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2.

The stairway is a good twenty feet wide, and not steep. It goes on for a good forty steps, the ceiling dropping down above till, at the bottom, Harmon can reach up and touch it. Then suddenly it ends: with the sunlight of a cloudy November day behind us, the way ahead looks black. But there’s no doubt the stair has run out.

Harmon and Hurcus move to the left and right, and I push between Fenric and Eleanor, my wand forward. The ceiling rises up out of sight, and at first I can’t detect any other walls. But the chamber is large, not colossal. I move out into the middle, holding my wand up and out. I breathe another syllable of gao, my light spell, into it, and the light grows out to walls perhaps fifty feet away. In the middle of each wall is a hallway out. We descended into the room from the north; the hallways lead out east, west and south. There is nothing in the room but a few bones and some trash.

There’s a noise from the eastward hall. Something flies past me and clatters off to my right. I turn just in time to duck the second arrow, which also clatters harmlessly.

Hurcus and Harmon rush to my side. “Come forth, reveal yourselves, cowards!” cries Harmon. The third arrow flies. He throws his arm up instinctively and it lodges in his wrist-guard. The head has just gotten far enough to stick in his arm. “Ow, Jesus,” he says, “that stings!”

“Foul vermin,” cries Hurcus. He adjusts his iron cap, raises his sword high, lets out an inchoate bellow, and charges into the darkness.

“Let me look at that,” says Janet, coming to help Harmon. “No, don’t pull it out just yet.” The rest of us gather round and gawk as she cuts the wrist-guard loose with her knife, then gets a rag from her pack, soaks it in what I presume is either holy water or alcohol from a flask, and then yanks out the arrow and puts the rag on it. “You’ll be fine,” she says, checking the bleeding, which isn’t much.

“Hurts like the dickens,” says Harmon, a little giddy.

“You lot, spread out,” says Fenric to Benvolio and Ompontonius. “Prime spot for an ambush, don’t you think?”

“It sure was,” says Harmon. “I think I’m all right. They put stuff on their arrowheads, it makes them sting more, you know.” We all look around. “Uh, Hurcus?”

“Hurcus?” we call. “Hurcus?”

“He went over that way,” says Benvolio helpfully.

“Should we go over there?” asks Eleanor, who has her bow is in one hand, and an arrow in her other hand.

Fenric looks at Harmon, then at me. He looks down at the two-foot-square board he’s drawing a map on. Okay, square room, four halls, one’s a stairway up, you can tell by the helpful up-arrow. “What do you think, Dais?”

“Me?” I wave my wand toward the eastward way. “Well, we could go look, I guess.”

So we form up again. This time Fenric and I are in front with Harmon, Eleanor and Janet are behind, and the two oafs are behind them, talking in low and suddenly serious voices. We move slowly toward the eastward hall.

It’s a black rectangle of night. And then I pick up detail in the black rectangle, but I can’t figure out what it means. And then I realize, and say aloud: “It’s a stairway down.”

“Huh,” is the general consensus.

“Did you hear him run down steps?” asks Janet. “Or fall down steps?”

“I didn’t hear poo,” says Benvolio.

“He must’ve gone down the stairs,” says Eleanor.

“Well,” says Harmon, “the thing we seek is said to be on the fourth level down, right? This would be the first, and the stairs would go down at least to the second.”

“Right,” says Fenric. “I’d hoped to look around this level a little first, of course. But, um, yeah, if he’s down there—!”

“We could just go down the stairs and see what’s at the bottom,” says Ompontonius.

“It’s the least we could do,” says Harmon. “Our comrade may have rashly run off, but for all we know, he has put our enemies to flight, and if they lie in wait for him further on, we should be there to relieve him.”

“Save his bacon,” says Benvolio.

“Troops out,” says Ompontonius.

“Okay,” says Fenric, “but listen up. It’s wide enough we can go in two rows. Front, me, Harmon, Benvolio, Ompontonius. Back, Eleanor, Janet, and Daisy in the middle. We go slow and when we reach the bottom of the stairs we stop and take stock of the situation. Everyone agree?”

“Got it,” says Benvolio, who, with Ompontonius, is already following Harmon down the stairs. “Bring the light, will ya?”

The other girls and I look at Fenric. “Well, let’s go,” he says.

“I’m the light, I guess I should bring myself,” I mutter to Janet, who laughs. The steps aren’t as long as the first set. After perhaps twenty of them, we spill out into another large, dark room. We step a little way in, and I have to shove Eleanor aside to get my light free of everyone’s shadow. As usual, I’m the shortest person in the party. Harmon and Ompontonius have stopped, and beyond them their shadows stretch black to the far wall. There’s something at their feet.

It’s Hurcus. He looks somewhat akin to a pin-cushion.

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