“Oh, what the fuck now,” Ruda grumbled as they clustered onto the only piece of land on Level 4 that could support them.
A few feet beyond the uneven peninsula of stone protruding from the base of the stairs, the floor disappeared. There was no more level ground until the distantly visible patch of land in front of the opposite stairs down to Level 5; right in front of them, everything dropped away into fathomless darkness.
“So…” Gabriel said slowly. “Could we…jump down somehow and skip the level?” Very carefully, he craned his neck forward to peer as far below as he could without getting within a few feet of the edge.
“Subjective physics!” Fross exclaimed, flittering about their feet for once to study the edges of the outcropping. “Only the stairs will lead to Level 5. This here is probably bottomless. Careful not to fall off.”
“Y’don’t fucking say,” Ruda muttered.
“I think I see what they want us to do,” Toby said slowly, “and for the record I’m against it.”
Though there was no floor, the ceiling was in the usual place, and from it hung stalactites of various sizes—rather thickly, in fact, to the point that most of the far walls were not visible. The only wide open space was straight down the center of the chamber, giving them a clear view of the door opposite. Some of the stalactites were merely tapering columns of rock, but the majority had outgrowths at some point along their lengths, creating various small platforms sticking to their sides.
“It’s a jumping puzzle!” Fross said excitedly. “You have to be nimble and find a route across!”
“Absolutely fucking not,” Ruda said.
“Seems kind of dangerous,” Gabriel noted, still peering into the bottomlessness of the chamber.
“I’m very sure that was the point,” said Juniper, then added under her breath, “Dryads are not made for jumping.”
“What’re those?” Teal asked, pointing. The group turned to follow her hand, fixing their attention on a small swarm of specks buzzing around a pillar in the near distance.
“There are more over there,” Gabe said, pointing in the opposite direction. “And there… Actually there are several groups. They kinda look like birds from here.”
“Oh!” Fross bounced up and down in excitement. “Oh, I know what those are! They’re written about in all the books! Gosh, this is really nifty, you never see these on the surface anymore, they’re basically endemic to dungeons, though the Imperial Zoological Garden in Tiraas used to have a swarm. Those are micro-hivemind chiropterids!”
“Which means…what?” Gabriel asked.
“They’re carnivorous, but not big enough to bring down prey on their own, especially considering they go for larger animals. They swarm around a small area just like clouds of gnats,” Fross continued, buzzing furiously around herself as if to demonstrate, “usually near ledges, and when a prey animal comes too close they all attack! They’re not strong enough to kill most things, but they distract them and knock them off and then eat the remains! The Heroes’ Guild and the Bardic College had another name for them, actually…”
“Goddamn bats,” said Teal, grimacing.
“Fuck those and fuck this,” Ruda said, sitting down and folding her arms. “I don’t do heights. Or fucking bats.”
“Goddamn bats,” Fross corrected.
“Want to quit?” Trissiny asked.
Everyone fell silent, turning to look at her. She had stood apart, arms crossed over her breastplate, studying the room while the others talked. Now she turned to stare challengingly at them. “Really, I’m asking. We don’t strictly have to get the swords for Tellwyrn. Apparently there’s lots of loot in various parts of the Crawl and we’re graded on overall performance. Running away from the first major challenge we face is probably not going to help with that, but the option is there. Lots of options are there. We could spend the whole three weeks sitting in the Grim Visage eating mushroom stew if we want. Personally, I’m not much concerned with grades, so…if you all want to take one look at the first truly dangerous thing we meet on our first day and turn tail, we can put it to a vote.”
“Fuck,” Ruda snarled, dragging a bottle out of her coat and clawing at the stopper. “Fuck, fuck fuckfuckfuck.”
“Anyone?” Trissiny prompted. The others exchanged a round of glances, but nobody took her up on the offer. She nodded, turning back to face out at the bottomless chamber. “All right. I see two platforms close enough to jump to from here: there, and there. Odds are one leads to nothing but dead ends. I suggest using our fliers to scout ahead and find a workable route for us. Two main paths, so Vadrieny and Fross can split up from here. And we need a plan to address those…bats. Shaeine, can you contain a swarm within a shield?”
“I have never used one in that manner,” the drow said slowly, “but I see no reason it would not work. Attempting that maneuver while negotiating the jumps will be tricky for several reasons. In the first place, I will have to get close enough to obtain a clear view without provoking them to attack…”
“Excuse me,” said Fross, “I know you’re good with tactics, Trissiny, but I think I have a better idea?”
“By all means,” Trissiny said, nodding to her.
“Okay, well first of all…be right back.”
She darted off into open space heading directly for the nearest swarm of bats. They diverted course at her approach, heading right for the oncoming pixie.
“What is she doing?” Gabriel breathed. “She’s bite-sized, even to them!”
However, as the bats descended on her, Fross emitted a tiny sparkle and a puff of mist, and the entire swarm suddenly went still and plummeted from the air, vanishing into the depths below.
“…huh,” Teal mused.
They watched while Fross zipped back and forth across the chamber, flying right up to each swarm of bats and wiping them out with tiny bursts of what seemed to be fog. At one point she vanished for a few moments, apparently dealing with a swarm hidden from them behind the stalactite forest. After only a couple of minutes, she came fluttering back to the group, chiming smugly.
“Okay, how did you do that?” Ruda demanded.
“Well, goddamn bats are strictly aerodynamic, y’know? I mean, some things fly using magic, like me and Vadrieny for example. But they just use physics, wings and air currents.”
“So?” the pirate prompted.
Fross whirled around her head once. “So, it’s pretty much impossible for fliers to fly with their wings iced over! We might not wanna waste any time, though. We don’t know what kind of respawning protocol the Descent has. It’d be awkward if another swarm popped up on us while we’re crossing. Now then! Hang on, I’m gonna try something else.”
So saying, she darted off again, heading straight for the nearest pillar. The pixie whirled around it once, coating it in a layer of frost, then headed back toward them more slowly, laying down more ice as she went. While the others watched, fascinated, she added more and more, gradually creating a horizontal protrusion which lengthened outward until it touched the platform on which they stood. Fross made passes back and forth, adding more ice with each one until it formed a frighteningly narrow but serviceable footbridge.
“I did not know you could do that,” Teal said in awe.
“I can’t!” Fross replied cheerfully. “Well, I mean, not laying down that quantity of ice. That’d be crazy, it’s a lot of mass. But Professor Yornhaldt was kind enough to open an elemental gate for me to conjure a quantity of pure water, which I’ve stored away in my aura for situations like this!”
“Is all our pork and other supplies sloshing around in that?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.
“Don’t be absurd, Gabe. Aura-tuned pocket dimensions don’t work like that; it’s not a static charm on a bag of holding. Every item is suspended separately and completely preserved in time!”
“How much carrying capacity do you have?” Toby asked, fascinated.
“I think… All of it? I mean, it’s limited only by my access to magical power. I’m a pixie; there’s only so much I can pull through at once, but in theory I should never run out.”
“Okay, I like the basics of this idea,” said Trissiny, “but I can see two problems with it. One, that is already starting to melt, and two, ice is heavy. If you put down enough to build bridges all the way across this chamber, it’s likely to pull down the pillars supporting them, and part of the ceiling as well.”
“Hmm,” Fross mused, drifting aimlessly in thought. “There are arcane charms that can compensate for both of those, but… It’s gonna be rather difficult applying those while using elemental magic. In a possibly explodey kind of way. Arcane and fae magic don’t mix.”
“You’re made of fae magic and do arcane magic,” Juniper pointed out.
“Yes, but, um… I’m not sure how. Professor Tellwyrn and Professor Yornhaldt aren’t sure how, either. Apparently I’m an…anomaly? But yeah, using both kinds of spells at once is asking for a bad reaction.”
“Now, hang on,” said Gabriel. “Fross, I know you use elemental magic to make the ice, but once made, is it magical? Or is it just ice?”
“The magic’s pretty much over with once I’ve applied the cold,” she said. “After that, it’s just—oh, shoot.”
The bridge had been steaming and dripping heavily in the warm air, and finally collapsed, chunks of ice plummeting down into the darkness.
“All right, then!” Grinning, he pulled a small book with an unmarked dark blue cover from within his coat, followed by a pen and bottle of ink, and finally a sheaf of yellowish papers bound in twine. “Luckily, you’re not the only arcanist here. This calls for a little basic enchanting work! I can inscribe featherweight charms and cold-preserving charms; if we put them in the ice as you’re laying it down, that oughtta preserve the bridges as you make them.”
“Hey, you’re right! That’s a great idea!” Fross buzzed around him in delighted circles while he sat down, laying out his scribing tools and flipping through the book for the right diagrams.
“Sounds like a workable plan, then,” Trissiny said slowly. “With all respect to you both, I’ll want to see this tested before we trust our weight to it.”
“Of course,” Gabe said distractedly, holding charm book open and beginning to ink out a glyph on a sheet of paper. His ink was purple and faintly evanescent when Fross’s light passed over it. “The only thing is, this is gonna make the bridges really cold. Like, colder than ice normally is. It won’t be a comfortable trip; we probably won’t want to dawdle.”
“Great,” Ruda said sourly.
“Rusty chain mail shirt,” Teal reported, “rusty dagger, handful of copper pennies, and…buttons?” She stood, dusting off her hands and stepping back from the chest. “You know, I almost think we’re better off leaving this stuff in the box. It’s nothing but a waste of carrying capacity.”
“You don’t think that’ll insult the Crawl?” Juniper asked uncertainly.
“I am pretty sure the Crawl just insulted us,” Ruda snorted. She was pressed against the wall just under the glowing sign identifying the route down to Level 5, and still had her hands tucked into the sleeves of her coat for warmth. All of them were shivering, in fact, except Juniper. Behind them, the ice bridges hung over the abyss, not even beginning to melt in the warm air, but surrounded by a fog of condensation. Gabriel’s inscribed charms had done their work well.
“Take the pennies, at least,” said Trissiny. “Money is money, and we will need to re-supply at the vendors in either the Visage or Level 2. Preferably without going into debt with Ruda.”
“Hah!” The pirate grinned at her. “Might wanna rethink your financial strategy. The First Bank of Ruda accepts interest payments in booze and sexual favors! Can’t beat that.”
“Come on, guys,” Toby urged, gently shooing them toward the stairwell. “Let’s get away from all this cold and risk of falling.”
It was a short trip down the stairs, and a slightly damp one, with several of them brushing condensed frost off their clothes as it turned to moisture. At least the warm air quickly stopped their shivering once they left the magical ice behind them. The group straggled to a stop at the bottom of the stairwell, this time not stepping out into Level 5, but clustering on the lowest steps and uncertainly studying their next challenge.
The level was a large and completely empty room. This was the first time they’d had a completely unobstructed view of any of the Descent’s levels; it looked about the same size as the others, making it a little more than half again the size of the University’s dining hall. Big enough to host a variety of challenges, in other words, but not oppressively huge.
What Level 5 did have was a sprawling and rather beautiful mosaic pattern inscribed on its floor. Set down in black, gold and red against white tile, it consisted of lines of five bars which unspooled this way and that like casually thrown lengths of ribbon, marked with a variety of familiar sigils.
“This isn’t my area of expertise,” Trissiny said. “Teal, isn’t that musical notation?”
“It is,” Teal replied with barely-repressed excitement in her voice. “Or at least, it would be if the lines were all straight. It’s a little hard to make out what the melody is on some of those bends…”
“You can read that?” Gabe asked incredulously.
“Well, I am a bard! Kinda wish I’d brought an instrument… But it’s a pleasing little tune.” She began to hum. It was a soft, wistful melody.
“Pretty,” Fross whispered. Toby nodded, smiling; around them, the others began to physically relax, several developing rather spacey grins. With the exception of Juniper, who frowned, staring at her classmates in puzzlement.
“Teal,” Shaeine said quietly, “Vadrieny’s voice is coming through.”
Teal instantly stopped humming, looking stricken. The others straightened immediately, Ruda shaking her head momentarily as if to throw off a trance.
“Oh, gods, I’m sorry,” Teal said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that… It just happens sometimes. Are you all okay?”
“That…actually was rather refreshing,” Trissiny admitted. “Kindly be careful, though.”
“Right. Yes. Again, sorry. Vadrieny has some voice magic; when she’s fully out, she’s fully in control, but there’s sometimes a little leakage when I sing… That’s why I prefer instruments.”
“It’s okay,” Toby said, reaching out to squeeze her upper arm. “Things happen, no harm was done. With regard to the present… What do you think is the significance of the patterns on the floor?”
“It’s pretty obviously a puzzle of some kind,” said Gabriel. “I think we better let Teal lead the way on this one. Unless anyone else can read music?”
“I can,” said Ruda. She frowned at the incredulous stares of the others. “Oh, fuck you guys, some of us had an education before coming here. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not any kind of musician, though. I agree: this is Teal’s department.”
“Well…I think it’s fairly simple,” said Teal, stepping gingerly down onto the floor. Right at the base of the stairwell was a swirling knot of lines, from which rippling streamers of notation spread out in several directions. “You have to find and follow the melody. It’s not the same tune on each set of lines, see? Now, that one is obviously a trap.” She pointed at the lines aiming most directly for the opposite door. “The harmonies are in a completely different key; it’d be a jangled mess if you played it.”
“I think I get it,” said Gabe, craning his neck around Ruda to watch. “At each nexus, you have to follow the same song that brought you to that one, right?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” the bard said, nodding. “Which means… This requires a little forethought. All the songs aren’t going to be equally valid… I suspect there’s only one safe path across.”
“Be careful,” Shaeine urged.
Teal gave her a smile. “Don’t worry, I will be. All right, I’m going to follow this one—it’s the song I was humming, and I think I can see the continuation of it spooling out from the next nexus. Hard to get a good view from over here. Stand by.”
She set off along one wavering thread of musical notation, carefully placing her feet only on the marked lines, and came to a stop at the next point where multiple lines intersected in a big swirling knot, ahead and somewhat to their right.
“Should we follow?” Trissiny asked.
“Hang on, it’s better if I figure out the path first,” said Teal. “This is going to require careful stepping anyway; the less backtracking we have to do, the better. All right, let’s see…”
She stepped out along another thread of music, her classmates watching in tense silence. This path led her back to the left, coming to a knot just ahead of them.
“Um…are you sure?” Gabe called out. “That’s right along the path you said was a bad song.”
“It would be a bad song if I followed that path,” Teal replied, keeping her eyes where she placed her bare feet. “But the song I was following continues from here… There, see? Perfectly fine.”
Stepping onto the knot ahead of them, she turned to give her classmates a grin.
Immediately, a huge pillar of stone slammed down from above. In the next instant, she was crushed beneath it, leaving them staring at the column.
“Teal!” Shaeine shrieked.
“Stop!” Trissiny barked, holding out her arms to keep the students back as several compulsively surged forward. “More will come down if we trip them! Ruda, find us another path!”
“To where?” the pirate exclaimed. “If we go after her, another’ll just…”
“I think that trap is tripped,” said Fross. “I’m gonna go and—oh.”
The column wobbled as she spoke, then again. Shaeine clutched Trissiny’s outstretched arm, watching with a stricken expression, as its gyrations grew more intense. Then, suddenly, a huge set of claws appeared at its base, an orange glow streaming out from them.
The pillar of stone groaned as it finally tipped over, the deafening crash of its fall echoing throughout the chamber. Vadrieny emerged from a deep, crumbling pit into which she’d been slammed by the impact, her fangs bared in displeasure. Behind her, in the wake of the crash, there came a sharp hiss and a gout of green mist spurted upward from the musical knot onto which the pillar had fallen. The archdemon glanced over at this, then turned, beating her wings furiously. In seconds, the gas had been blown in the opposite direction from the students and dissipated into the air.
“Are you all right?” Shaeine cried.
“I’m fine,” Vadrieny said reassuringly. “Everything’s fine.”
“I said to be careful!”
“Yes, you did,” the demon agreed, “and she was. Look how that worked out. Stay put, I’m going to try this my way.”
So saying, she turned and stalked off straight across the floor, the mosaic crunching beneath her as she deliberately dug her talons into the marble with each step.
The students watched, wincing and grimacing, as Vadrieny plowed into and through a dozen brutal traps. Pieces of the ceiling fell, gusts of gas and flames shot directly over her, blades were flung out from the walls. At one point a net dropped on her from above. She bore all this without complaint and without stopping, though several times she had to slow to dig herself out of rubble or waft her wings and make sure clouds of gas didn’t drift toward the others.
In less than two minutes, she had reached the opposite side of the chamber. Even from that distance, the students clearly saw the cascade of sparkles that lit up as the chest appeared and the glowing sign indicating the path to Level 6 ignited.
Vadrieny stopped, regarded this thoughtfully for a moment, then very deliberately drove her fist right into the sign. Lights sparked and chunks of stone fell from the resulting crater in the wall.
“Stay!” the demon shouted back at them as Trissiny carefully lowered one boot to the floor. “I don’t trust this place. In fact, all of you back up.”
So saying, she stepped off to the side and came back toward them through a fresh stretch of floor unmarred by her own passing, and into another round of traps.
Vadrieny wasn’t satisfied until she had made three full trips, clearing a wide highway between the two doors and suffering an unending torrent of fiendishly inventive abuse that would have slaughtered a small army. By the time she was through, the safe path looked very much like the aftermath of a war zone, littered with chunks of masonry, blades, various projectiles, slimy residues of acidic solutions, and even the relatively clear stretches of floor marred by deep rents where she had dug in her talons. She backtracked over this multiple times, making sure every trap in the cleared area was sprung.
“Okay,” Ruda said softly while the demon was making her third pass, “this is none of my business, but I gotta ask. What is it like being in a relationship with somebody who has that in her head?”
“That?” Shaeine said quietly, tearing her eyes from the spectacle of Vadrieny’s rampage and giving the pirate a very cool look.
“Well, I mean…look at her.”
“Indeed, it would be impossible to have any privacy, if Teal and I intended to keep her from our interactions.”
“I am a noblewoman, you know,” Shaeine said with a note of satisfaction, turning back to watch the demon work. “It is hardly beyond precedent for me to have multiple consorts. I am very fortunate that both of mine get along so splendidly and can always be found together. And I would be appreciative, Zaruda, if you would refrain from referring to my lover as that.”
“…duly noted,” said Ruda, looking flummoxed.
“There,” said Vadrieny with satisfaction, rejoining them. “Now it is safe.” She held out one hand; Shaeine placed her slender fingers amid the massive claws, smiling, and allowed the demon to help her down to the floor. The other students watched as they began crossing, Vadrieny keeping one burning wing arched protectively over the priestess.
“Welp,” said Gabriel, pushing past Ruda to follow. “I guess that’s one way to do it. C’mon, guys.”
In moments they were clustering around the opposite door. This time it was Ruda who opened the chest. For a few seconds, they all stood around, staring into it.
“Well,” Ruda said finally. “We just won ourselves a box of coal.”
“Is that really coal?” Gabe asked, craning his neck to peer forward.
Toby bent down to pick up a piece. “Sure looks like it.”
“I know the upper-level rewards are supposed to be kinda lame,” said Fross uncertainly, “but…they’re supposed to get better as we descend. Does it seem to anyone else like they’re getting worse?”
“Maybe we haven’t descended far enough?” Juniper suggested.
“There’s really only one way to find out,” said Trissiny, stepping forward into the stairwell. “Fross… I have a hunch. Could you gather up the coal, please? It might be significant later.”
“Or it might just be the Crawl telling us to go screw ourselves,” Ruda remarked.
“Maybe.” Trissiny was already halfway down the stairs, forcing the others to follow in order to hear her. “But I suspect there’s a specific use for something that oddly specific later. And if not, we can sell it. It stands to reason that burnable fuel is quite valuable in the Crawl.”
Level 6 was somewhat familiar at first glance, in that it opened from the access stairs onto a platform that extended a short way into a floorless chamber. Unlike Level 4, however, this one was full of fire. Flames roared up from an unseen source below, licking at the base of the platform and filling the chamber with heat and orange light. They could see a matching platform directly across the way, with nothing between the two but a vast sea of fire.
“Seems like it should be hotter in here than it is,” Gabriel noted. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve as he said it, but indeed, it was merely uncomfortably warm, nothing like the temperature should have been in what appeared to be some kind of furnace.
“Well, what the fuck are we supposed to do with this?” Ruda demanded.
“Look!” said Fross. “I mean, look closely. See the pattern in the flames?”
“I see it,” said Trissiny, frowning. “It’s…angular. Wait, it’s not a pattern in the flames. It’s something that’s blocking them.”
“Yes!” The pixie buzzed around excitedly. “Look, it’s a path!”
“I see it, now,” said Toby, squinting as he studied the scene before them. “It’s hard to make out in spots, you can only see it where the fire is blocked by it. It’s like…glass?”
“Not glass,” said Trissiny. “That would shine. It’s just…invisible. An invisible path over the lake of fire.”
“Not a path,” said Juniper. “Lots of paths.”
“Oh my fucking fuck,” Ruda groaned. “It’s an invisible fucking maze. I fucking hate this place.”
Trissiny rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Gabriel…would those cold charms of yours support an ice bridge over a lake of fire?”
“I really don’t think so. They’re actually designed to preserve food, not to compete with a heat source like that.”
“Wait, what about that?” Teal suggested, turning to point above them. Following her finger, they all craned their heads back, discovering that unlike previous levels, Level 6 had no ceiling. What it did have were decorative columns on either side of the door, stretching upward about twenty feet.
“What about it?” Ruda demanded.
“It doesn’t look like they’re set into the ground,” said Teal. “And they’re not connected to the wall… I think they’re just sitting there. The round surface isn’t ideal, but the way it’s carved, there should be some footing at least…”
“A bridge?” said Trissiny, smiling. “Excellent idea.”
“Neither of those is gonna get all the way across this,” Ruda said.
“But it’s a start,” Toby replied. “And I agree: it’s a good idea. Every bit of this we can skip is a good thing if you ask me. Vadrieny and Juniper should be strong enough to knock those over, right?”
“The tricky thing is leverage,” said Juniper, frowning at the columns. “They’re close to the wall, even if they’re not connected… No good place to stand and push.”
“Stop,” Gabriel said suddenly. “This is a trap.”
They all turned to look at him.
“What makes you say so?” Trissiny asked.
“I see a pattern here,” he said. “Guys…think back. Remember what the demons on Level 2 told us? The Crawl does not like people who cheat.”
“So?” Ruda snorted. “We’ve cheated practically every level and oh, holy shit, you’re right.”
He nodded. “Even discounting Level 2, we’ve been through four levels now and only actually did the challenge once. Juniper got us through the caplings, Fross and I managed to skip the obstacle course and Vadrieny brute-forced what was supposed to be a puzzle. And what about the chest rewards? The first one was sort of lame, the next one on a level we cheated on was even lamer, and then coal. I think the box of coal was a final warning.”
“Wait,” said Ruda, “what’d we get on the boar level?”
“We didn’t stop to open the chest,” said Toby. “We were following…um.” He trailed off, glancing over at Trissiny, who remained impassive.
“Oh! I did!” said Fross. “It was better than Level 1, we got some silver, a very nice silk robe with a low-caliber defensive enchantment and an Avenic-style short sword! I stashed them away to show you guys later. Nobody seemed to be in a talking mood.”
“Right,” said Gabe. “So, after all that, here we are being practically offered a way to cheat, in exactly the way we have been, using brute force to bypass what’s supposed to be an intellectual exercise. I don’t know what’ll happen if we tip those columns, but I’ve got a feeling it’ll be really ugly.”
“Rocks fall,” Juniper whispered, “everyone dies.”
“The reasoning seems rather…thin,” Trissiny said, frowning.
“Okay, well, just…humor me, all right?” Gabe said, glancing around nervously. “This isn’t even a hugely hard one, it’s just…scary. We can do a maze. We’ve got Fross to scout ahead, and we can take the time to place our feet carefully. I say we do this one the way it’s supposed to be done. All right?”
“I agree,” Toby said, nodding slowly. “Everyone we’ve met has said the Crawl is intelligent. Professor Ezzaniel implied it likes to test people.”
“When you put it that way,” Trissiny said somewhat grudgingly, “it makes good sense. Better safe than sorry.”
“Guys,” said Juniper, “look.”
They all turned, following her gaze, to find that the flames had diminished. As they watched, the fire burned steadily lower, finally vanishing entirely. Below was another fathomless fall into dark nothingness.
“…message received,” said Teal.
“Great,” Ruda grumbled. “Now we can’t see the path at all.”
“Yes,” said Gabe with a grin, “but at least we can walk on it.”
“Oh!” Fross whizzed out over the empty space, emitting a puff of frigid mist. Frost settled over a hitherto invisible stretch of walkway, making it stand out from the darkness.
“Well, that’s something,” said Ruda. “You got any tricks that’ll show us where it is without making it too slippery to be safe?”
“Oh,” the pixie said, her glow dimming. “I didn’t think of that. Sorry.”
“Well,” said Teal with a smile, “how about throwing something onto it?”
“Like what?” Toby asked. “We don’t have all that much in the way of supplies…”
“We have coal,” said Shaeine.
Getting across took them easily over half an hour, though they weren’t timing it. It was exhaustingly nerve-wracking, even with Fross scattering coal to indicate what could safely be stepped on; none of them ever got used to the sight of their feet firmly planted on midair. Juniper in particular grew progressively more tense until she was actually whimpering, and had to be comforted by Gabriel for a few minutes before she could make herself continue. Teal shifted, letting her winged counterpart take over, and stayed right behind Shaeine the entire way, ready to grab the drow if she should slip.
Moving carefully, though, none of them fell. They had to backtrack multiple times, as even with the coal to put down on the path, it was still a maze, and a complex one. There were actually points where they could have gotten from one stretch of path to another by jumping, and thus bypass switchbacks and dead ends, but none of them managed to work up the nerve to try it.
Eventually, though, they found their way through, and landed safely on the platform by the stairs. Upon their arrival, the sign for Level 7 ignited and the chest appeared. Everyone ignored this; by unspoken consent, they all sat down on the blessedly solid stone, as far from the edges as they could get.
“I fucking hate heights,” Ruda mumbled.
“I never knew that,” Trissiny said with a smile. “You’ve always seemed fine with Clarke Tower.”
“Lemme rephrase that.” She pulled out a bottle of whiskey and took a swig. “I hate heights now. This place has persuaded me that heights fucking suck.”
Teal let out a relieved breath, climbing back to her feet. “All right! Well, we might as well see what we’ve won.” Turning, she knelt to open the chest.
There was only one thing within. Frowning, Teal pulled out a small rectangular box. “…huh.”
“Maybe you got some replacement shoes,” Ruda said, grinning.
“Well, we’ll find out if you open it,” Toby suggested.
Teal flicked the clasp open with her thumbs and lifted the lid. She stared at the box’s contents for a moment, then grinned. “Gabe, I think this is for you.”
He accepted the box from her, frowning quizzically and turning it so the open side faced him. Within it was a wand.
“Ooh,” said Juniper, craning her neck to peer at it.
“Is that…a good one?” Trissiny asked.
“Good?” Gently, he lifted the weapon out, setting the box aside. “Angled grip, alchemically hardened ebony shaft, double-sized crystal housing with extra glyphs for self-recharge… This, ladies and gentlemen, is a damn fine piece of firepower.”
“So,” Ruda said, scowling around the room, “looks like you made a friend. Wonder if I can get an upgrade by sucking up to the Crawl.”
“I think there is, indeed, a lesson here,” said Trissiny. “We may want to bypass some future levels if we can find a way to, but…let’s consider that a method of last resort.”
“You wanna just…knuckle under?” Ruda said disdainfully. “I do not like this fucking place telling me what to do.”
“It’s another variable, is all,” said Gabriel, still studying his new wand. “The Crawl is watching, and we have a general idea how it thinks, now. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do things our way, but… Its perspective is something we need to consider when making decisions.”
Ruda drew in a deep breath and blew it out in a huff, then climbed to her feet. “Duly fucking noted. All right…onward and downward, eh?”
At the base of the next set of stairs was a chessboard. The students gathered on the bottom step again, studying Level 7 carefully without stepping down onto its floor. It was vastly oversized, each of the squares big enough for them to lie down on without touching any of its neighbors, but it was unmistakably a chessboard, and not just because of its checkered pattern. Actual chess pieces were set up along the left and right walls, ready to begin a game. The pawns, the smallest ones, were twice Trissiny’s height and correspondingly thick.
“Think I know what kind of challenge this is,” Gabe said, grinning.
“What’s that pattern in the middle of the floor, there?” Juniper asked, pointing.
Fross buzzed out into the room to get a better look, then came back. “It’s the Circle of Interaction!”
“Huh,” Trissiny said, frowning. “I wonder what the significance of that is.” She stepped down onto the checkerboard.
Instantly, with a deep grinding noise that echoed horribly, every single chess piece pivoted to face her directly.
She froze. “Um…”
The chess pieces moved in a series of hops, the crashing of their approach resonating deafeningly in the chamber. It was an ungainly pattern of movement, but given their size, they made terrifyingly good time, rushing straight at her like a herd of monolithic bison.
Trissiny let out a yelp and leaped backward onto the steps. The others, several with screams of their own, backpedaled frantically.
As soon as no one was touching the checkerboard floor, the chess pieces immediately stopped their approach, turning and bounding back into place. In moments they had rearranged themselves in their starting position.
“Okay,” Gabe said in a shaky voice, “I was wrong. I did not know what kind of challenge this is.”
Toby drew in a deep breath. “Does this seem like a good stopping point to anyone else?”