The long gallery was lined by murals of rough stone in muted primary colors, displaying slightly abstract patterns that looked like simple geometric decorations one moment and aquatic depictions the next, depending on where one focused. Shapes resolved themselves into fish, clams, strands of seaweed and even waves and whirlpools, without coming together in a way that portrayed any discernible scene. It was all further muddled by the streamers of water that flowed down the walls at irregular intervals, and the coatings of moss and lichen that filled most of the grooves in the stonework, spreading out to partially obscure the murals in places.
Though the walls were square-cut, both floor and ceiling were uneven and appeared natural. The craggy roof of the gallery was set with softly glowing crystals that filled the whole space with a pale, scintillating light. Its floor was partially underwater. There was a path of sorts, relatively flat banks of stone standing out from the pool below. Water laughed and gurgled on all sides, shimmering patterns of light reflecting from it all over the walls, but there was something ominous in the depths of it. Below the stepping stones was only blackness, with no hint at how deep it ran, or what currents might lie beneath. The stones, too, were wet with spray and slick with lichen, adding to the unnerving effect of the watery floor.
While the entrance of the gallery was a simple crack in the cave wall, its exit at the far end was more grand. A double staircase arced around a towering statue of a naga woman wearing a spined crown, leading to a platform above. The arched doorway beyond was huge enough to be easily visible even from the lower level and the far end of the chamber; it was blocked by vertical bars, offering only a glimpse of whatever lay beyond. The statue of the Naga Queen was the most impressive, but far from the only one of its kind. Her sinuously lithe frame and regal features marched along the walls, interrupting the murals and in a couple of cases being constantly washed by falls of water from above.
“Does this look a little familiar to anyone else?” Juniper asked, turning slowly to peer around.
“It’s really, really pretty,” Fross all but whispered. “Like, wow.”
“Yes,” the dryad said, smiling briefly at her. “But it’s a little like Shamlin’s grotto, isn’t it?”
“That just looked like a wet cave,” said Ruda.
“I sort of see what she means, though,” Trissiny mused, also studying the gallery. “If you take away the carvings and the murals… It’s a wet cave of the same basic type. You think there may be a connection?”
“That’d imply that the grotto has some relationship to this place,” Toby said, frowning.
“Shamlin didn’t mention anything like that,” said Gabriel. “Though now that I think of it, we went there and found out about this… And not only did he have exact directions to this place, it wasn’t even all that far. Think there’s more going on here than he told us?”
Ruda snorted. “Hell, at this point I’m assuming nobody we talk to is telling us the straight truth about anything. Everybody keep on your toes.”
“Agreed,” Trissiny said solemnly. “I see no motive for Shamlin to entrap us, but…”
“But if we understood everyone’s motives, our trip would have gone very differently,” Gabriel said, grinning.
“Teal?” Shaeine asked quietly. The bard was staring intently at one section of wall, wearing a frown of concentration unlike the more casual observations of her classmates. At the priestess’s question, everyone turned to look at her.
“I think,” Teal said quietly, trailing off.
“Yes?” Ruda prompted after nearly a minute passed.
Teal shook herself slightly. “Do you see a pattern to these? It’s…tugging at me, somehow.”
“An enchantment?” Trissiny asked worriedly, turning to Gabriel, who shrugged.
“No,” said Teal with a hint of irritation. “A pattern. I swear there’s some kind of meaning to this, but I just can’t put my finger on oh gods it’s music!”
Shaeine actually had to steady her; Teal pointed eagerly at the wall, seeming not to notice that she had nearly slipped into the water in her excitement.
“Look! See, the clams and fish and things are notes! They’re set on horizontal wave patterns that threw me off because they curve up and down, and they break off and continue in chunks… But it’s five parallel bars, and the… Let’s see, the seashell would correspond to…” She meandered off into muttering, leaning forward to peer at the walls.
“Please be careful,” Shaeine cautioned, still holding onto her. “If you slip we are both likely to fall.”
“Here’s a question for the bard,” said Gabriel. “Are you familiar with the term ‘confirmation bias?’”
Teal made a swatting motion at him with one hand, not turning around.
“Ruda?” Trissiny asked. “Do you see music in that?”
“Not as such,” Ruda said, turning slowly to peer around at the walls. “But now that she points it out… I could see it being what she says. I mean… Yeah, see? The five bars, and the way the fish and clams and shit repeat along them. Look how the seaweed breaks up the groups of them. Like measures, see?”
“I don’t even know what that means,” said Gabriel. “Is musical notation really universal? Seems odd that cave-dwelling naga would use the same script as everyone else.”
“There are different systems of notation, but the Crawl doesn’t exactly exist without context,” said Fross. “I mean, adventurers from above were a heavy presence down here for thousands of years even before Professor Tellwyrn started exerting her influence. It doesn’t seem so unbelievable to me.”
“Do you think this is important, Teal?” Toby asked quietly.
Teal apparently ignored him, intent upon the walls. She was now humming broken snatches of music to herself.
“Shamlin didn’t say anything about it,” Trissiny said slowly, frowning into the distance. “But he did say that the snake flute was the key to this. That lends credence to the idea that music is significant here. Fross, can you keep an eye on Teal, please? Help Shaeine if she slips.”
“You got it!”
“And the rest of us?” Toby asked.
“I think it wouldn’t hurt to explore the chamber a little bit,” Trissiny replied. “I’d caution everybody to stay in sight, but…there doesn’t seem to be any place in here that’s out of view. Just be careful where you step, please.”
“You’re telling us?” Ruda cackled. “Boots, nobody else here is dressed in metal. We can probably swim; you’ll go down like a rock.”
“Thanks,” Trissiny said dryly, moving off toward the stairs and placing each footstep with extreme care.
Despite the urgency of their situation, the long antechamber was actually quite beautiful. The soft, shimmering light and constant sound of flowing water was soothing. Even Teal’s intermittent humming didn’t disturb the effect, and in fact added to it. There wasn’t much to see, though. The students knelt (very carefully) to investigate the water below, which remained cool, flowing, and impenetrably dark. After examining the naga statues and apparently musical murals a bit more, they all gravitated naturally to the stairs and the dais above. That, at least, had a smooth, artificial floor, which had the further advantage of not being wet. Everyone breathed a little easier with their feet solidly upon it.
The arch was a nearly perfect circle, flat only at the bottom where the level of the floor ran across it. Vertical bars blocked their way, fitting neatly into holes in the top and bottom of the archway. Despite the fact that this was clearly meant to be a door, there seemed to be no mechanism by which they could move. They were very solid to the touch, albeit rather odd. Slightly uneven, they were a dull gold in color, and looked like animal chitin but felt like metal. Rang like metal, too, which Ruda experimentally tapped on them with her rapier. Neither that nor anything else they tried brought a response.
“Well, I guess you have to stand here,” said Gabriel, shifting his feet in the circle of red stone set into the floor in front of the door. “And do…what?”
“Play the song with the snake flute, I bet,” said Juniper, glancing past the Naga Queen’s stone shoulder to her remaining classmates below. Fross had apparently been put to work illuminating the murals; Teal was working her way slowly up the chamber toward them, humming and studying as she went. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
“That has to be the shrine, too,” said Toby. He slid his fingers absently along one of the glossy bars, peering through them.
The chamber beyond was shaped like a keyhole, with another long, narrow space terminating in a wide, circular one. There seemed to be a gap in the floor around the perimeter of the circle, though it was difficult to make out from this angle. In the center of it, on a dais, stood a large statue of the Naga Queen, her hands folded just in front of her navel. Something glittered between them, obscured by distance.
“Can anyone make out what that is?” Trissiny asked.
“It’s a waystone,” Juniper reported. “Or… I’m pretty sure it is. It’s the same shape as the other two we’ve seen and has that swirly symbol. It’s etched in gold, though, and the stone’s kind of dark gray.”
“Hmm,” Gabriel mused, stepping off the circle and wandering closer to squint into the shrine. The hall leading to it was dark, but the statue was brightly lit from above, the source of the light currently hidden from them. “That fits. Shamlin said the flute was the key to the…uh, key to skipping to Level 100.”
“Which means our bard is the key to the key to the key,” said Ruda, grinning. “And speaking of!”
Teal was drawing the sinuous flute from within her coat as she ascended the stairs, Shaeine’s hand tucked into her arm. “Yep,” she said. “I’ve got it down. Ready to give it a go?”
“Are you certain you have it?” Trissiny asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, Teal, but I remember the last musical puzzle we met. If the murals were confusing enough that you didn’t even recognize it at first…”
“It’s like…a code,” Teal said, shaking her head. “Not a very hard one, even. Once I matched up the symbols I could read it as easily as any piece of sheet music. Trust me, I made certain. Where I messed up in the Descent was in not planning far enough ahead; I made sure to look over the whole thing down there. It’s the same melody, it just repeats along the walls.”
“Guess we’re ready, then,” said Gabriel, backing away from the circle. “Not like there’s any other apparent solution.”
“Okay,” said Trissiny, drawing her sword as Teal approached. “Everyone, be on the alert for a trap; I still don’t quite trust anything about this. Shaeine, you’re on shields; Fross, stand by to levitate us if the floor falls.”
“You’re gettin’ paranoid, Boots,” Ruda observed.
“Yes, well, after we’ve been teleported halfway down the Crawl and then sent on a circuitous mockingjay hunt, I think a little paranoia is called for.”
Juniper frowned. “What’s a mockingjay?”
“Ain’t no such animal,” Gabe said with a grin. “That’s the point. See, you take somebody out in the woods and—”
Shaeine cleared her throat pointedly.
“And then Gabe shuts up,” he finished weakly.
“Every story should end that way,” said Ruda.
Teal stepped into the circle, raised the snake flute to her lips and as they all looked on tensely, began to play.
The melody was slow, soft and haunting. Something about it was intangibly exotic; of them, only Teal probably had the vocabulary to describe what it was about the tune that tickled at the mind that way, but its progression wasn’t what they were used to. It seemed unable to decide whether it was a major or minor key, yet everything flowed together and resonated beautifully. The snake flute had a sharp, reedy sound very unlike any flute any of them had ever heard, more reminiscent of an oboe.
Teal played through the tune once, then after a barely perceptible pause, went into it a second time. It wasn’t a long piece of music, but after two repetitions, they were starting to grow increasingly nervous. Nothing seemed to have happened; the bars still blocked their way forward, but at least no traps had sprung, either.
Coming to the end of her second play-through, Teal stopped, frowning at the bars. Gabriel opened his mouth to say something, then closed it when she lifted the flute back to her lips and took a breath.
In that moment, the bars abruptly slid upward with a soft rasp, vanishing into their holes along the upper curve of the doorway.
“Nice work!” Ruda crowed, slapping Teal on the shoulder.
“Yes indeed,” Trissiny agreed with a smile.
“That’ll teach people to say bards are useless!” Fross chimed.
Everyone turned to stare at her. After a moment, she dropped about a foot downward, her glow dimming slightly. “What? What’d I say?”
“Stay sharp, everyone, we haven’t arrived yet,” said Trissiny, turning and stepping into the hallway toward the shrine.
“Was that rude of me?” Fross asked sotto voce as they proceeded after her.
“It’s okay, Fross,” Teal assured her, grinning. “They say a lot of the same things about bards that they do about pixies. We’re all in this together.”
The circular shrine proved to be much deeper and taller than the rest of the small complex. The island on which the Naga Queen’s statue stood rose out of a deep pit, the entire periphery of the chamber plunging downward into dimness. There was a bridge to it from the hall approaching, barely two feet wide and without rails. As they neared, they could indeed see the stone, exactly as Juniper had described it. The Queen held her hands a foot or so apart; the waystone hovered between them in midair, rotating slowly in silence.
Teal crept to the edge and leaned forward, peering over. “More mushrooms. This place is just…wait a second. Are those…?”
Gabriel joined her, looking down. “Holy shit, I don’t believe it. They are!”
“They are what?” Trissiny demanded, craning her neck. “They just look like mushrooms to me. A little sparkly, but…oh, you can’t be serious.”
“What is it?” Juniper asked from behind them, not having pushed her way forward to join the group.
Ruda had, and now stepped back, grinning broadly. “That, Juno, is a big circular pit entirely full of absolutely enormous glittershrooms.”
“Gods above,” Gabriel whispered. “Look at the size of them. Look at the quantity! The amount of gold we’re staring at—”
“No,” Trissiny said firmly.
“Well, obviously, I know we’re not going to harvest them. Let me just appreciate it for a moment!”
“Wow,” Team murmured, shaking her head. “I didn’t know they grew that big.”
“Actually they don’t really have an upper limit on growth,” Juniper commented. “Glittershrooms are a superfungus. They could get tree-sized or bigger, if they had a sufficiently dark, damp space with enough room. You don’t generally see that because somebody usually eats them long before they grow that big.”
Ruda laughed loudly.
“More to the point,” Juniper went on, “this is a little more subtle than we’re used to, but it’s pretty obviously a trap, guys. Glittershrooms release airborne spores that have the same effects as eating the caps or stalks.”
“They do?” Gabriel asked, turning to face her and stepping carefully away from the ledge. “I didn’t know that. Seems like someone would’ve found a way to use that.”
“Well, in theory, but for practical reasons the spores don’t make a good drug. They’re about as potent as the flesh of the fungus itself, but they’re tiny. Also, they only go airborne when the mushrooms get about that big, which, like I said, doesn’t often happen. Glittershrooms have been used as an intoxicant for so long that most modern varieties have a stunted ability to reproduce; they’re used to people cultivating them. I think we’re looking at an older, primal species, here.”
“How does that make it a trap?” Toby asked.
“Well, because that’s a big pit full of them,” Juniper explained. “If somebody fell into that, the impact would make them all drop spores, and whoever was down there would be too stoned to move before they could think about standing up.”
They regarded the ledge and narrow footbridge in silence for a moment.
“Well,” said Ruda, “the obvious answer to that is not to fall in. Which makes it too easy.”
Trissiny nodded, her expression grim. “And the prize is just sitting there. Odds are if you try to get the waystone, something knocks you into the pit. All right.” She turned to face the others. “Options? Ideas?”
“Frost!” said Juniper.
The pixie darted in front of her. “Yes?”
“Oh! Not you, I said ‘frost,’ not… Well, actually, you would need to do the… I mean, I didn’t mean I don’t want to talk to you! Or that you’re just—”
“June.” Toby placed a hand on her shoulder, grinning. “Start from the beginning?”
“Right,” the dryad said, somewhat abashed. “If we ice over the shrooms, that’ll stop them from releasing spores. A good frost will shut down basically anything in the plant or fungus kingdoms.”
“Oh! I can do that!” Fross chimed, bobbing about excitedly. “Just give me a second, I’ll have the whole thing frozen in a jiffy!”
“Careful,” Trissiny urged her as the pixie darted out over the pit.
“It’s okay,” she chimed, “I’ll just lay out some whoof!”
A jet of blue-tinged mist spurted up from below, catching Fross and blowing her roughly backward, straight into Teal’s face. The pixie bounced off her with a puff of glittery blue fog and drifted away, dust still shaking off her wings. A musty smell started to waft through the air.
“What the heck was that?” Fross demanded, vibrating rapidly and shaking off more dust.
“I dunno, but it was…kinda nice,” Teal said, grinning emptily. As they stared, she swayed slightly on her feet.
“Teal?” Shaeine asked sharply.
“Heeeey, love,” the bard drawled, leaning toward her…and then overbalancing. Shaeine barely caught her, staggering under her weight. Teal just continued grinning and twined her arms around the drow’s neck. “Why don’ we lie down for a bit?”
“Okay, this would be hilarious under other circumstances,” Ruda said. “Um, can anyone…fix her?”
“Divine healing doesn’t do anything for intoxication,” Toby said, frowning. “And by the way, let’s everybody step back away from that ledge?”
“Y’all should just relax,” Teal burbled into Shaeine’s neck. “Errybody so tense…”
“I can sort her out,” said Juniper, stepping forward and gently but firmly pulling the bard back upright. She paused then, holding Teal up by the shoulders while her head lolled vacantly about, and grimaced. “Um… I, uh, only know one way to do this, Shaeine. Sorry, but…”
“Please just remedy her,” the drow said, actual worry working into her voice.
Juniper sighed, pulled Teal forward and kissed her firmly on the lips.
This went on for several long moments.
“Uh,” Gabriel said awkwardly.
Suddenly Teal jerked backward, her eyes widening. Juniper released her, stepping back, as the bard scrubbed a hand across her mouth.
“Oh, gods,” Teal whimpered, her panicked eyes finding Shaeine. “Oh, my…I’m so sorry, I don’t—”
The drow interrupted her by stepping forward and wrapping her up in a hug.
“It’s all right,” she murmured. “No one’s fault.”
“It’s actually pretty interesting!” Fross said brightly. “I did some research after the Golden Sea episode. Dryads don’t actually heal, per se; it’s technically a form of attribute theft. They take harm onto themselves, which in most cases isn’t noticeable on them because dryads are crazy durable and highly resistant to mind-altering effects. That’s why it works so well on drugs and poisons!”
“Fascinating,” said Trissiny, turning to stare grimly at the mushroom pit. “Did anyone else notice how that reacted to us having a plan to deal with it?”
“Yeah,” said Juniper, nodding. “I don’t think it’s just mushrooms down there.”
“Hmm…” Gabriel abruptly sat down with his back to the wall and began taking out his enchanting paraphernalia. A moment later he had his charm book open and was busily inscribing a glyph on a sheet of paper.
“See, I’m not sure that’s it,” said Ruda. “It reacted to Fross being physically within range. Think about it: why go to the trouble of keeping something intelligent in your crazy hazy mushroom pit when you can just have them reflexively shoot spores at anything that gets too close? Seems much simpler.”
“That makes sense,” Juniper said thoughtfully. “There are predatory plants and fungi that react that way to motion. A pixie flying over them could set that off.”
“Either way,” said Trissiny, “we’re left with the problem of getting over the pit un-stoned. Assuming that theory is correct and it’s not actually responding to us personally. I wouldn’t be surprised if that thing is an extension of the Crawl’s intelligence.”
“Easy way to check,” Ruda said lightly, strolling forward.
“Wait!” Trissiny shouted as the pirate brushed past her.
“Keep your distance, now,” Ruda told her, stepping out onto the footbridge. She strode firmly and without hesitation, seemingly unbothered by the narrowness of the path.
In the next second a cloud of blue dust shot up from directly under the bridge, surrounding her.
“Phew!” Ruda coughed, waving it away from her face. “Smells like somebody’s closet’s asshole. Fleh. I don’t understand why anybody wants to eat these things when there’s a whole world of fine-tasting booze out there.”
“That’s because alcohol is a depressant!” Fross said cheerfully. “Glittershrooms induce a state of euphoric calm, with mild hallucinations at higher concentrations. Totally different kind of drug! Hey, I’m glad your anti-alcohol effect works on it, though. I should’ve thought of that.”
“It works on magic cornbread, too,” Toby said, grinning.
“And enchanted pancakes,” Ruda added. “And whatever else is going down. All right, everybody, cover me. If something nasty’s gonna happen, it’ll happen now.”
She had stepped onto the island proper, and paused to brush puffs of glittershroom spores off her coat. Her head didn’t even reach the collarbones of the statue; Ruda had to climb up onto the coils of the Naga Queen’s lower body to get to the floating waystone. Behind her, the students tensed as she reached up and placed her hand on it.
The stone came away easily and without any reaction, as if nothing at all had been holding it there. Ruda waited for a moment, glancing about for a trap, then grinned and bounced it once on her palm.
“Well! Bout time something in this damn place was simple.”
Moving much more jauntily, she hopped down from the Naga Queen’s coils to the floor, and then strolled forward onto the footbridge, grinning at them. Another cloud of blue spores shot upward to surround her, even bigger than before, driving the rest of the students quickly back from the ledge. Ruda just grinned more broadly, tucking the waystone into her coat to wave the smog away with both hands.
It rose up behind her in utter silence; it was only the shouts of her classmates that made Ruda whirl to behold the creature.
An enormous gnarled stalk, long and sinuous as a serpent’s body, uncoiled itself from the pit below. As it ascended to the height of the Naga Queen’s stone hands, the glittering, oblong mushroom cap topping it split apart, revealing a maw lined with uneven fangs of glinting blue crystal. The thing exhaled a blast of dusty-smelling spored directly at Ruda, who coughed in protest and drew her rapier.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she demanded.
The mushroom monster reared back, opening its mouth wider and clearly preparing to strike like a snake. Ruda edged back as rapidly as she dared toward the relative safety of the hall, keeping her sword up and eyes on the monster.
A blast of white light ripped past her shoulder, piercing the thing’s head.
It let out a shrill squeal, followed by another as a second shot cleaved off the tip of its lower jaw. Gabriel strode forward into the encroaching cloud of spored, holding a glyphed sheet of paper over his mouth and nose with one and and continuing to fire his wand with the other. After five shots, the badly damaged mushroom beast appeared to have had enough and lowered itself back into the pit.
Ruda took that opportunity to turn and dart out of its range.
A fine haze of glittershroom spores had started to drift down the hall, with the students retreating rapidly from it. At Ruda’s approach, Fross fluttered forward, conjuring up a blast of wind that propelled the dust right back at the shrine, and lifting most of it from Ruda and Gabriel’s hair and clothes in the process.
“Hang on, guys,” the pixie said, hovering around them. “You’re just covered in it. I need to blow you properly.”
“You wanna tell her, or shall I?” Gabriel asked, his voice muffled by the page.
“No, no,” said Ruda, grinning hugely. “Let’s see if we can get her to say it again in mixed company. And how about you, eh? You’ve been downright useful on this trip, Arquin! It’s almost creepy.”
“Well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “My day isn’t complete until a woman calls me creepy.”
“You might not want to open your mouths,” Fross advised, zipping around them and directing careful streams of air, driving away every deposit of glittershroom spores she could find.
They regrouped back on the dais above the water hall, well out of range of the Naga Queen’s shrine, its lurking guardian and the intoxicating mushroom spores. Ruda produced the waystone from her pocket, holding it up for the others to study as they clustered around.
“Well, it seems simple enough,” Toby said. “Assuming this works like the other waystones, we know where it’ll send us.”
“At least, according to Shamlin,” added Gabriel. “Whom we have apparently chosen to trust.”
“As suspicious as I generally am of the Crawl and everything and everyone in it,” said Trissiny, “I think Shamlin wouldn’t try to get us into trouble. Remember, he’s an initiate of the University. He knows its name.”
“What if he’s an initiate with a grudge?” Gabriel suggested.
She shook her head. “He’s a bard. Loyal alumnus or bitter dropout, or whatever else, he would have to be either insane or suicidal to pick a fight with Tellwyrn. Maybe I’m not the best judge of character, but he didn’t seem either to me.”
“I agree,” said Toby. “That, and his explanation for the rest of what’s befallen us makes sense. His directions to the shrine worked, and he did apparently help us get the snake flute.”
“Claims he did, anyway,” Ruda grunted.
Toby shook his head. “Guys, we can go around like this all day. Ultimately, we’re gonna have to take a risk, one way or the other. I think Shamlin is being straight with us. Does anyone disagree?”
After a moment in which they looked around at each other in silence, he nodded. “Then… Here we go. Level 100 and, I guess, the Naga Queen herself.”
“Wait, I thought she was just down in the bottom of the Crawl,” said Gabriel. “What makes you think she’s the boss of the Descent?”
“Who better?” Trissiny asked. “Besides, if she’s as powerful as all that, Tellwyrn wouldn’t likely leave her running around at liberty. Even if it’s not her, though, we are about to step into a serious fight. Link arms as usual to use the waystone, but be ready to pull weapons. Ruda, since you retrieved it, do you want to do the honors?”
“Wait,” said Teal, stepping backward from them. “I’m not coming.”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“Why?” Shaeine asked quietly.
Teal gently took her hand and held it. “I’ve been thinking, putting things together. You really won’t need me going into a fight. Vadrieny won’t use deadly force at my request. I believe there’s something else going on here, something that I actually can help deal with, but it’ll require me to work elsewhere while you’re occupied in the Descent.”
“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked, frowning.
“I’ve got a theory,” said Teal. “Let me tell you what I think.”