The Fig and Gristle was the smaller of the two taverns in Pucklechurch, a squat place braced by thick beams, but it had the best music by far. Alfric hadn’t come for the poached figs, though he was sure they were delicious. He hadn’t come for the music either, though it was a caliber of melody that he had only heard before in Dondrian, and not the kind of thing that he would have ordinarily expected from a small town like this. No, he had come for the bard, who was hunched over a small stool, strumming her six-stringed lute with her eyes closed, her words barely audible over the sound of her instrument.

The effect of the music was subtle but complex, with more points of enhancement than were obvious at first glance. Alfric ordered the herbed chicken and garlic potatoes, with a cup of honeyed tea, and the flavors of each were heightened by the melody, the tea sweeter but not cloying, the chicken richer and more flavorful. All that was par for the course from a tavern bard, but this girl was weaving in other aspects, subtle enough that you could miss them, emotional components. Alfric wasn’t a naturally anxious person, but his worries had their edge taken from them, reduced down a fraction, and when he tried to focus on old sources of sadness, he found that those, too, were blunted. The inverse seemed true as well, with a few jokes overheard much funnier than they should have been, and the cozy warmth of the tavern much cosier.

Altogether, it made Alfric more confident in his choice to come to Pucklechurch. He had heard about her back in Dondrian, where she had trained in a conservatory and achieved a considerable level of fame, and hoped that he could pluck her from this tavern. There were other candidates in Pucklechurch, six others all told, but Verity was the one he felt was a necessity, and if she said no, he would do his best to persist. If she said yes, then he would get things going as quickly as possible.

She finished with her set just as he was finishing his poached fig, which he’d ordered after he was finished with the meal. It was as good as advertised, aided as it was by the music. He hurried to finish, scooping up the last bites of mushy pear, then got up from his seat and walked over to her as she was packing up her lute.

“Beautiful music,” he said. “Are you done for the night?”

“Yes,” replied Verity, glancing up only briefly from her work of packing up. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

She was tall, for a girl, but had a hunched posture when performing that made her seem smaller. Now, with the playing done, she’d straightened to her considerable height, just a touch shorter than Alfric, if that. Her clothes were conservative, a long blue dress that went down to mid-calf, and sleeves that she’d hitched up for playing but were down now, slightly wrinkled. Her hair was long and black, with a sheen to it, and it was tied back, leaving her face clearly visible. She had green eyes with long lashes and a slenderness to her features that made her look more delicate than she probably was. She had high cheekbones, a narrow nose, and thin lips, but when she smiled, as she sometimes did when she was singing, it made her face come alive. She was pale, and fit in with most of the people in the tavern in that regard, in a way that Alfric did not.

“Have you ever been in a dungeon?” asked Alfric.

Verity stopped what she was doing and looked up at him again, this time paying more attention to him. “No,” she said, frowning. “Sorry, who are you?”

“My name is Alfric Overguard, adventurer,” he said, holding out his hand. That wasn’t the half of it, but it would do as an introduction.

She took his hand, raising an eyebrow, skeptical at first and then faintly amused. Alfric wasn’t wearing his full adventuring gear, just his boots, bandolier, and sword in its sheath, with his shirt and pants being nothing particularly special. The sword was unique, an heirloom, but it would be hard for her to tell without him drawing it.

“Verity Parson,” said Verity. She finished with her lute and stood up. “Can I help you?”

“Well, would you like to go into a dungeon?” asked Alfric, giving her his most optimistic, hopeful look.

“Hrm,” said Verity. She slung her lute case over her shoulder. “I’ll think about it.”

“Can I walk you home?” asked Alfric. “And then maybe we can speak while we walk.”

Verity looked him over again. “You’re not from in town.”

“No,” he replied, wondering which part, exactly, had given him away. She wasn’t from in town either, though perhaps eight months had been long enough for her to consider herself a local.

“Then yes,” she said. “You can walk me home.” She began walking across the tavern, and Alfric followed after her, feeling a bit like a puppy dog.

“I’m putting together a party,” said Alfric. “You’re a quite skilled bard, and in terms of party composition —”

“We’re here,” said Verity. She was standing next to a set of stairs that led to the second floor of the tavern.

“You live here?” asked Alfric, looking up the stairs.

“I do,” replied Verity. “Thank you for speaking with me.” This was a very perfunctory thanks, of the kind that Alfric was still getting used to. People in the region seemed to feel the need to thank people for even the smallest of charities, though Verity, like him, came from Dondrian. “I’ll give it some consideration.”

“Can I tell the others that you’re in?” asked Alfric.

“If you’d like, I suppose,” replied Verity. She started up the stairs, then stopped and turned around. “You have other people lined up?”

“Three others,” Alfric replied. And two alternates. He had grown accustomed to people saying no. “We could probably do it with only four of us, but five is better. A sorcerer, a cleric, and a ranger. The pay is —”

“I’m done with people for the day, sorry,” said Verity. “We can talk tomorrow, if you’re still in town. I usually start playing at noon, so anytime before then.”

“Okay,” said Alfric, taking what he could get. “It was nice to meet you,” he added, as it seemed to be custom in this part of the world.

Verity nodded, then went on up the stairs without another word.

Alfric frowned to himself. As opening moves went, it could have been worse, but it could also have been a lot better. The choice was whether to go back to his room and wait until morning, or whether to strike now, given that he had enough time. As always, Alfric took action.

Alfric found Mizuki where he expected her to be, chasing will-o-wisps in the forest. It was something she often did just after dark, once the will-o-wisps were out, but while there was still some residual light. All this was according to some people around town. They had spoken highly of her, if they knew her, which most of them seemed to. It wasn’t particularly hard to find her: all he had to do was to wait until he saw a flash of light, then move toward it.

Mizuki wore culottes that stopped just above her knees, looking like a skirt when she was still, but short pants when she was in motion. Her upper body had a garment that wrapped around her, leaving her arms bare. As the will-o-wisps favored the boggy areas of the forest, she was wearing clogs of her own design, with a heel high enough that her feet wouldn’t get wet where the grass and moss sank down. From what Alfric had been able to find out, she was local to the town, but her mother had been from far-off Kiromo, which showed on Mizuki’s face. She had a round face, darker skin, small eyes, a small nose, and a slight downward slant to her eyes. Her hair was cropped short, to just below her chin, and she had long bangs that threatened to block her vision.

“Gah!” she shouted after a particularly bright flash of light illuminated Alfric, who was approaching her.

“Sorry!” he called out to her. “Didn’t mean to sneak up.”

“What are you doing out in the woods at this time of night?” she asked, the will-o-wisps forgotten and floating off as a small herd, motes of blue and white lights drifting in the dark.

“Have you ever been in a dungeon?” he asked her.

“That’s not an answer!” she replied, stomping with her clogs toward him through the squelching mud. “You answer, then you can ask questions.”

“I was looking for you,” said Alfric, once she was close enough that they didn’t have to raise their voices. “So, have you ever been in a dungeon?”

“No,” said Mizuki. “Did you bring a lantern? It’s hard to see.”

“I did,” said Alfric, pulling a disc from his pocket. He unlatched it, and light spilled out from one half of it. Mizuki looked him over, paying some special attention to the sword on his hip.

“Why do you want to know if I’ve been in a dungeon?” asked Mizuki, hands on her hips.

“If you had been to one, I wanted to ask you about it,” said Alfric. “To know which ones you’ve been in and what your general impression was. But if you hadn’t been in a dungeon, then I thought we could talk about dungeons, and I could see if you wanted to join a party to go to one.”

“With you?” asked Mizuki. Alfric nodded. “And who else?”

“We have a bard so far,” said Alfric. “Verity, she plays sets down at the Fig and Gristle. I have others in mind, but even if it’s just four, we should be able to do it.”

“Which two others?” asked Mizuki. “What kinds of casters?”

“Only one other caster,” said Alfric. “A cleric. The other I’m planning to ask is a ranger, of sorts, at least according to the censusmaster.” One of the alternates was a caster, if he understood the term from a sorcerer’s perspective, but he didn’t want to get her hopes up.

“A sorcerer needs magic to make magic,” said Mizuki. “With a priest and a bard I’m not going to be getting much in the way of interference patterns to work with.”

“You’ll have the dungeon too,” said Alfric. “That’s three. It should be more than enough.”

“And you know no magic?” asked Mizuki.

“Nothing of note for invading a dungeon,” replied Alfric, which he tried to comfort himself as being not quite a lie. “I tried a few of them, but was always better with a sword and shield.”

“No shield though,” replied Mizuki, looking down at the sword on his hip.

“It’s back in my room, with the rest of my armor,” said Alfric. “So, are you in? It’s a few hours’ work for easy money. Easier money than chasing around will-o-wisps.”

“Hrmph,” said Mizuki. She looked out into the woods, where the will-o-wisps were still floating away. “Well, I don’t particularly feel like following them just in the hopes that I can finagle something from their magic, so I guess I’ll be with you. Do you already have the party made? Or is this fresh?”

“Not yet,” said Alfric, brightening up considerably. “You, me, and Verity will make three, we can form the party in the morning.”

“Wait,” said Mizuki, and Alfric’s heart seemed to stop, not that he really expected a problem he couldn’t overcome. He’d had too many setbacks over the last year. “Can you give me an escort back into town?” asked Mizuki. “My light is gone, and there's barely enough ambient magic for me to make my own way.”

“Certainly,” replied Alfric. “And as we go, we can talk shop.”

“Here, let me grab my bag,” said Mizuki. She walked over to a tree, which had a simple cloth bag hanging down from one branch. After she grabbed it and threw it over her shoulder, she came closer to Alfric, and slipped her arm into his. “Lead the way,” she said.

“So,” said Alfric as they walked. “Your role would be ranged combat and support. For a novice sorcerer, it’s generally safe to figure one spell per room, and it would be best for you to go first, so there’s not so much a risk of friendly fire. I’ll be going in with sword and shield, taking the brunt of the punishment, and if you’re able to eke out another spell or two from the cross-magic going around, all the better.”

“Sounds fun,” said Mizuki. “And for rewards? We’re splitting evenly?”

“That’s the plan,” said Alfric. “Materials and henlings sold off and split five ways, but not everything can be split, so we’ll be doing a points auction before we leave the dungeon.”

“Seems like you’ve given this some thought,” said Mizuki. Alfric still had his small lantern out, pointing forward, giving them guiding light, and he could just barely see the frown on her face with the reflected light. “You’ll have to explain the concept of a points auction, but I can wait so you don’t have to repeat it and I don’t have to hear it twice.” She looked up at his face, illuminated by the light of the lantern that was bouncing off the trees ahead of them. “Is the dungeon thing safe?”

“Dungeons aren’t dangerous,” said Alfric. “At least, they’re not as dangerous as everyone thinks. Still, it’s better to go in with a clear plan and a balanced party.”

“How did you find me?” asked Mizuki.

“I spoke with the censusmaster of the hex,” said Alfric. “She was able to give me a list of people who weren’t in a party, and were below the age of thirty, and from there it was just a matter of asking around.”

“So you know my name then,” said Mizuki. “And you have me at quite the disadvantage.”

“Alfric Overguard,” said Alfric.

“Mizuki Yono,” replied Mizuki.

“Anyhow,” said Alfric. “When I was asking around, the woman who runs the general store —”

“Bethany. What an intolerable gossip,” said Mizuki. “And it feels weird to call her a woman. We’re the same age.”

“My apologies,” replied Alfric.

“No, it’s fine,” said Mizuki. “It’s probably fair. I just think of myself as a girl, still. I don’t feel like an adult.” According to the censusmaster, she was twenty-two. She shook her head. “Who was the other person you spoke with? The bard? I wasn’t paying the most attention.”

“Verity,” Alfric said. “She’s an extremely skilled bard, for being second elevation.”

“And we’re all going to be of second elevation?” asked Mizuki. “I’ve always thought elevation was kind of bunk.”

“Going in with mixed elevations is dangerous,” said Alfric, ignoring the latter part of what she’d said. It sounded like a long digression. “If I get everyone I want, we’ll all be second elevation, and hopefully we can move up together.” He realized that was a misstep just after he said it.

“Together?” asked Mizuki. “So you’re not just planning one dungeon, you’re planning many of them. See, that’s a different question. I’d like to try a dungeon, sure, but if you’re asking for a commitment, one that’s going to mean travel outside the hex, that’s another thing entirely.”

“No commitment,” said Alfric, backpedaling as hard as he could. “You all live here, and the dungeon in this hex will be half a day’s work at the most, including the time to walk there. I’m not asking for anything else. Going to the six surrounding dungeons would mean a single day away from home each, if that. If we had to, we’d camp out or find a room at an inn. That’s not the kind of thing you would do right off the first swing, not before we know each other.”

“But you’re clearly thinking about it,” said Mizuki.

“Well,” said Alfric, not knowing how to respond. Disclosure had been a cornerstone of his education, and it felt wrong to lie about his further plans. He was already not being as forthcoming as he would have liked, on several fronts.

“That’s fine, no one is going to be forcing me to do something I don’t want to do,” replied Mizuki. “Oh, I think I can see the lights of the town.”

And indeed, through the trees the warm glow of hanging lanterns was visible, though a number of them had been shuttered for the night, leaving only a soft glow coming from a few of the houses. It was fully dark now, with the last of the sun’s light faded away, and the temperature had begun to drop. Pucklechurch was nothing much to look at, a small town like most others, in the center of its hex, though the large temple was the obvious local landmark and quite grand. Mizuki reached into her bag and pulled out a hooded cloak, which she quickly wrapped around herself, covering her bare arms.

“Can I ask if you know any of the others?” asked Alfric. “I’m still working on recruitment, and any insights would be appreciated.”

“Names?” asked Mizuki.

“Hannah is the cleric, and Isra is the ranger,” said Alfric.

“Hannah’s not a local,” said Mizuki. “She patched me up once, just a minor burn. She seemed cheerful enough, but I don’t know her well. Church of Garos. Isra — is that a boy’s name or a girl’s name?”

“Girl’s,” replied Alfric.

“Then she’s probably not a local either, though I don’t know everyone in town.” She gave Alfric a skeptical look. “You sure picked a lot of people from outside the hex, since Verity’s not local either.”

“Ah,” said Alfric. “That’s not on purpose, I assure you. The censusmaster didn’t say, and I haven’t been able to learn as much as I would have liked about everyone.” This, too, wasn’t quite a lie.

“Are you sure that Hannah is going to join?” asked Mizuki. They had reached the town and were walking down the street together, with Mizuki still holding Alfric’s arm, even though it wasn’t really necessary now that they were out of the woods and the ground was more even.

“The only one that I’m sure of is you, because you said you would,” replied Alfric. “Verity needs time to think, but gave a soft commitment. Will you come with me to help pitch to the others? People seem to like you.” A little flattery never hurt, in Alfric’s opinion.

“I suppose,” said Mizuki, blushing somewhat. She came to a stop, and Alfric stopped next to her. “This is me.”

They were standing in front of a surprisingly large house, three stories tall, arranged in tiers of decreasing size, with eaves on each level. It was a beautiful building, but in a state of minor disrepair. Even in the dim light of the night time lanterns, Alfric could see moss growing on a few of the wooden beams, and places where the tiled roof needed to have pine needles and fallen leaves swept from it. The door and windows were painted red, but the paint was faded and starting to chip. For all that, it was old and sturdy, a large house that had been built to last. It was completely dark, without a single light on.

“Do you live with your parents?” asked Alfric.

“No, just me,” said Mizuki. “You’re asking after the others tomorrow?”

“Yes,” replied Alfric. “I need to talk to Verity a bit more. She said that I could tell the others that she was in, but she didn’t actually say she’d go.”

“Well, then if this thing ends up working, I’ll be able to say that I was the first to say yes,” said Mizuki, smiling. “Have a good night. Come get me before you go see Verity. I might be able to help talk her into it.”

“Good,” said Alfric, feeling a surge of relief. Things were falling into place, just like he’d hoped they would. He needed the win. “You have a good night too. I look forward to working with you.”

Alfric couldn’t keep himself from smiling as he walked back to the room he was renting. He had done some basic research on the girls, but he hadn’t known that Mizuki was living in such a large house all on her own. He idly wondered whether and when it would be appropriate to ask for a room in her house, with payment, of course, or perhaps with a share of his dungeon loot. If they did the dungeon for the hex, then all six surrounding ones, that would be something like a fortnight of work. He’d need a home base.

On his way back, he stopped by the tavern and looked up at the second floor, where he could see a lantern still glowing, which he thought meant Verity was awake. He wanted to go up and speak with her, but she’d said to wait until the next day, and he would abide by that, as much as he wanted to get things moving. He didn’t really understand why she would have wanted to put it off. Bards were supposed to take joy in other people, never wanting a quiet moment to themselves, but it seemed that Verity hadn’t been cast from the same mold. Given what he knew of her history, this was little surprise.

The temple was quiet as well, with no lights on, which meant that there was no chance to speak with Hannah ahead of schedule, not that Alfric really wanted to. By his reckoning, clerics were one of the most useful professions you could have with you in a dungeon, depending on which god they followed, but they were also one of the hardest to convince to go in. Hannah was a devotee of Garos Orag, one of the best gods for healing, and also one whose clerics were typically the least inclined toward dungeons.

And as for the last potential member of the party, Isra, all Alfric knew aside from her vital statistics was that she came to the biweekly market in the mid-morning, carrying meat and skins from a day’s hunting, sometimes with the meat smoked or dried, sometimes with the skins tanned, and occasionally with other goods as well. She didn’t live in Pucklechurch, but she showed up on the censusmaster’s query, and she’d been seen around often enough that she must have lived somewhere in the hex, though the woman at the general store hadn’t had any clue where that might be.

All in all, Alfric had to call his first day in Pucklechurch a qualified success. If he could get a party together and head down into a dungeon within the next few days, everything would be back on track.


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Alexander Wales


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