Tag Archives: Xsythri

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I meant!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bloody damn confusing,” Xsythri said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Triss, come on,” Toby exclaimed.

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

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

“I said ‘close to.’”

“And then there’s Admestus…”

“Xsythri, shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We do not—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perfectly,” Melaxyna said, nodding vigorously.

“Well?” Vadrieny prompted, staring at Trissiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…you’re…two of you in there?”

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

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

“Now!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One silver coin per person.”

Ruda grinned. “Pixies ride free?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? What’d I say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The students exchanged a round of glances.

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

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

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

“Ruda!”

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

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

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

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

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

“We do our best,” said Toby.

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

“Hey!” Ruda protested.

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

6 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

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

LEVEL 1

“Seems kinda fake,” Ruda agreed.

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

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

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

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

“Well, sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty,” Fross whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen,” Juniper said suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Handy,” said Toby.

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

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

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

“What?” asked Fross.

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

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

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

“Wait, what?” Fross demanded.

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

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

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

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

The group fell silent at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEVEL 2

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

“Goddamn it, Tellwyrn,” Ruda groaned.

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

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

“Well?” Gabriel asked eagerly.

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

“Fucking Tellwyrn,” Ruda growled.

“…good pants?” Gabe asked hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charmed,” said Shaeine. “This is—”

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the curtain, demons were indeed everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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