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4.

 

What things look like is the exposed basement left when a castle is physically removed from the top of a hill, which is more or less what the old tales told. How it got removed: that varies from tale to tale.

 

Of course my History of Magic class has been very helpful. The curriculum itself has nothing about the Catacombs of Valen, but the scuttlebutt in the halls before and after have informed me that the Wizard Valentia and her century-later successor the Wizard Landarcus both had a hand in the Horrid Castle of Valen that once stood here, as well as all the deep delvings under it. This Landarcus eventually ran afoul of someone or other in the reign of King Edgar and Count Roedark, though evidently he’d moved castles by then. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I can see why he’d move: the site is windblown and wide open and way too easy to get to from town.

 

And of course it doesn’t hurt that Professor Shmoke is easily distracted from his lecture on the Five Hundred Years of the Eleven and the Terrible Treaties of Karn by questions about his youthful adventures, oh, five billion years ago when he was actually youthful. And his youthful adventures were, well, here, because I gather the City of Sigurd Bay, where he’s from (he only mentions this once every seven minutes), does not have Valen’s exciting underground night life. He doesn’t have much more useful information than that a dragon ate a friend of his right out of the third row on the stairs, and he wound up marrying that guy’s betrothed, but on the other hand he claims to remember Sleepy’s being here five billion years ago.

 

What’s left of the Castle of Valen still looks like a castle basement. We’re standing on the low rubble hill overlooking it guessing what it all used to be: windowless prison chamber here, torture room there, blacksmith’s shop (for hot pokers) over there, cages for mutant beasts here and over there. Now it’s all filled in with rubble and soil, except for one place where a wide stair has been cleared down into the sub-basement.

 

“Well,” says Harmon, “there is the way in. How far down is it said to be, this stronghold of the Old Order?”

 

“Hey,” I say. Rather than explain, I scramble down into the shallow trench near the stairway into the darkness. I pull up in front of a guy in chain mail, sitting against a big chunk of cut stone. He looks tired, and I notice that his leg was half bitten off. He smiles at me. “Dude,” I say. “Need some help?”

 

“You a healer?” he asks, but he smiles.

 

“I am,” says Janet, scrambling down next to me. We look at his leg. “I don’t know how much I can do with this,” she says, “but you’re not going to die, that’s got to be something.”

 

“Yeah,” he says. He laughs painfully.

 

“You an archer?” I ask. “You’re better off than your bow.”

 

“I know, right?” We regard it. The bowstring is intact. The bow has been bitten clean in two, and, guessing at the part that’s missing, I think the jaws that bit were about two feet across. “Check out my sword,” he says. He pulls it out: it’s broken off at the hilt.

 

“You a warrior at all?” I ask.

 

“Nope. Archer.” He smiles at me. “You a mage?”

 

“I am,” I say dramatically, “a conjurer.”

 

“You have a sword?”

 

“I do, a short one.”

 

“Don’t use it. Stick to what you do best. This?” He holds up one side of his dead bow. “Happened when I tried to use it to whack something.”

 

“What was the something?” I ask.

 

“Somewhere between an alligator and a tortoise and a bear and an earthworm,” he says. He laughs.

 

Fron,” says Janet. She observes the result. She says it again, this time with more resonance. She waves her hands over his foot. We both look there, and notice that she has his boot off—he’s going to need a new one of those too. But his foot looks halfway okay. “Listen,” she says. “It’s just the surface healing spell. You need to get an actual healer, or at least you need to bandage it up and stay off it for a few days. But you’re going to get full use back, that’s better than it looked.”

 

“I’ll say,” he replies. “You’re very good at the surface healing spell, you are. You know that.”

 

“I think so, yeah,” she says shyly.

 

“Better than Bela, our healer. Bela’s a burp now.”

 

“A what?”

 

“A burp. A burp of a thing that’s sort of an alligator and sort of an earthworm and all that.” He laughs painfully. “Get it?”

 

“Ah, yes,” she says primly. Janet, prim? Well, she’s trying to be an acolyte of the Virgin.

 

“Listen,” he says. “My name’s Padric. You on an adventure? Into the Dungeon of Dread?”

 

“Yeah, actually. I’m Janet, and this is Daisy, and those are our, um, fellow adventurers.”

 

“Howdy,” he says. “These are my fellow adventurers.” He waves around. “Oh, right. They all got eaten.”

 

“Did he say his friends all got eaten?” asks Eleanor, who’s just jumped down by Janet.

 

“Yeah, some sort of alligator worm tortoise bugbear,” says Janet.

 

“Actually,” says Padric, “the kobolds got most of the warriors and our, ah, conjurer. Those little guys are murder.”

 

“You okay now?” I ask, standing up.

 

He starts to get up, stops halfway through and sits down again. “Sure,” he says. “But all in all, I think I shall rest a few minutes before the long push back to Insmoor. See you at Sleepy’s?”

 

“Yeah!” says Eleanor.

 

“Hope so,” says Janet.

 

“It’s a plan,” I say. I look at Janet, then step back and say, “Okay, so, well met, Padric.” I look up at Fenric, who’s watching with concern from among the warriors.

 

“We ready?” Fenric asks.

 

“You’re not,” says Padric. We all look at him. He’s smiling. His face is grimy and a little bloody and there’s actually some green slime on his leather jacket, which is a bit torn. “I’m just saying. You’ll be ready, though.” Maybe we don’t look convinced, because he widens his smile, shows some teeth, and gives me and Janet and Eleanor a grimy thumb up.

 

“I reckon he’s right,” I mutter to Janet. “Shall we?”

 

 

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