Chapter 7: Dungeon Tour

The orc paused with his sword still held in the air, turning toward the doorway where I stood. The pub fell silent, and I felt thirty pairs of eyes land on me. None of which were human.

Then, the moment of awkward confusion passed, and the orc who had sat on the bar stool rose, rushing over. On his feet, he seemed far shorter than Krugrar, being only seven feet and single-headed. Yet, despite his lack of an intimidating physique, he was the only one in the room wearing any sort of metallic armor, and he had a distinctive aura unlike any I had sensed before. Something about him seemed ancient and regal like a king from ages past.

Just as he entered within stabbing distance, he sheathed his sword.

With a bellow, he patted Krugrar on the back. “You’re back! And, who’s this? You brought someone!”

Krugrar nodded, smiling. “Everyone meet, Claire.” I nudged him, but it was too late.

Krugrar glanced at me before apologizing, “Sorry, thank you for reminding me with that gentle touch. I forgot to introduce you, Human. This is Bob, the Dungeon.”

Bob chuckled. “I don’t think that’s what the man was complaining about. If I remember correctly, Claire is a female name to humans.”

Krugrar grunted. “Huh, for real? These stupid humans that can’t just pick a good name like Rangrar or Krograr or Krugrar… ” He glared at me. “WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY ANYTHING?”

I glanced at my feet, stunned. Krugrar had turned on his big voice.

Mortified, Krugrar took a step back. “I’m so sorry. Sometimes when I’m agitated, I revert to my big voice.”

Patiently nodding, Bob gave me a sympathetic glance. “Well, Krugrar, I think you might’ve not given our guest a chance.”

Krugrar frowned before agreeing, “Of course, sir.”

Bob yelled above the din that had erupted after the introductions. “Innkeeper, get our guest some of your finest!” He grinned at me. “It’s on the house.”

I found myself sitting on a barstool next to Bob’s with a frothing mug in my hand. Honestly, I needed something to kill my barely-suppressed terror. Drinking under 21 was illegal, but breaking some law that most 19-year-old college students broke was not on my list of concerns.

Bob whispered, “Well, go on! Tell us your story. I mean, I’ll take you to the human sectors of the Dungeon sooner or later, but the guys are curious.”

I began to sputter out something about my recent life: being a student, working a side job, constantly studying for tests, an annoying number theory problem I’d been working on puzzling out before I had been dumped here. This was evidently not what the denizens had expected.

Bob ignored the blank looks around him, staring at me. He patiently coaxed, “Okay. Clayton, what’s your end goal? Here, we can help you achieve anything. After all, we’re in a Dungeon, the places that fulfill dreams be they fantasies or… nightmares.”

I gaped at him. Then, I paused. “I want to go home.”

Bob chuckled. “Okay, okay. Anything but that. Even I don’t know where you came from or how to return you. What was your real goal in your homeworld? The one before all this happened. The one that would follow you around anywhere you went. Your destiny, path, geas.”

I shrugged, feigning nonchalance, ignoring the dense knot in my chest, the sinking anxiety that pressed me any time I thought of my nebulous future. “I dunno. Just do well, succeed, y’know? Do well in college, get a job, and then…” I trailed off, running right into the same mental trap that had given me so much anguish before. How can you succeed when there’s not a clear goal to work towards? A safe path, a central problem, something you’re expected to do. Life on Earth was so planned; the ideal path so clearly marked out if you refused to stray toward the edges.

Bob tilted his head. “College? As in a magical academy? Interesting. It sounds like you’re quite talented.”

I paused. “Magic? Like a magician’s academy? No, that’s like street tricks or something.”

Bob laughed. “Ah! This human is so interesting! To call the magical arts street tricks. Come. We shall see what you think of these street tricks of mine. Another version of me would be better suited for this.”

Krugrar waved at me with a bit of jealousy as Bob led me out of the building.

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Bob quickly digressed from the path I had taken to arrive at the pub, and I found myself walking through several fortified streets with green orcs wandering in and out through buildings lining the sides or groups of them congregating around construction sites.

As we reached the end of what I was mentally referring to as the Orc District, my curiosity reached a maximum. I could only stand going so long without having any idea about what was going on.

“So… what is this place?” I tried to sound calm, conversational, un-terrified.

“I was just about to get to that. This is a place commonly known as a Dungeon, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now. Specifically, we’re traveling toward the internal sections. The Dungeon prefers to keep the stronger, wilder Orc settlements around the rim.” Bob’s grin had too many teeth, and I suppressed any thoughts about savage green humanoids ripping through normal looking humans. “People talk about me like I myself am the Dungeon, that the stone and brick are all secondary, but really, it’s the other way around. I am a mere avatar of the central intelligence of this place, designed to help keep the troops in line. Perhaps… one day I’ll evolve to become a Dungeon myself.”

We next entered something out of a DnD campaign or a pulp fantasy novel. Long, dark corridors, all rotting brick and rough stone. Rotting brick, in this case, meant that moss literally grew out of the brick with fragments occasionally breaking around us. Fortunately, they seemed to always avoid us as if they were being controlled. Actually, the thought now terrified me. If the Dungeon had this much control over itself, couldn’t it just collapse this whole tunnel on me? There wasn’t a torch in sight, but somehow I could see regardless. A perk of my enslavement, I supposed. “So if you aren’t the Dungeon, what is?”

“Everything you see around you, of course! It’s best not to think of all the architecture around you as artifice, something built. Everything here is as natural an appendage as the third joint of your left index finger. No one built this: I merely grew. I am less a person and more a spirit of the place itself. That’s where you and my tall green friends come in. You’re here to turn the natural into something… better.”

Every time he turned to speak, I noticed another little wrongness in his features. It was like a magazine photo edited to perfection by someone who had only seen drawings of orcs. I didn’t think this thing had ever been truly alive. Sometimes, his facial expressions seemed stiff as if he were animated by a puppeteer far away.

“So what you’re saying is, I’m meant to do things you, as a series of tunnels, can’t?”

“Exactly. You’re learning fast! Maybe we can fast-track you up the ranks. Maybe magic? I think you’d like magic.” There was an eager anticipation in his voice that made me feel uncomfortable.

We continued on through the narrow caverns for about twenty minutes. Moving felt easier here, like the air knew my intent and graciously let me pass unimpeded. More than once Bob would gesture slightly, and I’d watch in shock as thousands of pounds of rock flowed out of our path.

We left the tunnels and came into what must have been an agricultural district. Iron lattices rose into the vaulting cavern, weighed down with some of the weirdest plants I’d ever seen. Bioluminescent, translucent apples, bushes made completely of grey tentacles that every once in a while lashed out and gouged a chunk out of the rock wall the lattice leaned against, some brain-coral-looking fungi the size of a small bus. In the pens below, some humans oversaw a house-sized pile of chittering insects being gradually fed into what looked like a woodchipper.

The curiosity and disgust must have been apparent on my face because Bob immediately commented, “Ah. Don’t worry about all that. We have some very talented illusionists working to make all that biomass taste as good as its nutritional content would suggest.” Deciding not to think on that too long, I focused on the first humans I’d seen in this place. They wore strange clothing, not quite medieval, but also not modern. It was a weird mishmash of different time periods from history as well as some things you’d see only in postmodern fashion runways. Some wore shimmering silver gowns with wings attached to their arms, a few wore roman like togas with various sashes lining their bodies, and others wore simple loincloths. Most surprisingly, they seemed to all be working in harmony, suggesting their clothes did not relate at all to social status.

We entered another series of tunnels, these far more polished than the last. Had I woken up here instead of the fortified outer sections of the Dungeon, I might have thought this place was an underground subway station. My curiosity once again got the better of me. “So you’ve said that all this is the Dungeon, but where does it all come from? Where do we come from? Did you grow me too?” I suddenly had the nauseating thought that I was as much a fabrication as Bob, that I had been created from whole cloth, memories and all.

“Oh, that’s simple. We just pull everything from other realities: people and places that won’t be missed. We drop in a location and whatever people might have been inside. Sometimes we end up with someone who doesn’t even notice the change until they’ve already come to think fondly of the dungeon! Always good for a laugh, those. But anyway, we took an alleyway, and you came with it. The same principle applies to everyone else here. We dungeons thrive on forgotten spaces. We appear in regions untainted by sentients and draw from people and places similarly abandoned. You might call us caretakers.” So much for universities being a place of learning, then again, I supposed my university wasn’t in New York City, and the surrounding areas might have had a low enough population to be labeled as untainted by sentients.

“Wait, if you have all these people from so many worlds, where’s all the cool technology? Surely someone you nabbed must have had a laser gun or something on them.”

“You overestimate the probability of any given world reaching a high level of technical expertise. Nearly all simply lose steam shortly after the invention of bronze and carry on like that until the end of time. Then, many like this world discover how to use magic and refrain from using your weapons. Unfortunately, many such magics don’t work in every reality.” He paused, speaking a bit more quietly. “Then, there’s places and things we don’t dare to take.” He continued brightly, “That’s not all to say we don’t have some powerful artifacts. We just hold them in reserve. No use wasting a limited resource. We can’t exactly build more.”

“… Reserve for what? Where can I get some?”

“Come back to me in a week. You can ask as much as you want once your loyalties are a bit more… solid.”

Mulling over that terrifying thought, I withstood the urge to ask any more questions that might lead to answers I most certainly did not want to know. After all, it seemed like I was stuck here anyway, so I might as well be fu*ked blindly without fearing it.

We finally arrived in the human district of the dungeon. It looked vaguely like a medieval village, except that it was underground and built from stone and fungus instead of wood and thatch. Some nostalgic soul had even set up some bioluminescent street lights, probably hoping that seeing with light again would bring back a little of their slowly draining humanity.

Bob looked at me. “Bob the Human has some queer tastes that make it feel that it is approaching becoming Individual. While I don’t know what the Main Dungeon thinks of that, I don’t believe it a bit.”

“What is Individual? And why would Bob the Human want to have that?”

Bob pursed his lips. “Nevermind. I’m just saying that it’s probably all an act.”

I shrugged. Maybe all the avatars aren’t as in concert as I had thought.

Navigating the streets, we were ignored by the milling humans; it seemed Orcs were a rather common sight here, which wasn’t too surprising given that I’d seen many different races working together outside the settlements.

Bob joined a crowd of humans traveling toward what appeared to be the center of the town. He yelled over the humans talking around him, “Clayton! We’re going toward the city district at the center. The human settlements are among the most organized out of the districts within the dungeon.”

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I nodded my head, watching the crowds of humans. While they wore mostly simpler clothes, they reminded me of home. Bob grabbed my shirt, pulling me back. “Where do you think you’re going? We’re here.” Snapped out of my reverie, I looked at the three-story stone building, a bit of smoke rising from a chimney. Propping open the door with one massive hand, Bob ushered me in, letting the door slam on a disgruntled male who had followed us.

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