In times of trouble, the temple in Pucklechurch was to be used as a defensible rallying point, triage center, and command post. Hannah knew this, because when the plan had been for her to replace Lemmel, she’d gotten a bit of training in it, but for her whole time in Pucklechurch, nothing remotely worth worrying about had happened. Really, it seemed a bit of overkill to Hannah, given that it had been so long since war or natural disasters had been a concern for the country, and that chrononauts undid the worst of days anyhow. Still, it was in times like this that having a plan could save someone’s bacon, so it was good that there was a plan.
“There’s been a dungeon escape!” Pann called out to the open area of the temple where people were congregated. She was the tallest cleric, easy to see, and with strong lungs, which made her the best to announce things. She held a position of leadership among the clerics. “Chrononauts have been notified of the situation already, and if they don’t hear further, the day will be undone. We believe we are dealing with something fast-breeding and substantially dangerous, which means that community action is necessary. The escape is of unknown origin and so far confined to the Pucklechurch hex. If it’s serious, help will retroactively appear, but it’s our responsibility to deal with things as best we can. Your orders will come from our hex beastmaster, Partridge West, who will coordinate. Partridge?”
People were still streaming into the temple, some of them there for the protection it offered, others there because they wanted to help with the containment effort.
The beastmaster, who Hannah only vaguely knew, was a short woman with grey hair and a slight stoop, the kind of governmental official who stayed in their position for decades simply by virtue of having little challenge and a fair amount of institutional knowledge. Partridge was competent, at least as far as Hannah knew her reputation, but if there were no challengers to a position like that, then in Hannah’s opinion, there were limits on how organized someone would get. Their treatment of Isra — or non-treatment, as it were — had lowered her opinion of the Pucklechurch leadership by a healthy amount.
“I noticed it early this morning,” said Partridge, speaking to the crowd. “One unknown entry became one hundred and thirteen. That was when I sent a message for the chronos. An hour later, the unknown was at one hundred and fifty-seven. The location is three miles north, in the woodland there, and from the continued increase, it seems that either it’s a single adult laying many eggs, which isn’t so bad, or it’s continual fast breeding, which would be bad.” Hannah paid attention to the differences in what the two women had said. It was bad that they weren’t on the same page, but she tried to be understanding, given that it was all happening quickly. “Either way, there are a lot of them.”
“This is likely a day that will be undone,” said Pann, stepping forward again. “But you cannot allow that to color your response here. If we can deal with it on our own, all the better. But if we can’t deal with it on our own, we’ll retreat to this temple and wait the day out. The day is likely to be undone,” she repeated, “but if it isn’t, we don’t want a disaster on our hands. I don’t think we have the time for it now, but there have been incidents in the past where people have died because they thought that someone was going to reach back through time. Help yourself first and foremost, that’s the mandate.”
“We don’t know what this thing is,” said Partridge. “We’ll know more once we make contact, but what we’re hoping is that this is just a minor case, something that’s laying a clutch of eggs it shouldn’t be laying, and in a few hours, we’ll all be thinking that this was too much of a fuss. And as far as the chrononauts go, I should note that if the day gets unwound on account of this, it’s likely that they’ll call in the Pyros, and no one wants that.”
“I object to that!” came a voice from the crowd. He was a tall man that Hannah couldn’t recall seeing before, with a frankly outrageous amount of hair and a huge bushy beard that had been tied into braids. He quickly stepped forward to the small stage that had been set up, one normally used for sermons. “Look, the Pyros come in and burn things down, it’s what they do, but they’re a second line of defense after the Knives, and —”
“This isn’t a debate,” said Partridge. She was glaring at him. “It’s also not the time.”
“I’m a pyro,” he said with a smile, placing fat fingers against his chest. “And I want to help, but I need you to know that I’m not going to set the whole hex on fire.”
Partridge frowned at him. “Well, we don’t have the time to waste, so your help is appreciated, but a debate on public policy will have to happen some other time.”
“Oh, I’ll be long gone by then,” said the man. He retreated back into the crowd, going to join his friends, which Hannah noticed only belatedly were familiar faces. Josen, Mardin, and Grig she had all met, however briefly in Josen’s case.
<That’s Marsh,> said Alfric. <They’re all here.> Hannah could see that this was true, though Lola was short enough that it was hard to get a glimpse of her. They must have entered while Pann was talking, as had lots of people.
“We’ll split into parties and set out,” said Partridge. “Once we’re in the field, we’ll coordinate and set up extermination efforts there.”
<But why are they here?> asked Mizuki. <Seems like a pretty big coincidence.>
<Lola,> answered Alfric.
<You think she released something?> asked Verity, raising an eyebrow. <Would she do that? Put everyone in danger?>
<Yes,> said Alfric. <And if it went wrong, she would just undo it.>
<So then we make it go wrong,> said Mizuki. <Or kill her and the day just resets to undo things.>
<Let’s not be too casual about killing chrononauts, please,> said Alfric.
<Well I didn’t say it out loud,> said Mizuki, with a frown that was nearly a pout.
<I think that Pann has the right of it,> said Hannah. <Treat the day like it’s not going to be undone and do our best to help keep things contained. We’re a proper dungeoneerin’ party now, that means we’re probably one of the best frontline defenses.>
“Let’s move out people!” called Pann. “If you have a party, stick with them, if you need armaments, stop by the smith, more direction on combat will be given from the front!”
It took some time to get the mass of people moving. The dungeon escape, if that’s what it was, had been active for two hours, perhaps a little less, and while the response was relatively fast, it seemed like there might be as many as hundreds of the things. In the best case, there were just eggs that would need to be destroyed, and the creature, whatever it was, would be something docile, but if Lola had been the one to release it … well, then it seemed as though neither of those things were true.
There were perhaps a hundred people as part of the containment, all told, which Hannah felt was a little on the low side. It was a tenth of the population of the town, and no one expected children or the elderly to come with, but still, ten percent meant that some people were either cowering or working through the emergency, which was disappointing. A hundred people was still more than enough, but … well, in Hannah’s opinion, an emergency meant that everything should be running smoothly and everyone should be dropping everything to pitch in to help. Part of it was the chrononauts, which meant that no one was taking things too seriously. She felt a bit of empathy for Alfric, who had to deal with those kinds of attitudes quite a bit.
They made their way out of the temple, with some people stopping to grab weapons from the smith’s supply or otherwise prepare themselves, but the bulk of them were on the move.
<She’s coming over,> said Alfric, and almost as soon as he was finished saying it, a woman dressed in blacks with purple eyes was next to them, smiling like a cat who’d caught a mouse.
“Greetings!” she said. “I’m Lola, I don’t think we’ve all been formally introduced.”
“Lola, we really don’t need you doing this right now,” said Alfric.
“Nonsense,” said Lola. “We’re going to be doing this together, aren’t we? A hundred people, give or take, but we’re the best equipped out of them. Besides, Marsh here can just burn down the entire forest if it comes to that.”
“Yeah, I’m not planning to do that,” said Marsh. He was the hairy guy, with the hair especially notable given that he was, like the rest of the group, only eighteen. He’d have passed for thirty, though perhaps not if you were just looking at his eyes. The hair seemed somewhat impractical, given how much he probably worked with fire. “Good to see you, Alfric. I always kind of wondered what you’d gotten up to.”
“Marsh,” said Alfric. “I’m not really in the mood.”
“Were you guys going into a dungeon?” asked Marsh. “Or did you just get kitted out because you heard there was trouble?” He looked at Hannah’s armor, the full plate they’d gotten the day before. It wasn’t the sort of thing you wore casually, and it did take some time to put on.
“We had a dungeon planned for today, yes,” said Alfric.
“We did too,” said Marsh. “We were going to do the Pucklechurch one, actually, and probably still will once all this is done.”
Their two groups were walking together now, mostly because Lola had fallen into step beside Alfric. Hannah’s eyes went to Mardin, their cleric, and he shook his head, indicating that he didn’t really know what was going on or how they’d been roped into this.
“You were here when the call came up?” asked Alfric.
“Oh, no,” said Lola. “We were in Liberfell, where we have rooms, but we heard some commotion about something happening over in Pucklechurch, so we headed there as fast as we could.”
Alfric frowned. “Do you have the capacity to make instant trips?”
“More or less,” said Lola, giving him a happy nod. “We were outfitted very well, though not quite enough that we could base out of Dondrian. It’s just a matter of time though, really.”
“I didn’t ask about that,” said Alfric.
“Oh, well I was hoping that you were just making conversation,” said Lola. “Rather than asking what our capabilities were because you thought that perhaps I had something to do with this dungeon escape.”
Alfric was tight-lipped.
“Well, you're her party, does she have an alibi?” Mizuki asked the boys.
“No,” said Grig. “She does not.”
“Oh come on now,” said Lola, casting him a mean look over her shoulder. “I was off getting breakfast pastries for the party, that was all. And I suppose you’re about to cast aspersions, little Mizuki?”
Lola wasn’t a big woman, and not more than an inch taller than Mizuki, but Mizuki didn’t take to the needling very well. Perhaps, as usual, she didn’t see any need for restraint.
“At least be honest about being evil,” said Mizuki. “You came here, released the beast, then went back to Liberfell for your party. I don’t know why you’d do that, but you definitely did it.”
“That’s a very serious thing to say,” said Lola, frowning at Mizuki. “So serious that in Dondrian, it would be illegal to say without some kind of proof to back it up. You’re saying that I committed a crime, and, well, that could damage my reputation.” She looked over at Alfric. “Did you know this little monster has killed me three times? You should watch out for her, she’s a live one.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” said Alfric. “Whether you were responsible for this or not, we have no business together, and I said that anything you had to say would have to be through the mail.”
“Oh, but you can’t mean that’s supposed to apply even if we’re just bumping into each other,” said Lola. “We both happened to be in Pucklechurch, and Alfric, Vertex is just answering the call, the same as your party is.”
“No,” said Alfric. “I’m done. I can’t force you away from me, but I’m not going to respond.” He looked at Hannah. <Keep all discussion in the party channel, please.> In her opinion, it was something he would have been better to do sooner, if he was going to do it.
<Could I really get in trouble for saying she did it?> asked Mizuki.
<Intentional dungeon release, especially if it’s dangerous, can rise to the level of a serious crime,> said Alfric. <And if you accuse someone of a serious crime, especially in public, then yes, there’s a chance that you could get in trouble for it and have to show up in court to argue your side, which you’d want a barrister for.>
<It usually only applies to people of means,> said Verity. <People who might have something substantial to lose in terms of reputational damage.>
<Can’t we just do a trial by combat?> asked Mizuki. <And then I’ll just blow her stupid head off her shoulders and we can be done with it.>
<You’d do that to reset the day, right?> asked Verity.
<Sure,> said Mizuki. <Or, you know, the other thing.>
<Trial by combat hasn’t been practiced in a long, long time,> said Alfric. <And plotting to murder someone is also something that can rise to the level of a serious crime, so please be careful about what you say.>
Meanwhile, the other party was having a conversation on their own channel. Hannah couldn’t hear them, naturally, and had never learned to read lips, but it seemed like they were on the verge of shouting at one another, presumably over the idea that Lola had let loose some horrible monster in the woods, and now everyone was going to have to go kill it together, possibly at great risk to themselves.
“Hey,” said Marsh, who had maneuvered himself over to Hannah. “Are you single?”
Hannah laughed. “Do you really think this is the time and place?”
He shrugged. “Better to ask early,” he replied with a grin. “Because otherwise I’ll be thinking about you all day, and I don’t want that to be for nothing if you’re already taken.”
“I’m single, ay,” said Hannah. “And what makes you think I’d be interested in the likes of you?”
“Lola says that I’m your type,” said Marsh, jerking a thumb in the hellion’s direction. “And I can tell that you’re mine.”
“So this is a stitch up, is it?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.
“Something like that,” Marsh grinned. “Well, I haven’t asked yet, and maybe I’ll save it for later, just in case one of us dies. But keep it in mind, will you?”
“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “I can’t imagine what else I would have to occupy my attention with.”
The whole big group eventually came to a stop, and Pann started calling out orders.
“Anyone with a capacity for healing, come to me, we’ll also need runners, ten of them to get information back and to send out!” Her voice was loud and booming.
Hannah reluctantly moved over to be with the rest of the healers and other people who would be playing a support role, saying her goodbyes to the party. The cleric from Vertex, Mardin, separated from his group as well. There was probably some argument for both of them going to be in the field, but neither of them argued it, and having a place to bring people who were injured seemed like the correct thing to do. Between them all, it seemed very likely that they could cover almost any injury besides one that touched the brain or caused some other kind of instant death. Even a gut wound, which was notoriously troublesome, could be tended to by clerics in combination. Hannah took the map they’d gotten from the dungeon and handed it over to the cause, explaining how to use it in order to show positions.
“Don’t mind Marsh,” said Mardin. He, like Hannah, was in full combat gear, wearing his armor with the sigil of Oeyr on the face of it, a Golden Spiral inset within a representation of the first fifteen primes.
“I don’t,” said Hannah.
“Lola was talking you up,” Mardin explained. “And said some … questionably true things.”
“About undone days?” asked Hannah.
Mardin nodded. “She said that you and Marsh were thick as thieves, which — well, she doesn’t know that you and I met, but Marsh doesn’t seem like the sort you’d get along with, though you do seem like the kind of girl he’d go for, no offense.”
“Ay?” asked Hannah. “No offense? You think that low of his type?”
“I think that low of Marsh,” said Mardin. “If he weren’t so good at what he does, he’d have never made it on the team. He’s our Mizuki, if that helps. At least, from what Lola has said, which, again, is suspect. But I’ve met Mizuki, and I can see where she’d have said that. They’re both high energy, a bit flippant, possessed of a lot of firepower … literally, in his case.”
“Ay, and what’s with all the hair?” asked Hannah. “Seems odd, for a pyro.”
“It’s a mark of pride for them,” said Mardin. “Long beards and wild hair on a pyro are a sign that they’ve got very good control of their flames.” He paused. “Of course, there are ways to cheat that, since hair growth isn’t all that uncommon of an entad effect.”
“And you’re sayin’ that he cheats?” asked Hannah.
“It’s cheating in the same way that a flattering dress is cheating,” said Mardin.
Hannah nodded. “There’s no compact, per se, but he might give the wrong impression on purpose, and once I’ve got his bodice off, it will be too late.”
Mardin laughed at that..
<First contact,> called Alfric. <It’s a small creature, maybe as big as a rabbit, covered with leaves, wood, and other plants, which surround a flesh and bone core. This one is a juvenile, which means that either they’re growing very fast, or the adult is very large. And they’re aggressive, not too dangerous, but in numbers they could be a problem. Isra can control them, but she needs to be close enough.>
<Confirmed, will let the lady know,> said Hannah.
“Everything okay?” asked Mardin.
“Peachy,” Hannah replied.
“If I were to kill Lola, would the day reset right away, or would it keep on going?” asked Mizuki.
“What do you mean?” asked Alfric. “Also, please don’t kill Lola.” The number of times Mizuki had brought the option up was starting to get worrying.
“I just mean, if I undid her bindings and killed her, or just smacked her in the head, would we still experience it?” asked Mizuki.
“I don’t think there can be an answer to that question,” said Verity. “Can there?”
“The day keeps going,” said Alfric. “But it's not necessarily experienced. Honestly, a lot of family policy is just to not think all that hard about priority and undone days, unless you’re part of the coordination group. We each only see a fraction of what goes on, so it’s best to just remember your own part in things. Even if you see Lola dead, you should treat it like the day is going to keep on going, especially given that it’s Lola.”
“It’s only a partial lifecycle,” said Isra.
“What?” asked Alfric.
Isra had been carrying their first kill, which she had skewered through the head with an arrow before anyone had even seen it. She’d been looking deeply into it, though she claimed this was more difficult when it was dead, and apparently had come to some kind of determination.
“It doesn’t stay like this,” said Isra. “This thing, it will become … more. It’s eating plant material now, using it for the casing, which grows the bones and flesh, but when it’s larger, it will start to eat flesh and fur.” She looked up from the body. “That will make it far harder to kill.”
Alfric relayed that back to the ‘command’ post by telling Hannah over party chat. They’d made good time through the woods, and were at the ‘front’. In theory, each of the groups should have had a party member hanging back so that movement could be coordinated, but it was becoming increasingly clear that this was going to be a bit of a haphazard effort. Most of the time, ‘dungeon escapes’ were just a nuisance, because it was actually rather difficult for something dangerous to escape from a dungeon. Monsters couldn’t escape from the dungeon on their own, they needed to be carried out, or at least hitch a ride, and dungeon madness was a bit of a savior in that regard, since monsters would fight rather than try to sneak out. Any real killer of a monster was more likely to murder a party than escape though, which put some limits on what could get out. In short, there were a lot of limits in place that stopped it from being a major problem. What you got much more often were invasive pests, which had to be stamped out.
Most likely this would kill the day, and they would go off to the opera without having actually done a double dungeon, which was a bit of a shame, but not the worst outcome in the world. The beastmaster knew the location of every creature in the hex, and they would coordinate with the other hexes nearby and eventually direct people to kill the stragglers.
“Not a bad way to spend the day,” said Verity. “Better than a dungeon.”
“Yeah, but we’re not getting paid for this, and there’s no magic items at the end,” said Mizuki. “Plus what about my elevation?” She said this like it was a joke.
“I think I heard someone say that once the work is done there will be a lunch for all the volunteers,” said Alfric. “But this is more a matter of duty. We’d do it anyway.”
<There,> said Isra. She drew back an arrow and let it fly, zipping along with it as a blur. Alfric tried to track her, but as soon as she wasn’t moving again, she was firing more arrows and getting further away. Half a minute passed before she was done. <Eight dead. There’s a clutch of eggs here, piercing them now. They were eating the trees.>
Alfric moved forward and looked at what she was talking about. There were bites taken out of the trees, large ones, and a few seemed to have fallen down from the damage. By the time he got to Isra, she’d pierced holes in all of the eggs she’d found using one of her arrows, and was moving on to collecting the corpses of the ones she’d shot.
<A clutch is likely ten to twelve,> said Isra. <They’re not sexually mature when they’re still eating plants. Should I be saying all this to the party?>
<Ay,> said Hannah, from some distance away from them. <I’m standin’ close to Pann and Partridge, tellin’ them everythin’ you know. There’s some question about how you know, but I’ve stayed mum on that, since I don’t know if you want everyone knowin’ you’re a druid.>
<You can tell them,> said Isra. <It will help them trust what I say. I haven’t been silent about it in town.>
<Will do,> said Hannah.
“Partridge is the woman who came to me, to talk about me taking too much game,” said Isra.
“Well, you’ll be in her good graces soon enough,” said Alfric.
“Nine dead,” said Isra. “Out of — what did she say?”
“Around three hundred,” said Alfric. “We’ll have to find the eggs and destroy them, and more importantly, find the big one. You think that it will have flesh and bone on the outside?”
Isra hesitated. “I don’t know. It’s a very magical creature.”
Alfric looked down at the eggs. “Can you track it?”
“Possibly,” said Isra, though she looked a bit doubtful. Her eyes roamed the forest, and without another word, she set off, leaving the rest of them to follow behind her.
“Can’t you just … tell them to die?” asked Mizuki. “Like, shout out with your druid powers?”
“Animals don’t want to die,” said Isra. “Fear and panic can be overwhelming. It’s something I noticed when hunting. Even telling a deer to stand still has mixed results if it can sense anything like aggression from me. I’m trying now, to call any near us, but they have good hearing, and are wary.”
“Small and harmless though,” said Mizuki.
“Mmm,” said Isra. Her eyes were on the ground. “I do not think that applies when they are older.”