“No, thanks,” Gabriel said with a shudder when Ruda offered him the bowl of stew. “I’ll stick to mushrooms.”
“Your loss,” she said with a shrug, dipping her spoon back into it and taking a bite.
“How is it?” Toby asked warily.
She shrugged. “Bland. Heavy on the gravy. More ‘shroom than meat. Not the worst thing I’ve eaten, though.”
“All things considered,” said Gabe, peering around the Visage’s common room and lowering his voice, “I can’t get over the fear the mystery meat in this place might include something…y’know…sentient.”
“It’s not,” Juniper mumbled around a mouthful of stew, then paused to swallow, tilting her head with a thoughtful expression. “Rat, some kind of pork, and…snake? Maybe lizard. Little things.”
“Where the hell do they get pork?” Gabriel demanded. The dryad shrugged mutely and had another bite.
“Probably cave boars,” said Fross sagely. “A fairly common upper-level dungeon inhabitant. Or, at least, they were a hundred years ago when the manuals were still being written…”
“Most of those ‘manuals’ were historical even then,” Teal said with a smile.
“Yeah, well…” Gabriel glanced at Juniper, then sighed, picking up one of the shriveled brown stalks on his own plate. “I’m still not convinced. Call me paranoid, but you grow up slightly demonic and you develop a healthy fear of doing anything…evil. Even accidentally. That sounds like some of those ingredients might have still been people.”
“I said pork,” Juniper snapped, slamming her spoon down on the table. “Pork, as in pig. I wasn’t hinting at something. It’s not human.”
Everyone stared at her in silence.
“Uh, Juno,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “I meant the other parts. Lizard? Snake? Can you be absolutely sure that’s not, say…goblin, or naga?”
“Oh.” She swallowed heavily dropping her gaze. “Um… I don’t… I mean, I’ve never tried… I dunno.” Hunching her shoulders, the dryad carefully pushed her stew bowl away and reached for a mushroom from the communal platter in the middle of the table.
“Yeah, well, I’ll cope,” said Ruda with a shrug, fishing up another spoonful of brown, lumpy stew. “I’ve had mermaid, after all.”
“You’ve what?” Trissiny exclaimed, setting down the large mushroom cap on which she’d been nibbling.
Ruda finished chewing before answering, smirking at the horrified expressions all around the table. “Let me just guess. I say ‘mermaid’ and you’re all picturing pretty girls in seaweed brassieres with fish tails, yeah? Which is as kinky as it is dumb, and proof that the bards get good an’ drunk before making up all the shit you shorebound think you know about the ocean. Mermaids are giant fucking twelve-foot-long snakes with arms and vaguely humanoid heads. We only figure they’re intelligent because they use weapons and magic. All they do is hiss and screech if you try to talk to ’em.”
“Weapons and magic are, indeed, signs of sentience,” Shaeine said. “Is food that scarce in Puna Dara? Even in the Underworld it is considered the furthest extremity of starvation when people are reduced to eating intelligent beings.”
“It’s not about that,” said Ruda, scooping up another bite of stew and regarding it thoughtfully. “Mermaids eat people. Seriously, they attack ships to try to get the delicious, chewy passengers. Their favorite tactic is to magically induce a state of doldrums around a target vessel; no wind or currents to propel it, and they pull on any oars that’re put down. Then their witches do something from underneath that makes all the food stores spoil within minutes or hours, all so they can weaken the crew enough to attack and overwhelm ’em. They deliberately ruin food in order to eat the fucking people.”
“So, what?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “You just eat them right back?”
“Pretty much,” said Ruda with a grin, “though you’re oversimplifying it. The most reliable counter-tactic to this is to harpoon one of the fuckers, haul it up on deck and have a goddamn barbecue right where the rest can see.”
“Showing dominance,” said Juniper, nodding. “Makes perfect sense.”
“That,” Ruda agreed, pointing the dripping spoon at her, “and also it makes the point that the crew won’t run out of food unless they damn well leave. Generally, they do after you cook the first one.”
“What’s to stop them from just waiting under the boat until everyone starves?” Gabriel asked, his expression one of horrified fascination.
“Ship,” said Ruda, giving him a disparaging look. “If you’re in mermaid territory on a boat, your ass is dead to begin with and it’s to the overall benefit of the gene pool. As for why they don’t wait…impatience, mostly. They can’t seem to resist poking their heads up to check. That’s why the whole sentience thing isn’t considered absolutely certain, magic or no magic. They may be intelligent, but they’re not terribly smart.”
“Well.” Trissiny very carefully set down her mushroom cap. “Suddenly I find I have little appetite.”
“Yup,” Gabriel agreed, pushing away his plate of stalks.
Ruda cackled at them, but Fross quickly darted down to hover over the table.
“Well, don’t waste food,” the pixie said worriedly. “It’s apparently not the easiest thing to come by down here… I’m just gonna store all this, okay? I made sure to have plenty of dimensional holding space for treasure and whatnot, and it’ll keep fresh while it’s in limbo.”
“You go right ahead,” said Gabriel, watching with interest while she levitated various mushrooms into her shining aura, where they disappeared. “Anybody else?”
Ruda insisted on finishing her stew; Juniper was the only other member of the party who still wanted to eat, but she gathered up a handful of mushrooms to munch on the way. With that seen to, they all pushed back their chairs and rose.
“All done, then?” Sarriki asked brightly, pausing as she slithered past. “Big day! Heading out on your first delve, are we?”
“Any advice?” Toby asked lightly.
“Don’t,” she suggested, then moved off, chuckling sibilantly to herself.
“Oh, just ignore her,” Rowe advised, leaning on the rail of the bar’s upper level and grinning down at them. “She likes to remind everyone how impossible she is to fire. It’s not like I can put up a ‘help wanted’ sign. So! You pigeons ready to head out, then? Allow me to show you the way!” Flapping his wings once for emphasis, he turned and sashayed off toward the bar. Trissiny gave them all a very pointed look before leading the way up the stairs and after the incubus.
Rowe was waiting next to the bar, beside one of the curtained doorways. At their approach, he pulled aside the slightly ragged length of red velvet hanging over the opening and gestured them through, grinning and bowing.
“After you,” Trissiny said sharply.
The demon laughed at her. “My, my, so suspicious! Ah, well, it’s probably for the best. Good habit to be in, while you’re in the Crawl! Walk this way, my little lemon drops.”
He strolled on through, tail waving languidly. Trissiny paused, watching him with her hand straying near her sword. Gabriel sashayed past her, swinging his hips exaggeratedly with each step and prompting a chorus of laughter.
“Welcome, dear children, to the marketplace!” Rowe enthused, directing their attention around the chamber with great sweeping gestures of his whole arms. It was longer than the main bar area, but roughly as wide, and about as tall; rough-cut steps descended from the door to the floor, leaving the ceiling high above and creating a spacious feel despite the fact that it was constructed of windowless gray stone and lit only by fires and a single flickering fairy lamp. Like the rest of the Grim Visage, the marketplace looked unfinished and rough, as if a naturally occurring cave in the rocks had been expanded by extremely casual stonemasons to roughly room-like proportions. The floor sloped slightly but noticeably toward the center, making a valley running between the steps on their end and another, larger door opposite. On either side of the long space were counters constructed of scraps of stone, wood and metal; torches lined the upper walls, burning in a variety of different colors, and a thick iron barrel sat smack in the center, in which a sullen little bonfire flickered.
“Cheerful,” Gabriel commented.
“Well, it’s pretty early, according to our arbitrary system of sunless timekeeping,” said Rowe. “You can meet everyone else as opportunity permits. We’ve got a metalsmith, an alchemist and an enchanter who all do business down here. But! I made certain the one fellow you really want to talk to before setting out was awake and at work!”
Indeed, only one of the stands was occupied, the one which displayed rolls of parchment in barrels and maps tacked up to the walls behind and around it. Behind the counter sat a youngish human man in an absurd floppy hat trailing a bedraggled ostrich feather; at Rowe’s introduction, he waved up at them.
“Hello, there! So you’re the new crop of freshmen, eh? I’m Shamlin, wandering bard and dungeon cartographer extraordinaire! C’mon down, don’t be shy, let’s have a look at you… My goodness, is that a dryad?”
“Yes, it is,” Juniper said archly. “I mean, she is. I am. Yes.”
“Well, how about that.” Shamlin shook his head in bemusement as they trickled over to stand around his stall. “So, are you also a witch, then? I bet a dryad would make a simply fabulous witch.”
“Um…” Juniper frowned at him, then glanced uncertainly over at the others. “No?”
“Huh.” He picked up the mandolin that had been resting on his counter and began plucking aimlessly at the strings, still studying them. “You’re the only one who seems to have a lot of fae energy in her aura… But then again, maybe you have so much that you’re drowning the others out. You lot are clustered rather closely together, after all. Whose pixie is that, then?”
“Mine!” Fross said irritably. “I am my pixie! My name is Fross, and I’m a freshman!”
Shamlin blinked once, then stood and bowed to her. “My humblest apologies, then, dear lady. I of all people should know better than to judge what I see by my own expectations.”
“Well, I guess that’s sort of okay then,” Fross said, somewhat mollified.
“Did you say you’re a cartographer?” Teal asked.
“Dungeon cartographer!” Shamlen declared, grinning. “If you want maps of the Crawl, I’m the one to call! I buy and sell, and I’m always in the market for up-to-date information on the situation! The Crawl does so like to shift about, you see. Fresh intelligence is vital for any up-and-coming adventurer!”
“Some cartographer,” said Rowe, grinning hugely. “He’s a middleman, is what he is. Hence sitting here in safety and comfort getting absurdly rich while other people do the heavy lifting.”
“It’s a living,” Shamlin said complacently. “And you’re not one to talk.”
“Excuse me,” Gabe said, “but are you…uh, human?”
“Last I checked!”
“Then, um…what, exactly, are you doing down here?”
“Making gold hand over fist,” the bard replied with a grin. “Which brings us to the subject of business! Have any of you experience with mapmaking?”
They exchanged a round of glances; several of them shook their heads.
“Pity,” Shamlin mused. “That would’ve spared us all some effort… No matter! I have just the thing for you!” Reaching under his counter, he pulled out a long wooden scroll case, capped with rune-engraved brass and with a glass viewing panel set into its front. Within was a roll of parchment, and a quantity of loose liquid ink which sloshed about without leaving any stains, somehow. “What I have here is the latest word in modern cartography, the preferred sidearm of Imperial surveyors and gnomish questers alike! The auto-mapper need only be carried with you and it will, with no effort whatsoever on your part, render a perfectly accurate chart of your environs as far as your senses can perceive and beyond! Yours for the excessively reasonable price of twenty gold pieces, and that, my friends, includes your discounts for being students of the University. Make your own maps as you go—and if you bring me back maps of anything new or different, I’ll gladly buy them off you!”
“So,” Teal said slowly, “you want us to buy something that will possibly—maybe—give us something to sell back to you.”
“Hey, that’s a neat trick,” Ruda remarked. “A reliable way to turn everyone else’s gold into your gold.”
“You’re not wrong,” Shamlin said with a shameless grin. “But as you’re soon to learn, kids, adventuring isn’t what you’d call a reliable pastime. Oh, you’re bound to round up some treasure in the Crawl unless you’re complete idiots—in which case you’ll just wind up dead. But there will be good runs and bad runs; one day you’ll come home flush with plunder, the next you’ll be scrabbling to buy yourselves dinner. Keeping an auto-mapper in your inventory is just a way to inject a little reliability into your accounting! Bring me up-to-date maps and I’ll pay in good silver, and more if they’re notably different from the maps I’ve already got!”
“We’ll think about it,” Trissiny said firmly. “Come along, everyone.”
“Wait!” Shamlin exclaimed, rummaging below his counter again. “You want to see how you fare on your own first, I respect that. But there is one thing you absolutely must know of before you set out… Ah, here we go!” He set down an oblong, fist-sized piece of white marble, rounded as if it had lain in a riverbed and engraved with a single swirling rune which glowed blue. “A Crawl waypoint stone!”
“A what?” Gabe asked, interested in spite of himself.
“Oh! Oh!” Fross darted back and forth in excitement. “I’ve read about these! You attune it to a specific spot, and then you can invoke it to teleport back to that spot from anywhere else in the dungeon! Very handy!”
“In fact, a dungeon delver’s best friend!” Shamlin proclaimed. “Now, I understand you had a little trouble passing Imperial decabloons up above, eh? Well, as someone who does intend to head back topside one of these days, I have more use of those than most of the Crawl’s denizens. For a mere ten such coins, this little beauty is yours!”
“You’re a funny guy,” said Ruda, her voice and expression deadly calm.
“Ah, now, think about what I’m offering,” he chided gently. “Dungeon waypoint stones are only useful in genius locus dungeons like the Crawl. Each has to be created by a mage of some significant power who is intimately familiar with the dungeon, and each can only be attuned to a specific dungeon. Gnomes do good business in manufacturing them for their own delves; the Empire cranks them out for strike teams in the dungeons it controls. But the Crawl?” He shook his head, grinning. “Supply and demand, kiddies, supply and demand! Professor Tellwyrn is probably the only person alive who even can make one of these for the Crawl, and she won’t. Forcing you poor kids to rough it as roughly as possible is the whole point of her operation. The only way to get your hands on a Crawl waypoint stone is to loot it from the corpses of adventurers past, which is exactly where this baby came from. The demand, down here, is vast, the supply virtually nonexistent. I’m giving you an absolute steal of a deal, just because you’ve got honest faces and because I feel bad about that little mix-up regarding Miss Fross.”
“We,” Trissiny said downright grimly, “will think about it. Excuse us.”
“Better luck next time, buddy,” Rowe said to Shamlin, grinning hugely. “All right, my little muffins, right this way! Come along, come along, you’re just moments from adventure!” He led them down the center toward the opposite door, pushed this open and stepped through.
Beyond was another lip of stone, wide enough for the whole party to gather comfortably, with another stone walkway arching off through midair above an impossible drop. It led to a tiny stone island suspended in space, with four stone paths branching off from it.
“Ah, there you are,” said Professor Ezzaniel, straightening up from where he had been leaning against the wall. “I realize the food here is less than appetizing, but it would be wise not to get in the habit of dawdling over breakfast. Thank you, Rowe.”
“You bet!” the demon said cheerfully, throwing him a mocking salute. “Best of luck and lots of fun, cupcakes! Come back with exciting stories for us!” He blew them all a kiss before ducking back into the Visage and shutting the door firmly behind him.
“Why does he keep calling us desserts?” Fross asked.
“Because he’s a creep,” said Trissiny.
“He is what he is,” Ezzaniel said curtly. “Everyone ready to set out, I hope? Good. This way.” He turned and strode off down the narrow walkway toward the island.
“Oh, that way?” Gabriel snipped. “You don’t think we should just plunge over the sides instead?”
“If you wish to raise the collective intelligence of the party, Mr. Arquin, there are less extreme methods,” Ezzaniel replied without turning around. “You could simply keep quiet, for example.”
Ruda cackled, slugged Gabe on the shoulder, and swaggered off after Ezzaniel. The others followed them much more carefully. There was plenty of room to walk, but this path was much narrower than the stairs which had brought them to the Grim Visage from the exterior.
Ezzaniel waited on the stone island while they all regathered.
“This is really disturbing,” Toby muttered, stepping gingerly and wincing. “What’s holding this thing up?”
“Oh, don’t even talk to us about floating islands,” Ruda said dismissively. “We have to sleep on one.”
“It’s amazing what you can get used to,” Teal agreed, grinning.
Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “In any case. You are free to explore the Crawl in whatever way you wish—this is, by definition, an unstructured exercise. Some previous years have chosen to forgo the assigned objectives and pursue self-directed agendas. If, however, you decide to pursue the chest whose acquisition will guarantee you an A for the exercise, simply follow this path. Remember it: first one to the left on this island from the Grim Visage. This will lead you to the Descent.”
“We have to go up to reach the Descent,” Ruda said, studying the walkway he indicated, which quickly became a staircase rising toward the far wall of the vast, sloping chasm. “Seems appropriately ass-backward.”
“The Descent,” Ezzaniel pressed on, “is the part of the Crawl most directly influenced by Professor Tellwyrn. I am not completely certain of the details, but I would venture to say that she has shaped it into exactly the challenge she intends her students to meet. It is a series of one hundred levels, accessible only from the highest. The treasure box you are assigned to retrieve is at the bottom. Each level features hazards of a different variety, with a boss encounter every three levels and a final threat to be faced at the end of the very last, guarding the box.”
“Textbook dungeon dive!” Fross proclaimed.
“Too textbook,” Teal added. “That seems kind of…artificial.”
“It is, as I have said, Professor Tellwyrn’s contribution to the Crawl,” Ezzaniel replied, nodding. “You are not really expected to obtain the box, whether or not you choose to make the attempt. You will be judged and graded by your overall performance.”
“According to what objective standards?” Shaeine asked quietly.
“My best judgment,” he replied with a smile. “And so, I leave you to it. We will speak this evening when you return to the inn. You may of course direct your efforts as you think best, but I do advise you not to be out more than one day at a time. Good luck, students.”
He turned and strode back to the Grim Visage, the freshmen watching him go in silence.
“So,” Gabriel said at last. “I guess we have a decision to make…”
“Does anyone seriously want to wander around in this place at random?” Trissiny asked pointedly.
“Um…kinda?” Fross said hesitantly. “But…sort of only a little. In any case I think we should have a look at the Descent first. It’s the assignment, after all.”
“I agree,” said Toby. “Any objections?”
Trissiny studied the stairs Ezzaniel had indicated. “Fross…be ready with that levitation spell of yours.”