6 – 25

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“Good morning,” Shaeine said, approaching. “Approximately, perhaps.”

Toby gave her a smile, glancing around the chamber. The group had huddled together near its center, around the remains of their fire, which had burned down to a small patch of slowly shifting orange light. Fross was making a gradual circuit of the perimeter, likely out of boredom, unless she was investigating the Crawl’s inherent magic. She’d seemed relieved for the opportunity to move about when Toby had come to take her post at the front, watching the door to the complex.

“I’m a little charged up,” he admitted. “I gave up on getting back to sleep after lying awake for an hour or so.”

The priestess glided over to stand beside him, glancing at the door before turning to regard him seriously. “You are troubled.”

Toby hesitated, then shook his head. “It’s…I’ll get over it. I’m just…wondering, suddenly, how many murderers there are in my social circle. It’s a little disconcerting, being in a position where I need to wonder that.”

She gave him the ghost of a smile. “Since you seemed quite supportive of Juniper, may I assume this is about Trissiny and Gabriel?”

He sighed. “I would rather drop it. It’s really not fair of me to be dragging all this up. I mean, it was months ago, they’re obviously over it, so what’s the point? It’s just… Well, it’s a new revelation to me. Kind of a heck of a thing to wrap my head around. Especially,” he added somewhat bitterly, “since nobody told me the truth about what happened.”

They were silent for a moment, watching the empty doorway side by side.

“Clerics of Themynra serve a judicial role in Narisian society,” she said at last. “I am years yet from being authorized to render judgment in an actual case, but my training has included the necessary skills, or at least the basics thereof. As someone thus trained, and who witnessed the event in question, perhaps I can offer you some clarity on the matter? If you wish it.”

He nodded, slowly. “Actually… I think that would help. I respect your judgment more than almost anyone’s, Shaeine.”

She smiled more broadly for a moment, then her expression grew serious again. “I don’t know the approach taken by Imperial law or Avei’s disciples, but in my culture we analyze every identifiable factor influencing a case before rendering judgment, which includes the education and known predispositions of those involved. To take the fight in question as an example…if this had occurred in Tar’naris, how the investigation would proceed might depend greatly on which House the accused hailed from. Had a member of my own House acted as Trissiny did, she would likely be held summarily culpable, as it would be assumed that a diplomat would know better than to start a fight. Had it been someone from House An’sadarr, which forms the backbone of the Queen’s military, however, matters would become more complicated. A trained warrior, confronted by a hostile demonblood, might understandably resort to force.”

“So…ignorance is an excuse?” he said skeptically.

“No. It is, however, sometimes an explanation.” Shaeine glanced back at the others; none of their forms were stirring, and Fross’s silver light was poking through one of the distant wings of the chamber which had formed an infinite hall when it was active. “I see no doubt that Trissiny instigated violence without justification. In determining culpability, though, it’s necessary to consider what she did not understand, and what Gabriel did.”

“What he understood?” Toby frowned.

“Recall that at the time, they hardly knew each other. All Trissiny knew about Gabriel was that he was a demonblood, something of a loudmouth and had a penchant for slightly sexist humor. Given that and her upbringing, her actions seem a bit more logical. Not justifiable, in my opinion, but also not totally unreasonable. Especially considering that she had previously not instigated a conflict with him, despite the surprise of learning his condition in a manner that was traumatic for them both.”

“Hm,” he said noncommittally.

“Gabriel, on the other hand, has grown up as a half-demon in Tiraan society, and has every reason to keep his head down and refrain from causing trouble. He has ample practice at this, and was very well aware of the likely consequences of doing so. Yet, he very deliberately provoked Trissiny, showing a degree of hostility which, frankly, was wildly out of character for him. I had never seen such aggression from him before, nor have I since.” She half-turned to look up at him, her expression solemn. “I have wondered, since… Toby, you know Gabriel better than any of us. Has he ever given any indication, before, that he wished to die?”

Toby made no answer, but his face lengthened and his eyes grew wider as he considered the implications of the question.

“Verbally assaulting the Hand of Avei as he did had that as a very likely outcome,” Shaeine continued after a short pause. “Moreover, his comments in the situation itself indicated that he was quite aware of this.” She shook her head. “Ultimately, then, Trissiny’s offense was several orders of magnitude more severe: the use of force against a civilian who was not a physical threat. However, given her perspective, there are mitigating factors. Gabriel’s role is precisely opposite: his is guilty of nothing more serious than rudeness and causing a disturbance, but is almost entirely culpable for creating that conflict in the first place. A conflict which was needless and which he clearly knew was likely to result in harm to himself, and possibly to bystanders and property.”

She let the silence hang momentarily before continuing. “Ultimately… Had I been tasked with judging this case, at the time, I would have punished them both equally, and with far worse than washing dishes. And… As time has passed, I have come to appreciate Professor Tellwyrn’s solution. Mine would have been a tremendous mistake.”

Toby turned to face her, raising an eyebrow in surprise. Shaeine, for her part, turned her head to gaze back at their sleeping classmates.

“Over the last few months I have watched those two benefit from knowing each other, in ways I would never have anticipated. It’s a slow and subtle thing, and I can’t say what this is building toward, but I have come to believe it is best to leave them alone and let it happen.” She smiled faintly. “I wouldn’t repeat this to Trissiny, nor advocate it as a general practice… But in this one case, it seems to me that everyone is better off because justice was not done.”

Frowning, Toby stared into the empty space beyond the door. The faint reddish glow of the main cavern was visible, but the atmosphere was slightly hazy, more so than at the Grim Visage’s level, giving them no view to speak of. After a moment, he nodded slowly.

“That sounds a lot like what I’d concluded. Except in a lot more detail and with a lot more understanding. It all makes sense to me, though. Oh…I’m sorry,” he added, turning to face her. “I don’t mean to take credit for your insight or anything.”

“Not at all,” she replied with a smile. “I’m pleased I was able to offer you some clarity. Toby…” Shaeine tilted her head, studying him intently. “We seem to have a difference of opinion among the group concerning whether the Crawl is trying to torment or educate us here. In either case, however, I find myself unsurprised that it would show you images of your friends in conflict. Forgive me if I presume, but you do seem more concerned with the welfare of others than your own.”

He shrugged, but smiled faintly. “I’m comfortable with that assessment. A paladin’s life is sacrifice.”

“In Tar’naris, everyone’s life is sacrifice. Culturally, we see it as dangerous ostentation to grind oneself down in order to be of service to others. For the whole to function, individuals must understand their own needs, and see them met.” She laid a hand gently on his upper arm. “If you prefer to spend your energies caring for others, be sure to let others care for you as well. You will be no use to anyone if you burn yourself out.”

Toby looked down at the floor, then out at the cavern, then nodded again, finally meeting her gaze. “Thank you.”

Shaeine smiled back, letting her hand fall. While the first sounds of the others stirring began to grow behind them at the campsite, they stood in companionable silence, keeping watch.

“Okay,” said Ruda, straightening the lapels of her coat. “Has anyone taken the time to look outside?”

“I have!” Fross chirped.

“Fantastic. Got any working theories concerning just where the fuck we are?”

“Well… I’m pretty sure it’s far below the place where we entered the central cavern. I mean, it’s not likely there was much above that, you know? And it’s different enough I didn’t recognize any landmarks. It’s the same cavern, all slopey with some paths along the walls and a few stretching over the middle.”

“Great,” Gabriel sighed. “So basically, we’re lost as hell.”

“We’re not lost!” Fross protested. “We just have to go up!”

“That will depend upon finding viable paths,” said Shaeine.

“We have an advantage there, in that two of our party can fly,” Trissiny pointed out. “If Fross and Vadrieny scout ahead, like they did in the mazes in the Descent, we can hopefully avoid getting any more lost than necessary.”

It hadn’t been the most comfortable night, but the students were relatively rested, at least in comparison to how they’d felt before making camp. Now, fed, packed away and ready to head out again, they were clustered in the wing of the complex which led to the exterior door.

Toby sighed and squared his shoulders. “All right, it’s not getting any easier while we stand here. Let’s go have a look.” He started forward, the others proceeding in his wake.

Until Gabriel abruptly halted, straightening up from his customary slouch. “Ambush?”

Everyone stopped, turning to stare at him.

“What’s an ambush?” Ruda asked.

“I just… Someone said ‘ambush.’”

“Uh, yeah,” she replied. “You.”

“No, I mean, before that. You guys didn’t hear anything?”

There was a round of exchanged glances and shaken heads.

“I did not hear the word until you said it,” Shaeine replied.

“Well, if Ears didn’t hear it, nobody spoke it,” said Ruda. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Arquin, but you have gone batshit insane. We may have to push you in the pit.”

“That course of action might be premature, Boobs,” said Shaeine.

Everyone turned to stare at her in shock.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said placidly. “I thought we were renaming each other based on prominent features. Or shall we instead agree not to do that?”

“All right, all right, point taken,” Ruda muttered.

“There are any number of explanations for disembodied voices,” said Trissiny. “In this wretched place, insanity on the part of the person hearing them isn’t even the most likely. Whatever madness the Crawl inflicts on us next, we can’t afford to hunker down and let it. Gabe, let us know if you hear any more whispers. That goes for everyone else, too. For now, I say we proceed assuming we might be ambushed, which is a good idea anyway. Agreed?”

After a round of assent, Trissiny nudged them back into formation, and was the first one out, wreathed in a low-intensity golden corona that clung close to her skin. She paused in the doorway, carefully studying the scene. It did, indeed, look very much like what they had previously seen of the slanting main cavern, right down to the reddish glow from far below. Only the finer details were different. Stone paths hugged the walls in several places, with openings dotting them, and a few were suspended improbably over the vast empty space. There was no great sculpted face, obviously, though there was a structure of some kind built against on the forty-five degree slope to the right of their door, rather like a castle in miniature.

“No sign of movement,” she reported, “except for several large avians a good distance above us. I don’t think they see us down here, or at least aren’t interested.”

“Lemme see!” Fross chimed, zipping out to hover next to Trissiny’s shoulder. “Oh…oh, wow. Those are really rare. I thought they were supposed to be extinct! They’re pretty dangerous, but basically blind; they won’t come at us unless we get close enough to attract their attention. Let’s not do that, it would be a shame to kill them.”

“What exactly is them?” Juniper asked, craning her neck to peer through the gap.

“Greater horned chiropteroid raptors! They hunt in small packs of four or five, with very good coordination in attacks, almost like a military team.”

“You don’t mean…” Teal trailed off.

“Yes! Dire goddamn bats!”

“I hate this place,” Trissiny muttered.

A sudden whoop startled them; Trissiny raised her shield instinctively and Fross darted around behind her head.

Directly ahead, two paths converged in a fairly sizable floating island, ringed by low walls—much more safety-conscious than those they had seen above. One of the paths leading to it branched off from the ledge onto which their door opened, some distance to the left. There was another, smaller island above this one and slightly off-center. Three tiny figures had suddenly plunged off the edge of this and onto the lower island with a unified battlecry, vanishing below the level of the wall.

The sounds of a scuffle ensued, accompanied by curses in two languages. A single spell was fired, flying wildly into the air where it splashed against the cavern wall.

In the next moment, several figures emerged from concealment, where they had been crouching out of sight. There were three of them, all drow, and they had straightened up only to run. They pelted off down the path, two women leading, one armored, one in robes; behind them came a man in rather ragged pants and shirt, trying to sprint while crouched with his head tucked under his arms. He yelped as he was pelted from behind by pebbles.

“Yeah, you better run!” shouted a voice from the island. In moments, the drow had skittered away through a tunnel opening and were lost to sight.

“Those are the same three who have been hanging around the Grim Visage,” Shaeine noted.

“You’re sure?” Ruda asked, frowning.

“Yes. You will have to trust my word on it, I’m afraid. I know how we all look the same to you.”

“You’re in rare form today,” the pirate commented.

“Yoo hoo!” A small figure had clambered up onto the wall, followed by two others. “Hey, kids, glad to see you’re all okay!”

“Hey, look,” said Gabriel, peering over Trissiny’s shoulder now that she’d let her energy shield drop. “We found gnomes.”

“Gnomes found us,” Toby corrected. “Triss, can we move this forward a bit? I think that ambush situation was just taken care of…”

“Hm,” she said skeptically, but stepped out onto the ledge.

“There ye go!” cried the gnome in the center, now sitting down on the wall with his legs dangling over the abyss. “Well, c’mon out, let’s not be all day about it. Places to go, people to see! I’m Woodsworth, and with me are me companions, Sassafrass and Steinway.”

“Charmed!” called the female in the group, grinning rakishly and resting the haft of her battleaxe over her shoulder. It was a human-sized one, the handle nearly as long as she was tall.

“All right, there?” added the last fellow, apparently Steinway, waggling his fingers.

“Do we…know you?” Trissiny asked.

“Not to the extent of havin’ been formally introduced,” Woodsworth replied. “Though we have shared quarters recently! The Grim Visage is a goodly distance above, but there’s ways to get around the Crawl expeditiously if you’re on its good side. This is all very adventurous, by th’way, but might we ‘ave this conversation from a closer distance an’ a lower volume?”

“Um,” she said carefully. “With all respect, and with thanks for the apparent help…we’ve had a rough time lately and aren’t in the most trusting mood.”

“Well, sure,” said Sassafrass. “It’s not like we can make you do anything, nor would if we could. But, if you’re not absolutely married to the idea of wanderin’ around down here with no clue where yer goin’, maybe we can ‘elp?”

“There’s someone you ought to talk to, see?” Woodsworth added. “Nice fella of your acquaintance who sent us down ‘ere to ‘help out when we caught wind those three were after ye.”

“Not to sound paranoid,” Gabriel said, “but how can we be sure they meant us harm?”

“Are you serious?” Teal demanded.

“They were lying in wait, concealed from view, at a chokepoint where we’d be strung out along an unrailed path over the chasm before we knew they were there, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “That is not friendly behavior. What do the rest of you think?”

“I hate to default to racial stereotypes,” said Toby, “but I’ve never heard of gnomes robbing or ambushing anyone.”

“What the hell, he’s got a point,” Ruda added. “We’ve got no fuckin’ clue where we are or how to get where we want to be. Short help’s better than no help.”

“Let’s take it easy with the s-word while we’re in their company,” Teal suggested.

“Who did you want us to meet?” Trissiny asked, turning back to the gnomes and raising her voice.

“Well, we could stand here shoutin’ about it or we can just show you,” Woodsworth called back, grinning. “See that there little castle along the slope? The ledge you’re on’ll take ye there. Follow it till you reach the tunnel, go in that, and it’ll bring ye back out on another ledge that leads right t’the door. Meet you there!”

With that, the three gnomes hopped down behind the wall. Moments later they reappeared, trundling rapidly along the path opposite the one the drow had taken, which led them toward the indicated structure along a route parallel to the one Woodsworth had pointed out to them.

“Well,” said Teal after a moment in which nobody moved, “my dad has a saying for uncertain situations like this.”

“Oh?” Toby asked.

The bard grinned at him. “Eh, what the hell.”

The ledges and tunnel led exactly where their new acquaintances said they did, and in just a few minutes the students were assembling on the narrow balcony outside the tiny castle. It was actually little more than a round tower, built into the slope of the cavern, with a crenelated wall ringing its top and arrow slits not far below that. There was no door, only an archway leading to the interior, through which the gnomes had passed just before they arrived.

Inside, the room was rather cozy, mostly open all the way to the top, though stone steps circled around the entire interior of the tower, terminating in a trapdoor which presumably led to the roof. A fireplace was built into one wall, currently dark and cold, though an iron pot was suspended above it. Along the walls were various items of furniture: trunks bookshelves, chairs and a vertical rack of hammocks.

The gnomes had already assembled. Woodsworth and Sassafrass sat in chairs a bit too tall for them around a small round table and were laying out a card game; Steinway was piling what looked like coal in the fireplace. He looked up at the students when they entered, grinning.

“There y’are! Go on back, he’s expecting you.” With that and a nod at the wall opposite the entrance, he went back to shoveling.

A short flight of steps led to another doorway, beyond which was relative darkness. The students paused, studying their new environs carefully.

“Well, go on,” said Sassafrass. “It’s not like we’ve any appointments, but there’s no sense in keeping the man waiting.”

“Eh, what the hell. Remember?” Ruda said, grinning, and nudged Trissiny in the back. The paladin sighed, but stepped forward, her sword and shield in hand.

They crossed the chamber, climbed the steps and passed single-file through the doorway, Fross accompanying Trissiny in the front. Her light was welcome, as this led to a short tunnel that lacked light and appeared to be natural, to judge by its uneven walls. After a couple of twists, it opened out into a natural cavern completely unlike anything they had yet seen in the Crawl.

Not much larger than Tellwyrn’s classroom back at the University, it was much longer than wide, narrowing in the center. Ledges of stone lined the walls, with a softly gurgling river running down the middle of the space; just past the narrow point, rough-cut steps led to a higher level, where a small waterfall trickled down. Gaps in the ceiling admitted streams of water and clean white light from some unknown source. There were several giant mushrooms growing in clumps along the walls, as well as draperies of hanging lichen and softly glowing crystals embedded in the stone here and there. It was a strikingly peaceful place, cool and lovely, if slightly damp. And it was occupied

“Ah, there you are!” said Shamlin, bounding lightly down from the upper level and grinning at them. “About time; if I hadn’t been following your progress thus far I’d have begun to worry. But surely the eight of you had nothing to fear from the Apparitorium.”

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Ruda demanded.

“Well, that’s the thing,” he said, smiling rather smugly. “At issue, I think, is what you are doing here. Got a little lost, did we?”

“The demons on Level 2 seem to have misdirected us,” Trissiny said grimly.

“Ah, ah.” He held up an admonishing finger. “Leaping to conclusions, there, aren’t we? In fact, Melaxyna is going to be furious when she finds out someone got lost taking her portal. I expect she’s already starting to worry; the longer a student group remains absent after passing through it, the more likely she’ll have to deal with a very irate Professor Tellwyrn, which is enough to give anyone gray hairs. No, I wouldn’t describe the demons as trustworthy, broadly speaking, but they know which side their bread is buttered on. Nobody down here wants to pick a fight with the Unseen University.”

“Waaaaaiiit a second,” Fross said. “You called it…”

“That I did.” Shamlin’s smile widened. “Come on, you never wondered what a human is doing down here? The geas on the campus is serious business indeed. Tellwyrn does not suffer outsiders to mess around on her property, but University initiates sneaking into the Crawl for various purposes…why, that’s downright traditional. The Grim Visage and Level 2 are both popular spots for hosting off-campus parties.”

“Huh,” said Teal, sounding utterly bemused.

“Then what are you doing down here?” Toby asked.

“Making gold hand over fist,” Shamlin said with a grin. “It’s not exactly a luxurious spot to set up work, but there’s no shortage of opportunity here. In fact, I’m just about ready to cash in and return to the land of the living, but there are just a few things I need to square away first. There are the trio out there, for one thing.”

“Are they University alums, too?” Gabe asked.

“No, actually, they didn’t come from up top. That’s a Venomfont delving crew that managed to get as lost as anyone has ever been.”

“Venomfont?” Trissiny frowned. “That’s clear up in the Wyrnrange, not far from the Spine. There’s no way it’s physically connected to the Crawl.”

“And there we come to it,” Shamlin said, his expression abruptly growing more serious. “A number of things have gone screwy down here of late, most of them traceable to one or the other resident Vanislaad messing around with the Crawl.”

“I knew it,” Trissiny muttered.

“The Crawl, as I hope you’ve figured out by now, is very much a living thing,” Shamlin continued, seating himself on the steps, heedless of the damp. He stretched out his long legs and lounged backward, his casual posture contrasting with his solemn tone and expression. “It has its rules, but it’s also amenable to making exceptions. It relates to people on a very individual level—at least, those who either take the time and trouble to cultivate relationships with it, or somehow manage to piss it off. In my case, that means this little grotto, which I’m allowed exclusive use of while I stay down here. Nobody gets to visit without my approval. That, plus a few tricks I’ve acquired that enable me to move about the Crawl rapidly, are the result of a long campaign of…”

“Shmoozing?” Ruda suggested.

“I was going to say friendship,” he said with a grimace. “But…you’re not entirely wrong. There are a number of people you’ve encountered who have earned favor with the Crawl, and thus begun to wield a disproportionate influence. There’s Professor Tellwyrn, first and foremost; this place loves her. I have no idea how she arranged that. Most people she meets can’t wait for her to leave.”

“We have noticed,” Gabriel said dryly.

“Darling Melaxyna, as you also know, has accrued enough favor to make Level 2 her own little domain, as has Rowe with the Grim Visage. That last detail is the source of some of the problems I’ve seen developing recently. Thanks to his screwing around, there are lots more places connected to the Visage than there ought to be, which is how the trio came to be stranded here. Did I not know better, I’d suspect he was trying to arrange an exit from the Crawl that didn’t involve going back through the topside door, and thus right under Tellwyrn’s nose. She would notice that, and after sticking those two down here, she’s not about to let them wander off. Of course, opening such a door is entirely out of the question…under normal circumstances.”

“Normal, how?” Toby asked.

Shamlin leaned his head back, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip for a moment. “I’m afraid you’ve been caught in the feud between Rowe and Mel. With both of them using their influence to bend the rules in their favor, and trying to do so against one another… Well, you stepping through that portal and ending up in the wrong place is just a case in point. Stuff isn’t working quite as it should.”

“And you want to fix this before you leave?” Juniper asked, speaking up for the first time. She looked hollow-eyed and exhausted, as she had since the day before.

“That,” Shamlin said, nodding. “And I have…other reasons. Suffice it to say, I’m the reason you are here.”

“You son of a bitch,” Ruda snarled, stomping toward him and pulling her rapier from its sheath.

In the next moment, Shamlin rolled nimbly to his feet and scurried back up the steps away from her, while Toby and Trissiny intercepted their furious classmate before she could reach him.

“Whoah, hang on!” he protested, backing further away and raising both his hands. “Let me explain! I didn’t arrange to have you sent to the wrong place from the portal. I don’t want Tellwyrn mad at me, either, which is the whole point. Once I caught wind of the fact you were going to be misdirected… Well, suffice it to say, the whole idea behind that was to get you so good and lost that you’d never be found again. I stepped in and got you sent to the Apparitorium instead. Just took a little persuasive speaking, really; the Crawl is interested in testing and teaching you, because that’s what Tellwyrn asked of it. That place is even better set up for that than the Descent. Albeit in somewhat different ways.”

“Fucking bullshit,” Ruda spat. “That place was a load of—”

“Will you please just let the man talk?” Toby interrupted in exasperation. “I for one would like to find out what’s going on around here!”

“What’s going on,” Shamlin said quickly, “is that between Melaxyna’s greasing your wheels and your own talents—by which I mostly mean firepower—you kids have been looking a lot like you were going to get all the way to Level 100 and retrieve the prize. And that…well, that would throw off certain plans in a way that the creators of those plans just couldn’t have. So, knowing that…” He folded his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, grinning broadly. “…how would you like to kick those plans right straight to hell?”

There was a moment’s pause while the students looked around at each other.

“Go on,” Trissiny said finally.

“There are limits to how much I can help you,” said Shamlin. “You’re still student adventurers and the Crawl still has its mandate. But I can set you in the right direction. For example, have you discovered how the Crawl feels about cheating?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Gabe replied, making a face.

“We were actually talking about that not long ago,” said Fross. “Me and Ruda, I mean. It’s almost like…it doesn’t mind cheating, if you cheat in the right way.”

Gabriel blinked. “Huh?”

“She’s got the right of it,” said Shamlin, nodding approvingly. “The Crawl doesn’t like being contradicted, but it also approves of lateral thinking. You tend to bring trouble down on your heads if you break its rules, but there are provided shortcuts, the use of which it fully accepts…if you can find them. The finding is the challenge. And I, as your friendly neighborhood dungeon cartographer, can set you up with the ultimate prize: a way to skip directly to the hundredth level of the Descent.”

“And…do you offer that to every student group that comes down here?” Juniper asked skeptically.

“Oh, gods, no,” he said fervently. “Most student groups would get chewed up if I just dropped them into that. Plus, there’s the important fact that I don’t actually have it.”

“The more this clown talks, the more convinced I become that he’s wasting our time,” Ruda snorted.

“Now, hear me out,” Shamlin said soothingly. “I don’t have the means to skip, but I can provide you with it. Or rather, I can tell you how to provide yourselves. There’s a shrine of the Naga Queen which contains what you seek. You already have the key; you just need to find the lock, and you’ll have your reward.”

“Okay, two questions,” said Gabriel. “First, what the hell is the Naga Queen?”

“Are you serious?” Fross exclaimed. “She’s the main boss of the Crawl, down on the lowest level of the whole shebang! The oldest and possibly most powerful dungeon boss in existence. Adventurers went delving in here for centuries before the University came along, and the few that even reached her after fighting through the naga court got… Well, you don’t mess with the Naga Queen, is all. The last guy who made a really serious effort got beaten to death with his own face!”

“That account may be apocryphal,” said Teal, repressing a smile.

“Okay, that’s plenty ominous,” said Gabe with a sigh. “Second question, we’ve already got the what now? Did somebody pick up a key?”

“Well, there’s a reason I had you brought to the Apparitorium,” Shamlin said smugly. “It’s the prize for passing the trails there.”

“What, this?” Gabriel pulled the black sword free and held it up.

Shamlin frowned. “What? No, it’s the snake flute. Please tell me you obtained the snake flute. What the hell is that?”

“I have the flute,” Teal reported, pulling it out of the inner coat pocket where she’d stashed the instrument.

“Oh, good,” said Shamlin, relaxing slightly, then turned back to Gabriel. “Are you saying you got that thing too?”

“It was in the box with the flute. What, that’s not supposed to happen?”

“Hm. Mind if I take a look at that?”

Gabriel passed the sword over to him; Shamlin examined it carefully, pulling it partly free of the scabbard to study the blade. “Well…this thing is magical as hell, but I can’t tell what any of these charms do. Radivass could, maybe. Seriously, though, Ariel? That’s like naming a sword Jane.”

“Shaeine thinks that’s the name of its original owner,” Gabe suggested.

Shamlin shook his head. “Doubtful. This weapon is more magic than steel. People who create things like this don’t call them… Well, we’re just speculating, and anyway this is all getting us off topic.” He carefully handed the sword back to Gabriel. “Be careful with that, at least until you’ve had it studied by an expert. Concerning the actual point, you’ve got the flute, I can provide the directions, and from there you can obtain your shortcut. Interested?”

“What will we find,” Trissiny asked slowly, “if we skip to Level 100? After the impediments we’ve already suffered, I can only expect some further disaster.”

“Disaster might be putting it a bit over-dramatically,” Shamlin said with a grin. “But you’re not completely wrong. You won’t be stepping into what Tellwyrn sent you here to face.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “And you can’t tell us what it is?”

“I could,” he said, shrugging. “It would cause you more problems from the Crawl in the long run, though, and to be frank I’m not a hundred percent certain what form your final challenge will take. If you do take me up on the offer, though, I can promise you this much.” He smiled at them again, a self-satisfied expression that was more than half smirk. “School is no longer in session, kids. You’re now dealing with real powers who have real-world goals and concerns. If you make it to Level 100, be prepared for the confrontation of your lives.”

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39 thoughts on “6 – 25

  1. Well, I’ve had a hell of a day.

    Just got my car back on Saturday from the fellow who’s been working on it. There was a good bit more wrong than the blown gasket, which is why that took several months. He’s a family friend, not a professional mechanic, hence me being able to have all that work done for the few hundred it cost in parts rather than the few thousand it should have cost in labor. Thanks to that, I was able to have it done with the aid of readers; you guys were wonderful, chipping in to help me out, and it was enough to make the repairs. So! Got it back, returned the rental car I’ve been driving since Walmart borked my borrowed car…

    And today, the transmission died.

    I’ve had it for four days.

    Suffice it to say, this is now a dead car. Replacing the transmission would cost far more than the thing is worth; it’s a 1995 Mercury sedan with 215,000 miles, no heater, faulty wiring, rusted…you know what, it’s a rickety rattletrap, I’ll leave it at that.

    Problem is, I have a roughly one hour commute between my home in the boonies where there is no public transportation and my job in the city. No car, no income. I already make little enough that saving money is basically a non-option; no income means no food or shelter within a very few weeks.

    The news is not all bad! I have a coworker willing to sell me her dead car for what it would cost to have it scrapped. It just needs a new alternator and possibly a new battery (and may have a wasp nest in the door). It’s also a manual transmission, which I will have to re-learn how to drive in a hurry. The last time I did was over a decade ago and I never got good at it. But it would be a car; it would enable me to keep functioning and live to fight another day. Someday I hope to make a living from my writing, but I’m just not there yet.

    I figure to obtain the car, have it towed to a garage and get the alternator fixed…assuming there’s nothing else horribly wrong with it…then get it licensed, taxed, insured and everything, that’d be about $500, conservatively. Likely more, if that’s not just my native pessimism talking. That is money I very much don’t have, but is far less impossible to obtain than what it would cost to fix the transmission in my current rustbucket.

    And so, here I am again, having to beg. My Paypal donation button is up there on the sidebar of the site; if mobile viewers have trouble finding it (which I’ve been told happens on some devices), please let me know and I’ll provide a link. If you’re enjoying TGaB and would like to help keep its author afloat, I urgently need the assistance. Again. You guys have been fantastic in the past, with my last automotive disaster and my dental crisis before that. I hate having to beg, and I hate to impose or feel like a burden, but… This is a question of my continued subsistence, and I don’t really have anywhere else to turn.

    If you’re not in a position to pitch in financially, believe me, I fully understand! I’m not either. If you still want to help, though, you can always vote for TGaB on Topwebfiction.com, rate and/or review it at Webfictionguide.com, or add to its TVTropes page! Everything that advances the story helps me get more readers, which moves me a bit closer to my goal of one day writing for a living. And, one hopes, not having to keep coming to my readers with hat in hand.

    Regardless of anything else, I appreciate you all just for reading my little story. My readers are what make all this worthwhile; this has given me fulfillment and satisfaction like nothing else in my life, and I really believe I’d be lost without TGaB, and all of you. You rock; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Stay safe, everyone, and I’ll see you Friday. Hopefully with better news.

    EDIT: Further developments have occurred. Please scroll down to see another long-winded author comment about the situation!


      1. PayPal seems to be the easiest for most people to use; what other options would you suggest? I’d be interested in opening other avenues. While I’ve never personally had a problem with PayPal there have been people who’ve told me they don’t trust it.


  2. hey, just donated $50, sorry i cant pay more 😦 not exactly rich lol, but i love the Gods are Bastards and also Rowena’s Rescue, i hope your new car doesn’t crap out on you too quickly 🙂


  3. Typos:
    “sent us down ‘ere to ‘help out” – drop either the H or the apostrophe at the beginning of “help”
    “trunks bookshelves, chairs and a vertical rack of hammocks” – “trunks, bookshelves, chairs and a vertical rack of hammocks”
    “It’s the prize for passing the trails there.” – “trials”, presumably

    Shaeine’s “Gabe has a death wish” theory is pretty compelling, but if she’s trying to make Toby feel better, I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. He was worried about how many murderers were in his social circle, and this doesn’t make Triss not a murderer, it just also makes Gabe suicidal.
    I’m less convinced about the explanation for Triss’s behaviour. Real soldiers get lectured about purity of arms and so on; they should be less likely to draw a weapon in response to an insult than a civilian, not more. It’s possible the Sisters’ “all demons are enemies” doctrine led Triss to consider Gabe an enemy soldier to begin with on account of his blood, but in that case there’d be no reason to wait until she was provoked.
    As for the conversation with Tamlin: Schemes! I love schemes! Who wants to bet on whether he has an ulterior motive? 😛


    1. About Triss: she was still in Freshers’ Week at the time (as were they all). Hand of Avei, trained warrior, dogmatic, action-orientated, tactically-minded… all of that, yes. But, also away from a home environment for the first time and being bombarded by cultural and social situations that were only theory (at best) before then.

      She was a bit more of a stressed and frazzled young woman than usual, in short. 😉 Even well trained troops can mess up on the basics when placed in weird cultural environments with a social compass and experiences that’re not quite up to the job. 😐 In the plus-corner: nobody died, lessons were learned — Triss is unlikely to backslide that badly again, even if hammering at stubborn rigidity and the tendency to draw up battle formations before dialogue will be a reoccurring battle in her social life (see Tiraas).

      Gabe has major, major issues, too — beyond being an insecure, self-conscious, young demonblood. Toby, his father and he have, unfortunately, been tiptoeing around a lot of them for years and/or misidentifying the fallout. -_- It should be no wonder that he’ll occasionally lash out in a self-destructive way, even without a trigger like Madeline quietly waiting to be tripped… which, given his nature, would cause a crater. <_<


      1. That was my thought, too: that Triss acted as she did despite her military background, not because of it. But Shaeine here is saying that it’s the other way around.
        Then again, they’re not really as contradictory as they seem. Since she was distraught, she responded with violence; since she’s a paladin, her violence is lethal.


      2. Both Trissiny and Gabriel went from their normal environment where they had a lot of sympathy and support to a completely different one. Gabriel at least still had some support; Trissiny did not (I think of Avei as more “stern boss” than “parental support”, meaning more pressure than support). Both of them felt a lot of pressure. So both of them were more likely to act out early in the semester than any other time. And both went overboard, in different directions. Eh, done and over with, mostly.


      3. She’s not a modern military : apparently tiraas secular soldiers have used WMD on civilians a few century ago, exterminated an entire tribe of elves civilians included. I’m not sure that modern rule of war applies here.
        We could even argue that Trissiny was quite justified in trying to kill a demonblood : the pantheon has weaponized their blessing against them and she’s the armed hand of a goddess. A temple burning a half demon for existing isn’t illegal so I don’t see a paladin killing one as being a much bigger problem.
        We also see that Vidius during the story wasn’t still completly convinced that demon blood were worth considering.


    2. I don’t think Trissiny saw Gabriel as a civilian. She saw him as a sinister, malevolent being, as she’d been taught all demons are.


    1. Awesome as that would have been, I think that at this stage of their training Tellwyrn would curbstomp them. They’ve got a lot of firepower, but so does she, and she’s lived fifteen times longer than all of them put together. Definitely an idea for later, though.


  4. “Seriously, though, Ariel? That’s like naming a sword Jane.”

    I have a theory. Maybe this sword was the first Ariel, and it was so awesome a bunch of elven parents named their kids after it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Typos:

    “What exactly is them?”
    “What exactly are they?”

    battle cry (usually)

    battle axe (usually)

    me companions
    my companions (unless the gnome is speaking in colloquiallisms, which he does seem to be doing)

    Wyrmrange (maybe, I haven’t gone back and looked it up, but ‘wyrm’ is for dragon)

    head tucked under his arms
    (not wrong, but this made me think of Ichabod Crane; “arms raised to shield his head”, perhaps?)


    Toby’s angsting is slightly tedious for the reader, but it is in character. Nice to see it resolved.

    “In Tar’naris, everyone’s life is sacrifice. Culturally, we see it as dangerous ostentation to grind oneself down in order to be of service to others. For the whole to function, individuals must understand their own needs, and see them met.”
    Those actually sound like conflicting goals. Most of the cultures in our world that emphasize self-sacrifice and self-control tend to do so for the exact reason that they are in service to a higher principle, power, or person. So this commentary is confusing.

    Until Gabriel abruptly halted, straightening up from his customary slouch. “Ambush?”

    Hello, Ariel. Nice senses you have, for being a sword. More magic than steel indeed.

    “Yes! Dire goddamn bats!”
    OK, I admit I smiled.

    The explanation the party’s current problems as being part of a power struggle between people who can influence the Crawl makes some sense. Please kick demon bartender’s ass, or if he insists on sticking to the Grim Visage, where he is protected, mention his shit to Arachne and hope she kicks his ass.

    “That account may be apocryphal,” said Teal, repressing a smile.

    Amusing and somewhat ironic coming from the bard.

    “Seriously, though, Ariel? That’s like naming a sword Jane.”
    Ariel is going to have some serious words with everyone who trashes her name like that.


    1. Maybe Ariel could become Juniper’s companion, so she won’t be as alone anymore. It’s about time she used a weapon, too.


    2. You’re fucking everywhere man. Out of eight of the serials I’m following, I remember seeing you in at least five, maybe six. Perhaps all of them, if I just missed your comments.

      What serials do you read?


      1. Let’s see, sticking mostly to things that are being updated:

        Try to catch the newest posting:
        this one (always comment); Drew Hayes’s works; Wildbow’s works; Practical Guide to Evil (always comment)

        Catch up regularly:
        Twisted Cogs; tieshaunn’s works; oniwasabi’s works (when he was posting regularly; he’s essentially on hiatus now); Christopher Wright’s works (which means Curveball these days); LOTS of webcomics

        most of farmerbob1’s works and will get back to them; frankly most of the top 30-40 for Topwebfiction, but for them quality varies. Some just don’t grab me and some have what I consider to be actual problems – without naming anyone, some I just can’t read more than about a chapter or two because I don’t like the characters (there’s a rather ridiculous Marty Stu in there; separately, I hate main characters that refuse to think and/or make the same damn mistake again and again), how they present their worlds (some of the stuff reads like disconnected stories rather than an actual serial), how they build their worlds (powers that could obviously be used for other things but somehow aren’t), darkness-for-darkness’s sake (Wildbow’s stuff if good, some stories throw in nastiness for no obvious good reason), or various other reasons. I guess I am picky.

        For more traditionally published works, I recently tore through Peter Watts stuff – there’s a lot online, including some of his novels, but I was impressed enough that I bought the rest.

        Basically anything where I named the author or series in this post.


    3. I understood Shaeine’s comment about sacrifice and taking care of one’s self as saying that people have to sacrifice to support the community because life is hard and they couldn’t survive otherwise, and also, since that survival-enabling community depends on its population continuing to be functional and contributing, that its members must keep themselves functional/contributing, which involves taking care of themselves/prioritizing their own individual needs to some extent.



    First of all, I can’t tell you guys who grateful I am for all the help so far. As on previous occasions when I’ve had to appeal to my readers for aid, I am floored by the amount of support that came. One particularly generous donor contributed the whole sum I mentioned above, which is the kind of kindness that leaves me nearly in tears.

    As of this morning and a new revelation, however, it seems I’m more screwed than I’d previously thought.

    The person selling me the Escort just texted to say she was just reminded by her partner that in addition to the alternator and battery, it has a bad headgasket. That changes it from a car that needs a little work to a car that’s basically dead–just like my car. It changes the whole equation from a fortuitous find that could help me out of this jam to just another in a series of bad options available.

    Right now, I have three choices as I see it:

    1. Have the transmission in the Mercury replaced.

    2. Buy the Escort, have the alternator, battery and headgasket replaced.

    3. Just look around for a new car from an as-yet unknown source.

    Any of these is going to cost me at bare minimum twice what I was hoping to have to spend on it. So, now, I’m forced to grit my teeth and reiterate my plea for assistance.

    I haven’t talked a lot about myself, but perhaps this is an appropriate time to shed some light on my situation. As I mentioned, my need for a car is due to the distance between my home and my work. To go into more detail, the only housing I’m able to afford is an old mobile home on my sister’s property. I get a very generous deal on rent here because the thing is in such bad shape she couldn’t legally rent it out to anyone else. The roof is caving in in several places, there’s no running water (I get mine from an outdoor pump), the power only works in half the rooms… It’s not cozy digs. It has internet, at least.

    My job is at a bookstore, where my hours were just cut, so between the work I’m missing because of car problems and the actual expenditures involved, I’m going to be in a tight spot for food for a week or two after this is all straightened out, assuming it can be straightened out.

    I have a bad back–slipped disc in my lower spine, resulting in sciatica. I’ve been in a back brace since I was fifteen. For the most part, as long as I’m careful and wear my brace, it doesn’t give me much trouble, but I do have episodes every couple of years where it goes out. I was out of commission for two weeks in 2011 and in basically constant pain for four months after that. I have bipolar disorder, Type 2, baseline depressive, and altogether not a very bad manifestation of the syndrome. I function okay without meds, but I’m prone to depressive episodes. I have a minor heart condition. Undiagnosed, but it makes itself known in stabbing chest pains and tingling/numbness in the left arm. This flares up a couple of times a year; I handle it the only way I can, by watching my exertion level and cutting as much salt and fat out of my diet as I can until it goes away. And, of course, I have pretty bad dental issues, but until the end of last year and the first part of this one, they hadn’t caused me any actual impediment.

    Point being, these three things place me in kind of a trap. I’m lucky to be holding onto this job; they like me there and I’ve been there a long time, so it’s pretty secure. Getting a new one isn’t really on the horizon, though. Aside from the crappy job market in this area, employers are not excited about an emotionally unstable person with an unfinished art degree, who has a long commute with unreliable transportation and can’t lift heavy objects. That means my income is pretty much fixed at well below the poverty line, which nixes my options for improving either my living situation or my health.

    I’m a single white male with no dependents or military record; I have looked into the options, and there’s really no government or other kind of support available to me. The food stamp program would give me $8 a month; I don’t qualify at all for anything else. I appreciate why the resources are allocated as they are, but it’s a little annoying when you live in a crack in the system.

    Digging myself out of the hole means finding a way to earn a living that doesn’t require me to leave my home. Pretty much all I’ve got is my writing. TGaB is going wonderfully; it’s surpassed all my hopes in how it has developed over the last year. The fact remains, though, only a bare handful of people are making a living writing online serials. I actually only know of two, and AlexandraErin’s standard of living, from what I understand, isn’t a lot better than mine. My own plan involves leveraging a readership here (once it’s built up to a point where that’ll work) to move into conventional publishing. Any outcome that’ll make me a living from writing, in short, is going to take time to develop. Years, at the least.

    I just have to manage to survive until then. Most of the time, I survive just fine; it’s not a comfortable life, but living without luxuries you learn a lot about what you do and don’t need, and I don’t really desire a lot of material things. However, it’s beyond my means to build up a safety net, so whenever disaster strikes, I’m pretty well stuck. I honestly have no idea what would have happened to me with my dental issues and previous car troubles if generous readers hadn’t been there to give me a hand. In that sense TGaB has already saved my life. Or, more accurately, its community has.

    I will never stop hating having to ask for help. No matter how rough things get, I still have my pride, and sometimes not much more than that. However…you do what you have to, and I guess what I have to do is beg.

    Let me reiterate that everyone who reads this story is already helping. For someone prone to depression, that validation has an overall effect on my well-being that can’t be overstated. Looking at my stats page and seeing that over 1500 people around the world read my work on new chapter days is an incredible boost. I love following the discussions in the comments section, and it’s been a joy getting to know those of you who regularly chime in.

    What I mean to say is that I appreciate you, all of you. It makes me feel lousy having to ask for more from people who’ve already given me so much. I want to keep publishing my story until its done, both for my sake and for the people who enjoy it. By the time TGaB is finished (looking to be about four years if this pace holds, possibly a little more) I think it’s reasonable to think I’ll be in a better place. If nothing else, at this rate of reader growth I’m near the point of being able to tell literary agents and publishers that I have an established audience, which is the first step to getting Rowena’s Rescue, and then its sequels, into print and distributed. I just need a little help to hang in there long enough to get that done. If you’re able and so inclined…please.

    Oh, and if anyone in southwest Missouri has a working car they want to sell, let me know. I am firmly in the market.


    1. TGaB is my favourite web serial at the moment and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I read almost all that are listed at topwebfiction. You are the author I like the most.

      Wildbow is (in) the top3 and you are not, but he’s writing the same thing again and again (crapsack world, kids, horror, “let’s make things worse”) and while I enjoy his stories a lot, it’s starting to wear a little thin.

      Alexandra Erin hasn’t updated in months, the updates before that were sporadic and the quality was going down for years prior to that. Lots to learn from though.

      I’m trying to spread the word, because you need and deserve more than 1500 readers. Making a living from your writing is going to be difficult but generating enough interest should make it easier.

      Look around for a good, used car. Don’t get an old one, look for something built in the past ~6 years or so. Something fuel efficient, maybe a diesel… and a common model, so the spare parts are cheap. Otherwise you’ll repeat the current scenario again and again until you really run out of money, favours and donations.

      I’m feeling with you, I hate asking for help, too. It sucks. On the other hand, you’re offering excellent content for free, so I guess in the end we’re even. 😉


    2. Before you buy that car, do some math, it may be better to take a loan and get a reliable car rather than one that needs even more work.

      I know of two authors who make decent money, I think they spend a lot of time growing readership and getting their name out there. It did take years. Drew hayes and MCa Hogarth.


    3. Moving money around.

      Just about the only thing I know about making a living writing is that independent authors are exceedingly rare. So all of this is “things to think about”, not “things I think will work”:
      —Any way to get into scriptwriting? You have shown you can write dialog, keep continuity, do world-building, etc. In other words, many of the prerequisites.
      —More than one author I have heard of got semi-regular income by associating themselves with the fan base for long-running shows. It shouldn’t be too hard to think of examples – authors who write the vast majority of their stuff for one fictional world or another.
      —Good technical writers can be steadily employed remotely. Not your preferred job, but paying work is paying work.


      1. Believe it or not, I have toyed with the idea of writing romance. I know someone who makes a living at that. In terms of fiction, it’s the only genre that consistently sells ebooks, and wherein one’s work can be quickly found by people actively looking for something new to read. It’s also pretty formulaic; my friend describes it as a form of technical writing.

        Other fields are tricky to break into. It’s the getting in that’s the hard part, in most genres.


    4. I don’t know if this helps (it may not be possible in this case, I have no idea), but most of the online web fiction I read have donation incentives (bonus chapters every X dollars and such) or a patreon with previews or something. Also, you could probably get the completed first (I want to say book, but I mean the first five parts, which are called books already…) part published with Amazon (conventional publishing doesn’t generally take stuff that’s already on the web for free) who I believe tend to offer better royalties but less publicity.

      Anyway, I only found this webfic a few weeks ago (and stayed up till 3-4 am reading several nights in a row -_-‘), but it is really good, and you seem really professional about your updates (and more prolific than most, which is a massive plus in my voracious-reader opinion :)) so even if it does take a while, I think you have every chance to be able to make a living at writing.

      Good luck 🙂


  7. Chapter might be up a couple of hours late. In fact it’ll probably be ready a couple of hours early, but I’m down to the wire on my data usage for the day. Been looking at cars and housing on Craigslist most of the day. So, if it cuts off before I can upload, I’ll be locked out till 2AM.

    Hopefully not, though!


  8. Damn, cycle of poverty sounds freaking awful. Somehow this drives that home harder than a novel I studied in English class a couple years ago. I hope that our support is enough for you to stabilize a bit and get something a little nicer and safer for the medium-term.

    The Gabe/Triss thing still bothers me- I don’t buy the prevailing ‘Gabriel aggressed against Trissiny in the first place, and then she escalated’ framing. While Gabriel had been being an immature ass since arriving (gods and devils, I’d forgotten how obnoxious he was just to read about!), Trissiny had been horrendously racist towards him as well. He responded to yet another case of it by complaining to her, angrily, about how shitty she was being. She had repeatedly almost done so to him about his sexism and/or presumably done so (off screen?), and I haven’t heard anyone complaining about that being culpable aggression (and would laugh at and disdain them if they did). In a horribly ironic turn, she then responded to his complaints about her racism by attempting to murder him for his race!

    Really, am I the only one who finds his chivalry bullshit and sexual objectification orders of magnitude less problematic than her hateful dehumanization?
    Also, Shaeine’s logic of saying ‘he knows that everyone’s racist towards him, so if he gets angry complaining about that racism it’s his fault if he gets murdered for sounding angry because he should know from experience that people will take his anger as an excuse to label him as dangerous’ sounds to me like it has little to nothing to do with justice or ethics?


  9. Jooo, you never want to.skip.to.the end. You want to.siipnto the floor.directly before.that.

    Also, late as it is, I.hope.you got better monetarily at least.


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