Tag Archives: Shamlin

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The grate lifted seemingly on its own and Professor Ezzaniel pushed the doors open, letting in a rush of cool night air laden with the scents of earth and grass. The whole party pressed forward, and would have pushed him out of the way had he not stepped quickly aside. They straggled out and stopped, a unified sigh of relief rippling through the whole group, and all stood, faces up, savoring the coolness and the moonlight.

Only one person was there to meet them.

“Well,” said Professor Tellwyrn, planting her hands on her hips. “Well. We do very occasionally lose someone down there, but this… This is unprecedented, I must say. How exactly did you pick up gnomes?”

“She makes us sound like a case o’ hiker’s foot,” Steinway muttered to his companions.

“They were lost,” Fross reported. “In fact, there may be other things in the Crawl that aren’t supposed to be, these days. Rowe was doing something he shouldn’t in the Grim Visage, trying to get out.”

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Was? Did you ruffians kill my bartender?”

“He was alive the last we saw,” said Ruda with a leer. “He’ll probably stay that way at least a while. Melaxyna doesn’t strike me as the type to give out swift and merciful punishments.”

“You took him to…” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, rolling her eyes. “Ugh. Now I have to go trap another Vanislaad demon, or something equally sketchy. Leaving a succubus down there without competition isn’t on the table; she’d be running the place within a year. Shamlin, what the hell were you doing in my Crawl?”

“Making my fortune,” he said with a broad grin. “Oh, come on, don’t act surprised, Professor. It’s been two years; I’ve talked with every student group and faculty guide you sent. You had to know I was down there. Nice to see you again, by the way!”

“Well, here it is barely a week on, and here you lot are.” Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and fixed her eyes on Teal, who was carrying the long wooden box. “Only the third freshman group even to reach the objective, and you’ve absolutely destroyed the previous speed record. Let’s have a look.”

“I’m sure you already know everything, seeing as how you were here waiting,” Teal said, stepping forward as the others cleared a space. “I got a look at the apparatus in the basement of the Visage, the one that I gather students aren’t supposed to see.” She knelt, setting the box down on the grass, unlatched it, and lifted the lid. Within, in their custom-fitted grooves in the red velvet lining, lay the elven sword and dagger, gleaming lustrously under the moonlight.

Tellwyrn gazed down at them for a long few moments, her expression far away. Then, she blinked, shook herself slightly, and lifted her eyes. “Well! That’s the treasure, all right. Since you were lugging them around, Teal, may I assume the honor of the find was yours?”

“It was a group effort,” Teal said firmly. “I was the one to put my hands on them. We had to divide forces to make that happen.”

“She’s being modest,” said Gabriel, grinning. “Teal made the plans that led to us getting them at all. Fairly earned spoils, I’d say.”

“Well, I certainly cannot argue with results,” Tellwyrn said. “I’ll be reading Professor Ezzaniel’s report in detail, but frankly, you completed your assigned task with flying colors, and showed up every previous group to undertake it in the process. Unless you were transcendently stupid in your approach to every step thereof, which seems improbable, you not only receive an A, but a measure of extra credit for this. Right now, kids, I think you can consider last semester’s Golden Sea debacle obviated.”

“Yay!” Fross cheered.

“And we’ll find lodging for our guests, of course,” Tellwyrn went on, turning to the trio of gnomes, who had moved to the side with Shamlin. “I won’t send you down to the town at this hour; neither of the resident innkeepers would appreciate being roused after midnight. If you can bear with me, though, I’ll have to wake my groundskeeper and have one of the unoccupied student dorms opened up. I’m afraid they’ll be rather dusty.”

“Ma’am,” said Sassafrass respectfully, “we’ve been livin’ in the Crawl these last…what’s it been, lads?”

“Least ten months, I reckon,” said Woodsworth. “Me sense o’ time is understandably a bit off-kilter. I’d no idea it was night out.”

“Point bein’,” Sassafrass continued, grinning up at the Professor, “dust is nothing. If you can offer us a bit o’ somethin’ other than mushrooms and stringy ham, an’ a mattress not made o’ patchy leather, you’ll ‘ave gained three devoted slaves.”

“No, thanks,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “The downside of slaves is having to feed them; they make expensive pets. Anyhow, I believe my hospitality can furnish a higher standard than that.”

“It’s a real honor to meet you, by the way,” Steinway said, grinning broadly.

“Yes, I’m sure. As for you.” Tellwyrn leveled a finger at Shamlin. “You may as well stay the night, too, though I’ll be wanting a prolonged word with you before you skitter off.”

“Uh oh,” he said, grinning.

“All right, that’s enough for now,” the elf went on briskly. “It’s an altogether ungodly hour and I have class in the morning. You lot are excused from tomorrow’s classes, of course, but that’s all the time you’ll have to reset your biological clocks. Education waits for no one.”

“Oh, come on,” Juniper protested. “You thought we’d be down there for three weeks! We should get some time off.”

“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said, staring at her over her glasses, “what have I told you about whining?”

“Um…well… Actually, nothing.”

“Mm hm. Would you like to hear my opinions about whining?”

The dryad crept backward a half step. “Actually, now that I think about it, no.”

“Good. All right, off with you. Emilio, have time for a cup of tea with me before retiring?”

“I’m just beginning my day, Arachne,” Ezzaniel said amiably. “I don’t look forward to classes next week. The young can spring back from these sleep cycle disruptions so much more quickly.”

“I have faith in you. Shamlin, the Wells is currently empty. I know you know where that is. Kindly escort our guests there, and I’ll send Stew along to spruce it up for you.”

“Oh, my,” said the bard, grinning. “But Professor, that’s a girls’ dorm!”

“When there are girls in it, yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “I’ll just have to trust you not to impregnate the dust bunnies. Move along, Shamlin.”

“Your wish is my command!” he proclaimed, bowing extravagantly. Tellwyrn snorted at him and strode off, Ezzaniel prowling along beside her.

“Welp, it’s been a right pleasure adventurin’ with you kids,” said Woodsworth.

“Aye,” Sassafrass agreed, “you be sure to pay us a visit before we ‘ave to head out.”

“Count on it,” said Toby with a smile.

They stood in silence, breathing in the clean night air and watching the other two groups vanish around corners into the shadows of the campus.

“Well,” Ruda said at last, “who woulda figured it was midnight?”

“I think I’ve had enough of being underground forever,” Juniper muttered. “No offense, Shaeine.”

“None was offered, even by mistake,” Shaeine replied, smiling. “I doubt I would fare well in your home, either.”

“Actually,” said Fross, “Crawl excursions are kind of a big deal at this school. We’ll probably have at least one a year. Maybe one a semester from now on.”

Juniper groaned.

“Here’s what I’m thinkin’,” said Gabriel. “The pubs down in the town are closed, and our dorms are spelled to keep out the opposite sex. But since we’re all awake, and we’ve been subsisting on Crawl food for a week…” He grinned wickedly. “Who’s up for raiding the cafeteria?”

“That is extremely out of bounds!” Fross said shrilly. “It violates multiple school rules as well as personal directives given out by Professor Tellwyrn, Stew, and Mrs. Oak! We could get in so much trouble, especially since we’re supposed to be going to bed!”

“Well,” Ruda began.

“So,” the pixie continued, “you’d better let me go ahead and scan for detector charms. Gabe, I may need your help with the locks!”

Chiming exuberantly, she buzzed off in the direction of the cafeteria.

“Well, blow me down,” Ruda said in wonder. “They really do grow up fast, don’t they?”


 

“I know how many of us suffer, day by day,” Branwen said. Her voice and expression were painfully earnest; the magical spotlight illuminating her was an expensive piece of spellwork that made her easily visible to anyone looking, as if she were standing right in front of them. The charm that made her words echo throughout the grand auditorium was a more conventional piece of magic. “The sad thing about the trials in everyone’s lives is how they can disconnect us, how they can distract us, encourage us to retreat into ourselves and become fixated upon our own problems. It creeps right up on you, doesn’t it? But if you look around you, at the people here tonight, at the people you pass on the street every day, even at the people you love, people you work with… Each time, you are passing another whole story, someone with his or her own struggles. They are different struggles than yours, but no one’s challenges are less important. What you should mourn is not that you face challenges, but what they can cost you, without you even realizing it. It’s the saddest thing in the world, not to see another’s pain.

“Because it’s in those challenges that we have our greatest opportunities. It’s in the connections we can form with our fellow human beings that we may find the simplest solutions.” She smiled, an expression so brimming with optimism and love that Darling, as a fellow artist working in the medium of facial features, found himself in awe of her mastery. Awed, and wondering just how deep those waters ran, considering her well-established facade of pretty uselessness. “It is natural that we should look upward, to the gods, in our most troubled times. But we must be careful. That can lead to despair when solutions do not come down to us from the gods. And that despair is a trick, played on us by our own minds. It’s not what the gods can give us, but what they have given us, that matters.”

She placed a hand over her own heart, a gesture that was totally innocent and yet drew attention right to her impressive bosom. The plain Bishop’s robes she wore, with the pink lotus pin of Izara at the shoulder, were far more carefully tailored than those of her colleagues, emphasizing her voluptuous figure in a manner that was just subtle enough not to be called out upon, while still pushing the envelope of ecclesiastical dignity.

“Each of the gods stands for something which they have bestowed on the world for our use. To cry out to them to solve our problems for us is missing the point of these precious gifts. The gods have given us the means to raise ourselves up. They ask that we have faith in them, because they have faith in us!” Her expression stayed solemn, though her eyes were alight with passion. “The gods believe in you. I believe in you. Whatever you face in your life, I know you can rise to meet it. You must believe in you!”

The mostly-silent crowd stirred at that, a smattering of applause and hushed voices rising up. It was a bit more exuberant than the last such; Branwen was working this audience with absolutely masterful skill. Darling had seen this done before, many a time, in his observations of religious ceremonies. There was a rhythm to it, a familiar pattern. It would be a while yet before she built it to its climax. Tonight’s festivities had only just begun.

He tore his gaze from Branwen to look around the darkened theater. She’d drawn quite a crowd, with the full resources of the Church and every major newspaper in the Empire pushing her forward to fame. The place was full of the hoi palloi thronging the cheap seats below, the slightly more upscale classes in the balconies and the wealthy few occupying boxes like himself. The arrangement tickled at his mind. It somehow seemed very appropriate to have used a commercial theater for this address rather than the Cathedral.

“Damn, but she makes a good speech,” Embras Mogul remarked, dropping heavily into the seat next to Darling and stretching out his long legs. “Fills out that robe quite exquisitely, too, doesn’t she? I have to say, that was a genius move on Justinian’s part. I wonder how long he’s been grooming her for this? Doubtless the lady has her own ambitions, but his Holiness doesn’t strike me as the type to catapult one of his underlings into power without spending a good long while sculpting them first.”

Darling was aware that he was staring, and didn’t bother to stop. “Well,” he said finally. “You’re not quite the last person I expected to see tonight, but… If Scyllith pops in here, too, I may just have to check outside and see if the world has ended.”

“If you encounter Scyllith under any circumstances, I think that’s a worthy concern,” Mogul said, grinning broadly.

“To what do I owe the honor, Embras?”

“Oh, this’n that. I thought you might be missing your tracking charm.” Mogul’s spiderlike fingers deposited a small metal object on the arm of Darling’s chair. It had been badly scorched and bent nearly in half. “Somehow it ended up under my collar. Funny, the way these little things wander off, isn’t it?”

“You said it,” Darling said easily, picking up the destroyed charm and making it vanish up his sleeve. “I owe you one, old man. I tore my whole study apart last night looking for this.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mogul crossed his legs, lounging back in the plush chair. Below them, Branwen continued to soliloquize, but neither man spared her a glance. “After our little game of tag yesterday, I found myself mulling over your motivations.”

“I’m flattered!”

“And I’m curious. Here’s a man clearly playing both ends against the middle. Or all three ends, or more. The point is, you’re balancing far too many loyalties to be truly loyal to all of them.”

“It does seem to keep people on their toes,” Darling agreed solemnly.

“Loyalty, now, people don’t generally understand how that works,” Mogul mused. “It’s a lot less important than they think. What matters is motivations, those are what lie at the root of loyalties, and everything else. So I got to wondering, and decided to arrange a little test.” He leaned away from Darling and angled his body toward him so he could spread his arms wide. “Thus, here I am! The big, bad leader of the Black Wreath, sitting not a foot away, in a theater just crawling with the Church’s agents. A golden opportunity for you to raise the cry and try your luck at cutting off the snake’s head, so to speak!”

“This speech has the smell of an approaching ‘but’ about it,” Darling said wryly.

“Oh, I dunno,” Mogul replied, grinning broadly. “Or at least, that is what we’re here to find out, isn’t it? After all, you’d be pitting the assembled powers of the Church against whatever I have prepared to come to my aid, which you just know is gonna be something nasty. Obviously I’m a powerful player and I wouldn’t have come here unless I were pretty confident of my chances. On the other hand, Justinian wouldn’t have placed his newest, prettiest pet in such an easily shootable position without ample protections at the ready. Sounds to me like a pretty close contest! The only thing that makes it complicated…” He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the box’s low wall, and peered down at the rapt crowd below. “…are aaaallll those innocent people, just waiting to be pulverized in the crossfire. Priests and demons and the gods know what else, running amok in a crowded theater. Why, it fairly scalds the imagination, doesn’t it?”

“Innocent people.” Darling chuckled darkly, turning his gaze back to Branwen. “We both know there’s no such animal.”

“That a fact?” Mogul leaned back again. “Why not kick off the festivities, then, Antonio? Unless you’re bothered by the thought of unleashing hell on their heads.”

“Have you learned nothing about the modern world from this little campaign?” Darling said mildly, gesturing at Branwen. “Everything’s connected. There are a lot of reasons beyond the moral not to start a fire in a crowded theater.”

“Yes, and we could discuss in detail why the Church doesn’t need to worry about those matters, but that would be a tediously long back-and-forth and quite frankly, I believe we’re done here. At any rate, I’ve got what I came for.” Mogul smiled at him, a thin, smug expression. “So there is a core of decency motivating you, old fellow. Well, I must say, that is…fascinating.”

“I’ll be honest, this kind of gloating seems beneath you,” Darling remarked. “You can’t possibly be that bored. Are you really that sore about losing out to the Archpope on this project? I’m sure your pet columnists would have been valuable and all, but just look at her! Isn’t she adorable? A gift to the world, if you ask me.”

“Losing out,” Mogul mused, raising his eyebrows. “Maybe you can clarify that for me. I have a respected journalist setting out to present my perspective to the world. I have that bosomy little piece speaking what amounts to secular humanism, mortal ambition and self-empowerment—all the things the Wreath stands for. And frankly I have to admit she does make a better mouthpiece than anything I had lined up to do the job, and with the Church’s own credibility behind her, too! The people of this city and the Empire have begun questioning the line of divine bullshit they’ve been fed from the cradle. The cults that pose the greatest threat to me have lost face, while that scheming spider Justinian has gained power, and don’t even pretend you fully understand what he aims to do with it. So, what is it, exactly, that I have lost? I confess the point escapes me.”

“You know, I am trying to watch a speech. If you want to exchange taunts, we can do that in the heat of battle sometime. Butting in like this is rather rude.”

“Why, you are absolutely right.” Mogul stood, swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “My most sincere and humble apologies, Antonio. You enjoy the rest of the evening, now. It’s a great speech.”

“See you later, Embras,” Darling said, waving languidly at him, his face already turned back toward Branwen.

Mogul didn’t even try to move silently and didn’t shadow-jump out, simply pacing back to the curtained door of the box, whistling. Darling listened to him leave, ignoring Branwen for now. With his back to the warlock’s exit, he permitted his features to fall into a grim scowl.


 

Midnight had long passed and the moon was drifting toward the horizon when the doors to the Crawl eased open again. A wary, slate-gray face peered out, glancing left and right, before pushing them wider. The figure who stepped forth was followed by two others, all looking around in blended wonder and nervousness.

“Just as he said,” the lone male whispered in the subterranean dialect of elvish.

“We will go directly,” said the woman in the lead. “There are sure to be wards and defenses, and we are not out for a fight. Stay low, and—”

The soft pop was the only warning they got.

“Right on schedule,” Professor Tellwyrn said grimly, stepping out of thin air. “Congratulations! Most of your compatriots aren’t dumb enough to try this. You get the rare honor of being an example.”

The three drow had fallen to their knees before her as soon as she spoke.

“Arachne,” the second woman said breathlessly. “We’ve—”

“I don’t think I like hearing that from you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “Well, the good news is, with Rowe’s nonsense at an end, it shouldn’t be too hard to find and plug whatever hole you lot are creeping out of. I do not need drow in my Crawl, except the ones I send in myself. Hm,” she added thoughtfully, frowning. The three kneeling elves flinched. “Now, there’s an idea. A Scyllithene priestess would be a worthy check on Melaxyna’s ambitions. If, that is, I could find one of a modest enough nature not to be an excessive pest. Doesn’t seem likely.”

“We are both priestesses of Scyllith,” the second drow woman said eagerly, not seeing or ignoring her companion’s frantic expression of warning. “I would be—”

“Well, not you, obviously,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace.

The flames were brief, lasting only a split-second, but more intense than the interior of a blast furnace while they burned. In the darkness and quiet after they had vanished, Tellwyrn dismissed the invisible shield over her and brushed drifting ash from her sleeves. A circular patch had been scoured completely clean just in front of the Crawl’s entrance, the upper layers of dirt melted to a puddle of still-steaming glass. It was rapidly hardening, cracking as it did so, the energy of the fire having been removed far more swiftly than simple physics would allow. Nothing was left, not even skeletons. They had not even had time to scream.

“Stew is going to gripe about this for weeks,” Tellwyrn remarked, wrinkling her nose at the hardening glass. “Ah, well. He loves griping.”

She stepped around the burned area to the doors, pushing them carefully shut, then paused. The Professor laid a hand against the dark wood for a moment, smiling fondly, before turning and setting off to wake the groundskeeper for the second time that night.


 

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price said serenely, taking his coat. “I trust the presentation was enjoyable?”

“Good morning, Price,” he said, yawning. “The presentation was fine, as propaganda shows go. I never object to staring at Branwen. Then I had to go to the Intelligence office and the Church and report on more Wreath nonsense. Brandy, please.”

“Of course,” said Price. “Your Grace has a guest, waiting in the downstairs parlor.”

“I have a— It has to be one o’clock in the morning!”

“Yes, your Grace,” she said calmly. “The Crow appears generally unconcerned with such trivialities.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he muttered, stalking off toward the parlor.

“Ah, Antonio,” Mary said as he entered. She was sitting on the back of his favorite chair, her feet perched on one of its armrests, nibbling one of Price’s scones. “It seems I picked a poor moment to leave the city on business. You managed, though, did you not?”

“Mary, it’s an absolutely stupid hour of the morning and I’m exhausted. What do you want?”

She tilted her head. “You are unusually tetchy. I’m accustomed to seeing you more smooth under pressure. Was it really that stressful?”

“If by it, you mean the grand cavalcade of stalking and violence you missed, then no. It was actually rather fun. But I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it by the Wreath’s mortal head and had to explain all this twice, to two separate groups of superiors, so yes, I’m damn well tetchy. Even more so now that I find myself again having to repeat. What do you want, Mary?”

“Merely to discuss events,” she said, hopping lightly to the floor. “I waited, as I’ve found you generally amenable to holding late hours, but if you are unduly stressed I can return tomorrow. Would you like me to ease your weariness before I go?”

“Thank you, no,” he grumbled. “But do you happen to know a time travel spell? What I would like is to go back about a week and a half and warn myself not to get into it too closely with Embras bloody Mogul.”

“As I should hardly have to remind a Bishop of the Church,” she said evenly, “messing with time travel is an extraordinarily bad idea. Vemnesthis punishes such infractions without mercy. Even I don’t aggravate the gods in person. You might ask Arachne.”

“It was a joke,” he said wearily. “The last damned thing I need is Tellwyrn anywhere near anything I’m trying to do.”

Mary studied him in silence for a moment. “What happened?” she asked, her voice more gentle. “You are rattled. I confess it’s a little disconcerting, coming from someone so self-assured.”

“Yes, well, circumstances and other people’s bullshit I can cope with just fine,” he said. “Ah, thank you, Price.” Darling tossed back the proffered brandy in one gulp, then set the glass back on her tray. “It’s more disappointing when I screw up. I’ve been going about this all wrong, sneaking around, playing the thief against the Black Wreath. It’s been mentioned often enough lately—hell, I’ve had reason to comment that Eserites and Elilinists think very much alike. I should never have tried to match them at their own game.”

“Is that not also your game?” Mary asked mildly.

“Yes, and that would be the problem,” he said, striding past her to the window, where he pulled aside the curtain and glared out at the dark street. “The whole reason the Empire has done so well militarily is its doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. Not just the Strike Corps utilizing the Circles of Interaction to advantage, but leveraging different kinds of assets against different enemies. Hit them where they’re weakest. The Guild against the Wreath is just…attrition. For all the Church’s resources, Justinian is a schemer, too. He and Vex have been doing the same thing. We’re never going to get anywhere if we keep obliging their love for skullduggery.”

“What, then?” Mary inquired. “If the Empire were able to pin down the Wreath and use its military power against them, it would have done so long since.”

“I can pin them down,” he said. “Next time, I am going to hit the bastards with sheer overwhelming force.”

“You don’t have overwhelming force,” she pointed out.

He turned from the window, grinning broadly at her, a predatory expression that was not meant to be pleasant. Mary, unsurprisingly, seemed totally unimpressed, which didn’t bother him.

“I cannot fathom why people keep saying things like that to me,” he said. “New strategies or not, I’m still a priest of Eserion. When I need something, I’ll take it.”

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6 – 25

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“Good morning,” Shaeine said, approaching. “Approximately, perhaps.”

Toby gave her a smile, glancing around the chamber. The group had huddled together near its center, around the remains of their fire, which had burned down to a small patch of slowly shifting orange light. Fross was making a gradual circuit of the perimeter, likely out of boredom, unless she was investigating the Crawl’s inherent magic. She’d seemed relieved for the opportunity to move about when Toby had come to take her post at the front, watching the door to the complex.

“I’m a little charged up,” he admitted. “I gave up on getting back to sleep after lying awake for an hour or so.”

The priestess glided over to stand beside him, glancing at the door before turning to regard him seriously. “You are troubled.”

Toby hesitated, then shook his head. “It’s…I’ll get over it. I’m just…wondering, suddenly, how many murderers there are in my social circle. It’s a little disconcerting, being in a position where I need to wonder that.”

She gave him the ghost of a smile. “Since you seemed quite supportive of Juniper, may I assume this is about Trissiny and Gabriel?”

He sighed. “I would rather drop it. It’s really not fair of me to be dragging all this up. I mean, it was months ago, they’re obviously over it, so what’s the point? It’s just… Well, it’s a new revelation to me. Kind of a heck of a thing to wrap my head around. Especially,” he added somewhat bitterly, “since nobody told me the truth about what happened.”

They were silent for a moment, watching the empty doorway side by side.

“Clerics of Themynra serve a judicial role in Narisian society,” she said at last. “I am years yet from being authorized to render judgment in an actual case, but my training has included the necessary skills, or at least the basics thereof. As someone thus trained, and who witnessed the event in question, perhaps I can offer you some clarity on the matter? If you wish it.”

He nodded, slowly. “Actually… I think that would help. I respect your judgment more than almost anyone’s, Shaeine.”

She smiled more broadly for a moment, then her expression grew serious again. “I don’t know the approach taken by Imperial law or Avei’s disciples, but in my culture we analyze every identifiable factor influencing a case before rendering judgment, which includes the education and known predispositions of those involved. To take the fight in question as an example…if this had occurred in Tar’naris, how the investigation would proceed might depend greatly on which House the accused hailed from. Had a member of my own House acted as Trissiny did, she would likely be held summarily culpable, as it would be assumed that a diplomat would know better than to start a fight. Had it been someone from House An’sadarr, which forms the backbone of the Queen’s military, however, matters would become more complicated. A trained warrior, confronted by a hostile demonblood, might understandably resort to force.”

“So…ignorance is an excuse?” he said skeptically.

“No. It is, however, sometimes an explanation.” Shaeine glanced back at the others; none of their forms were stirring, and Fross’s silver light was poking through one of the distant wings of the chamber which had formed an infinite hall when it was active. “I see no doubt that Trissiny instigated violence without justification. In determining culpability, though, it’s necessary to consider what she did not understand, and what Gabriel did.”

“What he understood?” Toby frowned.

“Recall that at the time, they hardly knew each other. All Trissiny knew about Gabriel was that he was a demonblood, something of a loudmouth and had a penchant for slightly sexist humor. Given that and her upbringing, her actions seem a bit more logical. Not justifiable, in my opinion, but also not totally unreasonable. Especially considering that she had previously not instigated a conflict with him, despite the surprise of learning his condition in a manner that was traumatic for them both.”

“Hm,” he said noncommittally.

“Gabriel, on the other hand, has grown up as a half-demon in Tiraan society, and has every reason to keep his head down and refrain from causing trouble. He has ample practice at this, and was very well aware of the likely consequences of doing so. Yet, he very deliberately provoked Trissiny, showing a degree of hostility which, frankly, was wildly out of character for him. I had never seen such aggression from him before, nor have I since.” She half-turned to look up at him, her expression solemn. “I have wondered, since… Toby, you know Gabriel better than any of us. Has he ever given any indication, before, that he wished to die?”

Toby made no answer, but his face lengthened and his eyes grew wider as he considered the implications of the question.

“Verbally assaulting the Hand of Avei as he did had that as a very likely outcome,” Shaeine continued after a short pause. “Moreover, his comments in the situation itself indicated that he was quite aware of this.” She shook her head. “Ultimately, then, Trissiny’s offense was several orders of magnitude more severe: the use of force against a civilian who was not a physical threat. However, given her perspective, there are mitigating factors. Gabriel’s role is precisely opposite: his is guilty of nothing more serious than rudeness and causing a disturbance, but is almost entirely culpable for creating that conflict in the first place. A conflict which was needless and which he clearly knew was likely to result in harm to himself, and possibly to bystanders and property.”

She let the silence hang momentarily before continuing. “Ultimately… Had I been tasked with judging this case, at the time, I would have punished them both equally, and with far worse than washing dishes. And… As time has passed, I have come to appreciate Professor Tellwyrn’s solution. Mine would have been a tremendous mistake.”

Toby turned to face her, raising an eyebrow in surprise. Shaeine, for her part, turned her head to gaze back at their sleeping classmates.

“Over the last few months I have watched those two benefit from knowing each other, in ways I would never have anticipated. It’s a slow and subtle thing, and I can’t say what this is building toward, but I have come to believe it is best to leave them alone and let it happen.” She smiled faintly. “I wouldn’t repeat this to Trissiny, nor advocate it as a general practice… But in this one case, it seems to me that everyone is better off because justice was not done.”

Frowning, Toby stared into the empty space beyond the door. The faint reddish glow of the main cavern was visible, but the atmosphere was slightly hazy, more so than at the Grim Visage’s level, giving them no view to speak of. After a moment, he nodded slowly.

“That sounds a lot like what I’d concluded. Except in a lot more detail and with a lot more understanding. It all makes sense to me, though. Oh…I’m sorry,” he added, turning to face her. “I don’t mean to take credit for your insight or anything.”

“Not at all,” she replied with a smile. “I’m pleased I was able to offer you some clarity. Toby…” Shaeine tilted her head, studying him intently. “We seem to have a difference of opinion among the group concerning whether the Crawl is trying to torment or educate us here. In either case, however, I find myself unsurprised that it would show you images of your friends in conflict. Forgive me if I presume, but you do seem more concerned with the welfare of others than your own.”

He shrugged, but smiled faintly. “I’m comfortable with that assessment. A paladin’s life is sacrifice.”

“In Tar’naris, everyone’s life is sacrifice. Culturally, we see it as dangerous ostentation to grind oneself down in order to be of service to others. For the whole to function, individuals must understand their own needs, and see them met.” She laid a hand gently on his upper arm. “If you prefer to spend your energies caring for others, be sure to let others care for you as well. You will be no use to anyone if you burn yourself out.”

Toby looked down at the floor, then out at the cavern, then nodded again, finally meeting her gaze. “Thank you.”

Shaeine smiled back, letting her hand fall. While the first sounds of the others stirring began to grow behind them at the campsite, they stood in companionable silence, keeping watch.


“Okay,” said Ruda, straightening the lapels of her coat. “Has anyone taken the time to look outside?”

“I have!” Fross chirped.

“Fantastic. Got any working theories concerning just where the fuck we are?”

“Well… I’m pretty sure it’s far below the place where we entered the central cavern. I mean, it’s not likely there was much above that, you know? And it’s different enough I didn’t recognize any landmarks. It’s the same cavern, all slopey with some paths along the walls and a few stretching over the middle.”

“Great,” Gabriel sighed. “So basically, we’re lost as hell.”

“We’re not lost!” Fross protested. “We just have to go up!”

“That will depend upon finding viable paths,” said Shaeine.

“We have an advantage there, in that two of our party can fly,” Trissiny pointed out. “If Fross and Vadrieny scout ahead, like they did in the mazes in the Descent, we can hopefully avoid getting any more lost than necessary.”

It hadn’t been the most comfortable night, but the students were relatively rested, at least in comparison to how they’d felt before making camp. Now, fed, packed away and ready to head out again, they were clustered in the wing of the complex which led to the exterior door.

Toby sighed and squared his shoulders. “All right, it’s not getting any easier while we stand here. Let’s go have a look.” He started forward, the others proceeding in his wake.

Until Gabriel abruptly halted, straightening up from his customary slouch. “Ambush?”

Everyone stopped, turning to stare at him.

“What’s an ambush?” Ruda asked.

“I just… Someone said ‘ambush.’”

“Uh, yeah,” she replied. “You.”

“No, I mean, before that. You guys didn’t hear anything?”

There was a round of exchanged glances and shaken heads.

“I did not hear the word until you said it,” Shaeine replied.

“Well, if Ears didn’t hear it, nobody spoke it,” said Ruda. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Arquin, but you have gone batshit insane. We may have to push you in the pit.”

“That course of action might be premature, Boobs,” said Shaeine.

Everyone turned to stare at her in shock.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said placidly. “I thought we were renaming each other based on prominent features. Or shall we instead agree not to do that?”

“All right, all right, point taken,” Ruda muttered.

“There are any number of explanations for disembodied voices,” said Trissiny. “In this wretched place, insanity on the part of the person hearing them isn’t even the most likely. Whatever madness the Crawl inflicts on us next, we can’t afford to hunker down and let it. Gabe, let us know if you hear any more whispers. That goes for everyone else, too. For now, I say we proceed assuming we might be ambushed, which is a good idea anyway. Agreed?”

After a round of assent, Trissiny nudged them back into formation, and was the first one out, wreathed in a low-intensity golden corona that clung close to her skin. She paused in the doorway, carefully studying the scene. It did, indeed, look very much like what they had previously seen of the slanting main cavern, right down to the reddish glow from far below. Only the finer details were different. Stone paths hugged the walls in several places, with openings dotting them, and a few were suspended improbably over the vast empty space. There was no great sculpted face, obviously, though there was a structure of some kind built against on the forty-five degree slope to the right of their door, rather like a castle in miniature.

“No sign of movement,” she reported, “except for several large avians a good distance above us. I don’t think they see us down here, or at least aren’t interested.”

“Lemme see!” Fross chimed, zipping out to hover next to Trissiny’s shoulder. “Oh…oh, wow. Those are really rare. I thought they were supposed to be extinct! They’re pretty dangerous, but basically blind; they won’t come at us unless we get close enough to attract their attention. Let’s not do that, it would be a shame to kill them.”

“What exactly is them?” Juniper asked, craning her neck to peer through the gap.

“Greater horned chiropteroid raptors! They hunt in small packs of four or five, with very good coordination in attacks, almost like a military team.”

“You don’t mean…” Teal trailed off.

“Yes! Dire goddamn bats!”

“I hate this place,” Trissiny muttered.

A sudden whoop startled them; Trissiny raised her shield instinctively and Fross darted around behind her head.

Directly ahead, two paths converged in a fairly sizable floating island, ringed by low walls—much more safety-conscious than those they had seen above. One of the paths leading to it branched off from the ledge onto which their door opened, some distance to the left. There was another, smaller island above this one and slightly off-center. Three tiny figures had suddenly plunged off the edge of this and onto the lower island with a unified battlecry, vanishing below the level of the wall.

The sounds of a scuffle ensued, accompanied by curses in two languages. A single spell was fired, flying wildly into the air where it splashed against the cavern wall.

In the next moment, several figures emerged from concealment, where they had been crouching out of sight. There were three of them, all drow, and they had straightened up only to run. They pelted off down the path, two women leading, one armored, one in robes; behind them came a man in rather ragged pants and shirt, trying to sprint while crouched with his head tucked under his arms. He yelped as he was pelted from behind by pebbles.

“Yeah, you better run!” shouted a voice from the island. In moments, the drow had skittered away through a tunnel opening and were lost to sight.

“Those are the same three who have been hanging around the Grim Visage,” Shaeine noted.

“You’re sure?” Ruda asked, frowning.

“Yes. You will have to trust my word on it, I’m afraid. I know how we all look the same to you.”

“You’re in rare form today,” the pirate commented.

“Yoo hoo!” A small figure had clambered up onto the wall, followed by two others. “Hey, kids, glad to see you’re all okay!”

“Hey, look,” said Gabriel, peering over Trissiny’s shoulder now that she’d let her energy shield drop. “We found gnomes.”

“Gnomes found us,” Toby corrected. “Triss, can we move this forward a bit? I think that ambush situation was just taken care of…”

“Hm,” she said skeptically, but stepped out onto the ledge.

“There ye go!” cried the gnome in the center, now sitting down on the wall with his legs dangling over the abyss. “Well, c’mon out, let’s not be all day about it. Places to go, people to see! I’m Woodsworth, and with me are me companions, Sassafrass and Steinway.”

“Charmed!” called the female in the group, grinning rakishly and resting the haft of her battleaxe over her shoulder. It was a human-sized one, the handle nearly as long as she was tall.

“All right, there?” added the last fellow, apparently Steinway, waggling his fingers.

“Do we…know you?” Trissiny asked.

“Not to the extent of havin’ been formally introduced,” Woodsworth replied. “Though we have shared quarters recently! The Grim Visage is a goodly distance above, but there’s ways to get around the Crawl expeditiously if you’re on its good side. This is all very adventurous, by th’way, but might we ‘ave this conversation from a closer distance an’ a lower volume?”

“Um,” she said carefully. “With all respect, and with thanks for the apparent help…we’ve had a rough time lately and aren’t in the most trusting mood.”

“Well, sure,” said Sassafrass. “It’s not like we can make you do anything, nor would if we could. But, if you’re not absolutely married to the idea of wanderin’ around down here with no clue where yer goin’, maybe we can ‘elp?”

“There’s someone you ought to talk to, see?” Woodsworth added. “Nice fella of your acquaintance who sent us down ‘ere to ‘help out when we caught wind those three were after ye.”

“Not to sound paranoid,” Gabriel said, “but how can we be sure they meant us harm?”

“Are you serious?” Teal demanded.

“They were lying in wait, concealed from view, at a chokepoint where we’d be strung out along an unrailed path over the chasm before we knew they were there, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “That is not friendly behavior. What do the rest of you think?”

“I hate to default to racial stereotypes,” said Toby, “but I’ve never heard of gnomes robbing or ambushing anyone.”

“What the hell, he’s got a point,” Ruda added. “We’ve got no fuckin’ clue where we are or how to get where we want to be. Short help’s better than no help.”

“Let’s take it easy with the s-word while we’re in their company,” Teal suggested.

“Who did you want us to meet?” Trissiny asked, turning back to the gnomes and raising her voice.

“Well, we could stand here shoutin’ about it or we can just show you,” Woodsworth called back, grinning. “See that there little castle along the slope? The ledge you’re on’ll take ye there. Follow it till you reach the tunnel, go in that, and it’ll bring ye back out on another ledge that leads right t’the door. Meet you there!”

With that, the three gnomes hopped down behind the wall. Moments later they reappeared, trundling rapidly along the path opposite the one the drow had taken, which led them toward the indicated structure along a route parallel to the one Woodsworth had pointed out to them.

“Well,” said Teal after a moment in which nobody moved, “my dad has a saying for uncertain situations like this.”

“Oh?” Toby asked.

The bard grinned at him. “Eh, what the hell.”


The ledges and tunnel led exactly where their new acquaintances said they did, and in just a few minutes the students were assembling on the narrow balcony outside the tiny castle. It was actually little more than a round tower, built into the slope of the cavern, with a crenelated wall ringing its top and arrow slits not far below that. There was no door, only an archway leading to the interior, through which the gnomes had passed just before they arrived.

Inside, the room was rather cozy, mostly open all the way to the top, though stone steps circled around the entire interior of the tower, terminating in a trapdoor which presumably led to the roof. A fireplace was built into one wall, currently dark and cold, though an iron pot was suspended above it. Along the walls were various items of furniture: trunks bookshelves, chairs and a vertical rack of hammocks.

The gnomes had already assembled. Woodsworth and Sassafrass sat in chairs a bit too tall for them around a small round table and were laying out a card game; Steinway was piling what looked like coal in the fireplace. He looked up at the students when they entered, grinning.

“There y’are! Go on back, he’s expecting you.” With that and a nod at the wall opposite the entrance, he went back to shoveling.

A short flight of steps led to another doorway, beyond which was relative darkness. The students paused, studying their new environs carefully.

“Well, go on,” said Sassafrass. “It’s not like we’ve any appointments, but there’s no sense in keeping the man waiting.”

“Eh, what the hell. Remember?” Ruda said, grinning, and nudged Trissiny in the back. The paladin sighed, but stepped forward, her sword and shield in hand.

They crossed the chamber, climbed the steps and passed single-file through the doorway, Fross accompanying Trissiny in the front. Her light was welcome, as this led to a short tunnel that lacked light and appeared to be natural, to judge by its uneven walls. After a couple of twists, it opened out into a natural cavern completely unlike anything they had yet seen in the Crawl.

Not much larger than Tellwyrn’s classroom back at the University, it was much longer than wide, narrowing in the center. Ledges of stone lined the walls, with a softly gurgling river running down the middle of the space; just past the narrow point, rough-cut steps led to a higher level, where a small waterfall trickled down. Gaps in the ceiling admitted streams of water and clean white light from some unknown source. There were several giant mushrooms growing in clumps along the walls, as well as draperies of hanging lichen and softly glowing crystals embedded in the stone here and there. It was a strikingly peaceful place, cool and lovely, if slightly damp. And it was occupied

“Ah, there you are!” said Shamlin, bounding lightly down from the upper level and grinning at them. “About time; if I hadn’t been following your progress thus far I’d have begun to worry. But surely the eight of you had nothing to fear from the Apparitorium.”

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Ruda demanded.

“Well, that’s the thing,” he said, smiling rather smugly. “At issue, I think, is what you are doing here. Got a little lost, did we?”

“The demons on Level 2 seem to have misdirected us,” Trissiny said grimly.

“Ah, ah.” He held up an admonishing finger. “Leaping to conclusions, there, aren’t we? In fact, Melaxyna is going to be furious when she finds out someone got lost taking her portal. I expect she’s already starting to worry; the longer a student group remains absent after passing through it, the more likely she’ll have to deal with a very irate Professor Tellwyrn, which is enough to give anyone gray hairs. No, I wouldn’t describe the demons as trustworthy, broadly speaking, but they know which side their bread is buttered on. Nobody down here wants to pick a fight with the Unseen University.”

“Waaaaaiiit a second,” Fross said. “You called it…”

“That I did.” Shamlin’s smile widened. “Come on, you never wondered what a human is doing down here? The geas on the campus is serious business indeed. Tellwyrn does not suffer outsiders to mess around on her property, but University initiates sneaking into the Crawl for various purposes…why, that’s downright traditional. The Grim Visage and Level 2 are both popular spots for hosting off-campus parties.”

“Huh,” said Teal, sounding utterly bemused.

“Then what are you doing down here?” Toby asked.

“Making gold hand over fist,” Shamlin said with a grin. “It’s not exactly a luxurious spot to set up work, but there’s no shortage of opportunity here. In fact, I’m just about ready to cash in and return to the land of the living, but there are just a few things I need to square away first. There are the trio out there, for one thing.”

“Are they University alums, too?” Gabe asked.

“No, actually, they didn’t come from up top. That’s a Venomfont delving crew that managed to get as lost as anyone has ever been.”

“Venomfont?” Trissiny frowned. “That’s clear up in the Wyrnrange, not far from the Spine. There’s no way it’s physically connected to the Crawl.”

“And there we come to it,” Shamlin said, his expression abruptly growing more serious. “A number of things have gone screwy down here of late, most of them traceable to one or the other resident Vanislaad messing around with the Crawl.”

“I knew it,” Trissiny muttered.

“The Crawl, as I hope you’ve figured out by now, is very much a living thing,” Shamlin continued, seating himself on the steps, heedless of the damp. He stretched out his long legs and lounged backward, his casual posture contrasting with his solemn tone and expression. “It has its rules, but it’s also amenable to making exceptions. It relates to people on a very individual level—at least, those who either take the time and trouble to cultivate relationships with it, or somehow manage to piss it off. In my case, that means this little grotto, which I’m allowed exclusive use of while I stay down here. Nobody gets to visit without my approval. That, plus a few tricks I’ve acquired that enable me to move about the Crawl rapidly, are the result of a long campaign of…”

“Shmoozing?” Ruda suggested.

“I was going to say friendship,” he said with a grimace. “But…you’re not entirely wrong. There are a number of people you’ve encountered who have earned favor with the Crawl, and thus begun to wield a disproportionate influence. There’s Professor Tellwyrn, first and foremost; this place loves her. I have no idea how she arranged that. Most people she meets can’t wait for her to leave.”

“We have noticed,” Gabriel said dryly.

“Darling Melaxyna, as you also know, has accrued enough favor to make Level 2 her own little domain, as has Rowe with the Grim Visage. That last detail is the source of some of the problems I’ve seen developing recently. Thanks to his screwing around, there are lots more places connected to the Visage than there ought to be, which is how the trio came to be stranded here. Did I not know better, I’d suspect he was trying to arrange an exit from the Crawl that didn’t involve going back through the topside door, and thus right under Tellwyrn’s nose. She would notice that, and after sticking those two down here, she’s not about to let them wander off. Of course, opening such a door is entirely out of the question…under normal circumstances.”

“Normal, how?” Toby asked.

Shamlin leaned his head back, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip for a moment. “I’m afraid you’ve been caught in the feud between Rowe and Mel. With both of them using their influence to bend the rules in their favor, and trying to do so against one another… Well, you stepping through that portal and ending up in the wrong place is just a case in point. Stuff isn’t working quite as it should.”

“And you want to fix this before you leave?” Juniper asked, speaking up for the first time. She looked hollow-eyed and exhausted, as she had since the day before.

“That,” Shamlin said, nodding. “And I have…other reasons. Suffice it to say, I’m the reason you are here.”

“You son of a bitch,” Ruda snarled, stomping toward him and pulling her rapier from its sheath.

In the next moment, Shamlin rolled nimbly to his feet and scurried back up the steps away from her, while Toby and Trissiny intercepted their furious classmate before she could reach him.

“Whoah, hang on!” he protested, backing further away and raising both his hands. “Let me explain! I didn’t arrange to have you sent to the wrong place from the portal. I don’t want Tellwyrn mad at me, either, which is the whole point. Once I caught wind of the fact you were going to be misdirected… Well, suffice it to say, the whole idea behind that was to get you so good and lost that you’d never be found again. I stepped in and got you sent to the Apparitorium instead. Just took a little persuasive speaking, really; the Crawl is interested in testing and teaching you, because that’s what Tellwyrn asked of it. That place is even better set up for that than the Descent. Albeit in somewhat different ways.”

“Fucking bullshit,” Ruda spat. “That place was a load of—”

“Will you please just let the man talk?” Toby interrupted in exasperation. “I for one would like to find out what’s going on around here!”

“What’s going on,” Shamlin said quickly, “is that between Melaxyna’s greasing your wheels and your own talents—by which I mostly mean firepower—you kids have been looking a lot like you were going to get all the way to Level 100 and retrieve the prize. And that…well, that would throw off certain plans in a way that the creators of those plans just couldn’t have. So, knowing that…” He folded his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, grinning broadly. “…how would you like to kick those plans right straight to hell?”

There was a moment’s pause while the students looked around at each other.

“Go on,” Trissiny said finally.

“There are limits to how much I can help you,” said Shamlin. “You’re still student adventurers and the Crawl still has its mandate. But I can set you in the right direction. For example, have you discovered how the Crawl feels about cheating?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Gabe replied, making a face.

“We were actually talking about that not long ago,” said Fross. “Me and Ruda, I mean. It’s almost like…it doesn’t mind cheating, if you cheat in the right way.”

Gabriel blinked. “Huh?”

“She’s got the right of it,” said Shamlin, nodding approvingly. “The Crawl doesn’t like being contradicted, but it also approves of lateral thinking. You tend to bring trouble down on your heads if you break its rules, but there are provided shortcuts, the use of which it fully accepts…if you can find them. The finding is the challenge. And I, as your friendly neighborhood dungeon cartographer, can set you up with the ultimate prize: a way to skip directly to the hundredth level of the Descent.”

“And…do you offer that to every student group that comes down here?” Juniper asked skeptically.

“Oh, gods, no,” he said fervently. “Most student groups would get chewed up if I just dropped them into that. Plus, there’s the important fact that I don’t actually have it.”

“The more this clown talks, the more convinced I become that he’s wasting our time,” Ruda snorted.

“Now, hear me out,” Shamlin said soothingly. “I don’t have the means to skip, but I can provide you with it. Or rather, I can tell you how to provide yourselves. There’s a shrine of the Naga Queen which contains what you seek. You already have the key; you just need to find the lock, and you’ll have your reward.”

“Okay, two questions,” said Gabriel. “First, what the hell is the Naga Queen?”

“Are you serious?” Fross exclaimed. “She’s the main boss of the Crawl, down on the lowest level of the whole shebang! The oldest and possibly most powerful dungeon boss in existence. Adventurers went delving in here for centuries before the University came along, and the few that even reached her after fighting through the naga court got… Well, you don’t mess with the Naga Queen, is all. The last guy who made a really serious effort got beaten to death with his own face!”

“That account may be apocryphal,” said Teal, repressing a smile.

“Okay, that’s plenty ominous,” said Gabe with a sigh. “Second question, we’ve already got the what now? Did somebody pick up a key?”

“Well, there’s a reason I had you brought to the Apparitorium,” Shamlin said smugly. “It’s the prize for passing the trails there.”

“What, this?” Gabriel pulled the black sword free and held it up.

Shamlin frowned. “What? No, it’s the snake flute. Please tell me you obtained the snake flute. What the hell is that?”

“I have the flute,” Teal reported, pulling it out of the inner coat pocket where she’d stashed the instrument.

“Oh, good,” said Shamlin, relaxing slightly, then turned back to Gabriel. “Are you saying you got that thing too?”

“It was in the box with the flute. What, that’s not supposed to happen?”

“Hm. Mind if I take a look at that?”

Gabriel passed the sword over to him; Shamlin examined it carefully, pulling it partly free of the scabbard to study the blade. “Well…this thing is magical as hell, but I can’t tell what any of these charms do. Radivass could, maybe. Seriously, though, Ariel? That’s like naming a sword Jane.”

“Shaeine thinks that’s the name of its original owner,” Gabe suggested.

Shamlin shook his head. “Doubtful. This weapon is more magic than steel. People who create things like this don’t call them… Well, we’re just speculating, and anyway this is all getting us off topic.” He carefully handed the sword back to Gabriel. “Be careful with that, at least until you’ve had it studied by an expert. Concerning the actual point, you’ve got the flute, I can provide the directions, and from there you can obtain your shortcut. Interested?”

“What will we find,” Trissiny asked slowly, “if we skip to Level 100? After the impediments we’ve already suffered, I can only expect some further disaster.”

“Disaster might be putting it a bit over-dramatically,” Shamlin said with a grin. “But you’re not completely wrong. You won’t be stepping into what Tellwyrn sent you here to face.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “And you can’t tell us what it is?”

“I could,” he said, shrugging. “It would cause you more problems from the Crawl in the long run, though, and to be frank I’m not a hundred percent certain what form your final challenge will take. If you do take me up on the offer, though, I can promise you this much.” He smiled at them again, a self-satisfied expression that was more than half smirk. “School is no longer in session, kids. You’re now dealing with real powers who have real-world goals and concerns. If you make it to Level 100, be prepared for the confrontation of your lives.”

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6 – 14

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“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”

The group, still sorting themselves out on the platform above the Descent, came to a stop, all of them turning to look at her. Trissiny had come out first and placed herself just before the ramp down to the floating platform, looking out over the vast, sloping central cavern of the Crawl.

“It seems you had a point, though,” Teal said carefully after a short, tense silence.

“Of course. I always have a point,” Trissiny said testily, turning to face them. “But that’s not the same as being right. I lashed out because I was offended, not out of a desire to educate you. So…I’m sorry. That was wrong of me.”

“Apology accepted,” Shaeine said with a smile. “The education was still worthwhile.”

“Shit, I can deal with being yelled at, if there’s good intelligence in it,” Ruda said breezily. “That about demons and their patterns was good to know.”

Trissiny nodded. “I’ve been thinking. About…demons and their patterns, and the specific things we’ve seen going on here, not just about how I mistrust them in general.”

“Have you come to any conclusions?” Toby asked.

She fixed her gaze on him. “How much did you study demonology, Toby?”

“Just the basics,” he admitted. “And not from my own cult; the Universal Church gave me a grounding in the subject after Omnu called me. Nothing like you got, I’m sure.”

She nodded again, shifting her gaze. “Shaeine?”

“It was a matter of more practical concern to my people,” the drow said calmly, “but our situation is very different. Narisians mostly encounter demons as thralls to Scyllithene warlocks and shadow-priestesses. We have sturdy walls between us and them, and no real opportunity for their kind to engage in subterfuge.”

“I see,” Trissiny mused. “The thing is… Demons are not just physically different; they have a unique psychology. More so than the mortal races, different demonic species are inclined to act in certain ways. It’s the saturation of infernal magic that does it. The energy is corrupting; it promotes aggression in living things, in addition to physically distorting them.”

“How so?” Gabriel asked.

“As I said…in different ways for different species.” She gave him a significant look. “Hethelaxi are considered the most human-like of demonic races. In fact, some theologians believe they are descendants of a human population that ended up alive in Hell for whatever reason and adapted to survive there.”

“Bullshit,” Ruda snorted.

“I dunno, I could see that happening,” said Juniper. She shrugged when everyone turned to look at her. “Well, that’s what humans are like, y’know?”

“Ouch,” said Toby with a grin.

“Oh, that’s not what I mean,” the dryad said crossly. “It’s the short lifespans humans have that give you such a long-term advantage. You cycle through generations so fast, your evolution is hugely accelerated compared to the other intelligent races. I mean… Well, there’s skin color, that’s the quickest thing. Toby and Ruda are so much darker than Teal and Trissiny, and Gabe’s somewhere in between. You ever wonder why?”

“Not especially,” Ruda said, taking a swig of whiskey.

“That’s an adaptation to sunlight,” Juniper said earnestly. “A population of humans moves into an area—like the western coast, or Puna Dara—that’s either equatorial or high in altitude and gets a lot more sunshine, right? Well, too much sun can be bad, so you get people dying from sunstroke and skin cancer. The ones who develop darker skin don’t suffer those same risks, at least not as much, and so they live to pass on their genes. Eventually the whole population shifts to accommodate the environment.” She shrugged. “It’s evolution. It happens with all life forms. It’s just that of the mortal, magic-using races, most of them live a lot longer, which means they have individual advantages, but human generations cycle so fast that they adapt quicker and have a species advantage. So, yeah, if there was any mortal race that I figure could adapt to Hell, it’s humans.”

“And so, hethelaxi,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Not all scholars agree on it and there’s no proof, but it’s a valid theory. Psychologically speaking, they basically are human. It’s the berserking; it serves as an outlet for the aggression that infernal corruption causes, but one that’s not turned on all the time. When they’re not in berserk mode, a hethelax is pretty much just a person; they have individual personalities and aptitudes, to the point that unlike other demons you can never really predict how a given hethelax will behave. They don’t even have a broad cultural imperative; most of them occupy lower castes in the societies of other demonic races.”

“Hm,” Gabriel said, frowning into the distance.

“It’s different with the others,” Trissiny went on more grimly. “Succubi and incubi, for example. They, like all demon species, are highly aggressive, but what differentiates what we call corrupter demons from the others is their belligerence isn’t overt. They are subtle, manipulative. Talking with one, it’s easy to forget that they’re every bit as prone to aggression, just in their own way.”

She began to pace back and forth. “This has been nagging at me since we’ve been down here, and I only just put my finger on what was bothering me. We’ve seen two children of Vanislaas in passive, static, leadership positions, places where they have to stay in one place and do the same thing day after day. For a succubus, that’s… It’s like being confined alone in a small room would be to a human. It would drive them mad.”

“Neither of those we have met seemed at all unhinged,” Shaeine noted.

“Yes,” said Trissiny, nodding to her. “And in Melaxyna’s case, I can see why. She’s working. Tellwyrn stuck her in the Descent to get repeatedly killed by adventurers; from there she’s manipulated things around to earn the Crawl’s approval and set herself up as a person of actual authority, not a token level boss. And she’s not done working, either. How much you want to bet she makes every adventurer passing through Level 2 the same offer she did us, to get rid of Rowe?”

“No bet,” Gabriel said immediately, grinning. Several of the others nodded.

Indeed, when they had materialized in Level 2 after using the waystone, the succubus had seized the opportunity to repeat her offer, despite Trissiny’s efforts to hurry the party back up the stairs and out of demon territory. They also weren’t the only travelers present this time; the party of drow from the Grim Visage had been present, browsing at the alchemy stand under Xsythri’s watchful eye.

“Which brings us to Rowe himself,” Trissiny continued, stopping her pacing and turning to face them again. “He’s in a sanctuary, where he can’t harm or be harmed. He’s got a rival demon putting contracts on his head, so he can’t leave. The situation has to be absolute torture for him.”

“He didn’t seem…tortured,” Fross said doubtfully.

“What an incubus seems like has very little bearing on anything, Fross,” Trissiny said patiently. “They are masters of deception. Above all, he wouldn’t show signs of his weakness to potentially hostile strangers. So I have to ask…what’s the point? What is it about the Grim Visage that’s worth him subjecting himself to all the peace and quiet, and that makes Melaxyna want to do the same to herself?”

“I dunno,” Toby said, frowning. “Not to doubt your word, Trissiny, but it seems…thin.”

“I know,” she said with a sigh. “Just trust me that this is what these creatures are like. I have studied them extensively, I promise you. Thinking it all over, I’m starting to realize my knee-jerk reaction to all this got everything backwards.”

“Well, ain’t that a first,” Ruda cackled, taking a swig from her bottle.

“Backwards how?” Fross asked.

“That Level 2 might not be a worse situation for us than the Grim Visage,” Trissiny replied.

“I think I see what you mean,” Teal mused. “If incubi and succubi think the way you say, then… Well, the fact that the demons on Level 2 were unfriendly to us is actually a good sign.”

“Yeah,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Xsythri made it obvious she didn’t appreciate our presence. Melaxyna tried to throw us out. The succubus at least is capable of being subtle enough to use that as a smokescreen, but… I don’t know what motive she’d have. The only thing she wants from us is Rowe’s head, and she told us that up front.”

“She also wants our coin,” Fross piped up. “But, yeah, she was pretty up front about that, too.”

“She might have ulterior motives, of course, but Tellwyrn’s invisible hand means there’s not much else she can aspire to down here. On the other hand, Rowe’s situation looks odder the more I study it,” Trissiny went on. “The enforced peace of the sanctuary effect is not mentally healthy for him. But he keeps himself there, and Melaxyna wants to take it from him. There is something in the Grim Visage, or something about it, that demons desire.”

“You think we’d be safer moving our base to Level 2?” Toby asked.

“No.” Trissiny shook her head. “No, the Visage is explicitly safer. But…that very fact means there’s something afoot that we don’t understand. I think we need to keep that firmly in mind.”


 

The merchant wing of the Grim Visage, when they re-entered, was in the opposite condition from that in which they’d left it. Shamlin’s stall seemed to be unoccupied, but the other three were each manned. Near the door to their right, the tiny alchemist’s shop was in business, a gnome in a stiff leather apron and goggles actually standing on the counter itself to deal with her customer, a male naga who gave the students a suspicious look and shifted to keep them in view but offered no overt hostility. Across from the gnome, the stand labeled “Enchanter” was occupied by a striking drow woman in a gauzy white gown. She had blue streaks dyed in her hair with something that actually glowed softly, as did the swirling geometric tattoos that started around her left eye, ran down her neck and along her arm to terminate at the tip of her middle finger.

“Hello, hello!” she called at them upon their entry, beaming and waving enthusiastically. Definitely not Narisian, then. “You must be the new students. Shame on you, skittering out before we all have a chance to introduce ourselves! Please, come, let’s get acquainted.”

“Ooh, are you an enchantress?” Fross asked, buzzing over. “Neat! Gabe and I do arcane magic, too!”

The drow’s cheerful expression immediately fell. “Ah. You have little need of my services, then?”

“We’re not that advanced,” Gabriel said hastily. “Well, I’m not, and I’m the enchanting student. Fross is more of a general mage. And…we’re in our second semester, it’s been all arcane theory till now. They won’t let us study actual enchanting till next year. I’m Gabe, by the way.”

“And I am the Lady Radivass,” she said, her bright smile returning. “Welcome, new friends. I’m sure we’ll have many profitable things to discuss.”

“Lady, bah,” snorted another voice. At the next stand up, across from Shamlin’s, a dwarf paused in laying out knives on his counter to leer at her. “Funny how a body gets far enough from home not to be contradicted and suddenly has all kinds of titles.”

“You button your yap, Fengir, before I come over there and button it for you!” Radivass snarled, making an obscene gesture at him.

“You an’ what army, knife-ear?” he replied, grinning nastily.

She thrust her hand into something underneath her counter, pulled it back out and hurled a cloud of glittering dust at him, which shot across the space between their stalls more like a thrown object than a handful of powder. The dwarf reeled backward, coughing and trying to wave the mist away, but not before it settled into his hair and beard.

“Ach! Not the beard! You evil trollop, you’ve gone too far!” he roared, fruitlessly trying to comb the dust out of his facial hair with his fingers. The glitter was actually slightly luminous; it made him look fancy in the extreme, despite his rough leather clothing.

“Oh, stop your bellyaching, you’re much improved,” Radivass said sweetly, waggling her fingers flirtatiously at him. “Don’t you think so, kids?”

Fengir answered only with a barrage of curses.

“Sooo,” Ruda said, “you’re Scyllithene, then?”

The drow snorted. “The hell I am. Can you imagine what life is like under the cult of a goddess of cruelty?”

“I think I can,” Gabriel murmured.

“I guarantee you can’t,” she said firmly, “and consider yourself better off. I can’t say I’ve ever had much use for Themynra, either, and so…” Radivass spread her arms, grinning. “Here I am. Even right under the looming shadow of the Arachne herself, this is a much better life than anything the deep depths have to offer. But enough about me! Let’s talk about you kids. I do hope you’re not thinking of heading down into the Crawl without having your gear properly augmented!”

“We don’t…exactly…have any gear,” Toby said hesitantly. “Professor Tellwyrn sort of dropped us in here unprepared. I think we’re supposed to find equipment as we go.”

“Oh!” said Fross. “That’s not quite true; we don’t have good gear yet, but we got a pair of corduroy pants, a very serviceable robe with a light defensive enchantment, a rusty dagger and Gabriel’s wand!”

“Hmm, I don’t work with energy weapons,” Radivass mused. “Adding charms to them tends to muck them up. Well, you just wait till you find some good stuff down there, kids. Come to me with anything you fish out of the Descent and I’ll get it into the best possible shape for you, guaranteed. What of you two girls?” she added, grinning at Ruda and then Trissiny. “I see you’re already armed, and quite well! It can always be better, though, eh?”

“Not really,” said Trissiny. “My sword and shield are holy relics; I don’t think they’ll take enchantments, and I know they don’t need them.”

“Ah,” the drow said, her face falling. She turned hopefully to Ruda.

“Mithril,” the pirate said with a grin, patting the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Not enchantable.”

“Rats,” Radivass said, slumping. “It’s such a slow week… Well, you remember what I said, kids. A little enchantment makes all the difference!”

“We will,” Gabriel promised.

They filed past her, glancing at Fengir the dwarf and deciding by silent consensus not to approach him. For one thing, it wasn’t obvious what business he was in; his entire area was bedecked with what appeared to be scrap metal. For another, he had his back to them, rummaging in a chest and cursing furiously.

“Well, look who’s back,” said Shamlin cheerfully, entering his store space from the curtained doorway behind it. “And nobody died! Bravo!”

“Aren’t we amusing,” Ruda sneered. “That how you talk to all your potential customers, twinkletoes?”

“It is when I have an absolute monopoly,” he said cheerfully, leaning on his counter. “So how’d it go, kids? Did you get far?”

“Down to Level 7, and we decided that was a good place for a break,” said Teal.

“Oh? Not bad, for a first day! You might actually get all the way to the bottom if you keep up that pace. If, that is, you decide we can do business.” Grinning, he reached into one of his pockets and produced the blue waystone. “Just wait until you’re at Level 20 or so. All that hiking, half of it stairs… You’ll get to where you spend half of each day just reaching your next un-cleared level. To say nothing of all the mazes, pit traps and jumping puzzles to navigate each time. By the time you get down to your destination you’ll be completely worn out.”

“We’re covered, thanks,” Gabriel said smugly, elbowing Teal.

“There’s…no need to be rude,” she hedged.

Shamlin raised his eyebrows. “What’s all this, now?”

With a sigh, Teal reached into her own coat pocket, pulling out the black stone, and held it up for him to see.

The map vendor stared at this for a moment, a rapid sequence of emotions flickering across his face. Surprise, comprehension, disappointment, and finally, oddly enough, laughter. He plopped down onto his stool, chuckling merrily. “Why, Melaxyna, you delightful minx. She finally got her baerzurg properly motivated, I see. Well, how about them apples! I’m surprised your paladin let you buy that.”

“Mel’s price beat the hell out of yours,” Ruda said smugly.

“And they don’t do what I suggest, as a rule,” Trissiny added. “Otherwise, our grade on our first-semester field exam would have been a lot better.”

“Ah, well, so it goes,” Shamlin said cheerfully. “So, you stopped on Level 7, then. What was down there that turned you back? Odds are I’m exactly the man to point you through it.”

“Hang on,” said Toby. “If you know the way through the Descent’s challenges, how come you don’t know what’s on Level 7?”

“Because that depends on you,” he replied, grinning. “Only the shroom glade and Level 2 and constants. Below that, you’re getting whatever the Crawl things is the appropriate test for your party’s skills. Hence my curiosity.”

“Huh,” Toby mused. “That…explains some stuff.”

“Like what?” Ruda demanded.

“I thought our trip thus far was awfully heavy on puzzles,” Toby said. “The way the Descent was described, I envisioned a lot more fighting. Anyhow, our Level 7 was a big chessboard, with the Circle of Interaction inscribed in the center.”

“It was no chess game like I’ve ever played, either,” Gabe added. “The pieces are freakin’ huge, and they all just charge when you set foot on the floor.”

Shamlin straightened up, his amused expression vanishing. “…you got the Circle Chessboard on Level 7?”

“Is that…unusual?” Fross asked hesitantly.

“That’s… Groups usually see that about thirty levels down.” He eyed them all over carefully, with new respect. “Just who are you kids?”

“We’re the goddamn bee’s pajamas, and don’t you forget it,” Ruda crowed.

Trissiny gave her a long-suffering look before turning back to Shamlin. “In any case… How do you get past the chessboard? It looked like a straightforward combat test, but I don’t see how anyone is supposed to fight off thirty-two giant stone enemies.”

“Oh, well, then, we’re talking business,” Shamlin said, his grin returning. “That kind of information is valuable, my friends. ‘Valuable,’ in this case, meaning ‘not free.’”

Ruda snorted loudly, but Teal pushed forward.

“I have a question about a different puzzle, then,” she said. “One we got through, but sort of…the wrong way. By brute force.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “So you’re curious how you were supposed to solve it, but since you’re past it you don’t care to pay money for the info.”

“More or less. If that’s not okay, it’s fine, it’s just idle curiosity.”

“Hmmm.” He made a show of stroking his chin thoughtfully. “A suspicious person might accuse you of using this ploy to get free intel on how to get through a puzzle that stumped you.”

“How could we be stumped on two puzzles?” Ruda demanded. “The Descent is sequential.”

“Well, if it were a good little con, you’d tell me about a red herring puzzle in order to get the freebie on the one you really cared about,” he said, grinning up at her. “Are any of you, by chance, Eserites?”

“No,” Trissiny said flatly.

“Relax, I’m mostly pulling your leg,” Shamlin said. “Sure, I don’t mind indulging your curiosity. If nothing else, our business relationship can only benefit from proof I know what I’m talking about. Which one did you plow through?”

“It had a marble floor,” said Teal, “with a mosaic of music bars, leading between these big knots…”

“Ah, yes, Musical Tangles,” he said, nodding. “Any party that has a bard in it gets that one. In fact, rare is the party that gets it right; it’s designed to trip bards up. You see, most of the knots have a song progressing out from them that matches the one that went in; where everyone goes wrong is in thinking you can navigate it one step at a time. You have to plan your route out all the way from the door to the other door, which means following the song the entire distance of its journey before starting. There’s only one safe path; any of the others will trigger a trap. It’s hard because the layout makes it physically difficult to get a good view. You need a spyglass at minimum. A scrying crystal is even better.”

“Or the ability to fly?” Ruda suggested, grinning hugely at Teal, who hunched her shoulders in embarrassment.

“Well, that’s pretty fucked up,” Gabriel said, frowning deeply. “Most bards aren’t as durable as ours. If they all trip the traps…that sounds like a deliberate bard-killer.”

Shamlin snorted. “Oh, Musical Tangles always comes up early in the Descent. None of the traps are particularly lethal, just intended to make a bard think carefully before acting.”

“Not lethal?” Toby said incredulously. “It dropped a giant pillar of stone on her!”

Shamlin’s grin faded again; he studied Teal carefully. “It…looks like she got better, then.”

“That was just the beginning,” Gabriel added. “Man, the traps in that room would’ve cut down a Silver Legion. Uh, sorry, Triss.”

“I don’t appreciate the comparison,” she said grudgingly, “but I suspect it’s an accurate one.”

“Are you…” Shamlin was frowning at them now. “Okay, seriously. Who the hell are you kids?”

“Never mind that,” Trissiny said curtly, fishing in her belt pouch. She pulled out a gold doubloon and set it down firmly on the counter. “Where can we find a large, flat, relatively clear space to practice?”

“Practice what, exactly?” Shamlin asked, eying the gold with interest.

“Maneuvers.” Keeping one finger pinning the coin to the wood, she half-turned to face her classmates. “Let’s be honest, our one fighting level was a mess. If that had been anything more serious than pigs, we would have had injuries at minimum. This has been a problem for this group since the Golden Sea; for all that many of us are individually powerful, we’re terrible at fighting as a unit. No teamwork, no strategy. If we’re going to make any real progress in a combat situation, we need to work on that. Any argument?”

“Bloody fucking hell,” Ruda grumbled. “Only you could create homework in a dungeon, Boots.”

“No argument,” Toby said firmly. “Triss is right, guys. I really don’t like the thought of fighting, but in honesty I like the thought of someone getting hurt a lot less. We need to work on this. Before we have to face off against giant chess pieces. Or anything else.”

“Well,” Shamlin drawled, “the Crawl isn’t named such because it has an abundance of open space. There’s the main cavern outside…”

“Which has no fucking floor,” Ruda exclaimed.

“And there are the empty rooms in the uppermost levels, near the exit.”

Juniper groaned. “Got anything that doesn’t involve a giant number of stairs?”

“Well, then,” Shamlin said brightly, “there’s the fact that the Descent will be stable once you’re in it. Each floor is the same floor on every visit, and each one you’ve cleared will stay cleared, at least until you get to Level 100 and beat the last boss. Those rooms are the largest and flattest you’ll find in the Crawl, without going to the goblin or naga towns.”

“Hm.” Trissiny kept a finger on the doubloon, still turned to look at the others. “The mushroom forest didn’t have much open space…nor the boar level. Too obstructed.”

“Two others didn’t have floors,” added Gabriel. “And the musical level was flattish, but… The floor there is either trapped or torn the hell up.”

“Sounds like the only flat, open space we’ve found is the chess level,” Toby said with a sigh.

“And as for that,” Shamlin said cheerily, “yon doubloon’ll buy you the secret to the puzzle, as well as two others, because I’m feeling generous.”

Trissiny glanced around at the others, then finally lifted her finger. “Deal.”


 

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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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