“So, what else do you know about our mystery girl?” asked Mizuki as they walked through Pucklechurch toward the town market. Alfric had a long stride, and Mizuki had to move quickly to keep up. Based on how things had gone with Verity, he wasn’t sure that he wanted her with him. She seemed to find him a bit too amusing.

“Fairly little,” nodded Alfric. “What did you mean about big city energy?”

“Oh,” replied Mizuki. “I didn’t mean to offend, it’s just that there are some stereotypes of the cities. People bustling to and fro, always in a rush, always working on step twenty-six of their ninety step plan, things like that. I might not find it so funny if you didn’t seem completely oblivious to it.”

“Sorry,” said Alfric. “I don’t mean to be brusque.”

“I figure if we’re in this together, maybe I can help you,” said Mizuki. “I’m a local, I know the people and I know what kind of approaches work. You come on really strong. With Verity, we probably could have spent a half hour or so just chatting, getting to know her, talking about what her life is like, how long she’d been at the Fig and Gristle, things like that, and then gotten around to the adventuring thing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Alfric. “But she’s from Dondrian too.”

“Yeah?” asked Mizuki. “I didn’t know that. She’s gone local in a hurry.”

“Do you know anything about this girl we’re hoping to see, Isra?” asked Alfric. It was possible he shouldn’t have said anything about Verity. He wasn’t supposed to know.

“Nothing,” said Mizuki. “The name’s not familiar, aside from last night. Like, really not familiar. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone with that name. Foreign, maybe?”

“I don’t know,” said Alfric. They approached the market, where stalls had opened up, displaying all kinds of wares. Pucklechurch wasn’t large enough to have a daily market, which made it especially important that they find Isra today. Otherwise, they’d be reduced to waiting three days until the next market, or spending time trying to find someone who knew her well enough to know where she lived. Alfric wasn’t sure whether he would do that or try to track down one of the alternates. “She’s dark-skinned, like me, roughly our age, second elevation, and she should have some furs or meat with her, unless she’s already dropped them off.”

“Oooh, honey,” said Mizuki, splitting off almost immediately. She picked up a jar of warm golden honey and held it up to the light.

“Come find me if you see her,” said Alfric, still looking around. He moved away from Mizuki, who was apparently trying to pick out which of the containers of honey she wanted to buy, and went over to one of the other stalls, which was set up with cuts of meat displayed in a cart. The base of it was apparently lined with chilling elements, as it was quite cool. “Excuse me, do you know a girl named Isra?” he asked the elderly woman. “I’m told that she brings in meat to sell sometimes.”

“She does,” said the woman with a nod. She was looking Alfric over, seeming to be in no rush. “We’ve got flanks of venison, fresh today.”

“I apologize, but I’m not really here to buy,” said Alfric. “Do you know if Isra has been through here yet today? I was told she usually comes with furs and meats.”

“And what’s this about?” asked the woman, staring Alfric down. “Is she in trouble?”

“We actually will take two venison loins,” said Mizuki as she came up behind Alfric. She was slipping a jar of honey into the large bag that she apparently carried with her everywhere. “I’m thinking a glaze of honey, butter, peppercorns, and juniper berries.”

“My, that sounds wonderful,” replied the shopkeeper, perking up. She smiled. “You’ll have to have me over some time Mizuki, you always make your meals sound so good.”

“I’d love to!” said Mizuki, who really seemed to mean it. “If you bring the meat, I’ll make the meal. I’m already near the end of the pork I got from you. It’s been wonderful fried up and dipped in a dark, salty sauce that I make for it. I fed Alfric some this morning. Did you know that in Dondrian they don’t eat breakfast?”

“He’s from Dondrian?” asked the woman, looking him over again. “What are you doing in Pucklechurch of all places?” she asked. “And if you’re with Mizuki, then I just know Isra is in trouble,” but she said it with a little laugh and a smile.

“I’m looking to put together a party to go into the dungeon,” he said.

“Oh, how lovely,” said the shopkeeper. She turned to Mizuki. “Did you want those venison loins now?”

“I’d prefer to pick them up later, near the end of the day,” said Mizuki. “We have our work cut out for us before I can get back to the chiller, first with finding this Isra character, and then with going to the temple. I can pay now, so you’ll hold them?”

Alfric shifted slightly, getting ready to interject and bring the subject back to finding Isra, and Mizuki put a hand on his wrist, gentle, subtle, but firm.

“Oh, I would hold them for you anyhow, Mizuki,” replied the shopkeeper.

“I insist, it’s one less thing to worry about,” said Mizuki. She reached into her bag and pulled out a thick string, which had dozens of rings on it. She undid the knot without even looking at it, and began quickly counting out rings. “Two loins, two and a half pounds total, does sixteen sound good?”

“For you, fifteen,” replied the shopkeeper. “But I might just take you up on that dinner one of these days.”

“I’d welcome it, but it would mean that I’d have to clean,” replied Mizuki with a smile. Their transaction completed, Mizuki retied the string her rings were kept on, again without looking, and slipped it back into her bag. “What do you know of Isra?” Mizuki asked. “Is she nice?”

“A bit cold, actually,” the shopkeeper said. “Given what she brings to market, she must be a good hunter and trapper, because she has game even in the long winter months. I think the beastmaster had to speak with her once about taking too much, actually. Anyhow, a few months back I offered her a standing arrangement for her game, and she rebuffed me, which I thought was a bit rude, mostly in how she chose her words. It might be because she likes to shop her wares around every market day, but I don’t know if that’s it, because it’s hard to get any chatter out of her. She’s a bit late today, but I would expect her to arrive sooner than later, the better not to miss the midday rush of customers.”

“I appreciate it,” smiled Mizuki. “I’ll be back for those venison loins later.”

“Of course,” nodded the shopkeeper. “And it was nice to meet you, young man. Alfric, was it?”

“Yes,” said Alfric, bowing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t inquire as to your name.”

“Marta,” she replied. “Good luck with your dungeon run. You know, I used to do the dungeons myself, when I was much younger. When I quit I had twenty-eight under my belt.”

“Did you?” asked Mizuki, leaning forward slightly and not seeming in the least like she was ready to leave. “I would never have guessed. Why did you stop?”

“Oh, we had to go further and further afield for the dungeons,” said Marta. “And toward the end of it, I was pregnant with my first child, which would likely have put a stop to adventuring anyhow.”

“But what did you do?” asked Mizuki. “Let me guess, ranger?”

“No,” laughed Marta. “I was, in fact, a wizard, though only middling at best, and I’m sure I could hardly get a spark engine going, it’s been so long. I sold most of my old equipment off a decade back.”

“Well,” said Mizuki, “If we ever do have that dinner, I’m happy to have my ear talked off about your adventures.”

“Ah,” said Marta, looking across the market. “There’s Isra now. Should I call her over for you?” She pointed to the opposite end of the market, where a young girl with a loaded backpack was talking to one of the other shopkeepers. She was dark-skinned, as Alfric had already heard, and wore a headscarf that completely covered her hair. Attached to her stuffed backpack were over a dozen brown furs, all strung together, though Alfric knew virtually nothing about small game. As Alfric watched her, he noticed a glint of metal by her face, which he quickly realized came from piercings in her nose, lip, and eyebrow.

“We can wait,” said Alfric. “I don’t want to spook her.”

“She doesn’t seem like she’d spook easy,” said Mizuki, who was likewise watching the girl. “But I doubt she’ll like you, no offense.”

“Big city energy?” he asked.

Mizuki nodded. “Maybe let me handle her?”

“Sure,” Alfric replied. “Remember, it’s a fifth share, not much work or risk for any of you,” but before he could finish, Mizuki had already taken off.

“Mizuki’s a firecracker,” said Marta, from behind Alfric. “Nice girl, but not too responsible with her magic.”

“Hrm,” said Alfric. He watched as Mizuki approached Isra, and tried his hardest to listen in on what they were saying, but it was too far away, and the market was too busy. All he could do was read the body language, Mizuki’s animated expressions and Isra’s folded arms. Mizuki pointed over at Alfric, and he gave a friendly wave, but Isra didn’t wave back. “Is she going to be a problem?” he asked Marta.

“Mizuki? Oh, I think she’ll do fine,” said Marta. “She reminds me a bit of one of my dungeoneering friends from back in the day. I won’t say all sorcs are of a type, but Mizuki certainly seems to be. If you find yourself in need of advice, I have some to spare. There are more old adventurers in Pucklechurch than you might think, most of which would be happy to help.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Alfric, nodding. “It’s appreciated.”

After what seemed like far too short a time for it to be good news, Mizuki came walking back over.

“She’s not interested,” said Mizuki with a shrug. “So cross that one off your list. Seems a shame, she was cute.”

“What did you say to her?” asked Alfric, frowning at Isra, who had moved over to the next stall, her backpack considerably less full.

“I gave her the pitch, like I said I would,” replied Mizuki. “She gave a pretty firm no.” She shrugged. “Can’t force people into a dungeon, you know? I don’t know if that’s a rule in the city.”

“I’m going to speak with her,” said Alfric, walking away before Mizuki could add more commentary.

“Good luck!” Mizuki called after him.

Alfric approached Isra from the side, and waited while she engaged in her negotiations over her furs. He tried to project polite patience, but patience had never been his strong suit. On closer inspection, he could see Isra’s many piercings, all of them apparently gold, which seemed unusual for a ranger. Her head covering wasn’t really a scarf, as he’d thought before, but a single piece that had been made for that purpose. Like Mizuki and Alfric himself, she was clearly not from the area, with skin the color of mahogany, a rich ochre, and beyond that, a wider nose and thicker lips. Alfric’s people had originally come to what was now Inter from Tarbin, to the east, but that had been five hundred years ago, and they had kept almost nothing of the culture. Isra seemed a much more recent arrival. Isra herself didn’t seem cute to Alfric at all: there was something too stern about her. She was pretty, certainly, but cute gave very much the wrong impression. She didn’t smile.

Once the transaction was completed, and her furs offloaded, Isra turned to Alfric. “Yes?” she asked.

“We’re putting together a party for a dungeon run,” said Alfric. “It’s a half day’s work for better returns than you’re likely to get anywhere else, one fifth share. No other obligation.”

“When?” asked Isra.

“Today is possible, but first light tomorrow is more likely,” said Alfric, though Verity apparently didn’t rise until fourth bell, so that might have been too optimistic.

“How much will we make?” she asked.

“It’s hard to say,” said Alfric. “As a reasonable bottom end, four hundred rings, divided five ways, but that’s after everything has been sold, which could take some time.”

“And the magic items we want to keep?” asked Isra, eyes narrowed.

“My plan was to have us bid with parts of our share,” said Alfric. “If you bid a third of your share and take the bid, then if we bring in four hundred rings after sales, you would get,” he paused, working it out, “Fifty-four and everyone else would get eighty-six.”

“I want first pick,” said Isra.

“We’d be bidding,” said Alfric. “First bid?”

“I want to win equal bids,” she said.

“Deal,” said Alfric, though it was more than he’d wanted to give. If she had first bid, he could have just had her start and not mentioned it to the others. Having her win equal bids would be difficult to explain, and wasn’t the best start to a working relationship, but sometimes these kinds of concessions were needed.

“I’ll be in town until sixth bell,” said Isra. “When sixth bell comes, I’ll wait by the warp point. If you’re not there, I’ll assume we’re doing it tomorrow, and meet you there around first bell. If it’s not one of those two times, I’m not doing it.”

“Okay,” said Alfric. “Sounds good,” but it was really a lot of time pressure, and meant that he was going to have trouble getting everything together, especially since they still needed the cleric.

With their business concluded, Isra turned away from him and continued on to the next stall.

“How’d it go?” asked Mizuki, appearing next to him.

“She’s in,” said Alfric. “That means that we only need Hannah, the cleric, but she was the one I was most worried about.” And if they didn’t get Hannah, then it would be down to second choices, and Isra was apparently not going to go into the dungeon at all unless it was quite soon.

The temple at Pucklechurch was an old one, perhaps the oldest building in the town. It was four stories tall, though only in its center, which had a high, vaulted ceiling that took up almost all of what would have been the upper floors. It was divided into sixths, with each of the gods having their own statue, and behind the statue, a set of rooms for smaller services, private talks, and for the clerics to live. Alfric was pretty sure it was too large a building for a town like Pucklechurch to warrant, and he’d already heard from the woman at the general store that there were only six clerics.

Alfric took a moment to make the signs of the six gods, a quick motion for each, both honoring them and warding against them. In Dondrian, each of the gods had their own temple, one devoted wholly to each particular god, with a whole host of clerics, and services that the devout attended weekly. His parents had done what many did, rotating temples each week, which allowed a deeper, fuller understanding of each god and their existence, for good and ill. He had always favored Xuphin, God of Infinity, whose doctrine seemed most sensible, but he had a healthy respect for all six gods.

Mizuki brushed past him as he was looking at the statues. “Are you taking point, or am I?” she asked.

“I will,” said Alfric. “First, can I ask why this temple is so big?”

“What do you mean?” asked Mizuki. “How big should it be?”

“It was my understanding that for a town the size of Pucklechurch, there should be shrines instead, with maybe a small room of worship for those that had a cleric,” said Alfric. He was looking around. “Much of this space isn’t used.”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” said Mizuki, shrugging. “Well, come on, chop chop.”

Alfric moved toward the statue of Garos, done here in his animal form, a mighty stag whose antlers had fractal prongs. The room behind the statue could be reached by going around it to the left or right, and when they were close enough, Alfric could see that the room was symmetrically arranged, not just with the chairs, table, and benches aligned with each other, but so that most of the floor was mirrored in the ceiling, both of them tile, and the trim on the walls the same along the top and bottom. The plants within the foyer were all sculpted, their branches forking at regular intervals, styled so that their left and right halves were identical.

There were three people, one in simple clothes, and the other two in clerical chasubles. The clerics were decidedly not symmetrical: one was an older man, his head shaved bald, while the other was a young woman with red hair in ringlets that went down to the small of her back. She had a serious expression on her face as she listened to the man in plain clothes speak, but when she caught sight of Alfric, she excused herself and walked over. The first thing he noticed about her, aside from the bright red hair, was that she had a much thicker build, not unpleasantly so, but more than Alfric had seen in anyone else around Pucklechurch.

“Garos’ blessin’. May I help you, ay?” she asked. There was a brightness to her eyes and a lilt to her voice, which Alfric found refreshing, maybe because Mizuki and Verity had been so slow to rise, and Isra had been, as the shopkeeper had warned, comparatively cold.

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

Hannah’s eyes widened slightly. “Yes,” she replied. “I mean no, I haven’t, not properly, but I’d like ta — are you askin’, ay?” Her dialect was clearly southern, and fairly thick.

“I am,” said Alfric. “It’s a one-fifth share, —”

But Hannah had already rushed away and interrupted the foyer conversation for a quick chat with the other cleric, and as soon as that was done, with a glance back at Alfric, she went through a door in the back wall, disappearing from sight for just a moment before returning with a packed bag. She’d thrown off her chasuble, revealing very functional trousers and a buttoned-down shirt that must have been beneath it. She rolled up the sleeves as she hustled back over to Alfric. “Ready to go,” she said, smiling at Alfric. “You were sayin’ a fifth share?”

“I — yes,” said Alfric. “Don’t you need to make arrangements?”

“Arrangements made,” replied Hannah, waving a dismissive hand toward the other cleric. “When do we go, ay?” She had a thick accent with rounded vowels, which was all that marked her as not being a native of Pucklechurch. Alfric suspected that she hailed from far south.

“Er,” said Alfric. “Not earlier than sixth bell.”

“Can I help you prepare?” she asked. “And who are we with, ay? You, me, and who else?” She looked over at Mizuki, who was standing off to one side. “Her?” she asked, frowning slightly.

“Hi Hannah,” said Mizuki.

“Had to run her out of the temple a few weeks back, she was doing her magic,” said Hannah with a scowl.

“There was built up magic in here,” said Mizuki, gesturing around. “It could have gotten dangerous.”

“Your magic was the only thing dangerous,” said Hannah. “But still, if that’s who it’s to be, no arguments from me. You said the sixth bell?” She looked Alfric up and down. “And is that what you’ll be wearin’?”

“Sorry,” said Alfric, “It might be sixth bell, but I’ll have to check with our bard. We didn’t know whether you would be able or willing to join us.”

“‘Course I am,” replied Hannah. “I heard from Bethany that you’d been askin’ around, and I thought for sure that you would want me, so I cleared everythin’ yesterday, not that there’s too much work to split between Lemmel and me in the first place. I’ve been waitin’ on tenterhooks for you to swing by, if you were going to, because I went by your room this mornin’ at first light, the one Bethany said you were in, only you had gone out, and I didn’t know where to. And are you wearin’ that? Because you’ll be point man, ay?”

“Er, yes,” said Alfric. “I’ll be point man, but I have some armor that I’ll be wearing, a cuirass and greaves, plus a helm, though they’re back at my room.”

“And everyone is second elevation, ay?” asked Hannah. “I’ve heard you can do one up or one down, but it’s more dangerous that way, and by the time I got to the censusmaster last night she had closed down and seemed a bit cross with me, for no good reason other than it was so late.” She paused and knit her brow. “Sixth bell, are we eating before or after? I can see it both ways.”

“After,” said Alfric. “It’s better not to go into a dungeon with a full stomach. Sorry, but have you really taken care of everything?”

“Of course, who do you take me for?” asked Hannah. “I’m a cleric of Garos, we don’t like to leave danglin’ threads, for it is said, ‘Let those who shirk their endings be beset by the costs of continuance’, the Book of Garam Ashar, section eight, verse six.” She gave a small bow on finishing.

“Alright,” said Alfric. “Then all we need is to go get our bard.”

“And add me to the party,” said Hannah with a nod.

“There’s not a party yet,” said Alfric. “We can do it now though, if you’d like.”

“Better soon than late, so it is said,” replied Hannah.

Alfric didn’t have a bag like the girls did, but he had folded up the instructions for the spell in his pocket, which he produced and smoothed out. “Alright,” he said. “We just need to do this at the same time. There’s a phonic and cheremic component. Have either of you been in a party before?”

“We had a family party,” said Mizuki. “Me, my mom and dad, and my two sisters. About a year after they left, my youngest sister was born, and the party channel was getting a lot of use for things that I didn’t care much about, so,” she shrugged. “Hard to get a toddler to do the spell, but not that hard.”

“I had two different family parties, one with ma and da, then another with some cousins, and then another few in the seminary,” said Hannah. “It was a lot of drama, if you ask me, people always wantin’ in or out of the parties, and the guilds weren’t much better, but there’s not much to be done about that. I tried to stick to the ones people made for studyin’, but there were always people using the channel for other things, parties and such, flirtin’, and someone drunk on the channel tellin’ you their every thought isn’t too fun when you’re trying to sleep, let me tell you, ay? This’ll make seven for me, I think.”

“Just curious,” said Alfric, making a mental note that Hannah talked at length without much prompting or pause for breath. “Ready?” He got some nods. “Starting now.”

The finger positioning didn’t need to be terribly precise, and neither did the words, which was good, because they were all slightly off from each other. Once it was finished, a glowing blue triangle appeared with each of them as one of the vertices. It faded quickly.

“Anything either of you need done before we get goin’?” asked Hannah. “Minor cuts and scrapes, bruisin’ that needs fixin’, cosmetics, things like that, ay?”

“No, I’m fine,” said Alfric.

“I’ve got a burn on my forearm,” said Mizuki, twisting her arm around. “Can you heal it?”

“Castin’ fireballs, were we?” asked Hannah, coming over to inspect the wound.

“Cooking,” replied Mizuki with a roll of her eyes.

Hannah touched Mizuki lightly, placing the burn in the span between her thumb and forefinger. She pressed against the skin and blew lightly on the wound. Within a second, it had faded away to nothing.

“Neat,” said Mizuki. “Thank you.”

“Just try not to break any bones,” said Hannah. “I can’t do much about that yet. And don’t lose too much blood either.”

“We’ll do our best,” said Alfric.


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Alexander Wales


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