Sarriki finally entered the room proper, her eyes coldly fixed on Teal. There was something animalistically intent in that gaze, like a hungry coyote focusing on an inattentive rabbit. For all of that, and the naga’s generally alien appearance, Teal felt no fear. It was partly her knowledge of the sanctuary effect in the Visage, partly the fact that whatever a naga might do to a human, there were few things on or below the earth which posed a serious threat to Vadrieny, but partly—perhaps, even, mostly—the sense that she understood what was happening here. That sense had brought her to this juncture; it hadn’t misled her so far.
She lifted the snake flute the last few inches to her lips and began to play.
At the first thin, reedy note, Sarriki froze, her eyes widening. She still stared at Teal, but the menace was abruptly gone from her face, replaced by a complex expression. Wonder, longing, sorrow, too many emotions for her features to easily process. When Teal glided into the notes of the unlocking melody inscribed on the walls of the naga shrine, however, Sarriki finally let her eyes drift closed. Slowly, she eased her head backward, listening.
Then she began to dance.
It was a sinuous motion, unsurprisingly. She rose higher (the ceiling in the kitchen was remarkably spacious), supporting her weight on a smaller portion of her long tail, first swaying gently from side to side. As the melody progressed, her whole spine began to undulate subtly, shoulders tilting back and forth, arms rising to move gently with the rhythm. A human woman would have been moving her hips seductively to achieve that kind of sway, but on the naga, Teal couldn’t help noticing the motion did not seem sexual.
At least, until Sarriki shifted her gyrations to roll her body slowly from back to front, rather than side to side, letting her hands trail behind her. Teal very nearly missed a breath, but managed not to falter. She hadn’t actually noticed it before, but Sarriki was beautiful. Both in the alluring way a woman is beautiful, and in the wild manner of an animal. Or perhaps, she simply hadn’t been before, until she felt a reason to be. Suddenly, the resemblance was there; the statues in the shrine were no longer just a vaguely remembered face, but a familiar one.
Her dance grew more complex, the languid undulations of her arms growing more precise and choreographed, her simple swaying developing into gyrations that coiled her around herself, keeping her tail moving so that it looked at certain moments as if she were balancing upon a single loose knot of serpent coils. The fins decorating her head flared rhythmically, and even finger motions began to appear as ever more precision and rhythm worked its way into the motions of her hands.
Teal reached the end of the fairly short melody and simply launched into it again. Sarriki showed no signs of halting in her dance; somehow, the idea of ending her music was unthinkable.
The bard simply let the notes flow through her and out of her. It wasn’t a familiar piece in the way of the tunes she had known and practiced all her life, but she remembered it well, and it was beautiful, powerful enough on its own to command the spirit and take her drifting away as all truly good music did. Out the notes poured, seeming to hold enough life of their own that they demanded only a small share of her concentration. She was free to stare, over the sinuous flute and her own shifting fingers, at the dance of the naga.
Sarriki never once opened her eyes, fully immersed in the music and the motions of her own body. She swayed, wound and wove around herself, practically gliding in place. Her face expressed silent rapture the entire time.
Teal almost didn’t notice the song was coming to an end on the second repetition, but Sarriki’s motions directed her attention to it, drawing to a nearly frenzied peak upon the last sounding of the theme, her whole spine arched and hands thrown backward, and then, as the final notes sounded, she rolled her body forward, coils sliding out from beneath her, and finished on a kind of bow. Lifted high off the ground on a portion of the tip of her tail that seemed too small to support her, she had most of her length arched for balance, her upper body actually hanging forward with her head pointed toward the ground, arms up and crossed, facing down. Forefingers and thumbs extended, pinkies half-curled, the other fingers tucked against her palms. It was odd how that little detail so caught Teal’s attention.
For a moment there was silence, the music echoing in their minds after it no longer echoed in the room, as music did.
Slowly, Sarriki straightened herself out, settling her coils back to the floor and lifting her head; Teal gently lowered the flute at the same motion, almost as if they were connected by strings that moved them unison. Finally, the naga opened her eyes.
One tear slid from the inner corner of each. She didn’t move to wipe them away.
“We had such festivals,” she all but whispered. “Even in the naga courts, resources are not plentiful. No feasting, no over-burning of fuel…nothing you would probably recognize as a party. But such joy. The music, the chants, artworks created…and dancing. Oh, how we danced. How we danced. On those precious days, I could come down from my high pedestal and join in. I did so love to dance that way, for my consorts.”
She fell silent. Teal opened her mouth, finding only then that she had no idea what to say. Somehow, something fell out of her lips anyway.
“You were beautiful.”
“I was,” Sarriki murmured, a smile curling her mouth. Her eyes were still far away. “Oh, I was.”
“What happened?” Teal asked quietly.
The naga drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. It made her whole, long body arch slightly. “Many things. It’s a long story, as dull to recite as it was painful to live through. You should be glad, for the sake of your party, that I am here and not where I’m supposed to be, bard. Why are you not where you should be? The others walked into what they must have thought would be a fight. That demon of yours would be useful.”
“Vadrieny doesn’t use lethal force, out of consideration for me. And…anyway, this seemed more important.”
“More important.” Sarriki sighed again, wistfully this time. “At least to one of us, yes. I had never thought to hear that melody again. Once, I might have been furious at you for raising the memory. Now… Now, I feel I owe you greatly.” Finally her eyes swam back into focus, fixing on Teal’s own. “Where did you learn it? You can’t have traveled all the way down to the courts.”
“There’s…a shrine,” Teal said carefully. “Not close, but not that far down. It held the waystone the others used to get to Level 100.”
“A waystone? In my shrine?” For just a moment, anger creased the corners of Sarriki’s eyes, but just as suddenly she relaxed, letting out a rueful chuckle. “Ah, yes… Arachne. She does redecorate as she sees fit, does she not?”
“I’ve noticed that, yeah.”
“Well, speaking of that.” She began to slither forward again, and Teal instinctively shifted aside, circling away from her. The naga didn’t attempt to corner her, though, gliding past to stop in front of the door. “I owe you something, and I owe nothing to that incubus. Yes, I believe I shall help you after all.”
“You…have the keys?” Teal asked carefully. Sarriki wore a simple, stark vest of leather that had no pockets and fit her torso very tightly, with nothing on her lower body. It was hard to imagine where she might be carrying keys.
The naga shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at Teal in amusement. “These locks aren’t my work. This represents the fruits of years of obsessive labor by Rowe. Amid all the junk that percolates through this tavern, once in a while we find a few real treasures. Any that have to do with sealing or locking things, he appropriates. Over a decade he’s been at it. Never mind the locks you can see, this door is secured by magics you should fear to stand too close to. It just might be the most impenetrable door in the entire Crawl, now.”
“Oh,” Teal said, deflating. “Well, if you can tell me where to—”
She broke off as Sarriki languidly waved a hand over the edges of the door. One by one, locks snapped open and popped loose, some tumbling to the floor. In seconds, every impressive fixture securing the door shut was disarmed, falling harmlessly away. As a final touch, the latch itself turned, seemingly on its own, and the door eased a few inches open with a soft squeak.
“How…did you do that?” Teal inquired.
“Clever people are not necessarily wise people,” Sarriki murmured, smiling down at the door handle as she reached out to grip it. “Rowe is quite the smooth operator…but.” She snorted softly. “After years of lording it over his little domain, he’s allowed himself to think he truly rules the roost, forgetting that he stays in place because Arachne chooses to allow it. It doesn’t occur to him that he bosses me around because I let him. And once he decided all those drow who trickle through aren’t useful to his plans, he stopped bothering to wonder why they keep trying to sneak up to the University. Heh.”
She pulled the door fully open, revealing a staircase housed in a narrow corridor that descended into darkness, cut roughly from the surrounding stone. The naga turned her head to smile coldly at Teal. “How do I dismantle locks in my own Crawl? Please. Your friends are hard-hitters, but you are not the biggest, baddest thing that ever came adventuring in these depths. I have faced scores of those, and crushed them all.” She turned back to the doorway, hiding her expression from Teal. “And if hauling terrible drinks for sentient detritus and sucking up to a smarmy sex demon is the price I must pay for never having to do that again… I’ll take it, and consider it a bargain.”
Sarriki slithered forward, ducking to vanish into the stairwell. Her voice echoed back, somewhat muffled. “Come on, bard. See what you’ve won.”
Teal waited until the tip of the naga’s tail was well out of reach before following. Both because it would have been awkward to step on it in the dark, and because it gave her a moment to compose her features.
“So…” Fross said. “He’s the boss? That’s kinda anticlimactic. If Melaxyna was relegated to Level 2, what’s this guy got?”
“I? Boss of the Descent?” Grinning down at them, Rowe leaned against the stone Naga Queen’s head, dragging the backs of his fingers sensuously down the curve of her cheek. “If that’s the case, this is a terrible likeness. Happens every time I pose for a statue. They never get my good side. Or my legs.”
“Where is she, then?” Toby asked calmly.
“Well, she isn’t here, so I guess that means your little adventure is at an end,” Rowe replied, still smirking. “No boss, no prize. You’re only the second group to even get this far, and they walked out empty-handed, too, for the same reason you’re about to: you cheated.”
“We did not!” Juniper snapped.
“We kinda did, though,” Ruda said more thoughtfully. “But there’s a difference between cheating and cheating. The Crawl allowed this. Hell, it encouraged this.”
“Oh, you poor little truffles,” Rook said, shaking his head sadly. “Arbitrary distinctions between shenanigans that do and don’t count? Long build-ups to disappointing conclusions? Doing everything right and getting nothing for your efforts? Welcome to reality.”
He hopped down from the statue’s shoulder, fanning his wings to catch the air, and settled lightly to the ground in front of them. “The Crawl isn’t the world, kids, at least not to you. The poor bastards who have to live down here are one thing. The adventurers of old who’d come through looking for fortune and glory, they were something else again. But you? You’re on a field trip. This is a class exercise, with abundant safeguards in place to keep you from getting too badly killed. You’re floating along on a personal feather pillow, thanks to the Crawl and Tellwyrn. So be grateful this hasn’t gone worse for you. I told you the simple truth: life is disappointment. You get an object lesson in that inescapable fact without the agonizing consequences that usually accompany it. Be grateful, my little cream puffs. You’ve won the greatest prize of all.” He grinned, widely and unpleasantly. “Education!”
“Uh huh,” said Ruda, glancing around at the others. “So, do we all agree this asshole’s completely full of it?”
“He’s got a point, though.”
“Fross!” Ruda exclaimed.
“Oh, no, he’s totally trying to scam us,” the pixie clarified hastily. “I’m just saying, he’s got some good points in there. Removed from the present context, and maybe with the cynicism toned down a bit, it’s stuff worth thinking about.”
“The most effective way to lie is with a cunningly misrepresented truth,” Trissiny said flatly.
“She’s quoting doctrine again,” Ruda stage whispered. “You can tell. She’s using that voice.”
“This is fantastic,” Rowe said merrily. “Have you kids considered giving up this adventuring bit and going onto the stage?”
“Welp, if there’s no prize and this is all an exercise in disappointment, I say we fuck him up on general principles,” Ruda suggested, drawing her sword.
“No,” Gabriel said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him; his eyes were still fixed on Rowe, his expression penetrating. “This isn’t that kind of game.”
The stairwell wasn’t long, but it was uneven and angled just enough to hide what lay below from view of the upper door. At the bottom, Sarriki continued forward, gliding into the space, but Teal had to stop on the lowest step, just staring around.
It was oddly disorienting, as if the outdoors had been crammed into an indoor space. What she suspected were the boundaries of the room were defined by a ring of standing stones, ancient-looking and carved with spiraling glyphs that meant nothing to her. There was a slightly domed ceiling, apparently a natural one to judge by its stalactites. The floor, too, looked like a cave feature, relatively flat but far from even, and bisected erratically down the middle (roughly), with half the room set about a foot higher.
The door was apparently set in one of the thick, square stone pillars; the ring they defined left the space with seven “sides.” None of these were walls, though. They appeared to be completely open, except that they opened onto totally different places.
“You can’t pass through them,” Sarriki said, slithering in a slow circuit of the chamber. “Rowe can, because of the sneakery he’s been up to down here. I possibly could; I have considerable favor amassed with the Crawl. But to you, despite how this all must seem, they’re only windows. You can look, but you can’t touch. I’m not certain what would happen if you tried. I don’t recommend it.”
Teal finally stepped down, staring around in awe. One of the spaces between the pillars showed her friends, facing off against Rowe himself in what was unmistakeably a Descent level. Level 100, assuming the waystone they’d retrieved worked as advertized. Apparently so; this chamber and Rowe’s alleged ability to use it explained his presence there. The other views were different; one looked out on the slanting main cavern of the Crawl, one on some kind of subterranean lake. Two showed what were clearly cities, one of these a cramped warren of scavenged pieces of everything from giant shells to fragments of metal and hides, swarming with goblins; the other was a more graceful and carefully built complex, with at least a foot of water standing in its floor, through which naga slid. Upon a closer inspection, the effect lost some of its power. There was no sound, no smell or breath of air from any of these views, which took away much of their realism.
Teal gave them all a rather cursory look, except for the one showing her classmates, who seemed just to be talking with the incubus for now. Other objects in the chamber deserved attention; it was a peculiar combination of pantry and reliquary. She made note of the barrels and racks of wine bottles, hanging haunches of meat and bundles of herbs tied to stalactites above, and meager sacks of grain. These, in the Crawl, must be the true wealth of the hidden chamber, but more relevant to her interests were the precious objects displayed on stands against each of the pillars. Weapons, clothing, goblets both plain and bejeweled, statues, pieces of jewelry, several objects whose purpose wasn’t clear despite their obvious quality of workmanship… All of these she might have expected to see in a treasure room somewhere, but here they were all rigged together in some kind of absurd network. Bent, dented and corroded lengths of copper pipe, trailing wires, glass rods, even rune-inked coils of paper were stretched all over the room like a vast, utterly demented spiderweb, arching above to give space to walk between them.
“The objects themselves have been gathered from all over the Crawl, over the course of years,” Sarriki said, coming to a stop and smiling faintly. “The rest of this, the…connectors? Mostly from your fellow students. In the modern world, it seems enchanting paraphernalia is relatively cheap and widely available. There’s basically nothing college students won’t do for free beer, even if it tastes like foot fungus.”
“The point of beer isn’t the flavor,” Teal said absently, studying the network. “That’s what good wine is for.”
A semester and a half with Professor Yornhaldt hadn’t prepared her to decipher much of what she was seeing, but in the overall shape of it, a clear purpose emerged, made even clearer by a few key details.
The box she recognized from Tellwyrn’s description; it sat open and empty against the base of a pillar, beside a rough stone plinth on which stood an ornate vase, wired to the network. The contents of the box were also recognizable. In the center of the room, a low table of stone sat, with a large, chipped scrying crystal on one corner. In the middle, though, were the sword and dagger. They were sleekly curved and actually quite similar in design to the black sword labeled Ariel, though their hilts were of hammered gold, the leather wrapping them a soft brown, bound in silver wire. Each weapon was balanced on its tip on the stone table, held aloft by the wires, pipes and filaments connecting them to the network. The network of which they, clearly, were the center.
“How much power,” Teal mused aloud, “would it take to forcibly manipulate the Crawl?”
“Roughly, give or take…all of it,” Sarriki said with a humorless grin. “The key, as I’m sure you can deduce, is the extremely magical pair of items in the middle there, which also have a very strong connection to Arachne.”
“The Crawl’s favorite person.”
“Just so. And I,” Sarriki said, spreading her arms wide, “am their guardian. I decide who wins the Descent and gets to retrieve the sword and dagger. And Rowe knew just what I wanted.”
“That doesn’t seem like much of a challenge to suss out,” Teal said frankly. “It sounds like being a dungeon boss sucks. Anyone would want a way out. Melaxyna sure does.”
“Ah, yes. Melaxyna.” Sarriki shrugged. “Long as I keep my freedom, it matters little to me who gets to swagger around the Grim Visage calling him- or herself the boss. One child of Vanislaas is more or less the same as another. But then again… Perhaps Mel is more of a people person. To judge by Level 2, she certainly seems to be more of an organizer. Of course, she is not supposed to leave the Descent; it’ll take her some time to weasel her way out of there, but I’ve no doubt she’ll manage.”
“But why?” Teal asked. “What is the point of all this? It’s an impressive setup, sure, but I don’t understand what it does.”
“What it does is confer a measure of power over the Crawl onto its owner,” Sarriki replied, lightly brushing a length of wire with her fingertips. The entire network shivered slightly. “What it’s meant to do, if he can ever get it to work properly, is provide a way out. Incubi and succubi fare poorly when confined. The Visage isn’t normally a place that draws visitors from other planes of existence, or even other dungeons. The arrival of misplaced gnomes and dimensionally-lost ogres is due entirely to our friendly bartender’s meddling. Likewise the tendency of nosy drow to pop up; there’s not an actual, physical opening to the Underworld in the Crawl. Rowe wants an escape; Mel wants to take it from him. But he hasn’t managed to make it work.”
“Melaxyna,” Teal said slowly, “has made herself something of a specialist on Crawl-based portal magic. Or at least she employs them.”
Sarriki nodded. “Perhaps it would be best if she didn’t find anything down here she could use to finish Rowe’s work.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Teal said grimly. She stepped up to the table, reached out with both hands and grabbed the sword and dagger.
Pulling them free brought the entire structure crashing down.
“You think this is a fucking game?” Ruda demanded.
Gabriel nodded, still staring at Rowe. “Of course it is. Or at the very least, it’s an exercise. It’s like he said: the Crawl isn’t real life. Different rules apply.”
“We can stand here chatting about it until we’re all out of oxygen,” Rowe said cheerfully. “It won’t change the facts. The game is over. You played well; you’re assured a better than decent grade, I expect. Time for you kids to leave.”
“What are you getting at, Gabriel?” Trissiny asked.
“Remember Teal’s theory? So far, she was dead on. Now, here we are, with no Naga Queen and no sign of Tellwyrn’s treasure. Just this guy, popping up in a place he has no business being.” Gabriel tucked his hands into his coat pockets, smiling coldly at the incubus. “I think he cheated.”
“Nonsense,” Rowe snorted. “You get to cheat, up to a point—for all the good it did you. You’re students. This is all arranged for your benefit. Me, the others who call this delightful dungeon our home? We just live here. There’s not cheating, because there are no goals.”
“Which makes the fact that you cheated especially bad, doesn’t it?” Gabe asked. “Let’s look at this logically. The boss and the treasure are gone, in clear contradiction of the Descent’s pattern. Rowe is here—which not only shows that he can get into places where he’s not supposed to be, but shows he has a good reason to come. He’s now in a room with a powerful band of adventurers who showed up expecting to have to kill whatever they found. Why take the risk?”
“Because,” Shaeine said softly, “if we came and found nothing, we would naturally have investigated. In all modesty, we are a fairly capable group when we pull together and focus. Upon investigating, we might have found what we sought… Unless someone were here to convince us there was no point.”
“Oh, is that what this is?” Rowe asked, grinning. “By all means, then, investigate! Sniff around the empty chamber to your little hearts’ content. Admire the portraits and statuary. We’ve all got nothing but time.”
“So what do we do about it?” Toby asked, studying the incubus through narrow eyes.
“We could always just kill him,” Trissiny suggested.
“We wait,” said Gabriel, pulling his hands out of his pockets and folding his arms.
“Wait?” Juniper frowned. “On what?”
“On the person who figured this out first. Teal knows what she’s doing. I bet you anything she’s within inches of the treasure right now.”
“You’re pinning all your hopes on the party’s bard?” Rowe’s grin had reached insane proportions. “You kids really haven’t studied the histories of adventurers, have you?”
“I most certainly have!” Fross declared in an affronted tone.
“If you’re right and she was right,” Trissiny said, “she’d also be within inches of the Naga Queen.”
“That doesn’t sound promising!” Rowe chirped.
“She is in the Visage, under sanctuary,” Shaeine said calmly. “She is practically impossible to harm. And I have absolute faith in her ability to solve this. However, we are missing an obvious preparatory step.”
Rowe yelped as a wall of silver light appeared behind him, shoving him forward; his wings smoked slightly where it impacted them. As he stumbled, flaring wings and pinwheeling arms for balance, the wall arced forward, reshaping itself into a bubble with him inside it.
“Oh, this is cute,” he snorted. “Really mature. Let’s harass the bartender now that he’s out of sanctuary.”
“Ruda,” Shaeine said evenly, “you still have the Level 2 waystone?”
“You bet your sweet ass I do,” Ruda said, grinning.
“Then I believe we have a bounty to collect. Link arms, everyone.”
“Hey, now,” Rowe said, beginning to look more serious. “You kids are better than that. Nothing warrants that kind of—”
“Will he be ported along inside that bubble?” Toby inquired.
“I believe one of us will need to be touching him,” Shaeine replied as the group moved together, setting themselves in order to use the waystone. “It prevents a minor logistical problem, as he seems likely to be uncooperative.”
“You’ve got bigger problems than that,” Rowe said sharply. “Keep in mind who you morsels are dealing with. The Crawl likes me. I came down here to offer you a friendly hand. You’re going to turn on me? Think very carefully about your prospects for getting safely back out if you go and do something like that.”
“He talks a lot, doesn’t he?” Juniper said.
“Is he wrong, though?” Trissiny asked, frowning. “The Vanislaad are nothing if not manipulative, and he’s had plenty of time to work on the Crawl. What if—”
The entire room trembled once, then a low groaning rose up from all around, as if the very stones of the Descent were grinding against each other.
“What the fuck now?” Ruda demanded, gripping the waystone with one hand and reaching for her rapier with the other. With Gabriel holding one of her arms from behind and Toby the other, she had little chance of actually drawing it, much less fighting.
The room began to change.
Beams of light suddenly shone down from above, spotlighting each of the marble statues of the students. All around the rim of the chamber, the murals faded to black, and then new pictures formed. Each of them featured Rowe. Each depicted a different kind of torture.
“Answers that question,” Gabriel said, grinning.
“Well,” the incubus said fatalistically, “shit.”
“That’s my girl,” Shaeine whispered.
Juniper, who was at the end of the chain of linked arms, stepped forward, bending the whole group as she approached the silver bubble.
“Now wait a second,” Rowe said nervously.
“Nope, don’t think so,” the dryad replied in a cheerful tone. “Shaeine, can I have a hole, please?”
“That’s what she said,” Ruda cackled.
“Thanks!” the dryad said, thrusting her arm through the saucer-sized gap that appeared in the bubble. Rowe tried desperately to evade her, even going so far as to press himself against the bubble opposite her groping hand. That proved to be a mistake; they could hear the sizzle of him impacting Themynra’s power. The incubus yelped and lurched back forward, right in time for Juniper to clamp a hand on his upper arm.
The shield flickered out of existence.
“Happy birthday, Melaxyna,” Ruda said cheerfully, tracing her finger along the glyph in the waystone.
One and all, they vanished.