“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”
The group, still sorting themselves out on the platform above the Descent, came to a stop, all of them turning to look at her. Trissiny had come out first and placed herself just before the ramp down to the floating platform, looking out over the vast, sloping central cavern of the Crawl.
“It seems you had a point, though,” Teal said carefully after a short, tense silence.
“Of course. I always have a point,” Trissiny said testily, turning to face them. “But that’s not the same as being right. I lashed out because I was offended, not out of a desire to educate you. So…I’m sorry. That was wrong of me.”
“Apology accepted,” Shaeine said with a smile. “The education was still worthwhile.”
“Shit, I can deal with being yelled at, if there’s good intelligence in it,” Ruda said breezily. “That about demons and their patterns was good to know.”
Trissiny nodded. “I’ve been thinking. About…demons and their patterns, and the specific things we’ve seen going on here, not just about how I mistrust them in general.”
“Have you come to any conclusions?” Toby asked.
She fixed her gaze on him. “How much did you study demonology, Toby?”
“Just the basics,” he admitted. “And not from my own cult; the Universal Church gave me a grounding in the subject after Omnu called me. Nothing like you got, I’m sure.”
She nodded again, shifting her gaze. “Shaeine?”
“It was a matter of more practical concern to my people,” the drow said calmly, “but our situation is very different. Narisians mostly encounter demons as thralls to Scyllithene warlocks and shadow-priestesses. We have sturdy walls between us and them, and no real opportunity for their kind to engage in subterfuge.”
“I see,” Trissiny mused. “The thing is… Demons are not just physically different; they have a unique psychology. More so than the mortal races, different demonic species are inclined to act in certain ways. It’s the saturation of infernal magic that does it. The energy is corrupting; it promotes aggression in living things, in addition to physically distorting them.”
“How so?” Gabriel asked.
“As I said…in different ways for different species.” She gave him a significant look. “Hethelaxi are considered the most human-like of demonic races. In fact, some theologians believe they are descendants of a human population that ended up alive in Hell for whatever reason and adapted to survive there.”
“Bullshit,” Ruda snorted.
“I dunno, I could see that happening,” said Juniper. She shrugged when everyone turned to look at her. “Well, that’s what humans are like, y’know?”
“Ouch,” said Toby with a grin.
“Oh, that’s not what I mean,” the dryad said crossly. “It’s the short lifespans humans have that give you such a long-term advantage. You cycle through generations so fast, your evolution is hugely accelerated compared to the other intelligent races. I mean… Well, there’s skin color, that’s the quickest thing. Toby and Ruda are so much darker than Teal and Trissiny, and Gabe’s somewhere in between. You ever wonder why?”
“Not especially,” Ruda said, taking a swig of whiskey.
“That’s an adaptation to sunlight,” Juniper said earnestly. “A population of humans moves into an area—like the western coast, or Puna Dara—that’s either equatorial or high in altitude and gets a lot more sunshine, right? Well, too much sun can be bad, so you get people dying from sunstroke and skin cancer. The ones who develop darker skin don’t suffer those same risks, at least not as much, and so they live to pass on their genes. Eventually the whole population shifts to accommodate the environment.” She shrugged. “It’s evolution. It happens with all life forms. It’s just that of the mortal, magic-using races, most of them live a lot longer, which means they have individual advantages, but human generations cycle so fast that they adapt quicker and have a species advantage. So, yeah, if there was any mortal race that I figure could adapt to Hell, it’s humans.”
“And so, hethelaxi,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Not all scholars agree on it and there’s no proof, but it’s a valid theory. Psychologically speaking, they basically are human. It’s the berserking; it serves as an outlet for the aggression that infernal corruption causes, but one that’s not turned on all the time. When they’re not in berserk mode, a hethelax is pretty much just a person; they have individual personalities and aptitudes, to the point that unlike other demons you can never really predict how a given hethelax will behave. They don’t even have a broad cultural imperative; most of them occupy lower castes in the societies of other demonic races.”
“Hm,” Gabriel said, frowning into the distance.
“It’s different with the others,” Trissiny went on more grimly. “Succubi and incubi, for example. They, like all demon species, are highly aggressive, but what differentiates what we call corrupter demons from the others is their belligerence isn’t overt. They are subtle, manipulative. Talking with one, it’s easy to forget that they’re every bit as prone to aggression, just in their own way.”
She began to pace back and forth. “This has been nagging at me since we’ve been down here, and I only just put my finger on what was bothering me. We’ve seen two children of Vanislaas in passive, static, leadership positions, places where they have to stay in one place and do the same thing day after day. For a succubus, that’s… It’s like being confined alone in a small room would be to a human. It would drive them mad.”
“Neither of those we have met seemed at all unhinged,” Shaeine noted.
“Yes,” said Trissiny, nodding to her. “And in Melaxyna’s case, I can see why. She’s working. Tellwyrn stuck her in the Descent to get repeatedly killed by adventurers; from there she’s manipulated things around to earn the Crawl’s approval and set herself up as a person of actual authority, not a token level boss. And she’s not done working, either. How much you want to bet she makes every adventurer passing through Level 2 the same offer she did us, to get rid of Rowe?”
“No bet,” Gabriel said immediately, grinning. Several of the others nodded.
Indeed, when they had materialized in Level 2 after using the waystone, the succubus had seized the opportunity to repeat her offer, despite Trissiny’s efforts to hurry the party back up the stairs and out of demon territory. They also weren’t the only travelers present this time; the party of drow from the Grim Visage had been present, browsing at the alchemy stand under Xsythri’s watchful eye.
“Which brings us to Rowe himself,” Trissiny continued, stopping her pacing and turning to face them again. “He’s in a sanctuary, where he can’t harm or be harmed. He’s got a rival demon putting contracts on his head, so he can’t leave. The situation has to be absolute torture for him.”
“He didn’t seem…tortured,” Fross said doubtfully.
“What an incubus seems like has very little bearing on anything, Fross,” Trissiny said patiently. “They are masters of deception. Above all, he wouldn’t show signs of his weakness to potentially hostile strangers. So I have to ask…what’s the point? What is it about the Grim Visage that’s worth him subjecting himself to all the peace and quiet, and that makes Melaxyna want to do the same to herself?”
“I dunno,” Toby said, frowning. “Not to doubt your word, Trissiny, but it seems…thin.”
“I know,” she said with a sigh. “Just trust me that this is what these creatures are like. I have studied them extensively, I promise you. Thinking it all over, I’m starting to realize my knee-jerk reaction to all this got everything backwards.”
“Well, ain’t that a first,” Ruda cackled, taking a swig from her bottle.
“Backwards how?” Fross asked.
“That Level 2 might not be a worse situation for us than the Grim Visage,” Trissiny replied.
“I think I see what you mean,” Teal mused. “If incubi and succubi think the way you say, then… Well, the fact that the demons on Level 2 were unfriendly to us is actually a good sign.”
“Yeah,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Xsythri made it obvious she didn’t appreciate our presence. Melaxyna tried to throw us out. The succubus at least is capable of being subtle enough to use that as a smokescreen, but… I don’t know what motive she’d have. The only thing she wants from us is Rowe’s head, and she told us that up front.”
“She also wants our coin,” Fross piped up. “But, yeah, she was pretty up front about that, too.”
“She might have ulterior motives, of course, but Tellwyrn’s invisible hand means there’s not much else she can aspire to down here. On the other hand, Rowe’s situation looks odder the more I study it,” Trissiny went on. “The enforced peace of the sanctuary effect is not mentally healthy for him. But he keeps himself there, and Melaxyna wants to take it from him. There is something in the Grim Visage, or something about it, that demons desire.”
“You think we’d be safer moving our base to Level 2?” Toby asked.
“No.” Trissiny shook her head. “No, the Visage is explicitly safer. But…that very fact means there’s something afoot that we don’t understand. I think we need to keep that firmly in mind.”
The merchant wing of the Grim Visage, when they re-entered, was in the opposite condition from that in which they’d left it. Shamlin’s stall seemed to be unoccupied, but the other three were each manned. Near the door to their right, the tiny alchemist’s shop was in business, a gnome in a stiff leather apron and goggles actually standing on the counter itself to deal with her customer, a male naga who gave the students a suspicious look and shifted to keep them in view but offered no overt hostility. Across from the gnome, the stand labeled “Enchanter” was occupied by a striking drow woman in a gauzy white gown. She had blue streaks dyed in her hair with something that actually glowed softly, as did the swirling geometric tattoos that started around her left eye, ran down her neck and along her arm to terminate at the tip of her middle finger.
“Hello, hello!” she called at them upon their entry, beaming and waving enthusiastically. Definitely not Narisian, then. “You must be the new students. Shame on you, skittering out before we all have a chance to introduce ourselves! Please, come, let’s get acquainted.”
“Ooh, are you an enchantress?” Fross asked, buzzing over. “Neat! Gabe and I do arcane magic, too!”
The drow’s cheerful expression immediately fell. “Ah. You have little need of my services, then?”
“We’re not that advanced,” Gabriel said hastily. “Well, I’m not, and I’m the enchanting student. Fross is more of a general mage. And…we’re in our second semester, it’s been all arcane theory till now. They won’t let us study actual enchanting till next year. I’m Gabe, by the way.”
“And I am the Lady Radivass,” she said, her bright smile returning. “Welcome, new friends. I’m sure we’ll have many profitable things to discuss.”
“Lady, bah,” snorted another voice. At the next stand up, across from Shamlin’s, a dwarf paused in laying out knives on his counter to leer at her. “Funny how a body gets far enough from home not to be contradicted and suddenly has all kinds of titles.”
“You button your yap, Fengir, before I come over there and button it for you!” Radivass snarled, making an obscene gesture at him.
“You an’ what army, knife-ear?” he replied, grinning nastily.
She thrust her hand into something underneath her counter, pulled it back out and hurled a cloud of glittering dust at him, which shot across the space between their stalls more like a thrown object than a handful of powder. The dwarf reeled backward, coughing and trying to wave the mist away, but not before it settled into his hair and beard.
“Ach! Not the beard! You evil trollop, you’ve gone too far!” he roared, fruitlessly trying to comb the dust out of his facial hair with his fingers. The glitter was actually slightly luminous; it made him look fancy in the extreme, despite his rough leather clothing.
“Oh, stop your bellyaching, you’re much improved,” Radivass said sweetly, waggling her fingers flirtatiously at him. “Don’t you think so, kids?”
Fengir answered only with a barrage of curses.
“Sooo,” Ruda said, “you’re Scyllithene, then?”
The drow snorted. “The hell I am. Can you imagine what life is like under the cult of a goddess of cruelty?”
“I think I can,” Gabriel murmured.
“I guarantee you can’t,” she said firmly, “and consider yourself better off. I can’t say I’ve ever had much use for Themynra, either, and so…” Radivass spread her arms, grinning. “Here I am. Even right under the looming shadow of the Arachne herself, this is a much better life than anything the deep depths have to offer. But enough about me! Let’s talk about you kids. I do hope you’re not thinking of heading down into the Crawl without having your gear properly augmented!”
“We don’t…exactly…have any gear,” Toby said hesitantly. “Professor Tellwyrn sort of dropped us in here unprepared. I think we’re supposed to find equipment as we go.”
“Oh!” said Fross. “That’s not quite true; we don’t have good gear yet, but we got a pair of corduroy pants, a very serviceable robe with a light defensive enchantment, a rusty dagger and Gabriel’s wand!”
“Hmm, I don’t work with energy weapons,” Radivass mused. “Adding charms to them tends to muck them up. Well, you just wait till you find some good stuff down there, kids. Come to me with anything you fish out of the Descent and I’ll get it into the best possible shape for you, guaranteed. What of you two girls?” she added, grinning at Ruda and then Trissiny. “I see you’re already armed, and quite well! It can always be better, though, eh?”
“Not really,” said Trissiny. “My sword and shield are holy relics; I don’t think they’ll take enchantments, and I know they don’t need them.”
“Ah,” the drow said, her face falling. She turned hopefully to Ruda.
“Mithril,” the pirate said with a grin, patting the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Not enchantable.”
“Rats,” Radivass said, slumping. “It’s such a slow week… Well, you remember what I said, kids. A little enchantment makes all the difference!”
“We will,” Gabriel promised.
They filed past her, glancing at Fengir the dwarf and deciding by silent consensus not to approach him. For one thing, it wasn’t obvious what business he was in; his entire area was bedecked with what appeared to be scrap metal. For another, he had his back to them, rummaging in a chest and cursing furiously.
“Well, look who’s back,” said Shamlin cheerfully, entering his store space from the curtained doorway behind it. “And nobody died! Bravo!”
“Aren’t we amusing,” Ruda sneered. “That how you talk to all your potential customers, twinkletoes?”
“It is when I have an absolute monopoly,” he said cheerfully, leaning on his counter. “So how’d it go, kids? Did you get far?”
“Down to Level 7, and we decided that was a good place for a break,” said Teal.
“Oh? Not bad, for a first day! You might actually get all the way to the bottom if you keep up that pace. If, that is, you decide we can do business.” Grinning, he reached into one of his pockets and produced the blue waystone. “Just wait until you’re at Level 20 or so. All that hiking, half of it stairs… You’ll get to where you spend half of each day just reaching your next un-cleared level. To say nothing of all the mazes, pit traps and jumping puzzles to navigate each time. By the time you get down to your destination you’ll be completely worn out.”
“We’re covered, thanks,” Gabriel said smugly, elbowing Teal.
“There’s…no need to be rude,” she hedged.
Shamlin raised his eyebrows. “What’s all this, now?”
With a sigh, Teal reached into her own coat pocket, pulling out the black stone, and held it up for him to see.
The map vendor stared at this for a moment, a rapid sequence of emotions flickering across his face. Surprise, comprehension, disappointment, and finally, oddly enough, laughter. He plopped down onto his stool, chuckling merrily. “Why, Melaxyna, you delightful minx. She finally got her baerzurg properly motivated, I see. Well, how about them apples! I’m surprised your paladin let you buy that.”
“Mel’s price beat the hell out of yours,” Ruda said smugly.
“And they don’t do what I suggest, as a rule,” Trissiny added. “Otherwise, our grade on our first-semester field exam would have been a lot better.”
“Ah, well, so it goes,” Shamlin said cheerfully. “So, you stopped on Level 7, then. What was down there that turned you back? Odds are I’m exactly the man to point you through it.”
“Hang on,” said Toby. “If you know the way through the Descent’s challenges, how come you don’t know what’s on Level 7?”
“Because that depends on you,” he replied, grinning. “Only the shroom glade and Level 2 and constants. Below that, you’re getting whatever the Crawl things is the appropriate test for your party’s skills. Hence my curiosity.”
“Huh,” Toby mused. “That…explains some stuff.”
“Like what?” Ruda demanded.
“I thought our trip thus far was awfully heavy on puzzles,” Toby said. “The way the Descent was described, I envisioned a lot more fighting. Anyhow, our Level 7 was a big chessboard, with the Circle of Interaction inscribed in the center.”
“It was no chess game like I’ve ever played, either,” Gabe added. “The pieces are freakin’ huge, and they all just charge when you set foot on the floor.”
Shamlin straightened up, his amused expression vanishing. “…you got the Circle Chessboard on Level 7?”
“Is that…unusual?” Fross asked hesitantly.
“That’s… Groups usually see that about thirty levels down.” He eyed them all over carefully, with new respect. “Just who are you kids?”
“We’re the goddamn bee’s pajamas, and don’t you forget it,” Ruda crowed.
Trissiny gave her a long-suffering look before turning back to Shamlin. “In any case… How do you get past the chessboard? It looked like a straightforward combat test, but I don’t see how anyone is supposed to fight off thirty-two giant stone enemies.”
“Oh, well, then, we’re talking business,” Shamlin said, his grin returning. “That kind of information is valuable, my friends. ‘Valuable,’ in this case, meaning ‘not free.’”
Ruda snorted loudly, but Teal pushed forward.
“I have a question about a different puzzle, then,” she said. “One we got through, but sort of…the wrong way. By brute force.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “So you’re curious how you were supposed to solve it, but since you’re past it you don’t care to pay money for the info.”
“More or less. If that’s not okay, it’s fine, it’s just idle curiosity.”
“Hmmm.” He made a show of stroking his chin thoughtfully. “A suspicious person might accuse you of using this ploy to get free intel on how to get through a puzzle that stumped you.”
“How could we be stumped on two puzzles?” Ruda demanded. “The Descent is sequential.”
“Well, if it were a good little con, you’d tell me about a red herring puzzle in order to get the freebie on the one you really cared about,” he said, grinning up at her. “Are any of you, by chance, Eserites?”
“No,” Trissiny said flatly.
“Relax, I’m mostly pulling your leg,” Shamlin said. “Sure, I don’t mind indulging your curiosity. If nothing else, our business relationship can only benefit from proof I know what I’m talking about. Which one did you plow through?”
“It had a marble floor,” said Teal, “with a mosaic of music bars, leading between these big knots…”
“Ah, yes, Musical Tangles,” he said, nodding. “Any party that has a bard in it gets that one. In fact, rare is the party that gets it right; it’s designed to trip bards up. You see, most of the knots have a song progressing out from them that matches the one that went in; where everyone goes wrong is in thinking you can navigate it one step at a time. You have to plan your route out all the way from the door to the other door, which means following the song the entire distance of its journey before starting. There’s only one safe path; any of the others will trigger a trap. It’s hard because the layout makes it physically difficult to get a good view. You need a spyglass at minimum. A scrying crystal is even better.”
“Or the ability to fly?” Ruda suggested, grinning hugely at Teal, who hunched her shoulders in embarrassment.
“Well, that’s pretty fucked up,” Gabriel said, frowning deeply. “Most bards aren’t as durable as ours. If they all trip the traps…that sounds like a deliberate bard-killer.”
Shamlin snorted. “Oh, Musical Tangles always comes up early in the Descent. None of the traps are particularly lethal, just intended to make a bard think carefully before acting.”
“Not lethal?” Toby said incredulously. “It dropped a giant pillar of stone on her!”
Shamlin’s grin faded again; he studied Teal carefully. “It…looks like she got better, then.”
“That was just the beginning,” Gabriel added. “Man, the traps in that room would’ve cut down a Silver Legion. Uh, sorry, Triss.”
“I don’t appreciate the comparison,” she said grudgingly, “but I suspect it’s an accurate one.”
“Are you…” Shamlin was frowning at them now. “Okay, seriously. Who the hell are you kids?”
“Never mind that,” Trissiny said curtly, fishing in her belt pouch. She pulled out a gold doubloon and set it down firmly on the counter. “Where can we find a large, flat, relatively clear space to practice?”
“Practice what, exactly?” Shamlin asked, eying the gold with interest.
“Maneuvers.” Keeping one finger pinning the coin to the wood, she half-turned to face her classmates. “Let’s be honest, our one fighting level was a mess. If that had been anything more serious than pigs, we would have had injuries at minimum. This has been a problem for this group since the Golden Sea; for all that many of us are individually powerful, we’re terrible at fighting as a unit. No teamwork, no strategy. If we’re going to make any real progress in a combat situation, we need to work on that. Any argument?”
“Bloody fucking hell,” Ruda grumbled. “Only you could create homework in a dungeon, Boots.”
“No argument,” Toby said firmly. “Triss is right, guys. I really don’t like the thought of fighting, but in honesty I like the thought of someone getting hurt a lot less. We need to work on this. Before we have to face off against giant chess pieces. Or anything else.”
“Well,” Shamlin drawled, “the Crawl isn’t named such because it has an abundance of open space. There’s the main cavern outside…”
“Which has no fucking floor,” Ruda exclaimed.
“And there are the empty rooms in the uppermost levels, near the exit.”
Juniper groaned. “Got anything that doesn’t involve a giant number of stairs?”
“Well, then,” Shamlin said brightly, “there’s the fact that the Descent will be stable once you’re in it. Each floor is the same floor on every visit, and each one you’ve cleared will stay cleared, at least until you get to Level 100 and beat the last boss. Those rooms are the largest and flattest you’ll find in the Crawl, without going to the goblin or naga towns.”
“Hm.” Trissiny kept a finger on the doubloon, still turned to look at the others. “The mushroom forest didn’t have much open space…nor the boar level. Too obstructed.”
“Two others didn’t have floors,” added Gabriel. “And the musical level was flattish, but… The floor there is either trapped or torn the hell up.”
“Sounds like the only flat, open space we’ve found is the chess level,” Toby said with a sigh.
“And as for that,” Shamlin said cheerily, “yon doubloon’ll buy you the secret to the puzzle, as well as two others, because I’m feeling generous.”
Trissiny glanced around at the others, then finally lifted her finger. “Deal.”
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