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Isra bound to the bow.

“It’s not unexpected,” said Hannah. “Happens more when there’s somethin’ going on between the wielder and the weapon, least if my schoolin’ was right. It’s a windfall for her and a shame for the rest of us, since it would have fetched a hefty price on the market, but that’s the nature of dungeoneerin’.”

“And the book is partybound,” said Alfric, sighing slightly. “Which means that it won’t be fetching a good price either, and if the party breaks, it stops functioning entirely. More bad news on that front.” Though it was the kind of bad news that was also good news, when it came to keeping the party together. It was a weak incentive though, since a party could still function when down to just three members. It was also possible to sell the book even if it was partybound, but the way to do that was by cycling members in and out, and there were heaps of problems with that, all of which revolved around party minimums and maximums.

“How can you tell?” asked Verity, who had been combing her hair while the testing outside the dungeon was going on.

“I can see potential,” said Mizuki. “Comes from being a sorc. As soon as he sets the book down, it goes mostly inert, but when he picks it up, it’s got some magical life to it. Same goes for if any of us pick it up, which means it’s partybound. The bow only responds to Isra though.” She took her spoon out of her pocket. “Spoon seems like it’ll work for anyone though. Alfric, you think that this is worthless?”

“Yes,” he said. “Who would need a magical spoon? At best it replaces several mundane spoons. So what’s the market?”

“Dunno,” she said. “I mean, if you have it, then you don’t need to switch between spoons all the time, always fumbling with your big spoons, small spoons, slotted spoons, you know, making a mess of things because there are just too many of them to keep track of them all?”

“Uh huh,” he said, thinking to himself that the market of people who were improbably bad with their spoon collections was quite small. “Well, if you want to bid on it, I won’t stop you.”

“Do we really need to do the points bidding?” asked Hannah, folding her arms. “Seems complicated, for what’s just between five people, ay?”

“It’s to make sure things are fair,” said Alfric. He looked at the others. “If we aren’t going to be a long-term party, then we want everyone to come away with something they think was fair and worth their time. We have a windfall, not a major one, but one that will keep us comfortable for a bit.”

“I want the bow,” said Isra.

“Well,” said Alfric. “I mean, you have the bow, there’s nothing that anyone can do about that now. Anyone who takes the bow wouldn’t be able to do anything special with it. How the points system handles that is taking the expected value of the bow at market and reducing it by a set margin, which gets converted into —”

“Can we all just agree on a fifth of the unbound proceeds for each?” asked Hannah. “Faffin’ about with points and conversions is going to give me a headache.”

“Hey,” said Mizuki. “Can’t you do the Church of Symmetry thing? Like, divide everything up exactly equally?”

“That’s not how it works,” replied Hannah. “I can do the math, if you’d like, but there’s no special power involved there. Anywho, vote on whether we ignore the points and just do a fair split?” she asked, raising her hand.

To Alfric’s dismay, the other three raised their hands too. Eventually, he did as well, just so that it would be unanimous. He wanted them happy more than he wanted things fair.

“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Do I get the spoon?”

“Fine by me,” said Hannah.

“I’d like the flute,” said Verity. “I don’t think it’s very good, but we’ll see if I can get a hang of six-fingered playing.”

“This is throwing everything into disarray,” said Alfric. “There’s no way that the flute, spoon, and bow, are worth the same amount to each of us.”

“Well, you’re outvoted,” said Hannah, nodding as though the matter was settled. Unfortunately for Alfric, it seemed like she was right, because no one wanted to go through the time and effort to make sure things were actually fair.

“Then we sell the rag, book, and all the materials?” asked Alfric. “And hang onto the storage book, because we don’t really have any other option.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Verity. “Can we get moving though? I’d like to get back in time for dinner, and we spent longer there than I’d planned. I eat almost all my meals at the Fig and Gristle, and Cynthia closes down the kitchen earlier than I would like.”

The light was already fading, and they hadn’t left the doorway into the dungeon. Alfric quickly replaced the lock and locked it tight, then gave it a tug to test it. The lock was a simple thing, really just meant to ensure that kids wouldn’t wander into a dungeon, but there was also some ceremony and importance to it, especially when locking it up.

They began moving down the path back to Pucklechurch. Alfric was feeling good about how the dungeon had gone, overall. Hannah was an ally, in a sense, and it seemed as though Isra could be counted on to do some travelling and dungeoneering, especially because she seemed less tied to Pucklechurch. That she’d lucked out with the bow was unfortunate, in some respects, but helped prove the value of a dungeon. Verity, on the other hand, seemed a bit put off by the violence, though perhaps less than Alfric had thought. With Mizuki, it was hard to tell.

Not too long into their trip back, Verity began to sing a victory song, keeping her lute stored and using just her voice. There was no trace of magic. The song was long and involved, and involved animals fighting a dread menace. She was halfway through when Alfric realized that they were the five animals, at least if he understood right.

“A bear is not a healing animal,” said Hannah once Verity was finished and the brief applause had concluded.

“Which animal is a healing animal?” asked Verity. She looked around at them. “Sorry if the choices were offensive.”

“Well, there’s no proper healing animal,” said Hannah. “But a lizard can regrow its arms.”

“Legs, right?” asked Mizuki.

“They have arms and legs,” said Hannah.

“And a tail,” said Isra. “Which is what they most commonly regrow.”

“You’d prefer a lizard over a bear?” asked Mizuki. “Blegh. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be compared to a bear at all, too hairy.”

“Well, I’ve got hair to spare, as my ma always said,” laughed Hannah. This wasn’t at all in dispute; Hannah’s hair went down to the small of her back when unfurled, but it was also very voluminous, making her head appear larger than it really was. “And a bear’s a fine creature, but they’re not healers by any stretch.”

“Why was I a cat?” asked Isra, who had been fairly quiet. She now carried two bows on her back. Her pack was full, mostly with whatever pipes were too long to fit within the book.

“I was thinking you were a silent, slinking creature,” said Verity. “A diamond-eyed stalker in the night waiting to pounce at exactly the right moment.”

Isra nodded. She looked lost in thought. Alfric had been pleased that she’d joined the applause.

“What was I?” asked Mizuki. “A dog, a cat, a rabbit, a bear, and a songbird? And I was … the songbird?”

Verity gave a high, delighted giggle, and Mizuki grinned at her.

“Wait,” said Alfric. “I think I actually have matching keys.” He went into a pocket, where he’d put the keys, and pulled them out, handing them to Verity.

She looked through them one by one. “The bird isn’t a songbird, the dog is a wolf, and there’s no bear.”

“What are these?” asked Hannah, coming over to look at the keys. “These were in the dungeon?”

“Henlings,” said Alfric, though he assumed Hannah already knew the term. “There would have been more, but a lot of it was destroyed in the battle, which is a shame. Technically, a henling is anything that’s distinctive enough that it seems like it’s got a story behind it, though of course it doesn’t. Sometimes people use the term broadly, to mean anything mundane you pull out, even something like rope.” He felt a bit of ire toward people who used the broad definition, as they were ruining a perfectly good word.

“I could be a raccoon instead of a bear,” said Hannah, taking one of the keys for herself and passing the rest off to Mizuki.

“Raccoons are noted healers, are they?” asked Verity. “Also, I’d have to completely rework the song.”

“I know nothing about raccoons,” said Hannah. “But if no one tells me otherwise, I’m going to assume that they’re masters of the healing arts.”

“A raccoon is a clever beast,” said Isra. “More clever than a fox. They’re adaptable and fastidiously clean.”

“Weren’t we just comparing those monsters to raccoons?” asked Mizuki. “And also, they were very much not raccoons.”

“I’d prefer to keep my mind off it, frankly,” said Verity.

“Better not to dwell on the battle,” added Alfric, though it was going to be hard to avoid, especially to interest them in a second.

“Well,” said Hannah. “I suppose that’ll do.” She took her own key and distributed the rest to the others. “Makes me feel bad about the raccoon comparison.”

“What are these keys to then?” asked Mizuki, looking over her key, which was a rabbit, just as in the song.

“They’re not ‘to’ anything, they’re just … pulled from the aether,” said Alfric. “That was how it was always described to me, at least. Some people have a fascination with henlings, and with things pulled from the dungeons. The books we have might be translated with enough time, attention, and magic, and sometimes there’s readable stuff in them. But they’re not ‘from’ anywhere, they’re just a product of the hex, the conditions, the magic, and the people entering the dungeon, along with other stuff we know nothing about.”

“Kind of creepy, when you think about it,” said Mizuki.

Alfric tightened. “I suppose we don’t need to think about it then,” he said.

“What do we do with the other two?” asked Hannah, holding the two spare keys, one of a snake, the other of a bee.

“I wasn’t going to do anything with them,” said Alfric. “They’re not really valuable.”

“Well they are now, right?” asked Hannah. “They’re mementos. I say we hold onto the keys, and if we ever have a sixth, or someone who’s a support member, we can give them one.”

“Parties only go to five,” said Verity, frowning. Alfric was watching her the most closely, because she was the most on the fence, aside from Mizuki. She was also the entire reason he’d come to Pucklechurch.

“Well, I didn’t mean to put a damper on things, but accidents happen, ay?” asked Hannah, being a little too flippant for Alfric’s tastes. “We went through that nicely, if I do say so myself, quick and clean with not too much to patch up after, but it could have been different, ay? We could have lost one. That’s something to keep in mind, when you’re doin’ a thing like this.”

That killed the conversation for a moment and brought silence down on the group. Alfric focused his eyes on his steps while he tried to think about how to change the course of the conversation. There were things he could tell them that would help assure them that they were in safe hands, but revealing too much at this stage, especially with Verity on the fence, seemed like the wrong move.

“I’ll spend the night in Pucklechurch, then go off to Tarchwood to try to sell what I can,” said Alfric. Talking business was usually safe, and more than that, it needed to be done. “The books are the biggest thing we’ll get paid for, and the pipes will be the second biggest. Once that’s all done, I’ll come back to Pucklechurch and distribute the money, at which point we’ll be able to talk about what the next step for the party is, if anything. In six days, we’ll have a party channel, but I should have the money before then.”

“How do we know that you won’t just take the money?” asked Isra.

Alfric faltered. “I would never do that,” he said. “To do that to your party members — even to strangers, I would never —”

“Personally, I trust him,” said Mizuki.

“I don’t trust him enough to allow him full responsibility with fifty thousand rings,” said Isra.

“Well, then,” said Alfric, feeling helpless. “I don’t know. I’m true to my word, I’m honest,” though perhaps less so of late, if mostly lies of omission, “Would it help if you came with me?”

“We could do that,” said Isra. “We’d walk together.”

Alfric felt a knot of tension unwind. Normally when his honor was questioned, it wasn’t so easy to find a solution.

“Well, I’m not doing that,” said Verity. “If you choose to run off with the money, then so be it.”

“Same,” said Hannah. “Though my sense of Alfric is that he’s far more concerned with the next dungeon than with the spoils of this one. Going to Tarchwood might also serve another function, which is scoping out another dungeon for us. Otherwise it would be Liberfell, right?”

“I don’t think I’ll do the next,” said Verity. Her voice was soft. “I didn’t particularly think that it suited me.”

“Ah, well, let it settle then before you make your choice,” said Hannah. “And if we can’t have you, we’ll go searchin’ out another, with no worries.”

Alfric definitely didn’t like that, but they had arrived back at Pucklechurch, and soon thereafter said their goodbyes. He watched as Verity left with Mizuki toward the Fig and Gristle, then went to the other tavern, where his room was, to make his plans for the next day. Of all the party members to act as a sticking point, Verity had to have been the worst of them. She was special, in more ways than the others knew. He had come all this way for her.

Isra came with him. That was natural, given that she wanted to make sure he didn’t run off with the loot, but it still rankled. Trust, his father had often said, had to be earned, and Alfric could see that the only thing he’d done to earn trust so far was to take hits and keep the other members of his party safe. That felt like something, but apparently for Isra, it wasn’t enough that she could be sure he wouldn’t rob her, and for Verity, it wasn’t enough that she was willing to do another dungeon. Hannah, at least, seemed a stalwart dungeoneer, even if she had some rough edges and different ideas about how to handle things. It wasn’t clear where Mizuki stood, but he was hopeful that she was more of a risk taker than she seemed. Sorcerers were notorious for that, but people didn’t always play to type.

Hours later, once he’d had a meal and a quick wash, and made somewhat annoying arrangements with Isra, Alfric lay in his rented bed, staring up at the ceiling, going over the dungeon in his head, not just the fights, which were admittedly the main thing, but the dynamics of the group.

There were two alternates, the blacksmith and the wizard, but neither of them was a proper replacement. If he hadn’t had Hannah, then every injury would have accumulated through the dungeon, and he’d have been fighting that last monster with a bloodied face and scratches all over his hands. If he hadn’t had Verity … well, it was possible that someone else could have picked up the slack, in a totally different way. And if he’d been missing Mizuki, he would have needed the wizard, just in order to have the offensive power necessary. The wizard would have taken more time though, if he didn’t already have offensive engines built.

He’d have been tempted to call Isra the weak link, but she was an exceptional archer and possessed of a bravery that brought a smile to his lips when he thought back on it. She could have stayed back, firing arrows, but she’d leapt onto the creature to attack it with a dagger. Whatever else she was, however much she might not trust him, she had a ferocious tenacity that he thought would be hard to match. She reminded him of his mother, in that respect.

He liked the party. It was a good party. They needed time and training, that was true, but they hadn’t collapsed during their first bout of combat, and however much he wished that the dungeon had been easier, morale still seemed to be high.

One of the things he hadn’t been sharing with his party was that he was still in the family guild. They’d have expected it, perhaps, if they knew his pedigree, but it didn’t seem like the name Overguard had rung any bells, not even for Verity, who had surely heard it at least once or twice while living in Dondrian. Mizuki was, curiously, one of the only ones in a guild; he’d have thought Hannah, at least, would be. None of them had yet gone to the censusmaster about him, he didn’t think.

There were fifty people in the family guild, and so he crafted his message with care, knowing that cousins, aunts, and uncles would all be reading it in the morning. A single dungeon run wasn’t normally something to report on, but this was nominally Alfric’s first, and the first he’d done with a true, proper party. The family had more than its fair share of traditions, and a first dungeon run, even if it was coming late, was something that demanded a report.

He left out details, but that was only natural. He tried his best to ape the style of his father’s reports, which he’d enjoyed reading since the age of five, when he’d first joined the guild. Those were, of course, larger, more dangerous dungeons, ones that took days or even weeks to clear, and typically only the highlights were given, either in terms of monsters or loot.

The report wove a somewhat different story than what happened. It was a dungeon at the high end of normal variance, possibly owing to some unknown aspect of Pucklechurch, or the particulars of their party. In the report, he didn’t mention anything of the reticence of his party members, only of the monsters they fought, and the two particularly good bits of luck: the books and Isra’s bow. He looked over the wording three times, changing things here and there. If this didn’t work out, if he couldn’t make his own way in the world, he would have to fall back on the family, and that, of course, would go against the central tenet of self-reliance. A sword from his father and boots from his mother, two small tokens from the vast family hoard.

For Alfric, it wasn’t simply a matter of wanting to please his parents or his family, because he truly did believe in making his own way, hunting down his own leads, and assembling his own party. It was what he wanted in life.

But he did also want his parents to be proud that he was following in their footsteps, despite the rocky start and the wasted months, so he checked the message over again before sending it off. They would get it in the morning, which meant that he wouldn’t get a response back until the morning after that, which was always an uncomfortable feeling.

And Lola would find out, if she cared to. She had too many friends among his family. There was nothing for it though; that part of his life was firmly over, and he tried to put her out of his mind.

With the message sent, there was nothing left to do but sleep. He stared at the ceiling, waiting for his mind to stop racing.

They were only just at the beginning. There was so much left to do.

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Alexander Wales

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