Tag Archives: Melaxyna

12 – 1

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“Don’t worry about it.”

Toby heaved a deep sigh, allowing his usual mask of calm and the posture crafted by years of martial arts to finally relax, now that he was surrounded by nobody whose opinion he needed to care about. This might be the only place where that was true, and so he let himself slump over the bar, absently toying with his “cup” of “tea,” which was a large snail shell with a flattish bottom, full of hot water steeped, somehow, in mushrooms. He didn’t know how in the world one made tea out of mushrooms, but after his last visit here, the flavor was unmistakable.

Poise and bearing were disciplines cultivated for their own sake, not affectations he kept up for appearances, but considering how many rules he was already breaking just by being here alone, it somehow felt right to let loose. It was oddly liberating.

“It was just a question,” the bartender hummed, idly running a threadbare rag over the bar’s stone surface, which didn’t need it. “All part of the gig, you know. You slouch at my bar, gazing morosely into your non-alcoholic beverage, I pretend to be interested in your problems. Bartenders and losers have been doing this dance since time immemorial. It’s bigger than both of us, sweetheart.”

Toby gave her an annoyed look; Melaxyna grinned right back, ostentatiously unrepentant. After a moment, though, he had to smile a little in response. It was slightly funny, anyway. That didn’t mean he could afford not to be careful. Sanctuary or no, a succubus was a dangerous thing. All the more so when she tried to appear otherwise.

“I was answering the question,” he said, “not telling you to drop it. That was what I got from my god. After traveling to Tiraas, requesting use of the central temple—and that’s not a small thing, paladin or no, it puts a lot of people out to clear off from the main center of Omnist worship—and did the ritual to call him down. All that, and that’s what I got. ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

“He said that?” Her grin widened, if anything. “That’s cold.”

“Good thing one can always count on a bartender for a sympathetic ear.”

“Well, let’s not forget you’re talking to a demon, here,” Melaxyna said, still grinning. “You can’t bring me this kind of validation and expect me to be all glum. No, I am not shocked to learn of a god of the Pantheon being heartless and dismissive to his allegedly most valued servant. Tough break, kid, but that’s pretty much how the bastards are.”

“It wasn’t like that,” he said, again pushing the shell cup back and forth between his hands. After one sip, the prospect of actually drinking it didn’t appeal.

Behind him, the sounds of other patrons in the Grim Visage formed a low hum. It was a different clientele than under Rowe; according to Sarriki, since the dismantling of his attempted dimensional gates, they hadn’t seen any visiting drow or gnomes, much less travelers from other worlds. Tonight it was mostly goblins, two naga and a small party of caplings clustered in one corner. He hadn’t realized caplings were sapient enough to patronize bars, and indeed, these appeared to be trying to eat their table. Sarriki still slithered about with her crafty smile, carrying trays of mushroom beer hither and yon. Now, Melaxyna’s surly hench-hethelax, Xsythri, was perched on the rail between the bar’s two levels, keeping a grim eye on everyone.

“Omnu isn’t much of a talker, as such,” Toby said slowly, frowning at his drink. “I’ve found that myself, and it’s been born out by what I’ve read of the writings of other Hands of Omnu. Trissiny and Gabe apparently have conversations with their gods, when they talk at all, but for me… Communing with Omnu is more like…what Teal describes of her relationship with Vadrieny.” He glanced up at the succubus, but she was just watching him attentively, now, and made no reaction to the archdemon’s name. “This time, it was a sense of peace. I mean…you could make the case that Omnu’s very presence is a sense of peace, but this was more specific. It was a message. Be a ease, don’t worry, all will be well.”

She shrugged, again fruitlessly wiping the bar. “Well, I’m not one to give the gods credit, but that sounds like good advice. Unless, of course, you went to him with a problem that was seriously bothering you and has far-reaching implications that you need to understand if he expects you to do your fucking job.”

“Well, this is one reason I’m down here,” Toby said wryly. “I’ve heard plenty of encouragement and platitudes from people who didn’t seem to register that getting encouragement and platitudes was what was bothering me in the first place. It’s tricky, finding someone willing to offer a critical view of the gods. Especially if they know you’re a paladin.”

“In their defense, that’s because paladins are usually the ones doing the rounding up and slaughtering when people do horrible, deviant things like think for themselves,” she said sweetly. “Not you, of course, but to the average shmoe who just wants to live his life, the difference between Hands of Omnu and Avei are fairly academic.”

“Yes, your unbiased perspective is a breath of fresh air,” he replied, quirking an eyebrow, and she laughed. He had to remind himself how deftly manipulative her kind were; even that laugh seemed friendly, approachable, effortlessly fostering camaraderie. At least she hadn’t tried to flirt with him, but then, she could probably tell as easily as Juniper that there was no point. “I confess I’d thought you might have some personal view on this. We’re talking about what is, for all intents and purposes, a weapon. A massively destructive weapon, one which incinerates demons. Like you.”

“The holy nova?” Melaxyna lifted an eyebrow of her own. “I’m sorry to tell you this, kiddo, but you didn’t invent it.”

“I’m aware—”

“Yes, using it as glibly as you describe and walking away is something new and interesting. Assigning more dangerous powers to their followers is actually a reversal for the Pantheon, considering Salryene hasn’t called a Hand since her last one scoured Athan’Khar off the map. And here I thought they might have actually learned a lesson, there. That’ll show me.”

“Magnan didn’t actually do that—”

“You’re Arachne’s student; I know you know your history better than that. If you build a horrible weapon and bend your energies to campaigning for it to be used, you don’t get to dodge responsibility just because someone else’s finger was on the switch. More to the point, you’re deflecting.” She cocked her head to the side, smiling smugly. “That’s what’s bugging you, isn’t it? Escalation.”

“Escalation,” he said, again frowning at his tea, “and…change. Change of what should be fundamental, immutable. Omnu is a god of peace. Why…why a weapon?”

“Putting aside the fact that the holy nova is just as useful for cleansing and healing as fighting demons,” she said, “you’re being tripped up by a willful misconception, there. Omnism is a religion of peace. Omnu is a god of life, and of the sun. Ask your friend the dryad how peaceable life is, and hell… The sun burns. Maybe you’re just turned around by all this because you’re expecting your god to act like you want him to act. Like the pleasant father figure your upbringing created an image of, instead of a nigh-omnipotent creature with as much of an ego and an agenda as anyone else.”

Toby’s frown deepened. Her own agenda lay thick over her suggestions, but beneath it was some logic. Enough to be worth mulling over, if he could separate the kernels of truth from the manipulations woven through them. They had to be there; Trissiny had made the point repeatedly, in their discussions about the Vanislaad, Eserites, Black Wreath, and others, that all good manipulations required a core of truth. Simple lies were far too easily debunked. Re-framing truth made a smokescreen that could be nearly impossible to penetrate.

He lifted his gaze to study her curiously; she just stared back, wearing a faintly knowing little smile.

“Well,” he said, shifting back from the bar, “thanks for the tea and conversation. I should probably go find out whether I’ve actually gotten away with this. I know students sneak down here all the time, but—”

“Why did you really come?” she asked mildly. “This is not your scene, Toby. Not just because it’s full of demons and monsters and located deep in an otherworldly pit of violence. Bars are not your scene. Besides, I clearly recall you and your little posse were rather close-knit. There are much more immediate people you could go to with your problems. Safer people.”

“Like I said—”

“Oh, all right, you want me to narrate? I can narrate.” She winked. “I’ve been around long enough to have seen this before, after all. Your whole problem is that you’re questioning your god. You know what a Child of Vanislaas is, and where we come from. Being that you’re a young man with a mind of your own and a conscience, not yet too blinded by dogma to have forsworn the use of both, you’d naturally seek out the perspective of someone who, like you, started out a mortal human, and yet ended up violently opposed to your Pantheon.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that mysterious,” he demurred. “I daresay I’ve met some people myself who I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see becoming incubi or succubi.”

Melaxyna’s smile faded. She had been leaning forward over the bar in a way which showed off her cleavage, possibly just out of habit, but now straightened up and folded her arms in a manner which, for once, was not suggestive. Toby shrugged and resumed getting up from his stool.

“I was a priestess of Izara.”

Slowly, he sat back down.

“I died in the Third Hellwar,” she continued, tilting her chin up. The gesture was prideful, but not condescending; she could do wonderfully expressive things with the tiniest touches of body language. “To make a very long story relatively short… My village was pressed by demons. I wasn’t a healer, specifically, but I damn well did my best. The light does heal, even if the one wielding it lacks much skill. It wasn’t enough, of course. And worse, all I could do was heal.” She bared her teeth in a contemptuous sneer. “My light wouldn’t burn the demons. Oh, once or twice, when I helped the defenders close to the gates, I’d actually singe one in passing. But if I tried? If I wanted to protect my home and family, and use the power I had to drive back the monsters that were trying to slaughter us? Well, Izara cut me off. Can’t have that. The goddess of love just couldn’t bear the thought of any of her precious followers surviving to carry on her will, not when they had the option of making some kind of obscure point of principle by being helplessly butchered. If I seem to lack sympathy for you because Omnu’s willing to let you kill in his name, well, now you understand my bias.”

She snorted and lashed her tail once, wings flaring briefly before settling back around her shoulders. “Oh, but we were almost saved! An actual, honest-to-gods Hand of Avei came to the village. Had two Silver Huntresses with her—do you know what those were?”

“I’m not familiar with them…”

“Well, look it up sometime, they were interesting. Anyhow, there the Avenists were, here to save the day! Huzzah, rejoicing! Except that no, they couldn’t be bothered.” Her fingers stiffened into claws, digging into her own arms. “One little flyspeck village wasn’t important. They were there to get supplies and reinforcements and continue on to the real battlefront. And by get, I mean take, as they made abundantly clear when some tried to bar them from our rations and limited weapons. The option they gave us was to let any too young, weak, or infirm to fight just…stay there and die, when all the food, weapons, and able-bodied fighters had been taken from the village, or come along and almost certainly meet the same fate on the road, because there could be no question of slowing their pace enough to protect them.

“So,” she drawled, “I took some initiative. Managed to catch one of the Huntresses unarmed, got a knife to her throat, and demanded that the Hand call on Avei. I figured there was just no way the actual goddess of justice would be party to that kind of barbarism if she could see it being done in her name.”

She met his eyes challengingly, ancient fury smoldering behind her own. “The demons didn’t kill me. Even the Hand of Avei didn’t. Avei did. Personally. She couldn’t be arsed to protect my people, or even to leave us with what we needed to protect ourselves, but somehow the goddess of justice found time to strike down a loyal cleric of the Pantheon for the unpardonable crime of standing up and demanding that she do the one thing which was her entire reason to exist.”

“I guess,” he said slowly when she stopped talking, “threatening a servant of a god and blackmailing a paladin gets an automatic damnation…”

“Oh, no,” she said, sneering again. “Oh, no no no. Vidius was a rather more reasonable chap, as I recall when I came before him for judgment. He’s really not too stringent; he said I’d done remarkably well in a terrible situation and thought I deserved reward beyond the average. Even kept at me on it when I refused; I had to cuss him out at some considerable length before he was willing to send me to Hell.”

“Did you…” Toby’s voice caught, embarrassingly, and he had to swallow before continuing. “You were already planning to seek out Prince Vanislaas?”

“Oh, Toby,” she said, shaking her head. “That was a different time. I was a backcountry yokel; for most people in my situation, one village was the universe and the horizon as unreachable as the sky. There were no telescrolls, no newspapers even; books were rare and precious, and we seldom saw a bard. There certainly weren’t any Rails or zeppelins. Shitty roads in most places, for that matter. I could read and do my sums, which made me as close as the village had to a scholar. No, I had no idea what a succubus even was, much less how they were made. All I knew, standing before the seat of divine judgment, was that at the thought of spending eternity with the fucking gods, I’d rather take my chances with the demons and the damned. At least I already knew what to expect from them.”

Toby did not voice the most immediate thought that came to mind: good deceptions had to contain a kernel of truth—except, perhaps, if they were about things which had happened thousands of years ago and left no records. Instead, he asked a question.

“Have you ever regretted it?”

“Regretted what?” she asked sweetly. “The years of wandering in Hell, pursued and abused by demons? Millennia of sneaking in shadows, matching wits with the gods’ followers, sowing chaos among their works wherever I could? The loneliness, the hardship, the privation, the constant enmity of an entire plane of existence, all just so I could make the point to the Pantheon that at least one soul was not going to stand for their bullshit?”

She opened her wings slightly, arching them menacingly above her head, and bared her teeth in a savage grin.

“Not once.”


Tellwyrn was frowning deeply and far away in thought as she climbed out of the sunken grotto, emerging through the gap between massive tree roots into the fading afternoon light beneath the forest canopy. So lost in her own reflections, in fact, that despite the acuity of her senses she did not realize she was no longer alone until she was forced to stop, her way forward blocked by another elf.

“And what,” Linsheh demanded icily, “do you think you’re doing? Who gave you permission to go in there?”

The mage stared at the shaman in silence for a moment.

“I honestly can’t recall the last time anyone gave me permission to do anything,” she answered finally.

Linsheh’s eyes narrowed to furious slits. “The time for you to seek knowledge here was before you spent so much time and effort burning those bridges, Arachne. You are not welcome in this grove.”

Another elf came bounding out of the forest, coming to a stop off to one side. “Elder,” he said worriedly, “please. She’s already been and come back, this won’t do—”

“Be silent, Adimel,” Linsheh ordered curtly.

“I was actually going to apologize to you,” Tellwyrn said in a soft tone. “Well… Maybe going is a little strong, but I was thinking about it very seriously. It’s been enough years now; with the benefit of some distance, thinking back on our various altercations, it’s seemed to me that I was unnecessarily rude. At any rate, Kuriwa seemed to think so, and much as she rubs me the wrong way I think the worst thing about her is how seldom she’s wrong.”

“Kuriwa,” Linsheh growled. “I might have known I’d find her at the back of this.”

“But that was before,” Tellwyrn continued, still deadly quiet. “It’s no secret to you, I’m sure, how the knowledge of what you’re hoarding down there would change the world. But you know, and I know you know, what it meant to me, personally. What it would have meant if I’d learned of it long before now. All the absolute hell I could have spared myself. And now, suddenly, I find myself thinking I wasn’t hard enough on you.” She tilted her head down, staring coldly over the rims of her glasses. “And furthermore, that it isn’t too late to correct that oversight.”

“Arachne,” Adimel exclaimed, “please. This is pointless.”

“I should hardly have to state that you do not frighten me,” Linsheh said, curling her lip.

“Isn’t that precious,” Tellwyrn replied, flexing her fingers. “I wonder how frightened you’ll be if I burn this grove to the ground.”

The shaman took one step toward her, snatching up the tomahawk hanging at her belt. “You were better off in the days when you didn’t dare challenge me openly, Arachne. All I need is the excuse of one fireball and my tribe will put a stop to your insanity, finally, for good.”

“That’s enough!” Adimel exclaimed, interposing himself bodily between them. “You are both behaving like—”

Both women pointed fingers at him.

A blast of wind pushed him one way while a burst of pure concussive force shoved the other; Adimel spun in a full circle, losing his grip on his staff, and staggered away to land on his rear in a fern, blinking in confusion.

“You really want to drag your tribe into this?” Tellwyrn asked, baring her teeth. “You know very well the lot of them don’t have the collective power to stop me doing any damn thing I please, Linsheh.”

“That’s right, Arachne,” Linsheh retorted. “Keep pushing. I always did hope I would be there on the day you learned how oversized your estimation of yourself is.”

“Ah, if I may?”

Both turned to glare at the speaker.

A drow man approached, wearing sweeping robes in deep shades of red and green. Having seized their attention, he bowed deeply.

“It is a tremendous honor to meet you, Professor Tellwyrn. I most humbly apologize for interrupting your discussion, but may I request with the utmost respect that you both refrain from destroying the grove while my delegation is present?” He put on a disarming little smile. “Reporting on the demise of multiple family members results in the most tedious interviews with my head of House.”

They stared at him as the silence stretched out, and then Tellwyrn let out a soft huff of amusement through her nose.

“Well, this I was not expecting. Asron, isn’t it?”

“Asron tyl Rinshae n’dar Awarrion,” he replied, bowing again. “Indeed, I was not expecting the great pleasure of making your acquaintance during this mission, Professor. It is honor enough to learn that you are aware of me. I am particularly grateful, however, that fortune has brought you here.” Turning to Linsheh, he bowed deeply to her as well. “Elder, I would not presume to involve myself in your personal affairs, nor those of your tribe. But, as we have established a precedent of laying aside old grudges to speak openly with one another, I must humbly suggest that this most fortuitous circumstance presents a golden opportunity for more of the same. Professor Tellwyrn, if she would graciously consent to join our discussions, has a unique and imminently relevant perspective on the matter under consideration.”

“So polite, these Awarrions,” Tellwyrn mused.

“Yes,” Linsheh replied with a sigh. “So much so that I can’t even bring myself to fault this one for his florid manner of speech.”

“You’re a fine peacemaker, Asron,” Tellwyrn said, finally stepping away from Linsheh and down the tree roots to the bank of the stream below. Behind her, Adimel had resumed his feet, and now folded his arms, directing a reproachful frown at his Elder. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. Hell, I think it’s a fine idea, and my only complaint is that nobody tried it thousands of years ago. Better late than never, and hopefully not too late still. But no, involving me in this isn’t a good idea at all.”

“Your modesty is admirable,” Asron said, not responding to Linsheh’s bark of scornful laughter. “But if anything, Professor, you are an expert at what we are seeking to accomplish. Blending together different cultures the way you personally have learned—”

“Young man,” she said pointedly, “you need diplomats. You literally just walked in on me expressing my pissy mood by threatening to burn down the forest. Tell me you can see the disconnect, here.”

The drow smiled again, this time with a hint of true amusement. “Well, with respect, I was not proposing to put you in charge of the discussion. But if, now or at any point in the future, you would kindly agree to join our conversations, I do believe quite sincerely that your perspective would be of tremendous value, even if you were willing to merely answer a few questions. You did, after all, express esteem for the spirit of the endeavor.”

She sighed and shook her head. “I will think about it. I have no shortage of my own business to attend to. Speaking of which.” Tellwyrn turned to aim a finger at Linsheh. “This conversation is not over.”

“You have nothing else to say that is of interest to me,” the shaman said disdainfully.

Tellwyrn grinned up at her. “I bet I can surprise you.”

She vanished without warning, leaving behind only a tiny puff of displaced air.

Linsheh rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Asron, I appreciate you coming to check on me, but as you see I am quite well. If you’d kindly return to the circle, I shall be back presently.”

“By your leave then, Elder,” he said diffidently, bowing to her, and then turning to glide back into the trees.

“Are you all right?” Linsheh asked Adimel.

He folded his arms and looked down his nose at her. “How humbling it is that you express concern for my well-being at this juncture, most esteemed Elder.”

“Well, if you’re all right enough to do that, you’re all right,” she said archly, then turned and paced off after the drow.

The blast of wind which struck her in the back failed even to ruffle her hair. Linsheh paused, turned, and said dryly, “Do you feel better now, Adimel?”

A pine cone plummeted from above, striking the top of her head.

Linsheh blinked, grimaced, and looked upward. She was standing beneath a redwood tree. There were no pines closer than the Wyrnrange.

“Much, thank you,” Adimel said with more cheer, gathering up his staff and striding off toward the village.

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8 – 24

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Both elves leaned back, straightening, and Mary gently trailed her fingers through the puddle between them. It was hardly uncommon to find standing water on the rooftops of Tiraas; they’d not had to look hard to find a suitable location, no farther in fact than the inn in which Sheyann was staying, though both had employed a little shamanic skill to ensure their impromptu scrying mirror wasn’t disturbed by wind or rain.

More skill had been needed to ensure that they weren’t disturbed. Scrying was arcane craft; the degree of ability and power in the fae arts that enabled it was enough to bring curious people sniffing about if they were detected. Some of those people would come wearing silver gryphon badges.

“I still cannot believe you left the hook for this in the High Commander’s office,” Sheyann said at last, shaking her head. “If she learns of it, there will be trouble that may task even you. The Sisters of Avei are not the Tiraan Empire.”

“If anything, they are less skilled in the hunt,” Mary replied with an aloof little smile. “Farzida would not go so far, and anyway, she won’t find out. I am frankly surprised my little charm lasted all week; it is fragile enough to be erased by the merest touch of divine magic. Apparently she has had no need to call upon Avei directly in the last few days, but regardless, a woman of her mindset would bless her working space regularly. It will be gone before anything more can be learned from it.”

“Is there more you planned to learn?”

“No, in fact, I consider this matter now concluded, as far as my own interests are concerned.”

Sheyann gazed at her thoughtfully, but her attention was inward, not on her companion’s face. “I’ve not followed Principia’s career in any detail since hearing she gave Arachne her child—that’s a combination of events that would seize anyone’s attention—and now I am not sure whether this is fully in character for her or completely out of it.”

“The method is a well-trod path for the girl,” Mary said, her expression more serious. “It’s the motive which is new. She has ulterior motives, to be sure, and I’m positive she plans to work against or around the Sisterhood’s rules at some point, but at the same time, she is taking the matter of her enlistment seriously. And now she has the charge of four young women. I believe this will lead to better things for her than I had previously dared to hope.”

“Are you going to intervene further?” Sheyann asked. “Even from what little I saw of that woman Syrinx, I am certain she is disturbed in some manner, and very probably anth’auwa. She is also not gone in any permanent sense, nor will she forgive this humiliation. Principia has likely just bought herself more trouble later.”

Mary nodded. “But she has bought time in which to prepare for it. Syrinx had the element of surprise and a vast advantage of positioning here. I interceded only to the point of preventing her from leveraging it to the fullest; it was Principia’s own cunning that turned the tables, and it is that upon which she will have to rely in the future.”

“Ah, yes,” Sheyann said, deadpan. “Because now that she’s become interesting, you’re going to give up paying attention to her.”

The Crow smiled a sly little smile. “You know very well that I like to keep an eye on things that are interesting to me. And who knows? The girl may need another nudge in the future. By and large, though, I deem it best to leave her life in her own hands, as we always must with the young. After all, Sheyann, with this matter wrapped up, you and I have someplace to be.”

“Indeed.” Sheyann stood, Mary following suit. “We may as well take the opportunity to sleep; the Rails will not resume until morning. Last Rock is also not a regular stop; chartering a caravan is a somewhat more involved process than simply purchasing a ticket. We will need to take the first scheduled caravan to Calderaas and make arrangements from there. It is likely to be afternoon before we reach Arachne’s University.”

Mary narrowed her eyes. “I have no intention of riding that infernal contraption. If you absolutely insist on prioritizing speed over all other considerations, I will meet you in Last Rock tomorrow evening.”

“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said patiently, “you know what is at stake. What method could you possibly have of traveling so far, so fast? Manipulating the winds like that will cause storms across the continent, and even so would take your little wings a week to make the trip.”

“There are faster methods, as you know.”

Sheyann stared at her. “The place between? You would seriously rend a hole in the fabric of reality and risk traveling through a netherworld of doom, beneath the eyes of the great uncreators and the lessor horrors that prowl between the planes, just to avoid riding the Rails?”

Mary tilted her head to one side, making a thoughtful expression. After a moment, she nodded. “That’s correct, yes.”

“Nonsense,” Sheyann said flatly. “You will glamour your hair blonde and I will buy you a ticket. Honestly, Kuriwa. It has been five thousand years; I think it is about time you grew up.”

The Crow very slowly raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I see. You object to my aversions. Very well, then, Sheyann, if we are in such a hurry, why did you not simply arrange to have Arachne teleport us hither and yon? I would wager my moccasins she made the offer.”

“That is a completely different matter,” Sheyann said stiffly. “Don’t change the subject.”

She lost patience and went below in search of her bed before the Crow was done laughing.


“All right, Ruda, what’s this all about?” Gabriel demanded, coming to a stop. He was the last of them to arrive at the small landing just before the bridge to Clarke Tower. “It’s late. What was so important?”

“Late?” Ruda said, grinning mockingly. “It’s late? Gabriel Arquin, you’re a college student, you’re under the age of twenty, and it’s before midnight on a Friday. You call this late? You have officially failed at everything.”

“That’s it, I’m going to bed,” he announced, turning around.

“Wait, Gabe,” Toby urged. “The word went out from Ruda because I asked her to make some arrangements. This was my idea.”

“Yours?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “Well… Gabriel’s question still stands, then. What is so important?”

“Guys,” Toby said, slowly panning a serious expression around his assembled classmates, “we need to talk.”

“And…what would you like to talk about?” Fross asked.

“Let me put it this way,” Ruda said, folding her arms. “Can any of you think of something you would like to talk about?”

A silence fell. Gabriel chewed his lower lip and gripped the hilt of his sword; Teal flushed and lowered her eyes, and Shaeine stepped closer to her, moving her hand so that the backs of their fingers touched. Juniper swallowed heavily and sniffed, hugging Jack closer to her chest. For once, the jackalope didn’t seem to mind the treatment. Trissiny frowned thoughtfully at them.

“I can’t, specifically,” Fross declared. “But I can talk about whatever’s on anybody’s mind!”

“I’m glad to hear that, Fross,” Toby said. “But for this… I think we need some privacy. The kind that even professors, even Tellwyrn, aren’t in a position to overhear. And that’s why you heard about this from Ruda instead of me; she has the tools we’ll need, and when I asked her, she said to leave her the arrangements.”

“And I was glad to do it,” Ruda said firmly, her mirthful expression lost in seriousness now. “Because I’ve been watching you clowns all week and I am beginning to be concerned. In fact, right now, Shiny Boots and Fross are the people I am least worried about, and that should give you a hint as to how fucked up we very nearly are.”

“Thanks!” Fross said cheerfully.

“I think,” Trissiny muttered.

“And so,” said Ruda, drawing an object from within her coat pocket and holding it up to them, “I dug into my stash. I trust you remember how these things work?”

“Whoah, wait a second,” said Gabriel, frowning at the blue-glyphed Crawl waypoint stone in her hand. “Why do you have that? Aren’t those basically all Teal’s? I mean, Melaxyna gave her the black one, she bought that one and it was her flute-playing that got us the last one…”

“And I risked my ass actually collecting that, which you seem to have somehow forgotten,” Ruda snapped.

“I gave them to Ruda to hold onto once we were out,” Teal said hurriedly. “Remember, we were gonna let her handle the loot from the Crawl, since she’s the best with figures? I just thought it made sense to add those to the pile.”

“And I hung onto them,” Ruda said, “because they are useless except to University students, since no one else has access to the Crawl, and they’re more useful to us as ways to get around down there than as currency; we’ll probably have more Crawl excursions.”

“Definitely more!” Fross proclaimed. “At least one per year!”

“Right, so we’ll sell ’em off our senior year,” Ruda continued.

“That reminds me,” Gabriel said, “I’d forgotten about that. What happened to our loot, Ruda?”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I sold off everything except the bacon, which I donated to Mrs. Oak. Over the break I had my family’s bankers open nine interest-bearing accounts. Split that many ways it wasn’t a huge haul, so I had them pursue a fairly aggressive investment strategy. Risky, but there’s lots of development going on in enchantment and industry, and last I heard we were doing quite well.”

“Why didn’t you mention this to us?” Shaeine asked.

Ruda grinned. “Because most of you wouldn’t care, Arquin would’ve yanked his out and spent it—”

“Hey!”

“—and Boots here would’ve just donated her cut to somebody.”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny began.

“No.” Glaring, Ruda thrust a finger directly under her nose. “You let me work! Dammit, woman, this ain’t the Age of Adventurers; you cannot stomp around living off the land. People own the land now; they’ll either charge rent or shoot you for trespassing. Trust me, you will need funding.”

“I’m backed by one of the biggest worldwide cults—”

“Boots, if I’ve gotta explain why it’s smart to have resources that don’t appear on the Sisterhood’s books, you truly do not understand this century.”

“Anyway,” Toby said firmly, “here we are, there’s our waystone, and I think it’s time we visited our old friends in the Crawl and had a long conversation. Don’t you?”

“What friends?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Do you really think this is that important?” Trissiny asked.

“I think it a good idea,” Sheaine said quietly.

“Me, too,” Juniper whispered.

“We’re really not supposed to go in the Crawl except on approved class exercises,” Fross fretted. “On the other hand, campus rules aren’t the only important thing, and sneaking down there is sort of a major tradition. I mean, Chase does it at least twice a month…”

“We’re settled, then,” said Ruda, grinning. “I trust you guys remember the drill, right? Link arms and hold onto your stomachs.”

“Speaking of which,” Gabriel said, “can we pause for a moment to collect our own snacks to bring? Because I still have the taste of mushrooms and bacon on the back of my—”

“Arquin, shut up and hold my hand, y’big baby.”


“Omnu’s balls, Prin, no!” the innkeeper exclaimed the moment they entered, clutching what remained of his hair in a pantomime of fright. “Not the Legions! Have you no sense of self-preservation? Con someone less dangerous, like the Black Wreath!”

“Been there, done that,” Principia said airily. “Anyhow, Pritchett, I have no idea what you’re on about. I am a duly enlisted soldier in Avei’s mortal army.”

“In fact, she’s the sergeant!” Casey said helpfully.

Pritchett, a man in later middle age, whose retreating hair and advancing gut mirrored each other almost perfectly, gaped at them. Or specifically, at Principia. “You’re not serious,” he said finally.

“As a steak dinner,” she replied, winking. “Look, we’re gonna need one of the quiet tables, an hour or so of privacy, and a pot of Black Punshai tea. The extra-strong blend. Ooh, with cucumber sandwiches. And do you have some of those fantastic butter cookies still?”

“Cookies,” the innkeeper said, still staring at her. “I mean… Sure, yeah, they’re the most popular… Prin, are you sure you’re not in some kinda trouble? If you need a place to crash…”

“Pritch,” she said more kindly, “I’m exactly the same as I always am. Up to my pointy ears in trouble, completely in control and loving every minute of it. I remember where the tables are. Tea, sandwiches, cookies, and I’ll drop by again later so we can catch up, okay? Swell! Toodles! C’mon, ladies, this way.”

“You always take us the nicest places,” Merry grumbled as she followed Principia and the others into the farthest, dimmest corner of the inn’s common room. It was built on a sprawling, rambling plan that resulted in more corners than it seemed a building should have, most of them unnecessarily dim. It was also shabby, with peeling wallpaper, scratched and dented furniture, and cracked, flickering fairy lamps. For all that, though, it was clean.

“There’s nothing more ridiculous than a snobby guttersnipe, Lang,” Principia said cheerfully, seating herself and sliding toward the wall, making space in her selected booth for the others to pile in. With their armor, it was a cozy fit, but it did afford them a measure of privacy. Despite the late hour, the inn had multiple occupied tables, and those sitting at them were very unaccustomed to seeing Silver Legionnaires, to judge by the stares they accumulated. No one seemed hostile, though, and they were not approached.

“Okay, I think we’ve been fairly patient about this, Sarge,” Farah said pointedly, “but it has been a long and stressful day, and I really want to just sleep. What could possibly be so important at this seedy bar that we have to come do it tonight?”

“Story time!” Principia declared, folding her gauntleted hands on the table and smiling at them.

“Story…time,” Ephanie repeated slowly, as if uncertain of the meaning of the words.

“So there I was, in Last Rock,” Principia began. “For about three years. Honestly, I viewed it as being on vacation; I just sat on my ass, mostly. In theory I was keeping an eye on Professor Tellwyrn for the Guild, but hell, they don’t care what she does with her time. It’s just that it’s not smart to ignore somebody like that, y’know? The Thieves’ Guild doesn’t get along by letting the world’s most dangerous people swagger around outside their range of view. So, they needed nominal eyes on the scene, and I needed a break. Anyhow, there’s me, hanging around in bars with the students and adventurers and generally having a grand old time, when up rears the politics of the big city, which is never so far away that it can’t bite you on the ass. It started with some shit between the Black Wreath and the Imperial government, and the next thing I knew…”


“Kids!”

No sooner did they materialize on the lower floor of the Grim Visage than they were greeted with evident delight. Melaxyna leaned over the railing from the upper level, emphasizing her cleavage even more than that position required, and smiled at them with every appearance of happiness. Of course, appearances didn’t count for much with a succubus.

“Welcome, welcome!” the demon said, beaming. “Only the best for my favorite patrons! Drinks and a meal on the house, your money’s no good here.”

“Well, damn, girl, look at you!” Ruda exclaimed, grinning up at the succubus. “You work fast. How’d you get out of Level 2 so quick?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Melaxyna chided, winking. “That is for me to know, and Arachne to tear her hair out wondering.”

“She let you out, didn’t she,” said Gabriel.

The demon’s expression didn’t alter by a hair, but her tail began lashing behind her like an agitated cat’s, hard enough to be eye-catching even though it was barely visible from that angle. “You know, Gabriel, it’s the funniest thing. I have so much reason to be grateful to you, and yet here you are, not in the room even sixty seconds and already getting under my skin. Sarriki! Our finest table for these most honored of guests.”

“You mean our least shitty table?” the naga suggested, gliding over to them bearing a tray of empty goblets. “’Finest’ isn’t really a word I hear much in this joint. Hi, kids.”

“Hello, Sarriki,” Teal said, smiling.

“Yes, yes,” said Melaxyna, “the least dank one over by the fireplace. And the best of whatever we’ve got in the back, I’ll not have a poor review of my hospitality making its way back up top.”

“The best of whatever?” Sarriki asked, raising one of the ridges that passed for her eyebrows.

“Well, of course,” said the succubus reasonably, her smile remaining in place. “Unless, of course, they seem to be trying to take advantage. Then poison them. Enjoy your stay, kids.” She turned and sashayed back toward the bar, flicking her tail at them.

“I can’t help liking her a little bit,” Gabriel mused, “and I’m not sure why.”

“She’s got an amazing figure,” Juniper pointed out.

“Nah,” he said, “it’s not that… Hard to put my finger on.”

“It probably wouldn’t be hard at all to put your finger on anything of hers,” Trissiny said sharply. “Regardless, don’t.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, offended. “Give me a little credit.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“You two are just too precious,” Sarriki chuckled. “Right this way, little biscuits.”

“Oh, gods, she’s doing that thing,” Fross stage whispered. “I thought that was just Rowe. Does there always have to be somebody in this pub who calls us desserts?”

“Rules of the house,” Sarriki said gravely, gesturing to the large corner table to which she had just escorted them. It was, indeed, comfortably close to the hearth, spacious and slightly less splintery than most of the furniture in the Visage. “You lollipops get yourselves settled in, and I’ll be back with something for you to nosh in just a moment.”

Ruda had already plopped herself into a chair; the others followed suit more carefully as the naga slithered off.

“So,” Trissiny said, “now that we’re here, what is the big issue?”

“It was about two hundred years ago,” Ruda said, producing a bottle of rum from within her coat and setting it on the table. “Like all the events which have led to great changes in the world, it was random and hilariously stupid. So Ankhar Punaji, the prince of Puna Dara, went out and had himself a little too much to drink, which is pretty much a fuckin’ tradition—it’s how we celebrate important events, like surviving to see another sunset, or waking up without having died of alcohol poisoning in your sleep. So there’s Prince Ankhar, staggering around as sloshed as a sloop in a typhoon, and pauses to take a leak on a convenient rock by the harbor.”

She grinned, popped the cork, and had a swig of rum, pausing the wipe her mouth on the sleeve of her greatcoat before continuing. “Turns out the rock in question was a small shrine to Naphthene. Just for a bit of historical background, I should mention that shit like this is exactly why she doesn’t like people putting up shrines. They always do, anyway, and she mostly leaves ’em alone. It’s only worshiping her in an organized manner that gets your ass hammered into the ground by lightning bolts. But anyway, yeah. The prince pissed on a shrine.”

“I bet you get extra smote for that,” Gabriel said in an awed tone.

“Well, Naphthene is as capricious as the sea itself,” Ruda continued. “We always make our offerings to her when setting out on a voyage. It’s no guarantee at all of fair sailing—she just doesn’t play nice with anybody—but not doing it markedly ups your chances of getting sunk. She’s a gigantic bitch, is what I’m sayin’, and doesn’t generally mind having that pointed out. Closest thing we’ve got to a Naphthist dogma is the old saying, ‘the storm cares not.’ Still and all, pissing on a shrine? That is the kind of shit that gets a deity’s attention. Sometimes. If they’re a pretty pissy one to begin with, that is. So the goddess cursed Ankhar with the worst fate that could be inflicted on a pirate.”

“Hanging?” Trissiny said dryly.

“Poverty?” Gabriel suggested.

“A peaceful system of maritime trade enforced by sophisticated modern navies?” Fross chimed.

“Worse,” Ruda said gravely. “Sobriety.”

For a moment, there was silence around the table.

“I just…wow,” Gabriel said at last. “It’s just begging for a smartass comment, but…what can you say? The thing itself is its own punchline.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Ruda said lightly, pausing to take another swig of rum. “Naphthene cursed Prince Ankhar and all his descendants to, and I quote, ‘drink but never be drunk.’ This is why I get a campus exemption to the ban on drinking. The Punaji royal line, despite being completely impervious to the intoxicating effects of…well, anything…suffers a compulsion to consume alcohol.”

“What happens if you don’t drink?” Trissiny asked curiously.

Ruda’s expression darkened. “One of my uncles tried that. I do not want to talk about it.” She took another drink of rum.

“Um,” Juniper said, slowly stroking Jack’s fur, “that’s a neat story and it’s interesting to finally know why you’re immune to drugs—”

“Actually that really straightens out something that had been bugging me!” Fross exclaimed. “If it’s a divine curse, that explains why it didn’t work as well on infernal intoxicants! It probably saved your life when you got hopped up on hthrynxkh blood, Ruda, but didn’t manage to completely obviate the effects like it does everything else. Fascinating!”

“Yes, but my point was,” Juniper said patiently, “why are you telling us this now?”


“Because, as I said, it is story time,” Principia said in response to Farah’s question. The others were silent in the aftermath of her tale, not reaching for the tea or sandwiches which had been delivered while the elf spoke. Principia folded her arms on the table, pushing her teacup away, and leaned forward to stare earnestly at them. “And because it’s a pretty basic rule of command not to ask anything of your troops you’re not willing to do yourself.”

“Holy shit, Locke,” Merry whispered. She looked downright nauseous. “I had no idea… I mean, I knew that guy was skeevy, even before he betrayed us, but I never figured… If I’d even imagined he’d do something like that…”

“Relax, Lang,” Principia said gently. “To look at it another way, I could’ve warned you about him if I wasn’t so tied up in worrying over my own skin. Let’s face it, none of us came out of that mess looking good. Can we just, finally, put it behind us and start over?”

Merry nodded, and gulped. “I… Yeah. I think I like the sound of that.”

“If I take your meaning,” Ephanie said slowly, “you want us to tell you our stories.”

“It’s like this,” the newly-minted sergeant said seriously. “We are not out of the woods, girls. Syrinx got slapped on the wrist, no more. We have four months in which to shape up without having to worry about her descending on us, and probably a small grace period after she’s back in which she’ll be careful not to piss off the High Commander again. But she is not gone, and in fact her last memory of us is the humiliation of being knocked down a peg while we watched. This isn’t over. She’ll be coming for us again, eventually.

“Furthermore,” she went on, her expression growing grimmer, “there’s the fact that Commander Rouvad made it plan she doesn’t like us. She also set us up for future confrontations with Syrinx by arranging for us to be witness to the Bishop’s comeuppance, which let’s face it, was completely unnecessary. That woman is too sharp to have done something like that accidentally or at random. I think, next time we have to take on Syrinx, it’ll be with the tacit approval of the High Commander. She’s setting us up to clash with her.”

“That’s completely bonkers,” Farah objected. “Why?”

“It actually makes perfect sense,” Casey said, frowning. “She can’t get rid of Syrinx without having a suitable replacement—and it might not be smart to get rid of Syrinx anyway, because then she might go over to the Church completely and become an outright enemy. One who knows the Sisterhood’s inner workings. But if she wanted to replace Syrinx…here we are. If we shape up, take her on and take her down, Rouvad has a whole roster of women who can do the Bishop’s job—at least, her political job, I dunno about being a priestess. And if we fail, well, we’re a convenient chew toy for Basra to focus on while Rouvad sets up something else.”

Ephanie sighed heavily. “I hate politics so very much.”

“I am afraid that’s just too damn bad, Avelea,” Principia said firmly. “Politics, as of right now, is what we are. We have at least one powerful enemy who will be coming back for us, and we cannot count on the support of the High Commander when her own interest lies in making us fight our own battles.”

“Captain Dijanerad has our backs,” Farah pointed out. “I mean, Locke, the fact is your little tirade against Syrinx ended on a big fat gendered insult. Rouvad didn’t mention that at all, which I’m pretty sure means she didn’t know about it. Which means Dijanerad didn’t tell her.”

“And that’s something to consider,” Principia said nodding. “But we’ve been over the fact that Shahdi Dijanerad is a good soldier and not much of a political operative at all. No, ladies, what we have to rely on is each other. And right now, we are a big bundle of unknown elements to one another. I love my privacy as much as the next gal, but that’s not going to work. There are too many unasked questions, here, and not enough trust.”

She leaned back, dragging her stare around the group, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “So I went first. Now, we need to know just who and what we are dealing with. I’m sorry to have to put you all on the spot like this, but I’m doing it because I have to. As of this moment, we are family. We succeed together, or we all fail, and the consequences of failure for each of us are likely to be far worse than a damaged military career. You all know that, right?”

“Commander Rouvad pretty much told us that straight out,” Merry said in a hollow tone.

“Yeah,” Principia said grimly, nodding. “So we are not going into one more day without knowing who we’re fighting beside. Who’s next?”


“It’s not even that I think it’s urgent, or that anybody’s in danger,” Ruda said, pouring rum into her teacup while the others stared disconsolately at the steaming pot of mushroom stew now in the middle of the table, “but it’s been a week of watching most of you lot moping and sulking and fidgeting and generally acting off-kilter, and dammit, I’m getting worried. I’m not the only one, either,” she added, nodding at Toby. “Look, guys, I respect your privacy and all, but we’re family, here. There is clearly some unresolved business from the battle this spring weighing on several of us. I know this is hard, but we have got to deal with it. Keepin’ it to yourself isn’t going to help you at all, whatever’s troubling you. Fuck it, I love you guys. We’re all in this together. Let’s deal with it together. Okay?”

Juniper sniffled, tears beading in her eyes, but she was smiling at Ruda as she did so. Toby smiled, too; Trissiny looked thoughtful. Teal was twisting her hands in her lap, stopping only when Shaeine reached over to take one of them in her own.

“Well,” Gabriel said after a moment’s silence, “this is not something I would’ve expected or thought to try, but when you put it that way… Yeah, Ruda, I think you’re right. So, I guess I’ll go first.”

He leaned to one side, drawing the black sword from its sheath, then pushed aside his still-empty bowl and set the elven saber on the table in front of him.

“Everyone, this is Ariel.”

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6 – 9

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“Don’t advance,” Trissiny said quietly. “Any deeper into the room and we can be surrounded in an instant.”

“Excuse me, point of order,” said Ruda. “Didn’t you just launch a religious initiative to open up your cult to demonbloods?”

“Demonbloods,” Trissiny said, her voice rising slightly. “People, native to the mortal plane, with souls, like Gabriel.”

“I would love to not be involved in this, Triss…”

“These are the real thing,” the paladin went on fiercely. “Their existence is a state of perpetual war with our kind.”

“There are a good many ‘kinds’ represented here,” Shaeine observed.

“You know what I meant!”

“Do you think they know we can hear them?” Xsythri asked, turning to look up at Melaxyna.

The succubus drummed her fingernails once on the arm of her throne. “Let me tell you a story, children. Once upon a time I aggravated Arachne Tellwyrn and found myself with the choice of being stuck down here, sent back to Hell or blasted to atoms. This was the lesser evil. While I have done my utmost to thwart her intentions with regard to my fate, it is not lost upon me that if I actually managed to wipe out one of her student groups she would come down here and find extravagant new ways to ruin my day.”

“Isn’t that the whole point, though?” Ruda asked. “I mean…you’re a dungeon boss. If Tellwyrn put you here, it was with the expectation you’d try to kill us, and then we’d kill you.”

“Yes,” Melaxyna replied with a feline smile. “Hence thwarting her intentions. The Descent, my dears, is an instanced soulbound sub-dungeon. Do you understand what that means?”

“Um, no,” said Gabriel. “But I bet Fross does.”

“I sure do!” the pixie all but shouted, buzzing around in frantic circles above their heads. “It means there is a theoretically infinite number of Descents existing simultaneously, but experienced separately by each individual or adventuring party who enters!”

“Ah, but that rule applies to guests,” said Melaxyna languidly, raising one finger. “Those of us who are consigned to be fixtures of the Descent experience all of those realities. Our souls are bound to this place and we perceive all that happens in the various convergent realities, simultaneously.”

“Damn,” said Gabriel with a whistle. “What’s that like?”

“Bloody damn confusing,” Xsythri said.

“Demons don’t have souls,” Trissiny growled.

“Two kinds of people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Melaxyna said sweetly. “The ignorant, and the religious. The first group, at least, will sometimes accept correction. To continue my tale, Tellwyrn’s intention was to have me experience being killed and looted, over and over, often at the same time, while the Descent granted me a kind of twisted immortality. Had I understood the implications before being banished to the Crawl, I’d have just gone back to Hell.” Her flawless lips twisted in a sneer. “Tellwyrn isn’t as smart as she likes to believe, however. While she has a disproportionate influence on the running of things around here, that is because she has cultivated a positive relationship with the Crawl itself. The Crawl is the ultimate arbiter of all our fates, and it is amenable to making accords with other individuals, if approached the right way. I have laboriously built up such an accord, cementing my status as Boss here, and ultimately earning…an exception. Level 2 does not enjoy the sanctuary status of the Grim Visage, but it is outside the dynamic of the Descent. We all exist only once, in this place and time; all travelers through the Descent who pass this way converge in one reality and can interact. That is, until they proceed to another level. It’s a slow day, kids; you’ll usually find other adventurers coming through.”

“Wait, other adventurers?” Toby frowned. “The Crawl is supposed to be sealed except to University students.”

“At the top, yes,” the succubus replied with a shrug. “There are whole societies down here. The goblins and naga are quite organized, with other smaller groups in various nooks and crannies. Then, too, there are occasional Scyllithene drow who worm their way up from the depths, and once in a while a party of very lost gnomes. The Descent was designed to be a loot farm; it’s one of the only consistent sources of fresh resources in the Crawl. It never gets exactly crowded, but we’re rather popular. The point of all this, children, is that I am not asking for your trust. Only for you to acknowledge that I respect my own self-interest, and keep my subjects in line.”

Xsythri made a rude noise; Melaxyna ignored her. “You are safe here. Everyone is. Yes, the residents of Level 2 are all dangerous beings, to a greater or lesser degree. You may regard them as a sort of civilian militia. No one is going to do more than take your coin, and that only in exchange for fair value, but the whole population will descend on anyone who causes trouble.” She smiled again, grimly.

“That’s nearly a threat,” Trissiny said.

“Triss, come on,” Toby exclaimed.

“There’s no nearly about it,” Melaxyna replied, interlacing her fingers and resting her chin upon them. “It’s a threat. I’m hoping you turn out to be sensible enough not to provoke me to act upon it. So far, no group of Arachne’s students has done anything so pointlessly rash. You, paladin, are close to the most irritating guest we have had.”

“Remember that group with the priest and the vampire?” Xsythri asked brightly.

“I said ‘close to.’”

“And then there’s Admestus…”

“Xsythri, shut up.”

“Just so we understand one another,” Trissiny said coldly, “any attempt by your population to ‘descend’ on us will result in you needing a new population.”

“Trissiny,” Toby said firmly, “there does not need to be a fight here. Please stop picking at her.”

Melaxyna rose, snapping her wings once, and descended the steps from her throne. She stroked one of the hellhounds in passing. “There is that,” the succubus said, continuing to pace slowly forward. “A Hand of Avei is not a thing lightly dealt with. I, myself, am a schemer rather than a fighter, hence my status as second-weakest Boss of the hundred in the Descent. And then there’s that dryad; really, she’s a lot more of a game-breaker than you are. No, I don’t believe we could take you, not even close. I’m afraid the very gift that keeps Level 2 separate and coherent also makes us vulnerable. Dead, now, is dead.”

She came to within a few feet of the group, folding her arms under her impressive bosom, and stared Trissiny in the eyes. “Therefore, if it appears that you intend to destroy everything I have built up here and end the lives of the people I protect, I will simply trigger the destructive runes I have placed over every inch of the floor and collapse this entire level into the one beneath it. According to my spellcrafter, the force of that should break Level 3 as well, dropping the lot into the next one down. Any of you who survive the fall would find yourselves buried in rubble with three levels’ worth of severely irate monsters, and good luck to you. Do we understand one another?”

“Perfectly,” Trissiny snapped. “You remain true to your destructive nature.”

“Okay, so!” Gabe said brightly. “On to shopping, then? I for one can’t wait to see what’s available down here. The vendors in the Visage weren’t even up yet when we left.”

“You know what?” Melaxyna tilted her head back, still studying Trissiny’s face. “…no. I don’t believe I care for you arrogant little monkeys.” She turned and strolled away toward her chair, folding her wings tightly against her back. “Behind this throne is the door to Level 3. You may come and go freely, but that’s all. Consider yourselves banned. There will be no business or interaction for you, and I’ll thank you to leave my citizens alone.”

“Now, hold on,” Teal said soothingly. “There’s no reason we can’t reach an understanding…”

“Teal, leave it,” said Trissiny. “We’re better off.”

“Well, you heard the lady,” Xsythri said, folding her shelled arms. “Off you go.”

“Wait,” the bard insisted. “Just wait. You need the custom and frankly we need the resources. Not to mention any source of information and allies.”

“We do not—”

“Yes, we do, Trissiny,” Teal said in exasperation. “Will you please give it a rest?”

“I’m done with this conversation,” Melaxyna said, turning back to stare flatly at them. “And with you. Be gone.”

“Now, look what you did,” said Ruda, prodding Trissiny in the side with her fist. “You went and hurt her feelings.”

Teal drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right…fine.”

She took four paces forward, away from the group, and erupted in hellfire.

Vadrieny’s wings were wider in span than Melaxyna’s; fully extended, they seemed to fill the central open space, stretching so that her pinions nearly brushed the ceiling. She stalked to one side, her talons rasping against the stone floor, and angled herself to keep the succubus and the students both in view.

The effect of her appearance on the residents was instantaneous and remarkable. Melaxyna and Xsythri, with identical expressions of wide-eyed shock, immediately fell to their knees, gaping up at her. The two hellhounds went into a barking frenzy, spitting puffs of fire in her direction. All around the room, demons either knelt or fled and hid themselves behind whatever cover they could find.

“I have absolutely no patience for any more of this nonsense,” Vadrieny declared, her choral voice echoing in the long chamber. She pointed one saber claw at Melaxyna. “If you presume to be in charge here, stop acting like a brat! The children of Vanislaas are supposed to be clever, not prone to throwing tantrums when insulted. And you,” she added with obvious exasperation, swiveling to point at Trissiny, “grow up.”

“Excuse me?” the paladin snapped, reflexively resting a hand on her sword.

“Do you want to make this about force and strength?” Vadrieny shot back. “Fine. You have tried that with me exactly once, Trissiny, and got slapped across the quad for your trouble. And I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much of a chance you don’t have against me,” she added, turning her glare on Melaxyna.

“I would never,” the succubus said hoarsely. “Forgive me, lady, I had no idea you were…”

“Excuse me just a moment,” Vadrieny interrupted her. The two hellhounds were still howling and snarling at her. She took two steps toward them, her talons sinking right into the stone of the floor with a crunch, leaned forward and let out a deafening scream, baring the full complement of her fangs. Melaxyna cringed; Xsythri clapped her hands over her ears. Trissiny reflexively surrounded herself with a bubble of golden light.

When Vadrieny’s scream cut off, there was complete silence. It held for a second, then both hellhounds whimpered and scurried off to hide behind Melaxyna’s throne.

“Much better,” the archdemon said, nodding in satisfaction. “Is everyone through behaving like squabbling children? Good. We will have a nice, civil interaction from here. We will be treated just like any other group of guests, and you, Trissiny, will behave yourself and not make our presence an undue burden upon our hosts. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly,” Melaxyna said, nodding vigorously.

“Well?” Vadrieny prompted, staring at Trissiny.

The paladin drew in a breath and let it out through her nose in a huff. “Fine.”

“I suppose that will do,” the archdemon said dryly. “Honestly, I shouldn’t have to tell you this.”

Ruda cackled and slapped Trissiny on the back. “You just got your manners corrected by a demon, roomie. I bet Avei’s so proud!”

“Ruda,” Toby said firmly, “can we all just stop, please?”

Vadrieny grunted in response to that, then receded. Fire and claws withdrew, leaving Teal standing alone. She shook her head once, stepped back over to the group and prodded the shredded remains of her sandals with a bare toe. “Well…nuts.”

Shaeine strode forward, reached out and entwined her fingers with Teal’s, smiling a hair more broadly than she usually did in public. The bard smiled shyly back.

“Who are you?” Melaxyna asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

“It’s a very long story,” Teal said with a sigh. “I’d rather not get into it.”

“Um,” Xsythri said hesitantly. “How…is it you didn’t know what a hethelax is?”

“I didn’t,” Teal said. “Vadrieny corrected me as soon as I asked.”

“So…you’re…two of you in there?”

“Xsythri!” Melaxyna snapped. “Don’t interrogate the..” She trailed off, looking warily at Teal. “…her. Anyway, we have guests, as we just agreed. I believe they need a tour.”

“Me?” the hethelax whined, hunching down in place. “Now?”

“Now!”


“Well, now I regret having the strongest stomach in the group,” Ruda grumbled. “Here we get real food and I have no more room for it.”

“Yes, your life is such a burden,” Gabriel said solicitously. “Will it make you feel better to fucking stab me?”

“It did last time,” she replied, grinning.

“Are you ever gonna let go of that?” Fross asked.

He huffed and crammed a strip of bacon into his mouth. “Don’ see why I shoul’.”

Trissiny watched them sidelong, the porkchop sitting on her plate untouched.

“It’s safe,” Toby said quietly from across the table. “We would sense it if it were demonically corrupted. Look, see?” He extended a hand over her plate, shining a soft light on her food.

“Knowing it’s safe and feeling safe are two very different things,” she muttered, but picked up the bent fork provided and began sawing off a piece with its edge. This took some doing; the utensil was hardly sharp, and the meat was quite tough.

“Of course, we do a lot more commerce in other kinds of meat,” their host said cheerfully. A sshitherosz demon, he resembled a skeletally thin man about four feet tall with wings and an elongated skull, and had a habit of climbing on furniture like a monkey. “Lots of snake and lizard! Which is actually quite good, not so heavy as this. But cave boars are plentiful in the Descent, and in my experience you surface folk do well to start off with something more familiar.”

“How are boars plentiful?” Juniper asked. Despite the full breakfast she’d eaten, she had tucked into the proffered pork without reservation, apparently not sharing Ruda’s limited capacity. “There’s no sun! I mean, they could eat mushrooms… I don’t see how an ecosystem can even work down here. Not with large animals like boars.”

“Subjective physics, remember?” Fross said brightly. “The rules are different in the Crawl.”

“Hmph,” the dryad said. “Some rules are there for good reason.”

“We do grow some vegetables, using alchemy,” said the demon chef. “But, you know…species native to Hell. Lots of inherent infernal corruption; they don’t tend to agree with mortal digestive systems from this plane. I’ll tell you what, though, if you can find me crop seeds, plus sun crystals and soil, I will fork over every scrap of everything in my possession. I bet I can persuade Mel to do the same.”

“Good bloody luck with that,” Xsythri muttered. She was lounging at the end of the table while the students ate, being as ostentatiously sullen as she could.

“That wouldn’t work in the long term,” Juniper noted. “Soil needs fertilizer… And plants need pollination. You can grow them indoors, but it’s really tricky.”

The sshitherosz blinked his beady eyes. “Um… Seeds, sun crystals, soil and a book on agriculture,” he amended.

“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” Ruda promised.

“This is really generous of you,” Teal said again, smiling at the cook. “I hope it’s not too much of an imposition.”

“Pshaw!” he waved a long, bony hand dismissively, then hopped up onto the sign (lettered in unreadable demonic script) over his grill, grinning down at her. “Not often we get such exalted company! Just so y’know, your ladyship, I really can’t afford to splurge more than once, yeah?”

“I would never ask you to,” she said firmly.

“What the hell are you staring at?” Xsythri burst out, grabbing everyone’s attention. “Never seen a hethelax before?”

“Sorry!” Gabe stammered, his cheeks coloring. “Um, yes, I have, but… I mean, not a female. That is, well, I guess I did once, but I don’t remember… Uh. My mother was a hethelax.”

She snorted. “Well, don’t look at me, kid. I’m glad to say I’ve never been that desperate.” She straightened up, at least partially; she appeared to have a habitual hunch, keeping her knees and elbows slightly flexed, as if the joints didn’t extend fully. “Are you lot about done abusing our hospitality? We’ve got other stops.”

“Damn, lady, what crawled up your butt?” Ruda asked, producing a bottle of ale from within her coat and pulling the cork free.

“Eight rude interlopers and an invisible VIP,” Xsythri said curtly.

“Okay, well, let’s be fair, here. Trissiny’s the only one who was trying to start shit up.”

Trissiny, now chewing a mouthful of stringy pork, glared at her but didn’t attempt to speak.

Xsythri shrugged; her armored plating making a soft rasp. “The boars come from Level 3. Smithic here will pay you to haul more back for us. C’mon, there’s really only one more thing worth seeing.”

“Aw, but we’re all tired from our adventures!” Ruda said merrily. “How much is it to get beds at you very charming little inn?”

“Ruda, enough,” Toby said quietly, pushing his plate back and rising. “Fross, would you be so kind as to preserve the food?”

“You got it!” The pixie darted across the table, hovering momentarily in front of each piece of meat and making them vanish.

“Hey!” Gabriel protested at the sudden loss of his bacon.

“We can finish up next time we halt for a break,” Toby said. “Our guide seems to be in a hurry. I think it’d be better not to ruffle anyone’s feathers more than we have.”

“Well, well,” Xsythri said dryly. “A polite cleric. Now I have truly seen everything.”

“Clerics are usually pretty polite, aren’t they?” Fross asked.

“Not to the likes of me, firefly. Ready? Good. C’mon.”

She strode away, not waiting for them. The students straggled to their feet and trailed after her.

In the far corner of Level 2 stood the big metal arch, linked up to a ramshackle variety of magical equipment, unmistakably a portal of some sort. Beside it stood the hulking form of a baerzurg, a bronze-scaled behemoth with no neck and a head sunken into its upper torso; at their approach, the demon turned from fussing with a rack of control runes and stood patiently watching them.

“This is our real bread and butter,” said Xsythri in a bored tone. “I’ll let Khavibosh explain it to you.”

“Welcome, guests.” The baerzurg’s voice was deep and very hoarse, with wet, raspy sounds underlying each syllable as if his mouth hadn’t been designed for speech. “This is our portal. It can be used to send travelers to any level of the Descent. Not to bring people back, however; it only operates one way.”

“Hey, sweet deal!” Ruda exclaimed. “We can skip right to the end of this horseshit and get Tellwyrn’s box!”

“No,” said Khavibosh. It was hard to read emotion in his voice, if indeed there was any.

“Nothing’s ever that simple,” Toby said fatalistically.

“You may travel only to levels you have previously cleared,” the baerzurg continued. “We exist on the Crawl’s sufferance, and it chooses to enforce certain rules. Much of the impediment of your mission is simple travel time: the Descent is a hundred stories deep, and you must fully cross each level to reach the next stairs. It is unsafe and unwise to camp in the levels, even if you believe them cleared. You will have to travel back and forth, a trip that will grow quite unmanageable as you delve deeper, to rest and resupply. Our portal will remove half that burden. The Crawl permits this simple time-saving measure, but it does not allow cheating.”

“We don’t push its buttons,” Xsythri said flatly. “If we help people cheat, things start to go wrong.”

“Torches won’t stay lit,” Khavibosh rumbled. “Leeches in our water supply. Sudden infestations of bats.”

Xsythri grinned unpleasantly. “Rocks fall, everyone dies.”

“So,” Ruda said, “I guess bribing you isn’t really a prospect, then?”

“You have nothing to offer that would make the loss of our livelihood worthwhile,” Khavibosh replied.

“And it costs what to use the portal?” she asked.

“One silver coin per person.”

Ruda grinned. “Pixies ride free?”

“One silver coin per person,” the baerzurg said inexorably.

“Hm.” Gabriel rubbed his chin. “That waystone Shamlin had is starting to look real attractive. Between that thing and this, we could cut out travel time altogether. Set it to Level 2 and just zip back and forth.”

“We could even skip going back to the Visage!” Fross said.

“We will go back to the Visage,” Trissiny said firmly. “I am not sleeping here.”

“And who’s gonna buy the waystone, hm?” Ruda asked, turning to Gabe and planting her fists on her hips. “I don’t see you coming up with ten decabloons.”

“Well,” he grinned. “Of course, we’d have to owe you. But hey, we’re here to look for treasure anyway, right?”

“Maybe we can spare you a little coin,” said a voice from behind them. The group turned to behold Melaxyna approaching, her hellhounds flanking her. The succubus wore a grin and was bouncing an object in the palm of her hand. “The thing about waystones is they require both a skilled magic user and a great familiarity with the dungeon to make. They’re rare, sure, if you’re stuck gathering up leftovers like Shamlin is. Khavibosh, however, has the skill.”

“Hey, that’s really impressive!” Fross said. “I thought baerzurgs weren’t even intelligent.”

“FROSS!” multiple voices shouted. The pixie dimmed slightly, fluttering down toward the ground.

“What? What’d I say?”

“Baerzurgs are sentient,” Melaxyna said with a grin. “Most are…well, intelligent might be overstating it. The high-caste baerzurgs, though, the magic users, are as smart as anyone, and Khavibosh is definitely one of those. Thus, we can provide you a waystone for mere pocket change. Ten silver bits and you can basically cut out all the walking.” She held up the waystone, giving them a good look.

Unlike the smooth, pale stone Shamlin had shown them, it was glossy and black, apparently carved from obsidian. Diamond-shaped, it was composed of hard edges, and had a similar spiraling rune, though this one glowed a dull red-orange and was a series of straight lines and sharp angles rather than one smooth curve.

“That’s made from infernal magic,” Trissiny snapped.

“See, you’re just leaping to conclusions, now,” Melaxyna said smugly, bouncing the waystone in her palm again. “I know this because it is completely, entirely sealed. No magic leakage of any kind, and fully safe for anyone to carry without risk of infernal corruption. Your vaunted sense evil trick wouldn’t even register this stone.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Toby said carefully. “The room’s full of demons… It’s like trying to find one leaf in a forest.”

“I’ll remind you of my previous speech about how we do business here, then. It gains me nothing to trick or trap you, kids. This stone is made with infernal magic, yes, but causes no infernal radiation. It’s completely harmless unless you crack it open. Which… Don’t do that.”

“What would happen if we opened it?” Fross asked.

“Well,” the succubus mused, “you would die. And then some other stuff would happen, which you’d be in no position to care about.”

The students exchanged a round of glances.

“It sounds like a good deal,” Teal said hesitantly.

“Let’s think on it,” said Trissiny. “Clear a few levels, get a feel for—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, we’ll take it,” Ruda exclaimed.

“Ruda!”

“I will take it, then,” the pirate said, grinning at her. “You may all use my waystone if you wish, just because I’m so generous.”

“It’s linked to Level 2,” Melaxyna informed them. “And that is not changeable. Trace the rune with a fingertip and you, and anyone holding onto you, will be brought back here. Just link arms when you’re ready to travel and have one member of the group activate it.”

“Of course it’s linked to here,” Trissiny muttered.

“Lady, you got yourself a deal!” Ruda reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.

Melaxyna studied her thoughtfully for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Trissiny, then Teal. “I must say… Despite your several faults, you seem to be a trustworthy group.”

“We do our best,” said Toby.

“Mm.” The succubus tossed the stone to Teal, who, taken by surprised, fumbled in catching it, just barely avoiding dropping it.

“Hey!” Ruda protested.

“We will call that…a loan,” Melaxyna said with another catlike smile. “An investment. If Arachne hasn’t changed her pattern, you have three weeks, yes? Splendid. You may pay me for the stone before leaving the Crawl… Or.” Her smile broadened into an outright grin, her tail beginning to lash behind her. “If you can tempt Rowe out of his little hidey-hole and into my clutches, that stone, and anything else within my power to grant, are yours for the taking.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

6 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“I can’t decide if we’re getting the real, authentic dungeon experience, here, or the opposite of that,” Gabriel said, standing with his fists planted on his hips, studying the square stone doorway that led to the Descent. It was innocuous enough, a simple gap in the wall on which their little ledge abutted, but beside the door a square block of clearly carved stone had been sunk into the wall. On it were glowing letters:

LEVEL 1

“Seems kinda fake,” Ruda agreed.

“It’s a little too…on the nose?” Fross said uncertainly. “I mean…lots of dungeons are organized by levels, but that’s done by the delvers for their own convenience, and the distinctions are all kind of…rough? And a little arbitrary. This doesn’t seem normal.”

“Well,” Toby said with a smile, “the longer we stand out here talking about it, the longer we can avoid going in there.”

“Ah, hell with it,” said Gabe, grinning and drawing his wand from an inner coat pocket. “Bring on the loot!”

Trissiny stared at him. “Have you been carrying that the whole time?”

“Well, sure.”

“But when we came down here…you’d just woken up. We thought we were doing a project in the library.”

“Well, yeah, I usually carry it,” he said, still grinning. “C’mon, I’ve been practicing with this every available chance since Sarasio. Did you think I just liked waving it around as some kind of phallic substitute?”

“Hm,” she grunted, then turned, drew her sword and stepped warily into the Descent.

“Oh, my gods,” Gabriel shouted behind her. “That’s actually what you thought, isn’t it!”

“Well, in her defense,” Ruda said, clapping him on the shoulder as she strode past, “she’s met you.”

The Descent’s initial approach was reminiscent of that of the Crawl itself. They trooped quietly down a staircase set in a neatly-cut tunnel, lacking lights, but this one was far shorter, ending in another square door easily within sight of the entrance. At the bottom, Trissiny led the way through, both her sword and shield out, now, then planted herself protectively in front of the group while they clustered into the chamber.

“Pretty,” Fross whispered.

The room had a flat ceiling, and flat walls stretched away to either side of the entrance, but that was the only visible sign that the space had been deliberately made. The floor was so cracked and broken that it appeared almost as natural as the bottom of a cave, sections sunken or thrust unevenly up as though in the aftermath of an earthquake. Water dripped audibly in the distance, and trickled across the stonework here and there in small streams. The walls were obscured by a dense growth of mushrooms of every possible description. Some were nearly the size of trees, with stands of smaller ones springing up like clumps of grass or creeping around the bases of the big stalks like ground cover. Footstool-sized toadstools popped up here and there, and frilly growths even hung from some of the huge caps of the biggest mushrooms like curtains of moss. It seemed at least half the fungus species present were luminescent, either biologically or magically, and lit the mushroom forest with soft glows in a variety of pale colors that left it dim, partially glimpsed and entirely mysterious. Through the soft, shadowed shapes, the walls of the chamber were completely out of sight.

“Mushrooms,” Ruda muttered. “For fuck’s sake, is every level gonna be themed? Dammit, Tellwyrn…”

“Stay together,” Trissiny said grimly. “Watch where you step—the ground looks slick. And be wary. There should be monsters of some kind in here. The fact that we can’t see them is not a good sign.”

They crept forward, following her; Gabriel brought up the rear, Fross darting here and there above them and erratically illuminating their surroundings. There was a path, of sorts, or at least a cleared section that seemed too linear to be accidental. At one point, they crossed a rough but obviously deliberately-built footbridge over a gurgling brook.

“It’s too quiet,” Teal all but whispered.

“Will you stop saying shit like that?” Ruda growled.

“Ooh!” At Gabriel’s sudden cry, they all whirled to face him, several of them jumping in surprise. “Look! Glittershrooms!” He was pointing at a tall stand of mushrooms with conical caps which sparkled in Fross’s light as if studded with chunks of crystal.

“Oh, for the love of—can you get stoned on your own time, please?” Ruda snapped.

“I wasn’t gonna eat them,” he said defensively. “It’s just… Look at the size of those. We’re supposed to be looking for treasure, right? Do you have any idea what those are worth?”

“Gabriel,” said Toby, “I’m not in the habit of ordering you around, but I think this merits an exception. I forbid you to enter the drug trade.”

“Listen,” Juniper said suddenly.

They instinctively clustered closer together at the sudden rustling that rose up all around them. Ruda drew her sword; Trissiny fell into a combat stance, raising her shield. Gabriel brandished his wand at the shadows, eyes darting wildly.

“You see what happened, don’t you,” Ruda said quietly.

“Yes,” Trissiny replied, watching their surroundings. The sounds were clearly audible, the unmistakable patter of numerous small feet and a much more unnervingly unidentifiable squeaking. “Whatever it is waited for us to get fully in, surrounded by the mushrooms, before moving. They’re intelligent, then, not animals.”

“Plenty of animals are clever enough to do that,” Juniper argued. “A lot actually—oh! Oh, I know what this is! Excuse me.” She gently pushed between Ruda and Shaeine, stepping out on her own and disregarding Trissiny’s hissed warning. “Caplings!”

As if on cue, a knee-high creature scuttled out of the shadows and right up to her. It looked like nothing so much as a mobile mushroom with spindly arms; if it had feet, they were hidden beneath the bulbous base of its stalk. Its narrow cap angled backward, with a cluster of five beady little eyes facing them just under it. In the fingerless little pads it had instead of hands it clutched a steel-tipped arrow, just the way a full-sized person would hold a spear.

“Caplings?” Trissiny said warily. “I’m not familiar with those.”

“I’m surprised to see them outside the Deep Wild,” Juniper said, bending down to pat the capling on the top of its cap. It made a delighted little trilling sound. “They lived in some of the swamps there, sort of a magical by-product of lots of life energy.”

“Cute little fucker, isn’t he?” Ruda said with a grin. “So, it’s…harmless, then?”

“Well, no,” Juniper said brightly. She picked up the capling, cradling it like a cat; it chirped ecstatically, snuggling close to her and dropping its arrow. “They hunt in packs, you see. There are dozens of them around us. A pack this size can easily take down a large prey animal. Or a human, they tend to get any of those that wander into the swamps.”

“…I’m just gonna get all kinds of sick of mushrooms on this trip, aren’t I?” Ruda asked darkly.

“He doesn’t…seem aggressive,” Gabriel said with some hesitation.

“Well, yeah,” Juniper replied, smiling at him over the capling’s head. “I’m a dryad. They’re fae creatures.”

“So you’re basically…what, their queen?” Teal asked.

“Eh…it doesn’t really work like that. But no, no fairy would attack a dryad. In fact, they’ll help us! This fellow and his pack will lead the way through this room. We’ll be out in no time!”

“Handy,” said Toby.

“Yup!” Juniper said cheerfully, holding the capling out at arm’s length and beaming at it. “They’re also really tasty, if—” She broke off abruptly, a sequence of emotions flashing across her face too quickly to be identified, then swiftly bent and placed the capling on the ground, turning her back to the rest of the group. It hopped up and down twice, chirping, then scuttled off down the path. “Come on,” she said curtly, following.

They moved off after her more slowly, keeping quiet. The rustling continued around them, but as the group proceeded, more caplings appeared, mostly clustering around Juniper up ahead. They were as varied in size and appearance as the mushrooms themselves, though none stood any higher than the dryad’s waist. The rest of the students hung back a bit, keeping Juniper and her new entourage in sight but maintaining a berth between them and the caplings, many of whom were armed with arrows and daggers—or spears and swords, as such appeared in their hands.

“Sooo,” Ruda said very softly after a couple of minutes, “we’re just gonna keep ignoring that, are we?”

“What?” asked Fross.

“I wish I had a better idea,” Toby murmured.

“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Gabriel, just as quietly. “I’ve asked. Weekly. It didn’t seem smart to push any harder than that.”

“I’m not sure we can afford to respect that forever,” said Trissiny, “or even much longer. Aside from the fact that she’s our friend, her emotional issues… Well, verbal outbursts can escalate into physical ones, and Juniper could cause a lot of damage.”

“Wait, what?” Fross demanded.

“Keep your voice down,” Ruda hissed at her. “And Boots, what exactly do you propose to do? It’s not like we can make her decide to open up. It’s like the old joke: Where does a dryad sleep?”

“Anywhere she wants,” Trissiny replied automatically. Abruptly, she came to a stop, letting out a startled laugh. “Oh! It’s a double meaning! Because dryads are promiscuous and too powerful to— I just got that!”

“I will never understand how someone so sheltered can be so stab-happy,” Ruda said wonderingly.

Shaeine cleared her throat. “As a point of reference, Juniper has mentioned that dryads can adjust the acuity of their senses. I would not make assumptions concerning what is and is not within her earshot.”

The group fell silent at that.

“Hey, are you guys coming?” Juniper called from up ahead. “Don’t worry, they won’t bother you! You’re with me, after all.”

“Right,” Trissiny said more loudly. “Coming.” She suited the words with action, picking up her pace a little. The others followed, staying as close together as they comfortably could on the narrow path.

The mushroom forest was disorienting. Filled entirely with soft, rounded shapes and confusing patterns of dim light, it made it difficult to maintain a sense of direction. The path didn’t help, meandering here and there around giant mushroom stalks, pools of water and crags of broken stonework. Even time seemed to condense and distort in that mysterious environment, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before another wall hove into view between the shrooms.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a boss or something?” Gabriel asked as they formed up in a cleared space in front of another door. Beyond this, yet another set of steps descended into darkness.

“Oh, there’s a big capling,” Juniper said earnestly, “the alpha of this pack. He’s sleeping, though.”

“We don’t get to fight the boss because he’s sleeping?” Fross asked incredulously.

“Okay, seriously, glowbell, you’re taking this dungeon stuff way too literally,” said Ruda. “Level bosses? Come on. Real life isn’t organized like that.”

“This isn’t real life,” the pixie said petulantly. “It’s a dungeon. There are traditions.”

No sooner had she spoken than there came a flash of light, followed by a cascade of sparks, and glowing words appeared on the wall to the right of the door:

LEVEL 2

Directly below that, in a small alcove in the stone, there came another spray of sparkles and tiny, plain-looking chest appeared with a soft chiming sound.

“Goddamn it, Tellwyrn,” Ruda groaned.

“I feel like that was flashier than it needed to be,” Gabriel agreed.

“Well, might as well see what we won,” Teal said reasonably, edging closer to the chest and keeping a wary eye on the caplings. Juniper was busily shooing them away; they seemed reluctant to leave her, but did begin trickling off, back into the mushroom forest. The bard knelt, opening the chest and rummaging around in it. “Let’s see…”

“Well?” Gabriel asked eagerly.

Teal stood up, grimacing. “My friends, we have triumphantly attained one plain steel dagger, fifteen silver coins with Professor Tellwyrn’s face on them, and a pair of pants.”

“Fucking Tellwyrn,” Ruda growled.

“…good pants?” Gabe asked hopefully.

“Eh.” Teal shrugged, holding up the garment in question. “Looks like corduroy, sorta like your coat. Wouldn’t match, though…at least I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell in this light, but I’m pretty sure this is…maroon?”

“Got ’em!” Fross zoomed over, making the loot disappear as she had the leftovers of their breakfast. “Cloth pants are caster gear, so… Shaeine, how are you set for pants?”

“Quite comfortably, thank you,” the drow replied placidly.

“Ugh, forget the goddamn pants,” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s just get on with it. Hopefully the bullshit gets less shitty from here.”

Trissiny again led the way down. This flight of stairs ended in a landing below, turning a corner and obscuring their final destination from view. The paladin paused on the landing, waiting for the others to form up, before proceeding carefully the rest of the way.

Her caution turned out to be warranted. The doorway at the bottom of the stairs opened onto a semicircular space made of metal screens, with a curtain-covered door right in the middle. Torches provided a cheerful orange light, and there was a babble of voices and noise from beyond the metal barrier that sounded like nothing so much as a town square on market day. Trissiny had increasingly tensed as she drew closer to the bottom, though, as had Toby, and upon stepping onto the flat ground, the others could immediately tell why.

A figure had stood from her perch on a stool beside the door at the sound of their approach and was watching them eagerly, if rather warily, as they all piled out of the stairwell.

“Hello, hello!” she said, regarding them with what was probably meant to be a warm smile but came out looking rather predatory. “Welcome, welcome, travelers, to Level 2!”

“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, peeking out from behind Toby’s shoulder. “What…what is that?”

The woman wore a plain and rather shabby dress that seemed to have been hastily assembled from sackcloth, but no one paid that any mind. She was human in proportion, but thick, glossy growths of some kind of carapace covered her lower arms and legs, making her limbs look rather like crab pincers, complete with blunted claws on her fingers and toes. A similar growth covered her forehead, stopping just above her featureless, pitch-black eyes like a helmet, and plates of the natural armor protected her shoulders. Her skin, where the carapace didn’t cover it, was subtly textured with a pattern rather like a snake’s scales. A short, thick tail waved behind her, and she hunched slightly at the elbows and knees, as if her armor plating prevented her from fully straightening the joints.

“That,” Trissiny said grimly, “is a hethelax demon.”

“That?” the hethelax asked wryly, tilting her head. “Well. You’re not as ill-mannered as some adventurers, though frankly that isn’t saying much. One of Tellwyrn’s bunches, aren’t you? I’ve not seen you before, you must be the new— Holy shit, is that a dryad?!”

“Well, look who’s popular,” Ruda said, jabbing Juniper with her elbow and grinning.

“Gabriel, stay at the back,” Trissiny said curtly.

“For fuck’s sake, what is it with you?” he snapped. “I’m not going to run off and join—”

“That isn’t what I was concerned about,” she shot back. A subtle golden light rose up around her, clinging close to her armor.

“Ah,” he said sheepishly, shuffling backward. Trissiny’s aura expanded as he moved out of the way.

“Whoah, whoah, cut that out,” the hethelax protested, holding up a clawed arm to shield her eyes. “Damn Arachne and her melodrama, I would think people would start telling you lot what to expect down here. Will you please keep it in your pants? Level 2 is a safe zone!”

“A safe zone that has a demon for a doorkeeper?” Toby asked warily.

“Well, it is a demon level,” she said.

“I fucking knew it,” Ruda grunted. “Themed levels. Fucking Tellwyrn.”

“Weapons aren’t going to be effective, except mine,” Trissiny said, keeping her eyes locked on the demon. “Hethelaxi are all but indestructible, but not strong. Divine magic is—”

“Stop!”

The curtain was flung open and another figure stalked through, spiny wings flaring open to fill the space and block their view of the now-cringing hethelax. The new arrival wore a short, clinging red dress that concealed little of her milky skin, and a thunderous scowl.

“What is it with you University kids?” the succubus ranted. “Were you all raised in a barn? What has to be going on in your heads that you think barging into someone’s home and assaulting the first person to greet you is acceptable behavior? You!” She pointed imperiously at Shaeine. “Drow! You’re a cleric, I can feel it from here despite this thug in front flaring up. Are you Scyllithene or Themynrite?”

“I am a priestess of Themynra,” Shaeine said slowly.

“Good! C’mere.” The demon beckoned to her with a peremptory motion, tossing her head and sending red-tinged black curls cascading.

“You don’t need to do anything, Shaeine,” Trissiny said firmly.

“With respect, Trissiny, I think you are mistaken,” Shaeine replied, easing carefully forward through the group. “I believe I know what she intends. If you would kindly diminish your light somewhat?”

“I don’t see the point in this,” Trissiny muttered, but acquiesced, not taking her wary gaze off the two demons.

“It is a simple matter of theological and magical alignment,” the priestess said quietly, moving up to stand beside her. “The light given to you by the Pantheon burns all demonkind, but to invoke Themynra’s power is to call upon her judgment, and she accounts for much more than one’s plane of origin in discerning friend from foe.” She held up one hand, and a cool silver glow emerged from it, swelling outward to wash over the succubus and the hethelax cowering behind her.

The succubus shivered, rubbing her arms as if cold. “Ugh…that feels weird.” She fixed a steely gaze upon Trissiny. “Nothing like the judgment of a vengeful goddess, however. At this range that would burn my skin right off. Are you satisfied, cleric?”

“She’s a paladin, actually,” Gabriel said helpfully.

The demon’s crystalline blue eyes darted from the device on Trissiny’s shield to the same golden eagle on her breastplate, and she curled her lip. “Ugh. And an Avenist. We are quite simply not going to have any kind of a reasonable discussion, then, are we?”

“We don’t seem to be progressing in that direction,” Trissiny snapped.

“If I may?” Shaeine said politely, bowing. “We are quite in the dark as to this situation, madame…?”

“Melaxyna,” the succubus said with a smile. “Or Mel to my friends. A title is not necessary, but I am the boss of this level.”

“Yup!” said the hethelax from behind her. “Kill her for shiny loots!”

“And this is Xsythri,” Melaxyna said calmly. Her nimble tail lashed out, wrapping around one of Xsythri’s ankles and yanking her leg out from under her, sending the hethelax tumbling to the floor with a squawk.

“Charmed,” said Shaeine. “This is—”

“Child, I truly do not care,” the succubus interrupted. “You’re here, and you’ll be wanting to continue your little adventure. That is what’s important here. Well, come with me, then.” She turned and sashayed back through the door, flicking the curtain out of her way with a contemptuous gesture.

“I do not like this,” Trissiny said darkly. “I can feel demons…everywhere.”

“Like I said,” Xsythri snipped, “it’s a demon level. Well? C’mon in if you’re coming.” She ducked through the curtain after shooting Trissiny a dirty look.

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. “…right. I guess there’s nowhere to go but forward. Stay behind me.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, unclench for two seconds,” Ruda snorted, shoving out from behind her and swaggering forward. She ducked through the curtain. Trissiny darted after her with a guttural noise of frustration, leaving the rest to follow.

Beyond the curtain, demons were indeed everywhere.

Level 2 appeared to be a single, wide-open space, lit by an assortment of bonfires and free-standing torches that added both heat and a smoky, sour smell that seemed to suit the chamber’s inhabitants. Off to the right of the entrance were pens and cages containing a number of non-sentient demon species, as well as a constant caterwauling of their various cries; another hethelax, this one male, was trudging along between the rows, carrying a hefty broom. Running toward the opposite side of the chamber from that were what appeared to be free-standing market stalls containing a variety of wares; roughly-painted signs advertized food, alchemy supplies, weapons, poisons and other gear. Left from the door was a space clumsily walled off by scraps of wood, metal and canvas. In the far corner stood an enormous black arch, rigged up to rusted-looking modern enchanting equipment, which was clearly a portal of some kind. The hulking form of a baerzurg demon stood before this, fiddling with the machinery. As the students stared around, a pack of imps, horned ape-like creatures no bigger than the smallest of the caplings, darted past them, snickering. Other demons went about their business on all sides, most pausing to inspect the new arrivals, though none approached.

“Holy shit,” Gabriel marveled. “It’s…it’s a village.”

“It’s a little slice of hell,” Trissiny grated.

“It’s a peaceful place, at least so far,” Shaeine said firmly. “I approve of caution, but let us not initiate needless hostilities.”

“Well, do come on,” Melaxyna called from up ahead. Directly down the open center of the big chamber, a throne was set up opposite the door, almost to the far wall. It towered over them, reached by a short flight of stairs; the whole thing was roughly-carved from faceted obsidian and haphazardly draped with a length of red velvet, an effect which was at once barbaric and quite striking.

Melaxyna sat upon it, smirking down at them with her wings arched behind and above her. Xsythri stood off to one side, plated arms folded, staring at them impatiently. Two hellhounds sat upright on either side of the throne’s steps—actual hellhounds, not khankredahg demons. They were slim, sleek and might have passed for coal-black racing hounds if not for their ridged horns, flaming red eyes and the outsized talons which sprang from their paws. As the students watched, one yawned, emitting a small puff of flame.

“Come, come,” the enthroned succubus called out brightly. “Welcome to Level 2! Make yourselves at home, do some shopping, avail yourselves of any of the many amenities we offer. Only respect the peace and order of this place while you’re here…if you know what’s good for you. We have a great deal that should be of interests to a wise adventuring party. Xsythri will be only too happy to escort you around!”

The hethelax snorted so hard they could clearly hear it across the room.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Ruda muttered, folding her arms. “At some point in our oh-so-dangerous dungeon crawl are we maybe going to get to fucking fight something?”

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