The Adventurer’s League was in charge of all matters related to the dungeons across Interim, and predated the actual conglomerate country by quite some time. It had originally started as a trade association, but through the many centuries it had been around, it had eventually come to be nationalized, and served as a semi-independent arm of the Interim government. The League were the ones who put locks on the dungeons, dealt with what repairs were needed, created maps of where the dungeons were, tracked dungeon status, and most importantly, authorized who would be allowed to go into the dungeons. Anything that came out of the dungeons was for some other department to deal with, but anyone who wanted to go into the dungeons fell under the authority of the League.
The League had set a strict age limit on dungeoneering, under the rationale that the younger you were, the less likely you were to have proper training, and the more likely it was you would make bad decisions. But because there were always enthusiastic young people wanting to get into dungeoneering, the Junior League had been formed, and its mandate was to get these young people ready.
Alfric had entered into the Junior League as young as possible, age twelve, and immediately found it to be a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, it was simply too little time, only twice a week for a few hours. The other big problem was that it didn’t seem to be taken very seriously by either the other members, or by the adults who were running the thing. It was more social than practical, an ‘activity’ for kids to do. They went on too many field trips that were only loosely tied into dungeoneering, like going to the Dondrian Metropolitan Zoo to see all kinds of examples of monsters, most of which were docile forms grown from dungeon eggs, or hostile forms tucked behind smoked glass. If it had been accompanied by a frank discussion from a dungeoneer about the varieties of monsters found in dungeons, Alfric wouldn’t have minded it so much, but no, they were just wandering between exhibits, gawking at the captured monsters.
It was on one of those pointless trips that Alfric had properly met Josen. They had been in Junior League together for nearly a year, but had known each other only by name. While the others were playing around and staring at the monsters in their habitats, Josen had been looking through a small pane of glass he held in his hand. Alfric approached cautiously.
“Is that an entad?” he asked.
“No,” said Josen. He stood there for a moment, looking through the piece of glass and giving the impression that he was hoping their conversation was done. “It’s meant to be a method of seeing the aether, but I don’t think it’s working.”
“If it’s not an entad, what is it?” asked Alfric, frowning.
“I’m a wizard,” said Josen. “It’s a mana construct anchored to the glass. But like I said, it’s not working. If it was, you’d be able to see it too.”
“I tried wizardry,” said Alfric. “My teachers didn’t think I was very good.” Anyone could, in theory, be a wizard, but in practice, if you didn’t have the proper aptitude, you would be forever behind those who had it. Working five times as hard just to tread water wasn’t something that Alfric had thought was a big deal, not at the time, but his parents had told him no.
“It’s the only thing I’m good at,” said Josen. He looked down at the non-functional pane of glass in his hands. “Usually. This is complicated.”
“Most wizards can’t do anything until they’re much older,” said Alfric.
Josen nodded. “My mother and father are both wizards. They trained me early.”
“My mother and father are both dungeoneers,” said Alfric.
This was the first time that Josen showed anything like respect or interest toward Alfric, and from that point on, they gravitated toward each other at Junior League. Josen was most interested in wizardry, and spoke about it often, which Alfric listened to patiently, understanding relatively little. Josen had a seriousness to him that the other Junior League kids seemed to be lacking. His interest in dungeons was largely mercenary, mostly to get what entads he could and make as much money as possible. When they were fifteen, they did some math together, and found that ten years of dungeoneering would see both of them set for life, even using conservative estimates for both time traveled and days per dungeon.
They had dreams together, in their own way. Alfric’s dream was always of gearing up and meeting the challenges of the dungeons, while Josen’s were largely about the constructs he would build when he had virtually unlimited access to mana stones. Alfric didn’t quite understand the compulsion, even though Josen spoke about it often. All Alfric knew, all he thought he needed to know, was that Josen had grand plans and was going to be along for the ride.
Party composition was a hot topic in the Junior League, especially since one of the points of the organization was to get everyone ready to eventually embark on actual dungeoneering. The Junior League was where plans were made and parties were formed. By the time they were fourteen, it was obvious to both of them that they were going to form the core of a party, and from there, they had a number of discussions about who the other three might be. Alfric considered a bard to be an absolute necessity, because a skilled one could act as a multiplier on the entire team, allowing what felt like circumvention of the five person party cap. A cleric was another must, at least until later on in their career when healing could be done almost entirely through entads, though a cleric would still be helpful even then. Alfric favored clerics of Oeyr, largely because they could stop people from dying and had good offensive power when they weren’t doing that, but Garos was a close second, because they were able to directly cancel out a wide range of damage. Other clerics could offer utility of one kind or another, but nothing like the raw healing power of those two. That left the last position to fill, and they’d gone back and forth on that one. Eventually, more by chance than planning, they’d come across Marsh, who was a triple threat, being both a warlock (locking things in place, or in relation to one another) and a nascent pyro, as well as a proficient fighter.
By the time they were all sixteen, the party seemed like it was fully together, and while there were arguments, sure, it seemed like they were going to go out and conquer the world, figuratively speaking. They spent quite a bit of time together, and while Alfric did his best to keep them on track, it was only natural that they’d become friends. It was always Josen who was closest with Alfric, and privately, Alfric thought of the two of them as being the core of the team.
And then Lola had taken it all, but it wouldn’t have been possible for her to do that without their help.
“Josen,” said Alfric. He couldn’t keep the disdain from his voice.
“Alfric — what are you doing — what are you doing in Liberfell?” The shock was clearly visible on his face. He looked at the door he had just come through, as though he was going to run away, which was laughable, because Alfric knew from experience that he could almost double Josen’s speed, even without the stride boots.
“Did you get my letters?” asked Alfric. There had been three of them over the past year, all without a response.
“I did,” said Josen. “But I didn’t — didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
“The others I understood,” said Alfric. “We’d had our disagreements about funds. But you were always on my side in those arguments.”
“She — she came to me last. She had already gone to Grig, Marsh, and Mardin. She’d gotten them to agree to break the party. She knew that I would be the toughest, and she had someone lined up to replace me.” Josen was wringing his hands. “The decision was mine, she said. I could stay with you, and try to cobble together a new party from scratch as quickly as possible, or I could go with her and carry out your plan.” He repositioned his staff and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. He’d lost quite a bit more in the past year, his hairline continuing its steady march backwards. That had started around fifteen, horribly young for it, and Alfric had always felt a bit bad for him. “And then you spent a year floundering, and … I’m sorry, but it felt like I made the right decision.”
Alfric already knew quite a bit of this. He’d tried to undo Lola’s sabotage, and spoken with all of them. But that attempt had itself been undone by Alfric, in part because he’d realized that Lola had put in too much preparation too many days in advance. The deal had been all but done, it was just a matter of her executing it. He could still remember the look in Josen’s eyes, the mixture of sadness and defiance, but for Josen, this was their first time seeing each other since the betrayal.
“How many dungeons?” asked Alfric.
“Fifty-four,” said Josen.
“One every six days,” said Alfric. “That’s slow.”
“You overestimated the pace,” said Josen. “And there have been setbacks along the way. Days lost for no good reason. We’d be doing better if we had you, but I’m doing better than I’d have done if you and I had to build up a party from scratch. I’m sorry, but you know it’s true.”
“If you’d stuck by my side, I’d have been back up and running in a month,” said Alfric. “Less, even. I wouldn’t have looked like someone who was cut for some nefarious reason.”
“It wasn’t personal Alfric,” said Josen. He had a pleading look in his eyes. “You were the one who always said we should treat it like a business. You said we should give ourselves the best shot at success. It was just … that it happened to be that the best shot for me was without you.”
Alfric felt his fists clench into balls. “Well, I hope you’re happy.” He moved forward, and Josen stepped back. Alfric continued on his way, out of the shop, which jangled the little bell. “Tell Lola I have no interest in seeing her.”
Josen seemed like he had many things to say, but they stayed on his lips, and then Alfric was out into the streets of Liberfell. He found himself clenching his jaw. Josen was right, it wasn’t personal, but perhaps that was what made it hurt so much. They had been best friends, or at least he’d felt like that, and in the wake of the party break, there had been nothing but dead silence.
“That was rough,” said Hannah, who’d come out of the shop right after Alfric.
“Bad blood,” said Verity. “We’ll get going soon. No need to meet the rest of your old party.”
“We still have work to do in Liberfell,” said Alfric. “And we need to find an animal so we can test the stone and make sure we can get home easily.” His blood was pumping, like he’d just been through a battle. A part of him wanted to go back and have it out with Josen, a long, drawn out conversation, but it felt too painful.
“Are you okay?” asked Hannah.
“No,” said Alfric. “Josen and I were friends.” He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to center himself. “Sorry I didn’t introduce you.”
Verity gave him a somewhat pitying smile. “I think in this case we can forgive the breach of decorum.”
“Let us know if there’s anythin’ we can do for you,” said Hannah. “If you need, I can deal with the rest of what needs to be done in Liberfell and you can go back. Or, if you prefer, I can handle Lola.”
“Handle her?” asked Alfric. That sounded like possibly the worst idea he’d ever heard. “No, I don’t want anyone talking to her. I want her out of my life.”
“I’m a cleric,” said Hannah. “We’re trained to mediate disputes, especially between two people who had somethin’ like a romance.”
“I want nothing to do with her,” said Alfric. “If you feel the need to talk with someone, go talk with the other members of her party and try to convince them that she’s been hoodwinking them.”
“Do we think that’s true?” asked Verity.
Alfric looked at the entad shop. Josen was still in there. “We should move,” said Alfric. “We still need to go to the League office.”
“I can do that, if you want to hole up, or leave Liberfell early,” said Hannah.
“No, I’m the one with special dispensation, and I want to do it,” said Alfric. He started walking, trying his best to remember the directions he’d been given the day before. “And for your question, Verity, he said fifty-some dungeons over the course of a year, which is slower than planned, and obviously she brought them all to Liberfell so she could see me, which she didn’t tell them about. They should be at least seventh elevation by now, and doing harder dungeons than the ones found in the area, at least if they want to maximize their risk to income ratio. If they’re not following the plan, then it’s almost certainly because of her.”
“It’s an accusation that you’d want proof to back up,” said Verity.
“I know,” sighed Alfric. “And if I hadn’t felt like stabbing him, it would have been good to talk with Josen to get a better understanding of what they’ve been going through. That way I might have been able to convince him, or one of the others. Sorry, I just — I wasn’t properly prepared for this. I woke up this morning and thought to myself that I would just go about my business.” He’d thought he was prepared, that he’d gotten a handle on things and his head straight. Clearly that wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t terribly far to the League office, and Alfric again did his best to steady himself before pushing open the door. It was an ornate building, with columns on either side of the heavy brass-plated door, a style that wasn’t much seen in this part of the world. The building was old and a bit run down, with some chips taken out of one column. Above the door, on the second floor, there was a stone inscription, which marked it as being the one-time home of Liber Cosmetics, which had apparently been established more than a hundred years ago.
A slender, reedlike woman was reading beside an unlit fireplace when they came in, and she stopped only slowly, putting a bookmark in place as though she was saying an extended goodbye to a loved one. She had blonde hair that was starting to grey, contrasted against darker skin, and she wore a long dress that nearly touched the floor when she stood up. Her feet were bare, and she was unadorned in any other way as well, a relatively plain person.
“Priya Voyt?” asked Alfric.
“Yes?” she asked. Her voice was high and thin, almost unpleasantly so, and she looked Alfric over like he was a fish she was worried was rotten. “Oh,” she said. “You must be Alfric. I was told to expect you.” She stepped forward and held out a slender hand, which Alfric shook. She barely moved her hand at all and let it quickly fall from his. “You have a party?”
“I do,” nodded Alfric. “Five members, with two dungeons done. My provisional status allows me to do another three before any registration, but I’d rather get the registration done quickly, just so it’s out of the way. I have reports written for the two dungeons we’ve done, which were Pucklechurch and Traeg’s Knob. Neither seemed to have notes left by other teams.”
“My,” she said, drawing back slightly. She looked at Verity and Hannah. “Would any of you like some tea?”
“I don’t s’pose you have tuber tea?” asked Hannah.
“I do!” said Priya, clapping her hands. “Do you know, I’ve never come across someone else with a keenness for tuber tea? Do you prefer the corms, the leaves, or the petioles?”
Hannah froze for a moment. “To be honest, I don’t think I’ve heard any of those words before, aside from leaves.”
“The corms are the tuber itself, the petioles are the stem that connects the leaves to the stalk,” said Priya. She waved a hand. “I’ll get the petioles, they’re my favorite for tea, though they’re best with a spot of honey, if you don’t mind.”
“Honey would be lovely,” said Verity.
It was becoming clear to Alfric that this was going to be one of those conversations, the kind that went on aimlessly before it finally got around to the matter at hand. It was something that sometimes just happened, and unlike a negotiation or a proposition, it seemed like there was no ulterior motive at play, no need to psychologically soften each other up. Alfric’s requests were perfectly within the rules of the Adventurer’s League, and there was no element of diplomacy necessary. But it seemed that he’d been overruled, and so he resigned himself to a cup of tea and a rather slower run of things.
To his surprise, Priya pulled a giant axe down from the wall. She set the head of it in the fireplace, and the axehead was suddenly engulfed in flames, burning brightly. She left it unattended, then walked over to a cupboard and took down a large kettle, then spent some time filling it from a sink. This first floor was wide open, but separated into different areas by the arrangement of furniture, and it seemed that in addition to being a common area, there was also a dining table and a little kitchen. If it was like most Adventurer’s League places, there would be a few rooms in the back where traveling parties could come spend the night for a very modest fee. In fact, it was entirely possible that this was where Lola and her party were staying, though with half a hundred dungeons under their belt, it seemed likely that they could find better accommodations.
Only once the kettle had been placed on the flaming axehead did Priya return her attention to Alfric.
“You’re of the Dondrian Overguards, yes?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Alfric. He was thankful that bit of information was out, so he wouldn’t have to explain it to the others.
“I partied with your mother, for a time,” said Priya. “Fearsome woman. Tough as nails.”
Alfric frowned. “When were you with her?”
“Early in her career,” said Priya, waving a hand. “We went our separate ways. I’d had a falling out with Fossy, if you know him.”
That was, to Alfric, Uncle Fossy, a bear of a man who often showed up to family dinners. “I do,” he said.
“I’m retired now, obviously,” said Priya. “But in my time, I ran two thousand dungeons.”
That gave Alfric pause. “That’s a good record.”
“A good record?” she asked. She gave him an incredulous laugh. “There are perhaps twenty people of my generation who have run more.”
Alfric looked around the room, trying to re-evaluate. He’d been to a few League houses over the years, as one of those things done as part of a field trip in the Junior League, and this one had its own eccentricities, but didn’t seem like it was all that much out of the ordinary.
“I don’t live here,” said Priya, sighing. “Though I do spend quite a bit of time here, and I’ve built up a nook.” She gestured to one of the chairs by the fireplace, where there were books on a shelf and a table with snacks. “I handle some of the administration across all of Greater Plenarch, but this is my favorite haunt. For my home, I own a demiplane.”
Alfric nodded. “A heavy investment.”
Priya laughed again. “You have a way of understating things.” The tea kettle began to whistle, and Priya went over to pull it off the flaming axe, which she touched on the side and put out. The kettle was then brought over to the kitchenette area, and she brought four ceramic cups down from somewhere and set them on the counter, along with a small pot of honey. “I’ll make the tea and then, yes, to more serious matters.” She dropped a ready-made sachet from one of a dozen tins into the kettle, then swirled the water inside around for a bit. “So, Alfric, you have business to conduct.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Alfric.
“You want official recognition of your dungeons in preparation for asking me for a second level key, is that right?” asked Priya.
“No,” said Alfric. “I’m not intending to take a key until we’ve exhausted all of the lower dungeons in the area. I’ve been told that it’s better to get things in when you have a chance, rather than attempting to get credit for ten or twenty at once. Further, we were in the area, and I wanted any information you had on the surrounding dungeons. I already have a key from Dondrian and special dispensation for party formation and expedition from my time in the Junior League. I don’t think there’s anything that we ‘need’ from you at the moment, and probably not for another few weeks, or …” He looked at Verity. “Months.”
“Well, good to know,” said Priya. “Better not to rush things. You have a good party composition,” this she’d have known from a letter he’d sent, “And from the information I’ve gotten back from Dondrian, a good pedigree, if a bit of trouble in the management aspects.”
Alfric nodded. He didn’t like his ‘pedigree’ following him, but he could accept responsibility for how the parties he’d tried to form had fallen apart. “I’m hoping there won’t be any problems?”
“Nothing that I can see,” said Priya. “I’d like to talk to each of you before you get the second key, but I don’t expect there will be any issue. My role here is mostly to stop those who haven’t done the slightest preparation, and to serve as a line of communication. I don’t think we’ll have any issues.”
“There’s another party operating here,” said Alfric. “Lola.” He watched her eyes for recognition and saw that the name was familiar. “There’s some bad blood between us, I should warn you.”
“Unless it happens in the dungeons, which is impossible, or it happens to the dungeons, which seems unlikely, it doesn’t concern me,” said Priya with a shrug. “I suppose you might have a fight in the League house, but I’m hoping you know better.”
“Has she asked about me?” asked Alfric.
“No,” said Priya. “But she did go looking through the dungeon reports, and leafed through them like she was trying to find something. You are welcome to submit what reports you have.”
Alfric hesitated. If Lola was in Liberfell, there was nothing to prevent her from coming back here and looking through the dungeon reports again. He didn’t want her reading them, though in the long term, it couldn’t be helped.
“Perhaps I’ll hold onto them for the time being,” said Alfric. “If I could read what you have?”
“Certainly,” said Priya. “They’re public, open to anyone. They are kept in a magical tome, which needs to be kept on site.”
“Are they staying here?” asked Verity. “Lola’s group?”
“They’ve taken a name, Vertex,” said Priya.
“Ugh,” said Verity, making a face.
Alfric stayed silent. He had liked the name when he’d picked it, but hearing it out loud, it did sound a bit … off.
“Well, they can’t all be winners,” said Priya. “I suppose if you had a name, you’d have declared it already?”
“We can come up with one now,” said Hannah.
“No,” said Alfric. “Mizuki would never forgive us if we did. And if we’re going to have a name, then we can take our time on it, especially since we’ll be having downtime later anyway.”
“Well, I’ll start thinkin’,” said Hannah. “Somethin’ to do with animals?” Alfric gave her a brief shake of the head before she could mention that Isra was a druid. It was better to play that close to the vest for as long as possible, which given Lola, probably wasn’t all that long.
“We can save it for later,” said Alfric. “I’ll get on those reports. We were planning to spiral out from Pucklechurch, and I need to check whether that’s sensible.”
“But why a spiral?” asked Verity.
“Well,” said Alfric. “In theory, it makes the most sense to do adjacent hexes in order to minimize travel time. The original plan called for making a base in the middle of nowhere, then doing dungeons in roughly a spiral, which would mean there’s always only six miles of travel between dungeons.”
“Assuming a straight line seems unwise,” said Priya.
“Approximately six miles,” said Alfric. “But it seems pretty clear that we’re not doing it that way, so … sorry, just going by the old plan, rather than the new one.” He wanted to go look at the reports, but the conversation was feeling like molasses, the kind that was nearly impossible to leave without rudeness.
“The new one where we don’t push ourselves too hard?” asked Verity.
“Yes,” nodded Alfric. “Besides, between the wardrobe and the dagger, there’s not as much benefit to a spiral pattern.”
“I’ll grab the book that has the reports,” Priya finally said. “If you’re looking for the ones that Vertex submitted, they’ll be the most recent ones for Traeg’s Knob and Pate Knob.”
“Just those two?” asked Alfric. She kept saying ‘Vertex’ rather than ‘The Vertex’, and he wondered whether she was making a mistake, or if they’d dropped the article from the name.
“Just those, in the week they’ve been here,” said Priya. “They might have done more and not put in reports. There’s no need to write a report.”
“The League gives special allowances for advancement, with reports as one of the metrics,” said Alfric.
Priya blinked at him. “Does it?”
“It was offered as an incentive five years ago,” said Alfric. It seemed difficult to imagine that she didn’t know this, but if she was a retired or semi-retired adventurer who had landed in this position by virtue of her skill in a dungeon … well, her core competence was probably not in administration. “From what I understand, report rates had been abysmal, and they thought it would be better for everyone if they had more of them.”
Priya shook her head. “Idiocy. Leverist idiocy.”
“If the incentive is there, I’m going to do it,” said Alfric.
“They should be instilling values in the Junior League,” said Priya. “We’re all supposed to be in this together, helping each other because it makes the world a better place for us all. And instead, we have the leverists putting in one of their levers and of course the result is a spate of low-quality reports put in only because people are hoping to get something from it.” She waved a hand, perhaps sensing that Alfric wasn’t a receptive audience for a rant against the leverists. She picked up a big book from back in the recesses of the open room, then returned to them. “It’s not to leave the premises, so you’ll have to read it here. It’s an entad. You can add your own reports, and they’ll become a part of it. The index at the start updates itself.”
Alfric nodded and moved over to the book. It was larger than the party’s storage book, with a metal frame around the outside that seemed like it was adding quite a bit of undue weight. He placed it on the table next to the kitchenette and opened the cover, which showed him the index.
“A wortier worked on this?” asked Alfric. He was looking at the circles at the top of the index page. “A very, very skilled wortier?”
“Yes,” said Priya. She’d come over to look at the book with him. “I came out of the dungeoneering game with rather a lot of money, and I spent some of it here. The book itself is nothing special, it just eats up the dungeon reports, corrects some spelling, and makes it all in the same font.” She leaned past Alfric and pressed one of the circles, the one labeled ‘Places’, and the index rearranged itself, listing out the roughly hundred hexes in this region of the Greater Plenarch province. But it wasn’t just the index that was rearranging, because the page numbers had changed as well. The entire book had been rearranged by placing a thumb against the circle.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said Priya. “I’m past my normal time here, you were lucky to catch me when you did. If you ever need anything, at least between sunup and sundown, there’s a bell you can ring, there on the mantle.” She pointed, and Alfric saw a brass bell he hadn’t noticed before. “I don’t always drop what I’m doing to help out, but I do come eventually, in a half hour to an hour. Make sure you have someone here. If that bell gets rung and there’s no one to meet me, I will find out who rang it, and they will wish they’d had a bit more courtesy. It was nice to meet you. Give your mother my love the next time you see her.”
“I will,” said Alfric. He wondered whether his mother knew that an old friend was working here, and decided that she probably had known. Both his parents had deep connections. And given that this woman ‘just happened’ to be here when she did administration for seven regions of the province, well, Alfric wouldn’t be terribly surprised if this meeting was because of a favor changing hands. Not help, per se, but something like it.
Priya disappeared with a puff of air, and Alfric looked at the book for a moment, then pressed the circle that marked ‘Reporter’. The list changed again, this time growing much longer, bleeding onto the next page. It didn’t take Alfric all that long to find Lola’s name, and he flipped to the start of her entries.
“Goin’ right to it?” asked Hannah. “No pretense of lookin’ elsewhere?”
“No,” said Alfric. “In theory, they could all walk through that door at any moment. And if Lola submitted reports already, my guess is that she did it with the intention that I would read them.”
“Why are you reading them if you don’t want to talk to her or any of them?” asked Verity. “It seems to me like you want a clean break.”
Alfric paused and thought about that. “They were my party,” he said. “They were … what I had wanted, what I’d thought I had. I want to see how they’re doing. I want to know.”
“You want to know whether your plan would have worked?” asked Hannah.
“I guess,” said Alfric. He looked down at the page. The words weren’t rendered in Lola’s handwriting, but as he started reading, he could tell that it was her voice.
“We’ll leave you to it,” said Hannah with a sigh. “Verity, would you like to tour this place?”
“Of course,” said Verity. “It will be interesting to see how normal people do things.”
Alfric ignored them. He was already engrossed.