“I can’t decide if we’re getting the real, authentic dungeon experience, here, or the opposite of that,” Gabriel said, standing with his fists planted on his hips, studying the square stone doorway that led to the Descent. It was innocuous enough, a simple gap in the wall on which their little ledge abutted, but beside the door a square block of clearly carved stone had been sunk into the wall. On it were glowing letters:
“Seems kinda fake,” Ruda agreed.
“It’s a little too…on the nose?” Fross said uncertainly. “I mean…lots of dungeons are organized by levels, but that’s done by the delvers for their own convenience, and the distinctions are all kind of…rough? And a little arbitrary. This doesn’t seem normal.”
“Well,” Toby said with a smile, “the longer we stand out here talking about it, the longer we can avoid going in there.”
“Ah, hell with it,” said Gabe, grinning and drawing his wand from an inner coat pocket. “Bring on the loot!”
Trissiny stared at him. “Have you been carrying that the whole time?”
“But when we came down here…you’d just woken up. We thought we were doing a project in the library.”
“Well, yeah, I usually carry it,” he said, still grinning. “C’mon, I’ve been practicing with this every available chance since Sarasio. Did you think I just liked waving it around as some kind of phallic substitute?”
“Hm,” she grunted, then turned, drew her sword and stepped warily into the Descent.
“Oh, my gods,” Gabriel shouted behind her. “That’s actually what you thought, isn’t it!”
“Well, in her defense,” Ruda said, clapping him on the shoulder as she strode past, “she’s met you.”
The Descent’s initial approach was reminiscent of that of the Crawl itself. They trooped quietly down a staircase set in a neatly-cut tunnel, lacking lights, but this one was far shorter, ending in another square door easily within sight of the entrance. At the bottom, Trissiny led the way through, both her sword and shield out, now, then planted herself protectively in front of the group while they clustered into the chamber.
“Pretty,” Fross whispered.
The room had a flat ceiling, and flat walls stretched away to either side of the entrance, but that was the only visible sign that the space had been deliberately made. The floor was so cracked and broken that it appeared almost as natural as the bottom of a cave, sections sunken or thrust unevenly up as though in the aftermath of an earthquake. Water dripped audibly in the distance, and trickled across the stonework here and there in small streams. The walls were obscured by a dense growth of mushrooms of every possible description. Some were nearly the size of trees, with stands of smaller ones springing up like clumps of grass or creeping around the bases of the big stalks like ground cover. Footstool-sized toadstools popped up here and there, and frilly growths even hung from some of the huge caps of the biggest mushrooms like curtains of moss. It seemed at least half the fungus species present were luminescent, either biologically or magically, and lit the mushroom forest with soft glows in a variety of pale colors that left it dim, partially glimpsed and entirely mysterious. Through the soft, shadowed shapes, the walls of the chamber were completely out of sight.
“Mushrooms,” Ruda muttered. “For fuck’s sake, is every level gonna be themed? Dammit, Tellwyrn…”
“Stay together,” Trissiny said grimly. “Watch where you step—the ground looks slick. And be wary. There should be monsters of some kind in here. The fact that we can’t see them is not a good sign.”
They crept forward, following her; Gabriel brought up the rear, Fross darting here and there above them and erratically illuminating their surroundings. There was a path, of sorts, or at least a cleared section that seemed too linear to be accidental. At one point, they crossed a rough but obviously deliberately-built footbridge over a gurgling brook.
“It’s too quiet,” Teal all but whispered.
“Will you stop saying shit like that?” Ruda growled.
“Ooh!” At Gabriel’s sudden cry, they all whirled to face him, several of them jumping in surprise. “Look! Glittershrooms!” He was pointing at a tall stand of mushrooms with conical caps which sparkled in Fross’s light as if studded with chunks of crystal.
“Oh, for the love of—can you get stoned on your own time, please?” Ruda snapped.
“I wasn’t gonna eat them,” he said defensively. “It’s just… Look at the size of those. We’re supposed to be looking for treasure, right? Do you have any idea what those are worth?”
“Gabriel,” said Toby, “I’m not in the habit of ordering you around, but I think this merits an exception. I forbid you to enter the drug trade.”
“Listen,” Juniper said suddenly.
They instinctively clustered closer together at the sudden rustling that rose up all around them. Ruda drew her sword; Trissiny fell into a combat stance, raising her shield. Gabriel brandished his wand at the shadows, eyes darting wildly.
“You see what happened, don’t you,” Ruda said quietly.
“Yes,” Trissiny replied, watching their surroundings. The sounds were clearly audible, the unmistakable patter of numerous small feet and a much more unnervingly unidentifiable squeaking. “Whatever it is waited for us to get fully in, surrounded by the mushrooms, before moving. They’re intelligent, then, not animals.”
“Plenty of animals are clever enough to do that,” Juniper argued. “A lot actually—oh! Oh, I know what this is! Excuse me.” She gently pushed between Ruda and Shaeine, stepping out on her own and disregarding Trissiny’s hissed warning. “Caplings!”
As if on cue, a knee-high creature scuttled out of the shadows and right up to her. It looked like nothing so much as a mobile mushroom with spindly arms; if it had feet, they were hidden beneath the bulbous base of its stalk. Its narrow cap angled backward, with a cluster of five beady little eyes facing them just under it. In the fingerless little pads it had instead of hands it clutched a steel-tipped arrow, just the way a full-sized person would hold a spear.
“Caplings?” Trissiny said warily. “I’m not familiar with those.”
“I’m surprised to see them outside the Deep Wild,” Juniper said, bending down to pat the capling on the top of its cap. It made a delighted little trilling sound. “They lived in some of the swamps there, sort of a magical by-product of lots of life energy.”
“Cute little fucker, isn’t he?” Ruda said with a grin. “So, it’s…harmless, then?”
“Well, no,” Juniper said brightly. She picked up the capling, cradling it like a cat; it chirped ecstatically, snuggling close to her and dropping its arrow. “They hunt in packs, you see. There are dozens of them around us. A pack this size can easily take down a large prey animal. Or a human, they tend to get any of those that wander into the swamps.”
“…I’m just gonna get all kinds of sick of mushrooms on this trip, aren’t I?” Ruda asked darkly.
“He doesn’t…seem aggressive,” Gabriel said with some hesitation.
“Well, yeah,” Juniper replied, smiling at him over the capling’s head. “I’m a dryad. They’re fae creatures.”
“So you’re basically…what, their queen?” Teal asked.
“Eh…it doesn’t really work like that. But no, no fairy would attack a dryad. In fact, they’ll help us! This fellow and his pack will lead the way through this room. We’ll be out in no time!”
“Handy,” said Toby.
“Yup!” Juniper said cheerfully, holding the capling out at arm’s length and beaming at it. “They’re also really tasty, if—” She broke off abruptly, a sequence of emotions flashing across her face too quickly to be identified, then swiftly bent and placed the capling on the ground, turning her back to the rest of the group. It hopped up and down twice, chirping, then scuttled off down the path. “Come on,” she said curtly, following.
They moved off after her more slowly, keeping quiet. The rustling continued around them, but as the group proceeded, more caplings appeared, mostly clustering around Juniper up ahead. They were as varied in size and appearance as the mushrooms themselves, though none stood any higher than the dryad’s waist. The rest of the students hung back a bit, keeping Juniper and her new entourage in sight but maintaining a berth between them and the caplings, many of whom were armed with arrows and daggers—or spears and swords, as such appeared in their hands.
“Sooo,” Ruda said very softly after a couple of minutes, “we’re just gonna keep ignoring that, are we?”
“What?” asked Fross.
“I wish I had a better idea,” Toby murmured.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Gabriel, just as quietly. “I’ve asked. Weekly. It didn’t seem smart to push any harder than that.”
“I’m not sure we can afford to respect that forever,” said Trissiny, “or even much longer. Aside from the fact that she’s our friend, her emotional issues… Well, verbal outbursts can escalate into physical ones, and Juniper could cause a lot of damage.”
“Wait, what?” Fross demanded.
“Keep your voice down,” Ruda hissed at her. “And Boots, what exactly do you propose to do? It’s not like we can make her decide to open up. It’s like the old joke: Where does a dryad sleep?”
“Anywhere she wants,” Trissiny replied automatically. Abruptly, she came to a stop, letting out a startled laugh. “Oh! It’s a double meaning! Because dryads are promiscuous and too powerful to— I just got that!”
“I will never understand how someone so sheltered can be so stab-happy,” Ruda said wonderingly.
Shaeine cleared her throat. “As a point of reference, Juniper has mentioned that dryads can adjust the acuity of their senses. I would not make assumptions concerning what is and is not within her earshot.”
The group fell silent at that.
“Hey, are you guys coming?” Juniper called from up ahead. “Don’t worry, they won’t bother you! You’re with me, after all.”
“Right,” Trissiny said more loudly. “Coming.” She suited the words with action, picking up her pace a little. The others followed, staying as close together as they comfortably could on the narrow path.
The mushroom forest was disorienting. Filled entirely with soft, rounded shapes and confusing patterns of dim light, it made it difficult to maintain a sense of direction. The path didn’t help, meandering here and there around giant mushroom stalks, pools of water and crags of broken stonework. Even time seemed to condense and distort in that mysterious environment, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before another wall hove into view between the shrooms.
“Isn’t there supposed to be a boss or something?” Gabriel asked as they formed up in a cleared space in front of another door. Beyond this, yet another set of steps descended into darkness.
“Oh, there’s a big capling,” Juniper said earnestly, “the alpha of this pack. He’s sleeping, though.”
“We don’t get to fight the boss because he’s sleeping?” Fross asked incredulously.
“Okay, seriously, glowbell, you’re taking this dungeon stuff way too literally,” said Ruda. “Level bosses? Come on. Real life isn’t organized like that.”
“This isn’t real life,” the pixie said petulantly. “It’s a dungeon. There are traditions.”
No sooner had she spoken than there came a flash of light, followed by a cascade of sparks, and glowing words appeared on the wall to the right of the door:
Directly below that, in a small alcove in the stone, there came another spray of sparkles and tiny, plain-looking chest appeared with a soft chiming sound.
“Goddamn it, Tellwyrn,” Ruda groaned.
“I feel like that was flashier than it needed to be,” Gabriel agreed.
“Well, might as well see what we won,” Teal said reasonably, edging closer to the chest and keeping a wary eye on the caplings. Juniper was busily shooing them away; they seemed reluctant to leave her, but did begin trickling off, back into the mushroom forest. The bard knelt, opening the chest and rummaging around in it. “Let’s see…”
“Well?” Gabriel asked eagerly.
Teal stood up, grimacing. “My friends, we have triumphantly attained one plain steel dagger, fifteen silver coins with Professor Tellwyrn’s face on them, and a pair of pants.”
“Fucking Tellwyrn,” Ruda growled.
“…good pants?” Gabe asked hopefully.
“Eh.” Teal shrugged, holding up the garment in question. “Looks like corduroy, sorta like your coat. Wouldn’t match, though…at least I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell in this light, but I’m pretty sure this is…maroon?”
“Got ’em!” Fross zoomed over, making the loot disappear as she had the leftovers of their breakfast. “Cloth pants are caster gear, so… Shaeine, how are you set for pants?”
“Quite comfortably, thank you,” the drow replied placidly.
“Ugh, forget the goddamn pants,” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s just get on with it. Hopefully the bullshit gets less shitty from here.”
Trissiny again led the way down. This flight of stairs ended in a landing below, turning a corner and obscuring their final destination from view. The paladin paused on the landing, waiting for the others to form up, before proceeding carefully the rest of the way.
Her caution turned out to be warranted. The doorway at the bottom of the stairs opened onto a semicircular space made of metal screens, with a curtain-covered door right in the middle. Torches provided a cheerful orange light, and there was a babble of voices and noise from beyond the metal barrier that sounded like nothing so much as a town square on market day. Trissiny had increasingly tensed as she drew closer to the bottom, though, as had Toby, and upon stepping onto the flat ground, the others could immediately tell why.
A figure had stood from her perch on a stool beside the door at the sound of their approach and was watching them eagerly, if rather warily, as they all piled out of the stairwell.
“Hello, hello!” she said, regarding them with what was probably meant to be a warm smile but came out looking rather predatory. “Welcome, welcome, travelers, to Level 2!”
“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, peeking out from behind Toby’s shoulder. “What…what is that?”
The woman wore a plain and rather shabby dress that seemed to have been hastily assembled from sackcloth, but no one paid that any mind. She was human in proportion, but thick, glossy growths of some kind of carapace covered her lower arms and legs, making her limbs look rather like crab pincers, complete with blunted claws on her fingers and toes. A similar growth covered her forehead, stopping just above her featureless, pitch-black eyes like a helmet, and plates of the natural armor protected her shoulders. Her skin, where the carapace didn’t cover it, was subtly textured with a pattern rather like a snake’s scales. A short, thick tail waved behind her, and she hunched slightly at the elbows and knees, as if her armor plating prevented her from fully straightening the joints.
“That,” Trissiny said grimly, “is a hethelax demon.”
“That?” the hethelax asked wryly, tilting her head. “Well. You’re not as ill-mannered as some adventurers, though frankly that isn’t saying much. One of Tellwyrn’s bunches, aren’t you? I’ve not seen you before, you must be the new— Holy shit, is that a dryad?!”
“Well, look who’s popular,” Ruda said, jabbing Juniper with her elbow and grinning.
“Gabriel, stay at the back,” Trissiny said curtly.
“For fuck’s sake, what is it with you?” he snapped. “I’m not going to run off and join—”
“That isn’t what I was concerned about,” she shot back. A subtle golden light rose up around her, clinging close to her armor.
“Ah,” he said sheepishly, shuffling backward. Trissiny’s aura expanded as he moved out of the way.
“Whoah, whoah, cut that out,” the hethelax protested, holding up a clawed arm to shield her eyes. “Damn Arachne and her melodrama, I would think people would start telling you lot what to expect down here. Will you please keep it in your pants? Level 2 is a safe zone!”
“A safe zone that has a demon for a doorkeeper?” Toby asked warily.
“Well, it is a demon level,” she said.
“I fucking knew it,” Ruda grunted. “Themed levels. Fucking Tellwyrn.”
“Weapons aren’t going to be effective, except mine,” Trissiny said, keeping her eyes locked on the demon. “Hethelaxi are all but indestructible, but not strong. Divine magic is—”
The curtain was flung open and another figure stalked through, spiny wings flaring open to fill the space and block their view of the now-cringing hethelax. The new arrival wore a short, clinging red dress that concealed little of her milky skin, and a thunderous scowl.
“What is it with you University kids?” the succubus ranted. “Were you all raised in a barn? What has to be going on in your heads that you think barging into someone’s home and assaulting the first person to greet you is acceptable behavior? You!” She pointed imperiously at Shaeine. “Drow! You’re a cleric, I can feel it from here despite this thug in front flaring up. Are you Scyllithene or Themynrite?”
“I am a priestess of Themynra,” Shaeine said slowly.
“Good! C’mere.” The demon beckoned to her with a peremptory motion, tossing her head and sending red-tinged black curls cascading.
“You don’t need to do anything, Shaeine,” Trissiny said firmly.
“With respect, Trissiny, I think you are mistaken,” Shaeine replied, easing carefully forward through the group. “I believe I know what she intends. If you would kindly diminish your light somewhat?”
“I don’t see the point in this,” Trissiny muttered, but acquiesced, not taking her wary gaze off the two demons.
“It is a simple matter of theological and magical alignment,” the priestess said quietly, moving up to stand beside her. “The light given to you by the Pantheon burns all demonkind, but to invoke Themynra’s power is to call upon her judgment, and she accounts for much more than one’s plane of origin in discerning friend from foe.” She held up one hand, and a cool silver glow emerged from it, swelling outward to wash over the succubus and the hethelax cowering behind her.
The succubus shivered, rubbing her arms as if cold. “Ugh…that feels weird.” She fixed a steely gaze upon Trissiny. “Nothing like the judgment of a vengeful goddess, however. At this range that would burn my skin right off. Are you satisfied, cleric?”
“She’s a paladin, actually,” Gabriel said helpfully.
The demon’s crystalline blue eyes darted from the device on Trissiny’s shield to the same golden eagle on her breastplate, and she curled her lip. “Ugh. And an Avenist. We are quite simply not going to have any kind of a reasonable discussion, then, are we?”
“We don’t seem to be progressing in that direction,” Trissiny snapped.
“If I may?” Shaeine said politely, bowing. “We are quite in the dark as to this situation, madame…?”
“Melaxyna,” the succubus said with a smile. “Or Mel to my friends. A title is not necessary, but I am the boss of this level.”
“Yup!” said the hethelax from behind her. “Kill her for shiny loots!”
“And this is Xsythri,” Melaxyna said calmly. Her nimble tail lashed out, wrapping around one of Xsythri’s ankles and yanking her leg out from under her, sending the hethelax tumbling to the floor with a squawk.
“Charmed,” said Shaeine. “This is—”
“Child, I truly do not care,” the succubus interrupted. “You’re here, and you’ll be wanting to continue your little adventure. That is what’s important here. Well, come with me, then.” She turned and sashayed back through the door, flicking the curtain out of her way with a contemptuous gesture.
“I do not like this,” Trissiny said darkly. “I can feel demons…everywhere.”
“Like I said,” Xsythri snipped, “it’s a demon level. Well? C’mon in if you’re coming.” She ducked through the curtain after shooting Trissiny a dirty look.
Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. “…right. I guess there’s nowhere to go but forward. Stay behind me.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, unclench for two seconds,” Ruda snorted, shoving out from behind her and swaggering forward. She ducked through the curtain. Trissiny darted after her with a guttural noise of frustration, leaving the rest to follow.
Beyond the curtain, demons were indeed everywhere.
Level 2 appeared to be a single, wide-open space, lit by an assortment of bonfires and free-standing torches that added both heat and a smoky, sour smell that seemed to suit the chamber’s inhabitants. Off to the right of the entrance were pens and cages containing a number of non-sentient demon species, as well as a constant caterwauling of their various cries; another hethelax, this one male, was trudging along between the rows, carrying a hefty broom. Running toward the opposite side of the chamber from that were what appeared to be free-standing market stalls containing a variety of wares; roughly-painted signs advertized food, alchemy supplies, weapons, poisons and other gear. Left from the door was a space clumsily walled off by scraps of wood, metal and canvas. In the far corner stood an enormous black arch, rigged up to rusted-looking modern enchanting equipment, which was clearly a portal of some kind. The hulking form of a baerzurg demon stood before this, fiddling with the machinery. As the students stared around, a pack of imps, horned ape-like creatures no bigger than the smallest of the caplings, darted past them, snickering. Other demons went about their business on all sides, most pausing to inspect the new arrivals, though none approached.
“Holy shit,” Gabriel marveled. “It’s…it’s a village.”
“It’s a little slice of hell,” Trissiny grated.
“It’s a peaceful place, at least so far,” Shaeine said firmly. “I approve of caution, but let us not initiate needless hostilities.”
“Well, do come on,” Melaxyna called from up ahead. Directly down the open center of the big chamber, a throne was set up opposite the door, almost to the far wall. It towered over them, reached by a short flight of stairs; the whole thing was roughly-carved from faceted obsidian and haphazardly draped with a length of red velvet, an effect which was at once barbaric and quite striking.
Melaxyna sat upon it, smirking down at them with her wings arched behind and above her. Xsythri stood off to one side, plated arms folded, staring at them impatiently. Two hellhounds sat upright on either side of the throne’s steps—actual hellhounds, not khankredahg demons. They were slim, sleek and might have passed for coal-black racing hounds if not for their ridged horns, flaming red eyes and the outsized talons which sprang from their paws. As the students watched, one yawned, emitting a small puff of flame.
“Come, come,” the enthroned succubus called out brightly. “Welcome to Level 2! Make yourselves at home, do some shopping, avail yourselves of any of the many amenities we offer. Only respect the peace and order of this place while you’re here…if you know what’s good for you. We have a great deal that should be of interests to a wise adventuring party. Xsythri will be only too happy to escort you around!”
The hethelax snorted so hard they could clearly hear it across the room.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Ruda muttered, folding her arms. “At some point in our oh-so-dangerous dungeon crawl are we maybe going to get to fucking fight something?”