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“How is she?” asked Alfric once Hannah came back downstairs.

“Nevermind that,” said Mizuki. “Look at this cat.”

Sitting on the kitchen counter like a proper gentleman was Tabbins, an enormous black cat with a white belly and white paws that looked a little like mittens. He was nominally Mizuki’s cat, though he spent most of his time outside, and Mizuki only ended up feeding him once a day. He caught his other meals, usually mice, but occasionally a rat or a bunny, and he sometimes left pieces of them outside the door for Mizuki to find. On balance, this felt like it was better than having mice in the house, but Mizuki wasn’t always so sanguine about their relationship.

“Look at him!” said Mizuki.

“Yes?” asked Hannah. “You have a cat?”

“Kind of,” said Mizuki. “I would say it’s more like there’s a cat who uses the home from time to time. More in the winter than the summer, and sometimes I don’t see him for days.” She stroked his head, and he tilted it back, closing his eyes. “Look at him though! Isra is a woods witch, she told him to jump up, and he did it, just like magic.”

“It is literally magic,” said Alfric.

“This cat has not listened to a single solitary thing that anyone has ever said,” Mizuki beamed, as though she was proud of that fact. “But he listened to Isra.”

“Isra might be a druid,” said Alfric.

“Woods witch,” said Mizuki. That was the term she’d grown up with. ‘Druid’ didn’t sound right to her ears. It was like something having to deal with ‘dru’, whatever that was. “Which is neat, but not really something that needed to be kept from us, I wouldn’t think.”

“It came up on our walk,” said Isra, who was looking at the cat. “I’m not certain. Most cats don’t listen to me though.”

“Most cats don’t listen to anyone,” said Mizuki. “But if you can get a cat to listen to you ten percent of the time, then you’re a woods witch for sure.”

“You’re all saying that what I can do is … not the same sort of thing you can do,” said Isra. “You’re saying that it’s not … natural?”

“Well, if it’s what you are,” said Hannah. “And I won’t say that it is what you are, not until I’ve seen some better evidence. Some might say it’s the most natural thing you can be. It’s a power, certainly, but bein’ a druid is almost like bein’ a cleric, though not quite so much, and without the power of a miracle.” She didn’t seem entirely sure about that.

“I’m not sure that I am a druid,” said Isra. The frown hadn’t left her face since Verity had gone upstairs. “I don’t feel like a druid.”

“You just feel like yourself,” Hannah nodded. “It’s common for druids, or so I’ve heard, since most of ‘em get raised in the woods, away from others, and all the talkin’ to animals and finding forage without lookin’ is no more an extra power to them than havin’ a second arm is to me.” She paused. “Can you find forage?”

“I forage,” said Isra, crossing her arms. “When you say that I find it without looking —” she shook her head. “I don’t think I understand what being a druid is. Alfric didn’t explain it well.”

If that was a slight, Alfric didn’t react to it.

“So,” said Hannah, always happy to be an authority. “As part of the seminary, we did some comparative studies, lookin’ into other gods and other things that are like gods. Other clerics, but also alienists and druids. Formally, a druid is someone who, first off, is born some five miles away from anyone else aside from their mother, and doesn’t come within five miles of anyone else for the first three years of their life.”

“Which isn’t the case for Isra,” said Alfric. “She’s insistent — and I believe her — that her mother died in childbirth and her father raised her alone.”

“Well,” said Hannah. “That’s a mystery for later then, but it might just be a corner case. Anyhow, a druid becomes attuned to nature, far more than you or I, and has a sixth sense for all kinds of things, which eventually blossoms into bein’ able to influence the natural world.” She snapped her fingers. “Isra, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”

Isra stared at her. “Cloudy in the morning, then clear around lunch, and some light rain in the evening. You’re saying that you don’t know any of that?”

“Nope!” said Hannah, beaming. “You probably know all kinds of things that someone like myself or Alfric or even Mizuki doesn’t know, and you know them just by knowin’ them, without havin’ the faintest clue how you know. More likely than not, you never even thought about it, it just felt natural.”

“According to the census, she’s a ranger,” said Alfric.

“Och, yes, the all-knowin’ census,” said Hannah with a sigh.

“I was just offering it,” said Alfric. “And I had said that I would help to track down a druid for Isra to speak with, so we could get some confirmation one way or another, and she could work on her abilities.”

“Good next steps, I suppose,” said Hannah. “And it’ll be vital in the dungeons.”

“It will?” asked Isra.

“Oh certainly,” said Hannah. “The dungeons have all kinds of beasts and plants in them, and if you can hone your skills a bit more, you’ll be able to tell which of them are any good. All that talk of unique books in the dungeons? Well, what about unique plants? Tomatoes are famously a dungeon plant.”

“They are?” asked Mizuki.

“They’re thought to be,” said Alfric. He sounded skeptical. “And it’s illegal to bring anything that can replicate out of a dungeon unless it’s very securely contained. Illegal, and also a bad idea.”

“We’ve got the book, don’t we?” asked Hannah. “Shouldn’t be too hard to set up a grow box, should it? Not that we’ll get the next tomato, but it’s somethin’ to keep an eye out for.” She turned to Isra. “Meat and skins are the other big things. Normally you’d have no idea what any of the beasts parts could be used for, but that’s somethin’ a druid might know, if the skill is honed.”

Isra looked between Alfric and Hannah. “The skill is … about money?”

“No,” said Mizuki. “A woods witch is about helping people. That’s her main job, or, I guess, role, since usually she gets paid in goodwill or being loved. Pucklechurch had a woods witch back when my grandpa moved into town, and she helped him get settled and clear this land.”

“How?” asked Isra. She was frowning. “I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

“She told the trees to move,” said Mizuki.

“And they listened?” asked Isra.

“It took a long time, but yes,” said Mizuki. “You’ve got to be pretty patient with trees, he said. Over a couple of months though, they started ambling out of the way.”

“But why wouldn’t he just cut them down?” asked Hannah. “There’s lots of wood used in this house.”

“Grandpa had a cart,” said Mizuki. “It was a magical one. He had filled it with timbers, stones, and tiles from Kiromo, and this place was meant to be a piece of his homeland, which I guess it did end up being, until he moved back. As for why he wouldn’t cut the trees, that’s an old Kiromo superstition. If you start your foundation with the death of trees, they’ll haunt your house.”

They were all looking at her.

“It’s true,” she said. “Or, it’s not true that you’ll get ghost trees, but it’s true that it’s a superstition.”

“But what would a ghost tree even be?” asked Hannah.

“Well, ghosts live in the elsewhere and then appear for brief moments, right?” asked Mizuki. “So I guess you’d be walking through your house in the middle of the night, and the ghost tree would be real and solid for half a second, just long enough that you run smack into it.”

“You’ve got some peculiar notions on ghosts,” said Hannah. “If you ever have a real ghost, I have some trainin’ in the matter, though I imagine we’d get Lemmel before lettin’ me have a go at it myself.”

“Anyway,” said Mizuki. “The woods witch died some three decades back, and Pucklechurch hasn’t had another since. We’ve been borrowing one from Liberfell, when we have need, I think.”

“Which is where?” asked Isra.

“Two hexes southwest,” said Alfric. “It’s the size of Tarchwood, maybe a touch larger.”

“We can send a letter out, if you’d like,” said Mizuki. “We have a cartier servicing Pucklechurch, and you’d get a response back in, oh, two or three days? Or I could talk with some guildmates I have there.”

Isra nodded. “And she would help me understand?”

“Better than we can, that’s for sure,” said Mizuki. “Though I’m sure that Alfric and Hannah both consider themselves to be experts.”

“I don’t,” said Alfric, holding up a hand. “And I already said as much.”

“I did have a class on druids in seminary,” said Hannah. She turned to Isra. “Though no, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, even if I probably know as much as anyone here.”

“You’re saying I’ll be able to speak with trees,” said Isra, looking at Mizuki.

“Oh, woods witches are quite useful,” said Mizuki. “Especially the most powerful ones. When the woods witch comes to town she tells all the weeds in the fields to die, she tells the birds to stop poaching seeds, she tells the insects to bugger off, all kinds of things, then goes on her way. They naturally stop listening to her instructions after a bit, but it’s always a more pleasant week or two.”

“She tells the weeds … to die?” asked Isra, frowning.

“Pretty sure she does, yeah,” said Mizuki. “Oh, and druids have some weather control, so it’s always a nice balmy set of days when she’s in town, and then usually rain afterward to make sure the crops get their water.”

Isra looked at the three of them. “You’re saying that you have no control over what the weather does?”

Mizuki laughed. “No, none at all. Wow. I wonder what else you thought was completely normal?”

“Mmm,” said Isra. She stopped leaning against the counter and straightened out. “I think I’ll be going.”

“Well I didn’t mean it like that,” said Mizuki, sitting up a bit. “I just — it’s interesting, isn’t it?”

“It’s not because of what you said,” Isra replied. “I’ve been on the road and need some rest. I need time to myself to think.”

“There’s a room upstairs if you want it,” said Mizuki.

“No thank you,” replied Isra.

“We should talk about the timeline for the next dungeon first,” said Alfric. “I’d like to do it before we have the channel, but obviously coordination after we have the channel will be easier.”

“I can move at your schedule,” said Isra. She moved toward the door. “I’ll be in town again tomorrow. I’ll come here around noon.” She looked to Alfric. “I’ll get the rocks then.”

She slipped out without saying more, and Mizuki just stared at the door. “Huh,” she said. “Hope we didn’t scare her off.”

“It’s probably just a shock,” said Hannah.

“So when are we going to the next dungeon, if that’s what we’re doing?” asked Mizuki.

Verity chose that moment to come into the kitchen, though it was anyone’s guess how long she’d been listening in. In Mizuki’s experience, sound carried fairly well up the stairs, though not into the bedrooms.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” said Alfric.

“How do you feel about lying to my parents?” asked Verity.

“I do my best not to lie to people,” said Alfric. “Though a lie by omission … that, I would think, would be acceptable, if there wasn’t some compelling interest in disclosure.” He seemed to use that word a lot, ‘disclosure’.

“Then I want you to send mail back to them, as you said,” said Verity. “Tell them the truth, but paint it as best you can. Don’t tell them that I’m running off to become part of a low-level dungeoneering team. And … let me read it, before it’s sent.”

“I can do that,” nodded Alfric.

“I need a few days of rest and practice,” said Verity. “I think we were risking too much going into a dungeon without proper preparation. And yes, I’ll buy some pants somewhere.”

“Practice would be good,” nodded Alfric. “And Isra already took her share of the rings, so we can divvy up what we have now. I’ve already gotten what I was after in Tarchwood, to help round out my gear, but most of what I need are entads, which I’m not willing to pay the markup on.”

Hannah went to the bag of rings and began dividing them up, which didn’t take all that much time, since the denominations were fairly large. It was more money than Mizuki had ever seen in one place, but she did her best to swallow her shock at it. Mizuki had never really wanted for money growing up, but after her parents had left, there had been some lean years as she got used to living by herself and the expenses associated with that. Cooking all her own meals had definitely helped, as well as scavenging what she could from what remained of the slowly deteriorating gardens, but most of her money came from random bits of sorcery, whether that was chasing down odd jobs or trying to make something of value from converting cast offs. Every now and then, someone needed a tree cut down or a stump removed, and big, splashy magic was what that called for. Really, dungeoneering had been the obvious choice, but it required a party, and short of doing what Alfric had done and getting a candidate list from the censusmaster … well, that was decidedly not her kind of thing. Even approaching people about odd jobs wasn’t her kind of thing. It felt unfriendly.

When Mizuki slipped the rings onto her string, she felt awkward about the weight, and it really wasn’t the kind of money that she wanted to be carrying around with her. She was going to have to find a place in the house to keep it, but with another person living with her — well, she didn’t think that Verity was the type to steal, but it did pay to be a little bit worried about security. It was a lot of money, especially for Mizuki, who had almost nothing in the way of expenses.

“So what’s it going to be for the next dungeon?” asked Hannah. “Six options, ay?”

“I’ll ask around a bit,” said Alfric. “They seem equivalent to me though, all with towns so small they almost don’t deserve the name … if there is a distinction between them, it will be in terms of how far the dungeon is from the hex center, since the differences in terms of dungeon difficulty should be pretty small.”

“No,” said Hannah. “Southeast is a mana mine, northeast is a magical forest, those should be more difficult affairs.”

“They weren’t marked on my map,” said Alfric, frowning.

“They’re both small operations,” shrugged Hannah. “How many mage trees do there need to be to show up on one of your maps?”

Alfric pondered that for a moment. “I suppose I don’t know.”

“I’d think it would be a mild difference,” said Hannah. “But the Pucklechurch dungeon was harder than expected, and I doubt anyone wants a surprise like that.”

“Definitely not,” said Verity.

“I didn’t realize there was a mana mine so close,” said Mizuki. “You’d think we’d get more wizards in the region.”

“Nah,” said Hannah. “Wizards need the mana stones, but bein’ close to a mine does nothin’ for them. Besides, none of the processin’ is close by.”

“And the woods?” asked Alfric. “What variety are they?”

“Nothin’ major,” said Hannah. “Thought to be a dungeon escape, but they’re slow-growin’. Fractalwoods, I think they’re called, both the forest and the trees. So far as I know, there’s an outpost of scientist types there tryin’ to figure out somethin’ useful to do with them, but the town is so small that it’s mostly scientists.”

“Either of those might be valuable dungeons then,” said Alfric, rubbing his chin. “But best saved for later.”

“Fractalwoods are neat,” said Mizuki. “I went up there a few years back to see whether I could make anything of them, and came back with a souvenir, which is probably still around here somewhere.”

“But there was nothin’ to be made of them?” asked Hannah. “No aether manipulation or what have you to be done?”

“Oh, I was a time god there, which was neat,” said Mizuki. “But nothing that anyone would pay me for.”

“It’s not polite to compare yourself to a god,” said Hannah, scowling. “Least of all in front of a cleric.”

“Sorry,” said Mizuki, though she couldn’t tell whether that was honest offense or good-natured ribbing. Either way, the scowl left Hannah’s face quickly, replaced by a smile. “For a while I had a standing offer out to any artisans who wanted things rapidly aged, or wanted things cast forward in time, or for people who wanted themselves cast forward in time, but I never had any takers. If we went into a dungeon, would it have some of that flavor to it? Or some kind of space manipulation aspect?”

“Hard to say,” said Alfric. “It would be best if we could speak with another team who had gone in. There’s supposed to be a tradition of leaving notes for other dungeoneers, but there was nothing at the Pucklechurch dungeon, and I’m actually not sure where the local Adventurers’ League branch is, but especially out in an area like this, they’re essentially useless.”

“They’re in Liberfell too, same as the druid,” said Hannah.

“Well, that suggests a course of action,” said Alfric with a sigh. “We go southwest, tackle the dungeon there, then Isra and I, or whoever likes, can take a trip further to the southwest, and find an inn for the night there. I think we could have come back from Tarchwood the same day, but there’s an unfortunate hill at the hex boundary, and I didn’t want to push it. Better to get things done quickly, so I think we’ll push for that dungeon in short order.”

“Another, so soon though?” asked Verity.

“You said a few days,” said Alfric, frowning. “Best to make plans for it now.”

“When I said a few days, I was thinking … well, that it sounded like more time than I think it actually is. Why not wait for the week to finish on the party so we can have the channel?”

“We don’t need the channel,” said Alfric. “The channel doesn’t do anything for us when we’re all in a dungeon together. It’s only marginally better than just talking.”

“I think it might be more the idea that this is somethin’ we’re gettin’ ready for,” said Hannah. “So maybe we’ll plan on two days, but play it by ear, and see where we stand as far as trainin’ and equipment go. We got in some practice together yesterday, and we’ll do some more tomorrow, then have a day of true rest where we do nothin’ at all but eat and shop.”

“Sure,” said Alfric.

“Sounds good to me,” said Mizuki. “But obviously we’ll need Isra, especially if it’s going to mean another long trip for her.”

“Even with the stride boots I felt like I was at risk of falling behind her,” said Alfric.

“I’ll accept three days from now,” said Verity. “But we do need to spend some time practicing. Alfric, do you have time tomorrow? I’d like to see what pushing the limits on strength does.”

“I’ll need some time with Isra too,” said Mizuki. “I don’t know what kind of impact druids have on the aether, but hopefully there’ll be something to squeeze from it.” She reached over and stroked Tabbins, who was still up on the counter. “Maybe we can take Tabbins with us so she has someone to talk to.”

“Maybe,” said Alfric, who seemed like he was seriously starting to consider it. “At any rate, I’m quite hungry.” He looked at the stove, where the pot was bubbling. “Is the stew done?”

“Stew is a funny thing,” said Mizuki as she got a stack of bowls down from the counter. “It can be done, but the longer it has to meld, the better it tends to be. A stew is never truly done, in my opinion, because part of the process of stew is letting it sit for an hour or two so the herbs and the flavors can work themselves together and the sauce can develop a proper richness.” She sighed. “But yes, to answer the question, the stew is done.”

“Excellent,” said Alfric. He was first in line, and used the ladle to fill his bowl, then grabbed a spoon from the pile that Mizuki had set out and started eating without waiting for anyone.

“Did you not have breakfast this morning?” asked Mizuki. “Are you really crazy enough to walk twelve miles on an empty stomach?”

Alfric nodded, and continued to wolf down the stew, which was hot enough to make curls of steam in the cool air.

“What is this?” asked Verity as she ladled a bowl.

“Chunks of venison, sage, rosemary, onion, potato, sweet potato, tomato, parsnips, garlic, ginger, um, salt, white pepper, um …” Mizuki tapped her foot, trying to remember. “Rutabaga, turnip. I think that’s it. Maybe some spices I’m forgetting, possibly a root vegetable — carrot! There’s carrot too.”

“It’s great,” said Alfric. He was still eating, but had slowed down halfway into the bowl. Mizuki was gratified to see him going through it quickly. “Do you have training?”

“From my dad,” said Mizuki. “But training is probably giving him too much credit. He had a lot of ideas about what made for good food and tried to get me involved from a young age.” As was tradition in her house, not that she’d told the others, she took her own bowl last, and gently blew on it to make sure that it wouldn’t burn her. By the time she’d taken the first bite, Alfric was already finished.

“Is there enough for me to have another bowl?” he asked, looking somewhat guilty.

“Of course,” said Mizuki. “I made enough for all of us, Isra, and one other.”

“Who was the one more meant to be?” asked Alfric as he ladled up more for himself.

“It’s just good manners and good sense, if you have the ingredients,” said Mizuki. “Either it’s something to eat for dinner, or you can host someone unexpected.”

“This is good stuff, ay?” asked Hannah, having finished her bowl. She ate quickly too, Mizuki noticed. Once she was finished, she reached for the bread. “Do you have butter?” she asked.

“Of course,” nodded Mizuki, slipping off her chair and going to get the butter dish.

“Sorry that the strawberry bread doesn’t go better with the stew,” Hannah said. “Next time, we can work together to plan it out.”

“I think it’ll be fine,” said Mizuki. “What would go better with this stew?”

“Oh, just something in the same palate, ay?” asked Hannah. “Rosemary and ginger or sage and garlic, that sort of thing. Something to sop up the sauce.”

“Well when you put it that way, I feel like I’m missing out,” said Mizuki. “And shoot, I’m going to need to make dinner for tonight, but there’s almost nothing in the chiller.” She frowned. “Do you think that when Isra hunts, she just tells the animals to lay down and die?”

“Don’t make fun,” said Alfric.

“I’m legitimately curious,” said Mizuki. “And then maybe that’s just what she thinks hunting is like for everyone.”

“I doubt she’d be so handy with a bow if it were that easy for her,” said Verity. “And Alfric is right, you shouldn’t make fun.”

“She’s a weird one though, right?” asked Mizuki. “I mean, we can all agree with that, can’t we? Just blithely wandering through the world, especially at our age, thinking that everyone can control the weather and talk to cats and whatever else?”

“‘Our age’?” asked Alfric. “Aren’t you twenty-two?”

“You know what I mean,” said Mizuki. “And four years doesn’t make that much difference, does it?”

“I think we’re all weird in our own ways,” said Alfric.

“A bunch of misfits, you mean?” asked Mizuki.

“Well, when I said ‘we’ I meant everyone,” he replied. “I don’t think that the five of us are all that different from, um, normal people.”

“Certainly more mages though,” said Hannah. “Not that I’m a mage, or Verity really is either, or Isra, for that matter, but you take my meaning.”

“I’m a sorc, not a mage,” said Mizuki. “You know, mage is probably one of the least helpful words anyone has ever invented. It covers everything from alienists to chrononauts.”

“Chrononauts aren’t mages,” said Alfric.

“Well, yes, that’s what I’m saying,” said Mizuki. “With the sole exception of wizards, you can make an argument for any practitioner not being a mage, even sorcs.”

“Why are chrononauts not mages?” asked Verity, turning to him.

“It has nothing to do with the aether,” he said, shrugging.

“Everything extranormal is mediated by the aether,” said Hannah, as though she’d read that in a book somewhere, or possibly was regurgitating something from a lesson at her seminary.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true for chrononauts,” said Alfric.

“Well, either way,” said Verity. “They have a magical ability to go back in time. Isn’t that where the term mage comes from? From magical ability?”

“Not sure if it does,” said Hannah. “Seems circular to me.”

“I’ve always found chrononauts a bit creepy,” said Mizuki. On seeing that no one was taking more stew, she had put the rest of it into a bowl, which was then put in the chiller. The pot was then promptly put into the sink, where she washed it. “Can you imagine someone knowing your future? Or if she remembered a conversation that you had no knowledge of?”

“They’ve saved cities from disasters countless times,” said Alfric.

“Probably no one would be allowed in the dungeons if the chrononauts weren’t there to prevent the worst of the worst from comin’ out,” said Hannah.

“Aren’t they limited to like, a day?” asked Mizuki as she washed the pot. “Wouldn’t that prevent them from getting here if something went seriously wrong?”

“Nah, they have travel entads,” said Hannah. “And besides, part of the role of the province censusmaster is to make sure, at the end of the day, that the population hasn’t dropped by a thousand. It’s an early warnin’ system. Then, if they need to, they call in the chronos, and they’ll call in some of the heavy hitters, the Pyros or the Knives.”

“Blegh,” said Verity.

“Blegh?” asked Mizuki.

“I just wish that when these kinds of things happened, we had something better,” said Verity. “The two main solutions are to burn something to death or to stab it to death. It seems so primitive, and not in a good way.”

“That’s a real oversimplification of what the Pyros and the Knives actually do,” said Alfric.

“Well, if you’re going to talk Inter politics, I’m out,” said Mizuki, holding up a hand. She’d finished with the dishes, including all the spoons and bowls.

“It’s not politics, it’s high-level civics,” said Alfric. “It’s stuff you should know, in case the worst happens. That goes double if you’re a dungeoneer.”

“I know it, I just don’t like talking about it,” said Mizuki. This wasn’t quite true, and she hoped that no one would actually test her on her knowledge. She knew them, in the sense that she had a general idea. If someone told her about the structure of the Interim, she was sure everything would sound very familiar. But it also didn’t seem very important, and it was trending in the direction of those kinds of conversations that people got heated about.

“But the worst doesn’t happen, does it?” asked Hannah. “When was the last time the Pyros or the Knives had to be deployed, ay?”

“Three years ago,” said Alfric. He seemed to have the answer at the ready. “Now, granted, that wasn’t a full burn, but they were deployed to contain some kind of rapidly-spreading vine.”

“When people talk about deployment, they’re talkin’ about miles of forest turned to ash or a desert made into glass,” said Hannah with a sigh. “They don’t mean the Pyros comin’ in and dealin’ with somethin’ that at most destroys a farm.”

“It was two farms,” said Alfric.

“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Two farms got destroyed three years ago and that’s the worst that the Pyros have done?”

“Historically, no,” said Alfric. “But you have to go back a hundred years to find anything substantially worse.”

“Lesser things, though?” asked Verity. “Slow escapes?”

“The fractalwoods are maybe seventy years old,” said Mizuki. “So, relatively recent.”

“But they’re not a risk,” said Alfric. “And I thought you weren’t going to stomach politics?”

“Well,” said Mizuki. “I’m just saying. Things do escape, and the Pyros don’t see fit to burn it all, do they?” She was betraying her ignorance, she knew, and she kind of hated it.

“It’s about impact,” said Hannah. “Half the creatures in the woods are ‘escapes’, deliberate or otherwise, and half of the plants too.”

“Because some of the things that ‘escape’ are tomatoes,” said Alfric. “There are all kinds of fruits and vegetables that have come from the dungeons, and beyond that, all kinds of new and better varieties of fruits we already eat. Inter wants that. They want mounts and pack animals. And while breedable animals are incredibly rare, there are a few notable examples of those too, things that can actually propagate.”

“Those being?” asked Mizuki. Here, at least, it seemed like the conversation had moved on from Inter politics, which she was grateful for.

“Cats and chickens, for one,” said Alfric.

“Bull,” said Mizuki, folding her arms. “I can accept that tomatoes originated in dungeons, but you can’t possibly be saying that fat ol’ Tabbins was, at some point, a dungeon monster.” She picked up Tabbins, who was on the floor, to make her point, and didn’t set him down until she’d made sure that everyone had looked at him.

“Not a monster, maybe,” said Alfric. “Occasionally a dungeon will have something that doesn’t show any interest in attacking you. Dungeon madness isn’t universal.”

“And you think cats are an example of that?” asked Mizuki, turning Tabbins around to peer into his eyes. “He’s not even magical.”

“A lot of monsters aren’t magical,” said Alfric. “Most of them, in fact. You can imagine a cat as a henling, right?”

“Crazy,” said Mizuki. She’d stooped down to pet Tabbins. “I could buy it though, I suppose.”

“There’s actually a theory that everythin’ originally came from a dungeon,” said Hannah. “That humans are from dungeons, released by those who came before, or having come up from the dungeons without needin’ to be opened.”

“Nah,” said Mizuki. “It would’ve had to have happened an incredibly long time ago. Humans have been around for ages. Sounds like feili propaganda to me.”

“Well,” said Hannah. “The feil are long-lived, so if it happened ages ago, maybe they would know.”

“I wonder if Isra knows about feils,” said Mizuki. “How long has she been on her own?”

“Five years,” said Alfric. “She knows a lot, but there are considerable gaps. On top of that, her parents were from Tarbin, so I expect that some of the gaps are cultural, rather than things she just never learned. And being a druid too … from what I gathered, her father was at least somewhat educated, but whatever he was able to transfer to her between woodland lessons stopped at the age of thirteen.” He tapped his foot. “Hmm. I think she needs our help, frankly, or at least someone’s help.”

“Well, we’ll go find that druid,” said Verity. “And hopefully we won’t all die in our second dungeon. I’m going to get some practice in, alone, please. I’ll be outside.” She slipped out of the kitchen and headed upstairs to grab her lute.

“I need to go spend some money,” said Mizuki, hefting her sack. “Hannah? Were you going to come with? I could always use the company.”

“Of course,” nodded Hannah. “I was goin’ to speak with the blacksmith about a commission, now that we’ve got some rings. Alfric is right that it makes the most sense for us to let the dungeons equip us, but I’d still like a helmet and a breastplate, just to prevent the worst of the injuries that would prevent me from healin’ us.”

“Alfric?” asked Mizuki. “Are you going or staying?”

“I don’t think I’ll stay in your house alone,” said Alfric. “I need to wash the dust and sweat of the road off me, and talk to some people in town about next steps.”

“Then we’ll meet back up tomorrow,” said Mizuki. Her hand went to her bag, and the money there. “Thanks for making the trip, by the by.”

“Of course,” nodded Alfric. “We’re a proper party now. We all have to do our part.”

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Alexander Wales

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