Alfric and Mizuki walked together. He was following behind her as she went down a trail behind her house, one that had clearly been put into place quite some time ago. It wasn’t in need of much care though, and Mizuki happily walked along.
“I’m not squeamish,” she said, looking back at him.
“No?” asked Alfric. “No one said you were?”
“I don’t know why Hannah likes to talk about gross things, that’s all,” said Mizuki.
“She’s a cleric,” said Alfric. “She’s trained as a healer. She’s learned how to deal with injuries and disease.”
“Well, fine, but she doesn’t have to talk about it,” said Mizuki. “Especially not at the dinner table. She doesn’t have to delight in,” she waved her hand, “Hexes and things.”
“I’ll talk to her,” said Alfric.
“I can talk to her myself,” said Mizuki, swatting away a branch that was in her way. “I’m just complaining to you because you get it, right?”
“I do,” said Alfric. He had already wished a few times that Hannah was more circumspect in what she said.
“I feel bad, because I know she had some hurtful business with her guild or something, but I kind of get why that would be,” said Mizuki.
“Yeah,” said Alfric. This was the first he’d heard about something going wrong with Hannah’s guild, but it seemed like the kind of thing he’d want to ask Hannah about later, rather than getting Mizuki’s version of it. “But we’ve just gotten over the bump with Verity, so I’m hoping that we can keep things nice and level going into the next dungeon. Intra-party strife can kill a party quickly.” It was also quite difficult to predict, in his experience.
“So I should just shut up?” asked Mizuki, swatting aside another branch.
“You should understand that we’re all in this together,” said Alfric. “We don’t have to like each other, but it does help things. Try to find common ground. Try to build bridges. Talk to each other.” These were his father’s words coming out of his mouth. He hoped that his father was right.
“Well, okay,” said Mizuki. She stopped, and Alfric stopped behind her. “We’re here.”
Alfric looked ahead, and saw that they were in a circular clearing, which had clearly been made that way by human hands. There were saplings at the edges of it, attempting to reclaim the space, and the grass was tall. In the center of the clearing was a giant rock, twice as tall as Alfric and as thick around as a wagon. It was covered with lichen, but there were carved runes visible on it.
“What is this?” asked Alfric.
“Magic stone,” said Mizuki. She walked forward, brushing past the tall grass as she moved along the thin trail, until she was standing next to it.
“What does it do?” asked Alfric.
“Oh, I have no idea,” said Mizuki. “It’s ancient stuff, at least two thousand years old, maybe even more. Same with the portal, right? A bunch of runes telling you stuff, and no one knows how to read them.”
“There are people in Dondrian that know,” said Alfric.
“Well, sure, I didn’t mean that it was lost,” said Mizuki. “But you go off the color, or whether they light up, right?”
“We do,” said Alfric. He frowned as he looked over the stone. When the Editors had made the change that had given every hex a dungeon, it had been an enormous benefit for the world, even if it hadn’t happened exactly how they wanted it. The stone collar around the dungeon post-dated that change, obviously, since the dungeons were ancient, before recorded history, even among the feil and dwodo, so long ago even those long-lived creatures didn’t know where they’d come from. It was still quite old though, and Alfric treated it with a certain respect because of that. This seemed to be of the same class of thing, and Alfric felt a reverence toward it.
It was a respect that Mizuki clearly didn’t share, because she had begun to climb it.
“What are you doing?” asked Alfric.
“There’s a thing at the top,” said Mizuki, who was using the runes carved into the rock as handholds and footholds. From the way the lichen and moss on the stone had been disturbed, it didn’t seem like it was her first time. “I didn’t know if they have these in the city or not.”
“We don’t,” said Alfric as he watched her hoist herself up onto the top of the stone. “What does it do? Should you be messing with it?”
Mizuki was catching her breath from the climb, and now standing high above Alfric, looking down at him. “I’ve done this dozens of times before,” she said. “It makes me happy.” She knelt down and pressed something on the top of the stone. It immediately lit up, with the runes all glowing blue for a moment, then pulsing slightly at a slow pace.
“What does that mean?” asked Alfric.
“No idea,” said Mizuki cheerfully. “But from the color and the pulse, I think it’s an all-clear of some kind. Blue means there’s nothing to be worried about, or maybe the job is done.”
“Who put this here?” asked Alfric. He guessed that it had been moved in the last hundred years. “Why?”
“Dunno!” Mizuki called down to him. “Watch this!”
She crouched down until her butt was nearly touching the rock, then launched herself into the air. It wasn’t a jump, or not just a jump, because she continued on up for what had to have been a hundred feet. That high up, a fall would have killed her, but she fell slowly, spreading her arms and then gliding in a gentle circle around the stone. Alfric watched her carefully, worried that she would suddenly plummet to her death, until she was low enough that a fall would only injure her, nothing a cleric couldn’t fix. She kept on gliding in circles for as long as she could, then stopped in place and dropped the last two feet to the ground.
“Impressed?” she asked, grinning at Alfric.
“I am,” he nodded. It was spectacular. Alfric had always liked seeing displays of magic. “You used the magic of this thing, whatever it was doing?”
Mizuki nodded, still grinning. “Countermagic, but yeah. It’s just about the only thing that gives me enough power to fly, and then only once a day. I think my record is half a mile, and I could have gone further if I hadn’t gotten stuck up in a tree.”
“It’s impressive,” said Alfric. “I just wish I understood what you’d actually done.” He looked at the stone behind her, which was once again inert.
“There’s a balance to magic,” said Mizuki. “You do something magical, you shift the balance of the aether, and when it’s out of balance, that’s where someone like me can come in. Whatever the stone is doing, it’s very global, so it leaves an imbalance toward the personal. But it’s also very heavy on information, which means that it leaves an imbalance toward the physical. My best guess is that this is some kind of information gathering doodad.”
“And you do this a lot?” asked Alfric. “You activate it?”
“Sure,” said Mizuki, shrugging. “It’s not a big deal.”
This possibly explained why the Pucklechurch dungeon had been a bit harder than it should have been, but he decided not to mention it, on the off chance that she would feel that she was to blame. “And could you do other things?” Alfric asked. “Other than flying?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Mizuki replied. “So long as it’s in the realm of personal and physical, anyway. Why, did you want to spar me when I have super-strength?” She dropped into a fighting stance with truly atrocious form, holding up her hands but shaping them like blades, not fists.
“I think not,” said Alfric, looking up into the sky, to the height she’d reached. “If you can fling yourself that high, you could probably punch through steel.”
“Are you calling me fat?” asked Mizuki, her hands on her hips.
“No,” said Alfric, blinking. “Of course not, you’re —”
“Lighten up, city boy,” said Mizuki, rolling her eyes. “When I make a joke, you make a joke back, did no one teach you that?”
“Um,” said Alfric. “I was taught not to make jokes at the expense of others.” He frowned. “You’re saying that I should have called you fat?”
“In a joking way, sure,” said Mizuki. “I know that I’m skinny. You’d say ‘Well I’m not calling you fat, but that outfit isn’t doing you any favors’, and that’s not even that funny, but I’d understand that you were just being, I don’t know, not a stick in the mud.”
“Sorry if I’ve been a stick in the mud,” said Alfric. “But I want to get this party going. It might not feel like it, but we’re at a critical point.”
“I get the distinct feeling that everything feels like a critical point to you,” said Mizuki. “Ready to go back?”
Alfric looked around the clearing at the collections of yellow and purple flowers that were blooming. “Was this it?” he asked. “Was this what we came here to do?”
“Well, yeah,” said Mizuki. “It was neat, wasn’t it? I don’t normally show people.”
Alfric looked at her. She was smiling. “It was neat,” he said. That seemed like the diplomatic thing to say. The undiplomatic thing was that it seemed dangerous on several levels, which was what his mind immediately went to. But it was neat.
“It’s just about the coolest thing I can do,” said Mizuki. “And I guess I handle blood and guts worst out of the whole team, but I do have skills of my own.”
“I don’t think anyone thinks less of you for not liking blood,” said Alfric. “I don’t like blood, I just conditioned myself to have less of a problem with it.”
Mizuki waded through the weeds and started down the path. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “How’d you do that?”
“I took up work in a slaughterhouse when I was fifteen,” said Alfric. “I knew that if I wanted to be a dungeoneer, I would need to be able to handle that kind of thing. I also tried to get an apprenticeship with one of the churches so that I could see injuries up close, but I think they knew what I was up to and didn’t want a tourist.”
“Wow,” said Mizuki. “That’s nuts.”
“It worked,” said Alfric. “So it’s not that nuts.”
“You’ve really been training for this your entire life?” asked Mizuki.
“Not my entire life,” said Alfric. “But most of it, yes. And since my parents were both dungeoneers, I kind of grew into the family business. It’s expected that everyone in the family will go take a tour of some dungeons. I’d have gone even if that wasn’t the case though.” People tended to assume there’d been some pressure from his parents, but if anything, they’d both been fairly circumspect about it.
“And you think this is the team for you?” asked Mizuki. “Because I have to say, I’m not looking forward to doing it again, even if I will do it again, and I’m pretty sure that your original plan was to go through them fast. I mean, I was the first one to say yes, right? So in a sense, you and I are the core of the team. And we should be on the same page.”
“I was hoping for more,” said Alfric. “But there aren’t many people like me, who want to make a career out of going in the dungeons. It’s too dangerous, with too much travel.”
“Hannah would do it,” said Mizuki. “So there’s one.”
“Getting a team together is hard,” said Alfric. “It’s so much harder than it sounds at first. The second time I tried to put together a team, I put out an open call, and I got lots of responses, but half of them weren’t remotely qualified, and nothing seemed to gel together. We got all ready to go, then two of them flaked out on me, and because of that, the others left.” He had elected to lower his standards a bit after that.
“So which is this?” asked Mizuki. “Your third time trying to make a team? Fourth?”
“Fifth,” said Alfric. “I tried recruiting younger, in Junior Adventurer League, and that fell apart too. I tried recruiting older, and got a few people, but not what I considered enough, not to justify the money we’d need to get somewhere we could make a start. It was myself and two others for a bit, and we talked about taking the dungeons as a team of three, but a team of three trying to rise up through the ranks … well, it was a lot of risk without a healer, and three is more dangerous than I wanted to deal with.” And there had been other complications, which he was still hoping he could hold off mentioning.
“So what was the first time?” asked Mizuki.
“Ah,” said Alfric, swallowing. “Probably a story for another day.”
“You got them all killed, didn’t you?” asked Mizuki. It sounded like a joke, but it was far too serious for that.
“What?” asked Alfric. “No, they’re all very much alive.”
He was saved further questions by the end of their trip, which brought them into the back of the house. There, Hannah and Verity were standing around Isra, who was speaking to an assembled group of woodland animals.
“What the gates is this?” asked Mizuki, who was moving slowly.
There was a lot of variety among the animals, though Alfric didn’t know all their names, since many of them were likely native to the region. Squirrels he recognized, though they were larger than he was used to, and there was something like a squirrel, with a much smaller tail. There were mice, rats, and something similar to a rat with different, elongated paws. There were a huge number of birds, and Alfric noticed more in the trees, sitting on every branch. And beyond that, there were lizards, snakes, turtles, and frogs. A few of them were probably dungeon varieties, released into the world long ago, but it was hard to say which ones. The long-legged skinks and three-eyed birds were likely candidates, and Alfric had always felt that there was something suspect about turtles.
“Hannah said there wasn’t much wildlife about,” said Isra. “I had only wanted to prove her wrong.” To the animals assembled before her, she spoke. “You may go. Sorry if I wasted your time.”
Almost all at once, the animals dispersed back into the woods, going their separate ways. The birds were the loudest of them, with the flapping of their wings, but it wasn’t long before it was just people standing around again. Alfric approached cautiously.
“They just kept coming,” said Verity, who seemed stunned. “How were there so many of them?”
“They avoid people,” said Isra. “They hide away.”
“Very impressive, it was,” said Hannah, nodding. “And I’ll readily admit to bein’ wrong. Makes you think, I suppose, about the woods and what’s in them.”
“We were unlucky not to get a bear,” said Isra. “They come near here.”
“What?” asked Mizuki. “Can you tell them not to?”
“I will pass it along,” said Isra, nodding.
“You actually will?” asked Mizuki.
“I will mention it to a bird, and hope that it tells the local bears,” said Isra, shrugging. “Birds enjoy any favor that involves song, but bears can be stubborn, lazy creatures.”
“Okay, but how did you not realize you were a woods witch until yesterday?” asked Mizuki. “How!?”
Isra frowned. “I knew that the animals stayed away from the town,” she said. “And when I came into the town, I saw that no one seemed to care. There are certain animals who live domestic lives, and these were allowed in town, but I never saw anyone calling other types of animals in, so I thought … I thought everyone could do that, but didn’t, because it was impolite.” She seemed flustered. “I saw no one speak to the birds in the trees, and I thought it was because … because they had some taboo I didn’t understand. And some people did speak with the birds, but in a different way, and I thought that was just … a part of it.”
“What’s a taboo?” asked Mizuki.
“A thing you’re not supposed to do,” said Hannah.
“But why?” asked Mizuki. “I mean, for what reason?”
“Och, it varies, ay?” asked Hannah. “Usually, for a taboo, you don’t know why, you just know it’s not to be done.”
Mizuki frowned. “Sounds made up to me.”
“Really?” asked Alfric. “There’s nothing you don’t do without knowing quite why you don’t do it?”
Mizuki thought about that for a moment. “I guess there are some things we don’t talk about. But mostly that’s because there are some weird feelings about them.”
“What kind of things?” asked Verity.
“Well I’m not going to talk about them, obviously,” said Mizuki.
Verity rolled her eyes. “‘They all, somehow, knew of the unspeakable,’” she said.
“What’s that from?” asked Mizuki.
“A poem, The Contradictions of Man, it’s,” Verity hesitated. “A classic.” She seemed to think that saying that might be cause for offense, and Mizuki seemed like she was going to take offense.
“Moving on,” said Alfric. “Isra, do you think you would be able to use your abilities in a dungeon? Most commonly, a druid would bring in a single well-trained animal. Something large, like a cougar or a bear.”
“I don’t think a bear would want to go into a dungeon,” said Isra.
“A bird then, to start with?” asked Alfric. “Something that would help us to scout?”
“It seems dangerous for the bird,” said Isra.
“And you wouldn’t put a bird in danger?” asked Alfric. “Not to potentially save our lives?”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Is now the time to talk about how doing that dungeon was completely unlike fighting three raccoons?”
“Och, not what I said, was it?” asked Hannah. “What I said was that each monster was like fightin’ three raccoons. Obviously there’ll be more than one monster in the dungeon, ay?”
“Well,” said Mizuki. “It was also unlike fighting a couple of sets of raccoons in a row.”
“Have you fought many raccoons?” asked Isra.
“What?” asked Mizuki. “No, not at all.”
“So you’re only guessing?” asked Isra.
“I’m not even the one who started in with all this three raccoons business!” Mizuki exclaimed.
“Well, if you’re askin’, no, I don’t think whoever came up with the three raccoons comparison had ever actually fought three of ‘em,” said Hannah. “But stranger things, ay?”
“The primary risk with dungeoneering is that you’ll run into something atypical,” said Alfric. “There’s a principle called variance, and much of what you do when planning for a dungeon is to minimize variance as much as possible, and plan for it as best you can. The Pucklechurch dungeon was on the upper side of normal, maybe even the high upper side of normal. It might have been the specific conditions, or it might have been us, or it might have been random chance. Either way, we’ll go into the next dungeon planning for it to be just as difficult, if not moreso, and then when it’s easier, we can be happy about it. I do want to point out that I was the only one who got hurt, and that I’m shouldering most of the risk.”
“But to be clear,” said Verity. “You could have died in that first dungeon.”
“Yes,” said Alfric, not wanting to weasel about. “I could have died. We all could have died, though it would have taken a spectacular bit of bad luck for that to happen. At the end, when we were fighting that final creature, I wasn’t sure that we would win, and before Isra stepped in, I was debating calling a retreat. Something like that, where we’re forced to back our way out of the dungeon and leave everything of value behind, is a much more likely bad outcome.”
“I’d have healed him back from far, far worse than he got,” said Hannah. “I won’t go into it,” she nodded to Mizuki. “But so long as it doesn’t cross the midline,” she pointed to her sternum, “There’s a fair bit I can deal with. Even across the midline, there’s all kinds of help I can be, and if Garos can’t provide, there’s other healin’ to be had, for the extent of the universe is not symmetrical, so it is said.”
“I don’t think that I’ll bring an animal into the dungeons,” said Isra. “It doesn’t feel fair to me.”
“It’s not necessary,” said Alfric. “With your bow being as good as it is, I’m hoping that we’re well on our way to outpacing the dungeons.”
“Meaning?” asked Verity with a frown.
“Elevation makes the dungeons harder,” said Hannah. “Goin’ by what Alfric said, we were all second elevation, ay? But after the dungeon, perhaps not.”
“We should all still be second,” said Alfric. “Unless someone was right at the cusp and got taken over it. Checking with the censusmaster is on my agenda.”
“His agenda,” said Mizuki, who wasn’t quite able to hold in her smile.
Alfric looked at her. She seemed to take some joy in teasing him, which he didn’t think was right to begrudge her. It was nice to see someone smile, at least, even if it was at his expense.
“Housing for myself,” he said, holding up a finger. “Working out travel and dungeoneering expenses, commissioning some local to make or adapt more pieces of armor, getting a better lay of the town, making contacts with the other clerics, sending off a letter to the arm of the local League office to notify them we have a party … there are probably some others, but I have a list.”
“A list!” giggled Mizuki.
“It goes next to my other lists,” said Alfric. “Like the list I use in the morning to figure out which sock goes on first.”
“Hey!” she said. “That was pretty good. Solid effort.”
Alfric gave her a grin.
“Well, I’ll come with you to see the clerics,” said Hannah. “And maybe look over the letter you’re sendin’, if you don’t mind.”
Alfric did mind, but he suppressed the urge to act on it. It was better to have someone look over what you’d written before you sent it, especially if you wanted to make a good impression. The local arm of the Adventurer’s League was important, because they could give him access to bigger, better keys depending on how their progress through the dungeons went. Furthermore, there would be a record on file of his accomplishments, which meant that if or when this party fell apart, he would have something to point to when he went looking to join up with other parties, though his sterling record in the Junior League didn’t seem to have counted for much.
“Alright,” said Mizuki, clapping her hands. “Enough business. I am formally opening an invitation for all of you to live here for as long as this lasts, take it or leave it.”
“I already live here,” said Verity, raising a hand.
“Ay, I’ll take you up on it,” replied Hannah. “Though I may still go to the temple for a bath every now and then, so long as Lemmel keeps lettin’ me.”
“I have my own place,” said Isra.
“Well, yeah, just offering,” said Mizuki. “If you wanted to be with the party or anything, no big deal.”
“Does the offer extend to me?” asked Alfric.
Mizuki looked him up and down. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“Because he’s male,” said Verity, her voice quite flat.
“Well,” said Mizuki, “It doesn’t matter to me, so long as you’re not going to be, I don’t know. Doing stuff.” She gestured vaguely. “Male stuff.”
“If we need to make some ground rules,” Alfric began.
Mizuki sighed. “Just don’t be weird about it,” she said. “And if you’re not weird about it, I won’t be weird about it.”
Alfric nodded. “Verity, Hannah, is that acceptable to you?”
“Fine by me,” said Verity.
“So long as you aren’t weird, ay,” said Hannah with a grin.
Alfric rubbed his face for a moment. “I believe in being forthright, so I’ll say, now, that I have absolutely no intentions of ruining what is, on paper, a great dungeoneering party with flirtation or romance of any kind, and to the extent we can avoid interpersonal problems, I want to do that. If we can do that with rules, great, we’ll make rules, but if it’s better to just have some mutual understanding, then great, we can do that instead. I care about the dungeons. The goal of this party is dungeons.”
“We hear you,” said Mizuki. “You can calm down.”
“I’m calm, I just — I don’t want to be preemptively accused of anything,” said Alfric. Familiar feelings were welling up, and he did his best to tamp them down.
“Didn’t mean to besmirch your honor,” said Hannah.
“It’s not the Red Ages,” said Verity. “We’re not going to treat you like a fox in the henhouse.”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Do we just have a total ban on romance within the group?”
“It worries me that you’re asking that,” said Alfric.
She pointed a finger at him. “You’re the one who wanted to make sure that everything was clear. And Hannah is,” Hannah raised an eyebrow, “She’s a cleric of Garos, right?”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Such a reputation we clerics have,” she said. “And I told you it was both, though none of you are my type, thank you very much.”
“Romance is inadvisable,” said Alfric. “I think we can leave it at that.”
But his mother hadn’t been quite so staunch about that. She had said, when the conversation came up at the dinner table, that you shouldn’t go into a dungeoneering party with the notion that there would be anything like a romance, but that with time, being close to the same group of people, it was natural for attraction to develop, and if it was mutual, and it wasn’t going away, then it could be a beautiful thing that would grow and flourish.
There was absolutely no way that he was going to say that out loud.