The worst thing about waiting for the other shoe to drop with Lola was that there was a good chance that it already had, in some undone timeline. Lola knew that they were in Pucklechurch, and once she got there, it would take her all of five minutes to get directions to the house, and at that point … well, she had options. She would talk with them, suss out their weaknesses, practice conversations, and prepare for the future. It had been three days since they’d left Liberfell, which meant three days that Lola could have been undoing, perhaps six attempts at doing whatever it was she felt like doing, unless she’d gotten to the next tier of power, which was entirely possible.
When they returned to the house, and Alfric saw the package sitting on the doorstep, his heart started beating faster.
“Weird,” said Mizuki as she approached it. “Mail service doesn’t usually run on temple days.”
“Wait,” said Alfric, moving in front of her and holding an arm out. “It might be troublesome.” The package was as long as his forearm, perhaps just large enough to hold a large loaf of bread, but if it was from Lola, then it could be nearly anything, including something like a dangerous animal. He took the note that was resting on top. It was addressed to him, without any of the accompanying information that someone would have needed to get it to Pucklechurch, just ‘Alfric’. With a sense of dread, he opened it.
“Oh,” he said a moment later. “It’s from my mom.”
“Your mom?” asked Mizuki. She looked at the note in his hands, and he passed it to her, because it didn’t say anything all that important. “It’s a care package?”
“Yes,” nodded Alfric. Relief surged through him, but also a bit of annoyance and embarrassment. The note was in her handwriting, on stationery that he recognized once he remembered to look at it, and while he wouldn’t put it past Lola to have done forgeries, a care package was very in character for his mom.
“It’s signed ‘your mom and dad’,” said Mizuki. “Why do you say mom?”
“She always signs things from her and dad,” said Alfric. “This would have been her idea though.”
“Wait,” said Hannah. “How did this package get here?” She had taken the note, and was looking at the front. “No address?”
“She almost certainly dropped it off herself,” said Alfric.
“What, from Dondrian?” asked Mizuki. “She just … came here for only long enough to drop something off and didn’t say hi?”
“Mom has entads,” said Alfric. This was an understatement. The family vault was quite large, and while entads were loaned to various parties and many of those taken from his mother’s legendary streak of dungeon runs had been sold, there were still an absolutely enormous number that had bound to his mother and were good for nothing except her personal use.
“Well I wanted to meet her,” said Mizuki. “She should have said hi.”
“I think she knows that would be unwelcome,” said Alfric. “For me, not for you. I’d wanted to do this on my own.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Mizuki. “Self-reliance is important to you.” She said this with understanding, rather than the sarcasm that he had been braced for. “But you’ll share what’s in the box, right?”
“Depends on what it is,” said Alfric. His paranoid thoughts were starting to leave him, though it was entirely possible that even if this was a legitimate care package from his mother, it had been tampered with by Lola. He put the thought out of his head, though he was going to be a bit careful when looking at what was inside.
They moved inside, and Hannah went upstairs to change into her regular clothes while Alfric opened up the box. Mizuki was hovering nearby, doing her best to look.
“Chocolate, a bottle of drosiril, stationery so I can write letters,” he kept taking things out of the box and placing them on the kitchen counter, “Fish jerky which I think is from my uncle, dried plums, foot cream which is probably from my brother —”
“Why?” asked Mizuki.
“It’s a joke,” said Alfric. “Not a funny one, but a joke.”
“Ah, so you share the same sense of humor,” said Mizuki, grinning at him. “Unfunny jokes.”
“And lastly, tickets to the opera, from my father,” said Alfric, laying them on the table with a sigh. “Along with what appears to be an offer to pick us up and pay for expenses.” There were five tickets there, and Mizuki picked one up to look at it.
“What, we’d just … go to Dondrian for the night?” asked Mizuki. Her eyes were wide. Perhaps everything he’d said about who he was and the resources his family had hadn’t sunk in for her yet.
“Yes,” said Alfric with a sigh. “And no, I don’t think we’re going.”
“What?” asked Mizuki. “Why not? I don’t even know what opera is, but it seems like it would be up my alley.”
“We’d need dress clothes,” said Alfric.
Mizkuki looked down at herself. “This is my temple best though.” It wasn’t her usual outfit, instead, something like a long robe with higher quality cloth and good stitching, emphasizing clean lines. She looked good in it, and was also wearing a bit of makeup, which she didn’t normally do.
“There are certain expectations for the opera,” said Alfric, feeling apologetic. “Especially if you’re going to be up in one of the private boxes.”
“Private boxes?” asked Mizuki. She looked down at the tickets. “Are these … pretty expensive?”
“Um,” said Alfric. “Not for my dad, no.” He hesitated. “But that’s because he has a controlling interest in the opera.”
Mizuki stared at him. “He owns an opera?”
“He owns sixty percent of the opera company,” said Alfric. “It’s one of the only creative endeavors our family has any investment in, mostly because he’s a fan. Um, aside from commissions and things, we do those too, and some patronage, but I don’t think that counts.”
“So he just one day thought to himself, gee, I should own this thing?” asked Mizuki.
“About fifteen years ago they were in financial distress,” said Alfric. “Dad helped work with some managers and moneymen on revitalization. It’s more complicated than just having enough money to buy a whole opera company, and there are tax and government things I don’t think you’d care about.”
“Huh,” said Mizuki. “Well, tell your dad that I want to go, and that I’m going to embarrass him by wearing this.” She gestured to her temple best.
“Mizuki, the whole thing would be excruciating,” said Alfric. “It’s one of the only fancy things that my family does, and it’s like being in a different world full of the worst people.”
“Did I hear there are opera tickets in the care package?” asked Verity. She sauntered into the kitchen, with Isra behind her. “I do quite enjoy the opera.”
Mizuki gave Alfric a raised eyebrow.
“My father loves the opera,” said Alfric. “Growing up, I went a fair amount. We have a private box.”
“You said your dad owned the opera,” said Mizuki.
“A controlling interest,” said Alfric. “Which isn’t quite the same thing.”
“Your father has a controlling interest in the Dondrian Metropolitan Opera?” asked Verity. She seemed incredulous.
“No, actually,” said Alfric. “The other one, DOPA, Dondrian Operatic and Performing Arts.”
“Oh,” said Verity. “Still very impressive.”
Alfric appreciated her words, but that correction was one he’d made a few times, and there was always a bit of mild disappointment from people, because it was the less famous and prestigious of the two opera companies in Dondrian. Controlling interest in it was still impressive, but much less so than for the Metropolitan Opera. There was a reason that the company had been having financial problems. The new management had largely turned things around, but it was still second place by a wide margin.
“Anyway,” said Alfric. “I suppose if you’re all interested, we could go, but clothing would be an issue,” he looked at his father’s note, “though one my father seems to be suggesting that he’d take care of? And I’m not sure Verity would want to return to Dondrian, even for just a night.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Verity, picking up one of the tickets. “Though I do adore Lerial and Marsc. And if it were for a single night, and if I could be guaranteed not to run into anyone I know …” She raised an eyebrow toward Alfric.
“There are ways we could make it work,” he said. “But it would take some doing. I think my father sent me the tickets mostly as a way to force me to bring up the opera, frankly. If we wanted a trip into Dondrian with his assistance … we could.”
“Well it sounds like a blast,” said Mizuki. “And I would probably get to meet your parents, right?”
“I don’t know why you’d want to, but probably, yes,” said Alfric. He looked at the three of them. “Does this make things awkward?”
“Why would it?” asked Isra.
“The money,” said Alfric. “Money, power, resources, they complicate things. A care package with bits and bobs to be eaten … that’s okay, but a big trip like this, it’s … I don’t want it to create problems.”
“If you don’t want us to go, we won’t go,” said Mizuki. She shrugged. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to be weird. We can forget it.”
“Forget what?” asked Hannah, coming back down the stairs. She had changed back into her usual clothes, and was looking much more chipper.
“Part of the care package was opera tickets,” said Mizuki. “Which apparently comes with transportation and some new clothes?”
“Temporary clothes, I would think,” said Alfric. “I mean, if I explained to my dad, he wouldn’t insist that you spend a lot of money to get formal attire. Resizing dresses from the family vault, maybe, or something. I’m not sure how much my dad thought this through, or what he felt the implication was.” The note said ‘along with anything you need to get here and have a good time’. It was vague, but he couldn’t imagine that his father would assume they all had the kind of dress clothes that would suit a night at the opera.
“And Alfric is worried about his family’s money makin’ things awkward?” asked Hannah.
“I am,” said Alfric. “A night on the town in Dondrian might be good, after which the thought might come into your head, ‘why can’t every night be like this’, and the answer will be, ‘because of a focus on self-reliance, which is stupid and I hate it’. These aren’t, um, completely paranoid concerns.”
“Well,” said Hannah. “I can’t say that I’ve ever longed to go to the opera. It’s a kind of musical play, right?”
“Er,” said Alfric. “Don’t let my father hear you say that, but yes.”
“I’ve given it some thought, and I like seekin’ our own fortune,” said Hannah. “I can imagine doin’ the dungeons the other way, where we were kitted out from the start in all the best possible gear, entads galore, and then each dungeon would be easier, certainly, but … well, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s a different sort of thing from acceptin’ a trip, an experience, if you will.”
Alfric gave a hesitant nod. It was more or less the conclusion he’d come to himself, but he knew it wasn’t how everyone else felt. Doing that way, fully kitted out, would turn it into grueling labor, rather than a proper adventure. There would be no surprise and joy at finding new things, because almost all of them would be sold off. And yes, he could see the viewpoint by which that made it all seem like a game, and that he was only able to have that kind of relationship with the dungeons because of his enormous advantages in life, not just being a chrononaut, but having parents who loved each other and had quite a bit of money on top of that.
“Well, I’d like to go,” said Mizuki. “If and only if it’s not taking advantage of our friendship.” She said that, but Alfric felt like she was humoring him and secretly quite hopeful that he wouldn’t say no.
“It’s my father’s offer,” said Alfric.
“I think I’d like to go too,” said Verity. “Though … I would need a disguise, and I didn’t take any of my fancy dresses with me when I came to Pucklechurch.”
Isra nodded slowly. Alfric was glad she was game, but it seemed apparent to everyone how out of her depth she would be.
“I would want a disguise too,” said Mizuki.
“Disguises for all!” said Hannah.
“Well, I’ll send a message to my dad through the guild,” said Alfric.
“You’re in a guild with your dad?” asked Mizuki. “I didn’t know that.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Alfric. “Family guild.”
“So that’s how Lola knew where we were,” said Mizuki.
“I don’t think so, actually,” said Alfric. “The timeline doesn’t line up quite right. My guess is that one of my parents let it slip, though I don’t know for certain.”
“Because they don’t know things went sour between the two of you?” asked Hannah.
“They know a bit,” said Alfric. “We’re still formally pacted, which … is just not going to happen, but I can deal with later.”
“We’re not likely to run into her in Dondrian, right?” asked Mizuki.
“No,” said Alfric. “Even if she had that kind of entad support, she wouldn’t be going to the opera, not unless she knew we were going, so I guess … don’t tell her.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mizuki. “We’ll get you a disguise.”
“I think I’ll be discreet with my dad,” said Alfric. “Just to make sure.” He looked down at the care package. The rest of it was considerably less awkward than the opera tickets. “This is all to share, if there’s anything you want to try.”
“Can I have some fermented seed bar?” asked Isra, looking at the contents.
“The what?” asked Alfric.
Isra picked up the bar of chocolate, which was wrapped in thin paper with a bow on it.
“Oh,” said Alfric. “Yes, of course. It’s chocolate.”
“And what’s that?” asked Mizuki.
“Fermented seed bar,” said Alfric, smiling at Isra. “With sugar and milk.”
“Oh, so it’s like a Kiromon dessert,” said Mizuki. “We use beans a lot, bean syrups, bean pastes, things like that.”
“Um,” said Alfric. “I suppose. There are a few bars there, I’d suggest saving one or two of them for a milk drink. You melt it into hot milk, basically.” Chocolate was virtually unheard of this far to the south, and a relative rarity even in Dondrian, though it had recently been making waves thanks to a number of farms finally coming to their full productive capacity. He looked to Verity, and she smiled at him. A large cup of hot chocolate had been somewhat in vogue as an early morning drink when she’d left, and by the time he left, the fad had yet to run its course.
The care package was a bit embarrassing, but they had fun with it, especially since it contained a number of foods that Mizuki, Isra, and Hannah had never tasted before. The drosiril was a bit too sweet for them, and needed to be watered down: Mizuki refused to believe that it was made from a variety of cactus, and seemed a bit confused about what a cactus was, as did Isra, who knew of them but had never encountered one. That gave her a rare spot of ignorance about the natural world.
“So,” said Hannah, pulling a ticket over to inspect it. “If we are going to the opera, it seems as though it’ll be after our double dungeon?”
“If we go to the early performance, yes,” said Alfric. “We can easily push to a later date.”
“Are we really planning a double dungeon?” asked Mizuki.
“If one person says no, we don’t do it,” said Alfric. “I’m not married to the idea, but given it’s conditional on things going well in the first one, I do think it makes a bit more sense, especially if we’re taking longer breaks.”
“Double dungeon all the way, I guess,” said Mizuki. “Hey, we could even do three, if we really wanted to.”
“I’m looking at this as an adventure,” said Verity. “But three is too many.”
“Well I wasn’t serious,” said Mizuki. “Vertex doesn’t seem to even be doing them back to back. But going to have a night on the town after we’ve finished two dungeons seems like it would be great, assuming we haven’t been thrashed. I mean, after the two dungeons we did, we’re due for some easy ones, right?”
“That’s not really how variance works,” said Alfric.
Mizuki shrugged, as though this were a matter of opinion.
“What are we going to do with the egg, while we’re gone?” asked Isra. “It’s nearly hatched.”
“It is?” asked Alfric.
Isra nodded. “Within the next week. If I understand what we’re doing … that would be at the time we’re going to the first or second dungeon.”
“Can you, um,” said Alfric. “Help it along to hatch faster? You still don’t know what kind of creature it is, right?”
“We were lookin’ at it together,” said Hannah. “I could get a feel for it inside the egg shell, and Isra has her witchcraft. It’s got vestigial wings, a long body, some nubs of horns that will probably grow, and grinding herbivore teeth. We don’t think it’s dangerous, but it’s hard to say. Also, the wings might not be vestigial when it’s grown.”
“If it’s got magic, I can’t see it yet,” Mizuki volunteered. “I actually think my magic sight is getting a bit better, which is weird.”
A sorcerer or wizard’s acuity tended to increase with elevation, though it was, unhelpfully, not a constant. Alfric was going to check with the censusmaster before they did the next dungeon, but it would be for the best if they were all at the same elevation, and the only direction to go was up.
“I could rush it along,” said Isra. “But it needs time to grow. If it hatched now it would be weak, and we would still need to care for it. In its first week, I think it will need chewed up herbs.” She frowned. “Though I’m not entirely sure. I’ll know more after it hatches.”
Alfric rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re going to need to build containment for it, if we don’t want to just send it to the bastlekeeper.”
“And we’ll need a name for it,” said Mizuki. “It’s some kind of dragon, right?”
“It’s unclear,” said Isra. “I’ve never seen a dragon.”
“None of us have,” said Hannah. She turned to look at Alfric. “Right?”
“I’ve never seen one,” said Alfric. He glanced at Isra. “Well, I’ve seen pictures, and moving illustrations, and other things, along with the preserved remains of one in the Dondrian museum, but not a real, live dragon.”
“We should go to the museum while we’re in Dondrian,” said Verity. “Isra would like it, I think.”
“I’m not saying that it’s a dragon,” said Mizuki, still focused on Alfric. “Just like a dragon.”
“Dragons aren’t herbivores,” said Verity. “Mostly not, anyway.”
“Oh, and who is going to be in charge of chewing up herbs for this thing?” asked Mizuki. “I’ll volunteer, if no one else wants to.”
“I can do it,” said Alfric. “You already more than pull your weight.”
“You’re hoping that it imprints on you, aren’t you?” asked Mizuki. “I know your tricks. I will be the one who feeds the herb dragon.”
“Um, sure,” said Alfric. “I just meant that between this being your house, you having the most raw power of any of us, and cooking most of our meals, I didn’t want you to overwork yourself. If it does have some kind of imprinting behavior, you would be in charge of it, and then … I don’t know. I don’t want you to stretch yourself.”
Mizuki waved a hand. “Hannah’s offered help with the cooking, and I’m going to train Isra, who will surely take to it immediately.”
“Cooking seems difficult,” said Isra.
“Nah,” said Mizuki. “It just takes practice.”
“So the egg,” said Verity. “Are we bringing it with us into the dungeons, or stalling until it’s hatched? Or hatching it early, if we can?”
“I think we can bring it with us,” said Isra. “It will be able to stay in its container for at least a day or two. We should bring herbs with us though. I’ll go collect them.”
The rest of the day passed by easily, with a brief lunch provided by Mizuki and Isra. Putting sandwiches together was, apparently, Mizuki’s idea of the first step in teaching someone to cook.
After that, they had something that Alfric had been both looking forward to and dreading: dungeon school.
“We need to start with the basics,” said Alfric. “A dungeon is a half-created world, one spun up largely from ambient mana within a hex, created on an individual basis for a party, in accordance with all kinds of things, which we won’t go into here, because again, basics.” Mizuki’s hand went up. “Er, yes?”
“But it doesn’t matter whether someone else has been through that same dungeon before?” she asked.
“It does, and it doesn’t,” said Alfric. “Doing a dungeon does drain off some of its potential, but there are scaling factors in play, one of which is elevation. When we did the Pucklechurch dungeon at second elevation, we would only have had a minimal impact on the actual magical potential it held, and because we were lower elevation, we had less access to potential riches, though there’s a wide variance. Good question.” Mizuki beamed at him. “But in general, elevation rises with the number of dungeons done, and elevation increases both risks and rewards, though variance ensures that you’re not going to necessarily be able to tell, especially at the lower elevations, where we are now.” He paused, waiting for a clarification from Hannah, but it didn’t come. Elevation wasn’t bunk, but it was often subtle and uneven.
“Now, the three things I really want to drill into you today are the basic ‘rules’ of dungeoneering,” said Alfric. “These are all basic rules of thumb that will ideally keep us from getting killed, and they’re very fundamental elements.”
“Which we’ve been doing without?” asked Verity.
“Yes,” nodded Alfric. “That doesn’t mean they’re not important. The first rule: always have an escape strategy. As a general rule, travel entads don’t work within dungeons, though there are some exceptions, and the warp doesn’t either. That hasn’t come up for us, and hopefully it won’t, but you don’t plan on hopes. Things can go bad in a dungeon very quickly, and you need to be able to know where the exit is at all times, and have a plan for how you’ll get there. This also means thinking in terms of escapes and helping out your teammates if they’re incapacitated or injured.”
“But we’d reset, right?” asked Mizuki.
“Not necessarily,” said Alfric. “And depending on the circumstances, there’s a very real chance that I wouldn’t be able to, given my own incapacitation. Don’t rely on me undoing any mistake. Having an escape plan doesn’t always mean directly escaping, sometimes it’s just a matter of regrouping at the dungeon entrance. But obviously you can’t do that unless you get there, and the last thing you want to do when you’re running away is to end up going down a path that wasn’t the one you’d taken. It’s very easy to get turned around in a dungeon, and can be fatal. So, always have an escape strategy. We’ll do some orientation exercises later on, and if we run into elevation changes in a dungeon, we’ll do best practices, preparing fast exits for ourselves.”
“See, you’re making this seem really dangerous again,” said Mizuki.
“That very nicely brings us to the second rule, which is that you don’t know what’s in a dungeon,” said Alfric. “Dungeons are, by definition, unique. No one runs into a dungeon that someone else has run into before. They share similarities, like entads and monsters share similarities, and the dungeons are thought to pull from the raw material of whatever is in the hex, but they’re unique, and should be treated as such. You don’t know what’s in the dungeon.”
“But we somewhat do,” said Verity. She was frowning.
“Well,” said Alfric. “The rule is mostly about variance. We know what a dungeon is likely to contain, but there are things seen only every one in a hundred times, one in a thousand times, or more. Some of those things have been, yes, fatal, meaning that no one ever reported them, or more likely, reports of them haven’t reached our ears because the reporting was confused and panicked, the phenomenon unclear. Where people run into problems is when they assume that they more or less know how things are going to go.”
“And the variance is worse than it might seem,” said Hannah. “You say one in a hundred, and people might think that you’d need a hundred dungeons to see something like that. But no, if you see ten monsters in a dungeon, you only need ten dungeons. Ten dungeons to see a one in a hundred room. Less, with larger dungeons.”
“Right,” said Alfric. “There are distinctions to be made between high variance dungeons and high variance encounters. You can have a dungeon that’s just all-around harder, and you can have a fairly sedate dungeon with one extremely dangerous monster. But the point is, you don’t know, and so long as you think that to yourself with every dungeon, you won’t lose your edge, and you’ll focus on your awareness.”
“Fat chance of me losing my edge anytime soon,” said Mizuki. “I have trouble seeing how a dungeon could be,” she waved her hand.
“Rote?” Alfric supplied.
“Boring,” said Mizuki.
“The rule boils down to expecting the unexpected,” said Alfric. “Be able to make a quick pivot and not fall into old habits or training routines if something goes wrong.”
“Not that we have much training,” said Isra.
“No,” said Alfric. “But there’s a reason that training is often considered overrated for dungeoneers.” That was perhaps an optimistic read on their situation. “And at any rate, the issue of variance brings us to our next point, closely tied to it, which is that the dungeon is never safe. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s something I don’t think we’ve been doing a good enough job following. To give an example of a way in which a dungeon can be unsafe, there was a dungeoneering team that had ‘cleared’ a dungeon and elected to spend the night there, because they had quite a bit to load into their storage entads. They woke up sick from a poison halfway through the night and were barely able to escape with their lives.”
“But where did the poison come from?” asked Verity. “Surely not from nowhere.”
“It’s hard to say,” said Alfric. “They didn’t have the time to investigate, and once they were gone, there was no way to tell. It might have been leaching into the air from the rocks, it might have been from a monster they’d missed, it might have been something to do with chemistry,” he shrugged. “There are different ways that dungeons can be deadly, beyond just the monsters. There can be traps, plants, materials … all kinds of things. And with variance being what it is, you should never assure yourself that an area is ‘clear’ or ‘safe’. Even once we think we’ve killed every monster, we should always travel in at least pairs, and we should never sleep in the dungeon if it can be helped.”
“And that’s it then?” asked Mizuki after a moment had passed. “That’s dungeon class for the day?”
“Well,” said Alfric. “No, because we need to go in-depth on each of those. In the Junior League, they spent a day on each of those points, but with a lot of repetition, and I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to drill it in.”
“Sure,” said Mizuki. “So we’ll listen to you some more, and then go do something fun?”
“I was thinking that we’d do outdoor mock exercises,” said Alfric. “Long enough to take us to dinner? Or at least, until you need to start preparing for dinner.”
“Ah,” said Mizuki, shifting in her seat. “Well then. I suppose there’s more than I thought there would be, or you put in more preparation. Proceed.”
Alfric tried his best not to be boring, but he wasn’t sure that it was actually working. He tried to include anecdotes about dungeons, but he wasn’t sure that was working either. Of all the things he’d prepared for, being a teacher wasn’t one of them, though he did like to talk about dungeons.
The exercises he’d prepared seemed to be a bit better, though that might have been because they were out in the woods, doing something together, and without him droning on, they were free to talk about whatever they pleased while Alfric led. He was somewhat surprised that it was Mizuki rather than Hannah who helped him out the most, setting up sticks for orienteering exercises and untying the flags from the trees. Doing this outdoors meant that Isra wasn’t even slightly challenged, but the exercises were, in Alfric’s view, a bit more about drilling in the basics than actually simulating any part of the dungeon. Beyond that, they were good for team cohesion, calling out orders over the party channel and sharing what they saw in language designed for speed and simplicity.
And then it was over, with everyone a bit tired out. Alfric was happy that they’d done it, in part because it assuaged some of his concerns, but also because it demonstrated a level of seriousness about the dungeons that made him feel reassured that this group wasn’t going to dissolve into nothing like the groups he’d had before.
Still, when he came back in, he saw the opera tickets, and he worried that when they saw how his family lived, their minds would change.