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A note from Alexander Wales

This is another dungeon chapter, as you might have guessed by the name. I try to mark them clearly unless I have readers who just aren't interested in the fighting and exploring stuff, for whatever reason. I do rather like the way that this story is structured, the quiet downtime interspersed with the dark dungeons, but I'll admit that it's unconventional and arguably tonally inconsistent, but I'm going to keep doing it anyway, because I enjoy it.

The trip to the third dungeon was much different than the trip to the second. The only thing required of them, early in the morning, was to head through the wardrobe to a hex which took its name from the small town there, Hie Point. This shortened the trip considerably. But another big difference was that unlike with Traeg’s Knob, or, in fact, Pucklechurch, the dungeon entrance was in Hie Point, less than a few long strides from the warp point. It made the entire thing feel shockingly close to Isra, a feeling that she was relieved the others seemed to share.

“It’s like we just stepped out of the door,” said Mizuki. “Warp to town, walk to the wardrobe, go to the hex, warp to Hie Point, walk here. We were sitting at home, and the whole time we were just a hundred steps away from here.”

“‘A properly equipped person is five steps from anywhere’,” said Alfric. It had the feel of quotation, but whatever the source, it was familiar to everyone else but not to Isra.

“It kind of gives me the creeps, to be honest,” said Mizuki. “Like things are too close to each other.”

“You would hate Dondrian then,” said Alfric. “Entads like the wardrobe are somewhat common, and quite a bit cheaper.”

“Why should they be cheaper?” asked Isra.

“Volume,” said Alfric. “A thousand people at a ring apiece gives you better returns than ten people at ten rings apiece. You still get things like the wardrobe out in the sticks, but there are a lot of backwoods in Inter.”

The building was marked with the sign of a dungeon, a ring with a thickened bottom, and it had a big, prominent label as well. The building was the most formidable one among the scant collection at Hie Point, the only one made from stone bricks rather than wood. As Isra looked closer, she saw that the bricks weren’t local, some kind of sandy stone that couldn’t be quarried anywhere in the surrounding few hexes, though her grasp of local geology did sometimes leave a bit to be desired. For all that it was imposing, it was also fairly small, likely only a single large room, and it was without windows. The outside of it had been marked by dungeoneers, the bricks carved into with various signatures, dates, and sigils, along with some ribald drawings of genitals. Isra smirked when she saw them.

When they went inside the building, it was relatively bare. There were benches along two of the walls, and in the center, a dungeon entrance, which had been left open. Unlike the others, it had a steeper descent, steep enough that it seemed like it might be difficult for them to make their way back up, especially if they were carrying something heavy. To bring up something like the wardrobe from within this dungeon … well, it seemed hard.

“The dungeon is open,” said Alfric, frowning at it.

“Does that mean someone is in there?” asked Mizuki. “Do we need to wait our turn?”

“No,” said Alfric. “Two teams can go into the dungeon at the same time, they just end up in different instances of the dungeon.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” said Mizuki.

“Well, it is,” said Alfric. “Assuming that they’re not at a very high elevation, it’s unlikely to impact us. Normally I would say it’s better for us to wait, but given some of the difficulties we’ve had, and the fact that we’re going to be facing down another dungeon tomorrow, I think it would be best if we just have at it. Except … well, I wouldn’t want them to lock us in.”

“We could leave a note,” said Verity.

“He’s thinking that this might be Vertex,” said Hannah. “Coincidentally came here at the same time as us, coincidentally just before us, and yes, better to avoid them.”

“‘Coincidentally’,” said Mizuki. “More like Lola planning it.”

“That’s the implication, yes,” said Hannah, sighing.

“She wouldn’t lock us in,” said Alfric. “And if she did, we could break through the dungeon door. If we wait around here, then we might run into them.”

“Might be some other group,” said Hannah. “It’s not like Vertex is the only other party in the world.”

“True,” said Alfric, but he seemed doubtful. “Alright, I think we'll go in and leave a note. What did we decide on for a name? Settlers?”

“Seems to me like it needs something more,” said Mizuki. “But sure, it’s not like we can’t change it.”

“Any temporary name we pick is going to be the one we end up using forever,” said Verity.

“Not necessarily true,” said Mizuki.

“What’s the name of the country we’re in?” asked Verity.

“Fine,” sighed Mizuki. “Point taken. But I’m okay settling with Settlers.”

Alfric was in the middle of writing out the note when the other party came up from the dungeon. Isra hadn’t actually met or seen any of the members of Vertex, but based on Mizuki’s description of them, and the reactions of the rest of her party, Isra didn’t think that these were the same people.

They came up arguing, but their conversation died when they realized that they weren’t alone.

“Dungeon’s not worth it,” said the one woman among them. She was tall, tall enough that she was either a cleric of Xuphin, or had been altered by one. Her arm was bloodied, and drops were dripping down from her fingertips onto the ground. When Isra looked closely, she could see stains in the wood: it wasn’t the first time that someone had bled coming out of this dungeon.

“Do you mind me healin’ that?” asked Hannah, pointing at the arm.

“You’re a cleric?” asked the woman. Her eyes went over Hannah, either looking for some sigil or marker, or just not believing it based on how Hannah carried herself.

“Ay, Garos,” said Hannah. “We’re goin’ in soon, so I can’t spare much, but if it won’t clot on its own, I’d feel poorly for lettin’ you die.”

The other four scrambled up the steep entryway to the dungeon, all of them men. They were older, Isra thought, though it was hard to tell with the grime and the armor. Dungeoneering seemed to be regarded as work for the young, but these people were in their thirties, or possibly older.

“Anything you could tell us would be appreciated,” said Alfric.

“It was overly vertical,” said one of the men. “Bring rope, if you haven’t got some already. We ran out, partway through, and had to make do without. Brex fell and nearly broke his leg.” He nodded to one of the men who had limped over to a bench to catch his breath. “And a descent means you’re limited to what you can carry on your back, not that you’d want to climb like that, unless you’ve got good storage.”

“We filled ours,” said the woman. “Good rocks, but not much else. Too many injuries, too much pain.” Hannah had finished her healing, and the woman moved her arm around, testing mobility as though she didn’t trust the freely given aid. “Thank you,” she finally said, remembering her manners.

“Any dungeon you can walk out of,” said one of the men. He was fair-skinned, like Verity, and there was a bit of ethnic resemblance between them, a similar delicacy of features.

“I didn’t think it was that bad,” said one of the men. “We’ll come out five hundred rings richer, that’s nothing to sneeze at.”

“Five hundred rings, split five ways,” said the woman. “A day’s labor, too much travel.” She shook her head.

“Beats working in a field,” said one of the men, who was looking over his shield. It had a few marks on it.

“Does it though?” asked the woman. “Does it really?” She wiped blood from her arm, which did little more than spread it. She looked at Alfric with piercing eyes. “Have at it.”

Alfric nodded. “Wish us luck.” Without another word, he began his descent into the dungeon.

Isra went after him as the other group sat on the benches, recuperating. They seemed so grim and defeated, and the pleasant air among their own party seemed to have been snuffed out in an instant.

When Isra got down through the tunnel, she saw a fight already in progress. Alfric was illuminated by the lantern around his neck in an expansive room with pillars that stretched into the sky, and he was swinging his sword against something like a goat, but much longer in the midsection, stretching out like a snake. Without hesitation, Isra drew her bow and fired an arrow, walking along with it to cover the distance and firing a second arrow at nearly point-blank, sinking it directly into the creature’s head. It screeched, and tottered away, its long body following it.

<Kill it before it runs!> shouted Alfric in her head. He was slashing its side with his sword, and rather than blood, there were great quantities of black foam coming from it, stiffening as soon as they came into contact with the air.

Isra fired another arrow and walked with it, getting as close as she could to the thing’s head and doing her best to put her full draw into it. The symmetricalization had made things feel a bit off, but it was becoming more natural as she went, and no great impediment. Another time-bending arrow slowed things down, and she was able to place two arrows into the goat’s head from less than three feet away. It went down like a sack of bricks, all control of its body lost, and Isra had to hurry to the side to get out of the way as it rolled.

<Are you okay?> asked Alfric.

<Fine,> said Isra. <Usually they’re not in the starting room.>

<There’s always a chance of anything,> said Alfric. <And the room is massive. Combined with a runner, that could be deadly.> Isra looked up and saw how little of their light shone was actually reaching the ceiling. The pillars were wider around than any tree, and there didn’t seem to be quite enough of them. The edges of the room couldn’t be seen in the gloom. It felt like they were tiny creatures given the scale of the place.

<Aw, you started without us?> asked Mizuki, who’d come down through the tunnel, which was set into the stone wall.

<Early encounter,> said Alfric.

<Well,> said Hannah, who came in shortly afterward. <This is different.> She was looking at the environs, rather than the hundred-foot long goat that was lying dead.

<But why is it different?> asked Verity, bringing up the rear.

<It happens sometimes,> said Alfric. <Dungeons are unique. Hopefully it won’t be stocked with anything too dangerous.> He looked up at the ceiling. It seemed so high that there might have been clouds, and with how long the pillars were, it started to give Isra a sense of vertigo. <Big rooms are a problem. There might be almost anything in here. Usually you can count on a monster in a room, as much as you can count on anything in a dungeon, but here, we might be facing lots of them.>

<This whole dungeon might just be a single room?> asked Mizuki.

<It’s possible,> said Alfric. <Anything is.>

Hannah leaned down and touched the ground, screwing her eyes shut. <I can’t sense much,> she said, standing up. <I’ve been trying to work at this, mappin’ through symmetry, but … well, nothin’ so far.>

<Isra?> asked Alfric.

Isra looked around, frowning. Now that she knew more, the dungeons had taken on a darker tone, the madness of the creatures within it potentially something that could infect her, if given the chance to. She’d done some practice of her own, but it was difficult and unpleasant to do, like practicing being blind.

<There,> she said, pointing. <A doorway against that wall.> It was dark where she pointed, beyond the reach of their lights.

<How is this place so big?> asked Mizuki.

<Variance,> Alfric replied. <What’s the weather like?> It took Isra a moment to realize that he was asking Mizuki about the aether.

<Um, large,> said Mizuki. She looked around her, narrowing her eyes. <Which means small, for me, and I think I can make it into a tight focus. But it might just be this room. Um, let me test.>

She held her hand out at one of the pillars, and after a brief frown when nothing seemed to happen, went forward and peered at the pillar. <Okay,> she said. <It worked, but the hole isn’t very big.> Isra moved closer to see in the poor light, and could make out a hole that had been placed in the pillar, as big around as a ring.

<Was that just completely silent?> asked Alfric.

<Yes,> said Mizuki. <It would only be noisy if it was poorly done. Same thing with a fireball, really, they’re just harder to control. If I’m noisy, it’s a sign there’s wasted energy somewhere.>

<Good,> said Verity. <It will make songs a bit easier if I’m not half-deaf. I haven’t started yet, and probably won’t until we run into something or get to a door.>

<We’ll want to go through the whole room,> said Alfric. <And if it’s as big as it seems, then I doubt this goat thing was the only monster.>

<The meat is edible,> said Isra.

Alfric nodded. <Then we should take some time now to butcher it, though I’m worried that the labor will dull us too much.>

<We should drain the blood,> said Isra. <Nothing will make the meat go bad faster than leaving the blood sitting in it.> Though the goat seemed to have blood that foamed up black, which might make a difference. It was edible though.

They set about field dressing the goat, which took quite a bit of time, seeing as it was at least a hundred feet long. Alfric worked with Isra, doing most of the work, since they were the only ones with any experience. Hannah helped, but the two other girls were out of their element. Mizuki was thinking about recipes that used something like goat meat, though she still hadn’t used the bear meat that Isra had taken, which was sitting in a chiller at Isra’s place. The goat wasn’t actually a goat, because aside from being so long, there were quite a few other differences, like the hair being too coarse and bristly, the hooves not being cloven, and the way it had eyes at regular intervals along its spine.

Isra knew that dungeon animals didn’t need to make sense, but for something like this long goat, she struggled to understand it. There would be no way for something like this to survive in the woods, no way for it to weave between the trees and eat enough to have its fill. It would have been a grazing animal, most likely, but it would be too vulnerable to predation. Even if it didn’t have the dungeon madness that all these things seemed to have, it was an implausible creature, one which would have died not long after coming out unless tended to by a determined bastlekeeper. It was, she supposed, understandable that the dungeon animals she was familiar with were the ones that were capable of surviving outside of the dungeons, but it gave dungeoneering a bit of a ghoulish cast. They weren’t just fighting these mad animals, they were fighting animals that were doomed to death if they could ever have been left alive.

<Well, I hope everyone likes ribs, because I’m going to try making a big batch when we get home,> said Mizuki. <Shame about the foam blood.>

<How accurate is your understanding of whether it’s good?> Verity asked Isra. <Have you ever gotten it wrong?>

<No,> said Isra. <I can just … tell.> She didn’t know how else to express it. The idea that other people couldn’t tell was still hard to wrap her head around.

<Fair enough,> said Verity. <If we’re going to sell the meat, we’ll just have to have your stamp of approval on it.>

<A hundred feet of goat ribs is probably worth hundreds of rings,> said Alfric. <We need better storage for it as soon as possible. It would probably make good sense to create a section of the garden that’s frozen, though we’d need to construct a freezer house there.> The stone had been where most of the meat had gone, stacked into piles on top of one of several pallets that Alfric had prepared ahead of time.

<Are you good to go?> asked Hannah. <Not even taken more than twenty steps into this dungeon, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time and labor. I can’t do much to rejuvenate.>

<We’re good,> said Alfric, rolling his shoulders.

The equipment they weren’t carrying with them had been set right next to the entrance, with one of their spare lanterns sitting on top of it so they’d be able to find it, and the exit, if they were in a hurry. Alfric seemed nervous about it, given that they hadn’t searched through the entirety of the big room, and had no idea what was contained within it. The book, if destroyed, would cost them dearly, especially given how much was contained within it, but fighting his way through the dungeon with an extra fifty pounds on his back wasn’t something that Alfric seemed inclined to do.

<This place gives me the creeps,> said Mizuki. She was looking up at the pillars, which stretched up impossibly high. <Seems like a watermelon held up by toothpicks, ready to topple at any moment.>

<They might not even be pillars,> said Alfric. <It’s hard to see, but there might not be a ceiling.>

<Still,> said Mizuki. <It seems unsteady.>

<And yet you shot a hole in one,> said Hannah.

<A small hole,> said Mizuki.

<Bats,> said Isra, though she had no idea whether that’s what it actually was. It was something going through the air, between the pillars, and heading in their direction.

<Huddle up,> said Alfric. <Mizuki, you’re on point. Verity, charge her.>

Isra held tight to her bow. If it was a horde of bats, or something like bats, she wasn’t sure what they were going to do. What they needed was something that covered a wide area, and if Mizuki couldn’t do that, they would need a net, which wasn’t readily available. Against a hundred bats, which is what it sounded like to Isra, arrows would be virtually useless, capable of killing a few here and there, but not on the level they needed to. Isra had always found flocks a bit scary, in the way they seemed to have a mind of their own independent of the individual members.

They sat together for what felt like minutes but was probably much less time. The approach was irregular, not quite in a straight line, but it was still too dim to see until the creatures were quite close overhead.

They were nothing like bats. Their form was more reminiscent of a frog, a large one, maybe half the size of a person. They had too many wings on their back, eight or nine, thick wings that flapped incessantly, even when they were gripping the sides of a pillar. They had been jumping back and forth between them, sometimes gliding for a longer jump. From the time between when Isra first spotted them to the time they started dropping down around the party was perhaps twelve seconds.

Isra felt a bit of relief though, because these, at least, were something that the party was equipped to deal with. Two dozen of these things seemed like a lot, but Isra vastly preferred that to the idea of two hundred smaller things. She let the first arrow fly and stepped with it, moving toward one of the creatures she hoped was going to soon die.

She had worked with Alfric, in the days before this dungeon, planning for different scenarios. One of the things they’d come up with together was what he’d called permanent slowness, the idea that the bow could be used in such a way so that Isra was always under its effects. They had practiced, and Isra found it draining, but all that was really required to make it work was to have another arrow ready to fire the exact moment that the first arrow found its mark and time began moving forward at the normal rate again.

Isra aimed for center mass, hoping to puncture the lungs or hearts of the creatures, if they had such things. The tactic required her to be in constant motion though, and by the time she was firing her third arrow, she was already starting to feel it. Mizuki fired off her silent little spell, which tunneled straight through two of the creatures, but it seemed that was all the help that she would be. Hannah had unclipped a hammer from her belt and begun to swing it with abandon, and Alfric was sweeping his electrified sword through the air, cutting neatly through whatever creature came near him. He was protecting Verity and Mizuki.

Isra stalked the perimeter of the clustered party, moving faster than the creatures could, always firing another arrow as soon as the effect of the earlier one was done. With her chosen technique, she couldn’t shoot at the creatures above, because the bubble of slowed time would go beyond her, but the creatures had no range to them, and not all that much in the way of weapons. They were using their forelimbs to grab at people, and had their mouths open to bite with. One of them actually did manage to slip past Alfric and Hannah to grab at Mizuki, using surprising strength to pull her off her feet, and Isra fired a risky arrow at it, worried that she would hit one of her party members. She wasn’t able to follow the bubble either, and pulled an arrow as quickly as she could, jarred by the sudden return to normal time.

Alfric moved forward, fearless, with perfect form. He was positioning himself against the creatures, trying to make himself wide so that he could protect the others. He sometimes darted out to slash at one of the creatures, but always retreated, keeping aware of where the others were. The way he made it look so natural spoke to instinct, which must have come from incredible amounts of training, and Isra faltered for a moment, more focused on watching what the others were doing than playing her own part. It lasted only a fraction of a second, the thoughts swimming, and then she was in slowed time again, picking off more of the things. An arrow to the chest seemed like it was enough to slow them, but they weren’t quick to bleed out. Thankfully, their pitiful attempts at biting took more effort than they were capable of putting out when they had an arrow through the lung.

The fight ended without any fanfare. It was Hannah who got the last of them with a hammer to what passed for its face, a crunch that was sickening in the sudden silence. From there, it was a matter of clean-up, which Alfric handled without any sense that he thought it should be a job for someone else, which was how Alfric seemed to handle most things. He went through the gasping, bleeding creatures one by one, running them through to make sure that they were dead.

“Ugh,” said Mizuki. “That was terrible.”

<Use the channel,> said Alfric.

<It was terrible,> said Mizuki. She rubbed her leg where she’d been grabbed. <I was useless, sorry.>

<It wasn’t the kind of conditions you excel at,> said Alfric. <We should keep moving now that the song is going. Anything of worth on them?>

<No,> said Mizuki, when she realized the question was being asked of her. <Nothing.>

Alfric gave a nod, then looked at Isra. <Edible?>

<Gross,> said Mizuki.

Isra stared at the bodies. <There’s a mild toxin on the skin,> she said. <It would take careful butchering.>

Alfric looked at Mizuki. <They touched you, check to make sure that it didn’t get through the fabric.>

<I’m wearing layers,> said Mizuki, but she pulled up her pant leg all the same and looked at the area where the creature had grabbed her, then at her hand, where she’d been rubbing the leg. <All good, I think.>

<You would see a rash, I think,> said Isra.

<We should get moving,> said Verity. She was strumming her lute, softly, and singing almost under her breath. The single short sentence came out while she was playing without singing.

<Right,> nodded Alfric.

Verity had been practicing playing ‘slow’ as she called it, pushing the song down to the smallest thread of coherence so that it drained her as little as possible. The music had been filling the house in the days since their second dungeon, but often very simple tunes, kept so slow and low that there would only be small snatches of them. Isra had been mildly surprised by the amount of time and effort that Verity had put into it. For all that Verity seemed to hate the pressure of music, she had a way of devoting herself to it that Isra found enchanting.

They hadn’t gone too much further through the pillars before they saw a light in the distance, and not much further after that before it resolved itself as a doorway. The light wasn’t constant, like the lightstones they wore around their necks, but flickered and moved, like torchlight or a fire.

<We go in quiet,> said Alfric. <Mizuki, try to kill it quickly.>

<Gotcha,> said Mizuki. Her hands were shaking, Isra noticed. She was the least suited to dungeoneering, in spite of her obvious power.

The doorway was carved out of the stone wall, which stretched up enormously high. Above it, visible only from their lanterns, there were windows that had similarly been cut into the wall, though they were unlit. If there were some internal structure to this place, it would be at least ten stories tall.

They went to the doorway from the side, and Verity stopped playing her lute, instead singing directly into their party channel, the words silent to anyone else. She didn’t like doing it, Isra knew, because she found it harder to keep up with, and the effects were shifted slightly by having the music not in the world, but if they were trying to be stealthy, it was necessary.

Mizuki moved to the front, with Alfric right behind her, and crept around to peek through the doorway.

<It’s … some kind of monster,> said Mizuki when she pulled back. <Working at a desk, it looks like. Mottled skin, big ears. Do I just take the shot?>

<Yes,> said Alfric. <As soon as you do, pull back and I’ll move in, Isra, behind me, ready to put it down. Hopefully Mizuki does the trick.>

<It is a pretty good trick,> said Mizuki as she went back in the doorway. There was practically no sound from whatever she was doing, but she said, <Done,> and moved back. Isra could hear a wet gurgling before she could see the creature, which was slumped in something like a chair, its many limbs sprawled out, with a pen falling from its claws. There was a gaping hole in its back, through which it was leaking viscous green blood.

Alfric moved swiftly and drove his sword into the thing’s back on the other side, just to be sure, then turned his eyes to the room’s two exits, ready and waiting in case something came through. One went up, while the other was a door. When there was nothing, Alfric relaxed slightly.

The room had quite a lot of papers in it, not just piled up on the desk, but in cupboards without doors and pinned to the walls. Looking closely, Isra could see that most of them were maps of one kind or another, tracing the borders of provinces and countries that were unfamiliar to Isra, and quite possibly had been invented by the dungeon itself. The writing was unfamiliar glyphs.

<We’ll clear quickly,> he said. <Go through the rooms one by one. The stairs are narrow, but they’ll be second. There’s no knowing how high up we’ll have to go to make sure we’ve dealt with what’s here. Verity, check?>

<Fine,> said Verity once she got a chance. The magic of the song, at least as far as Isra could tell, was tamped down.

Alfric prepared himself to open the door and checked with the others. Space was in limited supply. He flung the door open, sword ready, and found that it was a cupboard stocked with bottles of ink and stacks of parchment.

<Okay, well,> said Alfric. <Upstairs then.>

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Alexander Wales

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