A note from Alexander Wales

Another dungeon chapter!

The dungeons were terrifying, and Mizuki didn’t know how everyone else was handling it so well. For Alfric it was obvious, he was a dungeon freak, this was something he’d been training his whole life for. For Hannah, Mizuki could maybe see it too, she was a sturdy, no-nonsense kind of woman who had seen a lot of pain and suffering in her time training to be a cleric, or at least it seemed like that. And Isra, well, who knew about her. But Verity? Verity was supposed to be a prim and proper city girl, and she was somehow able to see all the blood and gore and keep on singing with perfect tempo and marvelous melodies, sometimes even improvising songs while monsters were trying to kill them. Sometimes songs about the monsters that were trying to kill them. Who was able to think of a rhyme for cyclops while looking at a cyclops? Verity had likened it to a concert performance, the stress and tension and fear bottled up and tamped down, but Verity also didn’t shrink back at the sight of blood, so maybe she was just built different.

If Mizuki hadn’t been the only one who felt that way, there was a good chance that she would have dropped out of the party. Dungeons were scary, and monsters were scary, and after her magic was spent, she was just kind of standing there uselessly, waiting for there to be enough magic in the air that she could get off a second shot. There was a trade-off, waiting for it to build up or choosing to use it as it was, and Mizuki was, frankly, terrified of screwing things up for Verity again. Having done it once, it was easier to see the shape of that internal magic, to trace back the effects of the bardic influence to see a nexus of something that was within Verity herself. Something breakable.

Alfric was, thankfully, a beast. He ascended through the tower-in-the-wall, and for most of it, Mizuki was just following behind in fourth position, after Hannah, who was there to heal Alfric, and Isra, who could occasionally fire off a careful shot. But it was almost all Alfric, boosted by Verity, who was singing without any line of sight, and presumably just blindly boosting him. She’d been learning quickly and practicing what felt like almost too much, though Mizuki had no real way of knowing. The effects couldn’t be argued with though, since Alfric would sweep through a room, killing the things where they stood, mostly silent as he moved, keeping them from raising the alarm.

The things in the “tower” were all of a sort, with too many legs and faces like moles, large teeth in the center but little at the sides, no lips, bulging eyes, floppy ears, and big, lumpy bodies. Their legs were little, disproportionate to their arms, and their flesh was warped and shiny, like scar tissue, not that Mizuki had seen all that much of it. They were positioned, in places, like people, two sitting at a table together, one under a blanket in a bed, none with clothes, per se, but they were using tools and weapons. There was a certain horror to it, seeing these things behaving like people. Mostly though, Mizuki just didn’t see them as they were, because by the time she got into the rooms, Alfric had already killed everything and was going on up.

He’d explained to them earlier that he preferred to keep up his momentum, in part because his heart started pumping hard and there was an excitement that ran through him, a storm of emotions and energy that didn’t lend itself to slow, deliberate movements with frequent breaks. He hadn’t called it bloodlust, but Mizuki wondered whether that was what it was. There was a lot of blood left in his wake, though it was green rather than red, which made her feel a bit better. Still, most of the killing in the early floors was against creatures that had been totally unaware of him, and the one who was bleeding in the bed seemed like it had been taking a nap or something.

Maybe because of the noise, which seemed minimal, or because there were more of them awake, there was some resistance from the upper floors. Alfric made a stand at the bottom of a flight of stairs, weathering improvised weapons thrown down at him. He flashed in with his sword from time to time, almost always getting a kill, and Isra’s arrows flew over his head from time to time, also usually resulting in a kill. The corpses piled up on the narrow stairs and the remainder of the creatures stepped on their fallen allies to get at Alfric, dying soon after they made their way to him. This, too, Alfric had explained: dungeon madness usually resulted in unchecked aggression, which meant that one strategy you could employ was to find a choke point and wait for them to come at you. It was a poor strategy in some ways, since it meant that you could only employ a single fighter and left the artillery unable to act, but there were some cases where it was for the best. He was displaying the strategy for them in gruesome detail. The air didn’t have the iron smell of blood, but rather, a different metal, maybe like just after she’d washed her copper pan.

Each of the rooms was small, no larger than Mizuki’s own bedroom, and there was hardly any access to the aether, which meant that Mizuki was totally useless through the whole journey up the tower. Once the battle on the stairway was finished, Alfric climbed up over the bodies, stabbing a few of them who weren't quite dead, and Hannah went up after him, not seeming to care that she was stepping on dead things.

When it was her turn, Mizuki followed Isra, grimacing at the grossness of it. She didn’t particularly like dead things. She had mostly gotten used to butchering chickens on her own, but really preferred to have a butcher do it for her, even if it cost a bit more. Once they’d had their head and feet taken off and been plucked, it was easier to not think of it as something that had once been living.

Past the stairwell of corpses, it was a bit more palatable, just empty rooms that went up another few floors. They had things in them, a table with chairs, a dresser, a small kitchenette with an unfamiliar stove and a sink that, when tested, wasn’t connected to any tank.

The top floor was what looked very much to be a museum, if a very small one. There were lots of things behind glass in display cases, and next to all of them, paper cards with lots of vertical glyphs on them, unreadable but all with some kind of unifying design.

<How many of these are entads?> asked Alfric, looking around.

<Um, the armor,> the Mizuki. It was so much easier to see the faint emanations of entads when Verity was boosting her. The suit of armor was on a mannequin, big and visible. <Everything else, I’ll need some time to look closer, or Verity’s help, which we probably don’t want until the break is done?>

<We’ll strip everything we can out of here,> said Alfric. <Odd to have a display room like this though.>

<Extremely odd?> asked Hannah. <More than the large room out there?> She gestured out the window, where the black expanse of the room with tall pillars was sitting. They were high up, and Mizuki tried not to think of what a horrible fall it would be.

<I suppose not so strange,> said Alfric. <It reminds me of the family vault. Less cluttered. Smaller.>

<You said that dungeons depend on the people that come into them,> said Isra.

<Yes,> said Alfric. <Not like that though. Usually.>

They were all looking through the things in the small room, but Mizuki was the only one who had any real utility here, for which she was grateful. Still, entads were barely visible to her, and it was worrying to think that if she missed something, they might lose out on potentially thousands of rings. There were lots of things in this mini-museum though, and toward the end of her surveying work, Mizuki had to admit that she was going a lot faster, and not just because she was getting more familiar with the conditions. In the end, there were four things, including the armor, with the other two suspects being a ring — the kind worn on a finger, not money — and a stick that had been carved without changing its general shape. She might have tentatively called it a wand. The fourth and final one wasn’t one of the items on display, but instead, the little card of paper next to a cracked stone egg.

<So do we test this now?> asked Verity.

<Normally, no,> said Alfric. <But given how much need we have for a storage entad and how much easier it would make clearing, I think we’re compelled to. Be careful with the wand though, those tend to be combat oriented. Point it away from people.>

Mizuki held up the ring and looked at it. It was dark and iridescent, like a beetle’s shell. The outside had geometric lines and there was ‘writing’ on the inside, indecipherable. When Mizuki went to put it on her finger, it resized itself in her fingers, and she was so spooked that she nearly dropped it.

<Do you want me to?> asked Alfric.

Mizuki hesitated for a moment. There was something about the ring that felt, to her, evil, but she was pretty sure it was just her imagination acting up. <Sure,> she said. It felt better or safer in some way, though obviously there wasn’t a lot of risk from an entad.

Alfric took the ring from her and slipped it onto his finger, then turned to stone.

<Um, Alfric?> asked Mizuki.

He was frozen in place, and after a second, he began to tip.

Hannah rushed in though, and with effort and some help, got him back upright.

<Heavy,> she said. She held the statue in place so it wouldn’t tip again.

Through all this, the stone Alfric had not moved, unless you counted tipping.

<Alfric?> asked Mizuki. “Alfric!”

<Seems like he’s turned to stone,> said Hannah.

<Is that something his time magic can, you know, undo?> asked Mizuki. She could feel the panic rising. <He didn’t say, did he? He just said if he was knocked out for long enough, it wouldn’t happen on its own, not if he went into the next day without waking up. He could be dead, couldn’t he?>

<Calm down,> said Hannah. <Let’s get that ring off.> His clothes had changed to stone as well, but the ring itself was just as it had been, some kind of hard metal.

<What if taking the ring off means he can’t turn back?> asked Mizuki. <What if it’s time-based and without the ring on, he’s just stuck like that forever?>

<So what do you think should be done?> asked Hannah. She seemed mildly annoyed. <Wait it out?>

<I think we should wait,> said Verity. <Not all that long, ten minutes, twenty?>

<An hour,> said Mizuki. <I thought I read somewhere that a lot of entads use normal human times.>

<Did you, ay?> asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

<Alfric said not to stay in a dungeon long,> said Isra.

<Yeah, well, he didn’t leave us instructions for this,> said Mizuki. <He didn’t say ‘even if I turn into a statue that isn’t balanced right’.>

<We can prop him up,> said Hannah. <And take a break from entad testin’ for a moment. I’ll agree to an hour or so, then we try to pull the ring and see if that reverses it. If it doesn’t, we’ve got a problem. We can’t leave him in the dungeon, because there’d be no way to go back for him, we can’t communicate with the outside, and the thing I’d like to do, if just takin’ the ring off doesn’t work, is to move the statue out, but … well, he’s got to be at least four hundred pounds in this state. I’m strong, but not that strong. So that means we carry the garden stone up nine flights of stairs and try to stick him in it, but if that doesn’t work for whatever reason, for example, if the ring doesn’t end up comin’ off and the metal blocks him from goin’ into the garden, well … four hundred pounds, navigated down these stairs, seems like it’ll take some doin’, even with a song of strength.>

<But first we wait,> said Mizuki.

<Ay,> said Hannah. She sighed. <First, we wait.>

So they sat and waited. No one really wanted to deal with the other entads after what had happened with the first one, especially if Alfric was suddenly dead, bypassing his chrononaut thing, which seemed … well, possible, at least, if maybe not the likeliest thing. Mizuki still wanted to know what the wand, armor, and card did, but not if it was going to risk someone dying.

So instead, having nothing much better to do, and not wanting to move because the dungeon was decidedly not clear, they just sat and talked.

<Did they seem a bit too … human to anyone else?> asked Mizuki.

<The monsters?> asked Isra.

<Yeah, the monsters,> said Mizuki. <Not in form, obviously, but they were using tools and it seemed like they were living here. That one that I put a hole through on the ground level, he was holding a pen and it seemed like he was working on making a map. It was … well, unnerving.>

<They say you can find things like humans in a dungeon,> said Verity.

<Ay,> said Hannah. <That’s where the rumor comes from, that humans are a dungeon creature.>

<How much like human?> asked Mizuki.

<In the dungeons?> asked Hannah. <Ay, well, the person to ask has been turned to stone, but my guess, based on what I’ve heard, is that you get things that are a bit human fairly often, and the things closest to human are more and more rare the more human they are. Just like we wouldn’t think it too strange to run into somethin’ like a goat with a few features changed, but we’d be a bit incredulous about somethin’ that was exactly like a goat in all respects. Ay?>

<I suppose,> said Mizuki. She frowned. <But even if they look like people, they don’t act like people.>

<Only because of dungeon madness,> said Verity. <And if left alone, they’d just keep on pretending to be people.>

<But what makes them not people?> asked Mizuki.

<They’re invented by the dungeons,> said Hannah. <And more to the point, not covered under the same laws as you and I, though I figure most of that probably comes down to dungeon madness.>

<So if we came across a family down here,> said Mizuki. <We’d, what, kill them?>

There were some uncomfortable looks around the place they were sitting next to Alfric’s statue, which was balanced against the wall. It seemed possible that this was what they’d already done.

<I don’t know that we would,> said Verity. <But … do we just do it based on looks?>

<They’d die here if we left them alone,> said Isra. <Or they’d be unmade when we left the dungeon.>

<I feel like Alfric would know,> said Verity.

<Probably,> said Isra.

They all looked at the statue. In the dark of the dungeon, it wasn’t clear how much time had passed. Mizuki was grateful that she had her lantern.

<But he wouldn’t be able to just tell us the answer to what’s a, you know, moral question,> said Mizuki. <Right? I guess maybe he would.>

<It’s the sort of thing there’s probably a body of work on,> said Hannah. <I can picture the volumes of books in my mind’s eye.> She shrugged. <But I can’t say that I’ve read too many of them. Any of them, actually.>

<I’ll add one of those imagined books to my reading list,> said Mizuki. <Seems a bit convenient that it would be morally okay to go kill some people whose stuff you want.>

<Where’s this coming from?> asked Verity. <I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard you talking about … this kind of thing.>

<I don’t know,> said Mizuki. She looked at the statue again. <Worried, I guess. It’s the kind of thing my grandpa used to talk about, what’s moral, what’s right, what we do about it when there’s a messy reality out there. He talked a lot, in a way that — I don’t know, when you say that someone talks a lot, people think that it’s all hot air, but he was the kind of guy who talked a lot and it was just because there was so much in his head.>

<Still alive, right?> asked Verity.

<Oh, definitely,> said Mizuki. <Not even retired. You’ll probably meet him someday, at the rate we’re going.>

<We will?> asked Hannah.

<I mean, we’re going for a trip to Dondrian, right?> asked Mizuki. <And with the right entads, Kiromo is next door.>

<Some very expensive entads,> said Hannah.

<Sure, but we’re bound to have some in a bit, right?> asked Mizuki. <Even if we have to sell them or whatever, we could do a trip to see my family before we did.>

<I think you underestimate how rare they are,> said Verity. <Hex to hex isn’t much of a problem, and province to province can be done without spending an outrageous sum, but you’re talking about Kiromo.>

<Well, either way,> said Mizuki. She folded her arms, and a bit of silence descended on their group. <I miss Alfric. Has it been an hour yet?>

<Probably not,> said Hannah.

They talked some more, but no one’s heart was really in it.

<The worst part of this is that he’s the one who would know exactly how to handle this,> said Mizuki.

<I don’t think we’re useless without him,> said Hannah.

<I was feeling that way as he was going up the stairs and killing everything on his own,> said Verity.

<Me too,> said Isra.

<You were helpin’ him with your song, weren’t you?> asked Hannah.

<I was,> said Verity. <Full strength and speed, boosted by the whole party, but I couldn’t see any of what he was doing, and — well, he was leading, I was following. I felt useless, but I’m not ready to say that I was actually useless.>

<He could have done it all without us,> said Isra.

<Or he gave that impression, yes,> said Verity.

<He’s a singularly impressive man,> said Isra. Her saying that made Mizuki feel a little pleasantly warm. It was true, obviously, but maybe she also liked that Isra appreciated Alfric.

Hannah laughed. <That he is, and I doubt you realize the half of it, no offense. Even in Dondrian, I doubt they make any others like him.>

<Can we try taking the ring off now?> asked Mizuki. <I just want him back.>

<Sure,> said Hannah. She got up from the ground and propped the statue up so it was standing again, and reached down to touch the ring. <See, the thing I’m worried about is that skin stretches and squishes, and stone doesn’t, so it might not even be possible to get the ring off of — oh, no, there it goes, it’s resizing itself.>

And then Alfric was alive again, moving around, alert and a bit confused. It took him a moment to work out that everyone had changed places and he’d been moved just a bit, with some time passing that he wasn’t aware of.

<What happened?> he asked.

<Seems that the ring turns people to stone,> said Hannah, holding the ring out to him in her palm. <It gave us a bit of a fright, but it seems that the whole time we could have just taken it off you.>

<How long was it?> asked Alfric. <For me, it was instant.>

<About an hour,> said Mizuki.

<Less than that,> said Isra.

<Can you tell time?> asked Mizuki, turning to her. <Like, how many minutes it’s been?>

<No,> said Isra. <Not here. Outside the dungeon I can, from the movement of the sun and the moons.>

<But what if it’s cloudy?> asked Mizuki.

<I don’t think that matters for me,> said Isra.

<Well, anyhow, it was less than an hour,> said Hannah. <We weren’t sure whether the right thing to do was to wait, to take it off, to move you, or what.>

<Would your time powers have saved you?> asked Mizuki.

Alfric took a moment to think about that. <Probably not, no. It triggers automatically if I die, but if I don’t die … incapacitation is one of the primary ways to stop a chrononaut, other than just hoping that you kill them in enough timelines. I don’t know for certain whether this would count as incapacitation or death, but I would expect it was incapacitation.> He looked down at the ring for a moment, turning it over.

<It seems a bit useless,> said Verity. <Especially if you need someone to remove it for you.>

<Not at all,> said Alfric. <You could slip it on the finger of someone who was dying and get them to medical help. Or … well, for imprisonment.>

<Wouldn’t really be imprisonment, would it?> asked Hannah. <If they’re not alive?>

<There’s probably a question of definitions,> said Alfric. He looked around. <Sorry if I gave you a fright?>

Mizuki went forward and gave him a hug. There had been a part of her that really had been worried that he was dead, and maybe a hug wasn’t the right thing to do, and was a bit embarrassing, but she decided not to care about that. Alfric hugged her back, and he was surprisingly good at hugging. He let her be the first to let go, which she appreciated.

<Hey, it’s okay,> said Alfric. <It’s very unlikely that any entad you can wear will just outright kill you when you put it on.>

<Yeah, but it could, couldn’t it?> asked Mizuki.

<It could,> said Alfric. <Technically. And I have to say I’m glad you were worried, and I think you did the right thing in giving it a bit, just in case. And staying in one place, that was good too. There’s a chance that if the entad has no safety associated with it, and you had left me in the dungeon, I would be trapped forever.> He looked at the armor. <Did you find out what the other entads did?>

Mizuki laughed. <Did you think that we were going to test them all while we waited on you?>

<I’d somewhat hoped,> said Alfric. <We should at least test the wand now.>

<Are you sure?> asked Mizuki.

<Yes,> said Alfric. <There are lots of options. I’ll test it out the window first.> He picked the wand up from the shelf that it had been set on, then went over to the window, which looked out over the black. <Best to point this away from people.>

He aimed it carefully into the blackness, but nothing happened.

<Hrm,> said Alfric, holding it up and looking at it. <Might not be one that shoots or produces something. I’m going to try touching something.>

Mizuki was a bit unnerved. The idea of Alfric being suddenly dead from the entad ring had stuck with her, and he seemed to be brushing it off like it didn’t matter, or like there was no risk in testing anything else. She liked entad testing, but she could tell that it would take her some time to feel safe about it again, for all his assurances. What she wanted was a number, but even if he could give a number, she wasn’t sure that it would help her. How likely was an entad to kill you when you put it on? One in a thousand? One in a million? Higher? She wasn’t sure what the right number was to make her feel safe about it. Of course, the ring hadn’t killed Alfric, and maybe if the statue of him had fallen, it wouldn’t have shattered into pieces like it had in her imagination, but … still.

Alfric took the cracked stone egg and set it on the windowsill, then pointed the wand at it, which did nothing, and finally, touched the egg with the tip of the wand. The egg vanished with a slight shimmer, and Alfric frowned. He very tentatively moved his hand forward to the space where the egg had been, and it passed through empty space.

<What happened to it?> asked Hannah.

<Well, I’m hoping that it’s somehow stored inside the wand,> said Alfric. He held the wand in front of him, pointing it at the windowsill, and with a faint shimmer, it appeared again. <Nice.> He was smiling. <Storage, exactly what we need.>

<Wait,> said Isra. She moved forward and looked at the stone egg. <It’s not the same.>

<What do you mean it’s not the same?> asked Alfric. He peered at the egg, and for a moment, both of them were studying it together. <Huh, you’re right. The design is different and the crack is in a different place.>

<The material is what I noticed,> said Isra. <Still stone, but a different composition.>

Alfric’s face fell. <Well, that means that I can’t use it for what I wanted to use it for, which was storing the book in it.>

<What would happen if you used it on a person?> asked Mizuki. Her mind was still on Alfric getting turned to stone.

<Well, we’re not going to do that,> said Alfric. <The wand does seem good, but there’s more testing to be done with it, and it’s going to have to be careful testing, or testing with things that we don’t care about. Though if it spit out an entad with the same powers that only looked different, I suppose we could still use it for what I was hoping we could use it for.> He looked at Mizuki. <Do you still carry around that spoon?>

<I do,> said Mizuki. <But no, I won’t let you use it for testing, there’s sure to be something nearly worthless that you can test with, or you can wait until we can take it to the cleric.>

<Fair enough,> said Alfric. <Well, we have more dungeon to do, so let's do some cursory tests on the rest of the objects, then make our way down the tower and finish up the dungeon.>

They did some minor tests with the piece of paper and the armor, but their functions weren’t immediately obvious. The paper showed changes to the writing when it was touched to something, but it remained in the same impenetrable language. For the armor, Alfric suspected that someone would need to put it on, and it did seem to resize itself, but no one wanted to go to the trouble of getting armored, not when it might be a dud, or hard to work with, and not when they were already wearing armor. Alfric was a bit circumspect about it, which made it difficult to get excited about.

They found three other entads on their way down, or Mizuki did, because she was the only one that could see them. One of them was one that she’d actually thought she spotted on the way up, a wooden table, and she had no idea how they were going to get it out of the tower, given that it was wider than both the windows and doors. It seemed like they would have to use the wand, but Alfric said that it was better to save worrying about it until later. The function of the table wasn’t immediately obvious. Another was a blanket on one of the beds, which had a hole through it and was covered in blood from where Alfric had stabbed through it to kill the creature underneath. The last was a map, one of the cartographer’s, which had an unreadable legend and seemed to show a place that none of them had ever heard of, which Alfric suspected might work better once they were out of the dungeon. All in all, it was a bit frustrating to have so many things with unknown purpose, but Alfric was somewhat insistent that they could go more in-depth once the dungeon was finished. If there was another entad incident, he wanted to be able to extract with all their winnings, rather than being forced to leave a dungeon’s worth of loot behind.

<We had a question, while you were stone,> said Mizuki. <About these, um, monsters.> She was trying not to look at the corpses. She’d have tried not to look at the corpses anyway, but the one that had been in its bed was making her have funny thoughts.

<Yes?> asked Alfric.

<They’re not people, right?> she asked.

<This is about personhood?> asked Alfric.

<I guess,> said Mizuki.

<We thought you’d know the thinkin’ on these matters,> said Hannah. <The schools of thought, the debates, and the like.>

<There’s uncertainty,> said Alfric. <The conventional wisdom is that it’s all moot, they’re doomed one way or another, from the moment the dungeon ‘creates’ them.> He paused, scratching his head for a moment. <I’m just trying to think about the short introduction to the topic. Um, yes, there’s a chance that we might run into verifiably thinking creatures in the dungeon. But they’ll have dungeon madness, so there’s not really a way for us to interrogate whether or not they’re thinking creatures. I mean, there are ways around dungeon madness, people sometimes take dungeon mad creatures out so they can breed them, all you really need to do is make sure that they’re not aware of anything that would trigger them.> He sighed. <Sorry, I should have prepared for this, it’s just … one of those things you talk about in Junior League and then kind of forget about.>

<So that mapmaker I put a hole in,> said Mizuki. <There’s a chance that he might have been a living creature with dreams and aspirations?>

<A very remote chance, yes,> said Alfric. <But the most likely scenario is that they’re not thinking, just going through the motions, just mockeries of intelligence. If we went through the effort to subdue them, to take them out of the dungeon, to get them some place where they could settle down so the dungeon madness didn’t have hold, the most likely scenario is that they would be incapable of communication even with the best of entads and unable to adapt to their environment. They might die of starvation without being force fed, or fall ill due to internal problems with their biology, or … a hundred other things. And if they were one of those rare creatures that could think, that had a language we could use to communicate with them through entad assistance, their minds would be full of holes.>

<Holes?> asked Mizuki. <Like, not knowing things?>

<Missing knowledge, corrupted memories, partial skills,> said Alfric. <There are very few instances of anyone actually trying to investigate the question, but … well, to give an example, which given the circumstances I would call pessimistic, that creature that was creating the map — it’s possible that it did have some skill at map-making, and some born knowledge of whatever region it was in the middle of mapping, but it wouldn’t know where it learned any of that, might not know how to feed itself or what its kind of creature eats, wouldn’t know its name, wouldn’t be able to understand why it was imprisoned or what dungeon madness was without a decade of attempts … and probably not even then, unless it was at the far tail end of what the dungeons create.>

<That sounds horrible,> said Verity. She looked genuinely crestfallen.

Alfric shrugged. <Sorry, I should have checked with the party, it’s just … conventional wisdom that even if they were, against the odds, capable of some modicum of thought, they would be like that sink, with a faucet but nothing hooked up to it, doomed and misconceived. The dungeons build things wrong. I think, looking at your faces, that I should stress that anything capable of actual thought in the way we would understand it is exceedingly rare.>

<The problem is there’s no way to check,> said Mizuki.

<Well,> said Alfric. <Usually, no. But in this case, I actually think we might get a suggestion.>

They moved downstairs and Alfric moved aside the corpse sitting at the table to point at the half-finished map that had been sitting there.

<Here,> he said. <A repeating line.> Mizuki moved closer to look, not liking how close she was to the dead creature, the creature she’d killed. The map was like the others, but in the section that hadn’t been filled in, there were strokes of a pen, some shoreline, but repeated like an echo, done over and over again until the ink was off the paper and on the wood. <My guess is that it was spawned with some kind of thing in its head about making maps, and the only thing it knew was to make that one line, so it did that over and over again until we showed up. Not thinking, just performing the same action. We were in this dungeon for quite a bit before we came here, especially with the goat?> His finger went to the map and the repeated line, then with a frown he picked up the pot of ink on the desk. <Empty, but no knowledge of how to refill it, if there was any awareness that it needed to be refilled, or awareness of emptiness..>

Mizuki breathed out. That did make her feel better.

<Do you want me to redo the day?> asked Alfric. <Just say the word and we can, and then we can have this conversation before you’ve done anything you might regret.>

<No,> said Mizuki. <No, it was just … I don’t know. Something I didn’t know about. Something I hadn’t given much thought. I thought, when people joked that humans came from the dungeons, that they were just joking, but it seems like it really might have been possible.>

<Yes,> said Alfric.

<Can you give me a number?> asked Mizuki. <Just, a number for how often there are thinking things in the dungeons.>

<Well,> said Alfric. <It’s not something that we know really, because it would be very difficult to determine, and —>

<I think she wants some reassurance,> said Hannah. <Not a digression into theory.>

<Okay,> said Alfric, frowning. <Well, if I can give you some history, about a hundred years ago, a small group tried their best to pull creatures that seemed likely to be thinking ones out, for their own reasons. I don’t know how many they got out, but the most they ever had were two partial successes, cases where they were able to have something approaching a back-and-forth, using heavy entad assistance. Two cases out of … well, hundreds, I would guess, maybe as much as thousands, and even then it was spotty. For a few more, they could get something like a fragment of a dream or memory. When we get home, we can look it up, or I can send for books, or there are people to talk with in Dondrian. If we’re talking about newborns, who aren’t afflicted with dungeon madness and don’t have their heads full of bad knowledge and half-known skills, it’s a bit better, there are some actual contemporary accounts, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking.>

Mizuki nodded. That seemed unlikely then. It was nice that Alfric was taking her feelings seriously, especially if they went against the conventional wisdom.

<If we see anything more in this dungeon that looks human, we’ll maybe steer clear?> asked Hannah.

<Maybe,> said Alfric. <If we can. But they will be trying to kill us.> He frowned. <We’ll work on a party protocol later. This isn’t a good conversation to be having in the middle of a dungeon.>

Mizuki felt better about it. It helped to have Alfric there, explaining things, even if he wasn’t giving her what she wanted, which was a plain and clear message that these things couldn’t possibly have been anything remotely like people.

They continued on through the dungeon, and Mizuki tried to focus on her current role, which was putting holes in things.


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Alexander Wales


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