearsome status of being the Probability Knight. 

Once his rank and file were ready, he assembled them for a quick briefing on the situation.

“Remember, the book artifact is level zero in relation to the Catastrophe Prophecy,” he barked from behind his helmet. He knew how to speak clearly and threateningly even with his face obscured.

“Do not interact with the book. Do not acknowledge it in any manner.  Don't read the words on its pages. Don’t look directly at it for too long. Use the provided tongs, goggles and antimag shielded bag.” 

“Hehe, anti-mag bag. That rhymes,” chuckled a soldier a few rows back. His friend elbowed him hard in the ribs. 

The Probability Knight swiveled his head to fix the soldier with a burning stare. He said nothing as the man’s face went from impetuous, to uncertain, to afraid, and then past that to just bewildered. 

“Stay behind Magisteel barricades at all times, unless ordered otherwise,” the Probability Knight continued seamlessly, as if nothing had happened. “Anyone holding the book without provided safety is considered affected by the prophecy and is to be executed on sight. The execution permit 11a is in the side pocket of the bag.”

A ripple of excitement went through the ranks. The Probability Knight allowed this. Morale was very important.

“Finally, a license to kill! I always wanted one of those,” said a soldier in the back.

…. 


Error, leaning on Agate, slowly limped across the cavern and away from the hoard. Leaving her treasure alone with her dragon-self was mildly concerning.

“Where are we going?” she growled at the blue kobold towing her along.

“My favouritest place in the ‘neath’!” Agate chirped. “The kitchen!”

As they ducked into a dim little tunnel Error wondered what exactly kobolds ate and how they prepared it. As she understood it, adventurers were a vital, foundational part of the lair’s food chain. But what if there weren’t enough dead adventurers to feed everyone?

A sudden sense of hunger and weakness hit her, as if she’d been starved of rubies her whole life.

Crystalline sand crunched under their feet. The golden light of the hoard faded until the tunnel was illuminated only by hanging tufts of glowing moss. There was a cool, damp draft coming from up ahead, and a thunderous rushing sound. When the tunnel opened up into a massive new chamber, all Error could do was stand and gape at the view before her. A waterfall cascaded down from far above, smashing into the sand beneath with a rumble Error could feel through the ground beneath her feet. Curtains of green moss hung from the chamber’s distant walls. 

“Was this always here?” Error asked in bewilderment. As a dragon her interests had rarely extended beyond the hoard chamber. She tried to remember what else was outside the hoard and discovered that she could not. Millennia of being a shut-in were probably affecting her memory of the outside, she concluded with a pang of unexpected dismay. Her detailed mental inventory of every item in her hoard had grown and grown until she remembered little else. 

“Yeppers! Isn’t it the best?” Agate said, dragging Error forward across the sandbar towards the waterfall. Sand of many colors emerged, forming rainbows of glimmering crystalline channels and patterns. Azure pools of water shimmered closer to the endlessly cascading falls. Small groups of Kobolds were scattered atop broad, mossy stones rising above the sand. Error squinted at them. 

“Plenty to eat here,” Agate said as she pulled Error along. “And lots of ‘bolds like to swim here, too. Not me, though. Swimming makes me sad!” Agate said the last part with nonchalant cheerfulness, which only made the comment stranger.

“I thought you said there was a kitchen,” she said to Agate, who led her up a well-worn footpath to the top of one of the stones. They stood looking out over the pools and sandbars. The moss up here was a deep red.

“Here!” Agate ripped a chunk of moss up. “Looks like you prefer this one!”

Error gagged at the damp, smelly moss being shoved into her face. “I don’t eat moss!”

Agate rapped Error’s crystalline red horns with her knuckles. “You must’ve! R--eEe--D!” she enunciated the color slowly, as if to explain.

“Say what?” Error protested as Agate continued to brandish the moss at her. “Stop! Gah!” she exclaimed far louder than she wanted to, slapping away Agate’s persistent hands. And then she paused, looking more closely at Agate. 

“What’s with your hands?” she asked. At once Agate’s face crumpled with anguish. She dropped the moss and clasped her hands together so Error couldn’t see them. 

“I am sorry for my ugly hands,” she whimpered. 

“I don’t care, you’re all hideous little things anyways. Show me,” demanded Error, her curiosity piqued.

Agate was convinced that if Error got a good look at her hands she would be disgusted, and turn on Agate just like the others. Her hands had a thin, delicate membrane that stretched between each finger. The others told her this made her hands horrible and freakish, like she was an overgrown mucus-squirting rock salamander or a cave toad.

Error continued to hound at the mewling, groveling Agate, and the squabbling attracted the attention of the kobolds nearby. An older kobold wearing a necklace of dried mushrooms stood up and sauntered towards them.

“I don’t recalls you, girl. You’s must be new here. Here, we eats moss ‘n we likes it.” He was a wretched dull brown color, with scales on his snout and hands that were washed out to grey. His tongue flicked out from between his pointy teeth as he talked, a habit that Error found repulsive.

“I’m not eating your moss!” Error insisted, forgetting all about Agate’s weird hands.

“You’ve gotta. Mushrooms are reserved for wiser ‘bolds,” The brown kobold added, jiggling the mushroom necklace. “Moss is for youngins’. Makes ‘em grow up strong. Each flavour gives yous a different color. Your scale ‘n horns sing of rubinessence. Need the savor of rubies to keep em like that.”

“Rubies? Yes, I eat rubies!” Error agreed desperately. The kobold’s yellow eyes bulged at her, his lips pulling back from his fangs a little. 

“Rubies are reserved for Mistress Ogness!” he rasped at her. “For a lowly ‘bold to eat pure rubies is blasphemy! The Undersea falls bring all the necessary minerals down straight to us from across the under’, and makes our moss grow rich and nourishin’. You have no respect.”

“‘Course I eat rubies!” insisted Error hotly. “Big ones only. At least thirty karats! I’m not going to eat sand like a domestic,” she sneered. The old kobold’s skinny tail whipped around in agitation.

“Who even blessed this one with a collar?” he barked. “Was it you, dummy?” The kobold glowered at Agate. Agate stared back with a blank, terrified look. Error waved a hand in front of her face, but Agate didn’t even twitch. Not getting an answer, the old kobold continued to berate Error.

“Foolish whelp,” he growled, shoving her back. She stumbled and slipped in the moss. “Kobold blood is cold like cave water. Dragon blood is fire. Remember that before you get burned.” They were eye-to-eye. It infuriated Error that a kobold dared to look her in the eye. 

“Can I have my rubies now?” she drawled. She was hungry and this ugly little creature was wasting her time. His chest puffed up with indignation and he leaned in to hiss in her face. Error recoiled from the spray of spittle and turned away. She lurched as her feet found the edge of the little cliff. She teetered. Agate, still nearby, continued her statue impression.

"Accept your place, or die young!" the brown kobold snarled, and shoved her again, harder. Error fell back, wingless, into cold, empty air.

She hit the water with a slap that sent searing pain through her broken ribs. For a moment the world went hazy and her vision went white. Her bony little kobold body sank like a rock, limbs flailing. She gasped in alarm as burning-cold water filled her lungs. The bright surface of the pool faded as the last of her air rushed away in quivering bubbles. The world grew darker as she sank, and she felt her strength failing.

And then she felt nothing at all, and her thrashing stopped.

Error woke up sprawled out on one of the sandbars. She leapt onto all fours as a dragon would, and found herself still a spindly wet kobold with broken ribs (now on her hands and knees) coughing out the dregs of the water. She flopped back onto the colorful sand and moaned with despair. She was still in the enormous waterfall grotto full of other kobolds. They were sitting and eating moss in distant groups, mostly ignoring her. 

Her chest still hurt, and she realized someone had pulled her out of the pool and dressed all her cuts and bruises with bandages made from seaweed over soft moss. Perhaps someone still respected her as their leader, even in her cursed new form. Her dragonly greatness could not be so easily diminished.

She looked around for Agate. What had that one looked like exactly? All kobolds looked kind of the same to her. Agate was blue, she was pretty sure. Now that she was kobold sized, she noticed that there were obvious differences between male and female kobolds. The males were taller, bulkier, more angular. Their faces had more pronounced, longer snouts and their heads lacked crystalline hair. 

She heard a splash down below. She rolled over on her side to look down over the ledge into the water, just in time to see a blue kobold suck in a breath of air and dive back under. Surely this was Agate.

Error, watched, fascinated. Agate swam with fluid grace. It was pleasing to watch, somehow. Her long blue tail was flattened laterally like that of a crocodile and it propelled her effortlessly through the sparkling, clear water with sweeping, undulating movements. Her hands seemed strange, but Error couldn’t tell exactly why through the rippling surface of the water. Error watched as Agate swam around gathering clumps of seaweed, silver bubbles drifting up from Agate’s nose, for what seemed like a very long time.

Just as she started to wonder if this kobold had gills, Agate kicked off the bottom of the pool and came splashing through the surface. Error tried to look away and seem disinterested before Agate caught her looking. 

“Ho, Error! You woke up!” she called, and waded out of the water towards her, clutching fistfuls of seaweed. 

“Of course I woke up,” Error said, scowling. She didn’t like pointless creatures that said pointless things. “Everyone who goes to sleep has to wake up.”

Agate just shrugged, craftily adding more seaweed to what was already on Error. Error allowed her servant to attend to her.

“Sometimes kobolds that get whacked by the Mistress sleep, and you think, oh, good, he’ll sleep it off, an’ then you come back in an hour and he cold and stiff. Chest all full of blood or some such,” Agate said as she worked. 

“Well, it’s irresponsible of all of you to have such fragile bones,” Error grumbled. She felt odd, weak, defenceless, restless. It made her sour. “And I thought you didn’t like swimming,” she accused Agate. “And then I wake up and catch you splashing around having a grand old time!”

“I swim good,” said Agate. “It just makes me sad is all.” 

“Well, that’s stupid,” Error said automatically. She still felt so very off. Like she ought to be doing things. Things to protect herself. Things to secure her position in life. Before, she had never felt much of a need to do things. It was an unpleasant sensation. She scowled at the tranquil pools of water and the lounging kobolds.

“What about the hoard, though?” she asked.

Agate blinked at her, pausing in her bandaging work. “What about it?”

“The hoard,” Error repeated. “Thousands of magical items, just stacked up in a big heap. Why don’t I do anything with them?”

Agate’s mouth was slightly open, her brow furrowed as she pondered this.

“Hoards... are for hoarding?” she asked with a helpless shrug.

“But why!?” exclaimed Error, standing to pace about despite her injuries. “Is it a draconic instinct? To keep things and never use them? I could arm you all with magical weapons! Give you magical tools, so you aren’t all stuck in this… primitive misery!” Error said, gesturing expansively at all the naked, skinny kobolds milling about, eating moss like peasant livestock. “So much wealth… so much potential… I could conquer the world and have empires weeping at my feet!” Her last words rang out with a bit of an echo.

Conversations near them had paused, and the other kobolds were staring at Error with concern and annoyance. Her triumphant posture sagged a little, and she quickly turned back to Agate. 

“Is this why adventurers always throw their lives away coming down here?” she asked the blue kobold. “Is this how they think? Is this why they’re so annoying? I’m annoying myself thinking like this! But what can I do? I’m wasting my own power!”

“When we have a problem we can’t fix, we ask the Mistress,” said Agate.

“I am Ognevika!” howled Error, and then doubled over in pain from her broken ribs. The other kobolds paused to stare at her again. 

“The Mistress is out there, napping,” said Agate patiently, patting Error on the head. 

“Who’s the red one? Did she eat the funny mushrooms from up by the waterfall?” whispered one kobold to another. 

“Napping! That’s the problem; I’m sleeping! Sleeping when I could be doing something,” said Error. Agate shifted foot to foot anxiously, unsure of how to answer these bizarre declarations. The other kobolds all treated her like she was stupid and generally ignored her. This odd outsider kobold lacked the established prejudice and that made her best friend material. Agate wanted very badly to help her new best friend.

“Rest is part of the... cycle?” she suggested to Error after much contemplation, trying to sound smart. “Cycle” seemed like a smart word.

“Oh, what cycle? What is a dragon’s natural cycle? All I do is sleep on the gold!” Error cried. 

“Big critters need more sleep?” said Agate in a smaller voice. She mentally kicked herself for saying wrong things.

“I should hire smarter kobolds,” Error snarled. Agate shrank back. “Useless! Makes me sick. Actually— oh, actually, I think I’m starving.”

Ignoring Agate, she finally contemplated the red moss. The smell was musty, and it looked rather hairy. Her stomach flopped just looking at it. No, no, that was impossible. But the shimmering red sand reminded her of rubies. She scooped some up in her hands. It glittered enticingly. She licked at it, and then grimaced.

“Weird and gross,” she said disapprovingly, but continued to eat, complaining steadily the whole time. As she did so, she encountered a new and unpleasant sensation. Her damp bandages were chilly against her skin, and the gusty drafts from the waterfall made her shiver. Cold… She was cold. Dragons didn’t feel cold! First she’d been stricken with pain and insecurity and now this. She hunched over against the cold, wrapping her arms around herself and curling her tail around her legs.

She looked at the waterfall. It threw cold white mist into the air continuously. Mist, that settled into glinting droplets on her red scales.

“You’ve made an enemy for life, waterfall,” she growled, and sucked in a breath as deeply as her injured ribs would allow, preparing to turn the waterfall to steam and scorched rocks. But the furnace raging in her chest was gone. She exhaled with all her might, but her breath just came out as an angry wheeze.

“Cold like cave water,” she echoed the brown kobold, bitterly. It still astonished her how things could have gone this terribly, terribly wrong. She looked about for the nearest servant. Agate was sitting a few paces away, watching her with wretched sad-sack eyes.

“How do you keep warm, then?” she demanded.

“We sleep together in the cuddle room,” Agate responded apprehensively. Her ‘finally make a friend’ mission teetered on the verge of ruin. Error had hated the Kitchen, hated the waterfall and also had somehow arrived at the opinion that Agate was a dummy.

“Cuddle room,” Error said in tones of great disgust. Agate cringed away from her. “It’s a wonder how you're all not dead! Arghh!!” Error bellowed and stomped about for a moment, but she was swaying, and finally she slumped back down onto the sandbar on which she'd woken up. She wanted to be angry at her puny kobold body for its inadequate service, but spots were swimming before her eyes.

The golden band on Error’s neck chimed.

“Persistent cold damage. Minus four health. Affliction: pneumonia.”

it narrated.

Agate chirped in concern, grabbed at Error and began towing her away, towards what Error suspected was the aforementioned cuddle room.

 

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About the author

Vitaly S Alexius

Bio: 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.

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