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The second level down is much less fraught this time than last. Instead of a comrade’s dead body and then a goblin ambush, the worst thing we meet is: puddles of an unknown liquid in the hall. None of us is barefoot; even Janet has exchanged her sandals for sensible boots. I just try to avoid splashing in it.

The stair lets out into a small square room, and the only way out is a crooked-looking hallway straight back the direction the stair came down from. It’s so narrow we really have to get to know each other well; Gurth lets Jorg take the lead just because the two of them can’t possibly walk side by side. The situation doesn’t last more than about twelve paces before Jorg steps out into a wide open space, turns to the right and swings his sword around. There’s a loud, jagged clang.

Gurth and I are out into the open space in a moment. There’s Jorg, and facing him is someone a little bigger than him, armed with a club. Jorg’s sword is broken a third of the way down from the point. He and his foe both look at it, then Jorg utters a loud growl and has at his foe, who parries with the club. The sword breaks off right at the hilt. Jorg throws it down. He’s about to put up his dukes when Gurth steps in and whacks at the foe’s leg, cutting through the hide outfit it’s wearing and into its big boot. It steps on Gurth’s blade, which snaps. It regards Gurth thoughtiifully.

Arrows fly: two, precisely, and the opposing person teeters backward and falls. One arrow is in its forehead, and the other in the middle of its neck. The one in the forehead is pretty well embedded. It has green feathers.

Aiya vallari!” cries Zelin. Then she steps up to the corpse and has a try at pulling out her arrow. It won’t budge. She sort of shrugs and steps back, looking around as if to get her bearings.

“Ogre,” says Yanos, pulling his arrow from the ogre’s neck. “Sorry about your swords, gents.”

“I have a backup,” says Gurth, pulling a shorter sword from over his shoulder. “Jorg, think you can heft this guy’s club?”

“Can try,” says Jorg. He hefts away. “Kinda big,” he judges, but he manages to lug it. I don’t doubt he could do damage with the thing, which is basically a grimy hunk of trunk from a smallish tree.

We are not in a vast open room, as I thought at first, but a wide hall running perpendicular to the crooked passage we came out of. Looking back, it really seems like we came out of a crack. The wide hall goes off into darkness in both directions. Zelin has a look either way, then nods her tiny pointy nose to the right. “This way,” she says. “It appears Shermak knew what he was talking about.”

“All right,” says Yanos, “four in front, four in back. Gurth, Jorg, um, Daisy and Zelin, then me and Barb, Fenric and the cleric.”

“The cleric,” Janet says.

“Who’s Shermak?” I ask, as we walk.

“Dead friend,” says Zelin.

“Reliable dead friend,” says Yanos from behind me.

“What’d he die of?”

“We’re not sure,” says Zelin, “but it was at least five levels down.”

“He went off on his own, this Shermak?”

“Not at all,” says Yanos. “There were people with him. Just none of them came back.”

I have a bunch of questions about this, but it doesn’t seem the time to ask them. So we take a nice quiet stroll down the hall. This must have been the Main Street of old Valen Castle’s dungeons: it’s wide and straight with high ceilings and smooth floors and no goblin ambushes. I imagine double rows of shackled prisoners led through here to their work or their torment or both; columns of misshapen beasts led by leashes to their assigned cells or arenas; companies of orcs marching to their mess halls or their maneuvers, griping about the damp. The damp is still here, of course: we splash through puddle after puddle.

I can hear Janet counting the steps, and trying to make sure she marks the doors we see in the right paces. I can also hear Barb keeping up a conversation with Yanos, though I tune out what she’s actually saying. It’s something to do with her thesis that she’s done with school now she’s an enchantress and she shouldn’t have to go back just to become a sorceress, but it goes on from there. I can make out Yanos tossing off the occasional “really” and “yes, sure” and “I get that.”

The main way zigs right for about ten feet and then left, returning to its (southerly?) former course. Ten feet beyond the corner, on the right-hand wall, there is an iron door. We stop before rounding the first corner, and Barb sends her roving eye around to check it, though I need to put my wand around the corner too so the eyeball can actually see anything. The eyeball sees nothing, nor does it see anything around the second corner, but Zelin says, “Wait here, let me take Gurth and the conjurer to check things out.”

“Go, check,” says Yanos, who then turns all his attention to making Barb feel like he’s listening to her. I look at Zelin, who’s already making a bit of a show of peering around the second corner. I look up at Gurth, who shrugs. The odd thing is, and I am consciously aware of this: I find these people much more reassuringly professional than my previous team, not that that’s saying much.

Zelin waves me to join her. She and I and Gurth creep up to the door, which is perhaps twenty feet down from the inside corner. We creep across the hall, which is perhaps twenty feet wide, and line up on either side of the iron door: Gurth on the near side, Zelin and me on the far side, Zelin nearer to the door than me. She turns and catches my eye.

“Daisy,” she whispers.


“How am I going to not murder those two?”


She gives me another of her inscrutable looks, then creeps up and puts her head against the iron door. Gurth does the same from his side; I check on down the hall and see nothing. It looks like it goes on all the way to South Land. I look back at them, just in time for Zelin to turn back to me and shrug. She nods to Gurth, who lays hold of the iron handle and pulls the door open. It creaks on rusty hinges. Behind it, a narrower hall runs a short distance and then turns right.

Holding my wand out, I can see steps around that corner, headed down to the third level of the Valen dungeons.