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Mizuki was finding that she didn’t actually like traveling that much. Six miles was a long way to walk, especially if you were going to do a dungeon at the end of it. The dungeon was also a mile and a half off the warp point, so that was seven and a half miles. Then after the dungeon, there would be another six miles of walking, either to Liberfell for the night, or all the way back to Pucklechurch. She liked walking, but she didn’t like it that much. The one big bonus was that she was with people that she found herself somewhat comfortable with.

She was also very slightly hungover, though it had helped that they’d set off later in the day, after a light breakfast. She drank lots of water, and an herb that Isra had given her, which helped.

“We should have gotten a cart,” said Mizuki. “Or a mount. We have the money.”

“And you know how to ride, ay?” asked Hannah.

“No,” said Mizuki. “But it can’t be that hard.”

“The birds are hard,” said Alfric. “And there are limits on how much weight they can carry, though you might be able to manage it, actually. The lizzo are finicky and slow. A good mount is one of the most sought after of the possible beasts you could find in a dungeon.” He glanced over at Isra. “With your abilities, I’m hoping that if we come across the opportunity, we might be able to capitalize on it.”

“You’re not supposed to take animals out,” said Hannah. “Not unless you have the equipment for it to make sure it won’t get loose. And anything a person could possibly ride, we wouldn’t be able to fit in the book.”

“I know, I was thinking down the road,” said Alfric. “I’ve heard that in Kiromo they’ve been trying to breed bigger sheep, strong enough to pull a cart, but I don’t think they’ve had much luck. And in Tarbin they have cats, but they’re mostly for show. Most likely we’ll have a travel entad before any of that becomes relevant for us. Maybe we’ll even have one later today.”

“I hope so,” said Mizuki. “I am not looking forward to the walk back.”

“I think I’ll go to Liberfell after we’re done in Traeg’s Knob,” said Verity. “I have the money to spend the night there, and I told Cynthia that I wasn’t coming back. Besides, it would be nice to see a bit of a bigger city.”

“It’s nothing in comparison to Dondrian,” said Alfric.

“Nothing is anything in comparison to that monster of a city,” said Hannah.

“Well, are we all going to Liberfell?” asked Mizuki.

“Those of us that are still alive at the end of the dungeon,” said Hannah with a little laugh.

“Hannah,” said Alfric.

“Oh, just a joke,” she said. “This one is in the middle of nowhere, should be easier than Pucklechurch was. Obviously I don’t expect anyone to be hurt, and if they are, I expect me to be able to patch them.”

“From what I’ve heard, the warp point is at the top of a hill,” said Alfric. “So at least on the way to Liberfell, we’ll have a downhill stretch.”

“It’s a popular place for sleddin’,” said Hannah, “If you can stomach the walk in the winter.”

“Yeah, I used to do that when I was little,” said Mizuki. “Not many people live in the hex, and the warp point is in a nice place. You just sled down, then warp back to the top. Kind of terrifying though. And obviously it’s late spring.”

“Sorry,” said Verity. “What’s sledding?”

“You don’t have that in Dondrian?” asked Mizuki. “You just, uh, slide down a hill, usually on a — do you know what a sled is? It’s like some wooden boards with metal runners.”

“And people do this for fun?” asked Verity.

“It’s loads of fun,” said Mizuki. “The biggest hill near Pucklechurch isn’t really good for it though, you need a bigger one, like at Traeg’s Knob, which is all the better because you can just warp up instead of having a hike.”

“There’s a handful of houses near the warp point,” said Hannah. “Not so much of a town though, just a waystation. Some of it’s public, a place to warm yourself on a trip, or if you’ve come for the sleddin’.”

“We don’t get much snow up north,” said Verity. “A dusting in the middle of winter, usually, but nothing more than that. My first winter here, I was shocked by how much it built up.”

“And yet you didn’t wear pants,” said Hannah, shaking her head.

“I’m wearing pants now,” said Verity, lifting up her dress to show that indeed, she had pants on beneath it. It was not, in Mizuki’s opinion, the most flattering outfit. Mizuki had pants too, but she hadn’t wanted to walk in them, not when it was going to be a mildly warm day. She had bought a pack, and put the pants and a few other things into it, along with her gloves, boots, and a thicker shirt. She also had the helmet she’d gotten from the blacksmith, and then almost left it home because of how stupid she looked in it, but better to look stupid than to be stupid.

There were similar changes all around. Perhaps it was Alfric, or perhaps it was Hannah, but they were all treating it like they were an actual dungeoneering party. The helm had been more expensive than Mizuki would have liked, but she was very easily getting into the habit of thinking that money wasn’t a real concern.

“Traeg’s Knob is hilly, verging on mountainous,” said Alfric. “That should mean tougher monsters with thicker skin, if a bit slower. And because it’s less inhabited, we’ll expect less in the way of finished goods or worked rooms.”

“Bit of a surprise there was so much in Pucklechurch,” said Hannah.

“Variance,” shrugged Alfric. “Knowing that a leyline used to run through there … it might have been that.”

“Or the big stone in my backyard?” asked Mizuki. She hadn’t had a chance to show Hannah, in part because of the mild hangover.

“Well, possible,” said Alfric. “If the Pucklechurch hex was a part of the leyline, then there’s a good chance that there are older ruins there, even if they’re buried deep. Many of the oldest cities were built along leylines.”

“Seems an argument for local knowledge,” said Hannah. “If you’re wantin’ to go through all the local hexes, maybe best to ask around first, to see if there’s somethin’ you don’t know about the place?”

“It didn’t end up mattering,” said Alfric. “We made it through.”

“Still,” said Hannah. “The dungeon we find in Traeg’s Knob, it pulls from a hundred twenty square miles or so, doesn’t it? Hard to know what might be buried there.”

“Well, yes,” said Alfric. “But firstly, I’m not terribly worried about it, and secondly, part of why we’re going to Liberfell is that we’re going to seek out the Adventurer’s League office, which will hopefully have details on each of the dungeons, just in case there’s something for us to know. Now, we could go there first and hit the Traeg’s Knob dungeon on the way back, but then we wouldn’t be able to sell what we get from there. Sometimes they also have rooms, but they’re usually pretty shoddy.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “I’m not sayin’ that we should do different, or that I wanted you to take a day to go to Liberfell on your own just to get some information that probably doesn’t help us.”

“You were just saying,” said Alfric, nodding.

“So, we’re unbalanced now,” said Mizuki. “In terms of elevation? But we’re also more prepared, a lot more prepared, and Isra’s got her bow. Is this more or less dangerous?”

“It’s very hard to say,” said Alfric.

“Probably more,” said Hannah, shrugging. “But not so much more that I’d worry. And who really knows, with variance.”

“Ideally,” said Alfric. “You accelerate in terms of gear. There are some graphs for expected difficulty, but it’s a lot of math, and depends on a few too many things. Twenty dungeons down the line,” he held up a hand in Verity’s direction, “Not that we’re committed to that. But if we ever got there, or if I got there with another group, I would hope that I was at least keeping pace, going into a dungeon with a much better entad weapon, ideally a spear, full plate armor, and a few other things.”

“A spear?” asked Isra. “Not a sword?”

“The sword was my father’s,” said Alfric. “It’s a family heirloom, and a good weapon, but there are too many advantages to a spear, so long as it’s sturdy and light. A spear gives you reach, and reach means that you’re staying away from claws and fangs. They’re more nimble, they give better leverage, they can pierce through thick hide better … but the dungeons don’t always give you what you want, and I don’t want to spend funds on something like that, not at the kinds of prices a properly good entad can have.”

“Personally, I’ve been loving my spoon,” said Mizuki. “It’s properly handy.” She had brought it along, just in case.

“I know, I know,” said Alfric. “There’s no point thinking about it, or making a wishlist, but it’s something that every dungeoneer does.”

“So you’re saying if I want to do this, I need a wishlist?” asked Mizuki.

“Do you want to be a proper dungeoneer?” asked Alfric.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “I wouldn’t say that I liked the first one too much. But there were a lot of rings for the trouble, a neat spoon, and some stories to tell.”

“Well, as for my list, if everyone is supposed to have one,” said Hannah, “Healin’ is through my hands, so longer hands might be nice.”

“Longer … hands?” asked Verity.

“Arms, or hands,” said Hannah. “And of course somethin’ symmetrical would be nice, some armor, a weapon perhaps … hard to say, but there’s a lot I might like.”

“I’d like something for the garden,” said Verity.

“That’s not really the kind of thing we’re talking about,” said Alfric.

“Why?” asked Verity.

Alfric hesitated. “It doesn’t help … with the dungeons.”

Verity laughed. “Oh, how dare I want something that won’t help with the dungeons. Why, that’s against the rules.”

“I knew that it sounded stupid even before it was out of my mouth,” said Alfric.

“Well,” said Mizuki. “Something for cooking, I think.”

“Something that would make meals?” asked Hannah.

“No, nothing like that,” frowned Mizuki. “I like cooking, I don’t want something that takes the fun out of it. But something like, say, a knife that chops things for me, or a bottle that never runs out of oil, or something like that.”

“A magical instrument might be nice,” said Verity. “Though nothing too stressful.”

“I told them about the lute you used in Dondrian last night,” said Alfric. “I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t think that you might like to keep it private until it was out of my mouth. I apologize.”

“Oh,” said Verity. “No, I don’t care. Thank you for considering it through, even if it was after the fact.”

“He said it made you sound like an orchestra,” said Hannah.

“It did,” said Verity. “The sound could fill a concert hall, and did, on a few occasions. But it was taxing to play and made my head feel too full of melodies. I was thinking, if I could have another entad lute, that I might like something softer.”

“You’re unlikely to get a lute,” said Alfric. “We’re all unlikely to get exactly the thing we want. There’s too much variety.”

“Well, it’s a wishlist, anyway,” said Verity with a sigh. “Oh! Something to keep my hair from needing to be washed or combed.”

Mizuki looked at her. She did have the longest hair of any of them, though with Isra wearing a headscarf, it was hard to say whether she might have had Verity beat. Hannah had more hair, or at least it seemed like that with all the curls, but Verity’s was longer.

“Clothing might be nice,” said Hannah. “Something that protects against the elements?”

“A dress that would stay warm in winter,” said Verity.

“A dress I would look good in,” said Mizuki, frowning a bit. “I don’t know what it is, but every time I put on a dress, I look like a goon.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “And it’d take magic to make that not happen, you think?” There was something very innocent in her expression that made the insult all the more funny, and Mizuki cackled.

“I would like an animal, I think,” said Isra.

“A dungeon animal?” asked Hannah. “They’re dangerous, ay.”

“You’ve said,” replied Isra.

“Well, just so you know,”said Hannah.

“Anything from an egg is much less likely to be dangerous,” said Alfric. “And given you’re a druid, you’ll know better than we do what kinds of things might have a good disposition.”

“I’d like flight,” said Mizuki. “To fly into the sky, like a bird.” She spread her arms.

“I think I’d enjoy being a fish,” said Verity.

“Bein’ a fish?” asked Hannah. “Not just swimmin’ and breathin’ water like one?”

“I suppose either would be fine,” said Verity.

“Alfric,” said Mizuki, looking at him. “Are you thinking that’s not practical?”

“Oh,” he said. “No, it’s very practical, but I’m not dense enough to think that’s why Verity wants it. There are underwater dungeons. Every hex has a dungeon, or at least very nearly, and a great many of them are underwater, given how much area the oceans cover. But for us to tackle one of those, we’d have to all be able to breathe underwater, and honestly, underwater dungeon clearing has always sounded hellish to me.”

“People do that?” asked Verity.

“It’s my uncle’s specialty,” said Alfric. “He’s got an entad that gave him gills, and the rest of his party has similar.”

“But no sky dungeons, huh?” asked Mizuki.

“There are,” said Alfric. “But only in the sense that there are places where a dungeon entrance rests on a floating island.”

“Floating islands?” asked Isra.

“Far to the west,” said Alfric. “A long way away. I’ve also heard that there are some far to the east, beyond Tarbin, but it might just be the same set once you’ve wrapped around the planet. There’s some disagreement on that score, I can’t remember why. And possibly more, I suppose, if you could go north past the Barrier Storms. I had always wanted to, when I was a child.”

“You didn’t always want to be in the dungeoneering business?” asked Mizuki.

“Oh, I had wanted to be lots of things,” said Alfric. “But when I was old enough to read, I read stories about the people who’d died trying to explore past the Barrier Storms, and I learned that all the pirates had been captured or put down three hundred years ago, and that the whole of the planet that could be explored had been explored, and that left the dungeons as the one thing I wanted to do.”

“I wanted to be a musician,” said Verity.

“And … now you are?” asked Mizuki.

“I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s what I want to do with my life,” said Verity. “I like being a musician, but I’m not thrilled with being a bard. In the long run, I don’t have any idea what I want to be. Perhaps just this.”

“Well,” said Hannah. “I got into bein’ a healer from a sideways angle. I had thoughts of bein’ somethin’ else, part of somethin’ more, and alienist seemed right to me until I learned more of the gods. Then there was just somethin’ about Garos that set my thoughts aflame, and if you’ve got the mindset for it, then the best thing to do, for your role in society, as it were, becomes healin’.”

“I wanted to be a mother,” said Isra.

There was silence for just a bit.

“A mother?” asked Mizuki. “Just that?”

Isra nodded. “When I was five years old, I saw a woman taking a herd of her children to drink from a well. It seemed very nice.”

“I don’t think herd is the right word,” said Alfric.

“What is the word?” asked Isra. “There were many of them.”

“There isn’t a word, funny enough,” said Hannah. “Is there?”

They all pondered this for a bit.

“Maybe it’s the way you said ‘herd’,” said Mizuki. “Like you were talking about animals, goats or sheep.”

“Mmm,” said Isra, frowning.

“And you, Mizuki?” asked Alfric. “What did you want to be?”

“Oh, I don’t think I wanted to do or be anything,” said Mizuki. “I think I was disappointed when I found out that you needed to do something. Seemed to me like it would be better to sit around all day, play with cats, go catch frogs, swish sticks through the air, read a book, take a nap … I guess I’ve always liked cooking, but when I was thirteen, we found out I was a sorc, and it was pretty clear that was the job that would let me do what I wanted, so long as I helped people out with things from time to time.” She shrugged. It felt like a lame answer, after what they’d said. Or if not lame, then at least immature. She was very aware that she wasn’t a hard worker, and maybe that accounted for some of the difference.

The conversation shifted after that, to talk of food, and later, to talk of clothing, which featured Alfric giving a characteristically in-depth talk on what was best for both traveling and going into a dungeon. Then, after that, they talked about the winter months, and Hannah seemed to think it very important to tell everyone that unless they’d been far to the south, they’d never experienced a true winter.

And then they were at the markers for the hex border, where Mizuki asked for a brief rest before they went through.

“Doesn’t it make more sense to rest after we’re through?” asked Verity as she sat down on a nearby rock.

“Nah,” said Mizuki. “Here, at least, it’s a nice day. Once we’re past the markers and we do the warp, who knows? Six miles away, and at least a little bit up, it might be cold and damp, right?”

“I suppose,” shrugged Verity. She had her own pack, which, like Mizuki's, was slung over one shoulder. From this, she pulled out a waterskin and took a long drink. “Another mile and a half to go?”

“Just about,” said Alfric. “From what I’ve heard, the way should be pretty easy to find. And once we’re there, it’s the second dungeon. We’ll take a bit of a break before we go in. Is everyone feeling up to it?”

“I guess,” said Mizuki.

“Oh, I’m eager,” said Hannah. “Too long between, in my opinion.”

“I’m prepared,” said Verity. “Not eager though.”

“I’ve practiced with the bow and arrows,” said Isra.

“And?” asked Alfric.

“It depends on what we run into,” Isra replied with a shrug. “To draw and aim while walking alongside an arrow is more difficult than I thought.”

“I’m sure you’ll do well,” said Alfric. He turned to Mizuki. “You think it’ll be easier on you?”

“Casting?” asked Mizuki.

“Mentally,” said Alfric, tapping his head.

“Should be easier the second time,” said Mizuki. “Right?”

“Not always,” said Alfric. “For some, they build it up in their head. The first time they go in, they underestimate, and then the second time, they overestimate. I just want to help you any way that I can.”

“But not the others?” asked Mizuki.

“The others too,” he nodded, and he sounded so earnest that it was hard to take offense at the implication that she was the weak link. Her hackles, which had begun to rise, went back down.

“Thank you,” said Mizuki. “But I think I’ll be fine.”

Alfric nodded, and took a drink from his own waterskin. It was a warm spring day, with a nice breeze, but they had all worked up a bit of a sweat from walking. For a moment they just sat there, stretching their legs, and Mizuki wished that it could just be this, sitting around with — well, ‘friends’ was probably pushing it, but they were party members, and that was something. If the whole of the business could be walking places with friends, she’d have no qualms about being a dungeoneer, not if it was with these people.

Then the break was over, and they went through the pillars that marked the hex boundary, far enough that there’d be absolutely no risk of winding up back in Pucklechurch, though Hannah thought that was a rather silly concern.

Mizuki’s ears popped from the pressure difference when she arrived at the warp point with the others, and she stepped out of the small, covered landing to take in the view. It had been quite some time since she’d been to Traeg’s Knob, probably at least five years, with her parents, come to think of it, though she’d been a bit old for sledding. For all she could remember, it was her first time in Traeg’s Knob when it wasn’t winter, if she didn’t count just passing through.

The view was gorgeous, with the woodlands unmarred by farms and a large lake that stretched out away from the bottom of the hill in one direction. No one picked the warp points, they were just the center of every hex, and it was the sort of thing that people complained about, from time to time, though not about the one in Pucklechurch, which was almost exactly in the center of town. Traeg’s Knob was a large hill though, which seemed perfect to Mizuki, better placement than other warp points ended up being, at least from her knowledge of the local area. The air was crisp up on the hill, and the skies were clear, with the breeze that they’d felt six miles away more of a proper wind. Mizuki could tell that the heat was bleeding from her skin, and in another five minutes, she would probably be cold, but she had a pack with her change of clothes in it, so that didn’t matter so much.

“So untamed,” said Alfric. “Hardly any houses.”

There were a few, but he was right, there weren’t many. A few of the public places were up on top of the hill, and there were houses there too, but no more than five. A few more were down at the edge of the lake, each of them with its own small dock, but those numbered no more than five either.

“How many people in the whole of this hex?” asked Mizuki.

“Not many,” said Hannah, nodding. “A hundred, all told. A square mile of land each, I would think.”

“The five of us together could almost swing a vote for hexmaster,” said Verity. “Do they even vote, when it’s this size?”

“You’d better believe they do,” replied Hannah. “And they’re properly fierce about it, most of the time. The fewer people in a hex, the more power each of the masters has, comparatively. And of course, most of them know each other, save perhaps those at the hex edge, which can make it more bitter.”

“The system of masters wasn’t designed for a hex with a population this small,” said Alfric.

“They have more wilderness than Pucklechurch,” said Isra.

“Ay,” said Hannah. “But Pucklechurch itself is fairly wild. Not too much of it is farmed.”

“A quarter,” said Isra.

“A quarter,” agreed Alfric, though Mizuki had no idea how he’d know that. “But that’s not much, by the standards of a truly civilized place.”

“I don’t think I would like civilized places,” said Isra.

“No, perhaps not,” said Alfric. He took a deep breath. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” said Hannah. “Lead the way.”

They walked down the dirt path, which was well-maintained, and in a few places where it got steep, there were stone steps placed into the earth. Mizuki wished that she had a walking stick, and was on the lookout for one, but the trees were mostly pine trees, which seemed less likely to give up a proper walking stick than a maple. She wondered, idly, whether she should buy a staff in Liberfell. A staff seemed like a proper sorcerer’s implement, though she was afraid some wizard would come by and accuse her of pretending at wizarding. Wizards used their staffs — staves? — for something, though Mizuki had no idea what, and it probably depended upon the wizard. There were only a handful of wizards in Pucklechurch, and she’d given them all a wide berth, given the historical disagreements between their two professions.

The shade of the trees down the path was a welcome change of pace from the fields they’d been walking beside in the Pucklechurch hex, and Mizuki found herself enjoying the damp, earthy scent and the cool air on her skin so much that she was surprised when they reached the portal to the Traeg’s Knob dungeon. She had, momentarily, forgotten that they had come all this way with a goal in mind.

“I need to change,” said Mizuki. She gestured to Alfric that he should turn around, and he did promptly and without questioning it. “I won’t be long.”

“Do you want me to turn around too?” asked Hannah.

“What?” asked Mizuki, who was halfway through removing her top. “Why?”

“Well,” said Hannah. “I don’t know, because you don’t want me looking?”

“Uh,” said Mizuki, still frozen in place.

“I just thought,” said Hannah. “Seein’ as you want him to turn around because it wouldn’t be proper, and it wouldn’t be proper because of his assumed interest, that you might want me to turn too.”

“I was told this wouldn’t be long, though I am enjoying the view of the woods,” said Alfric, who apparently could crack a joke, when he set his mind to it.

“I’ll turn,” said Hannah, turning her back to Mizuki. “Not that I have an interest, mind, but it’s the assumed interest, I s’pose.” She kept her back turned. “Though I’d think it would be enough for you to trust that I wouldn’t leer, even if I did have interest in your body, which I don’t, same as Alfric.”

Verity and Isra had both turned too, without saying anything about it, and Mizuki was left to hurry putting on her dungeoneering outfit as quickly as she could. She hadn’t meant anything by asking Alfric to turn, it had just been, well — he probably would have turned without being asked, or at least looked away as though she wasn’t in a state of undress, and Mizuki felt foolish for having made even a minor thing of it, along with feeling a bit peeved that Hannah had called attention to it. And now, with all of them turned away, Mizuki was feeling a deep embarrassment about the whole thing.

“Done,” said Mizuki as she put on her helm.

Hannah turned back around and burst out laughing. “You look so cute!” she said.

“You were the one who helped me pick this out,” said Mizuki, crossing her arms.

“You look like a little boy playing soldier,” said Verity, who was looking Mizuki up and down.

“It’s for safety,” said Mizuki. “Sorry I didn’t pick up some sexy dungeon clothes.”

“I think having Hannah pick might have been a mistake,” said Isra, who was furrowing her brow.

“Well it is functional,” said Hannah. “Not my fault that Mizuki looks odd in that kind of thing.” That Hannah was wearing almost exactly the same outfit, with a button-down shirt, long pants, and heavy boots, seemed to not be an issue to anyone, even Mizuki. It was, Mizuki reflected, because that kind of look suited Hannah, who was more heavy set and had a look of cheerful, if serious business about her. Mizuki was, comparatively, a wimp.

“You know, I have the most raw destructive potential of anyone here,” said Mizuki. “By a wide margin.”

“I can’t take a threat seriously when you’re wearing that,” said Verity. “I’m sorry, I just can’t. It makes you look tiny.” She stifled a giggle and bit her lip to keep from smiling, and Mizuki didn’t think she should look that amused.

“Well I personally think that she looks adorable,” said Alfric, grinning at Mizuki.

“Like a newborn fawn,” said Isra, nodding.

“Does no one take my threats seriously?” asked Mizuki. “I have fireballs.”

“Like a puppy barking at you,” said Verity. “I’m sorry, it’s probably the fit of those clothes, we’ll get you something better when we’re in Liberfell, something that’s not so silly. This isn’t working.” When she said ‘this’ she gestured vaguely in Mizuki’s direction.

“Kill you all,” said Mizuki, pointing at them. “I mean it.” She knew, of course, that this would only make her look more ridiculous, but that was part of the fun.

“There there,” said Alfric, patting her on the helm. She grinned up at him.

“Well let’s not play a game of who could kill whom,” said Hannah with a laugh. She turned to the dungeon. “We’ve got a dungeon to explore.”

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Alexander Wales

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