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2.

“Actually,” says Glee Fredkin, “if I may, I’m up for sorceress and—!” We all look at her. “I went to Institute in Sigurd Bay,” she says. “This one prof doesn’t like me, so they told me for my mission I had to go see where Odnorek the Brown used to live. He was a brown dragon, you know.”

“Yes, we do,” we all chorus.

“Ah,” says Othgar. “Well, it seems I can help you there. Odnorek retired, sort of, he took up a place in the Ice Continent, I guess he has quite the digs, works with some Gnomes up there, they have what you call a symbiotic relationship. But his place, it’s on Thirteen, right? Of course there’s a new dragon there. A new old dragon. Black dragon, in fact, name of Thyrssa, old lady dragon, she’s a black dragon but not as stupid as most of them are. Sleeps a lot. Don’t let it fool you.”

“So say Glee’s accomplished her mission,” says Lucette. “What about us? We take her to see Thyrssa, then she has to go topside, and we need to go topside too because we need Professor Shmoke and Professor Stintsing to tell us our missions. Tell me we don’t have to go all the way back the same way we came.”

“You don’t have to go all the way back the same way you came,” says the Gnome.

“You know where the Long Stair lets out,” I say.

“The Long Stair. The Long Stair is for amateurs,” he says. “What you want is,” and he stops and smiles. He looks over his shoulder at the witch in the bikini. I’m quite sure it has magical powers: no one’s breasts look like that normally. Hey, it probably has magic energy storage and spell resistance. He looks at her till she looks at him, rolls her sparkly dark eyes and looks away. He chortles. It’s a fact that gnomes are not impressed by human feminine beauty; gnome women have beards. He leans in, and so do we. “You need to know about the Shaft.”

“The—?” we all say. He just smiles.

“The shaft,” I mutter. “Is this to do with the key?”

“What key?” he asks. He sounds genuine. “Look, you don’t need a key. You just need to know where the way in is, and the way out is on the—well, you’ll see. Now I’m not supposed to tell you anything about this, but you saved my life and I owe you one. And trust me, this is a big one.”

“Are you going to show us this shaft?” Lucette asks.

“No. No, mate, I am going to stay right here and drink beer for a while, and when you’re ready, I’ll show you where the entrance is, and then I’ll head home and let my countrymen know I’m still alive. I hope it’ll be a nice surprise.” He takes a sip, which, for a gnome, is about a quarter of a mug. We all watch. He wipes the foam from his beard and says, “So you get yourselves ready and I’ll put you right on the old lady’s doorstep.”

“So why do we want to do this?” asks Lucette, of course. “No offense, Glee, or whatever your name is, but why is your problem our problem? And why do we trust Mister Gnome? Just asking.”

“Notice how suddenly she’s part of us,” Fenric says in my ear.

“I heard that,” says Lucette.

“I don’t know,” says Padric. “What’s that they say? You had me at dragon.”

“With treasure,” says Lali. “Dragon hoard,” says Gurth. “You had me at dragon hoard.

“Okay,” I say, “I get it, Lucette, I really do. But you know what? We’re looking into dragons, as it happens. So there’s that. And I remember someone telling me we needed another magical practitioner. I didn’t want the person they suggested, but they would insist, so I went ahead and asked her and she turned me down in no uncertain terms. It just so happened that later she decided she wanted to be part of us, and now she’s part of us. Remember her?”

“Yeah,” says Lucette. “I’m not stupid. That was me. So you’re regretting that decision?”

“No, Lucette. I am not. I don’t think anyone is.”

“I’m definitely not,” says Zelin. “May I say something? I’m glad we have two warriors. I’m glad we have two archers. I’m glad we have a thief and a vicar. But two magic-users, down here? A val, it seems like two is hardly enough. Those—sorcerers? Three word spells? Really? That we met up above Club Six. We won that little skirmish, and we won it mostly on luck.”

“I resisted,” I say. “And my spell stuck. Ha ha! My webs spell stuck. So, yeah. It was basically luck.”

“I still want to know why we trust these guys,” says Lucette.

“You don’t have to trust me at all, mate,” says Othgar. “I’m just showing you something that’ll help you, you don’t have to do anything on my account.”

We all look at Glee. “I don’t know,” says Glee. “Because I can help you?”

Lucette shrugs. “Whatever. I think I could take you in any case, and I’ve got Daisy for backup.”

“Backup,” I repeat. “Why do you trust me?”

“I don’t,” she says.

“All right, dears,” says Audrey, suddenly appearing over Othgar’s head, “more pitchers? How are you set on pizza? Nachos? Fried mushrooms? Cheese sticks?”

“All of the above,” says Padric, and all I can think is, at least he’s not farting in my bed tonight.

 

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