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It is frickin’ cold. I’m in about five layers: I’ve dug out my old tights and my longest woolen socks and my warm boots and about three sweaters. We walk the five billion miles to the ruins, entertained by Lali and Gurth arguing over something each of them said. Just to balance things, Fenric and Jan get in an argument of their own. Lucette puts in her two pence worth in both arguments, just to keep them going, I guess. Zelin walks next to me, making little asides only I can hear, a sort of ongoing commentary. Padric walks behind me, politely silent.

A gust of wind from the North Pole shuts us all up. It passes, and we find ourselves walking in one of those wonderful tranquil frickin’ cold winter mornings. After a minute, apparently realizing it’s quiet, Lali says, “You should have your effin’ ears checked because I didn’t say an effin’ thing.”

“I heard what you said,” Gurth replies, “and I know how you meant it because,” and the rest of us at this point manage to tune them out again.

We get to Valen and hustle into the cover of the entering stairs. I pause five steps down to arrange everyone, but no one else pauses. We’re in the room at the bottom before I catch up. A squad of service orcs is just entering from the south hall, and with a disciplined yell they charge us.

“Aw, screw you,” mutters Jan. “Mng na!” Lightning strikes from the ceiling and fries the big one leading the charge.

“You little bastards,” says Lali, unshouldering her brand new crossbow, putting a bolt through the forehead of an orc, then reloading and cranking it up faster than I ever imagined anyone could do, and putting another bolt in the forehead of another orc. Zelin is swearing in Klurin, her native language; pretty much all I know of it is “hello,” “goodbye,” aiya vallari, and a dozen swear words. She’s shot four orcs, and Padric three, by the time the stragglers make it to Gurth and Lali.

“You effing little bastards,” says Lali as she drops her crossbow and pulls her broadsword off her shoulder sheath. She and Gurth and Padric, with his own new guard sword, wade into the mess. Presently we’re alone in the room with about twenty orcs who won’t be there for the orc war.

“You know what?” Lali shouts at the dead, fried leader. “I hate you.”

“Okey dokey,” I say. “Shall we form up?”

“Give me a light, actually,” says Zelin. “I think we need this.”


I’m sure we did. Suitably calmed or emboldened, we arrange ourselves: Gurth & Lali, me & Zelin, Jan & Lucette, Fenric & Padric. We take the south hall, and turn west at the four way: apparently the monsters have been warned that we’re here and that we’re not taking crap from anyone. Padric kisses me awkwardly. Lali and Gurth smooch and it turns into a one minute necking session. By the time we find the stairs down, they’re bickering again.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” says Lali in a low, stiff voice.

“I don’t know that,” says Gurth in the same voice.

“Well, if you listened to what I actually said—!”

“I listen to every, stinking, word.”

“Well, if you listened to what I said,” says Zelin in a low voice, “you’d know what I said about what you said.”

“If I listened to what you said,” I reply, “I’d light your bowl every time you asked and you wouldn’t have to ask twice.” Padric giggles.

“You’re so uncaring,” says Zelin.

“Honestly,” says Jan from behind me, “you can be so bitchy sometimes.”

“Almost as bitchy as me,” says Fenric. Gurth and Lali turn to give us dirty looks. We’ve stopped at the bottom of the stairs to the third level, and so of course Zelin is filling her pipe. I light it without being told. It is very, very quiet: I can hear earth tremors from the continued settling of the Sunken Realm of Kazmin.

“Is everything just scared of us?” asks Lucette. “I have never got this far with only one encounter.”

“Really,” I say. “I was hoping for enough excitement that I can qualify for my sorcery exam.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“Wait for it,” says Fenric. We all look around.

But there’s nothing.

So we go on into the dark quiet. Down a hall, left at a T, down to Level Four, then left instead of straight at the next, to avoid that rotating intersection, and we’re out into that wide hall that runs at a diagonal. We look, see nothing, step out and get attacked.

Nyk eur goth,” comes a voice near me. I look, and a sorceress a little older than me is standing there, dressed in a stunning black outfit with a short skirt and a bare midriff. I wonder where she left her coat—as her cease spell washes over me. I steel myself—and it turns out that I’ve resisted.

Tro clf,” I say, flipping my wand tip at her. Webs shoot out and wrap her: guess what? She didn’t resist my spell.

Sek nyk min,” I hear from a male voice. “Kno eur,” says Lucette. And this one works too: his hold spell is resisted, somehow, and her reverse spell sends it back at him. His fervent oath shows that he too has failed.

Around us, another struggle is underway. Two nasty-looking warriors, invisible by spell till they attacked, have at Lali and Gurth, but those first wounds, more bloody than harmful, land on Gurth’s shoulder, not his neck, and Lali’s right arm, not her dominant left arm. The advantage is squandered. With a shout of “Aiya!” Zelin’s arrow decorates one warrior’s chest, and Padric’s the other. Jan uses his guy deep voice to intone “Mng na!” and call down lightning, which just adds insult to the lethal injury one of the warriors has received.

I hear a clunk and turn around to see Padric confronting someone who seems to be just turning visible. The invisibility spell goes away the moment you attack someone, and this has just happened to someone who is either a half dark elf or just dresses and does his eye makeup that way. “Dang it,” says Padric, his cap askew, “I don’t want to be a warrior, okay?” The dark elf or whatever laughs an evil laugh and has at him with a flashy sabre, which breaks against Padric’s sturdy little short sword. Padric’s opponent throws down his broken weapon and pulls out a knife, and while he’s doing that, Padric pulls an arrow and shoots him in the chest. He stands over his opponent and yells, “I’m not a warrior, okay? I’m an archer! I shoot stuff!”

Xu!” I cry out, and four more people appear: I’m guessing a cleric of some evil cult and three more warriors and archers. They panic and flee, arrows pursuing them. One goes down; two more escape, and from the sound, don’t stop running for a while. The cleric uses mng na herself, but just to cut through my webs, so as to free the sorceress in the black dress. She grabs the guy who held himself. They all disappear through a door and lock it, leaving three mortally wounded warriors behind.

“Whoo!” Lucette exults. “We are bad! Everybody be very afraid!”

“I already am,” says Zelin. “Let’s get on with this.”