Thom squinted at the parade formation of skeletons that assembled on either side of the gates into this 'Dungeon Corps' domain. What he presumed was the lead minion, judging by the armor, stance, fancy coat, and the fact it had handed him a letter. It was sealed with green wax and an emblem embossed into it that resembled two lines meeting in an upward point, and the downward ends spread wide before curving in on themselves. This matched what he had learned from dealing with other dungeons through his trade routes. There weren't that many, maybe half-dozen, but they all had airs of behaving as if they were landed gentry.

Raven and Rider help him if this one knew that by parliamentary law and royal sanction they technically were. Dealing with the priss watching over Whitehaven's forests was bad enough.

The skeleton waited, looking from him to the letter, and crossed its arms before nodding to a less well-armored skeleton standing just at his right side before the second turned to presumably communicate with the assembled formation. This thought entered the trader's mind as he saw several of their numbers pick up instruments to start playing. He'd seen the gesture before from military types, but those were all living. Something was done to help fill the air and ease tension.

He had expected something martial, a parade tune, or perhaps a somber dirge, given the undead's want for something more reflective. What he got?

It's only then he noticed the stone golem standing, arms behind its back, at the skeleton's right-hand side. Armor, sash, He cared not for the apparent female appearance. It was an animate lump of stone for all he cared.

He shouldn't have been surprised when he heard it whisper the name of the song, at least the Common translation of the name; 'THe beloved I once Knew.' Cue'mora Sanasantar'alam

The delvers here weren't the sort for Old Imperial. So how did they know this?

A crinkle of paper brought his mind back to the letter in hand. Wax seal broke. Letter unfolded. He read it aloud.

Trader Thomas Ian Woon.

We of the Dungeon Corps of Storadsborg,

He paused there. 'We'? There was only the one dungeon wasn't there? The one that ate the hostile dungeon Kronos according to the dwarf lady's reports. Had he missed something? That the thing knew his full name rather than what he used day to day was distressing, but wouldn't be the first time someone thought to try impressing him with full name invocation in an introductory letter.

Request assistance in the form of any and all records pertaining

to the current and past dispositions of the surrounding lands.

This is because we would like to expand as far as realistically

possible without disturbing political boundaries or otherwise

harming local populations livelihoods.

That would explain the trunk of maps as well as the halfling from Sancrest. Thom was close to questioning what the rest of his caravan was here, except his question was answered before he voiced it.

We recognize the inconvenience in having your full caravan come to

this place without an assurance of trade. However, as we are given

to understand, there is are a series of settlements sitting on the

border to Damala's old boundaries and the kingdom this place has

grown up into, or the kingdom had grown around. There is relevant

history we lack that would assist in establishing normal trade and

political relations.

Thom frowned. Maybe he had the wrong of it. This dungeon seemed smart enough to know it was in a wider world, instead of being the end all be all. Yet it still insisted on this royal 'we' business. Dungeons ate eachother, that was just what they did. It's like locking two rats in a box and giving them only enough food for one. They eat each other. End of story. Yet he kept reading.

To that end we had hired you to bring both consumable and other

equipment and supplies to provision delver expeditions into the

wider locus that Stroadsborg represents, as well as provide a

means of armed transport for the Dungeoneer Confederation's

representative we had requested assist in mapping and probing the

surrounding environs, and gauge nearby Dungeons willingness to

enter into negotiation for peaceful relations.

The bottom of the letter was signed with a series of glyph-like symbols that Thom had no recognition of. It looked vaguely Imperial, but it lacked the loops characteristic of their glyphs.

His contemplation was cut short by the dwarven lady that had ridden with the wagons hauling a goblin youth out. He'd expected her to be screaming about thieves or an assault. However, the girl-child, more a young woman Thom reminded himself, was dressed more as an adventurer than the typical rags and castoffs dungeons tended to 'gift' to their underlings. No, this was a delver practically clinging to the rather petite Dwarf.

"Hey kid, happy to see you too Jen. Finnal's letter said you were almost ready for your assessments. How's practice been going?" He heard Stone Soup's near-familial tone when speaking to the goblin child.

At the question, Jen huffed and her ears wilted, presumably in shame. "Bonehead keeps out-foxing me. I'll get close enough to get something off him and..."

The Dwarf gave a good-hearted chuckle. Thom shook his head at the pair before his attention turned to his wagons. He had to figure out where in this place the Raven blighted to try sheltering at for the night. He saw the skeletons move about, widening their lines to give room for the caravan to enter the outer walls.

The stone golem cleared its throat before tapping Thom's shoulder. "Sir. If you'll follow Lieutenant Shinji. He'll direct you to the stables and parking for your wagons."

At the golem's side was one of the skeletons. The armor it wore wasn't nearly as ornate as their commander, but it looked to him in a manner he could only describe as 'impatient.' The skeleton held up a slate and chalk and, after taking a minute to write, turned it over to him. 'We have made what provisions we can for your stay. Water had to be bucket hauled from the caves, but it's fit for drinking.'

"And just how would you know what is and isn't fit for consumption?" Thom scoffed. "I'll not risk my men or horses with something that might have gut parasites swimming laps through it."

Shinji looked down, shoulders slumped as he erased his slate and wrote a response, punctuated by a little stick figure flailing its arms about. 'What good would it do us to accidentally poison our first trader? We'd lose what delivers we have. Plus it's the water our kitchens get their water from and the delvers have been eating from there for weeks now. It's fine. Promise.'

This place had facilities for his men to eat? Thom scowled. "Fine. Even if these accommodations are passable it is still my job to inspect them."

To which Shinji jogged ahead, letting the shorter Thom have to work to keep pace as the pair followed a graveled road that wound along the perimeter of the outer fence until he saw a series of stone buildings encircling a wide pavilion. "Between the dwarven assessor your dungeon seems to have made friends with, and the lack of lumber, I suppose I shouldn't be overly surprised. Though I do have to wonder why not just summon up materials out of nothing. that's what dungeons do right? Make something from nothing."

Shinji never broke stride as he wrote a response. Then when they got to the cluster, shoved the slate into Thom's chest hard enough to cause the trader to stumble back a few steps. 'Everything that isn't naturally created is either in whole or part created by mana, and takes mana to upkeep. Better to build based on what materials are on hand.'

"Fair I suppose, though horses can't be expected to walk hard stone, or lay on the cold earth." Thom groused. Though truthfully his fears were unfounded. The stables had some sort of particulate shavings that behaved like sawdust. There was fresh feed and water in dedicated buckets, all in a barn with a wide central hall manned by goblins that were busy getting the place in order to the light of a dozen glow stones placed high along the ceiling.

He did have t wonder at how the dungeon was managing this if it wanted to limit mana expenses, but better to go all out for the sake of literal creature comforts than the building itself. he almost permitted himself a smile as he saw the door leading to an office, or possibly a lounge, with several goblins filling out paperwork.

One of these snapped its fingers twice before shoving a clipboard at him. Essentially a declaration of how many animals were to be kept, for how long, and with what gear. Time of the last health inspection if any and by whom, and on and on. Thom scowled as he filled the paperwork out. What people demanded this kind of records out in the middle of nowhere? This wasn't the royal stables, and even when he had the good fortune of having used those, they didn't require this level of paperwork.

The goblin then, after glancing everything over, chittered amicably before pointing to where Thom presumed the bunkhouse was.

Inside was something Thom genuinely found pleasing. Communal sleeping area with bunks, footlockers, recessed shelving between bunk pairs, wide lanes of traffic, and a kitchen. Wait why was there a kitchen here? Then again with so much stone there probably wasn't that great a risk of fire. Plus the fireplace would be appreciated for warmth.

He almost jumped out of his skin when he saw the goblin child from before exit what he presumed would be his room as caravan head. "Hey, Bossman. Building on the other side of the bunk house is a dedicated bath house, but the way I understand it the fancy spell worked heating isn't quite figured out, So we're going to have to heat your water here and lug it over."

How had she beaten him here? She was a Delver and not a Dweller. Right? Thom squinted and nodded to himself as he passed the girl-child to practically face-plant onto the oversized bed. Before sleep calmed him he remembered exclaiming, "Is everything always so strange about this place?"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Lonny you jerk!

Huh, I wondered if you were going to go with Lonny or Hill to shorten my name. What's up?

I don't know how you did it but I know you're responsible!

For. What? I swear if Laginn dumped Toad in your-

No, the little fungus thing has kept clear of my work stations after the last ... Mishap. I'm talking about the goblins GN has been loaning out. They're talking some kind of Toki Poni and it's absolutely your fault!

Toki- Look Just because I was raised by linguists in another life does *not* make me guilty of teaching the goblins a conlang. Plus I'm actually starting to get the hang of what they're saying. It's only Poni based. Wider vocabulary, greater depth in Noun-verb transition and context. Plus it's clear they can count past Two.

Herbie internally grumbled at the connection. Lonny was, ultimately, raising a fair point. While he found it odd that the goblins under their banner didn't speak the common trade language the delvers seemed to use, he had to admit that their having a language had been useful.

Example of such benefit currently included a six pack of goblins working the kitchen at Lonny's little eatery. He had been opposed to this. They were Dungeons, not Diners. Yet it represented a revenue draw for their little corner of this 'Stroadsborg' they were apparently part of.

So long as they don't write in Emoji. That starts up I'm taking Goliath and the Gravel Brigade to smash that heart/throne thing they hooked you to.

Dungeon Please. I have Standards. It uses an alphabet system, but since they're writing things anyway I nudged them towards a Korean styling for a more specialized script. Might end up biting us later, but it's based on the latin alphabet rather than glyphs. So it's adaptable, and it's new enough we can discuss standards if anything crops up. The more regular delvers are even incorporating it into their maps when going out to get a look at the rest of the place for us.

Herbie mentally grunted as his attention drifted from communications to review Goliath. His largest and oldest creation. Getting the beetles to work stone had been tricky, but the stone grotesque's chiseled and weathered frame showed that it had yielded results.

<Yes lord?> Its voice was a low rumble that was too low frequency for the delver races to hear. Goliath lived up to his biblical name by being easily large enough that he had to hunch and ease his way through. As he exited Herbie's territory into what was technically held by both all three dungeons yet belonged to none of them.

<I see them.> Goliath called out to his kin that were stationed along the outer stone walls of the alliance's territory as he walked.

GN, it's safe to rotate out the watch from around our trader friends. Brigade spotters aren't seeing any immediate trouble.

Gotcha Herbie. Maik's been a handful. One of the newer delvers is a smith.

Lovely. I'll have Lilith on standby to pull him away.

Goliath snorted and went still. <I feel fraternizing with Delvers will only lead to a reduced readiness state.>

Not the first time Goliath responded to communications between dungeons. there had been no immediate response from Herbie. Instead what intruded on Goliath were noises from the brigade stations near the trader's stable and bunkhouse. <Intruders?>

There was unsureness in the return calls. Goliath cursed. <Of course trouble would wait until the guard cycles out. Be at the ready. The dungeon Lords have dictated they are to be defended at all costs.>

Goliath's picked something up Lonny.

Putting Nyx, Erebus, and Shinji's squad on standby. Keep me posted.

Goliath growled until there was silence just as his stone ears swiveled and wings flared, angling to catch stray noises much like a satellite dish might gather weak signals for a receiver. He was too far to hear the sound itself, but he could hear the brigade at the walls.

His wings swiveled, causing his voice to gain a level of directionality it wouldn't otherwise have. <Report!>

Faint low-frequency noises. <It's keeping outside of our senses. More than one, but they are attempting to either sound alike enough to mask their number, or it is one being that can move incredibly fast.>

Another growl from Goliath as he relayed this.

Thank you. Nyx and Erebus will be dispatched to aid in the night watch. Shinji's going out with a team.

<Orders my lord?> Goliath's voice held an uncertainty to it. he had known that the surrounding environs had other dungeons. That is why the delvers were being gifted items for going out to have a look. Was this one of them probing?


His wings flared as his legs bent. It wasn't true flight. He was far too heavy. Yet he was able to use these gliding leaps to cover more ground than running would.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Corwin snarled at the walls separating his pack from Kronos's keep. His fur was gone, leaving him pale-skinned with black veins. He served a master against his will. This was a humiliation too far. To be denied entry because the statues warned those inside of his movements.

It had started well. His pack was sent to probe for an entry point after spies had found a caravan entering the keep's domain. They stole through enemy territories unmolested. There was much ground to cover overland between Midori's holdings and here. Many dungeons. Too many to consume or cow if there was a buildup.

These interlopers. These so-called 'Delvers' were an annoyance though. a goblinoid rogue had managed to cull the Omega of the pack. Ral would rise again, but the loss of him left their formation incomplete, and the dungeons between home holdings and here would be on alert, making it unlikely for Ral to rejoin them in time to meaningfully contribute.

He hissed as the delver seemed to melt into shadows, only for a slight dwarven woman to step from those same shadows to throw a tomahawk at him. At first, he thought she was leifalen, but no. the axe was of dwarven make, and the leifalen favored magic anyhow.

The slim comfort of this accursed growth that coursed through his pack's body was that wounds healed fast, leaving him with a line of black across his chest rather than a potentially debilitating wound. He flipped the weapon in his off-hand as he mused over the day's events. If nothing else it was a fine weapon. It wasn't enchanted, but it was a solidly constructed blade.

In another life he would wish to track these rogues down, both to test his skill as a hunter, and theirs at evasion. In that life, he might have even let them live if they posed no threat to his master. In that life, he might consider them friends.

In this life?

They were prey to be found, flushed and finished.

Now how to get past these cursed things that somehow sounded alarm whenever his pack drew near. He could not hear this alarm, but he could feel it deep in his bones. The fungal invader coursing through his body screamed at the noise.

They were stone or at least had the seeming of stone. Nightfall was normally when his pack shone brightest. Yet he has no way to know if it would be enough.

Darkness came. His pack crept closer.

There was not the sound of alarm.

Nor was there the feeling of vibration beneath his skin.

Go! Go go Go GO!

The pack went up and over. Corwin could not afford the luxury of thinking at this point. They were exposed, in transition. His Right and Left hands were already over. Either they all made it over the wall or the pack was as good as splintered.

He took a running leap. Grabbed the outstretched hand. Only when he was across did Corwin look, finding the hand attached to a shadowed figure clad in robes.

Nyx hissed at the intruder. "You intrude on these lands and domains that are mine to ward."

Corwin saw her hands empty. No weapon is yet drawn. He reached for his short sword. A long gently curved knife.

Nyx raised her hands. A black staff seemed to materialize out of the night to deflect the blow.

Corwin's ears swiveled, only now hearing his pack fighting their own battle. His second sword, a twin to the first, was drawn. His jaws snapped as he lunged at the spectre.

Nyx twirled, her robe obscuring the exact motion as she engaged Corwin. Her voice was soft. "I smell decay within you. Invader. Parasite."

Corwin snarled then his jaws unhinged as his mouth opened wide. When he howled a gale of wind blew, shredding Nyx's robes, and leaving them in tatters. her staff blown free, landing butt-down into the ground.

Her left hand rose, two fingers held together, the rest curled down.

The purple gem blazed to life. Dazzling Corwin. The light faded, allowing shadows to lengthen and grab at Corwin's limbs. He snarled, twisting, biting, then finally kicking free.

There was a sound from nearby. Not from Corwin's pack. Nyx shrieked, a banshee wail in the dark as her attention turned from her opponent. Allowing Corwin to sink both blades into the spectre's back.

her form dissolved.

Her robes fell.

Corwin's nose wrinkled before he lunged at the hands that fell to the ground. grabbing each and, with a violent shake, caused each to fall limp.

His pack had patches of black icor spreading from fresh wounds, knitting new lines across their bodies as they regrouped around their leader.

Their objective was within sight.


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