“Y’know,” Gabriel mused, “when I pictured going on a dungeon adventure, I somehow imagined there would be more stabbing and less…accounting.”
“I don’t see you doing any accounting,” Ruda remarked, not looking up from her spreadsheet. While the others at the table had bowls of stew in front of them, she had only a bottle of rum wedged between her legs and papers fanned out on the table before her, a collection of charts, receipts, maps and several bearing columns of her own mysterious notation. “Unless you wanna pitch in, belay the complaining.”
“Whoah, hey,” he protested. “It was just an observation! I wasn’t complaining.”
“Mm. Well, forgive me for assuming. It’s you, after all.”
“It’s too early in the day for me to be the butt of the joke,” he muttered sullenly, dragging a piece of stiff bread through his stew to soften it. The “bread” was not baked, but rendered alchemically, somehow, from mushrooms. Juniper had pronounced it fairly nutritious, but it took considerable softening to be chewable, and never quite got to the point of palatability.
“Never too early,” Ruda said, grinning at her paperwork as she tallied.
“He didn’t actually do anything that time,” Trissiny remarked.
“He will, though. Best to settle up in advance.”
“You guys suck,” Gabriel grumbled.
“Yep, there it is,” said Trissiny, spooning up another mouthful.
Juniper entered the main bar from the market area, yawning. “Hey, guys. Morning.”
“You were up early,” Trissiny said.
“Too early… I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep again. Went for a walk. Thanks,” she added as Toby set a bowl in front of the empty place and began ladling stew into it.
“You went for a walk?” Fross exclaimed. “In the Crawl? That’s dangerous!”
“Well, I didn’t leave the Visage,” Juniper replied, seating herself. “Ooh, the stew has tubers! Are we splurging?”
“Ruda says we can afford it,” said Fross. “So…you’ve been walking around the Visage for half the night? I’m, uh, confused.”
“Nah, I met Radivass, who couldn’t sleep either. She’s got a little place behind her stall, offered me some tea. We got to talking, and then making love.”
“Thanks for the update,” said Ruda, pulling another sheet of paper over and beginning to jot figures without looking up.
“Yeah, I usually try to think more about people’s privacy, but she was pretty into letting people know she ‘nailed’ me.” Juniper shrugged, blowing on a spoonful of hot stew. “It’s weird how people get about sex. I mean, it’s companionship and pleasure and pretty good exercise. What else do you need? Maybe folks would enjoy it more if they got out of their own heads a little.”
“Sound advice,” Trissiny said gravely.
“Good morning,” said Shaeine as she and Teal entered the bar, the latter with a broad smile.
“Morning!” Fross chirped. “Yay, everyone’s here! Pull up a chair, there’s plenty of stew.”
“Ah, yes. The famous stew,” Teal said with a grimace, holding out a chair for Shaeine.
“It’s good stew this time though!”
“Relatively,” Gabriel clarified.
“We’re indulging a little bit,” said Toby. “It’s got some tubers we bought, some of our pork and actual spices. Nothing fancy, but…”
“Fancy is relative,” Shaeine said calmly.
“All right!” Ruda set down her pen decisively. “We’re doin’ good.”
“We’re doing well,” Fross corrected.
The pirate drummed her fingers once on the table. “Fross…”
“Right. Sorry. Go on.”
“We are, as I say, doing well,” Ruda said, giving the pixie a pointed look. “Better quality of loot the farther down we go, though we begin to run into a slight bottleneck in terms of time and effort spent on disposing of it; not as much market for higher-value items, vendors can never be sure when they’ll be able to unload some things and so we can’t always get fair value. But still! We are putting away a substantial amount of gold once it’s converted to liquid assets.”
“Awesome,” Gabriel said, grinning.
Ruda nodded. “So, I’m gonna recommend we start spending money more aggressively.”
“Um…” His face fell slightly. “Why’s that?”
“Let’s keep in mind what we’re down here for,” Ruda said firmly. “We’ve gotta get to the bottom of the Descent, get Tellwyrn’s crap and then we can go home. Making money is nice and all, but that’s not our job. The assets we’re accumulating should be leveraged here where we most need the leverage.”
“We have been slowing down slightly,” Trissiny mused. “I noticed yesterday. We’re still making consistent headway and none of the puzzles have stumped us for long, but the fighting is getting harder.”
“I think it’s going well!” Juniper said brightly. “The tactics you’ve been teaching us are really solid, Triss. I feel like we’re getting better at it the more we practice!”
“We are,” Toby agreed, “but it’s also true that the threats are growing harder to batter through.”
“And battering through threats is exactly where we can turn money into advantage,” said Ruda, nodding. “The enchanted weapons and armor the Crawl is giving us are nice and all, but there’s more we can do to up our performance. There are alchemists who can provide some very good enhancers, and there’s a lot more we could be doing with enchantment. No offense, Gabe, but you’re not on Radivass’s level, or even Khavibosh.”
“That’s fair,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got tricks that are helpful down in the levels, but permanently augmenting gear is beyond me.”
“There are other items available for purchase that could prove helpful,” Shaeine remarked. “Even things as simple as camping gear and serviceable clothing.”
“And better food,” Juniper added. “Nobody’s getting nearly malnourished yet, but right now Fross and I are the only ones running at our physical peak. You guys need nutrients that you can’t get from pork and mushrooms.”
“Better food will cost more than the rest of that combined,” Toby murmured.
The dryad shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not urgent. But it’s something you’re gonna want to look into before much longer. Nobody’s gonna starve in three weeks, but a properly nourished person is happier and more effective than somebody subsisting on scavenged crud. We need vegetables.”
“So, yeah,” said Ruda. “The challenges are starting to slow us down, and it’s only gonna get harder as we go deeper. At the same time, we’re getting more disposable income. There are vendors in the Visage and on Level 2 who can help gear us up; I think the time has come to take full advantage. The financial policy should be to spend according to our means. We’ve got no reason to save up.”
“I have at least a general idea how we’re doing financially, though I’m clearly not up to Punaji standards of accounting,” Gabriel said with a grin. “And there’s still a range of things in both places that are beyond us. Not everything on display was in our price range, and Shamlin, Radivass and that twitchy sshitherosz on Level 2 have all hinted they’ve got even better stuff that’s not on display.”
“Which twitchy sshitherosz?” Trissiny muttered.
“Right,” Ruda said patiently, “so there’s room to grow. I’ve got a feeling there will be, right till the end.”
“I agree,” said Toby. “I’m in favor of spending the time and money on caution. Better prepared is just better.”
“Ruda’s right!” Fross chimed. “This is how dungeons are supposed to work! The deeper you go, the harder it gets, but you get better equipment to deal with it!”
“Right, then. Any questions? Arguments?” Ruda waited for a few seconds, then grinned and took a swig of her rum, reaching for a bowl with the other hand. “It’s looking like a somewhat abbreviated day of adventuring, then! I suggest we take our time shopping both here and with the demons before we get into the Descent proper.”
“Does that mean you’re giving each of us an allowance to spend?” Gabe asked, grinning.
“It means,” she said, giving him a look, “I will help you shop, those of you whose judgment I don’t trust to know what gear you really need and can afford. Which is pretty much just you.”
He sighed. “You are just never gonna let up, are you?”
Ruda grinned at him and scooped up a spoonful of stew. “Well, that depends on you, doesn’t it?”
“And there they went,” Rowe said, peering through the door into the long merchant wing of the Grim Visage. He turned back to Professor Ezzaniel with a grin. “You’ll be wanting into the back room to keep tabs, then?”
“Later,” Ezzaniel said, keeping his eyes fixed on the go board on the table between them. It was already more than halfway through, lines of white and black stones marching across the grid, seeking to flank and encircle one another. “There’s no need to monitor their every little move. I’ll be notified if something goes badly wrong.”
“My, aren’t we trusting,” the incubus said.
Ezzaniel placed a black stone. “They’re fine. The whole point of this exercise is for the kids to learn how to be effective without someone lurking over their shoulders to supervise. I must say I had my doubts about this particular batch, but they appear to be making even better progress than Arachne had hoped.”
“Yes, quite the team of terrors and titans, so I hear,” Rowe mused, setting down a stone. “Who knows? They could even get to the bottom of your little mystery. Or maybe the Crawl will throw up enough challenges at the lowest levels to bar them like all the other groups. Firepower and magical invulnerability aren’t everything.”
“Mm.” Ezzaniel lifted his eyes to catch Rowe with his head turned, winking at a group of three drow, two women and a man, just then filing through the door into the merchant wing and the exterior door beyond. The last woman through turned and gave the incubus a sly smile before slipping out. “Well. You’re too good to let me catch you plotting what that looked like, so may I assume it wasn’t directed at my students?”
“Oh, nonsense,” Rowe said breezily, turning his attention back to the board. “Honestly, Emilio, I’m surprised at you, leaping to conclusions that way. Of course it was directed at your students. Those three have been lurking around for days and I’m beginning to have a bad feeling about them. Always do, when drow from the depths get too cozy up here. The last thing I need is them trying to creep up to the University grounds and bring Arachne down, causing me headaches.”
“I see,” Ezzaniel said flatly.
“Oh, don’t make that face,” Rowe chided, grinning. “You just said they’re a capable group. It’ll cost them little time and hardly any effort to demolish a trio of snooping Scyllithenes for me. And they could use the extra experience and loot. Everybody wins!”
“I suppose there’s a compliment in that,” Ezzaniel said with a sour twist of his mouth. “When you decide to really interfere it won’t be with anything so…mundane.”
“Pfft, why should I want to interfere with your little ducklings?” Rowe asked innocently. “They have enough to worry about.”
Gabriel groaned, blinking. He was…down? He hadn’t fallen, exactly. Hands and knees, looking at a stone floor. He didn’t remember falling. Didn’t hurt, wasn’t dizzy…nothing to explain why he was down here.
Carefully, he straightened up, peering around. Behind him was a stone wall, towering up into darkness; an obvious doorframe was set into the wall, but there was no door within it, only more neatly mortared blocks. Experimentally, he reached back and rapped on it, then pushed a few of the bricks. No…just stone.
The space was almost like a hall, in that it seemed to be longer than it was wide. It was plenty wide, though, about like one of the streets of Tiraas on which he had grown up. Worse, it was filled with mist. Tendrils of fog slowly uncurled close to him, slightly obscuring his view of the nearby walls and reducing the distance to nothing but a white void.
He was alone. What had happened to the others?
Checking his pockets, he found everything in place. His wands were holstered, his various supplies in each of the coat’s magical compartments.
Gabe turned in a complete circle, pondering. They had set out from the Visage, gone to the Descent, spent some time buying supplies in Level 2…then paid their silver and stepped into Melaxyna’s dimensional gate, allegedly to be ported down to Level 43 to continue their campaign. Then…
Nothing. On previous trips, stepping through the portal had been like stepping from one room to another, completely devoid of flash or identifying sensation. He couldn’t remember anything happening after the last one; he had merely stepped through the gate along with his classmates, and then…he was here.
“Guys?” he said hesitantly, then steeled himself and raised his voice. “Toby? …Trissiny? Fross!”
He didn’t even make an echo. Well…that had probably been too much to hope for.
“Wherever you are, Trissiny,” he muttered, “looks like you were right about the demons. I really, really hope I get to hear you say ‘I told you so.’”
Squaring his shoulders and straightening his coat, Gabriel did the only possible thing left to him and stepped forward into the mist.
He quickly found it to be magical in nature. Not arcane, he would have sensed that, and clearly not divine, as it did him no harm. But it didn’t respond to the charm he sketched out and laid down, which should have dispelled fog and any obscuring effects in its vicinity. Natural fog, anyway, but any relatively persistent magical effect would have overridden his simple charm. Infernal magic trumped arcane, but fae magic countered it… Then again, there was also the possibility that it wasn’t true magic in the sense he was used to thinking of it, but a genius loci at work. Within a sufficiently powerful one, the will of the place was absolute law. This clearly wasn’t the Descent—the proportions of the walls were all wrong—but could it still be the Crawl?
He did manage to arrange a light for himself, anyway. A rolled up and properly inscribed sheet of his spellpaper produced a blue glow from one end, just like a small torch. It didn’t penetrate far into the mist, but it made him feel better.
Gabriel proceeded carefully, keeping alert and constantly scanning around. The fog itself didn’t offer him anything to look at, but he stayed close enough to one wall to keep it in view—which necessitated drifting ever nearer to it the farther in he got, as the mist seemed to thicken with every step. It was all he could think of, though, to avoid getting hopelessly turned around.
Which was why he noticed immediately when the wall began to change. Vague shapes started appearing in the stone, as if carved or built that way; a few more yards down, they grew clearer, and then clearer still. Doors, corners, front steps and the blunt shapes of windows. Then, further down, more elaborate touches, light fixtures, details of stonework, window of actual glass and doors of wood, rather than their mere shapes cut in plain stone. Gabriel judged that he was deeper down this passage than any of the Descent’s levels was long by the time it became clear that he was walking along a street. The architecture was familiar, not specifically but generally; this particular street was one he’d never seen before, but he had a very strong sense that he was back home in Tiraas.
The appearance of the figure out of the mist in front of him—on what was now clearly a sidewalk—was quite sudden in comparison to everything else, so much so that he skidded to a stop, barely repressing a yelp. What started as a vague patch of darkness coalesced into a humanoid form—in fact, a human one. She stepped lightly into the glow of his makeshift torch, streamers of fog being scattered from her twirling parasol.
Gabriel’s eyes widened. “What—no. No, absolutely not.”
“Well,” she said, pouting. “That’s very nearly enough to hurt my feelings. I should think you’d be a little glad to see me, after all this time.”
“Why the hell would I be—you know what, no. I am not doing this. This isn’t real, you aren’t here, this is the Crawl messing with my head.”
“All right, Gabriel, I’ll play along.” Still idly spinning the parasol in her neatly gloved hands, Madeleine smiled, angling her body in that way she had which put forth the best details of her profile. “This isn’t real, neither of us is here. You still have to deal with it, one way or another. This time, darling, it doesn’t look like running away will be an option.”