Professor Ezzaniel bore their nervousness with exactly four seconds’ worth of patience before loudly clearing his throat.
“If we could all continue through the door, that would be splendid.”
The students shuffled a little further in, with no great enthusiasm, clearing a path for their professor. He strode unhurriedly through the group, moving with his typical sinuous grace, like a stalking cat, and showing absolutely no concern for the various monsters present. The three drow turned their predatory grins on him, which he ignored; the naga paused in her route to give him a flirtatious smile and a wink, complete with a brief flaring of the spiny fins she had in place of hair. Ezzaniel nodded politely to her, continuing on his way. He got about halfway across the main open space before pausing to turn back to the freshmen with an expression of exasperation.
“Children, you cannot live on the threshold. Move forward, please.”
Trissiny started moving first, gripping her sword on the verge of whipping it out. One of the drow laughed, but most of the bar’s occupants ignored them entirely. The ogre didn’t even seem to notice their presence, absorbed in his barrel of whatever he was drinking. The students clustered together, Fross hovering directly above the little knot of them, and moved to rejoin Professor Ezzaniel; no sooner had they reached him than he turned and strode off again.
The room was divided into two levels, separated by a waist-high (on a human) ledge lined by a bannister. Tables and chairs filled the lower level, with a huge hearth on on end of the room, in which burned a cheerfully intense but small-for-the-space fire; the other had a window looking out on the depressing view of the sloping chasm outside. On the second level were bigger, better-padded chairs and a couple of low tables, though this area was clearly more suited to sitting and conversing than eating meals. Opposite the bannister overlooking the entrance was the bar, behind which the bartender grinned wolfishly, watching them approach.
Ezzaniel took the short staircase to the upper level in a single lanky bound; the students followed him much more sedately. It was less populated up here; two more goblins were canoodling together in a chair sized for someone much bigger than they, and a harpy hung upside-down in the far corner, gnawing at a bone and watching them beadily. Aside from that, there was nobody up here but the bartender.
He was gorgeous, with a long face whose full lips and lavish eyelashes made him almost effiminately pretty, while its sharp angles seemed downright rugged. His lean musculature was very much on display; if he was wearing anything, it was only below the waist. Despite his basically human countenance, though, his species was unmistakable. The eyes framed by those girlish lashes were a deep topaz in color and glittered like crystals; his black hair had distinctly blue highlights. Worse were the wings. As they approached, he snapped them once to both sides as though shaking dust from their batlike folds, then settled them back behind him so that only their joints poked up above his shoulders.
Trissiny had never been this close to an incubus before. She could feel the wrongness of him clawing at her subtler senses, the ones that came with Avei’s calling which never flared up unless something was badly wrong. A glance at Toby and the tension in his face said he felt the same. She did not take her hand away from her sword.
“Emilio, it’s been too long!” the incubus said with a companionable grin. “Is it freshman time already? They days run together down here. I must say I’m surprised to see you; doesn’t the loon in the tight pants usually do these groups?”
“Admestus is in the doghouse,” Professor Ezzaniel said with a wry twist of his mouth. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“Well, you could make it up to me.” The demon grinned more broadly, planting an elbow on the bar and leaning toward Ezzaniel; the motion made lean muscles slide under his alabaster skin in a way that was too ostentatious not to have been deliberate. “What’ll it cost me to get you into some tight pants?”
“You can’t afford me,” Ezzaniel said in a disinterested tone, then turned to the students. “This, kids, is the Grim Visage.”
“Yeah, we read the sign,” Ruda snipped.
“I have had you in class for a semester and a half, Miss Punaji; I am no longer so blissfully naïve as to assume you have observed the obvious. This inn is at the effective crossroads of the Crawl; all of the dungeon’s various branches and wings connect directly to this spot. As such, and because it is a sanctuary, it serves as the launching point for student adventures in the dungeon. You will come back here to sleep, resupply and lay such plans as you need to. This,” he nodded at the incubus, who waggled his eyebrows at them in greeting, “is Rowe, the proprietor and your landlord for the next three weeks.”
“I am so indescribably charmed I just can’t tell you,” the demon said smoothly, making an elaborately courtly bow emphasized by a flourish of one of his wings.
“Is that…safe?” Trissiny asked tightly.
“My dear,” said Rowe, straightening up and giving her an earnestly straightforward look that made her skin crawl, “you are as safe in this inn as in the arms of your own goddess.”
“That is both vastly implausible and verges on blasphemy.”
“Oh, what’s a spot of blasphemy between friends?” he said glibly. “But you raise a valid point! As your professor has said, the Grim Visage is a sanctuary. There is no fighting here, no harm of any kind. Remember that well.”
“We are glad to abide by such a rule,” said Shaeine, “so long as we are accorded the same courtesy. What assurance is there that this shall be so?”
“Ah, I’m afraid you misunderstand,” the demon said with a knowing grin. “Sanctuary is not a rule, it’s a fact. Here, I’ll demonstrate for you. Excuse me, kids.”
He snapped his wings outward again, beat them once and sailed over the bar and then over their heads (prompting most of them to duck and Fross to dodge), coming to rest nimbly on the bannister. He was wearing a pair of pink trousers of Punaji style, loose and flowing but gathered in tightly at the ankles above his bare feet. Rowe hopped nimbly down to the lower level, the students meandering over curiously to get a better view.
“Hey, Gomblust!” the demon said cheerfully, waving.
In the nearby corner, the hulking ogre slowly turned his great rocky head toward the incubus, blinking his beady little eyes. “Huh?”
“Can you do me a favor, buddy?” Rowe folded his wings again but spread his arms wide, grinning at the ogre. “Kill me!”
Gomblust blinked at him once more, then sighed heavily, emitting an ill-smelling blast of air that disturbed several hats and blew Fross off course. “Again?”
“Oh, c’mon,” Rowe wheedled, “last time, I promise. It’ll be fun!”
“This is not heroic,” the ogre grumbled, shifting to his feet. Amazingly, he could stand up without trouble, though it had looked as if his head brushed the ceiling while he was seated. “Gomblust is supposed to be punching evils, not bartenders.”
“It totally counts! I’m evil! I’m a demon!”
“You are too silly to be evil,” said the ogre. “Fine, fine.”
For such a ponderous creature, he could move fast enough when he wanted. The ogre drew back one of his massive arms and slammed his fist down on Rowe’s head, prompting a startled shriek from Teal and a nearly-as-shrill outcry from Gabriel.
His fist stopped inches from striking the demon; the air shivered where it impacted, rippling like a disturbed pool. Gomblust drew his hand back more slowly, shaking it. “You are a very silly demon, Rowe. Last time!”
“Yup, I think the point is made,” the incubus said brightly. “Thanks, you’re a pal! Next round’s on me!”
“That is not a good favor,” Gomblust muttered, sitting back down with a muted crash. Even his muttering was loud enough to fill the room. “Gomblust is supposed to be on an adventure, not drinking in a bar. Is very good ale, though…” He picked up his barrel again.
“You see, kids,” said Rowe, strolling back up the steps to rejoin them with an almost feminine sway in his hips, “sanctuary is the rule of the house. It’s not my rule; I may call myself the innkeeper, but no matter what I claim to own, I just work here. The Crawl is the final authority, and the Crawl sets this aside as a neutral meeting place. Whatever magics or weapons you wield, whatever gods you can invoke, you will not break sanctuary. Here, the Crawl is the only god, and its rules are absolute.”
He sauntered back around behind the bar, the students staring at him in silence. “Y’see, my little duckies,” Rowe went on, selecting a dusty bottle and pouring a mug full of thick, amber liquid, “there are doors in this inn to many places. It is a place between places, but not a way between places. You follow?”
“Not in the least fucking little bit,” said Ruda.
The incubus laughed. “What I mean is, we get all sorts through here. Some are residents of the Crawl itself. Oh, there are wandering monsters—though that term is extremely relative, as you’ll learn—but there are whole societies of various kinds in the depths. Then again, some enter that door from entirely other realms, stopping in for a drink or to escape their worlds for whatever reason. You can’t get into anybody else’s world, though. Whatever continuum spat you out will suck you back in, when you go through the door. See? A place, but not a way. You can meet people from other realities in the Visage, but not visit them from here.”
“So…” Gabriel frowned. “How many of these people are from the real world?”
“Is a world less real because you don’t live there?” Rowe asked, raising an eyebrow.
Gabriel scowled. “Fine, the world the Crawl is actually in, then?”
The demon shrugged, idly flicking his wings. “The place you’re from… University at Last Rock, yes? Tiraan Empire, Pantheon, Universal Church, Elilial? All that stuff?”
“Yes, that’s us,” said Teal.
The incubus grinned broadly. “Smashing, me too. But who’s to say that’s the world this dungeon is in?”
They all stared at him in silence for a moment, then glanced around at each other.
“I’m reasonably sure it is,” Rowe confided, “but one can never be sure, eh?”
“What about him?” Ruda jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating Gomblust the ogre. “How the hell did he even get in here? I mean… You couldn’t even get his fist through that door.”
“You’re in the Crawl, sweet cheeks. There’s exactly as much space as there needs to be. Now then! I hate to rush you along, but if you’re to be staying here, there’s the matter of payment.” He rubbed his hands together, grinning avidly. “You goslings often stagger in here unprepared on your first outing—Arachne’s favorite little joke, as I understand it—so you can pay by the day if you’re strapped for funds. You’d best get to adventuring quickly in that case, though. There’s more than enough treasure in these halls, but only for those willing and able to get out there and bleed for it.”
The students glanced around at each other again; most of their gazes found their way to Professor Ezzaniel.
“No, the University will not be financing your expenses,” he said in a bored tone. “You will find or create such resources as you need to fulfill your quest. That is the point of the exercise.”
“Hey, Professor!” Gabriel said brightly. “As a personal favor, can we borrow—”
“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, reaching into her coat pocket, “I don’t suppose you can accept Tiraan bank notes?”
Rowe laughed long and hard at that. “Ah, kiddo, you’re just precious,” he said finally, wiping a tear from his eye. “Seriously, though, where am I going to redeem those? I could maybe use them to start a fire…”
“Ugh, fuck it,” Ruda grumbled, reaching into her own coat pocket. She withdrew a coin and tossed it down on the bar. “If we’re going to be looting treasure, you can repay me out of our first hall. How many days will that buy us?”
“This?” Rowe picked up the coin, squinting at it skeptically. “This isn’t even breakfast, duckie.”
“What?” Ruda yelled, stomping forward and thrusting her face into his. “Are you out of your buttfucking mind? That’s an Imperial decabloon! They don’t make coins more valuable than that!”
“I think you precious little poppets are laboring under some misunderstandings about the economics of this place,” said Rowe, seemingly unfazed by her tirade. “We operate on a sort of barter system here. Sure, gold, jewels, precious metals… Stuff like that has its uses. There are, as I said, functional societies in the Crawl. There’s a whole warren of goblins, as well as several less sociable groups, all of which have an economy of some kind or other. We get drow in here regularly enough I’m pretty sure there’s an opening to the Underworld somewhere near the bottom, though the hell I’m going down there to look. And, of course, there are the odd visitors from other dimensions who are wont to engage in a spot of trade. By and large, though, coins are chiefly valuable as a conveniently carryable, roughly—and I mean very roughly—standardized measurement of gold, which can be melted down and made into other things.”
He held up the decabloon, shifting it slowly back and forth so that it glinted in the torchlight. “This thing here? This is a thin lip of gold surrounding a core of platinum, layered with enchantments to prevent wear and tear—and prevent people counterfeiting or melting it down, which is precisely what we’d need to be able to do to make it valuable. You kids are new, so I won’t take it personally, but for future reference, handing somebody in the Crawl a coin like that is tantamount to telling them where to shove it.” He rolled the coin across his knuckles once, then flicked it at Ruda; she snatched it out of the air, glaring. “You’ve got to get used to thinking in terms of the value of things. What are they good for? That, metal content aside, is like your friend’s bank notes: chiefly valuable in the presence of a large society that agrees it has value.”
Ruda snorted in disgust, stuffing the decabloon back in her coat pocket. When she withdrew her hand again, though, it was full of other coins, which she threw down disdainfully on the bar.
“Oh, now we’re talking!” Rowe said delightedly, sweeping them up. “Punaji gold! Best kind—soft enough to re-cast and verifiably the real thing. Shiny new ones, too! Who’s this guy?” he asked curiously, holding a coin up to the light so he could study the face profiled on it.
“That’d be King Rajakhan, the Blackbeard,” Ruda said dryly. “I gather you don’t see too many of those.”
“Indeed not, my lamb, and for this many you may consider yourselves paid up for the entirety of your stay!” Rowe made the coins vanish into his pants, which was impressive as they had no visible pockets, and made another grand bow at them. “And just to put it on the table, you kids probably don’t have much to trade, but if you’re of a mind to swap that sword, missy, I might just give you the whole damn place.”
“If I give you my sword,” Ruda said quietly, “it’ll be the wrong end of it in your ribs.”
“Not in this bar, you won’t,” Rowe replied with a cheeky grin. “Well, my dears, congratulations! You are officially guests of the Grim Visage.”
“Not him,” said Ruda, pointing at Professor Ezzaniel.
“Excuse me?” the professor said, looking mildly offended.
She grinned nastily at him. “My gold, my rules. You don’t wanna help us pay our way? Hope you brought enough coin for yourself, then.”
Ezzaniel rolled his eyes. “My usual room, please, Rowe. I may have to owe you for the last week or so.”
“Your word’s as good as gold in this bar, Emilio,” the demon replied graciously, then clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “All right! Meals aren’t part of the deal, I’m afraid, but you may not find that onerous. We always have food and drink available; it’s quite easy to ferment stuff, but… As far as food goes, expect variations on a theme of meat, fish and fungus. There are sometimes fruits and vegetables, but you can expect to break the bank on those.” He spread his hands in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “We serve what there is to be served.”
“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, “what kind of meat would that be?”
“I will answer that question if you truly wish,” Rowe said solemnly, “but understand this, young seeker: knowledge does not bring happiness.”
“We will pass,” Gabriel said firmly. “Embrace the mystery, Teal.”
“If you’re gonna be spending a lot of time out there in the corridors, anyway, you’ll probably find it more cost effective to hunt up your own grub.” Rowe waggled his eyebrows again, leering. “That, by the way, is not a euphemism.”
Gabriel grimaced horribly and turned a plaintive look on Ezzaniel. “Is it too late to go back up top and just take the F?”
“Let me show you to your new home away from home,” Rowe continued in his cloyingly bright tone. “Sarriki! Come watch the bar!”
The naga quickly appeared from below, carrying her now-empty tray. She appeared to have a little trouble with the stairs, using one hand to pull herself up the bannister and leaning forward in the ascent as though moving against a headwind. Her snake-like lower body was clearly not designed for such footing.
“Yessss, bosss,” she replied with sibilant deference, nodding deeply to Rowe and slithering around behind the bar.
“And stop that hissing,” he said irritably. “Honestly, every time they send down the freshmen! You may think stereotypes are funny, but that kind of crap is why the rest of us can’t hold down a job topside.”
“Aw, let me have my fun,” she pouted, then winked at the students. Her eyes were yellow and slitted like a snake’s.
“Have fun on your own time; just man the bar,” he said with a mock-scowl, then spoiled it by grinning. “All right, my little gumdrops, this way! Follow the handsome and dashing barkeep!”
A few doorways led off from the upper level of the bar, one in the corner with an actual door covering it, the others blocked only by ragged curtains. Rowe let them through the widest of these, his tail waving behind him as he went. The broad staircase beyond twisted slowly but unevenly; where a human-built stairwell would probably form a geometric path, this one seemed to have been repurposed from a natural tunnel. The width of the stairs varied widely, narrowing at one point so much they couldn’t walk two abreast, and the curve was not consistent. A single window was set into one of the walls just out of sight of the lower floor, providing another grim view of the red-tinged cavern. After a relatively short ascent, they emerged into an upper hall.
Once again, the students came to a stop just past the doorway, staring. Behind them, Ezzaniel sighed melodramatically.
“You have got to be shitting me,” said Gabriel.
The space was oddly reminiscent of the upper floor lounge they had occupied in the inn in Lor’naris: a simple square area from which doors branched, leading into bedrooms. This one had a few stone benches set into the walls rather than free-standing chairs, and no window. There was also no table set in the middle of the room.
Instead, there was a bronze statue of Arachne Tellwyrn.
“She’s kind of a big deal around here,” Rowe said cheerfully, “especially these days. I’ll let you know up front that your doors all lock, the locks are all serviceable, and I advise you to use them; management is not responsible for lost or stolen property, and the drow have a tendency to come up here and gawk at the statue. The hell if I know why they care so much.”
“Why do you?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean… Why is this here?”
Rowe shrugged extravagantly, fluttering his wings. “I have no idea. This isn’t my idea of décor; believe me, I can find better uses for this quantity of metal, I assure you. As far as I know, the Crawl put this here.”
Ruda snorted. “That bitch has the weirdest friends.”
“Corner door in the back wall is to the bathroom; I’m afraid you’ll have to share. There’s running water, from a hand-pump, and a stove to heat it. The toilets…well, let’s just say if anybody lives directly below this inn, I’ve never met them and I really hope I never do.” He grinned cheekily, tail waving like a pleased cat’s.
“Lovely,” Toby muttered.
“All hours are pretty much one in a sunless place,” the incubus went on, “but if memory serves, dear Arachne likes to roust you morsels out of your beds at an absurd hour for her little field trips, yes? I’ll just leave you to the rooms, then, if you want to grab some sleep. Don’t worry, they’ll be reserved for you until you check out, but that just means we won’t let anybody else sleep here. I suggest you not leave anything behind that you don’t want strangers pawing through while you’re gone.”
“We don’t have anything to leave behind,” Teal muttered, fingering the lapel of her coat where her Talisman was pinned. “Didn’t even get to bring a change of clothes…”
“It’s positively amazing what you can loot in the Crawl,” Rowe said brightly, already halfway back to the stairs. “Don’t fret, pumpkin, you’ll get by. When you come back down for breakfast, I’ll show you the commercial wing, where you can do some trading, get supplies and sell off whatever scratch you rustle up. For now, kiddies, ta ta!”
Wiggling his fingers flirtatiously, he vanished down the steps, leaving the students staring at each other. Ezzaniel had gone with him without a word.
“I think,” Trissiny said slowly, “we had better be careful about locking our doors, and not just when we’re out.”
“What about the sanctuary thing?” Gabriel asked. He reached out and tried to flick Ruda’s ear; his fingers didn’t connect, deflecting off midair with a tiny ripple of light. “Damn, it’s serious. Also, ow.”
“I’m gonna remember that when we’re out of here,” Ruda said, smirking at him.
“Don’t joke,” Trissiny said sharply. “This is a serious problem.”
“Oh, you and demons,” Gabriel shot back. “Sometimes I think you just don’t feel complete unless you’re condemning somebody. Just because he was born with wings and a tail doesn’t mean he wants to suck out all our blood.”
“Uh, incubi don’t do that,” Fross pointed out.
Trissiny tilted her head slightly, studying Gabriel. “I can’t figure you out, Gabe. Some days you seem full of guilt and self-loathing about being a demonblood, and others it’s like you’re ready to launch a demon rights movement.”
He shrugged irritably, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “It’s a complicated matter. I have complicated feelings about it.”
“Mm. You don’t actually know a thing about demonology, do you?”
“Why would I?” he demanded challengingly.
“Are you serious?”
“His dad was pretty firm about that,” Toby cut in, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Sshitherosz like to target half-demons. The less he was exposed to the whole thing…”
“I can narrate my own backstory, thanks,” Gabriel said, giving him a look.
“Incubi,” Trissiny said loudly, “are reincarnated humans. To begin with, when they died, their souls were denied entry into the divine plane and sent to Hell. That already is a very bad sign; Vidius isn’t exactly stringent. A moderate attempt to live a relatively decent life is generally enough to avoid damnation. Once in Hell, if they survive and manage to thrive despite being incorporeal and subject to enslavement and all manner of abuse by demonic magic-users, the souls eventually gain the attention of Prince Vanislaas, who gives them…” Her lips twisted contemptuously. “A second chance. New bodies, new powers, and a mission to make their way back to the mortal plane and corrupt more humans to swell the ranks of the succubi and incubi. An incubus, Gabriel, is someone who has repeatedly and vigorously proved himself evil of his own choices, demonstrated a considerable skill at being evil, and then been empowered and sent forth for the specific and express purpose of doing evil. They’re not like hethelaxi; they’re not just people who were born in the wrong dimension. The fact that he’s personable and charming makes him more dangerous, not less.”
“Let me just stick my nose in here,” said Ruda. “You know I’m generally on the side of anyone who knows how to have fun, and anyone who’s serving booze, so that’s twice over I’m inclined to think well of Rowe, without even getting into how I hate to encourage Boots when she’s being pompous.”
Trissiny sighed. “Thanks.”
Ruda grinned at her before continuing. “That said, I’ve gotta back her up on this one. Demonology isn’t a big thing in Puna Dara, but I was definitely taught to know and respect the great dangers of the world; I’m gonna lead my people one day and can’t be caught with my pants down. Incubi and succubi are bad fucking news. Like, one even being in the city is officially considered a crisis. We better watch our asses as long as we’re staying in a place where that guy’s in charge.”
A silence fell. Gabriel glanced between Ruda and Trissiny, then at Toby, and finally at the ground, a thoughtful frown covering his face.
“I’m tired,” Juniper said abruptly. They all started; she hadn’t spoken the entire time they’d been in the Grim Visage. The dryad trudged past them, around the statue of Tellwyrn and into the nearest room without bothering to close the door. Moments later there came the soft sound of her flopping down on a bed.
“Well,” said Toby, “that sounds like as good an idea as any.”