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First pages

Chapter One: My Arrival

The crystal spires of the City rose high into the sky, far higher than we flew. I thought they were some kind of natural formation when I had first seen them through the porthole. So they still seemed as the airship approached: tall, cylindrical yet uneven coils of many-colored crystal, ornamented with gold, silver, and wide platforms of marble and obsidian. All around, the bright savanna stretched endlessly into the distance.

I wondered why I heard no more commotion from the airship's crew above deck as we approached. Surely they would begin mooring preparations soon. No, that we appeared close was an illusion, for the spires of the City were so massive they appeared closer than they were.

The City. No need of any other name. Had any existed when it was only a camp of brave souls, it was lost in its present grandeur. Those who lived there needn't care for any other city, or anywhere else at all.

I decided I would be different.

#

The airship shuddered to a halt inside the bay. Several long minutes later, the captain finally called through the echoers, "Welcome to the City! All out! Be sure to get your baggage before you leave!"

I had no baggage, but I was more than ready to leave. How long had I been about that swaying, cramped airship? Days too many. The other passengers looked as ready to disembark as I was. I flinched as I crossed the short plank from the ship onto the also swaying stone platform. Although no delver would fear a fall as small as a story or two, the fall could injure a surfacer.

But forget it. I was here! Finally! In minutes, I would be downstairs, then onwards to my destination.

Everywhere, everywhere, people. Talking, laughter, and the sweat of hot bodies. I decided I would learn to ignore my fear of crowds. Could I tell surfacer from delver? Everyone wore colorful clothing, but some wore even more colors, in greater varieties than those of every other culture that passed by. More weapons. More—not arrogance—more an unawareness of people other than themselves.

I was dazzled by one thing—this is embarrassing—the money changers. Above the clerks was a sign of glowing lights that changed on its own. Magic? I stared for a while, but thought some guard might take it the wrong way. (I was wrong, by the way. They wouldn't have cared what a surfacer would try--and fail at.)

A small, bored man sat behind the counter. Though there were many lines to other counters, only his was open for the moment, so I walked in.

"How may I help you?" he grunted.

"I want crystals," I said.

"Go on, then. What do you have?"

I put down my remaining money--five gold dollars--on the counter. He silently took out a few small red crystals and set them down.

"Seriously?" I asked. "That's it?"

He pointed up at the ever-changing sign above. "See? The gold dollar isn't doing so well right now."

"Fine," I said, and pushed my gold over. He pushed the crystals back. "Pleasure doing business," I added with my best sarcasm.

He did not even acknowledge my reply.

The crystals were all red, in even and angular shapes, but the edges were not sharp. Four were in the smallest size of a one, one in the shape of a ten, and two more in the shape of twenties. Fifty-four red in total. From what I had read of the City, this was a pittance compared to what I had given him--large as a pittance might be, but a pittance. It all fit in my pocket. Nonetheless, it was done.

At least the elevator down to the ground was free, albeit crowded to the walls. As uncomfortable as it was, I couldn't imagine descending a set of stairs all that way. Perhaps the High Houses would rather pay for everyone to be squished for their convenience than allow potential saboteurs to wander inside the spires unwatched.

The City on the ground level was remarkably clean, certainly better than New Washington. The wide, stone-paved roads had no open sewers. Walls I passed were free of graffiti. Outside the shops stood handsome men or pretty girls who smiled or bowed towards the passersby. Even the advertisements on nearly every surface were in subdued colors, easily ignored if desired.

Not that it was perfect. Beggars waited in the shaded booths where the Law permitted their presence, silent pleas written on chalkboards. I could hardly help them, being as I would soon join them unless things went to plan. I offered friendly nods instead of alms.

But the shops! I rarely saw anything by the roads except shops. In actuality, there is little in the City save that. Most shopkeepers, craftsmen, healers, artists, and all others who provide every service imaginable live in their places of business. Tourists and delvers unassociated with any House live in the many degrees of inn, hostel, and apartment—the latter of which rent for days, not months. In the City, impermanence is a state of being.

For the surfacer, it was also the state of being lost. Within minutes, I found that I had no idea where I was, let alone how to get where I was going. The mapstones were of no use to me, as they would not activate for a surfacer. I decided at last to find someone who looked as if he had a heartstone and politely ask him to help.

I walked up to an older man who looked tired but thoughtful. When he turned to see me, I stared at his youthful face--and indeed his whole body was that of a young man. It was his cautious demeanor that suggested the weight of many years. His eyes were utterly alert, as if waiting for an inevitable ambush. I understood in that moment the contradictory state of physical youth and mental age summed up in the expression Dungeon-worn.

"Hello," I said. Rather than ask permission, I considered it better to simply ask the question. "Where can I find—"

"Take the streets that are larger and keep following where more people are going than leaving," the delver interrupted, and walked on without another word.

He was correct, of course, regardless of the question. In the center of the City is the Square, where stand the most important buildings: the Bank, the Morgue, the Courthouse, the Auction House, the Palace of the Stone, and of course, at the center, the Public Entrance. Anything of interest to the general public can be found within at most two blocks of the Square.

Yet I was amazed how obvious my destination--the Palace of the Stone--must have been. What had he seen in me, that brown-haired, thin young man with wide eyes of eager green? I can't go back and see through his eyes, but I've found I can tell at a moment's glance those surfacers who seek heartstones from those who are merely visiting. The hope in the former, I think.

I did as he said, and so succeeded. The shops grew less numerous and greater in size and opulence, and I stopped seeing the beggar-booths at all. I entered one of the four main roads growing like compass-points from the Square and found myself pushed and shoved by vast masses of people. That delver was correct in that more went in than out. I have heard officials explain this away as a quirk of traffic flow, as after a delve delvers will often head to one of the many nearby buildings (guild halls, shops, healers) then home through the smaller roads. This is indeed true. Yet the more sinister mathematical answer has always stayed with me.

But I knew nothing of that, then. The Square has an intense sense of energy, as if everything interesting in the world was happening there. I couldn't help but move quicker as I entered.

Mind you, navigating the Square is a hazardous and immensely frustrating activity to any without a heartstone. The one advantage a surfacer has is that the Law greatly punishes anyone who would hurt him, so I at least wasn't trampled. Perhaps I would have had better luck if I had understood that the traffic of the Square is like the currents of a vortex. To the Public Entrance, now to the Morgue and Bank, and then the Auction House, now out. Attempting to walk against these currents is futile, yet eventually I had run through enough holes in the crowd to reach my destination.

I took a breath when I got to the flat portico of blue granite outside the Palace of Stone. No carved beasts watched me; no glittering banners covered the doorway. It was almost humble. I supposed there was no need to be arrogant in this place.

I swallowed. I could, at that point, still reasonably back out. Hang my head, give up, go back to that stupid money changer and get gold dollars back (less, of course), fly home...

No. I couldn't. I wouldn't.

I stepped inside.

#

The Palace of the Stone isn't that large, but it is guarded to excess. The Cornerstone Guard is one of the most famous units of the City Guard, and not coincidentally, one with the strongest delvers. At every turn, guards, no two in the same uniform, watched through fantastically-shaped helmets as I passed.

No paperwork. Delvers are rarely interested in paperwork. No, there was only a trail of arrows engraved in the walls at every turn, leading to the Cornerstone chamber.

It wasn't as big as I had expected, but many, many guards stood around the seven white marble walls. The dome above went up another story, then ended in an undecorated heptagon. In the center was a depression in the floor, with stairs leading into an alcove shaded by an ornate, crystal-encrusted baldaquin. On either side of the stairs stood a guard, unmoving.

The Cornerstone was a massive crystal, half as tall as I was and equally wide. The light that shone from it was tinted with blue, like water or the sky, and it only grew brighter as I approached.

"You sure about this, kid?" one guard asked. Even back then, I could tell he was absurdly powerful. His scaled armor shimmered through several colors (Prismatic Dragon Scale Mail? I wondered). His decorated pike appeared more ceremonial than functional—I know better now. The other was silent, in pitch-black armor and bearing a glowing white sword.

"Would I be here if I wasn't?" I asked.

"Got to ask," he said. "It isn't cheap immortality. It's neither, actually."

"That's not why I'm doing this," I said.

"Go on, then." He waved me to the Cornerstone.

I stepped into the alcove. The Cornerstone glowed even brighter at my proximity, now almost blinding, but it didn't hurt my eyes. I hesitated.

"Go on," the guard repeated. "Just hold your hand against it."

Swallowing again, I pressed my hand against the hard, warm surface. It was the strangest sensation, and as it can only happen once, like every life-changing event, I cannot describe it in any more detail than this. It was as if my very heart became stone--not as in a metaphor for heartlessness, but changelessness. The stone that replaced my heart in that instant was merely an emanation, I felt, of the inner reality. The light decreased, as if the Cornerstone was a ruler satisfied with my, and its, decision.

I looked around. Everything—and everyone—had more color. It's easy enough to read in a book that a delver sees auras, but to see them myself was a different matter. Spheres of bright indigo surrounded the guards, but I still saw them as though there were no aura at all. I looked at my hands and saw red.

As I climbed up the stairs, both guards crossed their weapons in front of me. "You may not leave until you swear to the Law," said the one in black.

"I do," I said. When that failed to elicit a reaction, I continued "Um, do I sign a paper, or...?"

"Read this aloud," he said, and handed me a stone tablet.

I, NAME, do hereby swear to obey, uphold, and serve the Law and any duly established amendment for all my existence.

That was a lot shorter than I thought it would be, but I said, "I, Alex Kenderman, do hereby swear to obey, uphold, and serve the Law and any duly established amendment for all my existence." I felt a slight tingling--and that was it. I knew it had worked by the white aura that joined with my red and handed the tablet back.

"Congratulations," said the first guard. I could now see an additional aura of pure Lawful gold around him. "Go out and enjoy your new life as a delver."

I can't say it felt anticlimactic, but it was a lot less than I expected. I walked out, puzzled and hopeful.

#

How different did the Square appear! It was now a solid mass of auras of every shade. More of the lower spectrums, obviously, but I could pick out a blue or even an indigo here or there.

But that was not the greater new sense. I could sense myself in numbers. My Health was a number. My obedience to the Law was a number. My ability to see, to lift, to think--numbers. I could feel a new need--like thirst, or hunger, or even breathing. It, too, was a kind of number: one red. I could feel other numbers, barely. 1st Nomad popped into my head when I thought of myself.

As I stood on the portico, still wondering, a handsome, blue-caped young man without an aura passed me. I already felt the ancient mentor, ready to tell him of the mysteries of my experience, but he was gone before I could turn.

But what would I do now?

I took out the crystals I had gotten from the money-changer. Fifty-four crystal. Fifty-four days before I died--and without even more crystal to afford a revive, it would be permanent.

Odd. I was truly mortal before I became a delver, so why did this terrify me? I would have died before if I didn't eat. In truth, I could still beg if worst came to worst. But now--now, there was absolutely no going back.

And what next?

I looked across the Square to the Public Entrance. Wasn't it obvious? There was one reason I came here. Time to do it.

#

The Public Entrance: the very center, metaphorically and literally, of the City. While Private Entrances exist now, as well as high-spectrum delvers teleporting in and out, to say nothing of the Elevator, there is still something imposing, awful, absolute, about the place. Even if the City had since constructed an external structure over the Entrance itself, the Dungeon remained incomprehensible. No human architecture could explain what it was, or why.

Perhaps the first arrivals thought the same at the beginning, when they saw the Stairs downwards and the Cornerstone before them. Now there were hundreds, even thousands walking through the open mouth of that wide complex those before had built. I felt as if the whole world was entering the Dungeon through us and through the Entrance, a human invasion of the bowels of the world.

The tall stone ceilings with organic curves gave the structure a cavernous feel. Echoing voices, chatter, complaints, congratulations, weeping--I heard all the human emotions. No one offered any kind of consumable inside--it was against the Law to solicit inside the Public Entrance. Perhaps it would be a kind of defilement.

The highest spectrum of delver I saw as I passed was green. Did blues and higher use a private entrance? (Often, yes, but there's also few blues at all.) Once again, the way to the Entrance itself was where the masses were going, to say nothing of the carved signs everywhere pointing inwards.

I turned another direction and went down an empty corridor.

I had done my research before coming to the City. The survival rate of those who walked into the Dungeon unprepared was something close to 20%. I preferred not to be one of the four casualties to the one success. Yet—for all my preparation—I didn't know how to prepare!

There was nothing stopping anyone from simply wandering the grounds. In fact, many parties sat on benches together and chatted, doubtlessly waiting for another member to show up. Those parties also doubtlessly wouldn't be pleased if I crashed them.

So, once again, now what?

I passed by a weird desk, and retraced my steps. Was that a Quest Kiosk? It was almost surreal seeing something I had only read of in a book. I hurried to it and remembered what I had to do.

The Quest Kiosks are startling on first use. I pulled the lever marked "Suitable," and a thin book dropped out of the roof onto the Kiosk: Quests Suitable for Alex Kenderman. My ears grew red, but I took the book. Had I not known that the spells that powered the Quest Kiosks were purely mechanical, I would have thought it was spying on me.

I found a bench and sat to read the book. I wished I had brought along that guide to delver slang, even if I would have had to pay for its weight on the airship. The quests were full of such slang and abbreviations, and I barely understood any of it.

Then my eye fell on one entry.

MW Horde, all welcome!
1st Floor, 34-AA, leaves 1500
Leading Party orange, good record, retrieval of heartstone guaranteed.
Have fun, kill monsters, get loot. Join!
Requires: N/A.
50% to all in horde/50% leading party

I knew approximately what they were talking about.

The Horde, also called the Meat Wall or the Train, is a very simple strategy involving many, many low-level delvers and one party of higher-level delvers. The horde follows the actual party (thus the name "Train") and acts as human shields for them. (Thus, "Meat Wall.") The horde will get much deeper than they could alone, rapidly gaining Experience and loot beyond their own power. Meanwhile, the leading party can conserve its resources for the truly dangerous monsters.

I thought about it, and flipped through the book. A few minutes later, I came back. The other parties wanted an interview--and what would I tell them? That I was new to the City? This Horde was indiscriminate.

But it was going in just half an hour! If I wanted to join, I would have to buy any equipment, sign up for the quest--I could do the latter immediately.

I went to the Kiosk again, tore out the page for the Horde, set it on the correct plate and pulled the lever. This time a bundle of papers fell, but I was ready and caught them.

The party contract was two pages, most of which were terms I didn't understand. Shrugging, I reached for the complimentary quill and moved to sign it.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Chapter Two: The Party

"Excuse me?" I turned and asked.

The speaker was a young lady with short purple-black hair and a mischievous smile. Or what would perhaps have been mischievous in a better world, one where that smile had not suffered. She wore a black shirt and trousers that had been patched several times with purple. "Those horde parties are a scam," she said.

"Um... okay..." I said, staring at her aura. It was as red as mine--she had never entered the Dungeon.

"Why?" I asked. "They're common."

"Sure," she said. "That doesn't make them not a scam. Believe me, you'll go in and not come out."

"The contract says--"

At that moment she physically ripped the papers from the Kiosk, spilling both quill and ink. Both of which hovered off the floor and returned to their places. "Look here. 'Organizers agree to take best efforts to return all heartstones to surface.'"

"Precisely," I said.

"What it doesn't say is that they'll pay for a revive. So they won't. You're just cannon fodder."

"Oh." I said, and I realized she was right. It was too good to be true. And what had I been thinking, charging ahead into a contract before I had even bought a single piece of gear? "What would you recommend?"

"Find an actual party," she said. Twirling a purple strand of hair, she added, "Of course, you'll have trouble finding someone who'd accept a new delver. Unless you have high natural stats?"

I thought about myself. No. There's something uniquely awful about being objectively judged as personally inferior. At least my Wisdom was high at 15, which baffled me. What was wise about almost rushing into danger? "You're a new delver," I stated. "How do you know all this stuff?"

The girl shrugged. "I'm not. And it's the truth."

For a moment I wondered if she was another scammer. But she struck me as too open to be attempting to delude me. "Um, please don't take this as a pick-up line," I said. "But could we two start a party?"

"By ourselves?" She raised an eyebrow. "We're five members too short for safety. And you won't find anyone but other new delvers to join—no Red+ in his right mind would join a party lead by a Red."

"Then mind if we find another five new delvers?" I asked.

"You'll have to find someone to bankroll us. Basic equipment isn't cheap."

"How much are we talking?" I asked. "Fifty red?"

"Per delver, yeah."

"Oh," I said, and started to blush. "That's all I have. Well, a little more, but..."

The girl sighed. "Great. Listen, I've got some gear, but nothing else."

"A weapon?" I asked.

She pulled out a small dagger. "Used this a few times."

But not in the Dungeon, I realized, or she would have gained Experience. "I guess we'll have to find other people with equipment."

She shrugged, but stretched out her hand. "Elise Purple."

I took it. "Alex Kenderman."

#

New Party!

1st Floor, any section, leaves 1700

New delvers welcome!

Requires: own equipment.

10% personal cut.

 

How can I describe that first day? Looking back, I can't remember what it was like to not know them. But there I was, in a room with six strangers, and all of us had agreed to risk our lives together.

#

The Red Delver Union, or RDU, operates a number of free gathering halls for parties to form. The RDU also rents some otherwise-useless equipment to test the stats of would-be members for a nominal fee. One red later, I, Elise, and five unsigned basic party contracts awaited applicants in a room full of equipment.

"So, how long do we wait?" I asked.

"I dunno," Elise said. "There's plenty of new delvers, but new delvers that can afford their own equipment...?"

I didn't talk after she trailed off. Something told me there was more of a story to her. But... I had never been in a room alone with a girl other than my sister before, and I didn't even know what to say.

"We may be waiting a while," Elise said. "So--"

The knock on the door interrupted her. "Come in," I said.

A dark-tanned young man in an orange-gold robe entered and bowed. His aura was red. One hand held an oak staff, but I could tell he was no mage. Possibly training to be one, but he didn't have the class.

"Xavier D'Ambrose. I have the equivalent of a skill naturally," he said.

"Really?" Elise asked skeptically.

"Higher math."

"What's the square root of one hundred and three?" I asked.

"Somewhere between ten and eleven," he said without a pause. "Really, that's not the interesting stuff. Talk about trigonometry instead."

"Let's talk about the Dungeon instead," Elise said.

"Statistically, I've got a much better chance of survival in any party. If you don't mind me, I'll join you."

"All right," I said. "If you're willing to risk your life with us, we'll take you."

"Thanks," he said, and sat with us. I handed him a contract, which he began to read.

"Four to go," Elise said.

#

We didn't have much luck for a while. I began to wonder if our offer was too bad when in strode our next applicant. Tall and black-haired, the muscular young man wore an almost aristocratic, long blue cape.

In lieu of introduction, he took the metal barbell marked 17 and lifted it with ease. "All natural," he said with such calm, as if we had been friends for decades and only had met today.

"Hey," I said. "Didn't I see you earlier today? At the Palace of the Stone."

He looked at me. "I believe so. You were standing outside with a wondering expression."

"You have a good memory."

"Of course, why not?" he asked. "Sampson Kerryman." Another American? He looked like it.

"You don't look like you have any equipment," Elise said.

"I have my cape," Sampson said with a twirl. Something about its ornate design made me wonder for a moment if it was from the Dungeon. "I can punch things pretty well. What more can one ask?"

"We'll take you," I said.

Sampson made a bit of a bow, and then took a seat by Xavier.

#

"Andy? Seriously?" Elise asked, taking the slim girl by the hand.

"You know her?" I asked.

"This is Andromeda Square," Elise explained. The new girl's downcast eyes were hid behind colored glasses and auburn bangs. I could not meet her glance. Over her shoulders I saw a pickaxe, which I had trouble believing a girl of her build could swing. She wore a green shirt and trousers that covered her whole body. "I know, weird name. She had weird parents."

"Alex Kenderman," I said, extending a hand. She hesitantly took it for the briefest of moments.

"Andy's really shy," Elsie said, then to her. "I'm amazed you want to delve."

"Have to," she said quietly, like a mouse with little breath. "Out of crystal."

"Well... I suppose we can take you along," Elise gave us the look that said suppose meant will.

Sampson cleared his throat. "Anything special you have?"

Andy curled around Elise who answered for her. "Her parents were Diggers. With that pickaxe she'll cut right through the Dungeon walls. She knows how."

"How do you know?" Xavier asked. "Have you ever been in the Dungeon?"

“The Miner's Guild has walls they took out of the Dungeon for people to practice on,” Elise said, and patted the chair by herself. "Andy, you can sit with me."

#

The stout young woman looked us up and down. I can't help but admit I was immediately attracted by her firm, freckled face. She wore a dress and more clothing than the rest of us, including a kind of bonnet or shroud over her hair. A small bag was slung over one shoulder. "You at least seem organized, unlike the last five parties that I looked at."

"Is there really such a thing as organization in a party?" I asked.

"Yes," she said firmly. "It depends on the goals of the leaders. Which are...?"

"That's awfully forthright," Elise said.

"Then I'll say mine," she said. "I am Mical Parsimony. I was an apprentice unclassed herbalist at a herb cafe for years until it closed because of a few terrible business decisions of my former mistress. I intend to delve until I can afford to start my own herb cafe. Satisfied?"

"I thought Michael was a guy's name," Sampson said.

"Mical," Mical repeated. It's an odd name, I know."

"I'm Alex Kenderman," I said. "I can't speak for the rest of my party, but I'm basically delving for crystal to remit back to my family. We figured it was our best option to pool our remaining funds to send someone to the City. Of course, we spent much of our remaining funds to get me here, so that’s why I can’t afford to equip everyone..." I trailed off, having belatedly realized I was talking too much.

"My reasons are my own," Elise said, and rubbed her purple hair. "But he's the leader."

"Fair enough," Mical said. "I have the knowledge, if not the class, of an Herbalist. I can apply consumables for far better benefit than, I suspect, any of you will, and I can use my knowledge of medicine to otherwise serve as a healer." She opened her bag. "In lieu of equipment, I have a number of fresh herbs."

"We need a healer," I said. "We'll take you."

She blinked, but said, "Very well," and sat on the other side of Elise. She read the contract very slowly.

#

Luke strode in, took the seat before we said anything. He looked the best equipped of all of us, with a sword on his belt and what appeared to be leather armor over a plain white shirt. "I'm Luke Armstrong. I'm good at fighting and will follow orders." He said this in a slow, deliberate string of words, and then nothing else.

I saw his muscles--high natural Strength, at least. "Could you show us your stats?" Belatedly, I realized I had not asked any previous applicant to do this.

"Sure," he said, and took the wooden sword marked 16 from the stand. The grip of the hilt lengthened to fit his hand—he had the Strength to equip it. He swung it with ease. Then he took the wand, the staff, the belt... Each perfectly fit him. He drew his own weapon, a bronze short sword, and took a stance of clear training. "Enough?"

"Enough," I said. Now that was luck. How often was there even someone with that many high natural stats? (And wasn't a jerk about it?) "Welcome aboard," I said. "That makes seven."

#

"Here we are," I said. "Everyone signed?" Everyone was pure red.

"Done," Mical said, handing me the contract. Everyone else nodded.

"You're going to be the leader, so you'll have to start the physical party," Elise said.

"Right," I said. And I knew what to do, some instinctual knowledge given to me by the Cornerstone along with my heartstone, even if I had never done it before. I reached out, but mentally, and touched each of them at their centers. One by one, I felt them join, until we were, in a sense, one.

"Freaky," Elise said. "Hey, you can sense each others' Health now. Sampson, sheesh."

"Hey, I work out," Sampson said. I could sense he had a Charisma of 16--no wonder he looked so handsome. Or perhaps his handsomeness gave him the Charisma of 16. It's a common argument which way it goes. I was still amazed at his Strength of 17.

I thought through the rest of our stats. Sampson and Mical were tied for Constitution at 13. Mical was also tied for me with Wisdom at 15, and Elise had 14. Xavier had 15 Intelligence, no surprise there. Andy also had 15. Elise was both our fastest and most dexterous, at 13 Agility and 15 Dexterity. Luke's average was the highest and he had a Perception of 19—incredible.

Aside from Luke, the rest of ours stats weren't so good. It's rude to describe how someone's stats are low, so it's just not done.

I felt a little speech was called for. "Welcome aboard, everyone. Let's do this."


Chapter Three: Plans

Everyone looked at me expectantly. "Now what?" I asked.

"I don't know, you're our illustrious leader," Elise said.

"Go downstairs, fight monsters, take their stuff, go back up, repeat," Sampson said with a slight shrug. "It's not hard."

"It's hard if you prefer not to die," Mical said.

"Yeah," Xavier said. "We can't afford a revive, can we?"

"That's correct," I said.

"On that subject, how much do we have?" Mical asked me.

"I'll be honest," I said, and took out the fifty-three red. "This is what we have. I'll have to buy some gear for myself, but--"

Mical looked at it. "You can't afford the delve."

"What?" I asked. "I mean, sure, it's a little, but once we get started--"

"What we have here is called undercapitalization in the business world," Mical interrupted. "You can't afford the proper gear and consumables for a successful delve, and when you come back, your income will be completely wiped out by healer's fees and the like." After a pause, "I thought you guys had the finances ready."

"We had no idea," I said. Well, more accurately, I had no idea.

Elise seemed to be expecting the comment. "That's why we asked everyone to bring their own gear."

Mical gave me a look.

"Um, this is embarrassing," I said. "But if any of you want to leave..."


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Matthew P. Schmidt has been writing since he first dictated stories to his parents. Nowadays he uses a keyboard, but his sense of imagination remains. He lives in Martins Ferry, Ohio, where he contemplates the universe and all within.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I wanted to make a tribute to all the old CRPGs I played in my youth; the ones with no plot except that strictly necessary to have heroes slaying monsters for treasure. But what if there WAS a plot...?
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
None, really. This book was a blast to write, and I hope it'll be a blast to read!
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Go up and talk to her. You know which her I'm talking about.

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