“Everyone okay?” asked Alfric, throwing his sword and shield to the ground. He was shaking from the rush of battle.
“I think you were the only one hurt,” said Hannah.
“I’m not going further,” said Mizuki. She was standing far back, by the stairs, ready to bolt. “No way. That thing could have killed you. Was that a dragon?”
“Not a dragon,” said Alfric. “Not even close.”
“Well I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “I’ve never seen a dragon, and there was all sorts of other crazy stuff.”
“A dragon wouldn’t fit in the room,” said Verity, finally stopping her song. “Plus we would all be dead. I’ll second Mizuki, I’m done.” Again, she was composed in a way that Alfric found both admirable and unexpected. She’d kept up her song throughout, which must have taken a fair amount of courage and concentration.
“It’s just a fight,” huffed Hannah. “No one hurt, and I can fix the shield, mostly.”
“It’s fine,” said Alfric, breathing a sigh of relief. “We’re done. That was the whole dungeon.” He pointed around at the walls. “No more doors, no more hallways, just three and a half rooms this time.”
Mizuki looked up at the dark sky and its green clouds, which provided only faint illumination. She very cautiously took a few steps away from the stairs to get a better look. “But what’s up there?”
“Nothing,” said Alfric. “People try to go beyond the dungeons sometimes, and there’s never anything there. It’s a little false, half-created world. All a small one like this needs is four rooms and a handful of monsters. This is the Pucklechurch dungeon, not one of the megadungeons of a city, or an infinidungeon that you’d find at a place of power. Fewer monsters than I’d expected, and fewer rooms, but much tougher, which is the trade-off sometimes. All that’s left is to loot as much as we can.”
“Wait, it’s over?” asked Mizuki, sagging. “That was it?”
“Yup,” replied Alfric, giving her a smile.
“Well I guess that wasn’t so bad then,” Mizuki said, frowning a bit. The tension started to wind out of her. She crossed her arms. “I was prepared to go through another few rooms.”
“You were?” asked Alfric.
“Well, I wanted to be talked into it, assured that things would be fine,” said Mizuki. She ran shaky fingers through her hair. They were going to have to get her a helm, if there was any way she’d agree to another dungeon. She looked around the room, as though confirming that there really weren’t more doors. “Huh. We did it.”
“I would have needed ten minutes or so, maybe twenty,” said Verity, slinging her lute behind her back. “I was pushing it with that melody.”
“I noticed,” said Alfric. “It was appreciated. We can wait on it, but it’ll probably be necessary for you to weave another song for Mizuki to see any entads we’re missing.” He looked at the broken cabinets and crushed furniture. “I wish it weren’t such a mess. Hopefully we didn’t break anything.”
“I brought gloves,” said Hannah, pulling them from her pants pocket and slipping them on. “I can move some glass away. We’re lookin’ for valuables, ay?”
“Entads are the first priority,” said Alfric. “There’s not really a limit to how valuable they can be, but I would be surprised if we found anything that was astounding. What I’m really hoping for is travel, which is most associated with brooms, carpets, boots, watches, rings, and drinks, but it could be anything.”
“You memorized all that?” asked Verity.
“Sure,” replied Alfric. He moved over to the crushed display cases and began moving things aside, being as careful as he could. “Not on purpose, I didn’t sit down to do it, but I read enough that I picked it up. Different effects have different associations. It’s not completely random.”
“But we find what we find, right?” asked Mizuki. She had moved fully away from the stairs now, cautiously creeping her way into the room.
“We do,” nodded Alfric. He had opened up the smashed remains of a cabinet, only to find equally smashed vials that had once contained liquids. “Never eat or drink anything you find in a dungeon,” said Alfric. “I don’t think anyone would, but I thought I would say it.”
“Is it all poisonous or something?” asked Mizuki.
“Not at all,” said Hannah. “But it takes a lot of work to say for sure what’s good and what’s not. Some can kill you, that’s for sure, but others are just disgustin’.”
“It’s a shame to waste the meat,” said Isra, looking over the body of the not-dragon.
“Good work, by the way,” Alfric said to her. “I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get it. I was considering a retreat.”
“Arrows weren’t working,” replied Isra with a shrug.
“I hadn’t even noticed,” Alfric confessed.
In one of the cabinets, Alfric found a set of seven keys, each of them with a different bow. Each bow had a different decorative animal, and Alfric assumed that they were native to the Pucklechurch hex. It was possible that they were magic, but also entirely possible that they were just a bit of set dressing. There was a name for such things: henlings. They were bits of frippery and tatt that could sometimes be sold, but more often just served as mementos. Taverns that catered to adventurers were commonly decorated with the stuff, sometimes with a full wall of bric-a-brac. In the city, at least, there had been stores that sold the stuff, usually for fairly cheap. You could get plates and silverware pulled from a dungeon for cheaper than handcrafted.
“Ready,” said Verity. She unslung her lute and strummed it once, looking up slightly as she searched for the words. “My eyes were bright, as I watched through the keyhole, oh so late in the night, the old man read him a very long scroll, a tale of magic and horrible blight, and I watched as he cast him, a most fearsome spell, and I waited and whimpered, as his portal did swell.”
Mizuki was moving fast, stepping over the wreckage and looking at things, including pulling back cabinets with wild abandon, not seeming to fear getting cut by the broken glass that was scattered everywhere. She set the things she found on a small table that had been next to the seating, and was miraculously unhurt. When she was finished, she stepped back and looked around.
“These?” asked Alfric, holding out the set of keys. Mizuki shook her head, and Alfric slipped the keys back into his pocket.
“All done,” Mizuki called to Verity, but Verity continued on with the end of the song anyhow, bringing it to a proper conclusion. “You use the weirdest lyrics. What was all that about a portal?”
“I was just making it up as I went,” said Verity. “If a song is going to have a tight focus, it’s better to have it revolve around the subject that’s being focused on, in this case, sight.”
“I guess,” replied Mizuki. “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand bards.” Not even ten minutes after the battle had concluded, and she was already returning to her old self. Alfric couldn’t help but smile at that. Midway through, he’d wondered whether he was going to have to replace her. She gestured at the things she’d set onto the table. “This is what we have, so far as I could sniff out.”
Sitting on the table were four entads, which, with the two books below, made for six in total. That was on the high side, but then, the monsters they’d encountered had been much tougher than expected as well. Unfortunately, none of them looked likely to be travel entads. There was a flute with what seemed like far too many holes, a small silver spoon, a dark red handkerchief, and a white wooden longbow the color of bone that had been hiding in one of the cabinets.
“Dibs on the spoon,” said Mizuki. She was still slightly shaky, but seemed to have it under control. If she had recriminations, she was saving them for later.
“We don’t know what it does, and that’s not the arrangement we have,” said Alfric. “Also, as I mentioned earlier, I promised Isra that she would have first bidding rights for entads and break any tied bids. Because we’re not allowing outside money, that means she could potentially take any of these entads by bidding her entire share of the loot.”
“I continue to object, except I feel like she did a lot more than me, so whatever,” said Mizuki. That wasn’t Alfric’s read of what happened, but he kept his mouth shut.
“It was needed to bait her, sure,” said Hannah, giving Isra a smile. “Alfric, you reckon to wait until after we’re out to find out what they do?”
“Usually, yes,” said Alfric. “You don’t want to stay in the dungeon longer than you have to. But in our case, because we got lucky and there’s so much we want to carry out, I think it’s better that we find out now, just in case one of these things allows for extradimensional space.” Aside from travel, extradimensional space was one of the cornerstone abilities needed in the trade, because it could greatly multiply what you could bring out of a dungeon.
Mizuki picked up the spoon and looked it over.
“Be very, very careful,” said Alfric, holding up a hand. “You don’t know what they do. Treat it like it might kill you or anyone you point it at. Assume that it’s deadly.”
Mizuki looked down at the spoon in her hand, then back up at Alfric. “It’s a spoon,” she said.
“One of the most powerful combat entads in existence is a flower pot,” said Alfric. “If you tap on the bottom of it twice, it lets out a beam of concentrated light that can blast halfway through a city.”
“The first time it was fired, nigh on a hundred people died, though it did get undone,” said Hannah. “Rare, that, though, ay?”
“It’s good to keep in mind,” said Alfric, nodding to Hannah. He was going to have to talk to her in private, he decided, to see what she knew and how she knew it. He hadn’t expected a cleric so eager to venture into a dungeon, and he certainly hadn’t expected her to be so knowledgeable.
“Oh, it changes size,” said Mizuki, twirling around a spoon that was much bigger than it had been before. “That’s … neat.” It warped and shifted in her hand, and from the way that she was concentrating, it was taking quite a bit of effort to do it. It wasn’t just changing size, it was changing shape as well, becoming deep or shallow, changing its angle, but never going too far from being a normal spoon. “I want it,” said Mizuki.
“That’s not really how we’re doing things,” said Alfric.
“Then I’ll bid on it,” said Mizuki. “One twentieth of my share.”
“That’s stupid,” said Verity. “No offense. With the books, we might get as much as fifty thousand rings, by Alfric’s evaluation, which … I’m skeptical of. Your share would be ten thousand. A twentieth of that is five hundred rings. You think a spoon that changes size is worth that?”
Mizuki turned the spoon into a ladle and frowned at it. “I suppose not.”
“You shouldn’t tell her that,” said Isra. “More for the rest of us.”
“I don’t particularly need the money,” said Verity. “I live a nice enough life right now, even without this windfall.”
“Then for my sake,” said Isra.
“We’ll do all the negotiations at the end, once we’ve taken out everything we can carry,” said Alfric. “No point in talking about it now.”
“And we can touch these?” asked Verity, looking down at the objects on the table, then up at Alfric for confirmation.
“You can,” said Alfric. “The flower pot was an aberration. Just be careful what you try.”
Verity picked up the flute and looked it over, while Isra went for the bow. Alfric watched them carefully, then went to grab the handkerchief, only to find that Hannah had already picked it up.
“I’ll go get the two books from downstairs,” said Alfric, closing his hand. “If we’re entad testing, best to do it all at once.”
The bigger of the two books was nearly fifty pounds, and while that wasn’t a problem for Alfric, it did make him wonder what it could do that would possibly be worth lugging that weight around. Naturally, entads didn’t have to be worthwhile, and many of them (like the shape-changing spoon) were little more than curiosities, but he was hopeful that the book would prove its worth. Perhaps when he opened it he would find a multitude of maps, and touching them would take him and the book to somewhere else, the exact kind of travel entad that he’d been hoping for. More likely, it would be something just barely useful enough to justify taking it out. It was useless to guess at what an entad did before testing it, but impossible to stop yourself.
“I figured out the handkerchief,” said Hannah when Alfric came back up. She was smiling. “It heals wounds.”
“It does?” asked Alfric.
“Well, ‘heals’ is strong language for what it does,” she said, looking a bit sheepish. She held out her arm, where she’d rolled up her sleeve. The handkerchief was wrapped around her forearm. “See?” she asked. “Covered, it looks and feels fine. But take it off?” she took off the handkerchief, revealing an inch-long cut that was bleeding freely. “Huh,” she said, looking down at the wound. “I thought it just stopped the hurt and the blood, but I think it’s a bit more.” She replaced the handkerchief and held it there.
“How’d you get hurt?” asked Alfric.
“Did it myself,” replied Hannah, still looking cheerful. “Red is the color of blood, ay?”
“That’s,” Alfric began. “I suppose if it works, it works. Guessing things on the basis of their looks is a crapshoot though, maybe a bit better than chance, but not so much that you should be cutting yourself.”
“This flute has too many holes,” said Verity, turning it over. “And there would be no way for your fingers to effectively cover them.”
“Do you play the flute?” asked Mizuki, moving over to stand next to the bard.
“No,” replied Verity.
“And how many fingers do you have?” asked Mizuki.
“The usual amount,” replied Verity with a sigh of exasperation.
“I’m counting six on each hand, for what it’s worth,” said Mizuki.
Alfric looked, and saw that this was true, at nearly the same moment that Verity seemed to notice. She shrieked and dropped the flute, which clattered on the ground, at which point her hands went back to having the usual number of fingers. She stared at her hands, keeping them in front of her, as though they were going to mutate at any moment.
“Entad effects usually aren’t permanent, for bodily effects,” said Alfric. “If there were one that gave you an extra finger on your hand for the rest of your life, it would be one of the really rare ones.”
“Neat,” said Mizuki, picking up the flute and giving it a twirl, the spoon she’d taken stuffed into a pants pocket. She held the flute in one hand and stared at her free hand, which had six fingers. She waved them back and forth, then clenched and unclenched them. “This is so weird. You can’t even feel it. It’s like I always had six fingers.” She squinted for a moment, and then she had seven fingers instead of six. “Alright, time to see how many we can get out of this.” More and more fingers were added to her hands, until eventually she had ten fingers on each. It was altogether too many fingers, very noticeable when Alfric looked at her.
There was, of course, another point to entad testing in the dungeon, which was that it allowed them to have a bit of a ‘cool down’. Alfric’s father had always said that when people went through something awful, it was best to give them something fun or interesting, some kind of distraction that would rip their mind from the awfulness. Entad testing was one of those things, and that it could be done in the dungeon would mean that perhaps the associations with blood and injury wouldn’t stick as much.
“I don’t like that one,” said Hannah, who was still holding the handkerchief to her cut arm, but had come over to watch.
“Seems kind of useless,” said Mizuki, tossing the flute up into the air with her ten-fingered hand and then catching it with a hand that had gone back to normal.
“It’s gross,” said Verity. “But it might actually be useful for playing music.”
“You think with the extra fingers this flute makes some nice noises?” asked Mizuki, seeming skeptical.
“I wasn’t actually thinking about that,” replied Verity. “I was thinking that if you had the flute touching your skin, you could play the lute a bit easier. Here, let me test.”
He wanted the girls to all be happy, and from what he’d heard, a lot of people really enjoyed testing out new entads. Back in the big city, Alfric’s friends had taken a lot of joy in going into entad shops to look around at what was there, from the mundane to the exotic. Whatever entads weren’t bound to the party or to party members would probably be sent back to the city to be sold there, where they could fetch a better price, though Alfric would almost certainly be dealing with middlemen in Tarchwood or Liberfell.
While Verity played her lute using extra fingers, Alfric watched Isra. She was taking a more cautious approach to entad testing than the others seemed to, and despite the fact that she was holding the bone white longbow and had plenty of arrows, she hadn’t actually fired it. The flower pot entad was quite famous, particularly because it served as an object lesson in how things could unexpectedly go wrong, but he didn’t have a handle on how much Isra knew about the wider world, and perhaps saying outright that entad testing could hypothetically kill them all was a bit much. She was instead testing the string, feeling the parts of it, twisting and bending, looking it over … but not actually firing it.
Alfric decided that he would go over and talk to her if she’d still done nothing with it when they were getting ready to gather up the rest of the loot.
The bigger of the two books he’d brought up was completely blank, its thousand-odd pages containing not so much as a scrap of information. It didn’t have a title on the cover or on the spine, not that Alfric had really expected it would. Staring at the blank pages, Alfric thought about them as representations of something else, which was sometimes true for entads with multiple parts. A suit of entad armor with three jewels on the chest almost certainly had some ability that could be used three times in a day, or in a week, or could affect three objects, though of course that rule wasn’t a firm one, because almost no rules about entads were. And with a thousand blank pages, what might that mean?
Alfric proceeded to touch various parts of the book, running his fingers all along it. His approach wasn’t all that different from Isra’s, when he thought about it. The obvious thing to do with a blank book was to write inside it, but he was going to hold off on that until he’d tried other things.
The answer finally came when he pressed firmly against one of the open pages. His fingers sunk in, and as he kept up the pressure, his entire hand disappeared into the book, until finally he was in it down to the arm. As no more of him would go in, and because he was mildly worried, he extracted his arm back out of the book, leaving a blank page. Trying a different approach, Alfric pressed something else against the open page, this time a small rock picked up from the floor, and when it sank down into the book with light pressure, it stayed there, visible as a picture of itself with ink. After a few seconds, the picture of the rock was surrounded by a frame of black ink, and below it a small description was written, a simple paragraph that described the rock.
Alfric stared at it for a moment, then flipped the page and pushed in another rock, which had the same effect. Finally, he tried his best to get the rock back out, which he eventually found was possible just by pushing his hand in and grabbing it.
It was a storage entad, and a fairly good one, though it didn’t take anything that was larger than two feet on its longest side, and getting things in and out of it took some time. Still, with a thousand pages of storage, it meant that they would be able to take the entirety of the book collection downstairs with ease.
If it was unbound, which they wouldn’t know until later, then it was probably worth quite a bit, since storage entads were always in demand. If it bound to one of them, which could happen but was fairly rare, then it would make for a particularly good item, one that he would try to get for himself: you had a better chance of personal binding if the entad was physically on you as you left. But the best case scenario, at least for Alfric, was that it was partybound, because that would mean that they would have much more incentive to keep the party together. He prayed to the six gods, a short, simple prayer for each, appealing to their better natures.
It was while he was thinking about the party dynamics that Isra fired the bow. One moment she had it pointed across the room with an arrow nocked, the next she was standing against the far wall and plucking her arrow from where it was stuck in a wooden beam. She looked the arrow over once, then looked at the others.
“It’s a good one,” she said.
“Moves you to the arrow’s destination?” asked Alfric, when no explanation seemed to be forthcoming.
“No,” replied Isra. “The world slowed down and I walked with the arrow.”
“Time manipulation?” asked Alfric, raising an eyebrow. “That is good, even if it just lets you take a breather.”
Isra began experimenting with it more, and for a time, they simply watched her. The arrow would be let loose, and then Isra would be standing somewhere else in the room, usually directly along the route it had taken. She wasn’t the most articulate at describing its effects, but when Alfric took a turn, he could see the notions that she’d been pointing at.
Shooting an arrow created an invisible sphere, maybe ten feet across, one which followed the arrow. So long as you stayed within that invisible sphere, time was slowed to a crawl, the arrow’s flight easy to keep up with even if you were walking at a leisurely pace. It was hard to affect things in this slowed-down time, but as Isra had found, you could still fire arrows, and while those didn’t create little time bubbles of their own, they did seem to interact with the world in the normal way, which meant that you could fire that first arrow, then walk along beside it firing other arrows, and end up spitting out five arrows in the time that it took a normal archer to fire only once.
“It’s very powerful,” said Alfric. “We’ll need to see how it binds, if it does, but … it’s world class.”
“Meaning best in the world?” asked Mizuki.
“Yes,” replied Alfric.
“It doesn’t seem that good,” said Mizuki, giving the white longbow a skeptical look.
“Entads compound,” said Alfric. “If you have a good one, then mixing it with a second good one can make for a much more powerful result. Take a bow like that one, add in a quiver that lets you shoot faster or with more arrows, or that generates arrows, mix in an amulet that gives you constant low-grade healing, a dagger that takes time to charge … it’s not only powerful by itself, there are a lot of common effects that it makes more powerful, to say nothing of the rare effects.”
“So you’re saying we’re rich?” asked Mizuki.
“It depends on whether it binds,” replied Hannah. “Bound, we’re not rich, no.”
“Then how do we get it not to bind?” asked Mizuki.
“We don’t have control of that,” said Alfric. “The most you can do is have specific people carry out the entads, because they’re very slightly more likely to bind to whoever carries them when they cross the threshold, but that’s about it.”
“I want the bow,” said Isra. It had found its way back into her grip.
“It would be best for you to carry it out, yes,” said Alfric. “But splitting the pot isn’t usually done until everyone is outside. It’s hard to put value on things if you don’t know how or whether they’re bound.” There were some parties, he knew, where there was extensive discussion on who carried what, which usually meant testing done in the dungeon, but that wasn’t how he’d envisioned his ideal party.
“So I can take the spoon out with me?” asked Mizuki.
“We’ll divide them up equally for the trip out,” said Alfric. “Personal binding is uncommon, but if it happens, then we’ll deal with it.”
“But I could wager a portion of my share, couldn’t I?” asked Mizuki.
Alfric sighed. “The more complicated arrangements get, the more trouble they are. You don’t want people to gamble, and you don’t want people to leave with hard feelings. That’s not what keeps a party together.”
“There’s no need for us to be a party anymore, is there?” asked Verity. “Because we all agreed on a single dungeon, and that was it.”
“We did,” said Alfric. He’d known this moment was coming, and had hoped that it wouldn’t be so soon, or with such casual disregard for their clear value as a team. “Even if we’re not doing anything together, it makes sense to stay as a party for as long as possible. In a week we’ll have a party channel to talk together, and that might be necessary, because it’s going to take quite a bit of time and effort to move everything that we’re going to take out of here. This bigger book is a storage entad, and if it’s partybound, then we’ll at least have to keep a party of three in order to use it. Breaking the party before then would likely mean that everything put into it was stuck. We won’t know until we get out of here though.”
“What does the little one do?” asked Mizuki, coming over to where Alfric was and picking the book up.
“I haven’t looked at it yet,” said Alfric. “Hopefully something good, but I doubt it.”
Mizuki leafed through the small book, then stopped on a page and read for a bit. “It’s a transcription of everything that we’ve said.”
“Huh,” said Alfric. “Can I see?”
“No,” replied Mizuki. “Still looking. No names, seems like it’s doing some marks for dialect … can this thing read?” She directed that question at the group, but Alfric assumed that the question was for him.
“Read … in what sense?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “I mean … it’s writing all this in Inter, or something close to it, so how’s that work?”
“Oh,” said Alfric. “If there’s language involved, then it’s probably drawing from us.”
“Huh,” said Mizuki. She slid the book over to him. “Yeah, it’s worthless.”
“Not necessarily,” said Alfric. “It depends on how it works. You could use it for eavesdropping. But we’ll need to test it, see how it actually functions.”
“Are we ready to leave?” asked Verity.
“Not hardly,” said Hannah. “We have things to loot, ya?”
“Can we start with that then?” asked Verity. “I don’t like being under this sky, or in this place. It gives me the creeps.”
They were overdue for a conversation on how dangerous the dungeon had actually been, and Alfric was grateful that it seemed like they could put it off for a bit.