How long had it been since he had seen the sun? It seemed like months, years even, since he’d entered this stinking dungeon, began creeping among its be-tentacled denizens. It stunk all the time, the smell of blood, death, and sweat, and then there were the noises: the skittering of overgrown insects with mandibles large enough to crush a man’s skull, the ominous thudding hooves of the bastard mutants who had never seen the sun, and, worst of all, the occasional human sound, the screams of life leaving the body of the unfortunate explorer less agile than he.
He had entered to save the town, the children of the town really, even though he had never been to the town before taking it upon himself to be its savior. Tryon, it was called, hardly a house in the middle of the vast plain, and the children had disappeared. This world, he thought. Children are always disappearing. It’s a wonder any of them make it to adulthood. It had occurred to him in the past that he had no evidence that any of them actually did make it–once he left a town, he rarely returned.
The room he now walked across–for this was a dungeon in the classical sense, as large as the castle that had presumably sat above it many years prior–was mostly empty. In the corner, an empty treasure chest languished, its mouth yawning, its bounty taken by some earlier soul. He didn’t mind. He was already burdened down, traveling alone but carrying equipment enough for an army. In his small pack, he carried a dozen medical herbs, two swords to supplement the one in his scabbard, an additional shield, more miscellaneous armor than he would reasonably ever use–all of it weaker than the Dragon Scale mail he wore–and close to a hundred assorted charms, medicines, vials, spellbooks, and ephemera. Another treasure chest of something he couldn’t afford to leave behind was the last thing he needed.
He had just completed him mental inventory when things started going wrong. His vision blurred and before he realized what was happening, there stood before him a creature of fearsome aspect. It stood three feet high, and, at first look, appeared to be the stump of a Walnut tree. That is, until the second look. Upon the second look, one noticed the burning eyes, the scraggly branches that looked suspiciously like hands, and the rancid odor–the smell of burning cats and absinthe.
It was a Demon Stump.
The first engagement had been terrifying, of course. Something about an anthropomorphic tree calling down doom from the Heavens upon his head had given him the shivers. But this was, by his count, the thirty-second such creature to attack him today. He had dispatched the others easily; why not this one as well? He had noticed, during the third or fourth attack, that the stumps always waited on him to make a decision before attacking. That is, the battles began abruptly but did not progress until he made a move. Strangely, once he decided what to do–to fight, to cast a spell, to run–the creature would spring into action, sometimes before he had a chance to actually act on his thoughts. Strange, but workable. He had found that by keeping his mind blank, or, at least, not thinking about the fight at hand, he could delay the fight at hand indefinitely. Once, after a particularly unrelenting string of attacks, he had actually taken a brief nap while the stump waited patiently for him to awaken and make a decision.
This time, however, the choice was simple. Attack. He drew back his sword, adroitly dodged the lumberous appendage that struck out at him, and drove his blade deep into the heart of the wood. He watched as, like every other battle, the stump gave a screech of pain and then dissipated, gone as though it had never existed, save for the small pile of gold such eldritch creatures always left in their wake. He picked it up and stuffed it in his bag, which, kvetching about equipment aside, never seemed to get any heavier.
He carried on, moving through room after room of the surprisingly labyrinthine dungeon. There were other battles, some with the stumps, some with piles of sentient goo, some with duckbilled spiny, creatures all culminating in their demise and his advancement.
Drudgery, dangerous drudgery, but this was the day. He could feel it in his bones, in every fiber of his body. Today, he would rescue the children, return to the town a hero, and move on to the next quest, whatever that was. It was this thought that gave him pause. Is it worth it? There always seemed to be another town in danger, another dragon that needed slaying, another evil wizard whose plans needed foiled, but there never seemed to be an endpoint. What was the ultimate meaning of everything? The be the most powerful in the land? The obtain the most gold, the strongest armor, the most sterling reputation? For a moment, he wished the world worked like combat seemed to, that it would grind to a halt and wait for him to make a decision, a real decision that didn’t involve hyperventilating villagers, but this was the way the world was.
And then, he rounded a corner and saw it. A huge door, bigger than any he’d yet seen, unguarded and standing slightly open. He crept toward it, all his faculties on full alert, knowing full well that it wasn’t necessary. It was another strange thing–why had he never noticed how strange this world was before?–but at the end of these dungeons, the ruler, be he a wizard, lizard, or demonic gizzard–there had been one–would always be standing right there in plain sight in the middle of the room. When approached, they did nothing, just stared straight ahead until he engaged them. At that point, they would say something vaguely threatening and then the whole process would begin again–the dizziness, the abrupt beginnings, the world waiting.
He pushed door open with surprising ease, and there it was. This time, it looked like some sort of dragon-wolf hybrid. It had scales but a sort of lolling, lusty tongue that refused to be confined to the jaws which held it. It had flaming red eyes that most likely shot lasers or something equally inappropriate. It was, in short, about what he’d come to expect from these high-ranking beasties.
He approached it and spoke to it, or, rather, he prepared to speak. As always, the creature spoke first, although he was quite certain it wouldn’t have spoken at all had he not thought about talking to it first.
“You think you can defeat me? These children are mine forever!”
And then the dizziness took hold, and he was engaged.
He attacked, it attacked. It did, indeed, shoot lazers from its eyes and had the unlikely skill of tongue-slapping which sounded more metaphorical but proved to be, for some reason, more powerful and damaging than attacks with its great claws. As felt the tongue looping around his neck and his energy draining away, he thought for a moment of how it had all started–he, a young boy in a village whose name was not known, handed a destiny he did not ask for but could not resist, who had been saving the lives of others for months but did not know why and did not care. And he decided to stop. The dog beast stared at him. He stared back. It turned out he was right. The world did revolve around him after all. And just like that, it stopped turning altogether.