Isra drank from her waterskin and tried her best to rest her arm. There were limits to how many times she could draw her bow in a day before the arm simply gave out and refused to pull, and she feared that she was hitting that point far too early on. They had said five to ten rooms in the dungeon, and she didn’t know whether that counted the first one or not, but if they were halfway done, she didn’t think she would be able to fire the bow by the end of it.
<Hannah, can you do something for my arm?> asked Isra. She was rubbing her shoulder, trying to make it feel better.
<I can try,> said Hannah. She went over and gripped Isra by the left bicep, then frowned a bit. <Your right is bigger than your left.>
<I use the right to shoot,> said Isra, not quite understanding.
<You’re not symmetrical,> said Hannah. <If I had symmetricalized you before the dungeon, it wouldn’t be a problem, I’d just do a simple mirror left to right and you’d be nearly as good as new. But if I copy left to right now, then you’d lose muscle mass and tone, and not have half the power you do now. If I mirror right to left, you’ll have two sore arms, which does no one any good. A partial mirroring is beyond me.>
<Okay,> said Isra, rubbing her arm. <Thank you.>
<Ay, sorry I can’t do more. If you want to be symmetricalized, we’ll set aside a day for it, but it’s not somethin’ that can be undone,> said Hannah with a nod.
Isra nodded back, and dipped her fingers into the small pouch she had with her to pull out some turmeric root, which she chewed on for a moment before washing it down with water from her waterskin. The herb wouldn’t work instantly or completely, but it was good for sore muscles, which she was sure to have once the day was done, at least at the rate they were going. The bow was both a blessing and a curse, powerful, but also demanding.
Isra thought back to what Verity had said about the magical lute she’d once used, a whole concert in the form of a single instrument. She wondered whether entads had a tendency to do that in general, to push people to their limits simply by virtue of what they allowed a person to be capable of. Isra looked at Verity, who was taking a long drink from her own waterskin. Her helm was off, revealing sweat-damp hair that was sticking to her face.
Verity had said, during a long conversation the night before, as they lay in beds on the opposite sides of the room, that she felt a bit silly being a bard, singing to people who were throwing fireballs or swinging a sword, but Isra hadn’t thought that was true at all. She hadn’t, at the time, found a way to say any words of encouragement. It was noble and bright to give strength to others, to sing in the face of danger.
<Is everyone ready?> asked Alfric as he put his helm back on.
<Ready as I’ll ever be,> said Mizuki, slowly getting to her feet. She’d spent quite some time finding the driest spot on the floor she could, as far from the dead wolves as she could be. They were unsettling, though they’d been the closest to a normal animal that Isra had yet sensed. She’d been slower than Mizuki when it came to the vines, and in retrospect, it should have been obvious. The dungeons were different though, her senses dulled. The creatures in them were possessed by something.
<Ready,> said Hannah, as she put on her helm too.
It occurred to Isra that she was the only one without a helm. She simply hadn’t thought about it. A helm wasn’t something you wore out in the woods, even when tracking dangerous game, which she had done only twice before, both times to collect a bounty from the local beastmaster. In some sense, going into a dungeon was like those hunts had been, but with less uncertainty over when and where the danger might be.
They left the room with Alfric, as always, in the lead, and Hannah and Mizuki close behind him. Verity began her song, and Isra listened closely to the half-spoken lyrics, which seemed to be about a long sea voyage. Isra knew only vaguely of the sea: the closest she had ever been to it was the open water that Tarchwood sat on the edge of, and that was, according to Alfric, a large lake rather than a sea. Still, the song was nice and sweet, with a bit of melancholy that Verity seemed drawn to. Isra liked it, and reflected that she hadn’t heard Verity sing a bad song yet.
Isra had her magical bow drawn and an arrow nocked, so when the fighting started, she was ready to pull. The creature was shaped almost like a human, but as it unfolded from behind its rock, it became obvious that it was much taller, twice Alfric’s height at least. It had a single bloodshot eyeball that dominated its face, and teeth sticking out from the skin beneath it, without any seeming mouth to accompany them. The hands were four-fingered and disproportionately huge compared to the body. By the time it had picked up a rock to hurl at them or bash them with, Isra had loosed her first arrow.
She walked after the arrow as it continued on its leisurely flight through the cavern. She nocked another arrow and brought it to full draw, then released it, aiming squarely for the eye of the cyclops.
What Isra was used to was bow hunting, where the first shot was the most important, because it was the one made against a stationary, unaware target. That was where she was best. In a dungeon, there was so much less range, and the demand, especially with the entad, seemed to be to place as many arrows into the target as quickly as possible. Isra had been practicing every day since leaving the dungeon, getting used to the new bow, which seemed to have a much higher draw, and the new arrows, which had a different weight and flight. She’d been working her arm to build up the kind of endurance a dungeon seemed to require. It hadn’t been long enough for any of that training to take effect though.
She managed to loose three arrows as she walked, all aiming for that central eye, hoping to blind the creature, or at least injure it seriously enough that Alfric wouldn’t risk getting crushed. The arrow she’d been walking beside had been lower down, aimed at its belly or groin, because if she’d aimed high, she wouldn’t have been able to follow along with the bubble of warped time.
As the slowed arrow was about to strike, Isra turned herself around and quickly nocked another arrow, firing it away from the monster as soon as time started moving forward at its normal pace. This allowed a second bubble of slowed time, which she followed back away from the creature, resting her arm as she walked. She glanced back as she moved, trying to see whether and where she’d hit. All four arrows had struck it, but only one had hit the eye, and its head was snapping backward from the force of the impacts. She didn’t think that it would be seriously hurt, given the durability of the last big one, and she took her place beside Verity, turning back around to face the monster and preparing to let loose another volley, if it seemed to be doing anything helpful.
The monster crashed to the ground with three arrows in its head, and the flame that Mizuki had been halfway to conjuring in her hands died away. They waited for a moment, but the monster didn’t move.
<Was that all Isra?> asked Mizuki.
<Yes,> said Alfric.
<I didn’t think that would kill it,> said Isra.
<You didn’t think that three arrows fired directly into its eye would kill it?> asked Mizuki.
Isra frowned at her. <Most of these things are tougher. I hit the other in the head and it didn’t seem to notice.>
<Good work,> said Alfric. <Let’s move on and preserve Verity’s song.>
He continued without waiting for the others, and they fell in behind him, down yet another tunnel, one of two in the room. The tunnels seemed to branch, each room revealing two more, and Isra rubbed her arm again. She wasn’t sure how many arrows she could fire in a day, but she put no more than five in her quiver when hunting, and when she practiced, it was no more than perhaps twenty in a day, or forty if she was practicing in the morning and evening. With the magical arrows, which had yet to break, there was no worry about having to spend more money at the fletchers, or more time fletching her own arrows, but it was still a concern. She was going to have to work up to the stamina that the dungeons required, or hope that Hannah could help.
The next room had a small pool, with tiny glowing fish that swam around in it, but no monsters to speak of. Resting against one wall was a wooden staff, so natural that it might have been possible to mistake for a branch. There were stalactites and stalagmites, and it gave the feeling of being deep in a cave, which in a sense, they were.
Alfric knelt down next to the pool and looked into the clear water at the fish there.
<Mizuki,> he said. <Can you see an entad down there?>
Isra felt the magic of the song shifting, likely to aid Mizuki, and once again, she looked over at Verity, who was strumming away. The bard looked calm, but she was holding magic in place, and Isra knew that took some effort for her, and couldn’t be continued indefinitely.
<Some kind of long thing, maybe a sword, yes,> she said.
Alfric nodded, then slowly lowered his hand into the pool. The fish rushed to it at once, concentrating their glow, and Alfric pulled his hand back, shaking it with a grimace until two of the fish whose teeth had sunk into were dislodged.
<Hannah, be ready to heal,> he said.
<Ready,> said Hannah, moving to his side.
Alfric plunged his hand into the shallow pool, all the way to the bottom, and pulled something rusted up from the bottom. He used his spare hand to pull off the glowing fish and toss them back in the pool. The blood from his arm turned the water cloudy by the time he was finished. The wounds were healed almost at once as Hannah laid hands on him.
The sword itself seemed to be in terrible condition. It was covered in seaweed, rust, and barnacles, with the metal chipped and cracked.
<Save that for later, with the staff,> said Alfric, setting it next to the piece of wood. He looked into the pool. <No point in killing those.>
The room after that had black, long-legged things, like deer on stilts with a horrible grimace on their faces, and Isra let loose, taking more care to aim than to be quick about it. She got one of the five and injured two more, then barely got her hands up in time when Mizuki announced a fireburst to kill two of them outright. Alfric moved in quickly, sword flashing, and Isra aimed at the melee, trying to get a shot, which didn’t end up needing to be done, because he dispatched one, then the other, with only minor wounds. The whole thing was over in a blur, an encounter that almost immediately jumbled itself up, the details becoming indistinct under the relentless pace of their dungeon crawling.
They worked their way back, past the dead giant and into the room where a mussel-covered corpse was still sitting beside a pool of water. The mussels had fallen off, leaving pocked white skin below.
The next room was different from what came before, open at the top to let in moonlight that didn’t match the daylight of the other room, and trees that seemed to grow straight up from the shiny black stone, their roots weaving in and out of it as though it were dirt. Isra could feel the trees, thick pines that shared something in common with those on the outside, but with a warp to them, an internal wobbling rather than a solid cylinder of the trunk.
In the center of the clearing was a bear, and Alfric stayed well back from it, because it was as big as a house. It was resting, but not quite sleeping, with its back turned toward them. From time to time, it would huff and sigh.
<I don’t know that we can kill this thing,> said Alfric. <We’re not equipped to punch through its vitals.>
<It’s too large to get through the door,> said Mizuki.
<Which is why we’re staying back,> replied Alfric. <We can skip this room. I don’t think fighting that thing is worth an entad, if there’s one in there.>
<Trees are magic,> said Mizuki. <Ectad material.>
<Which we have no way of chopping or carting,> said Alfric. <Not worth it.>
<You’re the one that said a full clear was best,> said Hannah. <And there might be a room beyond still, or two. Otherwise we’re done.>
<I don’t want a level of risk we’re not going to find acceptable,> said Alfric, his voice firm. <Mizuki can hit it once, maybe twice, but Isra’s arm is close to giving out, Verity has been holding songs, and we’re already getting at least six entads from this dungeon.> This was a mild surprise to Isra, who hadn’t been tracking the things left behind. <There might be no upside in doing this fight, not when it’s incapable of getting through the entrance. We don’t kill for sport.>
<Vote?> asked Hannah.
<On what?> asked Alfric. <If we try this, it’ll be with Mizuki lobbing shots, us trying to get the creature stuck in the doorway, hitting its face, and maybe trying to wedge my sword in its mouth.>
<Sounds like a vote,> said Hannah, nodding. <Aye.>
<Aye,> said Alfric, sounding reluctant.
<Aye,> said Mizuki, squaring her shoulders.
Isra looked at Verity, who was still playing, and saw the bard give a slow, circumspect nod of her head.
<Aye,> said Isra.
Mizuki came to the front, at the mouth of the cave. She breathed a shaky breath.
<Is it too late to change to a nay?> she asked.
<I’m going to yell for it,> said Alfric. <Aim for the head with everything you’ve got. We’re trying to get a killing blow.>
<Okay,> replied Mizuki. There was a disturbance in the air, around her fingers, and Isra felt the song shift. Something changed in Mizuki, and the air began to crackle around her. Isra could feel it in her skin, and the air warmed around them.
“Aaaah!” screamed Alfric. “Aaahah!”
<Get ready to cover your ears,> said Mizuki.
The house-size bear rose, slowly, and turned to face them. ‘Face’ was likely the wrong word, because it was simply a collection of eyes that seemed to have been placed on the head at random, along with black things like leeches that hung from where its mouth should have been, each of them as large as a human arm. It warbled at them, and as it began to move, Mizuki struck. For a moment, it was like the air had been sucked out of the room, but it wasn’t just air, it was something else as well, a void in the aether that Isra could feel, even without being a mage.
The spell had been directed, focused, and still the blowback from it hit them all hard enough that they staggered. Mizuki hadn’t used a fireball, or a fireburst, or the one with lightning, it had been different, almost a beam, energy in a more pure form, cleanly directed.
Half of the bear’s face was missing, and there was a hole of charred flesh in it so large that Isra thought she probably could have crawled inside.
Still, it lumbered forward, as though not aware that it should be dead.
Isra fired her bow, aiming for the eyes, hoping to blind, and stepped after her arrow, firing more. She was feeling it in her arm, too many firings too close together, but she pressed on. Looking at the ruins of its face, trying to remain calm, she aimed arrows not just at the remaining eight eyes, but at the side of its head as well. There was a spot where it’s head had been which was now charred meat, and on the other side of that was something, which wasn’t protected by the same thick hide.
<Hannah, go,> said Alfric, but it was said while Isra was in the bubble of warped time, so the sounds were stretched out.
When the first arrow she’d shot hit home, Isra backed up. A glance behind her showed something unsettling though: Verity and Mizuki were both on the ground, with Mizuki trying to rouse Verity. The song had ended.
When Isra looked back to the bear, she saw Hannah and Alfric there. Hannah was on the thing’s ruined right side, and Alfric was on its left. That Hannah was going to touch the creature was both obvious and insane, because it had sharp shovel-claws that were each the size of a person’s head. Isra fired another arrow, her arm stinging, and watched the creature’s paw go toward Hannah in slow motion as the arrow crept forward. Isra had thoughts of attempting to move Hannah, but it was too hard to affect the world when time was slowed, and she had too little time to do anything about it. She watched in horror as Hannah was hit to the side, lifted up off her feet and careened into one of the trees. She struggled to her feet, but the creature had turned its attention to Alfric, and he was without backup.
The bear hit him with its claw, a slow, lumbering hit, and his shield was ripped from his hand, leaving only his sword, which he gripped with two hands as he backed up. Isra fired another arrow, this time at the leech-like appendage dangling from its face, which was swinging up to Alfric. She struck it, twice in quick succession, but the beast still had its claws. Slowed down time was giving Isra time to think, and that was giving rise to fear, which Verity wasn’t there to tamp down.
“Stop!” shouted Isra at the top of her lungs, as the bear raised a paw to bring down on Alfric.
To her surprise, the bear stopped what it was doing and looked at Isra. It had arrows sticking into its face and a giant cavity on the right side of its body, but there was still, somehow, a dull curiosity, all of it directed at her. It wasn’t going to listen, that was clear, but it had felt the words.
The left half of its head vanished, replaced by a mirror of the same charred damage. For a moment, Isra thought even that might not be enough, but the monster collapsed to the ground after a moment of swaying.
<Retreat,> commanded Alfric. <To the tunnel.>
They all moved back, with Alfric and Hannah both limping, until they got to where Mizuki had, somehow, dragged Verity out of harm’s way.
“She sucked the magic out of me,” said Verity, lolling her head. “I didn’t know a sorc could do that.”
“Well I didn’t either!” said Mizuki. “One minute it felt like I was the most powerful sorcerer in the world, the next you were collapsing, and somehow that stupid bear wasn’t dead.”
<It’s dead now,> said Alfric, looking at the giant corpse. There was enough meat there to feed a village for an entire winter, a body so big that it would take a week just to dress it, if not more. It was good meat too, Isra could tell. She’d eaten bear only once before, hunted by someone else, and it had taken some effort to get rid of the gamey taste, but it had been fatty and delicious. <Are you okay, Verity? Do we need to get you out of here?>
“I’m fine,” said Verity, getting to her feet with a groan. Her lute had been left on the ground, and she went to go pick it up. “I’ve never experienced something like that, to have the song snuffed out like that.”
“More than snuffed out,” said Mizuki. “I used it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, you just expanded what I was capable of, and I wanted to take that thing out with a single hit, and I didn’t realize how much I was taking from all over.”
“We share blame,” said Verity, stretching out and then looking her lute over for damage.
“You share credit, more like,” said Hannah, gesturing in the direction of the beast. “Not our best decision, to take on a thing like that, but we did it, together.”
Isra opened her mouth to protest that she’d done nothing, that her arrows had been useless, but the beast had stopped when she’d told it to, and that had probably saved Alfric’s life.
“We’ll take a break,” said Alfric. He had stopped using party chat, perhaps because everyone else had too. “But we still have half the dungeon left to do, because we need to collect our winnings and then get to Liberfell. The storage book is nearly empty, and we’re going to fill it up with as much as we possibly can.”
“Less in this one than the one before,” said Hannah. “Less worked goods to take, and unless we’re choppin’ those trees, less in the way of ectad things.”
“Which means less work,” nodded Alfric. He looked past the corpse of the bear. “And it’s possible that there are more rooms left.”
“I’ll need a longer break, if you want me to sing,” said Verity.
“I’m really, really sorry,” said Mizuki. “If I’d realized what I was doing —”
“It’s okay little boy,” said Verity with a sigh. She reached a hand up to touch Mizuki’s face. “You did your best.”
Mizuki smiled, then made to bite Verity’s hand, and they laughed together for a moment before finding a place to sit together.
“Isra, can you scout ahead?” asked Alfric. “Just to see whether there’s a door or not. An arrow there, an arrow back. I’ll come in an instant if there’s trouble, but I think we’re done with at least this room.”
Isra nodded. “Of course.”
“I cracked a rib,” said Hannah, as Isra prepared. “Fixed now. Let me look at you, Alfric, you took a bit of a hit. Present your profile to them, ay? Better for the healin’ that way.”
Isra loosed the arrow and followed, walking slowly and keeping her eyes peeled for anything moving, though it was difficult, with time slowed so much. She passed close by the corpse of the bear, following the arrow’s flight as it slowly dropped due to gravity, and prepared her second arrow as the first was about to hit the ground. There seemed to be no other doors though, no corridors or tunnels, just trees that were rooted in obsidian, and a piece of large oak furniture with a curious dial set into its front. Isra was keen to investigate, but she had told Alfric she’d be back, and she fired off another arrow back the way she’d come, ready to deliver the news that they’d finished the dungeon.
Alfric was right though. Their work had only just begun, because with the fighting over and the dungeon apparently fully cleared, it was time to go through all the work of taking everything of value.