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X. New Year


We get back to Insmoor, and for once we’re all six of us sure we want to go back to Valen. We’re sure we want to look for the Key. We’re pretty sure we trust one another. Of course we have no idea what the Key is a Key to.

In Insmoor, a couple of days before the New Year, preparations proceed apace for the next of the local winter events: the annual February orc war. I’m from here, so it doesn’t seem strange to me; Zelin says that Aeraf would get besieged every November when she was young, which apparently was a couple of hundred years ago; Lali and Gurth have always had similar lives. Fenric was away and came back, as is the case with Jan, and we get to talking, as we wait to get in the South Gate, about how odd it is.

“Like,” says Jan, “they never win. Why do it?”

“They overran Varelon four times the last century,” says Gurth. “They overrun Shulbrook every ten years or so.”

“So, it’s enough for them to take one walled village fourteen times out of a hundred? They spend how many orc lives every year, for a fourteen percent chance of taking a small town?”

“Hey,” I say, “they get into the walls of Insmoor every few years. Was it three years ago? They busted through the East Gate. We had, like, fires all over East Town.”

“It’s a slum. They risk it all to set fire to a slum? We rebuilt that part of town. It’s better than it was. It would be hard for it not to be. We should pay them to do that.”

“Okay,” says Gurth. “So you tell us. What’s the answer?”

All of us but Lali look at Zelin. I think it’s reflex by now; the Amazon will develop the same reflex if she doesn’t die first. “Well,” says Zelin, “how the hell do I know? I suppose it just tells you how cheap orc lives are.”

We get through the examination at the gate, and wait while Gurth and Lali get in a bit of shop talk with their fellow city guards. Eventually we get through, and we take ourselves out for beer and a couple of pies at Tony’s. We chat about murdering orcs, we idly debate damage spells, we make jokes about different kinds of weapons. Eventually, while staring at the last two pieces of deep cheese with mushrooms and dallying over the second half of our last glasses of beer, Zelin leans into the middle.

“Are we agreed?” she says.

“About what?” asks Lali.

Zelin smiles at me. I smile at her, then at Lali. I reach into the pocket of my pants. I put my hand in the middle of the table and then pull it back. A small, plain key is on the table.

“Whoa,” says Lali, “that’s not—!”

“It’s my store key,” I say. “Think of it as a prop. So, are we agreed?”

“But what I want to know,” says Gurth, “is what the hell does it do? This—the real one, I mean?”

“Honestly,” says Zelin, “I don’t know. Daisy doesn’t know, I doubt Fenric or the Vicar knows. Do you know? Either of you?”

“No,” they both say.

“But it’s important,” I say. “I mean, you know something about it.”

“All I know,” says the Elf, “is that it’s important.”

Fenric rolls his eyes and says, “Just for the sake of argument, how do you know this?”

“It’s not one thing,” she says. “It’s a lot of little things.” She laughs.

“What?” I ask.

“You’ll think I’m being funny,” she says.

“You had a dream,” I say. “You dreamt about it.”

“Yeah. You too.” I nod. Everyone else is looking at us.

“You both had a dream about this Key,” says Jan. We both nod. “You’re sure? You don’t even know what it looks like.”

“It’s coppery,” I say, “but it’s not copper.”

“Yeah,” says Zelin. “And it’s got a round head, but—!”

“A square hole in the middle. It’s got diagonal cuts, like jagged teeth.”

“But only on one side,” says Zelin. I nod. “And the last one,” she says, “is—!”

“Bigger than the others,” I say. She nods. “But it’s sort of a double peak, it’s—!”

“Broken, or something,” she says. “Not broken. Just a kind of—yeah. A double peak.”

“You had the same dream,” says Jan.

“I don’t know. I saw it on a table. It was the night we just slept in the dungeon. It was like a wooden table, and there it was. There was a fire in the room.” She looks at me.

“That wasn’t my dream at all,” I say. “There was—a woman. With the key. Hiding it.”

The others all look at each other and exchange raised eyebrows. “Okay,” says Lali, “I’m ready to swear.”

So we toast and finish our beers, and then we go back to my place and go upstairs, and we share out some wine Jan has, and pass my pipe with Zelin’s stuff in it, and then we swear.

Lying in bed that night, I think it through. Maybe the other five are thinking it through too. What exactly were we swearing to find? Strangely enough, this keeps me awake for some time. Finally I drift off. And when I wake up, in the grey of dawn, I dress and sneak out and head down to the library before my mother can make me work another day shift.