The upper levels of the Crawl were disappointingly plain. The rooms were square, unadorned, and empty, connected by simple doorways. Now and again there would be side rooms whose entrances were covered by iron gates, but Professor Ezzaniel ignored these, leading them through a sequence of chambers cut from the granite of the mountain and lit by occasional torches.
Ezzaniel himself was uncommunicative, to which the students were accustomed; even in class, though he could be quite snide with uncooperative pupils, he did not speak unless he had something in particular to say. The freshmen were mostly too groggy to make conversation anyway, and trooped after him in silence. Fortunately, he seemed to know where he was going. The dungeon thus far seemed more tedious than ominous, but the interconnecting identical square rooms with multiple doors would have been a very effective maze if one did not know the path.
“It’s clean,” said Teal after several minutes. “…too clean.”
“I’m serious! Look, there’s no dust, no cobwebs. No mouse droppings or dead insects… See the torches? No soot marks on the walls or ceiling above them, no ash below. And who’s keeping those burning anyway? This does not look like the kind of place that’s been locked behind a heavy door and metal grate.”
“Maybe Stew cleans in here, too?” Gabriel suggested, half-heartedly smothering a yawn.
Fross chimed excitedly. “The Crawl, like most adventuring dungeons which are classified as such, is a self-regulating genius loci subject to massive magical interference with objective natural law. Among other things, it’s apparently self-cleaning!”
“Can somebody please put that in Tanglish for me?” Gabe asked.
“That was Tanglish!”
“He’s making a joke, Fross,” Teal explained. “It means—”
“I know, I’ve heard that one before. I reject the joke because I was speaking quite plainly and Gabriel is an arcane arts major who really should know all those terms!”
“First, it’s stupid o’clock in the morning and my brain is not awake yet,” said Gabriel irritably. “Second, I’m a first-year arcane arts major and haven’t been putting in nearly as much study time as you apparently have, because I do need sleep, and also a social life.”
“Porking the resident dryad whenever she isn’t too busy does not constitute a social life,” said Ruda, grinning.
“Up yours, Punaji, I have other friends.”
“Who’s porking?” Juniper demanded shrilly. “I haven’t—I would never— The only pork I eat is actual pork! I don’t know where this ‘long pig’ thing got started but I wish people would stop throwing it in my face!”
The group staggered to a stop, everyone staring at her. Ezzaniel got a few paces ahead and paused in the doorway to the next dim chamber, turning to look back at them with a raised eyebrow. Juniper folded her arms defensively around herself, her eyes darting back and forth.
“Oh, what are you all looking at?” she demanded huffily, then turned and stalked off after Ezzaniel. The others trailed after somewhat more slowly.
“Right. Well. Anyway.” Toby cleared his throat. “For those of us who aren’t arcane majors, Fross, can you put it in layman’s terms?”
“Layperson’s terms,” said Gabriel, grinning and nudging Trissiny with his elbow. “Amirite?” She gave him a disdainful look.
“All right, well, I assume you all remember Professor Yornhaldt’s class last semester?” Fross said, buzzing about their heads and casting her glow in erratic patterns around the chamber through which they were passing. “The difference between magical and non-magical physics is the difference between subjective and objective reality. Right? That was our very first lesson.”
“Right,” said Toby when nobody else replied.
“Okay, so! A genius loci is a place that has totally subjective physics! The very rules of reality themselves are completely different there!”
“That is deeply disturbing,” Trissiny muttered, glancing suspiciously around at the apparently empty room through which they were passing.
“So,” Fross nattered on, “it needs two things: an absolutely massive abundance of raw magical energy, and some kind of guiding intelligence. This results in places like the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, where the rules are just plain different. It’s also the case in the great dungeons.”
“Wait, stop,” said Ruda. “You’re telling me this place is intelligent? Holy fuck. I’m seriously tempted to take the F and bug out.”
“What? You? Run away?” Gabriel turned to grin at her. “And me without my lightcapper.”
“Get fucked, Arquin. I’ll fight anything that lives, but being fucking digested by a giant sentient dungeon… Shit, I wanna go home.” She peered nervously around at the blank walls.
“It’s probably not that bad or Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us here,” Fross said consolingly. “I mean, there are intelligences and then there are intelligences, y’know? Generally they don’t even think in anything like the way we do, so it’s not like we could actively communicate. People have tried. And they’re all different! Most of the dungeons are the result of things the Elder Gods did at various times. More recently, there’s Athan’Khar, which is powered by the residue of Tiraan superweapons and the dead souls of all that died there. As far as I know, nobody’s sure who or what is running the Golden Sea or how it happened, but the Deep Wild is Naiya’s domain. So…different rules in all!”
“Right,” said Teal, nodding. She seemed to have become more alert over the course of the discussion. “So the Golden Sea has several predictable rules and doesn’t get nasty unless people try to screw with it, like the centaurs do. Athan’Khar, on the other hand, pretty much wants to kill everyone who sets foot in there. I’m guessing Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us in here if the Crawl was quite that hostile?”
“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” Ruda snorted. “Which Tellwyrn are you talking about?”
“Well, this mountain was once the stronghold of an Elder God before another Elder God destroyed it,” Fross said cheerfully. “I don’t figure it’s too friendly. But yeah, students go in here every year and rarely die. We’ll be fine!”
Trissiny sighed loudly.
The group came up short, several of the less attentive colliding with others. Professor Ezzaniel had stopped ahead of them, studying a blank surface of stone.
“Welp,” said Gabriel after a moment. “That sure is a wall.”
“It seems to have shifted again,” Ezzaniel noted. “The upper rooms are usually fairly stable, but the Crawl does like to change things around. No matter, it’s always fairly straightforward before you descend the main stairs. Excuse me.” They made way as he moved back through the group, exiting the way they’d come and turning left in the next chamber.
Lacking anything better to do, the students trooped after him.
“Pardon me, but does this mean you don’t actually know where we’re going?” Gabriel asked.
“I have the basics of an idea,” Ezzaniel said calmly from up ahead, his voice echoing in the semi-lit chamber. “As I said, the upper Crawl is quite benign, and I’m accustomed to it. Incidentally, I will only be guiding you through this initial stretch. Once we reach the actively dangerous areas, you will be responsible for finding your own way.”
“Lovely,” Gabriel groused. “What the hell is the point of all this, anyway? I mean, this is like learning to churn butter by hand. That shit isn’t relevant anymore. Nobody goes dungeon-delving!”
“Gnomes do,” Trissiny noted.
“So does the Empire,” Toby added.
“Right, sure, fine, but that’s because they own all the dungeons! Is anybody here planning to join an Imperial strike team after graduation?” Gabriel divided a pointed look among the rest of them. “Anyone? Yeah, me either. I don’t see what the purpose is of teaching us how to be an adventuring party. This is stupid.”
“Have you shared that opinion with Professor Tellwyrn?” Ezzaniel asked mildly.
“Do I look immolated to you?”
The Professor chuckled. “Arachne, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is rather more laid back than I in many respects. She doesn’t mind being yelled at, cursed at or even threatened—convenient, as she has a tendency to inspire those responses in people. She would be quite offended if you questioned her intelligence, however. I advise you not to learn firsthand what her offense looks like. Her methods may be confusing, but nothing Arachne Tellwyrn directs you to do is pointless.”
“What could we possibly gain from this?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Hell, five years ago I’d have thought it was the most awesome thing possible, to be on an actual dungeon dive. Okay, yeah, fine, it’s still sort of awesome. But right now I’m more concerned with the fact that I could die and it’d be for no purpose except learning how to have a successful career three hundred years ago.”
“The adventuring party enjoys a prominent place in Tiraan culture and legend, I have observed, and perhaps rightly so,” said Shaeine. “If nothing else, this will be an excellent lesson in teamwork.”
“And in appreciating history!” Teal chimed.
“Bah.” Gabriel stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and slouched sullenly. “Screw this place.”
“Okay, let’s not take it out on the place,” Ruda said nervously. She gently patted the stone frame of a doorway as she passed through it. “Good Crawl? Nice Crawl?”
“The Crawl is an excellent teacher,” Professor Ezzaniel said calmly. “Ah, here we are.”
The last square chamber they had entered had, instead of a wall opposite the door, an opening, from which a wide staircase descended. Two torches bracketed the entrance.
“Well, that’s good and ominous,” said Gabriel.
“Yes,” Ezzaniel said equably, stepping to one side. “All right, in you go. The path from here is quite straightforward. It will lead to the place from which the remainder of the expedition will be launched. You have officially moved beyond needing a guide. Go on, then.”
“Right,” said Trissiny, stepping forward into the gap. One by one, the others followed.
“Should we take the torches?” Toby asked.
“We’ve got Fross,” said Teal. “And several of our group can make light if needed.” She smiled at Shaeine.
“Two of those would harm Gabriel in doing so,” Trissiny pointed out.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Gabe said, trooping down the stairs. They descended just far enough that the topmost step was out of sight of the bottom, then terminated in a square landing and turned left, continuing down. Torches hung at the landing, too, but it grew quite dark near the middle of each flight. “Fross glows normally, Shaeine can make light that won’t hurt me. So can Vadrieny, for that matter.”
“All right,” Fross said briskly as they turned the corner onto the second stretch of steps, “we should discuss our strategy. Trissiny! Sponge or deepsauce?”
The pixie chimed sharply and bobbed twice in the air. “I’m talking about damage. Are you output or mitigation?”
“Uh, Fross,” said Teal, “have you by any chance been reading the old bardic scrolls?”
“Yes I absolutely have!” Fross said excitedly, zooming back to flutter around her. “Professor Tellwyrn likes to change up the timing so it’s a surprise, but there’s always a Crawl expedition in the second semester of the freshman year, so I’ve been studying up to be prepared for weeks now!”
“Uh huh,” Teal said with a smile. “And…you found Findlestin’s glossary of adventuring terminology, didn’t you.”
“Yes! It was very informative!”
“Well, all of them, but of course I made sure to study up on the most recent one.”
“Right. Fross, hon, the most recent edition of Findlestin was printed in 1031. It’s a hundred and forty-seven years old.”
“Well… I mean, yes, we all know adventuring parties as a formal institution are kind of outdated…”
“The thing is, if you’re talking about slang—which that stuff was—slang is by definition defined by popular use. If there isn’t any popular use, it’s not slang; it might as well be a foreign language. Nobody’s going to understand it.”
Fross drifted lower till she was fluttering along at about the level of their knees. “But…but…I memorized it. The whole thing.”
“Sorry, little glowbell,” said Ruda. “History isn’t always as useful as Tellwyrn likes to think.”
“That’s okay, though!” the pixie declared, rallying and zooming back up to her usual altitude just about their heads. “I’ll walk you all through it in layman’s—I mean, layperson’s terms, sorry, Trissiny—and we’ll all have it down in no time!”
“Oh,” said Ruda. “Good.”
“So! Trissiny! With regard to inflicting harm,” Fross continued, zipping forward to hover in front of the paladin, “would you consider yourself more of a harm-inflicter or someone who prevents the infliction of harm to herself?”
Trissiny came to a stop, staring at her. From the back of the group, Ezzaniel sighed heavily in exasperation.
“Fross,” Trissiny said after a moment, “what are you talking about? In any kind of fight you have to do both.”
“But this is how they did it! There are dedicated party roles, and—”
“Yeah, that’s really not gonna work,” said Ruda. “Do you not pay attention in Ezzaniel’s class?”
“Of course I do! But this is an adventure, and we’re a party. There’s a system.”
“It’s a hundred-year-old system that nobody uses,” Gabriel pointed out.
“That just isn’t true! Standard operating procedure for Imperial strike teams is based directly on the operating manuals written by the ancient Heroes’ Guild!”
“Imperial strike teams,” said Shaeine, “train for the purpose of operating as a single effective unit, relying on each other to act without the need for thought or communication. It is in a way a more intimate relationship than exists between family. Perhaps the adventuring parties of old operated in a similar manner, but… While I have enjoyed growing closer to each of you over the last several months, I would not consider us to be quite that tightly knit.”
“Shaeine, you have got the greatest knack for understatement I’ve ever heard,” said Ruda.
“Look, Fross,” Toby said firmly, “we appreciate your help, but this isn’t going to be functionally different from the Golden Sea, or Sarasio. We can operate as a unit, up to a point, and we’ve been getting better at it. But…it’ll have to be our way, not the way they did it in old-style adventuring parties.”
Fross let out a long sequence of soft chimes as if sighing heavily. “I’m just saying, they did it that way for a reason, is all.”
“Then be ready to consult on adventuring practices as needed,” said Trissiny, resuming her walk. “For the most part, though, Toby’s right. Better we stick to what we know.”
“So, we bicker and bitch at each other, generally fuck everything up and barely pull it out of the bag at the last minute?”
“That’s very helpful, Ruda, thank you.”
“You got it, roomie, I’m here for you.”
They descended for a good half an hour, the path remaining starkly the same. Left turns at right angles, going consistently downward. The group quickly lost any sense of how far they had gone; Ezzaniel offered no opinions, even when pressed.
“This is awful,” Juniper groaned, plodding along. She had fallen to nearly the rear of the group. “This is worse than the Golden Sea. At least there was life out there. Trees are not meant for hiking!”
“Well, you could try rolling down,” Ruda suggested somewhat snidely. “Logs roll, don’t they?”
“That’s a little insensitive,” Gabriel said with a grin. “A log is basically a tree’s corpse, right?”
“Corpses roll too,” she replied. “Downhill, at least. That is a scientific fact.”
“It’s not a bad idea, though,” the dryad mused, picking up her pace and pushing forward past the others. “Clear the way, please.”
“What’re you…” Trissiny stopped mid-step, her eyes widening. “Juniper, no!”
Disregarding her, Juniper rounded the next corner and hurled herself bodily down the steps, smashing down in a series of thumps and grunts. The others, with various outcries of alarm, rushed down the remainder of the flight they were on, regrouping at the landing to stare anxiously down.
“Juno?” Gabriel called. “You okay?”
“Wow!” At the next landing down, the dryad gathered herself and climbed to her feet, waving up at them. “That was actually fun! You guys have gotta try this! Oh, wait, no…you’d probably get hurt.”
“That’s not how you explore a dungeon,” Fross huffed quietly. “What if she springs a trap?”
“There are no traps up here,” said Professor Ezzaniel. “Still, it might be better if she didn’t—”
“Tallyho!” the dryad shouted, dashing forward and diving face-first down the next flight of stairs.
Trissiny sighed heavily, then raised her voice. “Just don’t get too far ahead!”
“I share your grief, Branwen,” the Archpope said, looking and sounding like he meant it sincerely. “I am grateful that you, at least, came through the night’s events uninjured. If you would like to take some time to heal…”
“Thank you, your Holiness,” she said quietly, with a faint tremor in her voice. “It would only be time to…to welter, though. I would rather be at work.”
“As you wish,” Justinian said, nodding. “Should you change your mind, you have only to say so. I’m glad you thought to go to her aid, Antonio.”
“I’m afraid everything was done by the time I got there,” Darling admitted.
“That, though, was beyond your control. It pleases me that you so quickly discerned the nature and motive of the attack and that your first action was to help your fellow Bishop.” The Archpope smiled at him, then turned to the two sitting along the other side of the opulent conference table, his expression growing more solemn. “I have heard the basics of what befell you two, as well, but would you kindly add your reports to Branwen and Antonio’s? It’s best if we are all on the same page.”
“The same pattern,” Andros said curtly. “Three warlocks, in robes. They carried, among other things, those syringes with death-drugs, though none of the three which assaulted my lodge had the opportunity to use them. I was meditating in seclusion, and was late to reach the scene of the confrontation. I was last to the battle and able to finish the remaining two warlocks. They entered my personal chambers and assaulted my wives.”
“Good gods,” Darling exclaimed, straightening up in his chair. “Are they all right?”
“They are recuperating,” Andros replied, smiling with such fierce pride that it was visible even through his heavy beard. “The healers tell me they will not bear permanent injury, though they are being given time to mend the various bruises of the battle. It is a common misconception among infidels that because Shaathist women are obedient, they are also weak. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He angled his head defiantly, as if to stare down his nose at the world. “There is neither honor nor satisfaction in dominating a dishrag.”
“I’m glad to hear that, at least,” said Darling. “Though let’s refrain from throwing the i-word around in mixed ecclesiastical company, yes?”
Andros grunted, which was likely as close to acquiescence as he was likely to get.
“Same here,” Basra said. “Three of them in standard Wreath robes. I was hosting the two Legion cadets I’m sponsoring at my residence that evening. I’m afraid they were both roughed up a bit in the action, too, but it was thanks to Elwick that things didn’t go a lot worse. The girl has a great deal of exposure to demons, and gave us warning that something was coming.”
Andros turned to her, scowling. “And just why does a Silver Legion cadet have great exposure to demons?”
“You remember events at Hamlet, I trust?” Basra said, giving him an unpleasantly cloying smile.
“Of course,” he growled. “It’s no stretch of the imagination to deduce that’s the cause of this attack.”
“Well, as you may recall, we appropriated several of the Wreath cultists’ children in the course of that. I’ve given the girl sponsorship in the Legions; she’s training with the Third right now. Elwick is actually quite promising; she’s certainly eager to put the errors of her upbringing behind her.”
“How fortuitous,” Darling murmured, wondering what Basra was up to. It was hardly like her to support the careers of others out of the goodness of her heart. Of course, there was also the question of what she was doing with two young girls at her home at four in the morning—girls whom she held in a vulnerable, subordinate position. At the intersection of both questions was a possibility; he made a mental note to find out whether she lived up to the Legionnaire stereotype with regard to her personal preferences.
“Indeed,” the Archpope intoned, looking directly at him. “Antonio, I suspect that your mind has brought you to the same conclusions at which I have arrived. I wonder if you would share with us your assessment of the Wreath’s motivations?”
“Of course, your Holiness,” Darling said, folding his hands on the tabletop and frowning thoughtfully. “To begin with… I think they won this round.”
“Won? Are you mad?” Andros snorted. “We slaughtered their entire attacking force with only one casualty, and none of their primary targets suffered harm!”
Darling was shaking his head before he finished speaking. “Think about who we’re dealing with, Andros. The Black Wreath serve the goddess of cunning; like all our cults, they take the aspect of their deity as their primary virtue. If this is in response to Hamlet, they’ve had months to study us, lay plans and make preparations. And you really think the result of all that would be a haphazard, half-hearted brute force attack? No… Killing the four of us was not the motive.”
“Whatever you think they were up to, they squandered the lives of twelve magic users to do it,” said Basra, frowning. “They either considered this hugely important or they’ve got a lot more personnel to draw upon than we realized.”
“Those are questions to which we can’t know the answers, I’m afraid,” said Darling.
“What is it you think they were after, then?”
“Think about what they did, or tried to do. Where they directed their efforts. Andros’s wives, Branwen’s servant and friend, Basra’s proteges. I have two live-in apprentices and a convalescing acquaintance at my home; I think they would have been the targets had my Butler not intercepted the Wreath at the door. And you two haven’t mentioned it, but I noted that at both my place and Branwen’s they used the front door.” He shook his head again. “This wasn’t an assassination. This was a provocation. They want us hurt, angry, and striking back.”
There was a brief silence while they all digested this.
“That, indeed, is how the matter appears to me,” Justinian agreed after a moment. “I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in coming to that conclusion. It raises the very tricky question of what we must do now, however.”
“The obvious thing would be not to give them what they want,” Andros rumbled, “but in dealing with the Wreath, the obvious course is seldom the right one.”
“And that’s why I think they’ve got us good and proper, this time,” said Darling. He reached over to squeeze Branwen’s hand. “The Izarites aren’t interested in revenge, but the rest of our cults are another matter. The Sisters, the Guild and the Huntsmen will not take this lying down—and to be honest, we couldn’t make them even if we wanted to. It’s about to be all-out war on the Wreath.”
“In the streets of Tiraas,” Branwen murmured, visibly appalled.
“A witch hunt of the worst kind,” the Archpope agreed. “I can and will enforce moderation in the Church’s response, but you are right: the independent cults are beyond my control, and those three at least are not tolerant of such brazen affronts.”
“What could they possibly gain by calling down all that wrath on their own heads?” Basra exclaimed.
“I very much fear we’re about to find out,” said Darling. “The pertinent question is: what do we, the four of us, do? We’re in a dicey position; right at the center of this and tied to both the Church and our cults. We can’t really afford to break with either. Both we and whichever organization we sided against would lose face right when we need it most.”
“That can be mitigated by the nature of the Church’s response,” said Justinian, “which, I assure you, will be suitably nuanced. You will have my full support in this matter. As for what we are to do…” He drummed his fingers once on the tabletop, the ring of his office flashing in the light. “For the time being, we must wait and see what the Wreath is up to, along with the rest of the world. That does not mean we shall proceed blindly. In the first place, we will play along.”
“It is sometimes necessary to step into a trap,” Andros agreed, nodding. “The outcome may not be as the trapper wishes, if the prey knows it is there.”
“Just so,” said Justinian, then smiled. “And while we are allowing ourselves to be victimized by the Wreath’s plan… I believe there is a way we can use it.”
“Juniper,” Trissiny said, “don’t try to roll down these steps.”
“Well, obviously,” the dryad said reasonably. “I could fall!”
“Astute as always,” Ruda muttered.
It had been more than an hour of walking, and they were all sore in the legs and even more tired than when they had started out; unless the internal geography of the Crawl was truly unhinged—which was apparently not impossible—they were well below the surface of the prairie by this point. Professor Ezzaniel had refused to let them stop for a rest, insisting that the perfect place to do so was up ahead. No one had argued too strenuously, as what they wanted was breakfast, and no one had any food.
Now, they appeared to have reached their destination, or nearly so. The angular, spiraling staircase terminated into a truly vast open space, the size of a stadium in diameter and plunging down an impossible distance. Above were vaguely-glimpsed stalactites in a shadowed ceiling vastly far away; the floor of the cavern, if there was one, was too far down to be visible, but whatever was down there emitted a reddish glow that sullenly lit up the whole chamber. It wasn’t a vertical shaft, either; it plunged at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Almost as if it had been vertical before the mountain was sunk.
Directly from their feet descended another staircase, this one half as broad as the wide ones they had traveled thus far, and arching unsupported across a horrifying stretch of space. There were, of course, no guardrails. Similar stairs could be seen both above and below their level, going to and from points they could not discern. The steps before them ended in the far wall, in which a massive stone head at least four stories in height had been carved into the rock, angled so that it stood upright. The steps ran straight to its open mouth.
“All right, we should check for traps before proceeding,” Fross declared. “I have a statistical divination spell that can randomize outcomes on a scale of twenty reference points corresponding to magical threat levels. Once I code in the variables we’re checking for, it should warn us of any traps within an acceptable margin of error. This’ll just take a second.”
“Fross,” Gabriel said impatiently, “I may not be up to your study habits but even I know the Gygax Charm hasn’t been used in decades. Modern divinations are vastly more accurate.”
“There are no traps,” Professor Ezzaniel said wearily from behind them. “There will be no traps, nor enemies, until you have proceeded beyond what lies at the bottom of these steps. For heaven’s sake, students, get on with it. And watch where you put your feet.”
“You’re good with levitation spells, right, Fross?” Trissiny asked.
“Well, of course! That’s how I mostly interact with the world. You’d be amazed how much picking up of stuff is necessary in human society! Well, I mean, you would if you’d never actually thought about it, which I’ve noticed most of you haven’t. Uh, no offense.”
“None taken,” the paladin said gravely. “We’re all going to step carefully, but I need you to watch over the group and catch anybody if they fall.”
“Oh!” Fross zipped back and forth in excitement. “I can do that!”
“Good. All right, everyone…single file. I know it’s not that narrow, but let’s take no risks.”
She set off down the stairs, the others falling into line behind her.
The staircase was indeed broad enough that any of them could have laid down on the steps and neither their heads nor feet would have come near the edge. However, given the lack of rails and the staggering heights involved, it was still a nerve-wracking descent.
“What d’you suppose is down there?” Gabriel asked about halfway down. “Lava?”
“Can’t be,” said Toby. “The heat would whoosh up this shaft and cook us right where we stand.”
“Shut. The fuck. Up,” Ruda growled.
Trissiny stepped onto the small landing below the gloomy face’s nose with relief. In addition to being off those infernal stairs, from this vantage she didn’t have to see that huge thing scowling at them. The others clustered around her, several with soft sighs mirroring her reaction.
The face’s open mouth formed a short tunnel; set into the wall just in front of the was a wooden door with an iron latch. Next to it hung a sign, in Tanglish.
“The Grim Visage,” Teal read. “Well, it certainly is that.”
“Care to give us a hint on what lies ahead, Professor?” Toby suggested.
“Yes,” said Ezzaniel, deadpan. “If you open the door, you will find out.”
“This is gonna be one of those trips, isn’t it,” Ruda muttered.
Trissiny clenched her jaw, grasped the handle and pulled the door open. She stepped cautiously through, moving forward enough to give the others room to enter. They did so slowly, fanning out in a cluster just inside the door.
They found themselves in a room full of monsters.
An ogre sat in the far corner, his head brushing the ceiling even sitting down, clutching a barrel from which he drank like a pint glass. Near the door, three drow were clustered around a table, two women and a man; to judge by their “armor,” which was flattering but more decorative than functional, and the matching unpleasant grins they gave the students, they weren’t Narisian. A small group of gnomes were playing cards near a roaring hearth, two goblins were arm wrestling the next table over, and at the far end of the room, behind a bar, stood an improbably pretty man with pale skin and no shirt on. He grinned at the sight of the students, stretching spiny incubus wings. As they stood there staring, a naga slithered past them, carrying a tray of mugs.
The occupants of the room looked up at the new arrivals, and then mostly went right back to their drinks, games and conversations.
“Why is it,” Gabriel asked after a moment’s silence, “that wherever we go, we end up in some kind of bar?”