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What’s really surprising is how quickly this stupid idea goes into effect. Here we are, about three hours after midnight and about a week before it’s officially my birthday, and we’re huddled outside Sleepy’s. Jan and I are passing out bags with food in them: a cheese sandwich, two apples and four molasses cookies each. I’ve had one hour of sleep.

We are: me, Janet, Fenric, Yanos, Zelin, the doughty Gurth, and Gurth’s two acquaintances, whom I will always think of as Fred and Ed. Fred is squat and broad, and carries a massive plank of sharpened pig iron that he calls a sword; he’s probably the only one in the group who could lift it. Ed is a little taller, but not as tall as Jan; he’s wiry and he carries a short sword. They’re both stoners, in a way that Zelin, who smokes as much as anyone I know, could never be.

We’re pretty bundled. For once, I have left my peasant dress hanging from a peg in my room with all my other two peasant dresses, and put on my dirty-work trousers and a tunic, with my winter coat over. Everyone’s got a warm hat, some under metal helmets. Gurth’s got a heavy cloak with a hood, which he has pulled over a cute little ring helmet which has a skull cap underneath to keep his hair from tangling in the rings. Yanos looks like an Ice Barbarian, with the funny hat and inside-out fur skin coat and big ass boots, but he ruins the look with a hefty scarf.

The toil up the road out of town to the ruins is the sort of thing there’s little to say about, except that one spends the entire time wishing one was safely inside the dungeon, into which I have never gone without seeing someone I know die.

So we get there and hasten to get inside out of the wind. There’s no sign of daylight, and it’s starting to sleet. With a final burst of speed, we get out of the final burst of unpleasantness: a gust of rain that chases us down the stairs. I slip on the fifth to last step, and skid into the big first room on my butt slightly ahead of Fenric and Gurth.

Three small goblins are standing there over a bigger goblin they’ve apparently killed. They slaver, raise their scimitars and charge me.

“Oh, stop it,” I say. I wave my wand. “Ag.” They come up short, crumple to the floor and commence to snore.

“I’m staying out of your way,” says Gurth. “You’re in a mood.”

I glare at him, then at the others, who have now slouched to the bottom of the stairs. “Okay,” I say. “West hall. Front: Gurth and Yanos. Next: me and Zelin. Then Jan and Fenric, with the map. Then, um, you two,” I finish, waving my wand toward Fred and Ed, who cower a bit.

They all look at each other. Yanos says, “Why would you put an archer in front?”

“Because I want to be right behind you.”

“You’re still admiring my rear end?”

“That must be it.”

“It sounds very reasonable,” Zelin says. “Let’s fall in. Hey, you two,” she called, addressing Fred and Ed, “keep an eye behind, will you?”

“Zelin,” says Fenric, “I’m fairly sure no one was on the road ahead of us or behind us, and you can see for miles out there.”

Yanos interrupts to ask, “Are we going to go or not?”

“So go,” I say, following with a metaphor equating him with a part of his anatomy.

And he goes. Yanos and Gurth look at each other, and then Gurth, with his replacement sword, and Yanos, with his newly-bought crossbow, take off for the west hall side by side. Zelin and I look at each other, her with her longbow and me with my walnut wand, and fall in behind them. I hear Fenric and Janet chatting behind us.

From the back row, I can hear a muffled rendition of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” until Fen and Jan shush them.

For a long time, we don’t have to map anything. For a fairly long time, we don’t see anything other than a few bats and possibly blind cave moths. We pass the wooden door with the spearhead still sticking through it, and then find the door to the stairs down ajar. We come through the square room and the crack-like passage. Yanos turns and hisses, “Will you shut those guys up back there?”

“Yes, Mr. Bossy-pants,” I hiss back. I turn and hiss, “Will you guys shut the heck up?” This brings about the final demise of Ed and Fred’s song. It also, now, allows us to hear the sound of singing from other marchers: the harsh voices of service orcs, the relatively disciplined military veteran cousins of the goblins. Gurth and Yanos back up a bit, so there’s a good eight feet of the crooked passage between us and the wider hall beyond. Yanos turns and points to the right with his thumb.

Gurth points at the light of my wand and mouths, “Lights out.” I let my wand light dim to almost nothing, then lower it till Gurth’s girth completely hides it.

“All the way,” Gurth hisses. I roll my eyes and drop my light to nothing.

Ten seconds later, the dulcet tones of orc singing and marching reach a crescendo. I think they’re doing the Dance of the Pink Daffodils from Spigmister’s Ballet of the Fairy Princess. We tense up, the eight of us, in the dark. But they’re not coming this way. They pass, from left to right, and march on, ten or twelve rows of maybe five each.

I wait ten more seconds, then mutter, “Fifty or sixty.”

Gurth waits another five seconds and then turns and says, “I know, right?”

“Shall we?” asks Yanos. “We’ll be traveling in their wake, if you mean to head for the room where we met the umberhulk.”

“Yes, we shall,” I say, relishing being actually asked what we should do.