Ognevika’s hoard sang to her, the harmony slowly drawing her out of her sleep.
The hoard sang about a being of great importance who approached. A powerful being like that would grant something of huge value to the hoard and make it all the shinier. She was so excited that she opened one eye.
Her peaceful awakening was marred, she realized, by the shrill sound of kobold voices. Her one open eye saw them down at the bottom of her pile, screaming at each other.
Was this one of the kobolds’ many rituals? She knew about their little claiming parties but those usually had less screaming and more chanting… and occasionally an entertaining fist fight.
“Infernal, noisy kobolds!” she rumbled, and covered Error and Lyca, the two loudest kobolds, with her enormous paw so as to muffle their weird yelling contest.
Agate bowed to Ognevika.
“Mistress! A surface dragon is here!”
Ognevika looked towards the mouth of the tunnel, where a massive dragon was indeed squeezing into the hoard chamber.
“Well, this place looks… ugh,” she grumbled. “Not sensationally welcoming. Who put a sewage moat there? Whatever.” She yawned. “As long as you kobolds cover it up when you’re done.”
Tundra stepped over the smelly moat with ease and walked carefully and placidly towards Ognevika.
“Greetings, Ognevika the Red! I am Tundra the Enlightened. Do you have the Necronomicon?” she enquired.
“Hmm? There are no artifacts called the Necronomicon here,” Ognevika replied, and yawned again, showing curved and serrated teeth.
“Also, I don’t dispense artifacts, I take them. This is the Nexus Gate. As a Monster, you must pay the toll price of one magical item and then I will grant you passage. State the nature of your artifact, put it in the pile and down you go.”
Tundra paused to consider her options: Was Ognevika lying to her or had the book been taken lower? Could she possibly win a fight against another dragon here, in the locus of their power? No, that would be suicide. The further she went from her library, the less power she felt within herself.
And yet, she had to retrieve the Necronomicon. Even at the cost of leaving her library. It was the most valuable book in her collection. Its power and danger only increased its value to her. She had to pay the toll price and keep on searching for her book in the Deep.
Ognevika yawned harder at this display of contemplation.
“Hurry it up! Artifact in the pile, down you go. No artifact, up you go.”
Tundra began scratching at the downy feathers of one white wing, brow furrowed in concentration. Ognevika stared, eyes slowly narrowing with suspicion.
“There!” Tundra exclaimed after a delicate pause, and plucked a slender, human-sized blade out from where it had been nestled in her downy wing feathers. “I knew it was there somewhere.”
“The library letter opener,” she announced to Ognevika. “It increases book sorting skills, when in possession of it, by one point.”
Ognevika squinted at the letter opener.
“This is literally the worst artifact I've gotten in decades.”
“My sincerest apologies, Nexus Keeper.” Tundra said with a bow. “I did not expect a trip all the way into the Deep.”
“Say, how long have you been on the surface?” Ognevika inquired.
“Nine hundred years.” Tundra intoned. “I lost my nicer stuff recently due to some human thieves. I’ve been following their scent. It led me here.”
“Ha! Robbed by humans.” Ognevika chuckled at this sad surface dragon. “Pathetic! Well, this Necronomicon of yours might be in the Deep. The Deep has all sorts of nonsense.”
For a second Tundra wanted to explain to Ognevika how the adventurers had tricked her by pretending to be “avid readers” and had run off with the Necronomicon, but then she thought better of it. Ognevika would not understand the need to catalog and protect the most powerful magical items of all – books. Plus, she did not seem able to comprehend the beauty of order and structure: her hoard told Tundra that much. Perhaps this was the result of guarding a hole and not a library.
Meanwhile, Ognevika eyed the letter opener with disdain.
“Nine hundred years and you couldn't acquire a better artifact for Nexus crossing?! Cheapskate dragons,” Ognevika grumbled. “Always shorting me on artifacts. Always saying, ‘oh, I lost all my nice stuff in a war.’ Yeah, right.”
She gestured for Tundra to proceed through the gate. “Whatever. You may pass into the Deep. Your submission of pfff.... Letter Opener is accepted.”
Tundra nodded respectfully as she passed by Ognevika and kept quiet her judgements on Ognevika’s hoard compared to her own.
“Probably hiding all the good stuff somewhere,” Ognevika continued to gripe. “Getting woken up for this.” She pawed at her hoard pile like a bored housecat.
Tundra looked back at her kobolds, who lingered uncertainly behind her, having disembarked her back to pass through the smaller tunnel. “What about my librarians?”
“One artifact per one monster.” Ognevika groaned. “Move along now!”
She heaved herself to her feet, now holding the noisy kobolds in one massive fist, with which she gestured resolutely towards the gate.
Tundra caught a sudden faint scent. Her pupils widened and she sniffed furiously, trying to pinpoint the faint but unmistakable smell. She knew each item of her hoard, after all.
She swung her head around trying to find the source.
“I SAID MOVE ALONG!” Ognevika growled, steam escaping from her nostrils. Company was nice for a short period, but this other dragon had been getting a little too cozy in Ognevika’s own hoard chamber. “DON’T HOLD UP THE LINE!”
Tundra’s head whipped around, now focused on the direction of the scent, and landed with a great ‘whomp’ right into Ognevika’s outstretched paw. Unnoticed, the paw’s two occupants yelped at the shock.
“What’s in your…” Tundra tried to say, startled and disorientated, but Ognevika opened her mouth and a blast of superheated air jetted out from within, searing Tundra’s face. She flinched, stepped back, and tumbled into the gate. The Infinity sigil flashed as she fell down through the gate’s open maw and disappeared into the Deep.
Ognevika sighed. She was bitterly disappointed by the new addition to the hoard, but now that Tundra was gone she returned to berating her servants.
“Listen here, you puny little toothpicks! Clean up the mess you’ve made before another dragon comes over. This place is embarrassing. Honestly... Why do I bother?”
Ognevika looked at her closed fist, suddenly remembering that there were noisy kobolds within it. She unlocked her claws, dumping Error and Lyca unceremoniously back onto the hoard.
Error flapped exhaustedly, gasping for air.
“Blessed oxygen!” Lyca heaved.
Both were breathing rapidly, and holding on to each other seemingly for structural support.
“And you two… hmmm… Proceed with your mating ritual or whatever it was. Keep it VERY quiet though. No noises!” Ognevika intoned towards them.
Breeding was important to keep up the minion numbers, but she also required a relaxing nap after having to deal with an extremely cheap, vulgar and uncivil passenger. Ognevika huffed and rolled up into a scaly ball and shrouded herself in her red-black wings.
As Agate stared at Error and Lyca clinging together, she felt a sharp pang of jealousy. Error was her best friend! Surely Agate deserved to be loved, deserved a hug from Error… why, if it wasn't for Agate, Error wouldn't even exist!
Agate’s thought train halted. She pondered in mental limbo why such a notion had come to her. It wasn’t like she was Error’s mother or anything. Was this the tiara trying to tell her something, or was she brain-hurt from her magical exertion? She shrugged. Maybe it wasn’t important.
Having caught her breath, Error realised she was attached unwittingly to the furry kobold. She tried to release her arms but couldn’t, they just wrapped themselves around the somewhat distressed-looking outsider even tighter. It must be the thrall collar. It was interpreting Ognevika’s command too literally!
“Idiot collar! Dragons only desire hoards!” Error screamed inside her head, muted by Ognevika’s demand for silence.
The collar wasn’t deterred. To it she was no dragon. To it she was only a kobold-shaped tool... designed to obey.
Error switched to a new tactic. “This is impractical for the purpose of serving the mistress!” she scolded.
The collar clearly didn’t care: it whispered something about the power of true love; a union between all things made of magic.
“Use the Key. Unlock yourself. Multiply. Spread. Propagate.” It demanded.
The collar’s invisible force kept Lyca in a close embrace in one of Error’s arms, while the other reached for the cursed book wrapped within Lyca’s ruined dress. Not only did the collar want her to mate with this stranger, it was colluding with the questionable tome!
At the same time, something horrible, something undragonly was blossoming within Error, awakened by the collar. It was… desire? No, stronger, purer. Love. An absolute love for all species; unstoppable, selfless love for all… life. The collar was winning.
She was struggling to contain this flood of new emotions. It surrounded her, pressed on her like that pool in the waterfall cave. She was drowning in it. In a desperate panic, unable to stop the monstrous feeling of needing to self-propagate, Error appealed to the only power available to her that stood a chance of defeating the collar’s magic: she started to hum the Inian song in her head, louder and louder. She called for Eva.
The universe froze, skidding to a halt.
Error found herself as a floating ghost, her transparent hands wielding the railgun.
She saw a frozen scene beneath her: A small red kobold named Error, eyes burning with greed, clinging to Lyca with one hand, touching the Necronomicon with the other. The hideous eye of the book stared at them, serenely... in approval. A halo of Love blossomed over corporeal-Error’s head and shimmering tendrils reached from Error’s body towards Lyca’s.
Ghostly Error frowned. “This… Love. It doesn’t belong to me.”
“Then, silence it… kill it. Use me.” Eva answered her.
Ghost-Error aimed the gun at her twin’s head and pulled the trigger.
A hungry void arose within the weapon that reached out towards the frozen scene. It ripped away the Love-halo, shredded the tendrils of affection, consumed all thoughts of multiplying, and in so doing shredded any possibility of propagation.
The collar dimmed, giving up, finding nothing to manipulate.
Error’s ghost snapped back into herself with a twang. She let go of Lyca, who jumped away from her instantly. The book dropped to the ground.
Lyca was spooked. She had no idea why the vulgar red kobold had treated her so viciously, with such a look of hunger, and then suddenly ceased. The violent wretch had given no previous indication of her ill intentions, and offered no reason for the change of heart.
Lyca caught sight of her fellow librarians back at the tunnel entrance and ran over to them. Having heard most of the dragons’ exchange from inside Ognevika’s fist, she was fearful, but hoped the others might have good news.
“Is Tundra…?” she began to ask, but couldn’t bear to finish the thought. Jule, one of her compatriots, pointed to the Nexus gate sadly. A cry flew from Lyca’s mouth. Her life was coming apart like her torn and dirtied librarian dress. She and the other librarians made a baker’s dozen against the untold hordes of native Undersea kobolds, and she got the sense they were every bit as illiterate and brutal as they looked. What could the librarians do now? She was within sight of the Necronomicon, but what did that matter if her mistress was gone?
Error, who had fallen over as she pushed Lyca away, stood up and tried to speak, but it was in vain. She might have defeated Love, but was still mute. She spotted Agate nearby and started to flap her hands in exasperation, trying to communicate with gestures.
“You’re mad?” Agate asked, scrutinizing Error.
Error nodded, her teeth gnashing and nostrils flaring. She turned and began making furious, obscene-looking gestures towards the sleeping Ognevika.
“You are mad… at the Mistress?” Agate deduced.
Error paused to give Agate a sour look that she took as a confirmation.
“Angry... that the Mistress silenced you?” she elaborated. Agate raised an eyebrow and shook her head at Error. “Screaming in front of sleeping dragons is unwise.”
Error had plenty of things to say about where Agate could shove her advice, which she communicated with a few explicit hand gestures.
Agate didn’t notice; she’d caught sight of the Adventure’s Guide from where Lyca had dropped it. "I’ll take care of it, Error,” she promised her friend. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it quiet." She stuffed it back into her armor.
Error contorted her claws in a “screw all of you” gesture.
Just then, Lyca turned back towards Error and Agate to point out the Necronomicon to the other librarians. She saw the little blue one stuffing it back down her breastplate. She shook her head and marched back over to Agate.
“That is not yours to keep! It’s incredibly dangerous!” she scolded. The other librarians voiced their agreement from across the cess-moat, ready to back Lyca up with stern words.
Agate blushed and shuffled her feet. Lyca advanced towards her to take ownership of the book once and for all, but she was stopped in her tracks in surprise as Agate looked her dead in the eyes.
Agate’s spine was straighter than before. She looked taller, and somehow menacing. For the first time, Lyca noticed her strange black tiara winking at her temples.
“The book is mine!” Agate proclaimed. Her plain face wasn’t suited to looking tough, but somehow it was working. “It’s a gift from Mistress Ognevika herself. You shall not take it.”
Agate brandished her spoon at Lyca, who blinked, not sure if it was a serious threat.
A clever, wicked thought slipped into Agate’s mind.
“The inner ear is responsible for balance in the kobold body.” she said to Lyca, who looked about uncertainly, not knowing where this was going. “It is particularly sensitive to gravity changes.” Agate gave her spoon a dainty wave.
Lyca suddenly felt lightheaded. The world was spinning, sliding sideways. She lurched and fell, tangling up in her ripped dress. The other Librarians made noises of protest at the poor treatment of their emissary.
Agate grinned at this with sharp fangs, ripples of darkness dancing in her eyes. She was almost unrecognizable for a moment.
“This is Mistress Ognevika's hoard,” Agate said. “The book belongs to us now. Your rules do not apply. Here, thanks to Emergency Officer Error, we use artifacts to protect the hoard!”
For the first time in her life, Agate felt smarter than everyone present. The Understanding wasn't a curse; it was power. She desired more. She needed to explore her underworld, and find more Inian things to reach a better, deeper Understanding of everything everywhere. Stunned by her own confidence, she walked away, leaving Lyca with her lost librarian friends.
Lyca sat there on the glittering hoard, holding her head between her knees in a futile attempt to stop the world from spinning. She felt the magical resonance of the golden hoard, its chorus of artifacts pressing on her mind. She'd read about this – if she stayed here long enough, she would begin to take on the crystalline aspect of the kobolds who lived here. She would become more and more like them as the magic of this hoard reshaped and absorbed her. She shuddered at the idea.
She couldn't decide who was worse: the insane red kobold who thought she was a dragon, or the insane blue kobold who drew in dangerous books and menaced her with an enchanted spoon.
The Necronomicon must have taken a hold on them both. Its vile, memetic power was already spreading, driving them mad. Everyone here was likely already doomed to its machinations. Everyone, including her.
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- Archbishop of Captania and sovereign territories
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.