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A note from Alexander Wales

This chapter involves a dungeon, as does the next one. If you're here for the more light-hearted stuff, feel free to skip this chapter and the next, picking things back up in ch 25. Personally, I like the range of experience that comes from writing that way, and it fulfills the goal of reading fiction that I would want to read, but preferences vary, and I know one of the things other people value is consistency. The way that this work is structured places a lot of focus on the downtime and the quiet moments, and I think a different author would probably elect to skip the dungeons altogether. I like the dungeons though, and having ten chapters of talking and hanging out punctuated by a pitched battle in a weird and unsettling place before moving on to the next ten chapters of talking and hanging out.

So if you're the sort of person who thinks that's dumb and you don't want to read about these people fighting monsters, you can pick the story back up at ch 25 and mostly miss some action scenes that will get referenced later, but not much else, and it'll be like you're reading the aftermath of something the author chose not to show.

The entrance to the dungeon was the same as it had been before, a tube of packed earth, but when it opened out into the first room, there was nothing like a house or building. Instead, it was a little grotto, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and a trickle of water coming down. The only path forward was through the stalactites, where the light from the lanterns could barely reach.

<Party chat only,> said Alfric. <No sense alerting anything to our presence.>

<Let me know when I should play my song,> said Verity.

<Packs down first,> said Alfric as he slipped his off and onto the ground. He drew his sword and shield, getting comfortable with the grip of them and changing his stance. He was always rather serious, Verity thought, but here, it seemed to suit him more.

Verity slipped her own bag off and placed it on top of a rock, where she hoped it would stay relatively dry. There was practically nothing in her pack aside from her waterskin and some eggy bread that Hannah had baked that morning, and some nuts that Isra had brought. Her lute was already in her hands, with the finger flute tied tight against the calf of her left leg, giving her as many fingers as she pleased to play the lute with. The lute itself was tuned and ready to go, with a few tests of it before they went in.

Verity was wearing a helm, the same as Mizuki, and had practiced singing with it on. She didn’t look nearly so ridiculous though. In the mirror, she’d thought that she could pull off the look of a battle bard.

<Plan for a longer engagement this time,> said Alfric. He turned to the others and made sure that they were ready. <Song now, please.>

Verity had prepared a few songs, and chose one of strength in the face of the foreboding, whose lyrics fit with the dark, cavernous dungeon better than the other songs she had on hand. It was a song of mythology, hearkening back to a very old story of the first person to ever delve a dungeon, Helgi of Amanth, though told in a somewhat more whimsical way than was orthodox. Helgi was almost certainly apocryphal, so Verity felt no shame in making changes.

They heard the first monster before they saw it, as Alfric was making his way beside the small trickle of water that went along the tunnel. It was a sound like a thousand crickets in the night, a buzzing that was so loud it was almost painful. The light affixed to Alfric’s chest illuminated only a larger cave with a pool of water and two more tunnels coming off it, and he crouched low, shield forward, until he was at the edge of the pool. Moving carefully, as though not to disturb the ground, he touched the tip of his sword into the pool and sent electricity arcing over the surface of it.

Almost at once, a creature rose up, breaching the water and roaring with the same buzzing sound, now even louder and higher pitched. It looked almost like a man, but covered in tiny black mussels, which were vibrating and apparently making the noise, which changed in timbre as it surfaced. The room of the cave they were in was fifteen feet tall, and he stood nearly ten, even with his legs down in the water.

<Fireball,> said Mizuki, and Verity screwed her eyes shut. Even with them closed as tight as they would go, she saw the flash of it, and when she opened them back up, there was a faint afterimage. The monster had lost one of its arms, which continued to flop around in the water. With the other arm, it was going for Alfric, who was yelling at it and trying to hold its attention. It was all happening frighteningly fast, so fast that if Verity had stopped to think, her mind would have ground to a halt. She focused on the song, and held its magic, boosting Alfric.

Three arrows zipped through the air, all one after the other, and Isra had moved across the room, right at the edge of the pool the monster had risen from. She fired again, and the arrow struck the thing in its chest, cracking a few of the mussels there, but it seemed unperturbed by the damage, even as the arrows vanished back into Isra’s quiver.

<Tough armor,> said Alfric as he swiped at the monster’s other arm. <He’s strong.> As if to punctuate it, the monster brought its arm down, and while Alfric brought his shield up to meet it, the force of the blow brought him to his knees. He rolled out of the way of the follow-up attack, wincing, and got back to his feet.

<Hexing,> said Hannah, barreling her way forward toward the pool.

<Too dangerous,> said Alfric, whose eyes went wide as he saw her moving in.

<Distract it?> asked Hannah, hesitating at the edge of the pool.

<Go, now,> said Alfric. He rushed forward, screaming at the top of his lungs and waving his sword wildly in the air. It arced with electricity, more as a threat than anything else.

Hannah moved forward, and Isra shot again, three more arrows in quick succession, this time with two of them flying wide. She’d been aiming for the head rather than the chest, and with the smaller target, landed only one.

As soon as Hannah was in the water, Verity changed the magic, putting almost everything onto the cleric and doing her best to enhance the clerical power. It was a difficult thing to do, given that Verity had no clerical power of her own, and only a vague sense of what the godly connection was like. It was so much easier to enhance those things she had some personal familiarity with, when the song could be drawn from her own life in some way. In their practice, it had gone poorly, but Verity did it all the same, as they’d planned.

The monster’s other arm fell off as though severed by a giant invisible blade, and Hannah splashed back away from the leg she was touching, soaked to the bone and moving as quickly as she could.

The monster, disarmed, roared with the vibrations of a thousand small mussels, loud enough that Verity almost lost the thread of the song. The creature staggered once, moving toward Alfric as though it meant to slam its head into him, but Alfric easily stepped to the side, and the monster fell to the ground.

<Strength,> he said, though Verity had already been shifting her magic in that direction. He brought his sword down with multiplied strength, severing straight through the monster’s neck, then without hesitation, stepped up onto its back and plunged the blade into its center. The monster, or what was left of it given that it had neither head nor arms, shuddered once and then was still. The small mussels all slowly opened, like a hand releasing a blade in death.

Alfric was breathing hard, and Hannah was soaking wet, but everyone seemed to be okay. Alfric moved his head from side to side, then released his grip on his shield and flexed his hand a few times.

<Good fight,> he said.

<Not three raccoons,> Mizuki said.

<Higher elevation,> said Alfric. He turned to Hannah. <Good work.>

<Ay,> she said.

<You stopped when I told you to,> he said.

<Ay,> she said again, removing her helm and shaking her voluminous red hair to get it free of water. Verity hadn’t seen it, but Hannah must have been fully submerged in the pool at some point, perhaps when scrambling back. <You’re the one with the most trainin’, and I’m no fool.>

<Thank you,> said Alfric. There was relief in his voice. <I was worried you’d charge ahead.>

<I’m no fool,> Hannah repeated. <Just a brave girl who knew what needed doin’.>

<I held back,> said Mizuki. Despite the fact that she’d contributed just the single fireball, she was breathing heavily, and her eyes were wide. Verity shifted the song again, dampening a bit of the fear and anxiety, and she saw gratitude in Mizuki’s eyes. Fear was one of those funny emotions, which could increase itself if left to fester. <Should I have held back?> asked Mizuki. <You were just so close to it that I thought I might accidentally kill you.>

<No, you shouldn’t have killed me,> said Alfric, shaking his shield arm a bit. <He hit pretty hard. Hannah, can you look at my arm?>

Hannah came over to him, still dripping wet, and laid her hand on his bicep. <Minor fracture,> she said after a bit. <Not a full break. Easy to repair if it’s a hairline. I’ll fix it.> That took a moment of concentration on her part, and when she stepped back from him, Alfric rotated his arm around, testing the range of motion and feeling for any pain.

<Very good, thank you,> he said.

<Tell me if you break your arm in the middle of a fight,> said Hannah.

<I didn’t know it was broken, only that it was hurt,> Alfric replied. He looked at Verity, who was keeping up her song. <Come on, let’s get moving, left side first.> He moved around the pool, looking into it for a moment but continuing on. Verity was torn between finding his perseverance admirable and foolish. <Good shooting, Isra,> he said, turning back to look at her.

<The arrows didn’t seem to do much,> she said.

<No, they won’t work against everything we face,> said Alfric. He had shifted his stance as he got to the entryway. <You did what you could with impeccable aim. Get ready.> This last bit was addressed to the group as his light began to illuminate the tunnel.

The next room of the cave was even taller than the one before it, and it was less natural, a fat cone going up thirty feet, with vines creeping through the dark along one edge. At the top of the cone, the sky was exposed, letting down a shaft of light that illuminated a crumpled pile of skeletons laying on the ground, which Verity noticed just as she was thinking she was happy for the light.

Alfric charged forward and brought his sword down on the skeletons, shattering bones, but after the first strike, when nothing had moved, he held back, staring at them with suspicion for a long moment before relaxing.

<Sorry,> he said. <Monsters sometimes disguise themselves.>

<Vines,> said Mizuki, then right after that, <Fireburst.>

Verity had been strumming her lute and murmuring her song, the better to keep it going, but when she heard the word ‘burst’ she immediately released the instrument, letting it swing around her neck by its strap, and clamped her hands onto her ears.

It was no surprise that Mizuki was using fire: the grotto they found themselves in was a wet place, and that would naturally color the ambient aether, at least as Mizuki had explained it. She had gone on in brief about how her spells worked over dinner one night, and the basics of it were that it was largely a thing of coloring and cast-offs and opposites.

She had also explained the difference between a fireball and a fireburst. The first was a gob of fiery hotness, while the second was a fiery explosion. She had demonstrated once, in the backyard, and then Verity had asked her to never demonstrate again, and to give ample warning, because a deaf bard would have a much harder time doing her job.

Verity could feel the blast wave from the fireburst strike her in the chest, and it felt, for a moment, like her heart had stopped. It was incredibly loud, even with ten-fingered hands clamped down hard on her ears, and she was only thankful that she’d been given a warning, because if she hadn’t been, she’d have been doing the whole rest of the dungeon with ringing ears, or more likely, just gone home.

Bits of flaming vine as thick as Verity’s wrist fell to the ground around them, and she yelped when one of them hit her on the shoulder, which Isra pulled away almost the moment it had touched her. Through this all, Verity had been trying to keep the song going, but it was like a top spinning out of control, wobbling all over the place with the sharpness of the fireburst having practically shaken her head loose. At the last moment, she was able to save it, pulling it back into place, but it was a close thing.

<They were moving,> said Mizuki. <Now they are not.> She seemed quite pleased with herself.

<Good eyes,> said Alfric. <I didn’t quite get my hands up in time.> He held up his shield and sword, showing how hard it would have been. <Very loud. Chat is coming through fine though.>

<Earmuffs for next time,> said Hannah.

<Sorry,> said Mizuki.

<It’s fine,> said Alfric. <Let me know if you hear anything.>

<Take a break, ay?> asked Hannah.

Alfric looked at Verity, who was still holding the song. <Keep going,> he said.

There was another tunnel leading away from the room, and as they moved, Verity gave the skeletons a wide berth, just in case they had been saving a surprise for later. She was always at the back of the group, and with the party formed, she could have stayed at the entrance and given them nearly the same effect, but then they’d have had to rely on party chat for her to know who needed what at any given moment, and one of the benefits of a bard was being able to adapt to conditions, boosting whomever needed it when they needed it.

The song Verity had planned was quite the long one, but she’d been through all the prepared verses, so began freewheeling through new lyrics, all of them almost under her breath. The best bards could be completely silent, without need for audible music or vocals, but whenever Verity had tried, it had felt especially draining, too disconnected from the actual song for her to keep it up for very long.

The next trial the cave had for them was quite different, and came at Alfric with a sound like whispers. It took some time for Verity to recognize them as a swarm of something resembling a moth, and she shifted her magic to Alfric’s constitution, hardening his skin as best she could, and backing up so the swarm wouldn’t get to her. Alfric’s sword was particularly useless against a swarm of insects, so he simply covered his face and curled into a ball.

<Fry them, Zuki,> he called through the chat.

<Need some energy,> she said. <Not enough in the air.>

<Charging,> said Hannah as she placed her hand on her own chest, and at the same time, Verity did her best to shift the song for Mizuki’s needs, providing strength to Alfric in the hopes that the cast-offs from the song would translate into something that their sorcerer could use.

A moment later, lightning sprang forth from Mizuki’s hands, lighting up the room and the tunnels beyond it for a moment, which illuminated an overturned boat. The power Mizuki was using lacked direction or care, and Verity felt some of it hit her too, but it was a mild shock, nothing more. It was, however, quite fatal to the swarm of moths, and arced between them, lighting them on fire as it did. Mizuki stopped as soon as most of them had dropped, and Alfric, bloodied about his face, stood up to swat at the last of them, using the electricity from his own sword to try to fry more. It took quite some time to get the rest of the stragglers, but once they had, Hannah rushed forward and laid hands on Alfric again, closing up the wounds on his face.

<Can’t get them all, I don’t think,> said Hannah. <You’ll have wounds on the cheeks.>

<It’s fine,> said Alfric, touching his bloodied face for a moment, then taking a handkerchief offered by Hannah. <I think that’s the best we could have done against bugs. They’re notoriously difficult.>

<Sorry if I zapped anyone,> said Mizuki.

<You zapped everyone,> said Isra.

<Sorry!> Mizuki said again, her voice slightly higher pitched. <I was trying to get it to spread.>

<Let’s keep on,> said Alfric.

The pace felt relentless, and Verity felt a moment of unpleasant guilt as she reflected that this was largely for her benefit, so she wouldn’t have to spin up a second song until they were at least halfway through.

The path split again, this time giving them a choice between a corridor of ancient stonework and a narrow tunnel of damp rock that Alfric would have had to squeeze through. He took the one to the left, the stonework one, and Verity followed behind, keeping the song steady, and giving the party as much in the way of additional reflexes and defenses as she could. She was most worried of surprise attacks, especially after how the last two rooms had gone. A sudden attack from the shadows could kill before anyone could do anything about it, and while Alfric had his shield, the shield was only good if he could move it to block whatever was coming at him.

The brickwork continued on even as the corridor ended, this time opening up into a place that looked like it once had human habitation. Alfric’s lantern illuminated a rotting bed in one corner and a bookshelf that unfortunately seemed to have the rotted out remains of books. It was larger than a normal bedroom though, and larger than the study that might have been suggested by the broken desk. Everything was covered in either slime or moss, even though it was completely dark with no source of light. The dampness seemed more pronounced than in other rooms. Humidity wasn’t great for her instrument, and Verity was going to tune it again and hope for the best when they had a chance to rest.

<Animal,> said Isra. <Beneath the bed.>

Alfric tensed and crouched low, his sword ready for a thrust. Verity shifted the magic once again, giving him strength, the better to run something through.

<Hostile?> asked Alfric.

<Yes,> said Isra. <Very.>

There was a growl of warning, then a ball of fur came from beneath the bed, and it was only once it had tried to bite at Alfric that Verity saw its form, like a wolf with patches of missing skin and horns of jagged rock. Alfric thrust his sword at it, and the wolf dodged to the side, then in a blur of motion, there were two of it instead, the other ball of fur hurtling toward Mizuki. It didn’t have time to regret that mistake, because it was almost instantly incinerated by a concentrated jet of white hot flame from her hands that continued on past it and started the floor and wall on fire. Mizuki retreated, scrambling backward while trying to keep her hands out in front of her.

When Verity looked back at Alfric, the wolf had multiplied again, and there were three of it, all trying to bite at him, stopped by a combination of his greaves, his sword, and his shield. When Verity noticed blood coming down his leg, she realized they’d been more successful in their attacks than she’d thought.

Isra appeared beside Alfric in a flash, holding her bow taut, and almost right away, she shifted position again, which was accompanied by the thwipping sound of arrows and the whimpering of wolves. The wolves multiplied again with a blur of fur, but this time the copies seemed to be wounded as well, and collapsed after taking a few steps. When Isra’s quiver had refilled, she took more shots, carefully this time, with each shot going straight through a skull. She had a look of grim determination on her face as she took each shot, and because of the way the bow warped time, she seemed to go from releasing an arrow directly to holding a new arrow at full draw.

By the time she was finished, Hannah had already gotten through healing Alfric.

<Bixzotl,> said Hannah. God of Copies. <That could have gone wrong quickly.>

<It didn’t,> said Alfric, though the floor was stained with his blood, and he was breathing hard. He turned to Isra. <Thank you.>

<We should be about half done,> said Hannah. <A break would do.>

Alfric turned to Verity. <Stop, or keep going?> he asked. For whatever else you might say about him, Alfric knew his business, and he was letting her weigh the cost of starting up a new song with the benefits of a break. Verity was grateful that he’d put it in her hands rather than deciding for himself.

<A break,> she said. <Please.>

<Thank the gods,> said Mizuki.

<Ten minutes,> said Alfric. <Then we’re back to it.>

Verity could have let the song unwind itself at once, but she brought it to a proper conclusion, finishing out a verse of the increasingly nonsensical and ahistorical song.

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Alexander Wales

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