Tag Archives: Sarriki

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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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 – 31

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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.

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.

“Go.”

The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”


“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”

“Lang—“

“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”


“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”


Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”


They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”


“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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6 – 17

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Dusk was falling as she neared her destination, which meant that while most of the city was lulling itself to rest, Lor’naris was undergoing more of a shift change. No matter how acclimated they grew to surface life, the drow retained a preference for darkness, hence the diminished number of fairy lamps in the district. The street, never boisterous, wasn’t growing any less active with the last red stains of sunset fading from the sky, though the proportion of drow increased slightly with nightfall. Of course, not every business kept hours compatible with everyone’s personal schedule. The shop Lakshmi approached was locked, a sign in its window indicating it was closed.

She craned her neck to peer through the window, shading her eyes, then with a fatalistic shrug, rapped her knuckles on the door, following that with a half-step to the side—carefully leaving her still in view of the door, while also obviously trying to look through the gloom to see if there was any movement within. She did not look around the street behind her; that would have looked suspicious. She was just a late shopper distressed to find the Minor Arcana closed and hoping for late admittance, after all. So few people in the Guild understood that information people had to do as much playacting as con artists, if not more. At least a con artist could turn it off. If you wanted to see and overhear secrets, you had to be invisible, had to fade into the background, make your every action consistent with everyone’s perception of an “extra” person they couldn’t be bothered to notice.

No steps sounded from within, but after only a couple of seconds, the lock clicked and the door opened slightly. Lakshmi beamed into the gap, carefully not looking anything less than delighted to meet the store’s proprietess. She was tall and willowy—rather attractive, actually, if you got past the shield-like ridge of spiked bone rising above her forehead, the deep red shade of her skin and those feline, reflective eyes.

“You must be Peepers,” Elspeth said calmly. She had a surprisingly deep voice for such a lean wisp of a woman.

“Well, you’re too tall,” Lakshmi mused, “so yeah, I guess it must be me!”

The half-demon regarded her in silence for a second, and then a half-smile of muted but genuine amusement tugged at her lips. “You’re right on time. Come on in.”

“Thanks!”

Lakshmi ducked inside as soon as the shopkeeper stepped back to make room, pausing to look around curiously while Elspeth re-locked the door. She did not study her hostess, though she was by far the most interesting part of the scenery. People rarely liked to be examined, and instinct warned Lakshmi that this calm, aloof woman was perceptive enough to catch sidelong glances. There’d be time to pick up interesting details later, little bits here and there as they arose. Irritating her now would diminish those prospects.

“This way, please,” Elspeth said, leading her toward a curtained doorway at the back of the shop’s main room. They strolled past racks of enchanting paraphernalia dimly glimpsed in the relative darkness—only one of the store’s fairy lamps was active, dimmed to its lowest level—Lakshmi still peering around all the while. The facade was important, and one never knew when one might quite accidentally pick up on something useful.

Behind the door was a tiny hallway, with another door leading into a back room and a spiral staircase going both up and down, into mysterious darkness in both directions. The shopkeeper glided to this and descended, Lakshmi following her with a little trepidation.

The room at the bottom was clearly a storage space, much bigger than the shop up above; it apparently ran the whole length of the building. Half of it was cluttered with a miscellaneous assortment of crates and barrels, arranged around the walls to leave a somewhat cramped central area open. The other half, behind the iron staircase, was currently empty, though tracks on the floor and the general lack of dust suggested that objects had been dragged through it quite recently. Along one wall was a long rack of shelves, holding unboxed enchanting supplies very like those above, clearly ready to restock the storefront without requiring the effort of opening crates. In one corner was a square trapdoor, its proximity to a bank of vertical copper pipes suggesting it was a sewer access. The whole space was also much better lit, currently, than the main shop, as it was also currently occupied.

Lakshmi took in the details of the room with a single sweep of her eyes and then focused her attention on the people present.

Most of them were sitting around on various barrels and boxes, clearly waiting. There were two fellows in dark suits, a boy of no more than sixteen who rose and nodded respectfully to her and Elspeth, and an older man with a goatee and ponytail who gave her a single disinterested glance. Sweet was present, of course, in one of his slightly loud and slightly shabby suits; he grinned at her entry as if she were the most exciting thing he’d seen all day, which she knew very wall was just part of his shtick. There were also three elves, including Sweet’s two apprentices, the one in the ridiculous cloak and the one who wouldn’t stop playing with her knife. Lakshmi had never interacted with them directly, but in conversations with other Guild members had taken to pretending she couldn’t remember which was which; it usually got her a laugh.

It was the third elf who nearly made her lose her poise, though upon a second look it was not, in fact, Principia. Just another wood elf with black hair. Unusual as that trait was, it was increasingly obvious on closer inspection. Quite aside from the prairie elf buckskins she wore—in which Prin would never have been caught dead—the woman’s face was longer, the features subtly different, though elves in general seemed to have less variance in their facial features and skin tones that humans. Moreover, she was clearly one of the old ones. She had that characteristic stillness.

“Wonderful, everyone’s here!” Sweet enthused. “Everybody, this is Peepers. Glad to have you along!”

“Glad to be here,” she said glibly, grinning around at them. “I almost didn’t make it; only just got your message, Sweet. What’s up?”

“Well, first things first,” Sweet went on, crossing his legs and leaning back against the wall. He, like the brunette elf, had selected a perch two boxes high, so he loomed above most of the group. “I’ve heard good things about your work, which is especially impressive given you’ve not been in the city that long. And you nabbed us a Guild traitor! Well done.”

“Well, it’s just a matter of keeping my ears open,” she said lightly. “That was a right place, right time situation.”

“Of course,” he said with a smile, and Lakshmi forced herself not to tense. The lack of introductions had not been wasted on her. She was very much on the spot, being inspected by a roomful of silent strangers. Just what was he playing at? Sweet, by his rep, wouldn’t have lured a Guild member somewhere with any intention to harm them…but on the other hand, if he had wanted to do something like that, an intel guy like him would probably bring along extra muscle to handle the actual kneebreaking.

“And then I got an endorsement of your skills from no less a source than the Hand of Avei!” he continued brightly. “Very impressive, not to mention kind of unconventional. It’s not often that Avenists go out of their way to find ranking members of the Guild to report to, much less find something kind to say about one of our number.”

Damn…maybe that hadn’t been such a bright idea on her part. Too pushy? But she’s been in the city for weeks by then and was no closer to following Prin’s advice. Sweet was an approachable fellow, but he was highly-placed enough that he didn’t have time for everybody who wanted a slice of his attention.

“As for that, I may have asked her to put in a good word,” Lakshmi replied, carefully mixing a bashful grin with shameless delivery. “It’s not as if a person like that would’ve bothered if she didn’t think it was deserved.”

“Of course, of course,” said Sweet, nodding. “It’s just funny, the little turns life takes. Finding yourself on opposite sides of two generations like that.”

She blinked. “Um… What? I don’t follow.”

“Oh, you hadn’t heard?” he said, grinning. “Trissiny Avelea is the daughter of Principia Locke.”

What? She tried to fit that piece of information in with existing knowledge and came up blank. “She… What?”

“Prin didn’t happen to mention that?”

Immediately she was on the alert. “Uh, when would she have talked to me about something like that?”

“I’ve just been going over it in my mind,” he mused, idly kicking his dangling leg. The man in the black suit sighed impatiently and slumped back against his crate, grimacing in annoyance; everyone else in the room just watched her silently as Sweet carried on. “Not just what happened, but what went down afterward. I’ll spare you the boring details, but the crux of it is none of us at the Guild anticipated just how good Principia is at what she does. And then she goes and gets caught, this master conwoman with elvish senses. She just happened to be overheard by a young, inexperienced thief operating in a city where the Guild perforce has to keep its head down. You see why I’m curious?”

“Are you accusing me of something, Sweet?” Lakshmi asked as calmly as she could manage, folding her arms and raising one eyebrow. After discovering that this pose worked wonders on Sanjay, she’d tried it out in other situations and found that lots of people from all walks of life could be brought to a halt by the Momface.

“Peepers, hon, that’s not how we do things,” he said, his smile shifting almost imperceptibly to convey more compassion and less insouciance. Damn, but he was good. “If you were being accused, you’d be having this conversation at Guild HQ, with several enforcers present. Not in a basement with a bunch of assorted friends of mine. Aside from my apprentices, nobody here is attached to the Guild, or knows who I’m talking about.”

“I know who you’re talking about,” the woman in buckskins said serenely.

“I don’t,” said the man with the ponytail, “nor do I care. Are we going to drag this out much longer? Do I have time to go get a snack? I didn’t haul myself out at this bloody hour to help you intimidate some Punaji waif you found.”

Sweet gave him an irritated look before returning his gaze to Lakshmi and restoring his open expression. “Look, Peepers, you’re not in trouble; sorry if I gave you that impression.” The hell he was, she thought silently; this was a man who created precisely whatever impression he intended to. “Also, in case the word hasn’t reached you, Prin is not in trouble, though there are several things the Guild would like her to explain. What’s at issue is that…well, I’ll get to it in a moment, but suffice it to say there’s some complicated shit going on and trust is at a premium. I need to know who I’m working with. If you’ve got secrets to protect, by all means, keep ’em, and no hard feelings. With regard to just who you are and how you got here, though… I kind of need to see some cards on the table. Otherwise, we’ll have to bid you good evening.”

She chewed her lower lip, thinking rapidly. Prin had said to get in with Sweet; this was a golden opportunity. Even if, as he implied, she’d be allowed to walk away from it without repercussions, turning down such an opportunity was a near-perfect guarantee that she’d never be offered another one. There were other paths to advancing her career, of course, but none likely to be as ideal. She hadn’t uprooted herself and Sanjay from their ancestral home to waste her days lurking in market districts picking pockets and trying to overhear worthwhile tidbits.

“You are valuable here because you’re an outsider,” Sweet said gently, “without the kind of strings that can be exploited. And because I suspect that the thing you don’t want to reveal is a ringing endorsement from an extremely skilled thief.”

Hell with it; sometimes you had to take chances.

“All right, I consider myself caught,” she said with a grin, shoving her hands into the pockets of her greatcoat and affecting a cocky pose. “Prin wanted to be reported to the Guild. More than that I really don’t know; it was her scheme, and a good bit more complicated than anything I’d have tried. Frankly I still don’t get what she was going for or whether she pulled it off, much less how. Also, before you ask, I have no idea where she is; I haven’t heard from her since Puna Dara, a little while after sending in my report. But, yes, she advised me to come here and try to get in good with you, Sweet.”

“Hmm,” he mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I never am sure with that woman…”

The dark-haired elf snorted softly. “You and everyone else.”

“Does that satisfy your curiosity?” Lakshmi asked, permitting herself a sharper tone. “Wanna know what color my bloomers are while we’re here?”

“If that’s on offer, I wouldn’t mind—” Ponytail Guy broke off with a curse as the teenager leaned over and slapped the back of his head.

“No, I think that pretty much brings us all up to speed,” said Sweet. “Thank you, Peepers. Well! We all know what you’re about, now, so why don’t I introduce you around?”

“Already?” she said dryly, to which he laughed.

“You’ve met Elspeth, of course, and probably were aware of her before now, since you’ve been involved in this district a few times.” The demonblood shopkeeper bowed when Lakshmi turned to look at her. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna.”

“Charmed!”

“Delighted!”

“Okay,” Lakshmi said warily, nodding to each of them.

“And we have a few celebrity guests,” Sweet went on. “You have probably heard of these two gentlemen as Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”

Lakshmi blinked, looked at him, then at the two. “Are you serious?”

“Joe to my friends, ma’am,” the Kid said with a smile, giving her a nod that was nearly a bow.

Weaver grunted. “I’m accustomed to responding to ‘hey, asshole.’”

“I’m certain that’s convenient for you,” said the remaining woman.

“And this,” Sweet finished with a slight grimace, “is Mary the Crow, who I actually didn’t plan to include in this discussion but likes to invite herself places.”

“Joseph is still under my care,” Mary said calmly. “Very much on the mend, yes, but I will exercise a healer’s prerogative to observe.”

“…seriously?” Lakshmi repeated, studying Mary, and then the other two again. It suddenly occurred to her that nobody knew she was in this basement with this assortment of walking hazards. She unconsciously took a half-step toward the stairs.

“What’s going on,” Sweet continued, gazing at her with a much more serious expression, “is that the Black Wreath is on the move.”

“Everyone knows that,” she said tersely. “At least, everyone who reads the papers.”

“Yes, and you’re a little more on the ball even than that, aren’t you?” he replied, smiling. “Hence your invitation. The complicating factor here, Peepers, is that for the time being, the Guild can’t be considered a trusted ally.”

“Wait…are you saying the Guild is compromised by the Wreath?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” He held up an admonishing finger. “Everyone is compromised by the Wreath. That’s what the Wreath does. Most of the time you just have to grin and ignore it, and most of the time it doesn’t much matter. They rarely care enough to stick their little fingers into a given person’s business. However, right now, it matters very much. They are up to something big, and I aim to figure out what. Unfortunately, part of what they’re doing involves leveraging their assets inside various cults, and the only cult I know for a fact has culled their Wreath infestation are the Huntsmen of Shaath.” He grimaced. “For reasons I hope I don’t have to explain, I’m not eager to pin my hopes on their help. Until the current crisis has passed, we have to consider all cults and organizations suspect and potentially complicit. Anything they know may get back to the Wreath and be used against us.”

“So,” she said slowly, “you’re putting together an unaligned group to hunt them down. Hence all this extravagant muscle.”

“Never been called that before,” the Kid said with a grin.

“You have the gist of it,” Sweet replied, nodding.

“How do you know I’m not Wreath?” she asked.

“You’re not,” said Mary.

“Um…”

“I would know.” The elf looked her right in the eyes, face impassive, and Lakshmi found herself believing her.

“I actually had a plan to figure that out,” said Sweet, sounding somewhat disgruntled. “It involved props. But I guess having the Crow around is useful.”

“So…doesn’t that mean you can track all the Wreath and ferret them out?” Lakshmi inquired, tilting her head and studying Mary.

“This is a unique situation,” the Crow said calmly. “I made preparations. Were the Wreath so easy to hunt, they’d have been gone from the world long since.”

“Besides,” Sweet added, “if we theoretically did figure out who all their agents were and move against them, they’d either abort and bolt or do something very destructive. Possibly both. That’s a scenario we need to avoid. So for now, we play the game.”

“What is the game?” she demanded. “What are they trying to do, and what are you trying to do about it?”

“The answer to both questions,” he said with a slightly predatory grin, “is that we are out to figure out what they are up to, as a first step toward putting a stop to it. I have some leads on which to follow up, which is what you’ve been brought aboard to do. Elspeth has generously offered her premises as a safe, neutral space for us to use; with this shop under inspection by the Church and the Empire as often as it is, there’s little chance of it being compromised by warlocks.”

“Warlocks, in particular, are generally advised to stay away from my store,” Elspeth said calmly.

“Joe and Weaver, here, are our muscle,” Sweet continued, nodding to them. “I’ve actually got a couple more aces up my sleeve to that end, but they’re both too distinctive to move discreetly through the city. These two gentlemen, aside from cultivating a laudably generic sense of style, haven’t spent enough time around civilized parts that they’re likely to be recognized. As such, they’ll be able to lend you some protection from relatively close at hand. The bigger wands, including Mary, here, can be called upon at need, but the plan is not to goad the Wreath into any kind of confrontation, especially not with you or I. Our job is just to figure out what they’re doing, how, and why.”

“I see,” she said, frowning deeply in thought.

“Which brings us to the all important question, Peepers,” Sweet continued, grinning hugely. “You in?”

“…what, exactly, would I be doing?”

His grin widened. “Well, to begin with, I’ll need you to get a real job.”

She stretched her lips into a distasteful grimace. “What else you got?”


 

“Well, first things first,” Radivass said, carefully inspecting the necklace. “It’s pretty.”

“Yes,” Trissiny replied, deliberately keeping her tone neutral. “I can see that. Its magical properties are what interest me.” And what she was paying the enchantress to explain, she did not add.

The drow pursed her lips, tilting the piece this way and that so it glimmered in the ruddy light. “Can I ask where this came from?”

“It was a level reward,” said Trissiny, “from the Descent. It appeared in the chest we got for clearing it, along with several other bits and bobs.”

“Mm.” Radivass glanced quickly at the golden eagle sigil on Trissiny’s breastplate, then back at the necklace, which was worked into the same form. Hanging from a twisted chain of steel links, it was a disc of white crystal a little bigger than an Imperial doubloon, inset with the eagle of Avei in gold. “What level?”

“Level 7. The Circle Chessboard.”

“You got that on Level 7?” Radivass looked up at her and whistled. “Damn. Shamlin said you kids were hard-hitters. I guess the Crawl isn’t…well, that’s neither here nor there. On this level, did you in particular do something impressive?”

“We basically used it as a training level,” Trissiny said slowly, frowning. “Practicing our tactics and getting used to fighting together. I was organizing it, I guess.”

“I see. Well, to begin with, this thing is old.”

“How old?”

“That I can’t tell you. I could try, if you want to spend the coin, though in all honesty I can’t guarantee my divinations would be able to pinpoint its age or origin. The Crawl messes such things up, and so does divine magic. I mention it because there’s some uncertainty over where those level rewards come from. Some of them—well, a lot of them, probably—the Crawl actually creates. Some, though, are things that were left down here by other adventurers. The old things, the powerful things, it occasionally gathers up and bestows upon worthy individuals.”

“Worthy individuals?” Trissiny raised an eyebrow.

Radivass grinned. “For a given value of ‘worthy.’ It’s hard to say exactly what the Crawl approves of.”

“It doesn’t seem to like cheating.”

“In the Descent, no, it doesn’t. In other places…different rules apply. Let’s just say there are several reasons I stay up here in the Visage. Anyhow, whatever you did it clearly judged worthy of reward, so…here you are.”

“I see,” Trissiny mused.

“As for what this does,” the enchantress went on, “it’s actually laden with fae magic, not divine. The specific blessings upon it are designed to draw on its fae energy—which, by the way, is considerable—and transmute it into holy energy. Basically it boosts your powers by giving you an extra source aside from your goddess. Whether that’s a good idea is…debatable. Most deities will let their followers draw on as much power as they safely can without burning themselves out. This might have extra protections to increase your capacity. That would make sense to me, but unfortunately I can’t tell for sure. I deal in mostly arcane magic; I can tell you the gist of what this piece does, but the magic on it is more complex than that. You really need to have a witch look it over to be certain.”

“I was told,” Trissiny said slowly, “that the specific effect you’re talking about can’t be worked into a talisman or passive object. Transmuting one kind of power into another requires a conscious spellcaster.”

“You were told correctly,” Radivas replied, nodding. “This little beauty is keyed to some high-level fairy or other; it draws on their power and will to work. Fae and infernal magic are prone to such charms, using fairies or demons as…arbiters, so to speak.”

“Can you tell what fairy is involved?”

The drow shook her head. “Again, you need a witch. I can tell you they’re either friendly toward Avei, to be attached to this thing… Or maybe the exact opposite of that and are enslaved by it.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured, shifting to glance around the room at her classmates. Juniper and the boys had gone up to the Visage’s main room in search of food; the rest of her classmates were clustered around Shamlin’s stall. “Thank you. I believe I’ll keep this for later.”

“I think that’s smart,” the drow agreed, nodding. “You being who you are, and Avei’s sigil being on this, it’s probably safe for you to use. But it’s a good general policy not to mess with magical objects you don’t understand.”

Trissiny sighed, accepting the pendant back from her and tucking it carefully into one of her belt pouches. Part of her wondered how much of her hesitation was due to the last golden eagle necklace she’d been given. “If only I could get through life not messing with things I don’t understand. Someday, maybe I’ll understand enough to go a whole day without stumbling into some nonsense or other.”

“If you ever accomplish that, you let me know,” Radivass said, the twinkle in her eye belying her grave tone. “You’d be a scientifically significant case.”


 

Rowe carefully pulled the door shut and systematically re-armed each of the charmed locks securing it. After all the times he’d done this routine, it was in danger of becoming exactly that, which he could not afford. People going through a routine forgot to pay attention; people who didn’t pay attention made mistakes. A mistake, here, wasn’t an option.

“They made it to Level 17 today,” said Sarriki, slithering into the kitchen and storeroom behind the Grim Visage’s main bar. Aside from the water pump, stove and counter, there wasn’t much back there except barrels of mushrooms and racks of booze, most of it distilled from mushrooms. At this hour, the kitchen had been cleaned and its unnecessary supplied put away. All the good stuff, the meat, fruits and vegetables, was down in the secure storeroom he had just locked up.

The naga glided over to him, grinning smugly as he turned to face her. “Second day, and they’re almost a fifth of the way down! Shamlin says this is the most overpowered group he’s ever seen. Even their bard is apparently all but invincible. Of course, they’ll slow their pace as they get deeper and start facing the hard stuff, but still.”

Rowe simply raised an eyebrow in silence, giving her a patient stare.

“It’s dear Melaxyna who makes this interesting,” Sarriki cooed, beginning to slither around him in a circle and gradually coiling her long, serpentine body about him as she went. “Finally, she’s got all her pieces lined up. That portal of hers is working, she can make waystones and the Crawl itself appears to be allowing her to play her own game. Between their firepower and Mel’s help, this is looking like the group that’ll reach the bottom.”

“Who’s tending the bar if you’re floofing around back here, pet?” he asked mildly.

“Oh, please, it’s stupid o’clock at night. There’s nobody out there but the University kids, and they’re all set up with a pot of stew.” Grinning, Sarriki twined her arms around his neck, leaning in to nuzzle at his collarbone. “How about a little squeeze and cuddle while it’s quiet, boss? For old time’s sake? After all…you may not be around much longer.”

“Ah, Sarriki,” Rowe said, extricating one of his arms from her coils and reaching up to caress the fins trailing from her head. She purred in pleasure, flaring them slightly and allowing him to get a firmer grip. “This is a new side of you, poppet. So assertive.” He tightened his fingers in her fin. “So smug, so confident and in control.”

Rowe increased his grip until he was pulling her head back and to the side, forcing her to look up at him. He toed the line right to the iota, his grasp of her sensitive fin hard enough to be uncomfortable, but not violent enough to trigger the sanctuary effect. Sarriki’s expression stilled when she beheld the hard look in his eyes.

“It doesn’t suit you,” he said softly.

They stared at each other in silence for a moment, then he released her head. Immediately, she loosened her coils, and backed away, still staring at him warily.

“Go tend to our guests,” he said in perfect calm. “Do your job.”

He turned his back to her, rustling his wings once and then folding them more tightly, listening to the soft rasp of her scales against the stone as she departed the kitchen without another word. Rowe stared at the locks on the cellar door, frowning.

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6 – 6

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“No, thanks,” Gabriel said with a shudder when Ruda offered him the bowl of stew. “I’ll stick to mushrooms.”

“Your loss,” she said with a shrug, dipping her spoon back into it and taking a bite.

“How is it?” Toby asked warily.

She shrugged. “Bland. Heavy on the gravy. More ‘shroom than meat. Not the worst thing I’ve eaten, though.”

“All things considered,” said Gabe, peering around the Visage’s common room and lowering his voice, “I can’t get over the fear the mystery meat in this place might include something…y’know…sentient.”

“It’s not,” Juniper mumbled around a mouthful of stew, then paused to swallow, tilting her head with a thoughtful expression. “Rat, some kind of pork, and…snake? Maybe lizard. Little things.”

“Where the hell do they get pork?” Gabriel demanded. The dryad shrugged mutely and had another bite.

“Probably cave boars,” said Fross sagely. “A fairly common upper-level dungeon inhabitant. Or, at least, they were a hundred years ago when the manuals were still being written…”

“Most of those ‘manuals’ were historical even then,” Teal said with a smile.

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel glanced at Juniper, then sighed, picking up one of the shriveled brown stalks on his own plate. “I’m still not convinced. Call me paranoid, but you grow up slightly demonic and you develop a healthy fear of doing anything…evil. Even accidentally. That sounds like some of those ingredients might have still been people.”

“I said pork,” Juniper snapped, slamming her spoon down on the table. “Pork, as in pig. I wasn’t hinting at something. It’s not human.”

Everyone stared at her in silence.

“Uh, Juno,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “I meant the other parts. Lizard? Snake? Can you be absolutely sure that’s not, say…goblin, or naga?”

“Oh.” She swallowed heavily dropping her gaze. “Um… I don’t… I mean, I’ve never tried… I dunno.” Hunching her shoulders, the dryad carefully pushed her stew bowl away and reached for a mushroom from the communal platter in the middle of the table.

“Yeah, well, I’ll cope,” said Ruda with a shrug, fishing up another spoonful of brown, lumpy stew. “I’ve had mermaid, after all.”

“You’ve what?” Trissiny exclaimed, setting down the large mushroom cap on which she’d been nibbling.

Ruda finished chewing before answering, smirking at the horrified expressions all around the table. “Let me just guess. I say ‘mermaid’ and you’re all picturing pretty girls in seaweed brassieres with fish tails, yeah? Which is as kinky as it is dumb, and proof that the bards get good an’ drunk before making up all the shit you shorebound think you know about the ocean. Mermaids are giant fucking twelve-foot-long snakes with arms and vaguely humanoid heads. We only figure they’re intelligent because they use weapons and magic. All they do is hiss and screech if you try to talk to ’em.”

“Weapons and magic are, indeed, signs of sentience,” Shaeine said. “Is food that scarce in Puna Dara? Even in the Underworld it is considered the furthest extremity of starvation when people are reduced to eating intelligent beings.”

“It’s not about that,” said Ruda, scooping up another bite of stew and regarding it thoughtfully. “Mermaids eat people. Seriously, they attack ships to try to get the delicious, chewy passengers. Their favorite tactic is to magically induce a state of doldrums around a target vessel; no wind or currents to propel it, and they pull on any oars that’re put down. Then their witches do something from underneath that makes all the food stores spoil within minutes or hours, all so they can weaken the crew enough to attack and overwhelm ’em. They deliberately ruin food in order to eat the fucking people.”

“So, what?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “You just eat them right back?”

“Pretty much,” said Ruda with a grin, “though you’re oversimplifying it. The most reliable counter-tactic to this is to harpoon one of the fuckers, haul it up on deck and have a goddamn barbecue right where the rest can see.”

“Showing dominance,” said Juniper, nodding. “Makes perfect sense.”

“That,” Ruda agreed, pointing the dripping spoon at her, “and also it makes the point that the crew won’t run out of food unless they damn well leave. Generally, they do after you cook the first one.”

“What’s to stop them from just waiting under the boat until everyone starves?” Gabriel asked, his expression one of horrified fascination.

“Ship,” said Ruda, giving him a disparaging look. “If you’re in mermaid territory on a boat, your ass is dead to begin with and it’s to the overall benefit of the gene pool. As for why they don’t wait…impatience, mostly. They can’t seem to resist poking their heads up to check. That’s why the whole sentience thing isn’t considered absolutely certain, magic or no magic. They may be intelligent, but they’re not terribly smart.”

“Well.” Trissiny very carefully set down her mushroom cap. “Suddenly I find I have little appetite.”

“Yup,” Gabriel agreed, pushing away his plate of stalks.

Ruda cackled at them, but Fross quickly darted down to hover over the table.

“Well, don’t waste food,” the pixie said worriedly. “It’s apparently not the easiest thing to come by down here… I’m just gonna store all this, okay? I made sure to have plenty of dimensional holding space for treasure and whatnot, and it’ll keep fresh while it’s in limbo.”

“You go right ahead,” said Gabriel, watching with interest while she levitated various mushrooms into her shining aura, where they disappeared. “Anybody else?”

Ruda insisted on finishing her stew; Juniper was the only other member of the party who still wanted to eat, but she gathered up a handful of mushrooms to munch on the way. With that seen to, they all pushed back their chairs and rose.

“All done, then?” Sarriki asked brightly, pausing as she slithered past. “Big day! Heading out on your first delve, are we?”

“Any advice?” Toby asked lightly.

“Don’t,” she suggested, then moved off, chuckling sibilantly to herself.

“Oh, just ignore her,” Rowe advised, leaning on the rail of the bar’s upper level and grinning down at them. “She likes to remind everyone how impossible she is to fire. It’s not like I can put up a ‘help wanted’ sign. So! You pigeons ready to head out, then? Allow me to show you the way!” Flapping his wings once for emphasis, he turned and sashayed off toward the bar. Trissiny gave them all a very pointed look before leading the way up the stairs and after the incubus.

Rowe was waiting next to the bar, beside one of the curtained doorways. At their approach, he pulled aside the slightly ragged length of red velvet hanging over the opening and gestured them through, grinning and bowing.

“After you,” Trissiny said sharply.

The demon laughed at her. “My, my, so suspicious! Ah, well, it’s probably for the best. Good habit to be in, while you’re in the Crawl! Walk this way, my little lemon drops.”

He strolled on through, tail waving languidly. Trissiny paused, watching him with her hand straying near her sword. Gabriel sashayed past her, swinging his hips exaggeratedly with each step and prompting a chorus of laughter.

“Welcome, dear children, to the marketplace!” Rowe enthused, directing their attention around the chamber with great sweeping gestures of his whole arms. It was longer than the main bar area, but roughly as wide, and about as tall; rough-cut steps descended from the door to the floor, leaving the ceiling high above and creating a spacious feel despite the fact that it was constructed of windowless gray stone and lit only by fires and a single flickering fairy lamp. Like the rest of the Grim Visage, the marketplace looked unfinished and rough, as if a naturally occurring cave in the rocks had been expanded by extremely casual stonemasons to roughly room-like proportions. The floor sloped slightly but noticeably toward the center, making a valley running between the steps on their end and another, larger door opposite. On either side of the long space were counters constructed of scraps of stone, wood and metal; torches lined the upper walls, burning in a variety of different colors, and a thick iron barrel sat smack in the center, in which a sullen little bonfire flickered.

“Cheerful,” Gabriel commented.

“Well, it’s pretty early, according to our arbitrary system of sunless timekeeping,” said Rowe. “You can meet everyone else as opportunity permits. We’ve got a metalsmith, an alchemist and an enchanter who all do business down here. But! I made certain the one fellow you really want to talk to before setting out was awake and at work!”

Indeed, only one of the stands was occupied, the one which displayed rolls of parchment in barrels and maps tacked up to the walls behind and around it. Behind the counter sat a youngish human man in an absurd floppy hat trailing a bedraggled ostrich feather; at Rowe’s introduction, he waved up at them.

“Hello, there! So you’re the new crop of freshmen, eh? I’m Shamlin, wandering bard and dungeon cartographer extraordinaire! C’mon down, don’t be shy, let’s have a look at you… My goodness, is that a dryad?”

“Yes, it is,” Juniper said archly. “I mean, she is. I am. Yes.”

“Well, how about that.” Shamlin shook his head in bemusement as they trickled over to stand around his stall. “So, are you also a witch, then? I bet a dryad would make a simply fabulous witch.”

“Um…” Juniper frowned at him, then glanced uncertainly over at the others. “No?”

“Huh.” He picked up the mandolin that had been resting on his counter and began plucking aimlessly at the strings, still studying them. “You’re the only one who seems to have a lot of fae energy in her aura… But then again, maybe you have so much that you’re drowning the others out. You lot are clustered rather closely together, after all. Whose pixie is that, then?”

“Mine!” Fross said irritably. “I am my pixie! My name is Fross, and I’m a freshman!”

Shamlin blinked once, then stood and bowed to her. “My humblest apologies, then, dear lady. I of all people should know better than to judge what I see by my own expectations.”

“Well, I guess that’s sort of okay then,” Fross said, somewhat mollified.

“Did you say you’re a cartographer?” Teal asked.

“Dungeon cartographer!” Shamlen declared, grinning. “If you want maps of the Crawl, I’m the one to call! I buy and sell, and I’m always in the market for up-to-date information on the situation! The Crawl does so like to shift about, you see. Fresh intelligence is vital for any up-and-coming adventurer!”

“Some cartographer,” said Rowe, grinning hugely. “He’s a middleman, is what he is. Hence sitting here in safety and comfort getting absurdly rich while other people do the heavy lifting.”

“It’s a living,” Shamlin said complacently. “And you’re not one to talk.”

“Excuse me,” Gabe said, “but are you…uh, human?”

“Last I checked!”

“Then, um…what, exactly, are you doing down here?”

“Making gold hand over fist,” the bard replied with a grin. “Which brings us to the subject of business! Have any of you experience with mapmaking?”

They exchanged a round of glances; several of them shook their heads.

“Pity,” Shamlin mused. “That would’ve spared us all some effort… No matter! I have just the thing for you!” Reaching under his counter, he pulled out a long wooden scroll case, capped with rune-engraved brass and with a glass viewing panel set into its front. Within was a roll of parchment, and a quantity of loose liquid ink which sloshed about without leaving any stains, somehow. “What I have here is the latest word in modern cartography, the preferred sidearm of Imperial surveyors and gnomish questers alike! The auto-mapper need only be carried with you and it will, with no effort whatsoever on your part, render a perfectly accurate chart of your environs as far as your senses can perceive and beyond! Yours for the excessively reasonable price of twenty gold pieces, and that, my friends, includes your discounts for being students of the University. Make your own maps as you go—and if you bring me back maps of anything new or different, I’ll gladly buy them off you!”

“So,” Teal said slowly, “you want us to buy something that will possibly—maybe—give us something to sell back to you.”

“Hey, that’s a neat trick,” Ruda remarked. “A reliable way to turn everyone else’s gold into your gold.”

“You’re not wrong,” Shamlin said with a shameless grin. “But as you’re soon to learn, kids, adventuring isn’t what you’d call a reliable pastime. Oh, you’re bound to round up some treasure in the Crawl unless you’re complete idiots—in which case you’ll just wind up dead. But there will be good runs and bad runs; one day you’ll come home flush with plunder, the next you’ll be scrabbling to buy yourselves dinner. Keeping an auto-mapper in your inventory is just a way to inject a little reliability into your accounting! Bring me up-to-date maps and I’ll pay in good silver, and more if they’re notably different from the maps I’ve already got!”

“We’ll think about it,” Trissiny said firmly. “Come along, everyone.”

“Wait!” Shamlin exclaimed, rummaging below his counter again. “You want to see how you fare on your own first, I respect that. But there is one thing you absolutely must know of before you set out… Ah, here we go!” He set down an oblong, fist-sized piece of white marble, rounded as if it had lain in a riverbed and engraved with a single swirling rune which glowed blue. “A Crawl waypoint stone!”

“A what?” Gabe asked, interested in spite of himself.

“Oh! Oh!” Fross darted back and forth in excitement. “I’ve read about these! You attune it to a specific spot, and then you can invoke it to teleport back to that spot from anywhere else in the dungeon! Very handy!”

“In fact, a dungeon delver’s best friend!” Shamlin proclaimed. “Now, I understand you had a little trouble passing Imperial decabloons up above, eh? Well, as someone who does intend to head back topside one of these days, I have more use of those than most of the Crawl’s denizens. For a mere ten such coins, this little beauty is yours!”

“You’re a funny guy,” said Ruda, her voice and expression deadly calm.

“Ah, now, think about what I’m offering,” he chided gently. “Dungeon waypoint stones are only useful in genius locus dungeons like the Crawl. Each has to be created by a mage of some significant power who is intimately familiar with the dungeon, and each can only be attuned to a specific dungeon. Gnomes do good business in manufacturing them for their own delves; the Empire cranks them out for strike teams in the dungeons it controls. But the Crawl?” He shook his head, grinning. “Supply and demand, kiddies, supply and demand! Professor Tellwyrn is probably the only person alive who even can make one of these for the Crawl, and she won’t. Forcing you poor kids to rough it as roughly as possible is the whole point of her operation. The only way to get your hands on a Crawl waypoint stone is to loot it from the corpses of adventurers past, which is exactly where this baby came from. The demand, down here, is vast, the supply virtually nonexistent. I’m giving you an absolute steal of a deal, just because you’ve got honest faces and because I feel bad about that little mix-up regarding Miss Fross.”

“We,” Trissiny said downright grimly, “will think about it. Excuse us.”

“Better luck next time, buddy,” Rowe said to Shamlin, grinning hugely. “All right, my little muffins, right this way! Come along, come along, you’re just moments from adventure!” He led them down the center toward the opposite door, pushed this open and stepped through.

Beyond was another lip of stone, wide enough for the whole party to gather comfortably, with another stone walkway arching off through midair above an impossible drop. It led to a tiny stone island suspended in space, with four stone paths branching off from it.

“Ah, there you are,” said Professor Ezzaniel, straightening up from where he had been leaning against the wall. “I realize the food here is less than appetizing, but it would be wise not to get in the habit of dawdling over breakfast. Thank you, Rowe.”

“You bet!” the demon said cheerfully, throwing him a mocking salute. “Best of luck and lots of fun, cupcakes! Come back with exciting stories for us!” He blew them all a kiss before ducking back into the Visage and shutting the door firmly behind him.

“Why does he keep calling us desserts?” Fross asked.

“Because he’s a creep,” said Trissiny.

“He is what he is,” Ezzaniel said curtly. “Everyone ready to set out, I hope? Good. This way.” He turned and strode off down the narrow walkway toward the island.

“Oh, that way?” Gabriel snipped. “You don’t think we should just plunge over the sides instead?”

“If you wish to raise the collective intelligence of the party, Mr. Arquin, there are less extreme methods,” Ezzaniel replied without turning around. “You could simply keep quiet, for example.”

Ruda cackled, slugged Gabe on the shoulder, and swaggered off after Ezzaniel. The others followed them much more carefully. There was plenty of room to walk, but this path was much narrower than the stairs which had brought them to the Grim Visage from the exterior.

Ezzaniel waited on the stone island while they all regathered.

“This is really disturbing,” Toby muttered, stepping gingerly and wincing. “What’s holding this thing up?”

“Oh, don’t even talk to us about floating islands,” Ruda said dismissively. “We have to sleep on one.”

“It’s amazing what you can get used to,” Teal agreed, grinning.

Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “In any case. You are free to explore the Crawl in whatever way you wish—this is, by definition, an unstructured exercise. Some previous years have chosen to forgo the assigned objectives and pursue self-directed agendas. If, however, you decide to pursue the chest whose acquisition will guarantee you an A for the exercise, simply follow this path. Remember it: first one to the left on this island from the Grim Visage. This will lead you to the Descent.”

“We have to go up to reach the Descent,” Ruda said, studying the walkway he indicated, which quickly became a staircase rising toward the far wall of the vast, sloping chasm. “Seems appropriately ass-backward.”

“The Descent,” Ezzaniel pressed on, “is the part of the Crawl most directly influenced by Professor Tellwyrn. I am not completely certain of the details, but I would venture to say that she has shaped it into exactly the challenge she intends her students to meet. It is a series of one hundred levels, accessible only from the highest. The treasure box you are assigned to retrieve is at the bottom. Each level features hazards of a different variety, with a boss encounter every three levels and a final threat to be faced at the end of the very last, guarding the box.”

“Textbook dungeon dive!” Fross proclaimed.

“Too textbook,” Teal added. “That seems kind of…artificial.”

“It is, as I have said, Professor Tellwyrn’s contribution to the Crawl,” Ezzaniel replied, nodding. “You are not really expected to obtain the box, whether or not you choose to make the attempt. You will be judged and graded by your overall performance.”

“According to what objective standards?” Shaeine asked quietly.

“My best judgment,” he replied with a smile. “And so, I leave you to it. We will speak this evening when you return to the inn. You may of course direct your efforts as you think best, but I do advise you not to be out more than one day at a time. Good luck, students.”

He turned and strode back to the Grim Visage, the freshmen watching him go in silence.

“So,” Gabriel said at last. “I guess we have a decision to make…”

“Does anyone seriously want to wander around in this place at random?” Trissiny asked pointedly.

“Um…kinda?” Fross said hesitantly. “But…sort of only a little. In any case I think we should have a look at the Descent first. It’s the assignment, after all.”

“I agree,” said Toby. “Any objections?”

Trissiny studied the stairs Ezzaniel had indicated. “Fross…be ready with that levitation spell of yours.”

“Always!”

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6 – 4

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Professor Ezzaniel bore their nervousness with exactly four seconds’ worth of patience before loudly clearing his throat.

“If we could all continue through the door, that would be splendid.”

The students shuffled a little further in, with no great enthusiasm, clearing a path for their professor. He strode unhurriedly through the group, moving with his typical sinuous grace, like a stalking cat, and showing absolutely no concern for the various monsters present. The three drow turned their predatory grins on him, which he ignored; the naga paused in her route to give him a flirtatious smile and a wink, complete with a brief flaring of the spiny fins she had in place of hair. Ezzaniel nodded politely to her, continuing on his way. He got about halfway across the main open space before pausing to turn back to the freshmen with an expression of exasperation.

“Children, you cannot live on the threshold. Move forward, please.”

Trissiny started moving first, gripping her sword on the verge of whipping it out. One of the drow laughed, but most of the bar’s occupants ignored them entirely. The ogre didn’t even seem to notice their presence, absorbed in his barrel of whatever he was drinking. The students clustered together, Fross hovering directly above the little knot of them, and moved to rejoin Professor Ezzaniel; no sooner had they reached him than he turned and strode off again.

The room was divided into two levels, separated by a waist-high (on a human) ledge lined by a bannister. Tables and chairs filled the lower level, with a huge hearth on on end of the room, in which burned a cheerfully intense but small-for-the-space fire; the other had a window looking out on the depressing view of the sloping chasm outside. On the second level were bigger, better-padded chairs and a couple of low tables, though this area was clearly more suited to sitting and conversing than eating meals. Opposite the bannister overlooking the entrance was the bar, behind which the bartender grinned wolfishly, watching them approach.

Ezzaniel took the short staircase to the upper level in a single lanky bound; the students followed him much more sedately. It was less populated up here; two more goblins were canoodling together in a chair sized for someone much bigger than they, and a harpy hung upside-down in the far corner, gnawing at a bone and watching them beadily. Aside from that, there was nobody up here but the bartender.

He was gorgeous, with a long face whose full lips and lavish eyelashes made him almost effiminately pretty, while its sharp angles seemed downright rugged. His lean musculature was very much on display; if he was wearing anything, it was only below the waist. Despite his basically human countenance, though, his species was unmistakable. The eyes framed by those girlish lashes were a deep topaz in color and glittered like crystals; his black hair had distinctly blue highlights. Worse were the wings. As they approached, he snapped them once to both sides as though shaking dust from their batlike folds, then settled them back behind him so that only their joints poked up above his shoulders.

Trissiny had never been this close to an incubus before. She could feel the wrongness of him clawing at her subtler senses, the ones that came with Avei’s calling which never flared up unless something was badly wrong. A glance at Toby and the tension in his face said he felt the same. She did not take her hand away from her sword.

“Emilio, it’s been too long!” the incubus said with a companionable grin. “Is it freshman time already? They days run together down here. I must say I’m surprised to see you; doesn’t the loon in the tight pants usually do these groups?”

“Admestus is in the doghouse,” Professor Ezzaniel said with a wry twist of his mouth. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“Well, you could make it up to me.” The demon grinned more broadly, planting an elbow on the bar and leaning toward Ezzaniel; the motion made lean muscles slide under his alabaster skin in a way that was too ostentatious not to have been deliberate. “What’ll it cost me to get you into some tight pants?”

“You can’t afford me,” Ezzaniel said in a disinterested tone, then turned to the students. “This, kids, is the Grim Visage.”

“Yeah, we read the sign,” Ruda snipped.

“I have had you in class for a semester and a half, Miss Punaji; I am no longer so blissfully naïve as to assume you have observed the obvious. This inn is at the effective crossroads of the Crawl; all of the dungeon’s various branches and wings connect directly to this spot. As such, and because it is a sanctuary, it serves as the launching point for student adventures in the dungeon. You will come back here to sleep, resupply and lay such plans as you need to. This,” he nodded at the incubus, who waggled his eyebrows at them in greeting, “is Rowe, the proprietor and your landlord for the next three weeks.”

“I am so indescribably charmed I just can’t tell you,” the demon said smoothly, making an elaborately courtly bow emphasized by a flourish of one of his wings.

“Is that…safe?” Trissiny asked tightly.

“My dear,” said Rowe, straightening up and giving her an earnestly straightforward look that made her skin crawl, “you are as safe in this inn as in the arms of your own goddess.”

“That is both vastly implausible and verges on blasphemy.”

“Oh, what’s a spot of blasphemy between friends?” he said glibly. “But you raise a valid point! As your professor has said, the Grim Visage is a sanctuary. There is no fighting here, no harm of any kind. Remember that well.”

“We are glad to abide by such a rule,” said Shaeine, “so long as we are accorded the same courtesy. What assurance is there that this shall be so?”

“Ah, I’m afraid you misunderstand,” the demon said with a knowing grin. “Sanctuary is not a rule, it’s a fact. Here, I’ll demonstrate for you. Excuse me, kids.”

He snapped his wings outward again, beat them once and sailed over the bar and then over their heads (prompting most of them to duck and Fross to dodge), coming to rest nimbly on the bannister. He was wearing a pair of pink trousers of Punaji style, loose and flowing but gathered in tightly at the ankles above his bare feet. Rowe hopped nimbly down to the lower level, the students meandering over curiously to get a better view.

“Hey, Gomblust!” the demon said cheerfully, waving.

In the nearby corner, the hulking ogre slowly turned his great rocky head toward the incubus, blinking his beady little eyes. “Huh?”

“Can you do me a favor, buddy?” Rowe folded his wings again but spread his arms wide, grinning at the ogre. “Kill me!”

Gomblust blinked at him once more, then sighed heavily, emitting an ill-smelling blast of air that disturbed several hats and blew Fross off course. “Again?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Rowe wheedled, “last time, I promise. It’ll be fun!”

“This is not heroic,” the ogre grumbled, shifting to his feet. Amazingly, he could stand up without trouble, though it had looked as if his head brushed the ceiling while he was seated. “Gomblust is supposed to be punching evils, not bartenders.”

“It totally counts! I’m evil! I’m a demon!”

“You are too silly to be evil,” said the ogre. “Fine, fine.”

For such a ponderous creature, he could move fast enough when he wanted. The ogre drew back one of his massive arms and slammed his fist down on Rowe’s head, prompting a startled shriek from Teal and a nearly-as-shrill outcry from Gabriel.

His fist stopped inches from striking the demon; the air shivered where it impacted, rippling like a disturbed pool. Gomblust drew his hand back more slowly, shaking it. “You are a very silly demon, Rowe. Last time!”

“Yup, I think the point is made,” the incubus said brightly. “Thanks, you’re a pal! Next round’s on me!”

“That is not a good favor,” Gomblust muttered, sitting back down with a muted crash. Even his muttering was loud enough to fill the room. “Gomblust is supposed to be on an adventure, not drinking in a bar. Is very good ale, though…” He picked up his barrel again.

“You see, kids,” said Rowe, strolling back up the steps to rejoin them with an almost feminine sway in his hips, “sanctuary is the rule of the house. It’s not my rule; I may call myself the innkeeper, but no matter what I claim to own, I just work here. The Crawl is the final authority, and the Crawl sets this aside as a neutral meeting place. Whatever magics or weapons you wield, whatever gods you can invoke, you will not break sanctuary. Here, the Crawl is the only god, and its rules are absolute.”

He sauntered back around behind the bar, the students staring at him in silence. “Y’see, my little duckies,” Rowe went on, selecting a dusty bottle and pouring a mug full of thick, amber liquid, “there are doors in this inn to many places. It is a place between places, but not a way between places. You follow?”

“Not in the least fucking little bit,” said Ruda.

The incubus laughed. “What I mean is, we get all sorts through here. Some are residents of the Crawl itself. Oh, there are wandering monsters—though that term is extremely relative, as you’ll learn—but there are whole societies of various kinds in the depths. Then again, some enter that door from entirely other realms, stopping in for a drink or to escape their worlds for whatever reason. You can’t get into anybody else’s world, though. Whatever continuum spat you out will suck you back in, when you go through the door. See? A place, but not a way. You can meet people from other realities in the Visage, but not visit them from here.”

“So…” Gabriel frowned. “How many of these people are from the real world?”

“Is a world less real because you don’t live there?” Rowe asked, raising an eyebrow.

Gabriel scowled. “Fine, the world the Crawl is actually in, then?”

The demon shrugged, idly flicking his wings. “The place you’re from… University at Last Rock, yes? Tiraan Empire, Pantheon, Universal Church, Elilial? All that stuff?”

“Yes, that’s us,” said Teal.

The incubus grinned broadly. “Smashing, me too. But who’s to say that’s the world this dungeon is in?”

They all stared at him in silence for a moment, then glanced around at each other.

“I’m reasonably sure it is,” Rowe confided, “but one can never be sure, eh?”

“What about him?” Ruda jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating Gomblust the ogre. “How the hell did he even get in here? I mean… You couldn’t even get his fist through that door.”

“You’re in the Crawl, sweet cheeks. There’s exactly as much space as there needs to be. Now then! I hate to rush you along, but if you’re to be staying here, there’s the matter of payment.” He rubbed his hands together, grinning avidly. “You goslings often stagger in here unprepared on your first outing—Arachne’s favorite little joke, as I understand it—so you can pay by the day if you’re strapped for funds. You’d best get to adventuring quickly in that case, though. There’s more than enough treasure in these halls, but only for those willing and able to get out there and bleed for it.”

The students glanced around at each other again; most of their gazes found their way to Professor Ezzaniel.

“No, the University will not be financing your expenses,” he said in a bored tone. “You will find or create such resources as you need to fulfill your quest. That is the point of the exercise.”

“Hey, Professor!” Gabriel said brightly. “As a personal favor, can we borrow—”

“No.”

“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, reaching into her coat pocket, “I don’t suppose you can accept Tiraan bank notes?”

Rowe laughed long and hard at that. “Ah, kiddo, you’re just precious,” he said finally, wiping a tear from his eye. “Seriously, though, where am I going to redeem those? I could maybe use them to start a fire…”

“Ugh, fuck it,” Ruda grumbled, reaching into her own coat pocket. She withdrew a coin and tossed it down on the bar. “If we’re going to be looting treasure, you can repay me out of our first hall. How many days will that buy us?”

“This?” Rowe picked up the coin, squinting at it skeptically. “This isn’t even breakfast, duckie.”

“What?” Ruda yelled, stomping forward and thrusting her face into his. “Are you out of your buttfucking mind? That’s an Imperial decabloon! They don’t make coins more valuable than that!”

“I think you precious little poppets are laboring under some misunderstandings about the economics of this place,” said Rowe, seemingly unfazed by her tirade. “We operate on a sort of barter system here. Sure, gold, jewels, precious metals… Stuff like that has its uses. There are, as I said, functional societies in the Crawl. There’s a whole warren of goblins, as well as several less sociable groups, all of which have an economy of some kind or other. We get drow in here regularly enough I’m pretty sure there’s an opening to the Underworld somewhere near the bottom, though the hell I’m going down there to look. And, of course, there are the odd visitors from other dimensions who are wont to engage in a spot of trade. By and large, though, coins are chiefly valuable as a conveniently carryable, roughly—and I mean very roughly—standardized measurement of gold, which can be melted down and made into other things.”

He held up the decabloon, shifting it slowly back and forth so that it glinted in the torchlight. “This thing here? This is a thin lip of gold surrounding a core of platinum, layered with enchantments to prevent wear and tear—and prevent people counterfeiting or melting it down, which is precisely what we’d need to be able to do to make it valuable. You kids are new, so I won’t take it personally, but for future reference, handing somebody in the Crawl a coin like that is tantamount to telling them where to shove it.” He rolled the coin across his knuckles once, then flicked it at Ruda; she snatched it out of the air, glaring. “You’ve got to get used to thinking in terms of the value of things. What are they good for? That, metal content aside, is like your friend’s bank notes: chiefly valuable in the presence of a large society that agrees it has value.”

Ruda snorted in disgust, stuffing the decabloon back in her coat pocket. When she withdrew her hand again, though, it was full of other coins, which she threw down disdainfully on the bar.

“Oh, now we’re talking!” Rowe said delightedly, sweeping them up. “Punaji gold! Best kind—soft enough to re-cast and verifiably the real thing. Shiny new ones, too! Who’s this guy?” he asked curiously, holding a coin up to the light so he could study the face profiled on it.

“That’d be King Rajakhan, the Blackbeard,” Ruda said dryly. “I gather you don’t see too many of those.”

“Indeed not, my lamb, and for this many you may consider yourselves paid up for the entirety of your stay!” Rowe made the coins vanish into his pants, which was impressive as they had no visible pockets, and made another grand bow at them. “And just to put it on the table, you kids probably don’t have much to trade, but if you’re of a mind to swap that sword, missy, I might just give you the whole damn place.”

“If I give you my sword,” Ruda said quietly, “it’ll be the wrong end of it in your ribs.”

“Not in this bar, you won’t,” Rowe replied with a cheeky grin. “Well, my dears, congratulations! You are officially guests of the Grim Visage.”

“Not him,” said Ruda, pointing at Professor Ezzaniel.

“Excuse me?” the professor said, looking mildly offended.

She grinned nastily at him. “My gold, my rules. You don’t wanna help us pay our way? Hope you brought enough coin for yourself, then.”

Ezzaniel rolled his eyes. “My usual room, please, Rowe. I may have to owe you for the last week or so.”

“Your word’s as good as gold in this bar, Emilio,” the demon replied graciously, then clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “All right! Meals aren’t part of the deal, I’m afraid, but you may not find that onerous. We always have food and drink available; it’s quite easy to ferment stuff, but… As far as food goes, expect variations on a theme of meat, fish and fungus. There are sometimes fruits and vegetables, but you can expect to break the bank on those.” He spread his hands in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “We serve what there is to be served.”

“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, “what kind of meat would that be?”

“I will answer that question if you truly wish,” Rowe said solemnly, “but understand this, young seeker: knowledge does not bring happiness.”

“We will pass,” Gabriel said firmly. “Embrace the mystery, Teal.”

“If you’re gonna be spending a lot of time out there in the corridors, anyway, you’ll probably find it more cost effective to hunt up your own grub.” Rowe waggled his eyebrows again, leering. “That, by the way, is not a euphemism.”

Gabriel grimaced horribly and turned a plaintive look on Ezzaniel. “Is it too late to go back up top and just take the F?”

“Yes.”

“Let me show you to your new home away from home,” Rowe continued in his cloyingly bright tone. “Sarriki! Come watch the bar!”

The naga quickly appeared from below, carrying her now-empty tray. She appeared to have a little trouble with the stairs, using one hand to pull herself up the bannister and leaning forward in the ascent as though moving against a headwind. Her snake-like lower body was clearly not designed for such footing.

“Yessss, bosss,” she replied with sibilant deference, nodding deeply to Rowe and slithering around behind the bar.

“And stop that hissing,” he said irritably. “Honestly, every time they send down the freshmen! You may think stereotypes are funny, but that kind of crap is why the rest of us can’t hold down a job topside.”

“Aw, let me have my fun,” she pouted, then winked at the students. Her eyes were yellow and slitted like a snake’s.

“Have fun on your own time; just man the bar,” he said with a mock-scowl, then spoiled it by grinning. “All right, my little gumdrops, this way! Follow the handsome and dashing barkeep!”

A few doorways led off from the upper level of the bar, one in the corner with an actual door covering it, the others blocked only by ragged curtains. Rowe let them through the widest of these, his tail waving behind him as he went. The broad staircase beyond twisted slowly but unevenly; where a human-built stairwell would probably form a geometric path, this one seemed to have been repurposed from a natural tunnel. The width of the stairs varied widely, narrowing at one point so much they couldn’t walk two abreast, and the curve was not consistent. A single window was set into one of the walls just out of sight of the lower floor, providing another grim view of the red-tinged cavern. After a relatively short ascent, they emerged into an upper hall.

Once again, the students came to a stop just past the doorway, staring. Behind them, Ezzaniel sighed melodramatically.

“You have got to be shitting me,” said Gabriel.

The space was oddly reminiscent of the upper floor lounge they had occupied in the inn in Lor’naris: a simple square area from which doors branched, leading into bedrooms. This one had a few stone benches set into the walls rather than free-standing chairs, and no window. There was also no table set in the middle of the room.

Instead, there was a bronze statue of Arachne Tellwyrn.

“She’s kind of a big deal around here,” Rowe said cheerfully, “especially these days. I’ll let you know up front that your doors all lock, the locks are all serviceable, and I advise you to use them; management is not responsible for lost or stolen property, and the drow have a tendency to come up here and gawk at the statue. The hell if I know why they care so much.”

“Why do you?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean… Why is this here?”

Rowe shrugged extravagantly, fluttering his wings. “I have no idea. This isn’t my idea of décor; believe me, I can find better uses for this quantity of metal, I assure you. As far as I know, the Crawl put this here.”

Ruda snorted. “That bitch has the weirdest friends.”

“Corner door in the back wall is to the bathroom; I’m afraid you’ll have to share. There’s running water, from a hand-pump, and a stove to heat it. The toilets…well, let’s just say if anybody lives directly below this inn, I’ve never met them and I really hope I never do.” He grinned cheekily, tail waving like a pleased cat’s.

“Lovely,” Toby muttered.

“All hours are pretty much one in a sunless place,” the incubus went on, “but if memory serves, dear Arachne likes to roust you morsels out of your beds at an absurd hour for her little field trips, yes? I’ll just leave you to the rooms, then, if you want to grab some sleep. Don’t worry, they’ll be reserved for you until you check out, but that just means we won’t let anybody else sleep here. I suggest you not leave anything behind that you don’t want strangers pawing through while you’re gone.”

“We don’t have anything to leave behind,” Teal muttered, fingering the lapel of her coat where her Talisman was pinned. “Didn’t even get to bring a change of clothes…”

“It’s positively amazing what you can loot in the Crawl,” Rowe said brightly, already halfway back to the stairs. “Don’t fret, pumpkin, you’ll get by. When you come back down for breakfast, I’ll show you the commercial wing, where you can do some trading, get supplies and sell off whatever scratch you rustle up. For now, kiddies, ta ta!”

Wiggling his fingers flirtatiously, he vanished down the steps, leaving the students staring at each other. Ezzaniel had gone with him without a word.

“I think,” Trissiny said slowly, “we had better be careful about locking our doors, and not just when we’re out.”

“What about the sanctuary thing?” Gabriel asked. He reached out and tried to flick Ruda’s ear; his fingers didn’t connect, deflecting off midair with a tiny ripple of light. “Damn, it’s serious. Also, ow.”

“I’m gonna remember that when we’re out of here,” Ruda said, smirking at him.

“Don’t joke,” Trissiny said sharply. “This is a serious problem.”

“Oh, you and demons,” Gabriel shot back. “Sometimes I think you just don’t feel complete unless you’re condemning somebody. Just because he was born with wings and a tail doesn’t mean he wants to suck out all our blood.”

“Uh, incubi don’t do that,” Fross pointed out.

Trissiny tilted her head slightly, studying Gabriel. “I can’t figure you out, Gabe. Some days you seem full of guilt and self-loathing about being a demonblood, and others it’s like you’re ready to launch a demon rights movement.”

He shrugged irritably, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “It’s a complicated matter. I have complicated feelings about it.”

“Mm. You don’t actually know a thing about demonology, do you?”

“Why would I?” he demanded challengingly.

“Are you serious?”

“His dad was pretty firm about that,” Toby cut in, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Sshitherosz like to target half-demons. The less he was exposed to the whole thing…”

“I can narrate my own backstory, thanks,” Gabriel said, giving him a look.

“Incubi,” Trissiny said loudly, “are reincarnated humans. To begin with, when they died, their souls were denied entry into the divine plane and sent to Hell. That already is a very bad sign; Vidius isn’t exactly stringent. A moderate attempt to live a relatively decent life is generally enough to avoid damnation. Once in Hell, if they survive and manage to thrive despite being incorporeal and subject to enslavement and all manner of abuse by demonic magic-users, the souls eventually gain the attention of Prince Vanislaas, who gives them…” Her lips twisted contemptuously. “A second chance. New bodies, new powers, and a mission to make their way back to the mortal plane and corrupt more humans to swell the ranks of the succubi and incubi. An incubus, Gabriel, is someone who has repeatedly and vigorously proved himself evil of his own choices, demonstrated a considerable skill at being evil, and then been empowered and sent forth for the specific and express purpose of doing evil. They’re not like hethelaxi; they’re not just people who were born in the wrong dimension. The fact that he’s personable and charming makes him more dangerous, not less.”

“Let me just stick my nose in here,” said Ruda. “You know I’m generally on the side of anyone who knows how to have fun, and anyone who’s serving booze, so that’s twice over I’m inclined to think well of Rowe, without even getting into how I hate to encourage Boots when she’s being pompous.”

Trissiny sighed. “Thanks.”

Ruda grinned at her before continuing. “That said, I’ve gotta back her up on this one. Demonology isn’t a big thing in Puna Dara, but I was definitely taught to know and respect the great dangers of the world; I’m gonna lead my people one day and can’t be caught with my pants down. Incubi and succubi are bad fucking news. Like, one even being in the city is officially considered a crisis. We better watch our asses as long as we’re staying in a place where that guy’s in charge.”

A silence fell. Gabriel glanced between Ruda and Trissiny, then at Toby, and finally at the ground, a thoughtful frown covering his face.

“I’m tired,” Juniper said abruptly. They all started; she hadn’t spoken the entire time they’d been in the Grim Visage. The dryad trudged past them, around the statue of Tellwyrn and into the nearest room without bothering to close the door. Moments later there came the soft sound of her flopping down on a bed.

“Well,” said Toby, “that sounds like as good an idea as any.”

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