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3.

We hurry along the wide hall, and it leads us to Club Six. The last half mile or so of this winding journey, we are followed by the hellhounds again, but Jan gets out his cross and walks backwards at the back, and the hounds never quite find the opening they want.

Club Six is quieter than last time. The dance floor is inhabited by languid wraith-like drunks, some of whom may actually be wraiths. The loudest bar is blasting its music at no one other than a barmaid, who is reading a book on alchemical geology. I’d love to ask her about it, but there’s no hope for my little tiny voice in there.

At the very back of the place, there is a little pub room that smells strongly of pub grub. Half the people in the entirety of Club Six are in this room, occupying about two thirds of its tables. One table has two ogres playing a sort of six by six chess; another has four of what look like some sort of minor demon; six Amazons and a couple of boyish elves have pushed three more tables together, with five or six cheese pies and several bowls full of fried things. The Amazons are chowing down while they engage in heavy flirting and light petting with the elf boys. At another table, three of what I think must be half orcs are playing cards and eating what is either breaded mushrooms or some sort of breaded, fried body part. There’s a couple, both more or less human, having pasta and looking like they’re in the middle of the cold phase of a major argument.

We manage to join two tables together. Lali waves at the other Amazons, then shouts some orders to the waiter, whom I recognize as a magic school dropout from last year. Poor squib. I wonder where he lives–down here? We shout some additional orders, and he goes off to fetch our pies, fish and chips, chips without fish, fried vegetables of various sorts, fried cheese sticks, fried pickles of course, burgers, chowder, curry, cheesy bread and, of course, beer.

“I need to use the bathroom, like, real bad,” I say.

“Oh, me too,” says Lucette.

So we rush off and find the bathroom. Down here, it’s so cute: a door marked Ladies, another marked Gents and then a larger door marked Monsters.

“This is way more fun than I expected,” she says to me from stall to stall.

“Oh, yeah,” I say, thinking about what peeing in the hall is like, and how much I appreciate magical plumbing. “No one dead and we’re already six levels down.”

We finish, wash our hands—luxury!—and step back out. A nice looking gent is coming out of the Gents’. Judging from his lack of armor, he’s some kind of mage, some kind of cleric, some kind of druid, or possibly a vampire. He says, “Hey, Lucette, how’s it goin’?”

“Great,” she says in a way that communicates to me her complete lack of memory of this guy.

“You come down just for the Club or are you on some kind of mission?”

“Oh, ha ha,” she says. I say, “Actually, kind of thinking of trying to find the way to Vladimir’s. Got any hints about that?”

“Oh, sure,” he says. “Go there all the time. On the way back up right now or I’d show you. So you’re going to want to find the Long Stair, it actually starts on Three, but you can get on from Seven through a secret door. Goes all the way there, almost. It’s a big help.”

“All the way there almost,” I say. “Secret door on Seven.”

“Gosh, thanks,” says Lucette.

“So,” he goes on, closing the distance to Lucette by half, “you staying the night down here?”

She looks at me. “We haven’t figured that out,” she says.

“Well,” he says, “keep me in mind, right?” He squeezes her arm, looks at me for the first time and says, “Heeeey.” With a flirty wave, he’s off toward the wraith-crowded dance floor.

“Who was that guy?” I ask.

“Gerald,” she says.

“What is he?”

“Monk. Yeah, I know, right?” We look back into the pub. I can see Lali and Gurth still bickering. “Daisy,” says Lucette. “We do need to sleep, right?”

“Eat, then sleep, then go.”

“Do you think we’re really going to get all the way to Vladimir’s?”

“I don’t know why not,” I say, even though I’m having lots of second thoughts.

“Daisy. Is this insane? Are we going to find the—the thing? Are we going to get there before anyone else? What if we meet someone really powerful? I mean, you don’t suppose anyone more powerful than a frickin’ enchantress or two is looking for this, do you?”

“I know, I know.” I look around. Is this happening? I’m reassuring Lucette Barnswallow, whose dad is the Count’s head of magic security? Whose dad, in fact, might be one of those more powerful people? And now I’m wondering about Lucette. Again. What if Dad sent her down here to look because he can’t tear himself away from his work? What if she’s just his agent on the ground? But it doesn’t scan. She wouldn’t be here, asking these questions, if she were his stooge. And the double cross doesn’t work that way. She wouldn’t fool me into thinking her dad wasn’t up to something by suggesting someone powerful (like her dad) might be up to something. All this shoots through my brain in a second or two, because, obviously, I’m a frickin’ genius. Yeah. Suitably reassured, I go back to reassuring her. “Lucette,” I say. “I don’t see Gregorio, I don’t see Yanos, and that Gerald guy, he doesn’t seem like the sort, do you think?”

“No,” she says distastefully.

“The thing we’re looking for is not something everyone’s looking for. It’s not a gold rush. We’re just scouting this time, anyway. The quieter we can be, the better. As long as we trust each other, I—!” I stop. I can’t help cracking a smile.

She laughs a little. “Okay,” she says, “that was a good one. Ha.”

“But if we have to, we can trust each other. Right? Right?

She pats down her smile and says, “Right. Pinky promise?” And we do. And that has to be good enough for now.

 

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