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6.

Zelin and I are standing there, kind of zoning out, when we hear, above the general gasping and creaking of the whole underground, what sounds like something large shuffling and then pausing to draw breath. Not wanting to take on an asthmatic wyvern, we retreat behind the door. I check that my lock spell is still good, and we lie down side by side. I let the wand light dissipate completely, and prepare to lie there thinking through the same rounds, but the next thing I know, I’m being somewhat gently shaken awake.

“Daisy,” says Jan, “you’re the only one who can light the fire so we can make tea.”

She has to repeat this a couple of times: at first I’m sure there’s some sort of desperate situation, and thus my instinct is to roll over and go back to sleep. I definitely didn’t get my full eight hours. But my energy feels pretty full up. So I get up and go zap the heck out of some small branches and pieces of bark, and Zelin slaps on some bigger pieces she brought, and it’s not fifteen minutes before we’re having some nice hot mint tea. We share out the middle third of the batch of molasses cookies I brought, along with an apple each.

It’s clear which way to go, anyway: the hall only goes one way that isn’t up the stairs. We’re about to take off when we hear and feel the stamping of boots outside. The boots, and accompanying loud voices, are moving past us in less than a minute.

“Men,” says Fenric.

“I. e. humans,” says Zelin.

“Anyone we know?” asks Unwin.

“I don’t think so.”

So we wait them out, discretion being the better part of valor, or, as my magic algebra teacher would put it, the expected value being in the negative. Their noise fades out, Fenric reports the hall empty (and comes back in without an arrow in his belly) and we form up and move down the hall. Marching armies of men are not the rule today after all: it’s bloody quiet on the fifth level down, actually. We’re not out fifteen minutes before we try a door and find it opens into an octagonal room with a ramp on the other side of it leading downward.

“Sixth level ahead,” says Jan.

“What was this place?” I ask.

“This would be an arena, I think,” says Fenric. “Sort of a training arena. Bring warriors in here to fight your lions, your wyverns and your giant scorpions, which would come up that ramp. Whoever survived would be all the more ready to go attack Insmoor or wherever your heart desired, whether you were Valentina or Landarcus or some Wall dude or just your run-of-the-mill evil wizard.”

“Evil people are strange,” says Zelin. I give her a quizzical look, but she shrugs it off and has a glance down the ramp. “Seems quiet enough.”

“Club Six, here we come,” says Unwin.

But the sixth level down does not give up its secrets so easily. We go down the ramp and find ourselves in a gallery of halls and small rooms, the quarters, presumably, of those warriors and lions and wyverns and giant scorpions. It’s creepy enough anyway, the way the same hall and room shapes repeat but not quite, so it becomes quite the challenge to map; then there’s the persistent smell of long-rotted meat and the coarse dust of bone bits. I keep seeing lost reptilian teeth in corners and in curious indentations in the floor; the occasional well-holes must be nearly full of teeth and bones and fragments of sword and helmet.

But nothing evil is in there, in all the twists and turns. Nor, it seems, is there any outlet.

“This is getting to me,” I hear Unwin say in the back.

“I know, me too,” says Eleanor. “We can handle it. Together.”

“There just doesn’t seem to be a gap,” says Jan. “I think we have to go back up the ramp and up the stairs and try again from Four.”

So we stop and gather around. “Here,” says Fenric, pointing to a place on the map. “The one gap in our map. See?”

So we troop off around and about and come up the hallway between the two rooms on the left and the open area with the empty racks on the right, and behind the racks, sure enough, there’s a hallway we hadn’t seen. Down twenty feet and bend left, then bend right and we’re on a very familiar-looking wide hall.

“Do you think,” Jan asks, “this connects up to the hall on Three, wasn’t it? Or the diagonal one on Four?”

“Who cares,” says Lali. “I only need it to connect to this Club Six.”

But even that doesn’t seem so easy. The wide hall takes us around the far side to the east of the gallery of rooms, and then back to the north and west, then zigs north and zags west and then south and west again, and sure enough, there we are—at the foot of a ramp upward. The far end of the ramp is in dense shadow, but not solid shadow.

“Eyes,” says Gurth. “Red eyes,” says Lali.

“Hellhounds,” says Zelin, as if checking them off in her nature book. “I would go the other way.”

“About face,” I say.

“Well,” says Zelin, “sure, but the back two rows, that would be us—we would be well advised to walk backwards, face backwards.”

“Because they’ll charge after us if we turn tail?” asks Gurth.

“That would be yes. On the other hand, if we back up facing them, they should settle for following us at a distance.”

“And they won’t figure this out and just attack?”

“Oh, they will,” she says, “just not right away. And watch for those jaws. They have a shot or two of fire in them, once they close for combat.” She pulls an arrow and puts it on her bowstring. “Swords out, you two. Okay, we’re good to go.”

None of this makes me feel great. I’m looking over Jan’s shoulder at the map, and it looks like there’s very little room for a Club Six left. We’re being followed by creatures that, if I recall correctly from my studies, are resistant to magic. Well, poop. I remember I’m supposed to walk backwards, but then I’m walking backwards thinking, what about stuff in front of us, stuff I might actually be able to do something about?

So I turn around, muttering to myself, and hold my wand up high, and just then we’re turning a corner a little past where that hall came in, and now the wand light pushes the dark ahead. I rub my eye. It looks blurry.

“What exactly am I seeing?” asks Jan.

“God damn,” says Unwin. Eleanor says something like it. They’re in the blur. “Spider web,” says Fenric. “Damn dense spider web.”

“That’s not good,” says Zelin over her shoulder. “Daisy!”

I squint forward. Something big is moving in the blur of the webs. “Tro clf!” I shout, flipping my wand tip.

“No, no, no,” cries Eleanor, and I instantly know what I’ve done. Webs? You don’t throw a web spell at webs. I don’t have time to whack myself in the head. I raise my wand again, but to throw flame this time—then I stop myself before I incinerate Eleanor.

An arrow flies from beside me. The shape in the web squeals, but keeps advancing. “Daisy!” Zelin says.

Trt sko!” I cry, waving my wand at the back of the thing. The webs there go up in foul-smelling flames. The shape hurries forward, away from the fire and toward the tangled Unwin and Eleanor.

The archer girl manages to pull free and drops onto her butt on the hard floor. The spider, and it is a very large spider indeed, converges on Unwin. He cries out in pain—it’s at him. Two arrows fly, one from the ground and one from by me. This time they hit something vital. The giant spider flops off the web, its legs scurry at the air one more time, and it goes still.

We whip around. With a howl, half a dozen hellhounds hurl themselves on the back row. Gurth and Lali are just about up to holding them off; I toss my tro clf at them, which at least tangles the things up until they expend their fire breath to burn my webs off. The combined foulness of their breath and of the burnt magical webs washes across us, but now Fen is throwing his daggers, Zelin’s bow is singing, and Jan even manages to call in some rather incongruous lightning. Four hellhounds go down, and the other two evidently think better of it and make off.

We stand there staring at them. “Why don’t you,” Zelin says, “put some webs across this, behind us, and then burn off the spider’s webs on that side of us?”

“Sure,” I say, and I set about that job. Behind me, Jan is healing people, primarily Unwin, who is pale and shaky from poison and also managed to hit his head yet again. Eleanor is sobbing and babbling, Jan is mapping like crazy, there’s music coming from somewhere and Fenric and Lali are cutting down a bundle from high in the spider’s webs.

“Dang,” says Gurth. “Gold. Silver. Are those really rubies? What else is in there?”

“Uh, guys,” says Jan, who’s looking around the next corner. “Did you wonder what that music was?”

 

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