“I want to get this out of the way now,” said Alfric, as they sat and recovered. “We shouldn’t have fought the bear. Things were going well, but we got overconfident, and I should have put my foot down. When you’re dungeoneering, you shouldn’t get that close to dying. So I apologize for not being a better leader and allowing that level of risk.”
“We did fine,” said Hannah. “We were barely hurt.”
“We were lucky,” said Alfric. “I don’t want to rely on being lucky. The room was potentially valuable but optional.”
“I really thought that I could kill it straight off,” said Mizuki.
“You can’t rely on conventional biology,” said Alfric. “But the real problem was that we didn’t make an immediate retreat and we didn’t follow the plan. I saw Verity go down and my instinct was to get in the way and protect her. I should have grabbed her and ran as fast as I could. I should have been shouting commands.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” said Hannah. It was, in her opinion, an overreaction. Perhaps she had simply been inured to the prospect of injuries by seeing how close a person could come to death and still be pulled back by a cleric of even moderate skill, let alone a team of clerics devoted to different gods. Alfric had the dagger, and all he’d have to do was make it to the dungeon entrance before getting whisked to the temple. She did feel a bit of guilt though, because she was the one who’d been pushing for it, and it very well could have gone wrong.
“I’m fine,” said Verity, waving off Mizuki. “Sorry for falling, I just … lost the song more than I’ve lost any song before.”
Hannah could feel many things, but whatever had happened to Verity, it was beyond her. The bard seemed like she’d be alright though, she was just a bit dazed, and had even offered some music to help with the looting, if they needed strength to carry things. Alfric hadn’t thought that it was necessary though, not with him and Hannah being as strong as they were, and make no mistake about it, Hannah was strong. Alfric had also thought that Verity had too much a tendency to push herself, but he seemed somewhat reluctant to share that with Verity, and either she hadn’t picked up on the hints, or she’d been ignoring them.
Once they’d finished their rest, they moved as a group through the dungeon, clearing the branches they’d gone through backward, bringing things that they couldn’t stuff inside the book back to the entrance. Alfric had been excited by the wooden wardrobe, though they’d no idea what it actually did, and it was going to be a right pain to carry all the way to Liberfell, if they could even manage it. Alfric could just barely lift it on his own, and needed Hannah’s help to actually move it anywhere, but six miles across uneven terrain, especially with the crags and roots that were on the paths through Traeg’s Knob … well, that was a fool’s game. Alfric thought that it could be warped, so long as it was resting on his foot, but Hannah was extremely skeptical of that, given how heavy it was. If the warp failed, then he wouldn’t just have six miles, he’d have twelve, and anyway, they’d been planning to go for Liberfell, not back to Pucklechurch. The whole thing was a logistical nightmare, but Alfric seemed enthused by it, as though this was one of the parts of dungeoneering that he most enjoyed. Hannah didn’t quite understand it, but that was fine.
They put as much of their personal equipment into the book as they could, now that the dungeon was assumed safe. To hear Alfric tell it, you couldn’t ever really assume that a dungeon was safe. He had said it like it was a rule written down somewhere, which was probably the case. “You do not Know what is in the dungeon,” he’d said. “Even if you’ve cleared the dungeon, even if you have entads that can tell you what’s in there, even if you have personally checked, you do not know what is in the dungeon, and because of that, the dungeon is never safe.”
But they had done a lot, and had a long way to go before they’d be back to proper civilization, so there was no sense in wearing their helms or lugging around their armor, no sense getting sweaty because of the layers.
They had eight entads in all, a good haul, and Alfric was quite hopeful that the wardrobe was the prize of the lot, not just because it had been guarded by the bear, and not just because if it was worthless they’d have to leave it, but because he seemed to take some joy in the large, uncomfortable entad.
“My dad used to tell me stories about entads like this,” he said. He was smiling. “You only really have a problem with them early in your career, when you can’t shrink things down or stuff them away, or just deal with them somehow. For him there was always some fun in it. There was one, a table, nearly four feet across, six feet long, which he navigated down the roads with his friends.”
“What did it do?” asked Mizuki.
“It was a map,” said Alfric. “A big map that went almost to the edges of the table, with bumps where the hills or mountains were, and little square bits where there were houses. I think he sold it to one of the Dondrian hexmasters, but I don’t really remember that part of the story.”
“There’s no reason that it’ll be good just because it’s big, ay,” said Hannah. “Just as likely it’ll clean the laundry you put in it.”
“That would be pretty good,” said Mizuki. “I hate laundry day.”
“The dial,” said Alfric, pointing to the front of the wardrobe. “It’s got six notches, that’s certainly suggestive. Six cardinal directions?”
“Six gods,” said Hannah, folding her arms.
“Six fingers,” said Verity, smiling as she held up a modified hand. She was still somewhat out of it, not her usual self, and Hannah was slightly worried.
“Six spirit gates,” said Mizuki.
“Those are just an extension of the gods,” said Hannah.
“No?” asked Mizuki.
“Well, there’s some argument on that score,” said Hannah. “The point is, lots of things that six might mean, and since it’s an entad, just as well possible that it’s six outfits it can store, or something like that.”
“I have a good feeling,” said Alfric. After the fretting and post mortem, he seemed to be in a good mood, perhaps because they had managed to win against the bear. Hannah hadn’t expected him to suggest a retreat, not when he seemed to put so much emphasis on how you could only do a dungeon once. It made her like him a bit better, knowing that he’d argue for safety like that, even if she thought he’d been a bit overcautious. It made all his talk about being the first line of defense and running away if it got to be too much seem less like the shallow words of someone who just wanted a party.
After an hour and a half, they’d assembled a pile of things in addition to the entads. Isra had insisted on taking some of the bear meat, which she also insisted was good to eat, and that had been stuffed away in the book, nearly a hundred pounds of the stuff, wrapped up in butcher’s paper that Alfric had thought to bring along. The trees were ectad material, and a fairly valuable one, which could be refined into growthstone, but they had only a handaxe, and Alfric didn’t think they were worth the effort. There were also, according to Isra, eggs up in one of the trees, though so high up and with so many branches that it was hard to see how they’d get them.
“We should do entad testing,” said Mizuki, who’d changed clothes now that the dungeon was more or less finished. Hannah had to admit that she did look a lot better in her normal clothes. “What if there’s something that helps us take a tree out? That would be worth it, wouldn’t it?”
“It might,” said Alfric with a sigh. “We have the staff, the sword, the wardrobe, the coin, the rope, the goggles, the rock, and the dagger. None of those are likely to be of any assistance, except for the wardrobe. I think you just want to do entad testing.”
“To be fair,” said Mizuki. “Entad testing is like, the best thing about being a dungeoneer, right?”
“It’s seeing new things,” said Alfric.
“Money,” said Isra.
“Well, I enjoy seein’ these worlds, even if there is a lot tryin’ to kill us,” said Hannah. “But I agree with Mizuki, it makes more sense to test first, just in case we can take a tree.”
Dividing up the entads for testing was a bit of a mess, and Hannah grew to understand why Alfric preferred to have it done once they were out of the dungeon, though he seemed to place more emphasis on the idea that dungeons were never safe. If they bound to the entads, then there was no point in having people test too much, and to test them before, well, people got attached to things, then hoped for a bind. She could see how it might be messy.
Hannah ended up with the rusted sword, which was damp to the touch even after having been out of the water for a half hour. The barnacles and seaweed seemed to be a part of it, rather than having grown on it, and after trying for some time, she couldn’t pick them off. Given the appearance, Hannah expected it to have something to do with water, but it took her quite some time to figure it out, mostly because she was reluctant to go into either of the dungeon’s two pools. Eventually, she decided on filling her mouth with water from a waterskin, and that was enough to confirm that yes, it had the obvious effect of allowing a person to breathe underwater. Hannah was hopeful that there was more to the sword, since it didn’t seem like it would cut that well, and breathing underwater wasn’t all that good unless you were a pearl diver or some such.
No one else was done with theirs, so Hannah went and picked up the coin, which had been hidden under the bed in the stonework room. It was big, almost as big across as her hand, and it was a bit funny to see a coin, given that the world had switched over to rings ages ago. She flipped it in the air, felt something change, but she wasn’t able to figure out what it was before the coin came back down and she caught it in her hand.
She tried again, this time more focused, and she could feel it a little better in her senses, though it was hard to identify exactly what she was feeling. It was a sense of rightness, she supposed, like she was more sure of herself.
She was still flipping the coin, trying to figure it out, when Alfric came over.
“There are a number of duds,” he said. “I’m somewhat convinced that the wardrobe is what I think it is, but if it is, it’s not likely to work until we’re out of the dungeon, and … well, the obvious limitation is that it might not take itself with it, if it can help us to travel.”
“Bad business, tryin’ to predict entads,” said Hannah, shaking her head as she flipped the coin again. Whatever it was doing, it felt good. Perhaps that was the extent of it.
“The dagger lets you know how aware of you someone is,” said Verity. “It seems like the kind of thing we shouldn’t sell.”
“Do we need it?” asked Alfric, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” said Verity, frowning. “I meant because I wouldn’t want it to end up in the wrong hands. It’s the kind of weapon a thief would love. Or an assassin.”
“Is that why you were behind me?” asked Mizuki, who was standing upright on top of the staff, which had grown to twice its size. “You were trying to stab me?”
“I was trying to discover what it did,” said Verity. “But yes, I was quite certain that you weren’t aware I was creeping up.” She shrugged. “If it doesn’t bond, we sell it, I guess. I don’t think assassins are actually all that common anymore.”
“I want this staff,” said Mizuki. “It’s neat.”
“Better balance?” asked Alfric, looking up at her.
“And it extends,” said Mizuki. She kicked out a foot, which caused the staff to go the opposite direction, but somehow she was able to stop it, balancing with the staff going one direction and her body going the other. “I always wanted to be an acrobat.”
“We shouldn’t keep entads unless they help with dungeoneering,” said Alfric. “Better to sell them at Liberfell and try to get something we actually need instead.”
“The goggles let me see … something,” said Isra, who had them on. She was looking at them, one by one. “Changes in people,” She pointed at Hannah. “I can see the symmetricalization, I think.”
“Ooo,” said Hannah. “Interestin’, that. Can I try?”
Isra took the goggles off and handed them to Hannah, who slipped them on. It was quite a production, given the volume of her hair.
“Well now,” said Hannah, looking at them one by one in turn. Her eyes went to Alfric, and she peered at him through the thick glass. His armor and clothes seemed to strip away from him, and she could see his dark skin beneath it. Beneath that she could see his muscles and bones, all of it laid out in vivid color, hard to make out except for the places that were highlighted, those being certain areas of the bones. “How many bones have you broken in your life, Alfric?” asked Hannah. “Seems a fair few.”
“Injuries while sparring, mostly,” said Alfric. He pointed to his left arm. “Can you see the place where you healed the hairline fracture?”
Hannah nodded, then took the goggles off. “Seems a bit pointless, at least for me,” said Hannah. “It shows the body, which is good, but I can know all that just from touchin’ a person, and what I care about is what’s hurt, not what’s been changed by another cleric.”
“We’ll mark it as a dud,” said Alfric, nodding. “But it’s probably of use to someone, somewhere.”
“Can we smuggle entads out in the book?” asked Mizuki. “To get them not to bind?”
“If you could get around binding, we would do it,” said Alfric. “It’s always better to have something unbound.”
“Unless you think someone is going to try to steal it,” said Verity.
“Yes, right,” said Alfric. “It’s almost always better. I can go over the scenarios for what happens if you try various workarounds, but I fear you’d make fun of me.”
“Me?” asked Mizuki, as she improbably climbed down from the staff. “You besmirch my honor?”
“If you don’t care, you don’t care,” said Alfric. “And it doesn’t matter, we’re following protocol for entads. The most you can do is send someone out with an entad you want them to bind to, and even that doesn’t work the vast majority of the time, because it can bind across the party link.”
“And if you break the party while you’re in the dungeon?” asked Verity, whose head was cocked to the side.
“The dungeon created itself for the party, in a manner of speaking,” said Alfric. “Even if we broke the party, so long as we’re here, we’re all linked to it.”
“Well, I’d like to take the staff out,” said Mizuki. “If no one minds. I was thinking on the way in that I wanted a walking stick, and the universe has provided for me.”
“I’ll be carrying the wardrobe,” said Alfric. “But mostly because I’m the only one that can lift it. I don’t think we should spend too much time on picking out who carries what entad, not when most of them don’t seem like they have personal interest for us.”
Hannah nodded, then looked at the rope. “What does that one do?”
“Shifts itself,” said Alfric. “It’s hard to explain. When you’re holding it, there’s a feeling of it sliding under your finger, but the ends don’t move when it does that. I feel like it might be good for climbing, but I think it would complicate knotwork, so I’m unsure.”
“And the rock?” asked Alfric.
“Oh, I did that one,” said Verity. “It lets you go to a garden.” The rock was one they almost certainly would have missed if it weren’t for Mizuki.
“A garden?” asked Alfric.
“Like an imaginary garden?” asked Verity. “I asked Isra, and she didn’t see me move. It was like a mental thing. An imaginary garden.” She shrugged.
“Mental effects are very rare,” said Alfric, frowning. He moved over to the rock, which was pale, with lots of holes, and weighed so much Hannah felt fortunate that it would probably fit inside the book. Alfric touched the rock, and then looked around not seeming to see them. Then he pulled away from it. “Odd.”
“It was an imaginary garden, right?” asked Verity. “Interesting, but not useful.”
“Wait,” said Alfric. He reached down and touched the rock again, and this time he moved while he was touching it, using his other hand to pluck something from just above the ground. When he released the stone, a yellow flower appeared between his fingertips. “Not imaginary,” he said, looking at the flower. “Still not useful, but far more interesting. We’ll test the limits before we sell it.” He paused, then looked over at the wardrobe. “Wait.”
“Test it first,” said Hannah. “See if you can bring a stone in, then see if you can bring it back out.”
“I will, I will,” said Alfric. “But if we can use the garden as an extradimensional space, that’s a substantial upgrade from the book.”
A round of somewhat disappointing testing followed. Rocks could be dropped into the garden, and so could flowers, but not entads, and not anything metal. The garden was the same every time, a sunny space with lots of flowers and plants around, in a little meadow that seemed to recede into the distance faster than it should have. It was Isra who had the best ideas for poking at the edges of the entad’s ability, and while they couldn’t get any other entad ‘inside’ of it, they did have some luck with other organic things, even those that hadn’t come from the garden in the first place.
“We could put one of the trees in there,” said Alfric. He seemed quite excited by the prospect. “Right?”
“I don’t think so,” said Isra. “It would be too big.” They’d all had their chance with the stone, and Isra had spent considerable time with it.
“A person is organic,” said Mizuki. “Do you think you could put a person in it?”
“Do you want to try?” asked Alfric.
“Obviously we would try an animal first,” said Hannah.
“Right, of course,” he nodded. “But if we can fit a person, especially if we can keep them in their clothes —”
“I’m not going naked, thank you very much,” said Mizuki.
“I wasn’t,” said Alfric, before stopping himself. He looked at Mizuki. “Will you ever stop giving me guff?”
“I suppose someday we’ll retire from the adventuring life,” said Mizuki. “And then we won’t have cause to see each other.” She rubbed her chin. “But not until then.”
“Sorry, Alfric,” said Hannah, “But do you really want to try to bring a tree into that garden? That would mean cuttin’ down a tree, which as you’ve said, we’re not much equipped for.”
“Mizuki?” asked Alfric.
“I said I wasn’t going naked,” she replied, putting her hands on her hips.
“I want you to chop down a tree for me,” he said. “Do you think you can do that?”
Mizuki rubbed the back of her neck with her hand. “I … guess? When Verity charged me up, I sucked the aether flat, so I’m not sure there’s much left there, or how fast it will flow back.” She looked over at Hannah. “How are you doing for juice?”
“I’m a cleric,” said Hannah, rolling her eyes. “My connection to godliness is not about ‘juice’. It’s about whether and how much I comport with the will of my god, and how much I try to stretch things out of sort. And in that respect, it may take some time for Garos to see my devotion to him in the proper light.”
“You’re out of juice,” said Mizuki, nodding.
Hannah sighed. “To do somethin’ like I did with that bear, a hex of that nature, marks me as a bad cleric, at least in the short term,” said Hannah. This was a contentious position within the clergy, but the good thing about talking to laity was that they weren’t in a position to argue, not that Hannah had ever backed down from argument. “Minor wounds, scratches and the like, I can still manage, and maybe I could do a broken bone or two, if they were very minor, like the break Alfric had to his arm, but if you need me to fuel somethin’ for you, then no, I probably can’t.”
Alfric and Mizuki set off to the room with the trees, with Alfric carrying the rock using both hands, while Hannah stayed back, ostensibly to get things ready, but mostly because she wanted a rest. Isra and Verity were in quiet conversation with each other, and Hannah didn’t want to disturb them, especially since they were the two quiet ones, and seemed to be getting along.
Her part in attacking the bear had put a strain on her relationship to Garos. She had felt it when she laid hands on the bear, that it wasn’t quite right, and she’d done it anyway. The problem was that Garos was about patterns, and trying to reflect a wound of that size and irregularity, especially on a creature of such scale, and one that wasn’t terribly symmetrical to begin with, just didn’t have the feeling of completing a pattern, not to Garos.
What Garos liked was nudging something into symmetry, and saying that he ‘liked’ it was probably an understatement. Nudges were so easy that they happened without needing all that much effort or will. If you had a grid of sixty-four pebbles, and just one of them was a bit out of alignment, well, that was simplicity itself to get it to conform, and this was one of the things that acolytes did as a training exercise. But those same sixty-four pebbles, all in a cluster together, couldn’t be put into that same grid without serious pulling on the godly connection, and if you pulled too much, Garos might let go of the rope.
Hannah wasn’t worried about her clerical connection. She knew Garos, understood Garos, better than most of his clerics, and while she’d made a big ask, any weakness of the bond was just temporary. She still had her lesser powers, though she’d use them sparingly for the rest of the day. Taking the arm from the monster covered with clams hadn’t been so much of a strain, because the asymmetry was more clear. Who liked a monster with only one arm? The trick, the way to model it in her head, was not to think of it as a missing arm, but only a line of damage, and that had made things smoother. But with the bear, it had been such irregular damage over such a wide area.
Hannah clucked her tongue. The party was more or less safe, so she’d done her part. Whatever trauma Verity had suffered, it was magical in nature, and seemed to be temporary, with their bard now returned to high spirits. And though she and Alfric had been banged around, and too much of that wasn’t good for you, they both still seemed to have their wits about them. A cleric of Qymmos could check them over easily enough, just to be sure, ideally one in Liberfell, but she wasn’t terribly worried. It was the people who refused treatment you had to worry about, and Alfric seemed more sensible than that. He was a good lad, if a bit too focused on the dungeons.
Hannah went to go sit beside Verity and Isra, who had been chattering away about, if Hannah understood correctly, pickles.
“So, girls,” said Hannah. “Another dungeon done.”
“Or mostly done,” said Verity, nodding. She stretched out her legs. “I’m quite hungry, but nothing we packed seems like it suits me.”
“Trail food isn’t the best,” said Hannah, nodding. “Perhaps once we’re in Liberfell, we can look at gettin’ somethin’ like a magical spoon that’ll make whatever meal you want.” That was wishful thinking, because it was likely to be far too expensive. “I suppose if I’ve got a list of what I’m after, it’s for somethin’ that would make food.”
“I want a hot meal,” said Verity with a sigh. “If you could just lift a cloche up, and find something waiting for you.”
“Food replacement is rare, ay,” said Hannah. “And a good thing too, or what would the farmers end up doing?”
“My family had two of them,” said Verity. “Mostly for emergencies, though. Entads, not farmers.”
Hannah whistled. “Must have cost them a fair few rings.”
“I suppose I don’t know,” said Verity.
“You were sayin’ about pickles?” asked Hannah, looking over at Isra.
“I packed some,” she said with a shrug. “In the book.”
“I do love a pickle, if you don’t mind?” asked Hannah. She got up and went over to where the book was sitting. “They’re a traditional food.”
“I brought them to share,” said Isra. “They’re traditional for my people too.”
“I think they’re traditional for all people, aren’t they?” asked Verity. “Anywhere you need to preserve things.”
“Oh, I’ve no idea,” said Hannah as she leafed through the pages. The book was quite a good entad, but it did take some time to find what you were searching for, and more time to extract it. Alfric had already talked about replacing it, but he seemed to know there was no sense in that, not at this point. “We’ll have to ask Mizuki what they do in Kiromo. I know ‘sobyu’, but I don’t know if they do anythin’ with a cucumber, which is, to my mind, the pickle people mean when they talk about pickles.”
But at that moment, as Hannah was extracting a pickle from the crock, Mizuki returned, looking quite pleased with herself. Alfric trailed behind her, lugging the rock.
“We felled not one but two trees,” said Mizuki. “It took some time, but they’re stored in the garden, and we might even be able to get them out of there.”
“I’m skeptical,” said Alfric. “It might be that they’re just stuck in there. I didn’t want to try getting them out in case they got stuck, and we’re going to have to find a nice, flat field, or a large yard.”
“And also,” said Mizuki, holding out her hands. “Eggs.” In her small hands were three eggs, one of them a speckled blue, the other two a brown and a white one.
“She worked hard to get them,” nodded Alfric. “But we don’t have a way to safely remove them.”
“Just put them in the book,” said Mizuki, nodding in Hannah’s direction. Hannah got the sense this was a conversation they’d already had together. “Ooo, are those pickles for everyone?”
“They are,” said Isra. “It won’t work to put the eggs in the book. Eggs need air.”
“What?” asked Mizuki. “That’s not — they’re eggs. Self-contained.”
“No,” said Isra.
“What do you mean no?” asked Mizuki. “You’re telling me that eggs breathe somehow, despite not having a mouth?”
“They do,” said Isra.
“Well that’s,” said Mizuki. “How do you know?”
“I’m a woods witch, apparently,” said Isra, her voice level.
“I think she’s right,” said Hannah. “For what it’s worth. And if we had a ventstone, we could put that in with the eggs to keep them breathing, but —”
“I don’t think that would work,” said Alfric. “Pressure would build up until equilibrium, but then the air would be fouled from the breathing, and the ventstone would be doing nothing.”
Hannah frowned. “So you’re saying a ventstone and a voidstone?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “And yes, it would be quite expensive.” He looked to Isra. “Can you tell what these eggs would need to hatch?”
“Yes,” said Isra. She didn’t elaborate further. “I don’t think they’re dangerous, or hatching soon.”
“They were in a nest up in one of the trees,” said Mizuki. “That means that it’s a bird of some kind, I think, but there was no sign of any actual animal.” Looking now, Hannah could see the scratches. “But if we don’t know what they need, or if Isra thinks that they’ll hatch into something bad, then at least we can have an omelette.”
Alfric sighed. “We’re really just not equipped for dungeon eggs.”
“You really think that eggs breathe somehow?” asked Mizuki, holding one of the eggs up. She was holding the other two in one hand, and Hannah thought that of the whole party, Mizuki was perhaps the one she trusted least with eggs.
“When you smoke an egg, the smoke goes through the shell,” said Isra. “They do need to breathe.”
“Sorry,” said Hannah. “When you smoke an egg?”
“A hard-boiled egg,” said Isra. She had her arms crossed and dropped them a bit. “Smoked, for flavor.”
“That sounds delicious,” said Hannah. “Absolutely delicious.”
“I will make one for you sometime,” said Isra, nodding. She walked over to Mizuki and touched each of the eggs in turn. “It’s hard to tell what creature these are. All the same sort, I think. Not particularly dangerous though. None have the same,” she shook her head. “The same anger of the dungeon monsters.”
“Eggs, and very young animals, tend to work out better that way,” said Alfric. “We can transport these eggs to Liberfell, if they’re not going to hatch in the next day or so, and we can get an incubator there, but then we’ll have to bring it all back to Pucklechurch with us, unless we can sell the eggs. We’ll want to get it all handled today though.”
“And we’ve this wardrobe,” said Hannah, giving it a skeptical eye. “I suppose, Alfric, that you and I are to be the ones to carry it six miles through uneven woodland trails?”
“Of course, if you’re up for it,” he said with a smile. He seemed to have a deep affection for that wardrobe. “But there’s a chance that we can use it to skip straight to Liberfell. Six notches on the dial, and I’m hopeful that means six cardinal directions. A wardrobe is big enough to step into.”
He kept up his good cheer as they all ate some of Isra’s pickles. They were a touch sour and a touch salty for Hannah’s taste, but there were so many herbs and other things packed in with them that the flavor was hard to beat.
And once their break was done, and Isra was cradling the three eggs, they left the dungeon, off to Liberfell.