They came to a clearing in the aspens, one with a fair bit of overgrowth, except where a dirt path led to the center. At that center point there was a built up earthen mound, and as they went single file down the path, they eventually saw the large wooden door that was set into the mound at an angle. It was in poor condition. The angle was the most obvious flaw, as portals were supposed to be completely upright. The door had been painted at one point, but the paint was faded and chipped. The stone that surrounded the door was stained and covered in moss, but the runes it was inscribed with pulsed with light as soon as they came closer. If the runes didn’t pulse, there was a problem, but a dungeon entrance needed to be quite far gone for that to happen.
“The Adventurer’s League is supposed to keep these in good repair,” said Alfric, frowning at the door. The lock that kept the door shut seemed like it was in better shape than the door itself, with a small bit of protection from the elements, and Alfric knelt down to look it over, drawing a key from his pocket.
“What’s that?” asked Mizuki, peering over his shoulder.
“You can’t get in the dungeon without a key,” said Alfric. “This is the basic one; they give them out readily. There are probably a few thousand copies floating around in the world.” He inserted the key into the lock and twisted it. It was a simple mechanism, but it gave him a bit of trouble, perhaps because it was so crudely made. After some jiggling, the lock came undone, and Alfric pulled it off, then opened the door. The runes on the stonework gave another pulse of light.
“And we just go in?” asked Verity.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “Once we pass through the stone arch, that’s it, we’re in. If you leave the dungeon once you’ve entered, you can’t go back in. This is the one and only time any of us will ever do the Pucklechurch dungeon.” Again, he braced himself for some pedantry that didn’t come.
The dungeon mouth extended down into the built up earth, and even from where they were standing, they could see that it was warping space, the tunnel an impossibility. The dungeon as it stood before them was its own splinter reality, one conjured by the portal just for them. Alfric stood for a moment, soaking in the gravity of the situation, the immutability of the dungeon visit.
“We can go in now, ay?” asked Hannah. “Or are we waiting for somethin’?”
“No, we can go now,” said Alfric. “Just … mentally preparing.” He had prepared for years to get to this moment. It would be a cakewalk. Still, some part of him worried. Variance was the harshest beast to be found in the dungeons.
“Should I be preparing?” asked Mizuki. “Because I thought my job was just to blast whatever we find in there.”
“It is,” said Alfric with a nod. “Verity, be ready to play your song, Hannah, be ready to heal any injuries I take, and Isra, take your shots if you see them.”
Mizuki cracked her knuckles and stretched out, shaking herself out, while the others made their own preparations. Verity unstrapped her lute and tuned it, while Isra undid the straps of her backpack, then strung her bow. The pack would be brought in with them, left just inside the dungeon entrance, so they could return to it if need be, as would anything else that wasn’t essential to the particulars of making their way through the dungeon.
When everyone was ready, Alfric went first, passing through the doorway.
Their two lanterns provided the light, one each around Verity and Alfric’s necks. The tunnel was rounded, its walls curved, packed earth with nothing supporting it. If it had been a tunnel they’d found in the wilderness, rather than a dungeon, Alfric might have feared collapse, but such things didn’t happen in dungeons, as structurally unsound as they might appear.
After a hundred feet, the tunnel ended in a small room, with thick wooden beams for supports, a large door that was tightly closed, and overhead, what looked like floorboards.
“We can leave our things here,” said Alfric, speaking in a whisper. “Packs, gear, things that we won’t want in the middle of a fight.” Isra had the largest pack, and she set it down gently on the floor, barely making a noise. Alfric was nervous, and saying things that didn’t really need to be said. It was a bad habit.
“When do I start to play?” asked Verity, also whispering.
Alfric drew his sword, which brought arcs of electricity. He faced the door, got a grip on his shield, and steeled himself. “Now,” he said.
Verity began her song, a more focused one this time, with couplets about the springtime and the horrors that could lurk in dark places that the spring sun had not yet touched. It was a little morose, Alfric thought, but it made him stronger, and the actual words didn’t matter much, so long as they were helping Verity to focus on the rhythms and melodies.
Alfric waited at the closed door, sword drawn, hoping that nothing would hear the song and come through. In some dungeons, the first sound would send almost every creature running, all at once, to the source of the noise. It was rare, but he had heard of it happening, and if that happened in their first dungeon, well, that was a melee they would face down, but it was unlikely that he would be able to escape without serious injuries, even if the rest of the party acted as they should.
After a few minutes, he relaxed and lowered his sword slightly. There was no sound except the song.
“What does the sword do?” asked Mizuki. “I saw the lightning when you drew it.”
“It’s electric,” replied Alfric. “A fairly mild effect unless I use one of the charges, and a good candidate for replacement. It was my father’s weapon when he went into the dungeons.” He went out of his fighting stance and turned back toward them, keeping one eye on the door. “You can touch it, if you’d like.” He held the sword out, and Isra tentatively stepped forward, pressing her finger against the blade for a moment, then giving a curt nod, with no expression on her face, which Alfric found surprising. Mizuki frowned, looked at Isra, then stepped forward as well, and touched the blade too, almost immediately leaping back and swearing.
“Tricks!” she cried.
Isra smirked, a playful, impish expression that was gone almost as soon as Alfric noticed it.
“We’ll be opening this door soon,” said Alfric. “When we do, there’s a good chance that something will come out. If it does, then I’ll cut it with my sword and try to draw it back so that Isra and Mizuki can get clear shots at it. If nothing comes out, we’ll be moving in slowly and cautiously, and I’ll be trying to bait out whatever lies beyond. Mizuki, you blast it the moment I’m free, but don’t be afraid to catch me as collateral damage if it comes to that. That’s what we have Hannah for.”
“I’ve got limits,” said Hannah. “Lots of limits, actually, should have gone into it more on the way over, I suppose.”
“Faster, please,” said Verity, who was still holding the song in her head.
Alfric nodded, and pulled the door open with his off-hand, temporarily letting go of his shield’s handle.
The beast burst out almost at once, thrusting the door backward and lunging straight for Alfric’s face. It was large, as thick around as a barrel, and long, like a snake, though it had a hundred small legs ending in cat’s claws, and two enormous pincers on its front, which it was trying to close around Alfric’s skull. It was the same creamy color of human flesh, with freckles no less, and when Alfric ducked beneath the pincers and stabbed it, its blood was very human too.
He backed up as he fought it, getting a grip on his shield and putting it in front of him. The girls were behind him, and he whipped his head back toward them just once, to make sure that they were safe, as he’d said they would be. The beast opened its pincers wide and lunged at him once more, its sinuous body weaving back and forth to provide the propulsion. It got his shield and bore down on it, denting the metal, but while it was occupied with that, Alfric was thrusting his sword into its underbelly, which was exposed because of how it was lifting its forward section, and there wasn’t terribly much resistance, which was quickly making a bloody mess.
There was a sudden and deafening blast, followed by an intense wave of heat, and the beast lurched to the side, losing its grip on the shield. Alfric moved forward and began stabbing it more, this time aiming for the head, but it wasn’t clear how much this was actually necessary, because the blast had torn out a sizable chunk of its midsection.
It took some time for the thing to finally die, and by the end of it, Alfric’s sword arm was wet up to the elbow with its blood. He was breathing hard from exertion, and took a moment for him to cool down. He looked down the hallway, tensed, then finally lowered his sword.
“Everyone okay?” he asked.
“What even is that?” asked Mizuki, looking down at the beast. Her hands were shaking.
“It’s a monster,” said Isra. She was outwardly calm, but she had a stillness to her that made her hard to read.
“You said we would be safe!” said Mizuki. “It could have killed us!”
“It didn’t,” said Alfric. “I didn’t even get hurt.”
“In what way was that like three raccoons!” shouted Mizuki.
“Your forehead is bleeding,” said Hannah. Alfric touched his scalp just below his hairline and looked at his fingers, which had come away bloody. “Here.” She approached him and laid two fingers on his temple, then muttered some words under her breath. The wound sizzled slightly, and the slight stinging pain evaporated completely.
“It probably looked worse than it was,” said Alfric, feeling sheepish. “Head wounds tend to bleed a lot.” He adjusted his helm, which had done less to protect him than he’d hoped it would. It was open in the face, the better to see, but that did mean that he had less protection. One of the pincers must have grazed him.
“We are not safe,” said Mizuki. “That wasn’t three racoons.” Verity was still focusing on her song, but it was clear she agreed. For her part, Mizuki looked like she was in shock, but Verity had maintained her composure.
“Good job killing it though,” said Alfric, nodding at the hole in the monster. “My ears are still ringing.”
“I’ve never killed anything,” she said, staring down at the monster. “What if there had been two of them?” asked Mizuki. “This is nuts.”
“And lo they traveled the twisting ways,” sang Verity, “The monsters died to the righteous blaze, the songstress sang her burdensome song, and lamented that talking should take so long.” She kept strumming her lute after that, keeping the song going, and humming as she did so.
“Are you seriously talking to us in rhyme?” asked Mizuki.
“She’s right, we should keep going,” said Alfric.
“Sorry I didn’t have a shot,” said Isra, bowing her head slightly.
“It’s fine,” said Alfric. “I’m not sure how much arrows would have done against that. Archery is typically better against smaller things, so long as your aim is good.”
Isra nodded and said nothing more. The one Alfric was worried about was Mizuki, who seemed the most skittish about combat, but was also the most necessary for being able to put down a bigger monster, maybe even more than himself. Her powers were situational and limited, reliable for no more than one good spell a room, but that one spell was likely to be pretty good.
The monster had been worse than he’d been hoping for, though not outside expected variance, and Mizuki did have a point, which was that it was considerably more difficult to fight than three bloodlusted racoons. That was why you came in with armor though, and a party of five, rather than trying everything yourself. The monster had been on the higher end of what might be found in a dungeon of second elevation. It was unfortunate that he wouldn’t be able to say the dungeon had been a breeze.
Alfric took a cloth from his pack, which was on the ground, and wiped his hand and grip clean of blood, so that it wouldn’t slip. He checked his shield over, grimacing at the dent that would have to be hammered out or possibly fixed by Hannah, then began dragging the corpse of the thing out of the way. Without a word, Isra moved to help, and between the two of them, they quickly got the hallway clear.
There was something grim about it, certainly, something disgusting and unpleasant. Alfric could acknowledge that. That he had won without too much damage to himself, that the team hadn’t fallen apart during the first frantic moment of battle, was heartening. The work itself, the killing of monsters, was something he’d done his best to adapt his mind to, and it was clear now that there was still quite a long way to go until he had his mother or father’s iron stomach.
When he finished, he saw Hannah speaking to Mizuki in a soft voice, with a hand on her shoulder, and as Hannah went on, some of the nerves seemed to leave her.
Somehow, like a miracle, no one called it quits.
His light shone on two doors, one to the left and one to the right, and at the end of the corridor the base of some stairs that led up to the next level. The door on the left was open, while the one on the right was closed. Alfric glanced back at the girls, checking that they were safe and following him, then moved forward to the open door. He didn’t like putting his back against the closed door, but there was no helping it. The open door led into a room that was filled with books, both stacked along a wall of shelves, and in piles around the room, on top of the table, and on the chairs. Most of them were bound in leather, with a wide variety of different colors and sizes, some of them larger than others. Alfric glanced up at the ceiling, then down at the floor. He crouched so that he could see under the table. Still he saw no monsters. This might have been where the hairless centipede creature had been living, but there were no signs of it.
Alfric stepped in slowly, keeping his footing steady, and bathed the room in light.
The books stirred slowly, then leapt from the shelves and their places on the room’s furniture. It wasn’t all of them, only a dozen, but they flapped through the air toward Alfric, and before he knew it, he was being battered by them, knocking his helm askew and then off. His sword stabbed through one, but they were fast, and not the ideal enemy, especially when his quick slashes seemed to knock them aside rather than actually cutting into them.
“No magic!” Alfric called back to the girls, though he really only meant Mizuki.
Thankfully, the books weren’t able to do much damage to him through the armor, and after not too much time had passed with them trying to knock him down, arrows started flying in through the open door. Alfric felt his magically enhanced strength fading, and hoped that was because it was going to Isra instead of because Verity’s song had failed. The books were taken out one by one, each with an arrow through them, the book creatures bleeding black ink, while Alfric took the beatings of book spines and more than a few papercuts to his hands and face.
When there were only a handful left, Alfric moved further into the room, giving Isra more space to line up her shots. He dropped his shield to the ground and went after the books with his hand, grabbing onto them and slamming them to the floor so he could line up a sword thrust that would run them straight through. When the last of them was dropped by one of Isra’s arrows, Alfric took a moment to breathe. He was sweating, bloodied, and bruised, having taken quite a bit of a beating in the course of fighting the book things.
On closer inspection, they were only booklike things, the ‘pages’ like gills with razor-sharp edges, and small eyes set into the spines. Their black blood was the consistency and color of ink though.
“Clear,” called Alfric, when there was no more rustling of pages. He replaced his helm on top of his sweat-damp hair and picked up his shield from the ground, then turned toward the closed door on the other side of the hallway as the girls filed in. “Good work, Isra. Verity, you can drop the song if you’d like.”
“The maid played on, her singular song, its beat so solid and sweet,” replied Verity, weaving her words into the melody without any seeming trouble. “She thought she’d continue, as sword cut through sinew, following a steady beat.”
“Alright, up to you,” said Alfric. Thankfully, he didn’t have to call on Hannah for more healing, because she did it on her own, touching first his right hand, then his left, and finally touching his face again. Her fingers were soft and warm. Alfric had always liked a healer’s touch, even from the old man who occasionally came over to supervise Alfric’s sparring matches.
“Gloves next time, I would think,” she said. She turned over his hand and pointed to a little cross-shaped wound, which was present on the other hand as well. “Intersecting wounds,” she said. “I can’t do much about ‘em, ay? Unless you think now’s the time for more thorough healin’, but I don’t know what this dungeon’s got left.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Alfric. “It just stings.” The wounds were barely even bleeding. Hannah gave him a nod, then bent down to prod at one of the book things.
“Why no magic?” asked Mizuki. She was breathing harder than she should have been, and her eyes were slightly wide, but she hadn’t bowed out, and she was asking sensible questions, which Alfric took to be a good sign. Before you did a dungeon, you didn’t know how people would be, and he’d been playing fast and loose with proper protocol, which involved reading off all kinds of horror stories. Mizuki seemed like the weak link, but at least there seemed to be only one weak link. He glanced at Verity, who was remaining stoic. She was from the city though, where the dungeons were almost certainly fatal, so her expectations would naturally be different.
“This is probably the most valuable room in this dungeon,” said Alfric. “Check it for magic. Verity, if you could enhance her sight, that would make this go faster.”
“There and there,” said Mizuki after a moment looking around the room.
Alfric moved over and picked up both of the books she’d pointed out. One of them was big and thick, nearly a foot and a half tall, with what had to be more than a thousand pages. The other was much smaller, and took some consulting with Mizuki before he finally plucked the right one from the shelf.
“These are valuable?” asked Mizuki when he’d set them on the table. She was keeping her composure, if only barely.
“I don’t know,” replied Alfric. “They might be, they might not. We won’t test them until we leave the dungeon. It can take some time to find out what an entad does.” His blood was still pumping hard, loud enough that he could hear it. Focus on the here and now. “No, the value in this room is in the other books. You can just look at the spines and see they’re in no language you’ll have heard of. There are translation entads, or a wortier, who could translate them though, usually. Depending on what we have here, we might be looking at maybe fifty rings apiece.”
“You’re serious?” asked Mizuki, looking at the wall of books with wide eyes. “There have to be a thousand books here. That’s fifty thousand rings!” Her amazement at that seemed to wash away a bit of the fear.
“Libraries like this are rare,” said Alfric. He wondered whether there was a corresponding library in Pucklechurch that he’d missed, or whether it was just variance. “It will take some time to sell off all the books, especially if we want that kind of price, and I don’t know how many we’ll actually be able to get out given we only have one exit apiece, but finds like this are one of the reasons that people go into dungeons in the first place. Sometimes you find trash, sometimes you find enough to fund you for a whole season or two.” It was more than he’d expected to find, and potentially put a kink in his plans. If they made out too well on this first expedition, then there would be no pressure to go on a second. “We’ll leave this stuff here for now. There are at least two more rooms to clear.”
Through this whole time, Verity had been strumming her lute, playing the same melody, with an apparent focus on the senses rather than anything related to combat. Alfric heard a chittering sound, but wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from. He was just hoping that it wasn’t an insect swarm, as he’d heard plenty of stories of dungeon runs cut short by them. There was equipment that you could bring to help handle them, but they certainly didn’t have it, and it would mean a retreat. He had confidence in his ability to protect them from most things, but not a swarm of insects.
Luckily, when Alfric opened the door across the hallways from the library room, it was only a furry creature with scaly legs, which hissed and launched itself at him, before being promptly and violently exploded out of the air by a fizz-crackling electric jolt from Mizuki. Alfric waited for more, but when none came, he moved into the room, eyes scanning everything that his light illuminated, turning every half step to make sure that nothing was creeping up on him. The room was half-filled with metal pipes, almost all of them running vertically from the floor to the ceiling, with only a few junctions leading off into the walls, or into other pipes.
“Clear, I think,” said Alfric, though it was hard to tell given how bad the sightlines of the room were, and how many places there would be for a creature to be hiding. “The pipes would be worth taking. They’re almost certainly water-aligned elemetal. I’m not sure how easy they’ll be to get out of here though.”
“We’re stealing pipes?” asked Mizuki.
“It’s not stealin’,” said Hannah. “Doesn’t belong to anyone, ay?”
“Elemetal is a good find,” said Alfric, looking over the pipes. “Water is evergreen. We’ll come back to this room though, I don’t see any obvious entads. Mizuki, can you take a quick look?”
“I’m starting to think that you only like me for my eyes,” she muttered, but after half a minute of looking around, she shook her head. “How’d you know the pipes were magic?”
“A good guess,” said Alfric. “We can talk about it more later, it’s not really something that you need to know if you can just look at things and see them.” He looked up at the floorboards. “Time to head upstairs.” He tried not to look at the others to see whether they were thinking of bowing out. He wouldn’t have blamed them, given what they’d come across so far.
Verity was still holding strong with the song, strumming her lute and sometimes singing under her breath. Some bards liked to take breaks, and others liked to keep going through thick and thin, and it seemed like Verity was the latter. Alfric was trying to be conscious of that and keep things moving, which was the best policy anyway. Verity was holding up well under pressure, as he thought she would.
The stairs were made of wood, thick beams that ran across into the wall of the library, and Alfric took them cautiously, worried that one of them might buckle under him. Dungeons were, as a rule, structurally sound, but that soundness mostly applied to the roofs and walls. This dungeon didn’t actually appear to have a roof, which was apparent when he looked up the stairs and saw a dark sky with swirling green clouds. He made it to the top of the stairs safely though, and stared into the eyes of a giant reptile.
It closed its eyes soon after though, curled up a bit tighter, and then went back to sleep, which was apparently what it had been doing prior to Alfric coming up the stairs. The room it was in was large, but it was a large creature, with its body and tail wrapped around a fountain that seemed like it was probably connected to some of the pipes downstairs. The creature had iridescent scales of green, blue, and red, with its claws and teeth a creamy white, and two curly horns that were jet black. On its back were feathers, the same colors as its scales, and its belly was rounded, making it look particularly fat.
Alfric felt a moment of weakness. The creature was just sleeping there, not doing anything else. Unlike the others, it wasn’t attacking on sight. There was nothing to say that you had to kill every creature you found in a dungeon, but they had a strong tendency to be misbegotten creatures, formed to fill this halfway world and full of rage. There were plenty of stories adventurers told about times they’d tried to live and let live, which only rarely worked out well. They had none of the equipment necessary to take this thing out of the dungeon, not given its size, and without a breeding pair, it would be mostly pointless, able to be sold to a zoo but having no other practical use. Looking at the claws, Alfric thought there was no chance to subdue it. And behind the creature, there were cabinets of riches.
The thing opened one eye, much faster this time, and focused right on Alfric. One nostril went wide, taking in the scent, and it curled its lip, displaying a fang in full.
There was nothing for it. Alfric charged, shield held in front of him, yelling at the top of his lungs, not just to drive out the last traces of fear, but to let the others know that he was engaging in combat. He tried to stab the creature in the eye, but it reared back and roared, out of reach of his sword.
Mizuki’s contribution to the fight came in early, with a sharp crack of green magic that seared off feathers from the creature’s back and caused it to writhe in pain. Alfric moved in while it was injured and slashed at its exposed chest, but the sword left only a shallow gash, with a trickle of shimmering blood to show for the effort. The not-dragon’s claws came down, and Alfric heard a squealing sound of those claws meeting the metal of his shield. He thrust his sword forward, a bit wild, but the tip of his sword fared little better against the beast’s chest.
Verity’s song grew louder, almost matching the volume of the fight, and Alfric felt a surge of strength. He went at the monster harder, this time trying to get at its weak points, its eyes or mouth. If its claws could cut into metal, then it was wise to stay away from them, or let the shield take the brunt of the damage.
One of his thrusts finally got the creature in its eye, which burst like a ripe grape and sent the creature reeling, but it bounced back almost instantly, hurtling itself at Alfric and swiping wildly. Two of the hits bounced off the shield with a screech of torn metal, but the final one went just over the upper lip of the shield, hitting Alfric in the helm and tearing through some of the flesh on his face in a shock of pain.
Alfric gave a roar of his own. They were both injured, and began to circle each other, with Alfric trying to keep himself in the not-dragon’s blind spot. The room was a large one, with the central fountain dominating, but there were other things in it, a seating area to one side and a handful of cabinets, some of them with glass display cases. The tail whipped to the side and destroyed one of the cases, and some instinctive part of Alfric winced, because that might have been valuable. He licked the blood from his lips, then tried to blink away the blood that had gotten in his right eye, and lunged forward once more, trying to pierce the creature in the mouth.
They moved back and forth, neither accomplishing much, with more of the room destroyed with every passing moment. Alfric was starting to fatigue, even with the aid of Verity’s loud song, and his shield had taken plenty of abuse, enough that there were visible shears in it even from the back side. As he was starting to wonder whether he would actually manage to kill the creature, he felt a pressure on his back, and a moment later, his wounds were closed, his strength returned.
The time it took for that to take effect might have given the monster an opening, but another spell came crashing into existence, this time right in the creature’s face, an explosive green mist that washed over it and caused it to screech in pain.
Alfric moved forward again, with renewed vigor, knowing that he had the advantage over the creature now. He attacked more fiercely, aiming at its head again, and letting it claw at his shield, but couldn’t manage to sink his blade anywhere that did more than surface damage.
It was at about this time that he saw Isra slinking around the side to flank the creature, out of its field of view. She had dropped her bow and instead unsheathed her long dagger. Alfric wanted to call to her, to tell her not to do anything foolish, that he would handle it, but while there was little doubt that the creature was unintelligent, it might still be able to read his body language and eye line. You had to trust the members of your party. That was a fundamental rule of dungeoneering, and one that he’d ignored until now.
Alfric was still trying to end the injured not-dragon when Isra launched herself forward onto the back of the creature. She slammed her dagger down into its other eye in a single swift motion. It screeched and howled in pain, but now it was blind, and Isra slipped off its back and away, leaving the dagger in place. Alfric stepped back and watched it, making sure that Isra got out of its way, then waiting until it had begun to tire itself out in its blind panic. When it was panting and heaving for breath, that was when Alfric stepped in, lining up a perfect thrust with all his might behind it, which drove his sword straight through the creature’s thick skin and into its internals. It thrashed around again, but this time when it stopped, it stopped for good.
Alfric looked around. There were no new doors. The dungeon had been cleared.