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Party:

Lola Underhill - alienist, chrononaut, E7
Josen Park - wizard, E7
Grig Tinsmith - bard, E7
Mardin Longshore - cleric of Oeyr, E7
Marsh - warlock, pyro (delayed service), E7

My favorite tutor when I was growing up was my math teacher, who spent a month of our time talking about variance. Variance is important for chrononauts, part of our bread and butter, but I was deep in the guts of the Junior League at the time (mostly because of a boy), and it’s even more important for dungeoneers. The upshot from that tutor’s lesson was that luck doesn’t exist, and a cold streak doesn’t mean that you’ll keep being cold.

Still, we’re on a cold streak.

At the end of the Pate’s Knob dungeon, Marsh blasted a monster with a jet of fire hot enough to melt rock and destroy anything of value that was behind the creature. We’d been in the dungeon for hours, and he was getting irritated and tired. It was a dumb thing to do, and he knew it. The bad luck for us was that the monster wasn’t just immune to fire, but fed on it. It grew to three times its size and flicked one of its six spindly tendrils out and absolutely destroyed Josen’s left arm. Most of his shoulder went missing with the arm, some of his mage stuff got obliterated, and he lost four entads in the process. Mardin grabbed him by the collar and hefted him out, which left the three of us to face the thing down, and Marsh was useless unless we wanted someone else to lose an arm, or worse. Really, Josen could have died pretty easily. Any of us could have. We did manage to kill the thing and get almost nothing for it, but it was just me, alone, with Grig backing me up on vocals.

After, there was a lot of argument about whether to reset or not. There always is, they just never remember, because I’m the one undoing things. Sometimes it’s obvious, like if one of them dies, not that it’s happened much. Other times I need to be convinced. Losing a good entad? That’s a maybe for me. Obviously we’re not bounding through the dungeons for the great view, we’re going to make money, and losing an entad, especially a good one, can throw the whole enterprise in the garbage. In that case, always better to do it over. For Josen though, the four lost entads were piddly crap, ‘irreplaceable’ entads that he’d taken a fancy to. One gave him better finger dexterity, I remember, and I don’t remember what the others did, but they were all minor trinkets, aside from the bracer, which was part of a pair that stopped working. It doubled his strength, but he’s a wizard, and it unfortunately bound to him, which was the only reason he ended up with it.

Mostly they were just complaining because things had gone wrong. They always complain. I made them count up the costs incurred against the winnings, and made them do the math, which I always do. Sometimes it comes out in favor of letting it ride, but more often, they call for me to undo. This time, Josen was a bit out of it, mostly upset about the arm thing, with some recriminations and accusations. He wanted the whole dungeon undone, mostly because he thought losing the arm was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He didn’t appreciate me saying that it was the worst thing he could remember. There was some back and forth I won’t get into, but I pointed out that while it could be undone, I was the one putting in more labor. It felt like the twentieth time we’ve had this conversation, and I don’t know how many of those have stuck, but it feels like probably a few. They’ve run nearly fifty dungeons or whatever, but I’ve run closer to eighty. It all just keeps getting undone.

Undoing things is not free! I have to actually live through the day! I’m doing twice the labor!

These reports are supposed to be a place to gripe about your teammates, right?

It’s not like the payout was all that great either. We had thirty rooms total, which stretched us to our limit, and we got fifteen entads, only three of which were any good, and none of which we’re planning to keep. Ectad junk. A handful of eggs. Some seeds. More than enough to pay our way, but not a big contribution to the endgame. The whole team is feeling sour, and they wish that I had undone it, but I’m far more burnt than they are. We handed most of the stuff off to the counterparty and let them deal with it.

We started out with great equipment and a clear plan, and now it’s just a matter of going through the motions. We’ve got enough now that we can live in relative comfort, not that it was ever in question for me. One of the things they don’t talk about in Junior League is how to deal with problems in the party, and half of me wants to go see a cleric about it, though I’ve got no clue which one.

And that was it, all there was for that entry. It was as though Lola had gotten bored halfway through.

As a dungeon report, it was basically useless, saying nothing about the general character of the dungeon and very little about the threats that might be found there. It likely wouldn’t have been all that useful to Alfric, given how much higher their elevation was, and the difference in what they were bringing into the dungeon, but part of the point of dungeon reports was to get a sense of the range of probabilities. You weren’t supposed to read just one of them, you were supposed to read a bunch of them and then get a general sense of the dungeon’s shape. Sometimes there were commonalities. A report like this though, one that detailed nothing, was worthless for that purpose.

As insight into the party, the dungeon report was revealing. It was hard to know whether the things Lola had said were accurate, especially since she must have known that Alfric would be reading it, but all the same, it had the ring of truth. Lola was tricky in that way though, an accomplished liar who knew that people would more readily believe her if she offered some vulnerability or let them in on a secret, or simply told them what she thought they wanted to hear. He had seen her do it with others, and she’d talked with him about it. She just didn’t take lies and manipulation all that seriously. Everyone lied, in Lola’s opinion, and everyone manipulated to some degree or another. It was normal and natural to her. Alfric hadn’t agreed, had never agreed, not just because of how he’d been raised, but because it seemed normal and natural to him that people should say what they mean and mean what they say. All of it called into question the report, naturally.

If it had been Alfric in her position, he’d have worked out some kind of monetary exchange with Josen to compensate for the loss. It was the loss of entads, payment to the clerics, and labor for remaking mana constructs, measured against the labor for Alfric of another dungeon. It seemed there was likely some kind of equitable exchange to be had there. It was the sort of thing he’d suggest to her, if they were still on speaking terms.

The second entry from Lola, for Traeg’s Knob, was much less illuminating. It had been similar to their experience, with a wet place and mostly natural interior, though they’d faced tougher monsters and more rooms. It was a bit of a surprise just how similar they’d been, but based on the timing, Lola’s party must have done Traeg’s Knob within a day or two of Alfric’s.

Alfric took some time to read through other reports, but most of them were terrible in one way or another, either sparse on details, or with far too much in the way of extraneous details. It did seem like Pucklechurch was a more difficult place than most expected it to be, and Alfric supposed that was due to a higher concentration of magic there, either from the artifacts that had been left there, or the leyline that had once run through it. Pucklechurch was a place of power, but an old and weak one.

“I think there are worse places to stay,” said Verity as they finished their tour of the League house. “Relatively few people around though, for all that they have three rooms of five beds each.”

“Most parties who do the local dungeons are themselves local,” said Alfric. “And most parties who are from outside the region looking to do a full clear will camp, rather than staying in town, or they’ll have their own ways of getting around, or their own mobile housing, which means they don’t need to use League housing.”

“So why have it?” asked Verity. It was rare that she showed any interest in dungeoneering, and Alfric was thankful that she seemed curious.

“It probably gets used with some frequency,” said Alfric. “Though the ideal time for doing easier dungeons is early spring, like I said, so we’re probably in a lull right now.”

“And we could have stayed here for free rather than going to the hotel?” asked Verity.

“Probably,” said Alfric. “Some of them charge, but having met Priya, I doubt this one does.”

“It’s good for a town to have dungeoneers come through,” said Hannah. “Most try to make it easy. Same reason we don’t get taxed.”

“We don’t?” asked Verity.

“Why, were you keepin’ a ledger?” asked Hannah.

“I don’t think I’ve ever paid a tax,” said Verity.

“You should look into that,” said Alfric, frowning a bit.

“We used to have someone who did that kind of thing for us,” said Verity. “An accountant.”

“Sounds expensive,” said Hannah, wrinkling her nose.

“If we’re on this for long enough, we’ll be picking up people,” said Alfric. “Someone to handle the money is usually pretty vital. Vertex has a counterparty, which would probably be two porters, a merchant, a coordinator, and an entad specialist, though a counterparty usually splits up their duties a bit more than that, and with fifty dungeons done, my guess is they’re not quite there yet. Maybe two or three people.”

“You planned that far in advance?” asked Verity, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s the family trade,” said Alfric. “A counterparty is the natural outgrowth of a mid-level dungeoneering party. At a higher level, there can be more than one counterparty, though it would be a bit unusual for them to travel to every dungeon, depending on what entads are available.”

“And your parents employed hundreds, ay?” asked Hannah.

“Not for dungeons, no,” said Alfric. “They do a handful a year, maybe a large handful. But once you have enough entads, you’re usually able to build some kind of business around them, and those businesses employ hundreds. Maybe more.”

“It was a joke,” said Hannah, sighing.

“Ha ha,” said Alfric.

“How far away from hiring someone are we?” asked Verity.

“Not far at all,” said Alfric. “If we can use the stone to move the whole party through the dagger, then it might make sense for us to hire a cartier, though if we’re going at a more sedate pace through the dungeons, it wouldn’t be full time.”

“There’s a cartier who services Pucklechurch,” said Verity. “She comes by the Fig and Gristle every now and then. She’s a friend, of sorts. Xy.”

“A friend?” asked Hannah.

Verity gave her a look. “Yes.”

“A special friend?” asked Hannah.

“A bit special, yes,” nodded Verity.

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. She seemed a bit flustered. “Sorry for the confusion, earlier.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” said Alfric. Neither of them offered any comment. “Relevant to our core mission?”

“No,” said Verity. “Definitely not.”

“Well, I’ll speak with her then, and see what her terms would be. It would only be once a week, running the dagger over to whatever the next dungeon is,” said Alfric. “And then, I suppose, running it back and getting it in position. In theory that would allow us to stay in Pucklechurch for a long time, especially if she’s using our wardrobe to cut down on distance.”

“Well, I’ve had enough talk about dungeons for the day,” said Verity. “It seems like the last thing we need to do is to figure out whether the stone can hold us.” She hesitated for a moment. <Are the two of you done with your walk?>

<Just finishing up,> said Mizuki. <What’s up?>

<I was hoping that you could get an animal for us to do the stone testing with,> said Verity.

There was a brief silence. <What kind of animal?> asked Isra.

<As close to a human as possible,> said Verity. <Not a bear.>

<A squirrel?> asked Isra. <Will it be okay?>

<She’s holding a squirrel in her hand at the moment,> said Mizuki.

<In theory it will be fine,> said Alfric. <We’ll just tie it up, put it down in the garden area of the stone, then pull it back out. If all that works, then we can try with people.>

<Why would we tie him up?> asked Isra. <Why not just tell him to stay still?>

<Oh,> said Alfric. <Right. But what happens if the squirrel takes off? We don’t want it stuck in the garden.>

<A squirrel doesn’t want to be stuck there any more than we do,> said Isra.

<Well, we can meet up at the warp,> said Alfric. <I think we’re done for now.> He gave Hannah a questioning look, and she nodded.

“We’ll have to use this place next time,” said Verity. “I think I would like it better than a hotel. All together?”

“It’s more traditional accommodation,” said Alfric. “Though different regions of Inter have different ways of handling the inevitable flow of adventurers. Ready?”

They both nodded, and Alfric doublechecked he had everything he needed and then cast the warp.

He’d had a knot of tension at warping, because this was the most likely place for him to run into Lola and the others, but instead it was just his people, quickly moving off the warp before the attendant could wave for them to move.

“Nice to see you guys again!” said Mizuki. “Productive time?”

“Mostly,” said Alfric. “We got the ectad stuff squared away and spoke with the rep at the League office. They have rooms there, by the way. All empty, it seemed. But we’re not staying here tonight, not unless there’s something we need done. We can be back home in an hour.”

“Heh,” said Mizuki. “‘Home’.”

“You know what I mean,” said Alfric, flushing slightly.

“No, I liked it,” said Mizuki, grinning.

“I have the squirrel,” said Isra, pulling it from a pocket. It poked out from in her hand.

“We should move somewhere a bit more quiet,” said Alfric. They were still in the warp room, though off to the side. In the city, if you stuck around, people would give you dirty looks, but then again, the whole thing was a lot different. As they stood there, someone came in and took a moment to orient, then walked off toward one of the exits. It was so casual.

They found a park easily enough, one with a rotunda and a good view of the valley that Liberfell was built above. Again, Alfric worried that he would see Lola and the others, but there was no particular sign of them, only people sitting around and playing in the wide green area. Three children had a disc that they were throwing between themselves, and Alfric felt curious about it, but there was work to be done.

Isra touched the stone, which had been brought out of the book, and held the squirrel in her hand. When she went to set it down, it vanished.

“It’s in,” said Isra, removing her hand from the stone. “I told it to wait by the stone. You did some damage to the plants with those trees.”

“Sorry,” said Alfric. “But I don’t think the other side of the stone being a garden is, er, relevant. And there’s technically some risk of the flowers spreading to the outside, though I would be surprised if they were either dangerous or worth anything.” He frowned and looked at Isra. “Are they?”

“I don’t think we could sell them, no,” said Isra. “But I like them for their own sake. Not everything in nature can be used by humans. They aren’t any variety I’ve ever seen.”

Alfric nodded. “And they are pretty. We’ll try to be more gentle with them. If it’s possible for a person to go in there, maybe we can transplant them away from the central area, but I do have to warn you that I’m already drawing up plans for the interior.”

Isra frowned slightly and looked at the rock. “How long were we going to leave it in there?”

“I was thinking five minutes or so,” said Alfric. “Then Hannah can check the squirrel over for issues, and we can send it on its way and, hopefully, put the four of you in so that I can use the dagger to get back. You won’t be in there for longer than five minutes, I shouldn’t think, and then we’ll be back in Pucklechurch.”

“Do people ever get trapped in entads?” asked Mizuki.

“Not to my knowledge,” said Alfric. “If I thought there was a risk, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“I guess if we get stuck, we can just undo it,” said Mizuki. “There’s no real risk.”

“There is a risk,” said Alfric. “It’s a risk that I have to do this day all over again, and explain that I allowed this to happen, and then, if things go wrong, there’s not the same cushion of safety. Look, you cannot depend on chronomancy, it makes things so much harder for us, unless there’s an explicit plan in place.”

“Always with the plans,” said Mizuki, rolling her eyes. “But fine, I will refrain from doing anything too stupid just because I know you’ve got my back. If I do something too stupid, it will be for normal reasons.”

“Thank you,” said Alfric. He turned to Isra. “You can probably pull the squirrel out now.”

Isra nodded and bent down to touch the stone again. She held out her hand, and a squirrel appeared in it. She looked him over, and there was something unutterably odd about the way it moved in her hand, being a party to the inspection, showing her his tail and stretching out his legs. At one point, the squirrel looked right at Isra and opened his mouth, showing its teeth.

“He seems fine,” said Isra. She handed the squirrel over to Hannah, who seemed extremely skeptical. Clerics were called on as vets with some regularity, but Alfric didn’t imagine it was a particularly strong point for her.

“Seems fine indeed,” said Hannah, after a few minutes.

“Alright,” said Alfric. “Then I guess we can do this here. Metal off, and we see if we can put a person in, and then see if we can get a person out.”

“I volunteer to go first,” said Mizuki. She pointed at him. “No nudity.”

Alfric saw the grin on her face, and found himself smiling. “If you say so.”

Mizuki set down her bag, which had her helmet in it, then set down her dagger as well, which she hadn’t once used in any capacity that Alfric had seen. Once that was all done, she stepped over to him. He ducked down and took her outstretched hand, then touched the stone. When he looked over, though he could still feel her small hand in his own, he couldn’t see it, and she wasn’t present in the garden world.

“Try stepping up onto me,” said Alfric. “Step on my foot?” He couldn’t see her, and it felt as though he was in another place, but he was still between worlds. He felt the pressure on his foot, then Mizuki appeared there, in the garden.

“I can see,” she said. “Do I just … step off?”

“Probably,” said Alfric. “Try to step into the garden, if you can.”

Mizuki stepped off of Alfric. As she did, she disappeared from his view of the garden, and when he released the stone, he saw her standing there in the park beside him.

“Well shoot,” said Mizuki. “That didn’t do what we wanted.”

“Let’s try again,” said Alfric. “I’m going to actually hold you this time, and release you.”

“Okay,” shrugged Mizuki.

There was some unavoidable awkwardness with picking her up, namely in terms of where to place his hands. Eventually he was holding her in both hands, one under her knees and the other under her back. She was lighter than he’d been expecting. She wrapped her arms around his neck to give her a bit more support.

“Now I just need to touch the stone,” said Alfric. He look down at it and sighed. “Shoot.”

“Here, I’ll lift it up,” said Hannah. She went over to the stone and hefted it up for Alfric to touch, which didn’t actually help matters all that much. The stone appeared, in the garden, to be floating in the air. Alfric touched it and Mizuki hopped down. She was still standing in the garden, independent of the stone. “Works!” she said, throwing up her hands. She looked around. “We should get some furniture in here. This could be a place to camp.”

“I’m going to release my hold on the stone now,” said Alfric. “I want you to come over and try to exit from it on your own. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Mizuki.

Alfric let go of the stone. Even if you couldn’t get out of the stone on your own, it might be possible to have someone pull you out, but it needed to be tested. He waited for five seconds, worried that she might panic, but after a moment, she appeared standing beside the stone.

“Works both ways,” said Mizuki. “Shame you can’t go in without help.”

“You might be able to,” said Alfric. “Stand on it, barefoot, and try to launch yourself into the garden? We’ll do some testing of it. The point is, if we just repeat all of that, we can get everyone into the stone, then everyone out of the stone, and skip all the walking it would take to get back to Pucklechurch. And so far as I’m concerned, we’re done here and can go.”

“I was going to set up a date with Rolaj,” said Mizuki, frowning. “But I suppose I can do that with a letter.”

No one else had any pressing need to stay in Liberfell, and Alfric was thankful for that, because he wanted to leave behind Lola and her people. What remained was to get everyone stripped of their metal, which there was a surprising amount of. Some of it went into the book, but quite a bit of it would have to be carried, along with the stone. Once that was done though, they went into the stone one by one, and then Alfric went about picking all the pieces of metal up, mostly armor and weapons that had been too big for storing away. He double and triple-checked that they weren’t leaving anything, because it was a long way to go.

Then, with barely more than a thought, he was standing in the Pucklechurch temple, a place he’d chosen because of its close proximity to a cleric in the case of an emergency. They were in the room used by clerics of Garos, though Lemmel didn’t seem to be there.

“It feels great to skip a long trip,” said Mizuki.

“It does,” nodded Verity.

“Well, we’re going to have to go back to Traeg’s Knob in order to get the wardrobe,” said Alfric. “And it will need to be brought back to Pucklechurch somehow. I was able to negotiate with Besc for some floatstones to rent, which means that I should be able to either bring the wardrobe back single-handedly, or with the help of a volunteer. I’d like to do that tomorrow.”

“It’s likely been fine for a day, and will likely be fine for a week,” said Hannah.

“All the same,” said Alfric. “Is there a volunteer?”

“Och, fine, I’ll go,” said Hannah.

“Can I just go one way?” asked Mizuki.

“Um,” said Alfric. “I guess I could cut you with the knife, then have you come when I get there? But the two of us can probably handle it.”

“I’d like her with,” said Hannah. “She’s probably not much for carryin’, but if it’s awkwardness you’re worried about, she can probably help with the steerin’, and that way we can switch off and make better time.”

“Sounds good,” said Alfric. “And now, it’s high time we headed home. Our second dungeon and most of its associated business is complete.” Leaving aside the appearance of his old party for now. “I think we’ve earned ourselves a rest.”

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Alexander Wales

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