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Backstory

There is a dragon who zealously guards a large trove of treasure, despite never being able to use it in any practical way.

Usual human thinking would say the dragon is the symbol of greed for that very reason. However, greed is internal, not external, and thus a true "monster of greed" isn't a stingy bastard, but something that specializes in killing stingy bastards, basically a lethal light trap for humans. The dragon isn't keeping the goods for himself, he's shielding the world (and -2 IQ adventurers) from them.

These items are so dangerous (and the dragon so, er, benevolent) that the dragon will go on a rampage, raiding villages left and right and putting himself in exponentially increasing danger, to recover even a single stolen goblet.

Each "cursed" object is actually a sort of "beehive" for a swarm of microscopic (100 micrometers long) machines (think "utility fog"). These machines are what actually causes "the curse", by killing people. (For this question, don't worry about the dragon.)

The question

Given a standard (high) medieval Europe as the setting, but with "demonic" (read: technological) force at play, how can these machines achieve their goal of killing as many people as possible?

Limitations:

  • The swarm has to operate under the radar; the more subtly it can carry out its objectives, the better. Ideally, people just mysteriously drop dead after being around the "cursed" objects. Humans figuring out how the "curse" works is bad.
  • The swarm needs to keep its numbers manageable. Too many and they either won't be able to hide, or won't be able to power themselves.
  • The swarm must feed off of ambient energy without storing it in any significant quantity.
  • The swarm needs to be able to carry out its function continuously. Basically, whatever it does, it has to leave the swarm in a condition to keep doing it.
  • Units of the swarm can't leave the 20-meter vicinity of the item.
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close because this question needs to be reformatted. It's unclear what your scenario is or what you're asking. $\endgroup$ – NegativeFriction Jan 30 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ The treasures are radioactive? Would fit the general rules of cursed items that wouldn't "blow cover" as you can't detect radiation without purpose built tools. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 30 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Bitterdreggs. I think all of that can be deduced from the text. To answer, not literally "under the radar" the micromachines are the only anachronistic tech. I specified medieval Europe and the items were created by the Drvil, who, again, doesn't play any role here. I also told you to ignore the dragon, he's only there to give a rough measure of how insanely dangerous an item is supposed to be. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jan 30 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @hszmv But how do you achieve that with micromachines? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jan 30 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @Matthew, much clearer, close vote withdrawn. +1 $\endgroup$ – BLT-Bub Jan 30 at 21:13
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Assuming they are capable of doing so, the "obvious" answer is that they float around waiting for a human to be within range and then cause a massive cerebral hemorrhage. For the setting, this should cause people to basically fall over near the object, with no one able to figure out why it happens.

The tricky part is whether they can do it quickly enough to not run afoul of the range limitation.

Alternatively, and depending on why you need the range limitation, if they can reproduce, have them maintain a fairly static population size "when idle", but every time a human comes near, splinter off a few "units" to "infect" that human. Have those units then start replicating, using the host for raw material (but limit them to that host). Eventually, this will damage something important, but it should take some time and thus be less obvious why it's happening. Have them self-destruct once the "host" is dead. Without powerful microscopes, it should be very difficult to figure out what is happening, and this should be less obviously correlated to the "cursed item".

If "building extras" and having them split off from the main swarm isn't an option, possibly they can set up the conditions for a brain aneurysm or something.

(I could also rules-lawyer the second suggestion by having them "farm" and distribute some sort of deadly parasite / pathogen. That's not really conceptually different, but maybe it's an exploitable loophole, depending on why your limitations exist.)

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I suggest the treasure is highly radioactive. That would certainly kill off those who came into contact with it and would bring the curse too life with a vengeance. Unless the population were from an advanced industrialised nation they would not have a clue what was causing the curse.

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  • $\begingroup$ As much as this fails to satisfy the "cool factor" of having "the curse" caused by nanomachines... it does otherwise fit really well. The horrible death from radiation sickness would certainly seem like a curse. (Obligatory mention: Thine Own Self...) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 30 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ C'mon, can you at least think up a mechanism that makes these items go supercritical on demand? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jan 30 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ It could be arranged, or perhaps better still a simple alpha particle emitting ball in a small labyrinth. They can hear the thing rattling around inside but when they finally manage to shake the ball in the right direction, instead of dropping out of a small hole they were expecting it to, it drops into the centre of a largish ball of plutonium and poof! They have a damp squib on their hands and face and on the ceiling with lashings of boiling plutonium and radiation. Could cause a fire… $\endgroup$ – Slarty Jan 30 at 22:45

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