6 – 16

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The portal from Level 2 was almost anticlimactically easy to traverse; for all intents and purposes, it opened a simple door between the metal arch in the demon village and the entrance at the base of the stairs to Level 6. The passage was silent and completely without flashy effects, unlike the Descent itself. Their destination slowed the students down somewhat as they had to again navigate the invisible maze, but their trip this time was a much faster one. Fross had evidently memorized the route, and helpfully marked it for them by blocking the wrong paths with ankle-high walls of ice.

They straggled to a stop at the base of the stairs on the level below, warily craning their necks to peer at the inert chess pieces.

“Yeah, I can see them now,” said Toby, pointing. “Bands up near the top, see?”

Though both sets appeared to be made of plain granite, the pieces on one side had accents of hammered copper, those on the other bedecked with cast iron. That wasn’t the end of their coloration, however; as Toby indicated, every piece had a colored ring near the top of its body, just below the symbolic “heads” that identified each piece’s role.

“Conveniently color-coded,” Teal mused. “Blue, green, gold and red, just like dragons. I feel a little dense for not spotting that before.”

“I’m certain we would have figured it out if we’d stopped and tried to,” Trissiny said firmly. “It really was a convenient place to call a halt. All right, then… Gabriel, you ready?”

“And waiting!” he said, producing one of the glyphed sheets of parchment from the folder he carried and holding it out.

“Good,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fross? You’re up.”

“On it!” the pixie chirped, swooping down and grabbing the sheet from his hand. She fluttered out into Level 7 proper; her classmates stilled momentarily in apprehension, but the chess pieces did not react.

“Mm, looks like they respond to feet on the floor,” Ruda mused. “Might be a way we can use that.”

“We have a plan,” said Trissiny. “It’s something to keep in mind in case it doesn’t work, though.”

They tensed again as Fross fluttered carefully to the ground near the front row of the “white” pieces and released the glyphed paper onto the square of one of the pawns. It drifted slightly in the draft of her tiny wings, but settled to the floor, brushing almost against the base of the chess piece.

Again, they did not react. Fross shot back toward the rest of the group a lot faster than she’d gone out, however.

“Okay,” Trissiny said grimly. “Here we go.”

Very carefully, she stepped down and planted one boot on the floor.

Immediately, the pieces swiveled to face her, just as they had done the day before. In the next second they were bouncing forward, the crashing of their hops echoing deafeningly in the enclosed chamber.

All, that is, except the one whose square was marked by Gabriel’s charm. It stood there, evidently inert. The pieces behind it navigated around, careful not to knock into it, which slowed down their approach.

Trissiny lifted her foot, hopping back up onto the steps, and the pieces immediately stopped. With another loud grinding noise of their stone bases against the stone floor, they swiveled about and proceeded to hop back to their starting positions. There was a brief traffic jam among the white team as a bishop found its path home blocked by pawns, but after some loud confusion they straightened themselves out, eventually bouncing back into the proper configuration half a minute after the black team had settled in.

“Whew,” said Gabriel, grinning. “I was half afraid that wouldn’t work!”

The others turned in unison to stare at him silently.

His grin faltered. “Well… It should have worked. I was reasonably sure. That’s a simple stillness charm, it’s known to be effective against basically any kind of creature or effect that isn’t specifically set up to counter it. But, y’know, it’s the Crawl. Not everything goes how it should.”

Trissiny snorted softly. “If you’re uncertain about your role in a plan, Gabriel, it’s better if we know before we have to test it in action. Just for future reference.”

“Whatever you say, General,” he snipped back.

“Just give her the glyphs,” she said, exasperated. “Fross, looks like this is all on you.”

“Leave it to me!” the pixie crowed, swooping over to collect the stack of paper charms Gabriel held up to her. She fluttered out into the chamber, the papers hovering beneath her, and began carefully laying them down in front of each chess piece.

“I wonder how groups without an enchanter solve this,” Teal murmured as Fross worked.

“Well…it’s clearly a combat puzzle,” Toby said slowly. “Did you see how they’re careful not to bash into each other? And that’s a scary sight when they’re all coming at you, but really they weren’t moving any faster than an average person walks. Clearly it’s a test of coordination and maneuverability. You have to stay mobile, lead them along into the right formations so that your various magic users can hit their corresponding colors.”

“Do we just have to hit the right piece with the right kind of magic?” Teal asked. “Or does it need to be actually on the colored band?”

“Shamlin didn’t specify, but I assume you have to strike the band,” said Trissiny, frowning as she watched Fross systematically disable the pieces. “Otherwise this would be preposterously easy.”

“Yeah,” Ruda grunted. “And with those bands well above head height…it’s pretty much preposterously fuckin’ difficult.”

“It occurs to me that we don’t actually have an offensive arcane magic user,” Trissiny remarked. “Fross is a mage, yes, but most of her tricks are just that. I’ve only ever seen her use fae magic in combat.”

“The classic Arcane Bolt is a very simple spell,” said Gabriel, his attention focused on the diagram he was carefully inking on a clipboard. “It’s also a pretty weak one, especially compared to her ice magic. There’s been no reason for her to use it so far, but I’ll be amazed if she doesn’t know it. You know how she likes to study.”

“If it’s so weak, will it work?” Ruda asked.

“We’ll test,” said Trissiny. “But if we were told correctly, you only need to hit the band with the right kind of magic to disable the piece.”

“Also, there’s the wand I just got on Level 6,” Gabriel continued. “Shoots actual arcane blasts, not simple lighting like a cheaper wand. That should qualify, too.”

“Speaking of groups not having enchanters,” Ruda went on, “I can’t help noticing that we’re once again not doing the challenge the way it’s supposed to be done. I’ve gotta wonder what delightful surprise the Crawl will have for us afterward.”

“Only one way to find out,” Trissiny murmured. “Gabe, don’t you need to attune that thing to the individual glyphs?”

“Nah,” he said, still inking. “This is set up to be keyed to their positions on the chessboard. Long as I ink in each sigil correctly—which I am, don’t worry—it’ll work.”

Fross finally came fluttering back to them, carrying several extra glyphed papers. While she had set out with an orderly stack, these were blowing about underneath her in a small cloud and had frost accumulating on their edges. “All done! Gabe, here, take these.”

He set aside his clipboard, grumbling, and began gathering up the fallen pages as Fross released them with an audible chime of relief. Apparently keeping them aloft individually was a significant test of her coordination.

“All right,” said Trissiny. “Moment of truth.”

Once again, she carefully stepped down onto the chessboard floor.

Nothing happened.

There were several grins and swiftly released breaths from the others; Ruda let out a whoop. Trissiny herself had to smile. “Excellent work, you two!”

“Happy to be of service,” Gabe said, tucking away his last page with a flourish.

“Likewise!”

She led the way toward the middle of the chamber, the others peering around uncertainly at the chess pieces as they followed. They grew more confident with each step, however, once satisfied that the monoliths were going to remain inert. The glyphed pages lying at the foot of each glowed a very faint blue that was barely distinguishable in the sourceless, omnipresent light.

“The sign for Level 8 hasn’t lit up,” Ruda commented, pointing at the opposite door.

“Well, we haven’t beaten the challenge,” Trissiny said reasonably. “Gabe, may I have that, please?”

“Now hang on,” Ruda protested as he handed over the clipboard to her. “How come you get to be in charge?”

Trissiny raised her eyebrows, then held the clipboard out to her. “You want to do this?”

“Aw, c’mon, Boots, you know me,” she replied, grinning. “I just want to bitch and complain while you do the heavy lifting. Lemme have my fun.”

Trissiny stared at her for a long moment before a smile broke through her reserve. Shaking her head, she turned back to Gabriel. “Okay, how’s this work?”

“Hold it by the board as much as you can,” he said. “The ink shouldn’t smudge, but you don’t want to accidentally trigger one, I’m assuming. All right, I’m sure I don’t have to explain the chessboard diagram to you. This side is the white team, this side is the black team, each is marked with a sigil like one of the stillness charms. Touch it with a fingertip to deactivate it, and…boom.”

“Boom,” she repeated, nodding. “All right, everybody…line up, please.”

They did so, somewhat unevenly, Ruda dramatically rolling her eyes in the process. Trissiny paced down the row once, frowning thoughtfully at them, before taking a position at the end closest to the exit. “Teal.”

“Yes?”

“I’m operating on the assumption that you don’t want or need to learn combat formations. Can we talk to Vadrieny, please?”

“Righto,” the bard said with a rueful grin, which immediately became rather menacing as it shifted into a double row of glossy fangs. Vadrieny rolled her neck from side to side, flexing her wings straight outward behind her.

“Very good,” Trissiny said, nodding. “All right, I want you to be our first individual test.”

“I’m honored,” the archdemon said dryly.

“You are suitable,” Trissiny said. “You’re in no physical danger from these things, you have the advantage of flight which will enable you to reach the glyph, and you’re strong enough to throw the thing back even if you miss. Your capabilities aren’t being evaluated, we’ve all seen them. This is a test to make sure this system is going to work the way we planned.”

“Right,” Vadrieny said, nodding.

Trissiny pointed to one of the white pawns marked near its crown with a blue band. “I’m going to release that one. Show us how it’s done.”

Without further warning, the paladin pressed her gloved thumb onto the corresponding glyph on her chart.

Instantly, with a sharp pop, the charm lying in front of the blue-marked pawn went up like a blue firecracker. In the next second, the pawn charged forward at them.

Vadrieny was on it with a single pump of her wings. She landed right on the statue’s front, digging her talons into its stone surface and clutching its head with one hand. The pawn stopped, apparently confused, and began twisting back and forth, trying to throw her off. Grinning, Vadrieny drew back her free hand and drove her claws forward directly at the blue band.

The instant they touched it, the entire thing exploded in a spray of gravel, dropping her unceremoniously to the floor. She beat her wings once more, landing gracefully amid the ruins, then turned to the others, and bowed.

Ruda cheered again; Toby and Gabriel both applauded.

“Good work,” Trissiny said in a satisfied tone. “All right, people, we have our practice session lined up. Vadrieny, back in formation, please.”

She paced up and down the row once more, studying them and ignoring the faces Ruda made, pausing when she came back to the other end. “Tobe, come here, please?”

He glanced at the others, then stepped over to her.

“Can I see that staff?” she asked, holding out her free hand.

“Sure,” he said, offering it over. Trissiny took the weapon, twirled it once, thumped its end upon the floor, peered critically at the grain of the wood and handed it back. She carefully set the clipboard on the ground to one side, then drew her sword.

“All right, I’m going to assume the monks of Omnu didn’t teach you this trick, but it’s fairly simple.” She held up the scarred old blade; as they all watched, it came slowly alight, golden radiance illuminating it from within and seeming to pool in its nicks and dents like water. Gabriel, who was already a good handful of yards away from them, edged backward further. “It’s very much like healing—you simply let the power of your god flow through you, into the weapon instead of a patient, and hold it there.”

Toby tilted his head to one side, frowning thoughtfully at her, then transferred his stare to his staff. After a moment, his frown intensified. Only a few seconds later did the staff begin to glow faintly.

“This is harder than using it on a person,” he muttered, now almost scowling at his staff.

“Wood’s not very conductive, magically speaking,” said Gabriel.

Juniper cleared her throat. “Actually…”

“Okay, I stand corrected,” he said, grinning at her. “Wood conducts fae magic very well, but not the other branches. That’s why it’s used in wands: slows down the current, gives you more control.”

“Control comes with practice,” said Trissiny. She rapped Toby’s staff sharply with the flat of her sword; he nearly lost his grip, having to scramble to keep hold of it and letting the light wink out

“Hey!” he protested.

“The really hard part is keeping the flow of power into it steady while you’re swinging it around and hitting things,” she said with a smile. “As I said, practice will help. Also, we should look into getting you a staff with some metal accents. Gabe’s right, that’ll help it hold magic. But since Omnu doesn’t grant any offensive use of his power, this is the only way you’re going to pass this trial.”

“I’m not clear on why exactly I need to pass this trial,” he said, frowning. “I’m a healer, Triss.”

“You are a martial artist,” she replied. “Your cult developed a martial art to the high standards it did for the specific purpose of being able to counter and deflect force without inflicting harm. Well, imbuing your attacks with holy power is the next step in that. The energy you use will mitigate and even counter any damage you do with that weapon against average mortals.”

“Unless they’re half-demons,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” she agreed, nodding. “Yes, Toby, if it were a perfect world, you would never be placed in a situation where you might accidentally hurt someone with the best of intentions. You want to gamble on that?” She held his eyes in silence for a moment until he shifted his gaze aside, sighing. “Remember what Professor Ezzaniel said that first day,” she went on more gently. “For there to be peace, the people who love peace have to be better at war than those who love violence.”

“Actually, I think you put it better than he did!” Fross said.

“All right, I take your point,” said Toby, lifting his head and regarding her with new determination. “I’m up next, then?”

“If you please, yes.” Trissiny picked up the clipboard again and stepped to the side, pointing at a pawn with a green band. “There’s your target. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

She released the pawn in question and he raised his staff.

Toby actually made nearly as quick work of his opponent as Vadrieny had. All it took was a swift upward jab with his faintly glowing weapon and the thing dissolved into gravel.

“Good!” Trissiny said firmly. “Very good. Your fine control is excellent. All right, Juniper! The red one there. You ready?”

Juniper took a little longer with hers, and actually forced the other students to break formation and scatter as the bouncing monolith pushed her back into their line. She pushed right back, however, growling and swinging her fists, each blow inflicting cracks and dents, and finally tipped it over by slamming her shoulder into it. From there, she simply climbed on top of the twitching pawn and drove her fist into the red band, causing it to burst underneath her.

“Brutal,” said Trissiny, “but effective. Juniper, I’ve noticed this just about every time I see you fight something: you’re all brute force and no technique.”

“So?” the dryad said somewhat petulantly, brushing gravel and dust off herself. “It works for me.”

“Thus far it has,” Trissiny agreed. “But the fact that you are so powerful may be holding you back. No matter who or what you are, no matter how strong, there is someone stronger out there, and the nature of the Circle means that there are many things considerably weaker than you which are still a threat to you. I know Professor Ezzaniel has been working with you about agility and precision.”

Juniper grimaced. “I don’t get the best marks in his class.”

“Well…keep in mind that he does things for a good reason. I’ll be glad to help you work on it, too.”

“I don’t need—”

“Let me rephrase that,” Trissiny said sharply. “While you’re part of this group, all of our safety depends on the competence of everyone else. You have a weakness in your abilities; refusing to correct it puts us all at risk. Do I need to assume that’s your intention, or will you let me help you?”

Juniper huffed and folded her arms sullenly. “I guess,” she muttered.

Trissiny sighed. “All right. Gabriel! The gold one, right there.”

Gabe, too, swiftly took his target down using only his wand—the new one he’d been awarded from the maze level. It took him more than one shot, but all three of his hit the pawn in the right general area on its head, the third causing it to collapse. He grinned at the applause of the others, bowing.

Shaeine dispatched her foe by stalling its forward bouncing with a shield of silver light, then raised a second one horizontally above her and slammed its razor-thin edge into the green band surmounting the pawn. The whole time, she kept her expression serene and her hands folded in the wide sleeves of her robe.

Trissiny had a bit more trouble with hers, due to the shorter reach of her weapons. Both the white pawns marked with fae green had already been taken down, so she selected one of the black ones to target. In the end, she brought it down by jumping at and kicking off one of the inert pawns, landing a perfect strike on the green band of her foe to destroy it.

“Damn, but that was excessively flashy,” Ruda said with a huge grin as soon as the cheering died down.

“Not something I’d do in most situations,” Trissiny agreed, smiling. “These things really are extraordinarily simple, though. They don’t actually attack in any meaningful way. All right, Ruda! Fross!”

“What?” the pixie asked, swooping overhead in confusion. “Both of us?”

“I’ve been giving this some thought,” said Trissiny, sheathing her blade. “I want you two to start operating as a unit when we’re in hostile situations.”

“Think I need my hand held?” Ruda asked with sudden, deadly calm.

“Don’t do that,” Trissiny shot back. “You know very well I respect your capabilities; we all do. We’ve seen you fight, and most of this group owes their lives to your ingenuity.”

“There was also that time she stabbed Gabriel,” Juniper said helpfully.

“Fucking,” said Gabe, holding up one finger. “She fucking stabbed me. Let’s be precise about this.”

Trissiny cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway. Ruda, you are devastating in hand-to-hand combat and improving all the time. That sword of yours is useful to counter magic. However, the fact is that you’re the only member of this group without some kind of magical defense; you’ll be the most prone to injury.”

“Fuck that,” Ruda snorted. “I get hurt less than Gabe. And yes, Gabriel, I know what you’re about to say. Even disregarding that one time it was me doing it, how often have you gotten injured?”

“The fact that you don’t get hurt much is another reason nobody doubts your fighting skill,” Trissiny said firmly. “The truth is still what it is, however. There is absolutely no shame in not being the strongest. You saw the difficulty I had taking down my pawn just now? That doesn’t mean I’m any less skilled, it means I was facing a specific situation in which my skill set left me with a handicap. I have to be frank, Ruda, any of us could kill you in a fight if we had to. Except probably Toby.”

“Hey!” he protested.

“She’s about as good as you are in combat and that sword would pierce your shields,” Trissiny said to him. “Which, again, doesn’t reflect poorly on you. It’s just that—”

“All right, all right!” Ruda exclaimed. “Point made, you can quit fuckin’ harping on it already!”

Trissiny nodded to her, then turned to the pixie. “And Fross… You are an extremely effective combatant on your own. However, our purpose here is in learning to fight as a group, and in that area, you cause some problems.”

“I do?” Fross asked in a small voice. “…sorry.”

“This isn’t recrimination,” Trissiny said kindly. “Not of anyone; we’re finding areas where we need to improve and addressing them. In your case, the issue is that people fighting as a unit need to know one another’s positions, capabilities and tendencies very well in order to rely on them without having to think or question. That is the essence of fighting together. Your very mobility undercuts that, Fross. On the boar level, the ice you laid down to trip them was as much of a hazard to us as to the enemy. We never knew where it would appear or where to safely step; having to watch our feet that carefully while fighting was a serious handicap. Anchoring you to Ruda will help the group to anticipate where you are and what you’ll be doing.”

“It will also help an enemy to predict those same variables,” Shaeine said quietly.

“That’s true,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “In my opinion, for the purpose of this discussion, the advantages outnumber the drawbacks. If anyone disagrees, though, I’m quite open to discussion.”

“Um,” said Fross, “before we get to any discussion, can you just tell us what you had in mind?”

“Of course. If you stay near Ruda and make it your priority to assist her, you both gain several advantages. Ruda is an excellent tactician; if you get in the habit of following her directives, you’ll be a lot more effective in general against an enemy, even aside from being a more reliable member of the group. Working together, you two gain the ability to fight both in close quarters and at long range, which is something none of the rest of us alone can match. Shaeine’s shields have a limited offensive role and Gabriel just isn’t very good at hand-to-hand. And, of course, you have magical defenses that can help keep her safe when we face things that don’t have the courtesy to attack using mundane methods. Is that clear to everyone?”

“For the record,” said Gabriel, “I’m getting better at fighting.”

“Yes, you are,” Trissiny agreed with a smile and a nod, “but you’re still the least effective fighter in the group without your wands. Gabe, don’t pout. Remember what I said? No one is throwing stones, here. We can all stand to learn.”

“Yeah?” Ruda folded her arms. “And what is it you’re gonna learn, since we’re all on allegedly equal footing here?”

“Nothing I’m likely to be able to pick up down here,” Trissiny replied, frowning, “though I have been giving that serious thought. For one thing… I think Toby and I both need to work on our abilities with divine shields. If three of us could do what Shaeine does, the group’s options increase greatly. Even assuming we won’t get as good at it as she is, which I think is a safe assumption. Shaeine has clearly put a great deal of work and practice into her shielding skills.”

“That is true,” the drow said. “And I would be glad to teach you what I know. To the best of my knowledge, the different sources of our power should not make a great difference; the type of energy is the same, and my techniques ought to work for you. It does take a considerable investment of effort, however. I would not expect either of you to master remote shielding during this exercise.”

Trissiny nodded to her. “In addition, I’m realizing that my training hasn’t made the best use of my own capabilities. I was always trained as a human, but the truth is, I’m half elf. I have more innate agility than strength, and I’m using a combat style which has opposite priorities. That’s a weakness. I also don’t make very effective use of my magic; elves can channel more energy safely, which is a potential asset I’ve left almost completely undeveloped. I think if you’ll all consider these questions, each of you will find something you could be doing to make yourselves more effective in a fight—even if you don’t care to do actual fighting. Having dedicated healers and defenders is a great asset to the group.”

She let the silence hang for a long moment, watching their expressions; though Fross was of course unreadable, they all appeared to be considering her words.

“There’s another thing,” Trissiny went on more quietly. “All of us who use magic of any kind need to learn the Circle of Interaction techniques that enable us to draw power from whichever school is vulnerable to our own. We have fairies, demons, light-wielders and a mage. Many of us are relatively untrained, magically speaking, but most happen to have considerable reservoirs of pure energy. Being able to donate it, so to speak, to another member of the group at need is simply a more effective use of our resources. Don’t you agree?”

At that, everyone but Shaeine frowned, glancing uncertainly around at each other, but no one offered any objection.

“Anyway,” Trissiny went on more briskly. “Fross, Ruda, you’re up. White pawn, red band, there on the end.”

She had been somewhat nervous about this prospect, and had considered whispering a warning which Shaeine would certainly have been able to hear. In the end, though, Trissiny followed her instinct, which told her that the best thing she could do was have faith in her classmates. Besides, if Ruda and Fross got in a really desperate situation, Shaeine or Toby would probably intercede unprompted.

They took the longest to bring down their target, and forced the others to move out of the way several times, but after several false starts Ruda and Fross clicked together. The pixie arrested the pawn’s advance with a waist-high ice block, peppering it with little bursts of sleet to keep it focused on her, while Ruda positioned herself behind it. A quick burst of levitation from the mage brought her up high enough to stab its vulnerable band. Though the rapier wasn’t aligned with any particular school of magic, its energy-blocking qualities appeared to do the trick; one good thrust and the pawn collapsed in a wash of gravel and dust.

“And there we are,” Trissiny said approvingly when the approbations had died down. “Everybody knows how to handle themselves. Now for the hard part.”

Gabriel groaned. “I hate the hard part.”

“Gabe, do you even know what the hard part is?”

“I don’t need to know! It’s the hard part! That’s always the worst part!”

Trissiny rolled her eyes. “Juniper, Vadrieny, come stand by me, please.”

They did so, and she turned to face the others. “All right. With time and exposure, we will work up various formations, strategies and tactics for a variety of situations. For now, though, we don’t really have the time, nor can we spare the energy, so I’m going to lay out a basic formation for us. To begin with, this is our front line. Paladin, dryad, archdemon. We’re relatively hard hitters, but more to the point, all three of us are resilient. Toby, Shaeine, behind us, please.”

She waited till they were in position before continuing. “You two are support. Shields and healing. Toby, you’re going to be a little under-utilized for the time being, as your healing would actually be harmful to a lot of the group.”

“All the more reason for me to work on those shields,” he said with a grin.

“Just so,” she agreed, nodding approvingly. “Ruda and Fross, left flank. Gabriel, right. You guys are our long-ranged attackers, with the added factor that Ruda is also extremely effective at short range. I don’t want you to get too married to the idea of being on the left or right; until Gabe’s melee skills are significantly improved, he needs to focus exclusively on shooting, while Ruda and Fross stay mobile and head in where they can do damage up close. Fross, that goes double for you; your ice abilities are excellent crowd control. You two are our battlefield superiority. Your job is to keep the enemy where we need them, and take them down.”

“Fuck yes,” Ruda said, grinning.

“That means this isn’t going to be a tight formation,” Trissiny continued, turning and stepping back out of the designated front line to keep everyone in her field of view. “Shaeine and Toby need to be able to see what’s going on; Ruda and Gabe need space to move so they can reposition themselves as needed. The three of us in front need to be able to rotate; the person taking point will depend on what we’re facing. This is going to be every bit as steep a learning curve for me as the rest of you, guys; an adventuring party’s tactics are nothing like a Legion phalanx. So we’re going to start slow, start careful, and learn as we go. The perfect place to begin is here, with these chessmen. These guys are practice. All right, form up, facing the white ranks! I’m going to activate the remaining pawns.”

“All of them?” Juniper demanded, wide-eyed.

“We can do this,” Trissiny said, pouring conviction into her voice. “We have the capability; we only have to get a handle on it. I believe in every one of you, and the potential of what we can be together. Now form up and get ready.”

At that moment, there came a sharp musical jangle and flash of light from across the room. The sign indicating the path to Level 8 lit up, and a treasure chest popped into being below it.

“Well,” said Gabe after the group had stared wordlessly at this for a couple of seconds, “I guess someone approves of your coaching, Triss.”

“Ignore that,” Trissiny said grimly. “Eyes on the enemy, people.”

She gave them a moment to get positioned and focused.

“Now!”

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33 thoughts on “6 – 16

  1. If you support the “I” in “team,” vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    Chapter’s up good and early tonight, and would have been earlier still but for the heat. It is surprisingly difficult to work creatively while physically miserable. I’m afraid I wasn’t terribly productive until late afternoon when we got a nice breeze.

    Anyhow! I am very happy with this chapter. I feel we’re getting into the real substance of Book 6; the preamble was necessary to set the stage, but now the true action can start ratcheting up, both in the Crawl and in Tiraas.

    Thanks for reading, everybody. See you Wednesday!

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  2. By the way, thank you very much for putting up chapters earlier.

    Also, YAY, WE’RE IN 6TH PLACE!

    The Crawl’s behavior is quite interesting. Just how did Tellwyrn impart understanding of humanoid coaching to an alien intelligence like a genius loci? Well, she also personally made a magical AI running a golem, so… Tellwyrn for Patron Deity of Arcane Magic (intelligence and all that)! ;D

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  3. It also could be that it simply approves of the fact they aren’t entirely bullshitting their way through it. They made preparations, they got set up, and then they pushed themselves- even if it wasn’t everything at once. They are trying to learn, and I get the feeling the crawl rewards those who try to push themselves.

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  4. Time for a training montage!😉

    I like how they are slowly shaping up into a real team. Trissiny seems to have a good handle on the combat side of things and I am confident they’ll all develop additional skills that are useful, too. Gabriel’s enchanting comes to mind. It helped a lot already and he’s not even very good at it. Yet.

    Teal is still a bard and Vadrieny uses voice magic. Isn’t that almost the perfect setup for a bard who can influence friend and foe? Vadrieny can sing while she fights.

    I see Ruda as some kind of swashbuckler. Lots of fast melee attacks, tumbling, dirty fighting… but basically it’s a thief class. Maybe she could learn to pick locks and disarm traps?

    Juniper has access to a large amount of fae magic. If she learned to actually use it, then she wouldn’t be limited to melee attacks, she could use offensive magic. Similiar to a druid or witch perhaps. Especially against demons.

    Toby can’t contribute all that much. He’s lacking a good weapon, armor and practically all offense. Sure, he’s the healer of the group but that’s reactive. He only has a job when things go wrong and then he can’t heal all of them. Learning Shaeine’s offensive shield skills is a start but I wonder if that’s enough. It’s too bad that there are no buffs, only potions. I think there are blessings but I don’t think they make much of a difference in combat. If the potions come in spell form, then that’s something he could study. I think he’d profit from getting some enchanted equipment the most, maybe a weapon that stuns targets or something like that.

    Shaeine is trained in combat, using twin sabers. As she has just shown, she doesn’t need her hands for her shields, so she’d be free to join the melee. I’d give her some heavily enchanted light armor first though. She can also heal. Seems to be a wellrounded character so far and the one who has to improve the least.

    Fross needs to power up. She’s a potential arch mage and that is nothing to sneeze at. Probably takes a couple of centuries though. And she can’t really equip any magic items. If storing them in her aura would work… oh my. There is no limit on that. I’d abuse the hell out of that. ^^

    Trissiny is doing fine so far. Not sure what she could learn that Toby couldn’t or she didn’t mention already.
    🙂

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      1. Think bigger. She needs to go usurp her mother-creator. A self-absorbed idiot god isn’t a good thing in the long run.

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  5. Juniper is,once more, really annoying me : “it works for me”. Clearly not, each time she was against an ennemy who really could fight back, she really didn’t do that well : one time against the adventurers and even the centaur warlock stopped her by using flames forcing the group to flee until she dropped. In Sarrasio she didn’t act because she was at risk of being “killed”.
    Her only true victory are against animals and a few non magic users centaurs. She’s very strong against “trash mobs”, but I’m expecting a bit more from a half goddess.

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    1. It seemed in character for her to me. She’s sort of a child, you know? And her victory was never in doubt in any of her combats.

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  6. Typo(?):
    ““Whatever you say, General,” he snipped back.” – The italicization seems odd; I’m not sure what emphasis on “say” is supposed to convey. Did you mean to italicize “General”?

    Thoughts:
    (Sound kind of harsh, on rereading, but I can’t think how to rephrase it. I’d like to make it clear that I’m going for constructive criticism here and am still enjoying the story a lot overall – my recent absence from the comments section has been for unrelated reasons.)

    I must admit that the Crawl stuff hasn’t really grabbed me so far. I get that we’re going for character development over plot, but I’d really like to have some investment in what the characters are doing so watching them learn to overcome obstacles is more satsifying. We haven’t really been given a reason to care about their success in this assigment (in fact, a lot of the characters don’t care about grades either), so the whole thing boils down to a series of disconnected fight scenes and puzzles with very little at stake (especially considering many characters’ invulnerability and access to healing magic).
    This level was particularly bad, because the characters were presented with a puzzle wherein a critical clue (the dragon-like color-coding) was not revealed to us, the reader, until after they’d already been handed the solution by a third party. Presenting a puzzle the protagonists can’t solve is fine; presenting a puzzle a sufficiently clever reader can’t solve is generally not advised; presenting a puzzle a sufficiently clever reader can’t solve because the text didn’t mention a clue that would have been obvious to anyone actually in the room is downright unfair, and makes me less invested in the challenges of the Crawl because there’s no guarantee the solutions will be obvious from the problem description.

    Apropos of dragon coloration, I realised recently that while Word of God is that Arcane and Fae magic represent Law and Chaos respectively, the personalities of the blue and green dragons we’ve actually met seem to be the opposite: Khadizroth has a personal code of honor that he’s only breaking because the survival of his species is at stake, and Zanzayed seems to be basically a fun-loving free agent who screws with people for the lulz. Ampophrenon the Gold, on the other hand, seems Lawful Good as all get-out, and if Zanzayed’s comment about “the furthest extremes of philosophies” is accurate, then the as-yet-unseen Red dragon will be the opposite, also fitting his color.

    I have some downtime at the moment and will try to do some more work on the TVTropes page, including cross-wicking. I’ll take a leaf out of MaddiroseX’s book here and ask everyone else to definitely not edit the TVTropes page, on pain of death.

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    1. With regard to the immediacy of this story arc, I can’t say I disagree, at least so far. It feels a little draggy to me too; as I said above, this chapter is the part where, to me, the actual stakes in term of plot and character development begin to rise. The second half of Book 6 is going to be the more intense, personal and relevant. This is another case where, if I were writing this all out as a conventional novel rather than posting it serially, I’d do a good bit of editing before publishing. The pacing is just…off. I think it’ll all make a lot more sense when it’s done, though.

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      1. That was in one of my author comments, not in the story. I don’t recall where either, but that was my original design. As the story has grown and evolved, more and more details like that take on their own life and weight and have less resemblance to whatever original inspiration I drew them from.

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    2. If you consider that Triss does hold the rank of general. It can be read as him emphasizing “say” and throwing her title on the end to drive the point home.

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    3. They didn’t pass the level because of the hint they got — which just explained the collar / magic types trick, I presume. They passed the level because somebody just learned a good lesson, or made unexpected, creative use of the room.

      My first thought was that the the Mind was offering them a booby prize, but I like the idea of 1 treasure per 1 epiphany, of roughly equal magnitude.

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      1. I noticed this too. When I click on Previous, I got to 6-15, but when I click on 6-15’s Previous, I go back to 6-16. When I click on 6-15’s Next, I also go to 6-16.

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      2. Grr… Should be fixed now, thanks for pointing it out.

        This is the new WordPress bugaboo. It seems to have given up trying to mess up my vote link (knock on wood), but for the last couple of weeks it’s been a fight every update to put in those chapter links. Never had a problem before, but WordPress has suddenly decided it does NOT want me putting two different links on the same line. Apparently I didn’t catch it that time. Will be more watchful in the future.

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  7. I’m a little late with my normal commentary.

    There are no apparent typos or grammar improvements.

    Little bit of a slow chapter, but that’s character development for you.

    I am both with Cyrid and not with him on his “critical clue” bit. I agree with his overall point. But, given the short amount of time the characters actually spent looking at the chess board before turning back last time, they might have not noticed a small detail that was literally above their heads.

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