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6.

We roust like mad. No one’s especially wedded to sleeping in an open room on practically the bare floor. I’m not sure that Gurth and Lali even slept, but at least they don’t start right in bickering. Fenric leads us to what amounts to the Below Gate, a door that leads into another urinary cavern, off of which a wide ramp spirals downward. We stand there among the half-dead and the drunk, who are huddled here just within the zone of grace of the Club.

“Okay,” says Lucette. “What’s the plan?”

“I managed to overhear,” says Fenric, “a warrior telling another warrior about the way he came up from the Seventh Level. Guess what, he’d had a bad time of it, got separated from his group. I gather there’s a bunch of dragons below this level.”

“I’m curious,” I say, “who exactly built down this far? I could see digging basements down three or four levels underground, but fourteen? Why?”

“Because Valentia was evil,” says Jan. “And Landarcus was eviler,” says Lucette.

“So they made this complicated, like, passage to the underworld because they were evil? I mean, the Abyss is supposed to be at the bottom of all this. But they were wizards. Wizards hate things like the Abyss. It’s all demons and undead. That’s bread and butter if you’re a Saint or a Prophet, but if you’re a wizard, you got nothing. And besides, if you did want to build a way to the Great Abyss, wouldn’t it be a little more direct? And why populate the place with dragons? Orcs I get, you’re going to use them in the Wars, and they can always use some practice maneuvers and stuff. But they don’t use dragons in the Wars. They wouldn’t do what they were told.”

“And,” says Zelin, “have you ever seen a dragon hoard? A really old one?”

“No,” says Fenric. “I’m hoping to.”

“I’m not sure you are,” says Zelin. “But if you do get to see one, you’ll see.”

“See what?”

“Let’s get this baby rolling,” says Lali. “I’m in front with Hunky-cakes?”

“Yeah,” I say, taking charge. “Then me and Zelin. Then Jan and Fen with the map. Then Eleanor and, um, I mean—!”

“Put Lucette with Jan,” says Zelin. “You can have Padric, and I’ll go in back with the thief.”

“Great, third row,” says Lucette. “You know what Shmoke always told us about what happened in the third row.”

“All we have to do is avoid dragons,” I point out.

And we do avoid dragons, for the most part. We go down the ramp, and choose the easternmost of five halls all pointing south. This inevitably turns east, and presently we’re let out into a large room with a high ceiling. I clearly remember looking waaaaay up there and thinking there must be a chimney or a smoke hole or something, up there in the shadows. Lali and Gurth pull out their swords.

“I’d advise backing out,” says Zelin from behind.

I look ahead. Lali and Gurth are ready to fight it, whatever it is. It’s four figures, robed in twists of shadow as if they were turning, wrapping themselves in sheets of night. They hold long thin glittery swords. They have no faces.

“Wraiths,” says Jan, holding out his biggest, shiniest cross. “I might be able to turn them.”

“How likely?” I ask, one hand holding my heart in place. The figures are gazing at us, slowly drifting forward. They are looking at me. They are looking at me.

“Not that likely.”

“Guys,” says Fenric. Gurth looks over his shoulder. Fenric is standing by a stairway down, opening southward off the nearest corner of the room. “Quick. Back it up.”

We don’t argue. Gurth and Lali execute a perfect rearguard action, Padric holding the flank. Jan holds his cross up at them, which might make a difference of some sort. Zelin and Lucette lead us down the stairs. We pull up at the bottom, in a four-way intersection.

“That way,” says Lucette, pointing east.

“Why?” several of us ask.

“Because of that,” she says, waving her little black wand at the west way. Several of what appear to be gigantic scorpions are swarming along the hall toward us.

Bows twang. Padric, Zelin and Lali all put shots into the lead scorpion’s head, which causes it to pause, briefly, to consider its options. We make off.

Several zags later, we find ourselves in a long room shaped like a stomach. It’s echoing quiet, but when we’re halfway down it, the rearguard, Zelin and Fenric, inform us that a trio of ettin, huge two-headed trolls, are behind us. That’s fine, except that ahead of us, the way out is blocked by a shimmery blob. It’s hard to see how it could be a danger to us, so we approach within twenty feet. At that range, in the light of my and Lucette’s wands, we can clearly see several people and at least one goblin and two dog-sized rats completely embedded in it, all in early to middle stages of digestion.

“A gel,” says Jan.

“Can it get us?” I ask.

“Only if we let the ettin run us into it.”

We look around. The gel is filling the only obvious exit. We start the process of freaking out.

“The floor there,” cries Padric. The ettin are forming up for a go at us, but halfway between them and the gel is a low spot, covered by what seem to be straw mats. Inanely, we rush to that spot, perhaps instinctively feeling that it might be a good place to stand for defense.

Unfortunately, the mats give way. We fall into the hole they were covering, and soon we’re sliding, turning, sliding faster, and just as we get used to that, we’re free falling, and we have about one second of that before we land on some other people, living and dead.

 

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