Interlude


Stone Soup blinked. Everything on the dwarven woman hurt. She'd brought two other experienced teams in with her for the full exam and exploration of Lonely Hill. Yet it displayed a surprising degree of creativity for a dungeon that's only had at best a season to grow. There was a small whimper as her weight shifted.


"Shh, you took a pretty bad hit." The stone golem known as Ishida spoke with an accent she couldn't quite place. the inspector studied the creature as it carried her from Lonely Hill's more dangerous floors, pausing to wave to Nyx.


The robed wraith-like being made a series of noises, which prompted Ishida's head to shake. "She's nowhere near as hurt as several of the others. Bonehead's leading his men with them out. Your skills are needed with them more."


A nod and the wraith practically vanished.


When Stone Soup opened her mouth, Ishida seemed to anticipate the question. "Good Neighbor has been making health potions, which we have supplies of. However, they are more effective when the drinker is relaxed. Something about the body's stress response interrupting healing."


"So send the wraith that specializes in sleep to get all us panicked murderhobos to calm down." She chuckled quietly. "I'm fairly certain I'm good to walk now."


Yet the slender dwarf made no move to try forcing Ishida to let her go even when the stone woman stopped to watch the putties rearrange themselves, and thus the configuration for the next floor up. "For a first time going into an unknown group raid, I think you did pretty well." She looked down at the inspector. "No, really. You were anticipating practically everything I did. Fate magic? Some kind of time sense?"


"No," Stone Soup sounded thoughtful as she found herself leaning into the bridal carry, smiling in spite of herself. "I listened to my gut and other than the hairless ape of a partner making moon eyes at you. The whole thing felt-" There was a soft sigh from Ishida. "It feels like I know you. Considering your past and my job, that complicates things since normally I'd talk about it over dinner."


Only then did Ishida let the inspector down, letting the shorter woman stretch before they continued their walk through the dungeon. "I know what I want this feeling to mean, but life is what it is now." Then a bitter humorless laugh. "Plus I don't eat so a candle-lit dinner seems almost a waste."


"Do y'hear me saying No y'daft lass?" The dwarf gave an almost musical laugh. "I am going to have to have a fairly invasive magical workup t'make sure yer not somehow messin w'my head, but I think I'm feeling th'same way you are and I at least want t'see ya."


Bonehead could be heard at the head of a small troop of skeletons assisting the other eight participants in the failed raid nurse potion bottles as skeletons carried their things so the injured weren't over-encumbered. Whatever enchantment had given him flesh during the boss encounter had faded, leaving him once more as a pile of animated bones.


He looked from the dungeon inspector to the stone golem, then tilted his head curiously.


"We don't know either." Stone soup answered, "But if I've got th'right of th'breafing from Renaldo as well as th'book yer dungeon provided? Y'have history with th'lady."


A shrug from my guard captain before he waved the rest of the party through. Then he faced the pair more fully, arms crossed.


"Don't give me that look," Ishida gave Bonehead a level stare. "I know what I'm doing."


Bonehead continued to stand there, looking unimpressed.


"OK fine. Coinflip odds," Ishida admitted a touch too hastily, "Your point?"


It was then stone soup coughed, gaining the skeleton's attention. "You're not her chaperone, and while I am happy she's had someone watching her back." She inched closer beside Ishida to emphasize her point.


All this generated a thumbs-up from Bonehead. Then the skeleton spoke, "I will keep this brief since I don't really like speaking as I am now. I'm willing to trust Ishida's gut here, which is why I'm concerned. I'm supposed to be the stupid reckless one out of all of us, but if it is what I think is going on? You've got my support. If not? I'm here so both of you can talk things out peaceably and stay friends."


There was a long pause.


A tilt of his head, or a flicker of shadows gave the impression of a grin from the skeleton. "Or failing that I will be around if either or both of you need a punching bag. I remember being pretty good at that in the past," which got a chuckle out of both.


He held a fist out to Ishida, who shared the fist bump before he walked away.


"So," Ishida looked down, her hand trembling as she held it out. The two were more or less side by side, so the gesture was a small one that most around them wouldn't have noticed.


"Nothing worth doing is easy." Stone Soup took that hand in hers and smiled as their fingers entwined.


No more words were said as they continued on til the end of Lonely Hill's territory. There was much that needed to be discussed, but in that moment they walked in amicable silence. The two hugged each other before Ishida left to take over Nyx's post.


Stone Soup sat there waiting for the rest of her group, watching the stream of traffic from the entrances to the other two dungeons. "Huh, figure they'd take advantage of internal connections by this point if they'd gotten the crypts all connected. A line of imps passed, short dirt brown creatures with too-large eyes, each with a seemingly too-large pack stuffed full to bursting to Lonely Hill. The lead creature glanced at her and waved before continuing on its way.


"I think they're actually wanting to have a go at building somethin here." Past the line of imps she saw a mix of skeletons and stone creatures dismantling differing crypts. That got a small smile out of her as there were clear mistakes, but a lot of enthusiasm on display, including an instance of a skeleton raising both arms and making a pair of two-fingered hand signs on climbing a new pile of rubble that had been a freshly collapsed crypt.


By this time, the rest of her group started shuffling out of the dungeon, one of them wearing a shirt she hadn't seen on display before. Stone Soup turned to get a better look, seeing a stylized representation of the lines and rune of the arena they had fought in with words above and below, 'I fought the Boss and the Boss won.' This got an eyebrow raise from the dungeon inspector.


"What?" A goblin sat down beside her to watch the doings going on. "I like this place, it's unorthodox, but it's a good way to advertise that this place is both friendly and not some toybox to beat with a stick til goodies pop out."


As the third member of the group sat down, taking advantage of the lack of delver traffic to sit on the steps leading to Lonely Hill's entrance, the goblin spoke up again, "So," A long awkward pause, "Campbell?" He tilted his head.


"Dun ask me Lutz, I dunno how she knew that one. Maybe something Keystone told Bonehead and he told her??" The truth was something Stone Soup was still trying to wrap her head around, and altogether stranger. Instead, she looked from Lutz to Ally. "I know what you're going to ask and I think I'm OK, but I know they're gonna have to go full bore on th'probes an proddin."


Ally, an elf and the group's mage, merely shrugged as she passed around several bars of compressed fruits, grains, and nuts not too dissimilar from Old World trail mix bars. "In your defense, I've seen synchronization like that before, but not between a delver and a dweller. Considering how often we find civil races as dwellers?"


Lutz's head tilted his head. "Feels very convenient. The successor to the guy that was the assessor here, who was apparently on good terms with this dungeon that popped up when it was still nascent, is..."


"A reincarnation of someone the stone lady had spent her life with multiple times over if the bookworm's notes from that book from this dungeon are right." Ally finished the party fighter's sentiment with every bit of incredulity that she could muster.


"I know guys," Stone Soup put her head in her hands. "It's daft and mad, and at the same time, I know what my heart is telling me. It isn't like," There was a pause, her eyes flicking towards Ally briefly. "I wish I knew how else t'explain it."


As the trio talked, a quartet of goblins started cheering as another crypt collapsed. Then a fifth walked over to inspect the work before yelling, causing a gaggle of Imps to swarm the collapsed edifice.


"They can't claim the stone lady has no soul," Ally's voice sounded thoughtful even as she made a verbal backspace. "Well they can say anything they like, but it'd be deliberate lies at that point."


Lutz snorted as he patted the slender dwarf, which got a smile from her along with his word. "Where you go, we go."


The other six members of the raid were shuffling out, making excuses on why they were heading straight to camp as they went. Lutz snorted. "Egos are the worst things banged up on those guys. They're just salty over how well you did against a spellblade."


"Or that they got schooled by, 'A rotted bag of bones bein' paraded around like it's a threat.'" Stone Soup laughed, mimicking the leader of one of the now absent groups. For a time she sat there eating the trail bar. "Huh, good batch this time. Wha'd you do different?"


Ally looked smug as she pulled out another bar, "I actually used some of that mushroom goop you suggested."


"No kidding? Told you Nan's Girolle sauce would work out. So why the smug face?" Stone Soup asked, now curious. Ally wasn't nearly as boastful now as she was when she started, but the dwarf knew that look.


Ally's grin only grew broader after she washed down the last of her food. "Mason told me elven and dwarven cooking was wholly incompatible."


Which got laughter from both Lutz and Stone Soup.


"You've gotta let us stick around when the old grump has to eat his words." Lutz stood, offering a hand to Stone Soup. "After we sort out everything with your new girlfriend."


Ally ruffled the dwarf's hair, "Don't worry. It's weird to think on you dating a stone, but she's got curves in the right places and I like her sense of humor."


The support from her friends and party members helped ease Stone Soup's fears, "I dunno how this'll work either. Intimate logistics to one side. She's kinda tied to this place without her dungeon dumping mana in willy-nilly. Still, I mean it isn't like it's going to be out of my way or anything so." She gave Ally a meaningful look, "I've made worse situations work, at least for a while."


The elf's head shook slowly, "Worked well enough to keep hanging around you after it went up in flames short stack. Now c'mon. We're losing daylight."


⁂ ⁂ ⁂


Splinter looked over the report Stone Soup had turned in an hour prior and let out a long sigh. There was a weariness to the aged ratkin as he looked first to the reports, to the personal statements the assessor had turned in, then finally to the written request this Dungeon Corps had made of the guild. That this dungeon had grown up in the heart of Damala's domain and unseated a corrupt dungeon was noteworthy. That it had the wherewithal to submit a request to the confederacy via his guild hall wasn't unheard of, but still with precedent behind it. That his assessor had shown a level of synchronization verses and with one of this dungeon's strongest creatures to the point her claims of it being someone she was soul-bound with stretched possibility almost to the breaking point.


On top of all that. On top of everything else. He had written, sealed, and magically binding letters of assurances from the two members of Alnus's Star, as well as a researcher from the Four Worlds keep?


There were four kobold with him in his office at an hour when the guild hall should have been empty.


The elderly ratkin took the teacup the eldest of the kobold offered. "Thank you, my son."


A cough from the kobold's brother. "Dad-," an elbow from one of his fellows caused the kobold to stiffen. His voice was a forced formality. "What would you have of us guild master?"


"I wish Stone Soup followed." A clawed finger raised to prevent interruption. "If at all possible I wish your presence to not be noticed, but I want cover stories in place so that she, and the dungeon itself, has cause not to question why you are there." This last was emphasized as his golden eyes looked on the four. "She has willingly made these details known when she had every right to hold close to herself. She's also lost her brother to the dungeon this one has subsumed."


The third one spoke, leaning on a wooden staff as he seemed to pick his words carefully, "So a case of you trusting she believes what she says, but wanting a set of eyes in the area?"


A nod from the ratkin elder. "As well as hands capable of acting."


The quartet's eldest again spoke, "When do we leave?"


The ratkin elder looked at the dungeon's request. Then he looked to the quartet of kobold he called his sons. "I wish for you to leave with the city planner's caravan."


"As security?" The youngest of the four spoke up. "That... wouldn't give us all that much chance to explore."


Which had the eldest of the four grin, "I like that you're thinking this through Mikey." Then after a moment to allow his younger brother to register the compliment. "We could be open about our skillsets, which would cut down on any potential hiccups if we're seen in action. This is a dangerous place, and having four trained Scoria trained rogues acting as advanced scouts is pretty useful."


Splinter gave a thoughtful hm before looking to the quartet, "Raiph, you object?"


Which caused the kobold in question to stop grumbling and snap to attention. "Uh... given the whole reputation the Scoria has. I get it, big scary name that'll shut up a lot of people even in the guild, but it might draw attention."


Leo, the eldest, grinned at his brother. Genuine pride that his siblings were considering not just the plan, but the wider implications. "I think we have to risk it."


"Awww," Mikey groaned. "I hate wearing that stupid blindfold getup."


This got a snicker from Dion, "Look at this way. We get to go out in the open to do our jobs for once."


"Indeed," Splinter gave the four a fatherly smile. "I hope this is just the fears of an old man in his dotage, but even if it turns out to be nothing you will be able to do good out there. Now, go My Sons."


The quartet bowed in unison and, between eyeblinks, were gone.


Splinter would reread the report as he considered the chain of coincidences that had to happen if it is as the young dungeoneer said. He then looked to the rest of his office; the wood carvings, weapons on display, the trophies his sons had won over the years. "Well. Less likely has happened."


The master of the guild hall gave a soft sigh as he turned from the convoluted, though interesting and potentially heartwarming to see the journeyman have something positive in her life, to something far more serious and somber.


Official Request for Aid

From: Dungeon Corps of Stroadsborg

To: Stroadsborg Chapter of Dungeoneer's Confederation


Strange that all three participant dungeons in this accord had a signature of sorts. Then again, by the reports Splinter had gotten, each had at least one creature type that could be made to manipulate quill or pen. He had assumed Lonely Hill had vasselized the other two, but considering each were given the same space and title on the document? The old ratkin stroked his beard thoughtfully.


Reason: Wishing to minimize non-combatant casualties.


At first, this seemed like a strange request. Wouldn't it be better to employ the varying delver guilds? The reasoning became more clear later when he saw the plan of action indicated a diplomacy first approach. Allow dungeons to either join with or at a minimum sign accords to guarantee delver safe passage and using only the minimal required force if they do not wish to be cooperative.


Most peculiar in his opinion. Dungeons as a general rule tended towards a kill-and-consume policy to others of their kind if they were not allies.


Then a note attached to the official document made the old guild master's eyebrows raise even as it made his heart sink. This dungeon, friendly and open as it was to its visitors, seemed to know at least the shape of what it was asking and what was likely to happen.


---


Guildmaster,


I dictate this by way of what you know of as a minion whom I have a great deal of history with. We have come from a world where our kind had not only practiced the art of war on the scale of the entire world and beyond, but we personally have memories of dozens of hostile engadgements. We know what being caught in the crossfire does. I speak only for myself, though both of my compatrates within my coilition would cosign this personal request in addition to what official aid the guild may or may not decide t ogive.


If war has not visited this world on the scale I have spoken. If whole continents and countries have not been marched through and burned, cities set ablaze in terror campaigns, and worse. I wish to make every reasonable effort to prevent such escilation.


So please. By whatever Gods you pray to. I ask that you help me find a way to not screw this up. There will be fighting. There will be war. I have heard enough of the rest of Stroadsborg's dungeons to know several will need to be neutralized, but some may be willing to stand down, and I want them to feel safe in taking a neutral stance rather than feel that they are backed into a corner and must fight to survive.


I do not seek to rule, either this township or in any other capacity. However, I will do what I must to ensure that the bloody horsemen are not loosed. Not now. Not Ever.


If it means I must rule this place. then so be it.


God keep the world safe in the face of my inexperience,

Lonely Hill.


---


Splinter looked at the glyphs used below the common tongue signature. Was that simply stylistic art? A sort of glyph-based alphabet? It looked almost like dwarven runic brush art. For now, the request was set aside unsigned as he penned a letter for the teletype operators to send through to the halls at Sancrest. He needed advice, and likely help to deal with this.


-_-_-_-_-


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