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5.

The fourth level down in Valen is not that bad to begin with. Gurth hops down, bends his knees nicely when he lands, stands up, bends to pick up the ladder, raises it into the opening and deftly fits the top rung into a couple of hooks we can’t see. He steps back to look at his work.

“Gurth!” I cry out.

He whips around, grabbing out his sword. He doesn’t get a handle on it quite so deftly, and it flies out of his hand. The overgrown gnoll that’s crept up on him leaps, to tangle him in its long grasping arms and bear him down so it can take a bite of his throat. The sound of an arrow marks the failure of this plan, however, and Gurth finds himself, not in the afterlife, but wrestling with a large, dead gnoll. He jumps up with a cry of disgust. The body flops down on its front, an arrow with green feathers sticking out the back of its cranium.

Zelin is the first one down the ladder. She picks up Gurth’s sword and hands it to him, then puts her boot on the gnoll’s back and pulls the arrow out of its brain. The life of an elf archer.

“Thanks,” says Gurth.

“You would do the same,” says Zelin. “Ea falazu lath.

“You’re right,” says Gurth, looking at his sword. “”I would.”

I come skipping down the ladder, walk up to Gurth and give him a hug. “Sorry,” I say. “I should have been—!”

“No, I should have been,” he says.

The rest troop down the ladder. The room is not very big and has one door; its only furnishings are one gnoll cadaver. Fenric checks the door; Yanos commences to second guess our method of entry, but everyone ignores him; Ed and Fred poke the cadaver. Ed comes up with something: “Hey folks! A pouch!”

“Give it to me,” say both Zelin and Yanos. Ed, to his credit, gives the pouch to Zelin. “Put out your hands,” she says to me, and I do, palms up and together. She dumps onto them a pile of coins, which I lower to the floor and count.

“Oooh,” I say. “We are rich.

“How rich?” asks Fred.

“Well. Nine gold. We each get a gold! Fourteen silver, um, twenty-five pennies. That’s a gold, a silver and three copper for each of us, and a gold, six and one into the party fund.” I start divvying. “We’re rich!”

“The extra should go to Zelin,” says Yanos.

“Nonsense,” says the elf. “Or, thank you, but I will spend the extra on beer at Sleepy’s. How much do you get for a gold?”

“That should be a keg or so,” says Gurth as I start handing out the divvy.

“I can’t believe it,” I say. “My first actual treasure grab.”

“That’s fine,” says Yanos, “but there’s so much more near here, and so much better guarded. Shall we get on with it?”

“Everyone’s okay, right?” says Janet. We all look at each other and nod.

“Door’s safe,” says Fenric: he has the door open enough to peer out into the hall. “Let’s go.”

So we do. The hall, which looks like many of the halls above us, runs to the left and right. “Left is the way we went, me and Barb,” says Yanos. “Chapel’s to the right.”

We form up again, Gurth and Yanos in front, and head for chapel. No doubt many of us are praying in some fashion or other already.

We see nothing moving, but we hear and smell lots of things. I’m getting way too used to them.

Twenty paces down the hall, the procession stops. We’ve come to a wide hall that crosses our way at a slant, passing from a dark silence to the right, toward a dark noise on the left. “Something is fighting something,” says Janet, “and something else is celebrating something, that’s what it sounds like to me.”

“Yes, me too,” says Fenric.

“Okay, great,” says Yanos, “let’s take the opportunity—!”

“Okay, okay,” says Fenric. We scurry across the wide hall and onward along our own hall.

In another thirty paces, the hall takes a hard left. Just up from there, there’s a wide hall opening on the right. When we get to it, it turns out to be the back of a fairly large chamber. We stand there examining it in the stillness.

It’s shadowed, but it’s not pitch black, and after the rest of Valen, it seems very well-lit. There are three torches in brackets on the back wall facing us, over a large table or altar. The back wall is indented maybe ten feet; the walls on either side have doors in them going back. The chamber itself is maybe sixty feet wide, and that altar is a good sixty feet away from where we’re standing. There are a couple more doors along each side wall. The doors in the back wall are of wood, but they shine with a fine polish in the torch light. They’re set in ornate doorways, which fit into the overall theme of the wall, which is covered in bas-reliefs. The theme is snakes and bubbles and curiously distorted cubes. I’m not a fan.

“The chapel,” says Yanos.

“Well, clearly,” I can’t help saying.

We advance into the place. The sounds from behind us, loud enough from the wide slanted hall, are muffled now, and our own footfalls dominate the soundscape, try as we might to keep them quiet. Inevitably we fan out: Yanos and Zelin to the left, Fenric toward the back door on the right, Janet toward the altar, where she looks on the bas-reliefs and the now-visible frescoes (snakes, bubbles and the occasional peculiar fish) with loathing. Gurth and I linger in the middle, just looking around and taking it in; Ed and Fred linger near the entrance.

“We should check these back doors,” Fenric stage-whispers. “One at a time.”

“We should check the side doors,” I stage-whisper back. “They make me nervous.”

They do make me nervous, and for good reason.

I’m looking straight at the middle of three shabby-looking wooden doors along the left side of the chapel. To my dismay, it opens, as do the other side doors on left and right. With a sudden cry of joy, goblins burst from all six side doors.

It’s over very fast, and I feel like I hardly see any of it. I hear our bows fire several times—Yanos’s crossbow and Zelin’s longbow are easy to distinguish from the little bows of the goblins. I hear shouts and involuntary cries of our own. Then the sound prevails of swords and spears clashing, of swords hitting helmets and points thudding into leather and mail.

I’m standing there with my wand up. An arrow misses me so close it catches in my winter coat sleeve. I realize it’s just me and Janet and Gurth in a little knot: she’s actually whacking at the goblins nearest her with her backpack, while Gurth is slicing at them, rather successfully. He advances into a knot of attackers, following through with his swings, but knowing he’s over-extended, he drops back and they come again.

Another arrow hits my arm. This one breaks the skin.

“Crap,” I say, thinking, if only I could lock them. But no. It’s time for my big weapon. Sweeping my wand down and around, which I hope is impressive, I shout “Ag!

It’s impressive enough. I put everything into the sleep spell this time. I’m not planning on having any energy left. And five, ten, fifteen goblins, this whole side of the room, sway as one and topple over snoring.

Gurth is still fighting desperately: his ten or fifteen are still wide awake. At the far end of the room, Fenric has his long knife out and is using it to cut down any goblin that gets close to him at the right-hand back door, but soon he’ll have three at once and he’ll be in big trouble.

Ag!” cries Janet, throwing all her energy into the only spell we have in common. The goblins on the other side of the room sway and topple into slumber.

We’re standing amid gore and snooze. The four of us, all a little wounded: me with a couple of arrows sticking out, Jan with a nasty cut on her left shoulder, Gurth with several cuts and a gashed thigh, and Fenric with slices in his leg and an arrow sticking out of his hood like a feather in a cap.

“Ed and Fred!” I cry out. We all look. There they are, side by side, full of arrows and stab wounds, lying on the floor at the back, just as dead as Jorg.

“Yanos?” says Janet. “Zelin?”

 

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