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4.

I’m not going to say that Lucette and I are becoming fast friends. I’m still thinking about the spell I need to have to shut her down. I have this image in my head where we’re both really old, like thirty-five or forty, and we’re both like Very Special Totally Awesome Wizards, and we’re facing off one last time on the Bridge over the Great Pit or something, and what is that spell I send her way that makes her teeter, curse me one last time (to no effect), and fall? I’m going to need to know that spell. But we work together pretty well, and we make lots of money, without actually telling Mom we’re now on commission.

Also without coming anywhere near the hundred-plus gold coins I’ve earned from the Dreadful Catacombs of Valen. It’s finally paying off a little.

So as we labor through one of those endless days (which also somehow fly by) between my birthday and Yule, I find myself thinking about that little list Lucette reeled off. A couple of nights before Yulemas itself, I’m sitting at Sleepy’s with Jan and Fen, and also Zelin. It’s not sleepy: there’s a little band playing jigs and reels, and a dozen drunks of various genders dancing.

“Club Six,” I say. “Mean anything to you?”

“Heard of it,” says Fenric. “Supposedly some guys cleared out an orc hold six floors down and decided to make it into a party apartment. Well, it gave people a reason to want to get that far down, so it became popular.”

“I’ve never been,” says Zelin. “Want to go?”

“Sure,” says Jan.

“Okay,” I say. “Vladimir’s? Shmoke talks about that.”

“They’re time warriors,” says Zelin.

“Time warriors?”

“What the heck’s a time warrior?” asks Jan.

“You don’t know what a time warrior is?”

“No, I do not,” says our vicar. “Thus the question.”

“Well,” I say, looking to Zelin, “it’s a sort of magical—you tell her.”

“The Time Warriors,” says Zelin, “are wizards and the like, I know there are some clerics and druids, and they have some special powers. They’re hard to kill, and it’s already hard to kill someone that big anyway, but it’s said to be impossible to kill a Time Warrior. As I understand it, they’re sort of Knights Errant but they time travel.”

“And they always get caught up in paradoxes, that’s what I heard,” says Fenric. “Time travel is like, weird and dangerous. You could kill your own grandpa.”

“Would you die if you did that?” Jan asks.

“I don’t know. Not gonna try it.”

“Well,” I say, and I find myself gazing off at the wall above the bar, where someone long ago mounted the head of something that was not exactly but a lot like an alligator-tortoise-bear-earthworm hybrid. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about me, a lot older—maybe forty—but looking young as anything, waving a fancy wand, wearing—what do Time Warriors wear? Blue jeans and a work shirt? No, I’d get myself a little black dress. And—I shake it off. “Well,” I say, “then there’s this famous Key. Anything on that?”

We all sort of glance at Zelin, who shrugs. “How famous is this key?” she says.

“Listen,” says Fenric, leaning forward. We all lean forward to join him. “I think you may be talking about the Dreaded Key.” Zelin gives a little elfin snort. “No, they call it that,” he says.

“Who calls it that? Who calls what that?”

“I had a friend,” he says. “His name was Shagan. He ventured to the depths of Valen, and he also had braved Scarp and the catacombs of the cities. He spoke of this thing, this one Key, the Dreaded Key. He said a dragon had it in his pile of gold.”

“This friend of yours,” Zelin says, “he’s no longer with us?”

“No, he’s a dead friend. What did you say? A reliable dead friend.”

“Oh,” says Zelin, somewhat satisfied. “Like Shermak. Go on.”

“Well,” says Fenric, “there’s not much more I know. Shagan wanted to look for this thing. We, um, we had a fling last year, we woke up one morning, you know the scene, blissfully wake next to someone, get some tea going, dress very casual, warm kitchen, toast, talk about the future. Well,” he says, turning on a dime, “his future was going to be to find this Key.”

“What’s it do?” I ask. It seems like the obvious question.

“I don’t know. There must be a lock somewhere that it fits. Can you imagine?”

“The Dreaded Lock? The Dread Lock? Ha ha.”

“That’s amusing,” says Janet, “but is it actually true?”

“What I wonder,” says Zelin, “is, what would be behind the door that this key of yours unlocks?”

“Supposing it’s an actual thing,” I say. “Well, it’s something to do while gathering further bags of gold, I guess. But one would need a team. I mean, the four of us—?”

“I think we can count on Gurth,” says Zelin. “Right? He must be around somewhere.”

“I’d be shocked if he ever said no,” says Fenric, “I mean, other than to my attempts at seduction.”

“Okay,” I say. “Be that as it may, we have what, a cleric, a mighty enchantress, an archer, a thief, a warrior—?”

“Hey guys,” says Gurth from behind me. We look up. He’s drunk, and has his arm around a red-blond Amazon half a head taller than him. She has her arm around him too. She’s not wearing much, and what she’s wearing looks like it was on an animal within the past month. “This is Lali,” he says. “Just got to town.”

“Yeah,” she says, “just got to town, lookin’ for fun, heard you guys go in dungeons!”

“Um, we do, yeah,” I say, over a sudden and inexplicable jealousy mixed with about fourteen other strong emotions.

“Keep me in mind!” Lali says, and then she and Gurth whirl away into the jig.

“Okay,” says Fenric. “So that makes two warriors, an archer, a cleric, a thief and a magical practitioner. Wouldn’t we feel happier with another warrior, or maybe another, um, no offense here, another magic user? Um, Daisy, is there any possibility—about Lucette—?”

“Oh jeez. Don’t even go there,” I reply.

“Two mages,” says Janet. “I mean, Barb was pretty useless, but it does give you a little extra confidence, especially since ag has basically won all our really hard fights.”

“Not the umberhulk,” says Fenric. “That was archery that won that one.” He looks up, over my left shoulder. I look there too.

“Uh, hi,” says Eleanor. “Can I join you guys?”

 

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