“This is all pretty fast, isn’t it?” asked Verity after she’d joined the party. Once the party was established, anyone else could join by doing the spell with someone who was a member, and Mizuki had volunteered to be the one to do it, because she felt the fingering technique of the others was ‘atrocious’. This time, the blue glow of lines formed a diamond between the four of them, briefly lighting up the Fig and Gristle.

“It is fast. Big city energy,” said Mizuki, as though that explained anything.

“I’ve been waitin’ on a dungeon party for ages now,” said Hannah. “I’d heard that people always wanted healers, but until Alfric no one had ever asked, which seemed a shame, ay. And I had a few rejections too, which stung. Thought they could just come into the temple an’ get their scratches and bites fixed, which they could, but still.”

“It is fast,” said Alfric. “But for a full party of second elevation, in a dungeon like the one the Pucklechurch portal will produce, there’s not much need for us to go in with more training or equipment than we have. Ten rooms, at the most.”

“For the second dungeon we do I’ll have some armor,” said Hannah. “A breastplate at least, and maybe a helm, not that I’ll be on the front lines. You'll mostly be in want of patchin’ after the fights are over, if you’re doin’ it in the normal way.”

“Second dungeon?” asked Verity, arching an eyebrow. “I’m not signed on for more than this one.”

“No one is,” said Alfric. “We’re a half mile away from the portal, and with how little magic there is in the area, it should be a breeze for us. A second dungeon would take more coordination, and maybe a little more preparation, but it would also be quite a bit further, since we’d be going to the next hex over.”

“Well, I’m up for a second if anyone else is,” said Hannah. “A second, and a third, and a fourth, ay?”

“Depends on what we get out of it,” said Mizuki.

“It depends on how dangerous it is,” said Verity.

“Can you sing us a song now?” asked Hannah. “I’ve heard you’re good with a lute, but never found cause to hear you play, and it’s good for a bard to test their strings with a new party.”

“Sure,” said Verity. She looked to Alfric as she undid her case and pulled out her lute. “You said strength and speed?”

“Whatever you’d like,” he said, trying to be diplomatic. He’d given her the specifics earlier, and her reaction hadn’t been what he’d imagined it would be. “That would be conventional though.”

Verity strummed her lute once, then began in on a brief song with two verses and a chorus. It took a minute and a half, all told, as it was a short song about two children playing in the forest, but when it was over, Alfric felt a warm glow within himself. He unsheathed his sword, dampening the magical effect to err on the side of safety, and twirled it once, feeling the perfect balance of it, and spun again, practicing his forms. There was strength and speed, but something else laced in with it, and when he’d sheathed his sword, he dragged a nail across the flesh of his forearm.

“You added something?” he asked.

Verity shrugged. “Just testing the strings.”

“I can see better,” said Mizuki, using her fingers to spread her eyelids and look around. “That’s you?” She stared at Verity with her eyes held open by her fingers.

“Shush,” said Verity. She tapped her head. “I’m holding that tune.”

Mizuki let go of her eyes and frowned. “So she’s just out of commission for the rest of the day then?”

“No,” said Verity. “Just hard to talk.”

“We don’t need it now, if you’d rather drop it,” said Alfric.

“I can hear better too,” said Hannah. “That’s five effects?”

Verity shook her head, swishing her hair side to side, and held up her fingers, indicating six.

“I’d rather it be stable and weak than unstable and powerful,” said Alfric, looking at Verity. She was very clearly intensely concentrating on the task at hand, her musical magic weaving together their personal qualities and giving boosts to them.

“It’s fine,” said Verity. “Good practice. Easier when I’m playing. Saving that for later.”

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Is the sixth magic? I think I can see it a bit better.” She looked down at Alfric’s boots. “Are those magical?”

“They are,” replied Alfric, looking down. “They increase my stride length.”

“It’s a real subtle effect,” said Mizuki, looking over at Verity. “Not the shoes,” she said to Alfric, before turning back. “The vision.”

“It works on what you have,” said Verity.

Mizuki narrowed her eyes at Verity. “I can’t tell if that was a slight or not.”

“Probably not,” said Alfric. “Bards exclusively work with what’s already there. If you’re blind, no bard is going to make you see. If you have no sense of taste, then they have nothing to work with, nothing to enhance. Even in a more mild case, a weak person is going to gain less strength than someone who’s already strong to start with. It’s a compounding effect.”

“Multiplying,” said Verity. “Compounding would mean — ah, lost it.”

Alfric felt the effect slowly fade away, leaving him feeling weak, though he knew from experience that it was only a matter of his body needing to adapt back to baseline.

“Compounding would mean that it was building on itself,” said Verity. “Progressive melodies are a bit beyond me. I’ll start up a song again once we’re at the portal itself, and probably continue playing and singing throughout, which will help to keep the tune going.”

“Good,” said Alfric, nodding.

“But is this what everyone is wearing, ay?” asked Hannah, looking at the other girls. “Because a dungeon can be a terrible place. Better to have paddin’, if you don’t have armor, and better to cover up if you don’t have paddin’.” She was giving Mizuki a skeptical look. “Your arms are bare, ay?”

“I’ve got a cloak,” said Mizuki, pulling it from her bag to show Hannah. “Besides, Alfric has been very clear that he’ll protect us.”

“You’re wearin’ culottes and sandals,” said Hannah, looking down at Mizuki’s feet. “How’s Alfric to protect you from insects and mud, ay?”

“I’ll be fine,” said Mizuki, frowning. “Bugs don’t like me, and mud doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, we’ll see,” said Hannah, clearly not buying it. “I can heal anythin’ that’s no more’n skin deep, ay, but if it’s into the muscle there are limits to how much and how often, so you be careful not to rely on me overmuch. And a puncture to the guts, we’d have to bring you back into town. Very little symmetry to be found in the guts.” Her gaze went to Verity.

“This is the best I have,” said Verity. She was wearing a dress with small white flowers printed on it, with boots her only concession to practicality. “I don’t actually own pants.”

“What do you do in winter then, ay?” asked Hannah.

“I sing a song so I don’t feel the cold,” replied Verity.

Hannah laughed, before it became obvious that Verity wasn’t joking. “But you’re still cold!”

Verity shrugged. “I stay inside a lot. And I do have a jacket. Plus some warming elements to keep my room toasty.”

Hannah clucked her tongue. “Well then, I suppose we’re ready as we’re going to be. Who is our last?” she asked Alfric.

“Isra,” he replied. “She’ll be our ranger.”

“Not typical, is it?” asked Hannah. “To have a ranger?”

“Not really, no,” replied Alfric. “But she’s a skilled huntress, second elevation, and —”

“Available?” asked Mizuki with a bright smile.

“Yes,” said Alfric. “Better than the other options the censusmaster gave me.” He had done his asking around.

“Well, I’m in need of supplies, things that I couldn’t get yesterday when I heard you sniffin’ around,” said Hannah. “Does anyone want to come with me? We’ve got a bit more than a bell, but if the meetin’ place is to be by the warp, then we can all just warp there, so time’s not so much a concern.”

“I’ll come with,” said Mizuki, looking down at her sandals. “You might have a point.”

“Do you not own proper shoes?” asked Hannah.

“None that I’d want covered in ichor, which seems to be what you’re suggesting,” replied Mizuki.

They split off, leaving Verity and Alfric alone.

“I hope those two do well by themselves,” said Alfric. “I should probably be going back to my room to put on my armor and get ready to go.”

“I’ll do better with the song later,” said Verity. “I was pushing it.”

“It’s fine,” said Alfric. “I don’t really care what happens when we’re outside the dungeon, so long as it goes smoothly once we’re in. You only get to do each dungeon once, so I’m hoping that we do a full clear every time.” It wasn’t technically true that you could only do each dungeon once, but he was hoping not to be called out on that technicality, because it wasn’t the kind of digression he wanted at the moment.

“Except that not everyone has agreed to a second?” asked Verity, raising an eyebrow.

“True,” said Alfric. “A full clear this time, then.”

“This has been put together fast,” said Verity. “I don’t know anything about dungeoneering, but I would think that we’d have trial runs and training.”

“It might be better that way, yes, but I really don’t think it’s necessary,” said Alfric.

“I’ve played with other musicians before,” said Verity. “My current conditions might not suggest it, but I was conservatory-trained. You can sit down, three or four of you together, totally unknown to each other, and make beautiful music in accordance with your sheet music, but you only ever do that if you have very little time. It’s better with people you’ve come to know and trust, people who you’ve practiced with extensively. The music comes out much better.”

“Well,” said Alfric, sniffing slightly. “There are differences of opinion when it comes to dungeoneering. Sometimes you put together what is, on paper, a perfect team, you prepare everything perfectly, you do trial runs and theorycrafting … and it just falls apart.”

“I suppose I can see that,” said Verity. “I’ll trust you to know your business, if you trust me to know mine.”

The warp point in Pucklechurch was an utterly simple affair, by city standards, nothing more than a slightly raised area of stonework with a few columns and a dome for protection from the elements. In comparison with the temple, which was far too big for the town’s size, the warp point seemed too small and too simple, not even fully enclosed, with none of the guards or attendants that Alfric would have expected. With a very simple, universally available spell, you would warp from anywhere in the hex to the hex’s exact center. Even with how small Pucklechurch was, he would have thought it would be someone’s job to watch the warp point, but no, not even that. When he’d first warped in, he’d quickly stepped off, but then looked around expectantly, not knowing what he was supposed to do. It was weird.

“It makes sense,” said Hannah when he mentioned it. “Warp points are most used by those who live in the hex. If you’re travelin’ long-distance, you’re probably using portals or leylines, or you have enough cargo that the warp’ll fail, ay? People goin’ through-and-through, overland, popping over the hex border so they can warp, how many is that a week?”

“I’ve got no idea,” said Alfric.

“Not many, I’d reckon,” said Hannah. “Traders from other towns, maybe on market days, but it’s six miles from the hex edge. You haven’t been out of the big city long, have you?”

“Only a few days, most of them in travel,” said Alfric. “I’ll admit that there are more differences in custom than I was expecting.” Pucklechurch wasn’t the emptiest hex he’d been through, but as final destinations went, it was miniscule. Some of the smaller hexes had no more than a hundred people in them, and he would see them only briefly when he warped in before hiking out to the next hex edge.

“Sixth bell was two minutes ago,” said Mizuki, staring at the warp point. “Where’s our girl?”

“There,” said Verity, pointing down the way.

Mizuki gave a friendly wave, and Isra faltered for a moment before continuing forward.

“Ready to join the party?” asked Alfric once she’d come close.

Isra nodded, slowly, as she looked at the others.

“That’s Verity, that’s Hannah, and you know me, Mizuki, and Alfric,” said Mizuki. “This is Isra, ranger extraordinaire.”

“Are we ready to go?” asked Isra. She looked at them. “Is this what everyone is wearing?”

“I put on some boots and gloves,” said Mizuki, extending her hands to display. “I don’t know what anyone else expects of me.” Other than those two additions, she was dressed the same as she’d been before, with her arms completely bare except for the gloves, which went up almost to her elbows.

“It’ll be fine,” said Alfric. He looked Isra over. She hadn’t changed, but her pack was now nearly empty and rolled up so that its excess folds were tucked and strapped in. She had a bow too, strapped across her back, and a quiver of arrows, along with a sheathed dirk at her hip. She looked different though, and he realized that she’d removed the piercings from her face, which gave her a much neater look.

He pulled the spell from his pocket and handed it over to her. “Just follow along, Mizuki will do it with you.”

The spell was completed in short order, and this time formed a pentagon connecting the five of them. Not long after that, Isra was frowning.

“I don’t have the channel,” she said.

“The channel doesn’t appear until after a week’s time,” said Alfric. “We’re just a basic party right now.”

“Oh,” said Isra. She looked relieved. “Are we ready?”

“We’re ready,” said Alfric, keeping his voice firm. “The dungeon portal is a half mile outside of town. If we leave now, we’ll be able to get back before dusk, though I have a lantern with me.” He turned and started off, hoping that the others would follow him, and feeling relief when they did. From what he’d experienced of Pucklechurch, he half-expected that going anywhere would be preceded by an hour’s worth of talking.

“So, is this everyone’s first time in a dungeon?” asked Mizuki as they walked.

“I went when I was in seminary,” said Hannah, “A long way from here, with a party full of clerics, mostly so we could see what there was to see, and we got almost nothin’ from it. Still, interestin’ enough, and I’ve wanted to go again. To go properly, I mean.”

“Never been, never wanted to,” said Verity.

“I’ve been curious,” said Mizuki. “But it seems like there’s a lot of traveling involved in being an adventurer.”

“It’s not that much,” said Alfric. “If you use the warp points to cut distance in half, going from center to hex edge, that’s only six miles of walking between dungeons.”

“Six miles is a long way to walk,” said Mizuki with a frown.

“It feels less long if you’ve got sensible shoes,” said Hannah, smiling at Mizuki. “But to your point, Alfric, dungeons aren’t always close to the warp points, are they? So you’d have to go further, ay?”

“Sometimes,” Alfric admitted.

“And sometimes there’s no road to the hex edge, or no direct road, or not to the right hex edge, ay?” asked Hannah, who seemed to use an inflected ‘ay’ on a whim. Her accent was hard to place, but it was somewhere southern, Alfric thought. “So you’d want to map it out, is what I’m sayin’.”

“You would,” said Alfric.

“Did you?” asked Mizuki. “Because you’re Mister Planning, it seems like. Does one of those pockets contain a plan?”

“It’s complicated,” said Alfric.

“The matter of what’s in your pockets is complicated?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

“I have a map,” said Alfric. “But I don’t have a firm route, because it depends on too many things, not least of which is whether I can keep a party together. If this goes well, and I can interest all of you in a second dungeon, then we’d obviously go to one of the six adjacent hexes, but from there it depends on whether Pucklechurch will be our home base.”

“I own a house,” said Mizuki. “I’m not leaving my house for long.”

“I suppose I’ll echo that, for different reasons,” said Verity. “Asking me to quit my job and take up work as an adventurer, well, that’s something that I would have to think long and hard about.”

“I would go,” said Isra, her words soft.

“I’d go too,” said Hannah. “There’s always work for a cleric on the move, though I’d want to save my best for the dungeons, as I’ve done today. If not, I’ve a room at the temple, and can take the apprenticeship at my own speed, for the way of the righteous is often slow, so it is said.”

“We can talk about all that later,” said Alfric. “Personally, while I’m not pinning my hopes on it, I’m looking forward to seeing what we find down in the dungeon. Something to help us travel faster would make a lot of this discussion moot, or if not moot, then at least easier.”

“Like boots that make your stride longer?” asked Mizuki.

“Or something better,” said Alfric. “It’s hard to say what’s going to come out of a dungeon, but it’s not out of the question that we could cut six miles of travel down to none. If we did find that, then going to the next dungeons, if we all want to do that, would be a lot easier.”

“Well, I’m excited,” said Mizuki. “I’ve never owned a magic item.”

“Your house is full of them,” said Alfric.

“Well, you know what I mean,” said Mizuki. “A stove isn’t magic.”

“It is,” said Hannah, “You might as well say warp points aren’t magical, ay.”

“You know what I mean,” said Mizuki.

“The difference you’re looking for is entads and ectads,” said Verity. “Stuff that comes from the dungeons, they’re their own thing, separate and different, entads. Ectads are part of a system, like the warming elements, chilling elements, water makers, things like that.”

“They both come from dungeons though,” said Alfric. “The base materials for ectads, anyway. It’s one of the things that we’ll be on the lookout for.”

“But there will be entads in the dungeon?” asked Mizuki.

“There should be,” said Alfric. “I would expect between four and six, but only one or two that are actually worthwhile. We’ll sell some, keep others, depending on what we get. Some bind though, which would mean that we wouldn’t be able to sell them. Most of the profit in a dungeon is in the materials we can extract from it.” He looked at Mizuki. “We’ll need your eyes.”

“And what kind of monsters will we find?” asked Verity.

“That depends,” said Alfric. “The nature of a dungeon depends on too many things to say for certain. The geography of the hex is one element, as are the flora and fauna, but there’s also the time of day, the weather, the season, the positions of the stars, what magic has been used, on and on, and beyond all that, the people in the party going into the dungeon. It’s an art, not a science. We’re following best practices though. It’s said that your first dungeon is always best in the springtime, on a clear day.”

“It’s late spring,” said Verity. “Does that matter?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” replied Alfric.

“How dangerous will it actually be?” asked Verity.

“That’s hard to quantify,” said Alfric.

“Raccoons,” said Hannah, nodding sagely. “Or maybe another animal of the same size.”

“I’m sorry?” asked Verity.

“It’s what they said, in the seminary, ay?” asked Hannah. “The monsters you find in the dungeons are, oh, like bein’ attacked by two or three raccoons at once. Frightenin’, and a bit of a risk of being scratched or bit, but no one would expect you to die, ay?”

“Raccoons that I will be protecting you all from,” said Alfric.

“Raccoons are gentle creatures,” said Isra.

“Well, obviously,” nodded Hannah. “Another animal then? One that would attack?”

“No animal attacks humans,” said Isra. “Only if they defend their young.”

“A rabid raccoon then?” asked Hannah.

“Perhaps,” said Isra.

“I expect scratches and bites,” said Alfric. “I expect a few minor injuries that Hannah will be able to heal, and if it’s anything worse, then we can get other healing. I don’t expect anyone else to be hurt, not seriously.”

“I’ve heard, at second elevation, you can almost do a minor dungeon yourself,” said Hannah. “But you wouldn’t want to, naturally, since there’s such a risk of it goin’ bad.”

“Not even that bad,” said Alfric. “When we say ‘bad’, we mean leaving the dungeon with a mild injury that you’d need a cleric for.” He gave Hannah a pleading look, and she kept whatever clarification or elaboration she had in store to herself.

“I suppose,” said Verity. “I’m not sure all that has done much for my nerves.” She let out a breath. “Three raccoons.”

Alfric nodded. He had never liked the raccoon comparison, which he’d heard before, but it was helpful, if wrong. “Ah, this is the turn, we’re almost there.”


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Alexander Wales


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