She disregarded the voices, but did not ignore them. Ignoring cues from her environment was a good way to be ambushed, and there really wasn’t anything to orient her senses except the very faint sounds at the edge of hearing. Even though they consisted of accusing whispers and the occasional distant scream, Trissiny did not try to shut them out. She did, periodically, draw the tiniest stream of Avei’s power into her core. Just enough to feel the reassuring glow. The reminder of her goddess’s support grew increasingly necessary the longer she went in this place.
Walking through featureless mist with nothing for company but faint, hostile whispers would be enough to wear on anyone.
After that first scene, the mist had shown her nothing, only the soft sounds of women accusing her of a variety of sins and failures. It had been enough for her to develop a working theory about what was happening here. Despite the constant wear on her equanimity, Trissiny was mostly concerned for the others. Were they being tested in the same way? There was no way to even guess what was happening to the rest of her party, nothing to do but keep pressing forward and hope to reunite with them soon. Hope, and pray.
After deliberately tracking back and forth across the wide hall several times to make sure the walls were still there, she had stuck close to the left one. It was a rule of thumb she’d heard about mazes: keep a hand on the left wall and you would eventually come to the exit. This was hardly a maze, being a broad, straight path filled with swirling white fog, aggressive whispering and the occasional very disturbing vision—well, at least one such, anyway—but hopefully the same principle would apply.
The door appeared quite suddenly out of the pale gloom, and she stopped to consider it. A simple arched doorway in the left wall of the hall, it led into a tunnel that had neither mist nor light, and curved slightly so that she could see little more of what was down it than what lay ahead in her own foggy path. What she could see in both cases was nothing, so it made little difference on that front. This was alarmingly convenient, especially considering that this place clearly showed both intelligence and hostility. On the other hand…she wasn’t apparently getting anywhere on her current course.
She knew nothing of what was going on. Anything she did might be an error. Given the option, Trissiny always preferred to make the active rather than the passive mistake. At least the side tunnel would be a change of venue.
Raising her sword to a ready position, she stepped cautiously into it.
Only a few feet in, she lit up her aura, lacking any other way to see where she was going. The absence of mist was nice, but the apparently sourceless light of the main hallway was also missing. Had it been the mist providing light? Well, whatever the case, the voices also faded into the distance behind her, which came as a significant relief.
As a further benefit, the tunnel went somewhere. Not much of a somewhere, and a peculiar one, but it was something. After a relatively short walk, she found herself facing what looked for all the world like the front wall of someone’s living room. It had wallpaper in an understated paisley pattern, cheap-looking curtains over the window and a simple but well-polished wooden door with a brass knob. She carefully nudged a curtain aside with the tip of her sword to peer out.
Trissiny sighed, but momentarily slung her shield on her back to turn the doorknob. She pulled it open and re-armed herself before stepping through. More of the same it might be, but she’d committed to this path.
It immediately turned out to have been the right thing to do, or at least an improvement. The space into which she carefully stepped was another broad, mist-filled hall, but this one had features. Actually, it looked exactly like a city street, lined with brownstone townhouses.
Even better, just ahead of where she emerged, it had one of her classmates.
He jumped and whirled, raising his wands. Upon seeing her, his face underwent a quick shuffle of expressions, starting with delighted relief and morphing into suspicion.
“I take it you’ve been seeing things too,” she said with a wry grin, stepping down the front stairs of the fake house from which she had emerged.
“Seeing, hearing, talking to, doing my goddamn best to ignore,” he replied cautiously, peering at her and making no move to lower his weapons. “What were you doing in there?”
“My hallway was a lot less interesting than this one,” she said, looking around. “Just…empty, except for the fog. There was an opening, so I went in. It led me here. All things considered I think I like yours better. Have you seen any of the others?”
“Nobody…current,” he said cryptically. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…how do I know it’s really you?”
“Is there a right way to take that?”
She sighed. “No, I’m sorry, bad time to joke. You’re right to be cautious. I don’t know what to tell you, though. If you like I could light you up and prove I’m physical.”
“No thanks, but the offer is pretty convincing,” he said with a grimace, finally lowering his wands. “Gods, I’m glad to see you, Triss.”
“Likewise,” she said fervently, stepping forward to stand beside him. “Speaking as an enchanter, do you have any idea what’s going on?”
He glanced suspiciously about at the apparently empty street. “Speaking as an enchanter, I am so out of my fucking depth I have a better chance of finishing this metaphor than figuring out what all this is.”
Trissiny smiled in spite of herself. “Well…I’m pretty sure we’re still in the Crawl.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, this is obviously not the Descent, but… It being the Crawl makes the most sense. I don’t think there are any other surface exits, and I can’t see any reason for something like this to be down wherever it is the drow are coming from. Question is, what the hell is happening, and why?”
She shook her head. “Your ignorance is as good as mine. Let’s keep moving, though. Maybe there’ll be more side-tunnels and we can catch up with the others.”
He sighed heavily, but fell into step alongside her as she strode cautiously forward. “You caught me taking a break. If I stay put, it stays quiet. Progress means…seeing things.”
“Hm.” Trissiny glanced around fruitlessly. There was nothing to see but more innocuous street and eerie fog. “I only had one real…episode. There were voices, though.”
“The creepy kind. I don’t miss them.”
“You might, you know.”
Trissiny halted and whirled to face the voice from behind them, raising her shield. A strikingly pretty young woman stood on the street, smiling. Despite the expression, her eyes were hard.
“Who are you?” Trissiny demanded.
“My, my, is that any way to introduce yourself?” The girl’s smile widened. “I see etiquette is not a priority in Legion training.”
“Trissiny,” Gabriel said wearily, “this is my ex-girlfriend. She’s not really here, for obvious reasons, and I don’t particularly care to indulge the Crawl in whatever manipulative crap this is. Just keep moving, I’ve learned she won’t follow.”
“I’m not sure I like the idea of putting my back to her,” Trissiny said warily. The girl actually laughed. She was short and curvaceous, built somewhat like Ruda but without the muscle tone. In fact, she was exactly the sort of woman for whom Trissiny had the least patience, a living portrait of cosmetics, expensive fabric and pampered complexion, all style and no apparent substance.
“She really isn’t your type, Gabriel,” the woman said with another catlike smile. “Really, is this the sort of person you’re hanging around with, now? And I had entertained such hopes of instilling a little gentility in you. You have so much potential.”
“Shut up, figment,” he said curtly. “The only way that could be more insulting is if you really were Madeleine. Seriously, Triss. Come on.”
This time, it was he who strode off ahead, and she had to either follow or be left behind in the fog. She chose to do the former, glancing behind repeatedly. As he had predicted, the apparently fictitious girl remained where she stood, watching but not following them.
“So,” she said after Madeleine had vanished into the fog behind them. “You…had a girlfriend?”
“Sound more surprised,” he said shortly.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she replied. “Just trying to open a conversation. I guess I don’t blame you if you don’t want to talk about it. Can’t have been a pleasant memory.”
He gave her a sharp look. “What makes you say that?”
“Because the Crawl is throwing it in your face. If you’ve been getting anything like what I got, this is all calculated to unnerve us.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but there came a scream and a rush of flames off to their left before he could speak. Trissiny jumped again, raising her weapons, though she had the presence of mind not to blaze up with divine power and scorch her companion.
A gap had appeared in the buildings, quite suddenly, and within it was a roaring bonfire, surrounded by a jeering crowd. From the middle of the flames rose a thick wooden post, to which was tied a man, shrieking in agony.
“Ignore it,” Gabriel said curtly, striding forward. “Not real.”
“But what is this?!”
“That’s my father being burned alive,” he said, not looking at her. “Last time it was the headsman’s block. Before that, the noose. These are actually my favorite little vignettes; I can just ignore them and pretty soon they’re gone. Sometimes people chase me shouting racial epithets; I have to threaten them with wands to make them leave. And then there’s Madeleine.” Trissiny had caught up with him again, enough to see his expression, which was falling ever deeper into a scowl. “Despite my better judgment I can’t seem to stop myself from engaging with her. I’m not that bright in some ways.”
“You’ve been…seeing all that?” she asked, horrified. He shrugged. “This whole time?”
“Yes,” he snapped. “Why, what’d you see? I thought you said it had been bad for you, too.”
“Compared to this? No…not really.” Trissiny shook her head. “Gabe, I think this is all just…fear.”
He looked over at her. “What?”
“It’s fear,” Ruda said, vigorously rubbing her hands together. Behind her, the rough ladder of ice was growing slick with condensation—well, slicker, it hadn’t been an easy climb—but didn’t seem to be melting in a hurry. It was markedly cooler here than in the Descent. She withdrew her arms from her sleeves, leaving her greatcoat hanging from her shoulders, and jammed her numb fingers into her armpits. “That’s the common denominator of that shit down there. We’re being shown our fears.”
“I…guess…that sort of makes sense?” Fross said hesitantly. “At least, in my case…yeah.”
“Gotta say, I did not get up this morning expecting to be chased by giant fucking pixies before lunch,” Ruda muttered.
“But…I’m pretty sure the other half of that wasn’t me,” Fross continued. “I, um… I only recognize what was going on from descriptions. That was you, then?”
“I’m pretty sure, yeah,” Ruda said curtly, stepping carefully away from the ladder. It wasn’t much warmer a few feet distant, but that thing was cold.
“That…that was an accounting firm? Why exactly—”
“Fross, having established why the Crawl is showing us this fuckery, do you really think I want to talk about it in detail?”
“I guess not,” the pixie said. “Sorry.”
“Thanks for the ladder, though,” Ruda added. “That was some quick thinking.”
“Thanks!” Fross replied with more of her usual pep. “It’s also pretty telling that none of those things followed us. I mean, the pixies can fly, obviously, and that tweedy looking guy who was yelling at you can probably climb it. They’re not trying, though.” She buzzed back over to peer over the ladder. “…oh. Actually, it’s all gone.”
Ruda frowned, turning to look. “Gone? Holy shit, you’re right.”
Below them was only the broad hall again, filled with mist. No wolfhound-sized pixies or rows of busily scribbling accountants to be seen, just lazily drifting fog, and occasional glimpses of the stone floor beneath it.
“So…” Fross said slowly. “…we’re above the effect, then. Look, the mist doesn’t reach up here. I bet it’s related to the, uh…visions, or whatever that was.”
Ruda groaned. “Is there any chance that this isn’t the Crawl?”
“Not much of one. I mean, I don’t detect any magic here. Any kind of magic, I mean. I can sense arcane and fae energies directly, which means I can pick up the presence of other schools sort of by deduction, and there’s nothing. Since those obviously aren’t physically normal effects, the most logical explanation is it’s an ambient effect of the genius loci.”
“Fucking great,” Ruda said, scowling. “And we just weaseled out of it. Given what the Crawl thinks about cheating, I guess we can expect the fucking ceiling to fall on us any second.”
“Well, I don’t… Um, nevermind.”
“No, finish the thought.”
“It’s…just speculation. Probably not helpful.”
“Fross, you’re one of the smartest people I know,” said Ruda. “You’re also by a wide margin the leading expert on dungeons in our social circle. I’d rather have your speculation than my own considered opinion, as in my considered opinion I’ve got no fucking clue about anyshit going on here.”
“Ah…heh, thanks. Well, I mean… This is here, right? I mean, it’s up here.”
“Uh, yeah.” Ruda looked around at the platform. It was broad, flat, and as featureless as the hall below had been before the apparitions had appeared to harass them. Lacking mist, though, they could actually see the ceiling, which was equally plain and uninteresting, just out of reach above. “It is indeed up here.”
“Well… I’ve been thinking about the Crawl and its apparent rules about cheating. You know how Melaxyna said it had taken her a long time to build up a relationship with the Crawl so it allowed her to have Level 2 separate from the rest of the Descent, and rent their portal to adventurers? And how the demons refused to let us use it to skip levels?”
Ruda nodded. “Mm hm, go on.”
“Well, the portal is pretty obviously cheating. But it’s obviously allowed. Because by contrast, there’s stuff that’s not allowed, that brought punishment. The demons are toeing the line pretty closely, but there is a line for them to toe and they were able to figure out where it is. I think… The Crawl does allow cheating…but only where it wants to.”
“So…you’re saying that we’re safe using approved shortcuts?”
“Like I said, I’m just speculating!” Fross clarified hastily, buzzing around in a circle. “But yeah, that’s the theory I’ve been developing. And this fits with it! Here’s this…whatever this is. Test, or trap, something. And here’s this platform up above it, which most people wouldn’t be able to get to easily but it’s possible. Unless something really bad happens to us in the next couple minutes, I figure this must be allowed.”
“If your theory is right,” Ruda mused, looking around, “the fact that it even is here pretty strongly suggests it’s allowed.”
“Exactly!” Fross chimed in growing excitement, bobbing up and down. “So…we’re not cheating, we’re using the provided means to…solve the puzzle. It makes sense! I mean, the Crawl is supposed to be friendly with Tellwyrn, and she encourages lateral thinking while also being really pushy and excessively direct, y’know?”
“Beautiful,” Ruda growled. “Why doesn’t she fuck off down here and leave us all alone, then? I bet they’d be very happy together. Well, anyway, no sense just sitting up here picking our noses. Let’s go see what else is up here.”
“I don’t think anything’s up here,” Fross said, drifting higher to get a better view. “But, um, off in the other direction from our hall is another gap. It also has mist.”
Ruda perked up visibly. “Finally, some good news! I bet some of the others are in there.”
“You think?” Fross asked, buzzing along after her as Ruda set out in the indicated direction.
“Well, we were split up, right? They’ve gotta be somewhere. Maybe it sent us all to random places, but… I’ve got a feeling if we’re being tested or something, we’re all being tested. It makes the most sense for the others to have been dumped in a similar place. And since Vadrieny’s the only other one who can fly, they’ll probably need our help to get out of the fear soup.”
“Hm, so…we’re in pairs?”
“Maybe. Then again, you and I have been functioning as a unit most of the time in the Descent, per Triss’s strategies. If the Crawl caught onto that, it might have sent everybody off separately. We won’t know until we start finding them.”
The chasm was barely a minute’s brisk walk away, and they could tell it was occupied by the lack of mist within. Faint tendrils swirled around its edges, but as they drew closer, it became clear that most of the central portion was empty. Empty, anyway, of mist.
The soft clatter of silver on porcelain and murmur of polite conversation rose from the scene below. A long table stretched down the center of the wide hall, bedecked with elegantly arranged dishes and centerpieces. Well-dressed people lined it, eating and conversing with graciously understated good cheer.
“Holy fuck, it’s a dinner party,” Ruda breathed.
“Um…” Fross drifted lower, almost coming to rest on the lip of stone overlooking the hall. “Maybe we should revise our theory? I mean, who’s afraid of dinner parties?”
Ruda pointed. “Looks like Teal is.”
“Oh…oh, wow,” Fross whispered, staring down at their classmate where she slumped between two gentlemen in tuxedos, staring emptily down at her plate. Teal’s hair was longer than they’d ever seen it, elaborately styled around her head; she wore a necklace of glittering diamonds with huge earrings to match, and a low-cut green gown of clearly expensive make. “She’s so pretty. But…she looks so sad.”
“Fross, that expression isn’t sad,” Ruda said grimly. “I would describe that as ‘critically depressed.’ We’ve gotta get her out of there. If we’re even close to right about what this place is doing…”
“…then it’s basically individually customized torture,” Gabriel snarled. “I hate this fucking place.”
“Save your energy,” Trissiny advised, still keeping a careful watch on their surroundings as they proceeded forward. “Getting mad at the Crawl won’t do anything useful. It might even provoke it to double down on us. Let’s focus on finding the others and getting out of here.”
“I hope you’ve got a better idea about that than I have,” he growled. “I know you popped out of one of these side doors, but every time I’ve tried one it just opened onto a brick wall. That leaves us with nothing to do but go forward.”
“The opening that I found was pretty obvious,” she said. “Maybe another will appear. You’re right, there’s not much for it but to keep looking.”
“Monster!” a voice shouted, accompanied by pounding footsteps. A shabbily-dressed man came pelting up out of the mist, carrying a pitchfork, which he leveled at Gabriel. “Hellblood! Run him through!”
Gabe turned and fired his wand into the ground just in front of the would-be attacker’s feet, forcing him to skid to a stop.
“I am in no mood,” he said firmly. Without another word, the man dropped his pitchfork and scrambled off into the fog. The second he was lost to view, the sound of his feet also vanished.
“You realize firing wands at people in the real world will only make it worse?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, “and in the real world, Madeleine doesn’t go away when you walk away from her. This whole damn place is pretty much a cruel joke.”
Trissiny frowned. “This…if we’re right… These are things you’re afraid of?”
He shrugged irritably. “What of it?”
“It’s just…” She shook her head. “I think I’m figuring out a pattern. What it hit me with was…sort of faint and disorganized. Just the one serious vision at the very beginning, of the Abbess of Viridill and senior Legionnaires condemning me for failing Avei. And I knew better than to take that at face value, because… Well, the thing is, that was something that had been weighing heavily on me, but I’d figured it out and dealt with it. Learned to let it go. Once I turned my back on it here, it didn’t come back.”
Gabriel grunted. “So you’re not afraid of anything? Typical.”
Trissiny actually laughed softly. “Courage is a measure of how well you function while afraid. It can be learned and taught. Pretty much any military does so. Oh, I’m afraid of things. All the usual stuff, I guess. Plague, earthquakes…bears. Public speaking.” She shook her head. “I think… This seems to be hitting us with significant, personal fears. I addressed mine and moved past it, and…it let me. But this.” She gestured around them with her sword. “You’re worried about things like this all the time?”
“I kind of have to be,” he said with a sigh.
“But…your father being killed,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Mobs after you… It would drive me crazy. You never seem…stressed about it.”
Gabriel grinned bitterly. “Well…what good would that do? You’d be amazed what you can learn to live with when you don’t really have an option.”
Trissiny just stared at him in silence as they walked. He kept his eyes stubbornly forward, not meeting her gaze.
They came to a simultaneous halt when one of the house doors just ahead of them abruptly swung open, its hinges ominously silent. Both of them stared at it suspiciously for a long moment, then turned to look inquiringly at each other.
“Well,” he said at last, “there’s your opening. Funny how reassuring I don’t find it, now that it’s here.”
“That’s about how I felt about the last one, but it led me to you. I don’t know, though,” she added, frowning. “It’s on the wrong side.”
“There’s a right side?”
“Well…this is on the same side of the hall I came out of, right?”
“And, they seemed to be running more or less parallel. If that’s the case…this’ll just lead us back to the hall I was in.”
“You mean, the one with the unnerving whispers?”
“Welp.” He brushed past her, heading for the door. “We’ve pretty thoroughly explored the hidden tortures of my psyche, I think. Let’s give yours a try for a while.”
“I…guess…that’s fair,” she said reluctantly, following.
Gabriel turned to grin at her at the short steps leading up. “Come on, Triss, it’s us. You are a professional kicker of asses and I’m practically indestructible. We’ll be fine.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re eager to get out of your personal hell,” she accused, but couldn’t hold back a slight smile as she did.
“You bet your sweet…uh…nevermind. Let’s pretend I phrased that differently.”
“I do that quite a lot.”
He rolled his eyes and stepped through the door.
“Ugh…why am I on the…oh, shit, not again,” Gabriel groaned. He started to rise from his hands and knees, then staggered and slumped back to a kneeling position, the blood rushing from his head. “Shit. Bad door. Bad door. This is just like the bullshit that dumped us here in the first place. Please tell me you’re still here?”
“I’m here,” she grunted. “Ugh…crap, that’s disorienting. Okay, new rule: you don’t get to pick the damn doors!”
He blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry…what did you say?”
“No complaining,” Trissiny ordered, accompanied by a rustle of fabric and the soft scuffing of boots on stone as she rose to her feet. “I don’t care whose fault it wasn’t, I’m blaming you. Woman’s prerogative.”
“What?” He jerked up, staring at her. It made him dizzy again, but not badly this time, and anyway the sensation perfectly suited what he was seeing.
She was straightening the lapels of her tan leather duster, a coat which had clearly been tailored to her figure. Used as he was to seeing Trissiny in armor, or the loose, practical garments she favored when out of it, he hadn’t actually realized that she had a figure, but…there it was. Beneath it she wore a white silk shirt unlaced halfway down her chest and Punaji-style baggy pants tucked into battered leather boots. She had no sword, shield, or any weapons he could see.
“Uh,” he said intelligently.
“No, don’t mind me, you catch up on your rest,” Trissiny told him with a grin. Her expression sobered as she turned to study their surroundings. “Well…I can’t say this is promising. This looks just like the one I was in, by which I mean fuckin’ empty. Still, you’ll probably be glad to be out of that other one anyway. It was another of those weird portals, obviously, not just a door. Think maybe we’ll find one of the others?”
He got slowly to his feet, staring at her. “Uh, Trissiny?”
She was right in front of him with one long stride; a stiletto shot out of her coat sleeve and into her hand with one deft flick of her wrist, the tip ending up inches from his eye. She stared coldly at him from far too close. “What have I told you, Arquin?”
“I…” He gulped. “I honestly have no idea.”
“Nobody but my mother calls me that,” she said flatly.
“I, um…something’s wrong here.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“Something is very wrong here,” he clarified. “I think…that door messed you up. Or messed me up. Something. You are, uh…not how I remember.”
She studied him closely for a long moment, then finally lowered the knife, sliding it smoothly back into her sleeve. He found himself letting out an unintended sigh of relief as she stepped back. “How so?”
“Well, you uh… You’re dressed differently. Your hair’s longer. And I’ve never heard you curse before.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious?”
“I don’t even know anymore,” he said honestly.
She frowned, tilting her head. “Well… I don’t know what to do about that. You look pretty much the same. Dumb and adorably awkward.”
“I’m…you think…adorable?” he squeaked.
A smile flickered at the edges of her lips. “Uh uh, boy, don’t start. That was one time, and I have since sworn off tequila. If you’re feeling the urge, take it up with Juniper when we find them.”
“I think I need to sit down,” he said weakly.
“No, you need to keep going,” she said, her expression sobering. “We do, rather. Nothing’s getting accomplished while we dick around here. I don’t like this place any more than you do, but given the options, I’d rather be doing something than just settling in to wait. Even if the something is being herded like rats in a maze.”
“Okay, look,” he said, taking a step back from her. “This is seriously messed up. You’re not my Tr—um, you are not the person I know. I dunno who you are, but I think I’m just gonna go back through…” He turned around, finding himself staring at a blank wall. “Oh. It’s gone. Well, of course it’s fucking gone. What did I expect?”
“Couldn’t answer that,” she said, amused. “Look, Gabe, the whole point of this place is obviously to mess with our heads. I don’t know what’s happening, or whether it’s happening to you or me. Frankly, I’m assuming it’s you who’s getting the whammy, because like I said, I’m not noticing anything different here. But…what are you gonna do? Hunker down and hope for rescue?”
“There’s nowhere to go but forward,” she pressed on, giving him a lopsided smile. It was surprisingly cute. That was a word he would never have thought to associate with Trissiny before. “Whatever is happening, two heads are better than one, right?”
“That’s the spirit,” she said sardonically. “Seriously, come on. We’ve gotta move; we can sort this out on the way. Triss Locke doesn’t abandon friends, no matter how apparently amnesiac they are. C’mon, Gabe: left foot, right foot, repeat as needed.”
Grinning, she began stepping backward down the corridor, beckoning him to follow as if coaching a toddler to take its first steps.
He sighed heavily, straightened his own coat, and proceeded after her. She was right; it wasn’t like he had a better idea.