I’m experimenting with an old story of mine, Dungeon Raiders, on Kindle Vella–the new episodic ebook service that Amazon rolled out last week. The jury is out as to whether or not people really want to read tiny, hobbit-sized bites of stories. I assume Amazon did a lot of market research on this question, but my instinct tells me that there’s not much interest in that sort of format. My instinct has often been wrong, such as when I bought shares of Castle & Cooke back when I was in grammar school. I did appreciate the box of canned pineapple they sent me (no joke), but the stock never really appreciated that much.
At any rate, I’m posting several of episodes or so of the story here for all three people that seem to occasionally visit this site. It’s quite a long story…
Not all dungeons are created equal.
That’s what I’ve heard. But what do I know? I’m just a dumb farmboy. Farmboys are always dumb. At least that’s what I’ve also heard.
Then again, something else I’ve been told is that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. So maybe you shouldn’t believe me. Or maybe you shouldn’t believe that you shouldn’t believe me. That one’s up to you.
Some dungeons are ancient. I mean, older than old. Some were built by civilizations long dead and forgotten. Some were fashioned way down in the darkness before human history even began. Some dungeons go deeper than mountain roots. Some are so full of dark magic that you might as well sell your weapons and go home back to the farm before you even think about exploring them. Unless you’re a wizard as powerful as one of the fabled Omicron or even the Necromancer himself. If there even is a Necromancer.
There probably isn’t a Necromancer. At least, we better hope there isn’t. Because if there’s a Necromancer, that means there’s a Dark Lord, and if there’s a Dark Lord, well, you know what that means. That means there’s something even worse, patient and silent and soulless, behind his iron throne, waiting for the world’s end.
Or maybe not waiting.
Some dungeons are crawling with monsters. Some are just full of old bones and shadows and things breathing real quiet and hungry, way deep down, catching hold of your scent long before you creep down those stairs. Some dungeons are so lousy with traps and pitfalls that nobody except a highly skilled thief could make it more than fifty feet without getting impaled or enspelled or poisoned or flamed or dropped down into a bottomless pit of darkness.
But there are other things in dungeons. The reasons why we risk our necks and our souls in those places. Some dungeons are full of treasure. Silver and gold. Jewels. Magical artifacts. Rare manuscripts full of spells and lost histories. Priceless antiquities. Splendors fit for a king’s palace. Treasure that would make a dumb farmboy like myself richer than the emperor of Kulan.
And some dungeons have nothing in them except death.
Maybe I was in one of those places on the day this story really begins.
My name is Bennoch. My friends call me Ben for short, a strange, outlandish twist of a name that always made my father scowl. He disliked it for there had always been Bennochs in our family and he was proud of the fact.
You probably haven’t heard of me before, but you will. Trust me. You’ll hear much more of me than just this tale I’m about to tell. There’s no proper place to start the telling. Some storytellers start at the beginning, but isn’t there always something that happened before the beginning? And maybe something before that? And what about even another beginning before that?
I’ll start the night my pa lost his temper. Actually, about an hour before he got mad.
The thing coming toward me down the dark, creepy, stone hallway was all teeth and claws and eyes. Way too many eyes. Staring, glaring, green and purple bulging eyes with those weird horizontal pupils like the goats back on the farm. And the thing had about as many legs as the entire herd. I couldn’t see much of it because of the shadows and the way the torch was shaking in my hand, but what I saw was more than enough.
I turned and ran. What else was I supposed to do? My friend Gabo ran too. He started running before I did. I have to be honest. He was screaming like a little girl. Maybe I was too. I can’t remember. What I can remember was that I was just about ready to bash Gabo’s skull. It had been his dumb idea to investigate the ruins below Plasker’s Knoll.
Couldn’t hurt, he said. Maybe we’ll find some silver or gold, he said. Money for ale, he said. Maybe we’ll discover jewels. Old magical relics. We’ll be rich, he said. Money in our pockets. Impress the girls.
People left Plasker’s Knoll alone. It was a grim, dreary place. A tall, lonely hill rising up on the edge of the valley north of town. Springtime, it was green with grass and studded yellow and purple with flowers. But then the relentless summer sun would bleach it into burned gold, quickly withering into autumn grey, the stones standing dark like iron-clad sentinels, only to be covered over with the winter snow.
There were stories told about that place. That a tower once stood there, built by a king long-dead, hundreds of years ago, built to guard against some evil in the further north. Or maybe the tower had been built to guard against something beneath it. Something deep underground. Trying to make sure it never woke up.
The only things that climbed up Plasker’s Knoll were the goats. They went up there and grazed beneath the scraggly oak trees and the tumbled-down stone walls. But, toward sunset or if the sun went behind the clouds, they’d always trot back down quick enough as if they knew something. People? They never went up there. Even in bright sunny weather in the middle of the day. Unless they were drunk or stupid or both.
I wasn’t drunk that day, so maybe I was just stupid.
I made it back down the hallway in record time. There was dusty stones and rubble scattered everywhere, stuff to break your ankles on, but I jumped and leaped like a rabbit. Well, maybe not a rabbit. Rabbits are nervous, twitchy creatures, and that’s not me. Let’s just say I have a healthy sense of self-preservation. I wasn’t about to let that monster, whatever it was, get a hold of me and start chewing on my neck.
Gabo wasn’t as fast a runner as I was. I passed him halfway down the hall, right when I accidentally dropped my torch. I could hear him screaming and yelling behind me somewhere. Then, just as I reached the stone stairs that led up to the knoll, I heard him shriek. It was a different sound. It was a horrible sound. The creature must’ve gotten him. I thought about going back. Honestly. But all I had was a length of hard oak for a club. That and my old belt knife. It wasn’t like I could’ve done much either of those.
Then I tripped over some rubble and went down hard. I bounced back up in a trice, the taste of blood in my mouth and my neck crawling like something horrible was about to jump on me from behind. The club clattered away into the darkness. I didn’t stop to find it. I couldn’t. I was already running.
I hurtled up those stairs and out onto the knoll. My heart was hammering fast. The moon and stars shone overhead. They were a welcome sight, let me tell you. The few oak trees on top of the knoll cast long black shadows in the moonlight. I turned, taking a few steps back from the entrance down into the ruins.
“Gabo!” I called.
There was nothing. Only silence.
“Gabo!” I called again, starting to panic.
Silence. He was dead. Probably being messily devoured by the monster at that very moment. I was sure of it.
“Oh, stone and shadow,” I groaned out loud. “What am I gonna tell his parents?”
There was a noise behind me. It sounded suspiciously like a giggle. I whirled around.
“Who’s there?” I said, my hand falling to the knife on my belt.
Someone began giggling and snorting. And then someone else began laughing. Huner, the tavernkeeper’s son emerged from behind a tree, laughing like the half-witted drooling donkey he was. A couple of his other friends popped out as well. Huner’s younger sister Dania was there too, a sneer on her pretty face. They were hooting and hollering like a gaggle of geese. I scowled. Townsfolk. Snooty-nosed, rich jerks who hadn’t worked a real day in their lives. At least, not a day behind a plow or scything hay under the hot summer sun or shearing an endless line of sheep coming through the chute.
“It’s Ben the brave, the mighty dungeon raider!” said Huner, sneering at me. “You find any gold? Any precious jewels? Kill any goblins, sir knight?”
“Well, uh…” I said.
“Or did you just run like a frightened little coward and leave your friend to die?” he said.
And then something came out the steps of the ruins behind me. I jumped back, club raised and ready to fight. Huner and his friends could laugh all they wanted, but the ruins were dangerous. Any ruins were. You never knew what lurked down below, and I had seen a monster myself that night. That horrible enormous spider thing. Whatever it was that had taken poor Gabo.
But it was Gabo that came up the steps. And he was laughing just as hard as Huner and the rest of them.
“Your face!” he gasped, chuckling and chortling. “Ben, you should see your face!”
Gabo’s hound dog came up the steps behind him out into the moonlight. It was rigged all over with some kind of leather harness with bobbing legs made out of wood and bits of iron and green glass beads. The dog looked at me sort of apologetic and sheepish as if it hadn’t wanted to be in on the trick.
“All hail the mighty dungeon raider!” chanted Huner. Everyone was laughing fit to burst. Except me, of course.
“All hail Ben the brave warrior! Let everyone bow down to…”
I punched him in the nose.
I’ve never been one to turn down an honest fight. It’s something I do well. I’m strong and stubborn enough. Maybe its from all the time spent behind a plow, wrestling the traces with our two stubborn ox. Or maybe its from all the rocks I’ve dug out and skidded away with the mule. Or maybe its from all the fence posts I’ve split and shaped and dug. Or the trees I’ve cut down. The sheep I’ve chased down and sheared. It’s probably all that.
Anyway, I got in a few good ones. Huner flew right off his feet when my fist connected with his chin. Then I was out of time. The rest of them jumped me. I knew I was going to lose against those numbers, but I just put my head down and waded into them. Dania screeched and danced around, cheering them on. I should’ve known. Pretty girls aren’t always pretty on the inside.
Pa shook his head when I got home later that evening.
“You’re dripping blood on the floor,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I mopped at my nose with my shirt and sniffed a bit. Six to one. Those were good enough odds for me. Maybe they’d worked me over, but I’d give them quite a few bruises for the morning. I couldn’t help smiling, even though my whole face ached. Probably both my eyes were blackened. They certainly felt like it.
“Be sure to clean it up,” he said.
He didn’t say anything more for a while but took another few bites of his dinner. Stew. It was one of the few things he knew how to cook. Had to cook, ever since Ma had died years ago when I was a little boy. It had been so long, I could barely remember her now. Sometimes I wasn’t even that sure that my memories of her were real.
Pa was a hard man, as hard as old oak and just as strong. The lamplight gleamed on his hair. It was still black like mine and as full as ever, and him nearly fifty years old. I took a hunk of bread from the table and bit into it. He set his spoon down and looked at me.
“You’ll plow the upper pasture tomorrow,” he said. His voice was stern, as if he wanted to make the point that, bruised and battered as I was, I’d still do a hard day’s work. “And then see to the new colt. He’s old enough now to be broken. Give him some time in the corral, traces and whip, but go gentle on him.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I don’t whip horses.”
He stared at me for a moment, considering my impertinence and then dismissing it. He wasn’t one for whipping horses either–he knew their value too well–but he wasn’t above giving me a whipping every now and then during my younger years.
“Saturday,” he rumbled, “we’ll see about shingling the hay barn. You split a good pile tomorrow after supper. Use the red oak timbers in the shed. They should be dry enough.”
“And Sunday I’ll be marrying the widow Grusan.”
My mouth dropped open. I gaped at him. I couldn’t speak for a moment. He glanced at me, expressionless, and then took another bite of stew.
“What?” I burst out. “That witch?”
I might’ve said a lot more than that, but I didn’t get the chance. Pa was out of his chair faster than a striking woodsnake. His fist moved even faster. He knocked me right off my feet. I saw stars for a moment. They certainly were bright and glittery. Pa glowered down at me.
“You keep a civil tongue in your head, Ben,” he said, “as long as you’re in my house. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” I said sullenly.
He hadn’t hurt me much. I’ve got a jaw like a slab of rock and I’ve been fighting and mixing it up with the village boys, and even a bearcat or dwarf or two, ever since I was knee-high to a pig. Still, it was the principle of the thing. I figured I had a right to speak my mind, now that I was mostly nineteen. The widow Grusan really was a witch of some sorts. A hedgewitch, I suppose, dabbling in spells to keep the cows in milk, the skunks away from the barn, and the hay growing strong. That’s probably why Pa decided to marry her. That and her five children. Cheap labor for the farm.
I couldn’t fall asleep that night. The moon shone in through my window, bothersome and bright. My jaw ached where Pa had hit me. It wasn’t a big deal. I’d had much worse.
Anyway, it was his house. He was right. He could do whatever idiotic thing he wanted. If he wanted to marry the widow Grusan with her sly smile and her gleaming sharp eyes, that was his choice. Didn’t mean I had to like it, though.
The next day dawned bright and hard, but I was up long before then, seeing about my chores. After the usual morning work was over, I hustled back to the house for a quick breakfast of gruel and a thick slab of bread dipped in pork grease. The house was silent. Pa was gone to town on the brown mare. Maybe to see the widow Grusan or some other wedding preparations.
The gruel soured in my mouth at the thought and I frowned. Having that sly, vinegary witch in the house with her brood would be almost more than I could bear.
I slouched off to the barn and hitched the ox up to the plow. My hands flew through their work without thinking, harnessing and tightening and checking the traces, my mind like a weasel chewing on a dead rabbit, still worrying over the problem of Pa’s marriage.
The upper pasture took all day. Longer than Pa had planned for if he wanted me working with the new colt as well. It was the stones coming up from the rich, brown earth. They did that every now and then. Big ones, too. Big grey rocks, some as near round as my head, clunking and dragging against the plow as it dug through the ground. I had to pause each time, whistling to the ox. He didn’t mind. He just waited patiently for me as I dug the rocks out and hustled them to the edge of the pasture. I piled them on the boundary wall between the end of Pa’s land and the forest that sprang up there, thickening and growing taller with ash and elder and oak as it stretched away up into the hills.
“Sorry, old fellow,” I said, patting the ox’s head.
He exhaled a patient breath smelling of hay, one placid brown eye sliding over to watch me. The plow had just turned up an especially large rock. I had to get a shovel to dig it out completely. The rock was as big around as a yearling pig, but I hoisted it up and staggered over to the boundary wall. Set it down with a crash and wiped the sweat from my brow.
“Turning over rocks like a dusty old dirt clodder. That’s kobold work, laddie. Time poorly spent for the likes of yourself.”
I just about jumped out of my boots when I heard that. As far as I knew, me and the ox were the only living things in sight, and I’d never heard him speak before. I looked around wildly but I didn’t see anybody. Maybe I was going crazy, hearing voices in my head. My pa’s uncle Elbon started hearing voices in his head the last couple years he was alive. In his head, up the chimney, under his bed, in the soup pot. Being a widower, he said he enjoyed the company.
“Down here, you great smelly mountain of a galumph.”
I looked down. There, standing on top of the rock wall, was a little man. One of the little people. At least, that was my guess. You’ve heard of the little people, of course. Maybe you’ve even seen them before. This was my first time. He was about three inches tall, dressed in brown clothing and a floppy gray hat on his head. If he hadn’t called for my attention, I doubt I would’ve noticed him, even if he’d walked across the kitchen table in the middle of dinner. There was something vague and almost blurry about him that made him blend into background.
“You’re talking to me?” I said stupidly.
“Who else do you think I’m talking to, you steaming pile of goat droppings? The ox? Maybe I should be talking to the ox. He has more sense than you do, you noxious mouth-breather.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure,” I said, starting to get irritated at his insults, “seeing that I’ve never spoken with one of the little people before. I might’ve been imagining things because of the sun getting in my eyes.”
“Shut it!” barked the little man. He hopped about in a sort of frenzy as if something was bothering him. Probably me.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Shut it, shut it, you ugly, overgrown beetroot! I don’t have all day and there’s no telling who’s watching things in these parts. As if you’re worth my neck! Listen carefully, you fat-headed bungle! Here’s what I’ve been told to tell you and don’t you ask me for explanations, because I don’t have any to give.”
He paused, took a deep breath, and then recited a poem, fast, quick, his voice rushing through the words like water through a streambed. At least, I think what he was saying was a poem. I’m not familiar with them, as I don’t read much and you certainly can’t plant or eat a poem.
“Beware the clutch of the greening kirtle,
the watcher in the poisoned myrtle;
never sleeping and never awake,
the chill, cold hand your heart will take.
Beware the shadowed mirror gaze
of vanished soul for countless days,
held in darkness, chained in doom,
until the dread knife pierce the gloom.
Beware the sleepers on their thrones,
the first of iron, the last dry bone;
opening the doors from wintry night
into the gleam of the year’s last light.”
His little face was bright red by the time he was done, as if he hadn’t breathed once the entire time.
“Three warnings for you, you muck-rolling rotten potato, that’s what you’ve been given and grateful you should be, eh? Done in genuine rhyme and all fancy-like, just what makes the pointy-hats happy! You got all that, you wretched pile of moldy barnyard straw?”
“Actually, no. If you could repeat the…”
But I didn’t get a chance to hear the poem again. Something flashed down through the sunlight. Light shone on glossy black feathers. A crow, cawing viciously, hurtled past my face with claws outstretched, straight at the little man standing on the stone wall. Quick as a wink, he leapt to one side. A thin, bright knife appeared in his hand. He flung it as he leapt and the crow fell dead on the stones, the knife deep in its eye.
Overhead, black specks circled in the sky, cawing and teetering closer with every tip of wing.
“Time to go, you giant turnip! She’s watching!” And with that, the little man scrambled down the stone wall and vanished in the bushes on the edge of the forest.
“Hey wait!” I yelled, but he was gone.
High overhead, the crows circled and then drifted away out over the forest treetops. I shook my head, bewildered. The dead crow lay on the stones like a discarded raggedy black cloth. Blood trickled from its gashed eye.
“Did you see that?” I said to the ox.
The animal stared at me and said nothing. Though, to be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had answered me. It was that kind of day.
At supper that evening, I almost told my pa about the little man. He asked me how the plowing had gone, looking up from his plate of goat stew and boiled potatoes.
“Shifted more than my weight in rocks,” I said. “That’s the stoniest ground we have. They were popping up like beets today.”
“But you finished well enough,” he said.
“Of course I finished. Even with carrying those rocks out. I built up the wall along the forest side with them. It was an odd thing, but…”
Something pinched me hard on the ankle.
“Ouch!” I said.
“What’s that?” he said.
“Nothing. I burned my tongue on this stew.”
It was a dumb thing to say. The stew wasn’t that hot. He looked at me strangely but didn’t say anything. My pa wasn’t much of a talker.
He finished his plate and then abruptly stood up.
“Going to town,” he said, turning somewhat red.
I nodded. He never went to town in the evenings. I would’ve bet a good copper coin he was going to see the widow.
“Wash up the dishes and feed the animals.”
“Right,” I said shortly.
I looked under the table after he left. Nothing there. And there was nobody hiding in the cupboard, behind the big locked wooden chest where pa kept his coins and his worn accounting ledger. Nothing up the chimney either. I got a face full of ashes checking that out.
“Blasted little people,” I grumbled to myself.
It gave me the shivers to think there were little people creeping about the house. I figured it was the little fellow from earlier in the day, but maybe I was wrong on that. If the tales were true, some of the little people were more than dangerous. After all, a little pocket knife can be razor sharp and open your throat just as wide as a soldier’s sword while you sleep. Worse than that, of course, was all the magic they had at their fingertips, old magic, and cruel as winter ice.
I wondered why whomever had pinched me had done it right when I was about to tell pa about the little fellow on the rock wall. Maybe it was the same little man. But then I shrugged and went outside to feed the livestock. Wondering can only get you so far. Still, I looked over my shoulder a time or two as I went about my chores.