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4.

As we start down the stone steps, which are very steep this time, my thoughts are drifting between “this is easy after all” and “this is too easy.” There’s a certain amount of “I’m really here” in there.

The dungeon. The catacombs under the ruins of Valen Castle. Valen Castle, for Goddess’s sake.

The place where, according to Professor Shmoke, the Wizard Valentina ruled, while she was trying to carve out a little evil empire in the Ash Mountains. The place where her enemies caught up with her, the ones who weren’t already imprisoned and suffering torture in her dungeons. The place Landarcus found already a century-old ruin, the place Landarcus fixed up, the place where he had Count Roedark the Nice, trapped in a crystal, stuck in his desk drawer. The place Landarcus built, upward and especially downward, into the Castle and Dungeon of people’s nightmares.

Not, as Professor Shmoke would point out, that it was ever more than an homage to Dread Ipre on the Cold Lake on the far side of the Sannian Plain, where the River of Swans curls through a once-prosperous land now under an eternal curse and blight; and even that, Professor Shmoke would point out, is but a model of the transcendent ugliness and horror that is Lofty Sinafror.

But before he could elaborate on that, Professor Shmoke would usually let himself get side-tracked into how he and his friends searched for invisibility rings here the way children bob for apples; how, seeking the Way to the Abyss, they found the lair of the Brown Dragon Odnorek; how they happened on Vladimir’s Pub, where Vladimir and Audre offer food and drink to those who have made it to the lowest levels ever carved out by the minions of Landarcus, who ceased carving once they had opened a passage into something even old Shmoke didn’t want to talk about. And how, as they were descending a set of stairs two by two, the door at the bottom popped open and there was old Odnorek, and before anyone could think to do anything, that one guy had gotten picked out of the third row and swallowed.

“Then what did you do?” generations of enchanter students have asked.

“Then the door shut,” Shmoke has told generations of students, “and we turned around and went the other way, and that was the last I saw of Kasen” (the name sticks in my mind) “and that is how I got married to my first wife.”

We’re at the bottom of the stairs. There isn’t a door, and there isn’t an ancient brown dragon waiting to grab some lunch out of our third row, which right now consists of me and Zelin.

The steps dump us out in a little square room, and a door beyond, half open, lets out into a hallway. Jorg and Gurth take peeks either way, and then move out into it so Janet, with the map, and Yanos and Barb can get out there. Pushed aside, I find myself with Zelin and Fenric. Zelin waves at my wand. She has a pipe.

“It’s just light,” I say of the wand-light. “It can’t set anything on fire.”

“I know the spell,” says Zelin. “I just don’t have any magic. I’ll teach you.”

“Okay,” I say. “What’s the spell?”

Sko,” she says.

“S, K, O?” She nods. I hold my wand forward and say, “Sko.” I try twirling a bit and say it again: “Sko.” The wand light hisses a bit and emits a few sparks. I’m not sure it’s worked, but Zelin pulls the tip down and sure enough, she lights her pipe off it. She passes it to me.

“Thanks,” she says. I take a drag and pass it to Fenric. Barb and Yanos are keeping up a commentary outside. We pass the elf’s little dark wood pipe around twice, and then she dumps out the ash and pockets it. It tastes excellent, especially down here.

“What are you guys doing back there?” Yanos calls from the hallway. “We think the door’s down there.”

“Coming,” says Zelin. “You going to make room for us?”

“There’s plenty of room,” says Barb, and she’s right. It’s narrower and rougher than the hall above, but it’s not a tight squeeze. We form up again, this time with Barb and Yanos in front. She has her wand lit. Behind them, Jorg is hefting his ogre club, which takes up a lot of space; then Janet and Gurth, and finally us. We seem to be headed to the left. I look back up the other direction, into blank darkness. Never was a night as dark as this hallway, beyond the reach of my wand light.

The group lurches forward, away from my tenebrous view; Barb’s wand light is pushing an equally tenebrous view backward ahead of her. She and Yanos stop just on the other side of another old wooden door.

“Want to send your eye in?” asks Yanos.

“And how would it see in the dark in there?” she replies, with an extra coating of scorn for the ignorance of the non-practitioner.

“Can’t you, like, throw light in there with it?”

“Just how much of a production do you need this to be?” she asks. She puts her hand to the door. “I don’t sense anything. Let’s just open it. I can keep my energy for the locking spell.”

“All right,” says Yanos.

“See, I’m clever that way,” she feels the need to add. She looks up at Jorg.

He grins, puts his club up on his shoulder, lays hold of the door handle—a wooden gadget that does manage to latch the thing—and pushes the door open.

For a few seconds there is no sound. Then there is a series of noises, a sound of struggle, a grunt from Jorg, a grunt from something else, an odd zingy sound, then Yanos and Barb both cursing and talking semi-intelligibly.

Gurth runs in. Barb yells, “Gurth! Be careful!”

Somehow I’m in the door behind him. There’s a big old thing in front of us, a sort of biped with gigantic eyes which glow with an amber light. Gurth seems hypnotized. “Ag,” I say, uncorking my dreaded sleep spell. An arrow flies wild past me and clatters off the horny arches over the thing’s eyes. It doesn’t seem a bit drowsy.

Those eyes. Those amber eyes. Those irises, those pupils like black wells of blackness full of the black color of a black night sky festooned with black stars in a black—amber, as amber as an amber color of amber.

In which I am trapped like a fly in amber. With the blackness of a black night so close with its black sky full of black stars in the blackness.

Then the eyes dim and shut off. Barb’s golden wand light floods the room. Gurth is standing over the hulk of the huge dead thing with those cooling eyes. It also has big pincers around a mouth full of smaller pincers, big legs ending in feet like boulders, and big arms like tree trunks, except with razor claws on big lobster paws.

“Umberhulk,” says Gurth. “The eyes. They can take your mind right out of you.” He turns and smiles at me. “Eh?”

“Eh,” I say. We look around. There’s Jorg, sprawled out on the floor, nearly cut into thirds by a sweep of one of those claws. He’s definitely dead, but he died with his eyes wide open.

 

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