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5.

We finish our breakfast in relative silence. Othgar and Zelin play some chess; Vladimir chats with Gurth about rugby. After a while, we all look bored, so I form us up in the middle of the room.

“It’s out and up a stair,” says Othgar, “and then down and around a couple halls and bang, you’re there. There’s a double door, didn’t used to be till Odnorek hit big time, he renovated a bunch. Hired my uncles to do the job, aunts and uncles actually, me dad wasn’t so much a carpenter stonemason type, he was a financier if you will, that accounts for how he met his little accident with them dark elves, but that’s neither here nor there, is it?”

“Can we go three across?” I ask.

“That depends,” he says with a shrug and a smile, “on how much you like each other.” I can’t decide still if I love him or can’t stand him. His accent is cute as the dickens.

“Okay, so,” I say, and again there’s the thrilling feeling of people waiting for me to decide what to do. “Lali, Gurth, Othgar in front. Is that all right, Mr. Gnome?”

“It’s great.”

“Second row: me, Zelin, Glee. Third, Lucette, Jan. In back, Padric and Fenric. Is that okay with everyone?”

“It’s not great,” says Lucette.

“In all honesty,” says Padric, “it’s not my favorite either. I seem to be turning into a warrior, you know?”

“It’s all in response to supply and demand,” says Fenric.

“If I get eaten by an earthwork bear alligator thing,” Padric goes on, “I’ll never forgive you, Fenric.”

“Me? Why me? Oh, you’re sweet on Daisy, I forgot. Well, don’t forget I’m a thief, I shouldn’t be back here fighting rearguard, except that we don’t have enough warriors.”

“We never have enough warriors,” says Gurth. “And I can tell you why. Listen, I’ll trade places with you if you want.”

“Okay, okay,” I say. “Lots of people are slightly unhappy. Othgar says it’s not far. Let’s just go and see what happens.”

The door opens. “Oh,” says Gurth, “excuse me.”

“No, pardon me,” says the vampiress who comes through. She and her demon boyfriend filter past us and take seats at the bar. Vladimir comes out to take care of them and wishes us farewell. We get out the door into the hall. The door shuts. We pass the women’s room, the men’s room, the monsters’ room. I wonder what exactly the facilities in the monsters’ room are like. My best guess is that it’s a fake door and the whole thing is someone’s idea of a joke. We go up a stair and turn left. Our front line leads us down a short hall; the rearguard is just off the stair when there’s a small explosion behind us. We all hustle about five more steps onward, then stop and turn around.

“A, uh,” says Padric. I notice that his hair is steaming a little under his iron cap.

“A, um,” says Fenric. “Gurth, want to switch up?”

“What is it?” I ask with less patience than perhaps was needed.

“Oh, just a small dragon,” says Lucette, “Daisy.”

“It, um,” says Jan, “it’s just back in that side chamber back there, the other side of the stair.” She looks back. “It doesn’t appear to be following.”

“Padric,” I say, “are you all right?”

He actually pats down his hair. It’s light brown and a little curly; it is, or rather it was, about shoulder length. “None the worse for wear,” he says with a smile.

“Cave dragon,” Othgar judges. “That’s not our dragon. Let’s go, shall we?”

So we troop on, turn left at a T, then right, then across a wide low chamber where our three wand lights pick out slumping shapes twitching and glaring from the corners. “Just ghouls,” says Jan, waving his cross about at them. They behave.

“Hate this,” says Lucette.

“Don’t go in the Abyss then,” says Othgar.

“Wasn’t going to,” she replies.

We come out the other side of the chamber and arrive at a crossing hall. In the wall barring our way straight ahead, there is a double door of black shiny wood, inset about two feet and up a small step. Lacking carvings or frescoes or golden inlays, it still appears grand. Othgar stops us and we fan out into the space around. He doesn’t have to tell us, but he does anyway.

“We are here, my good lads and lasses,” he says. He scowls to the left, where Gurth and Lali are just ending a smooch. They notice, as Othgar has, a trio of goblins trying to sneak up. “Get off it, you lot,” he growls at them. “Roll on, roll on, nothing to see here.”

The goblins make the mistake of thinking about it. Lali and Gurth think about them too, in that trance warriors get into when they haven’t quite decided to attack. There’s a familiar soft noise: it’s Zelin’s one, deadly spell. One goblin flops backward with a green arrow in its neck. The trance broken, the other two pull out their long knives and are immediately decapitated by mirrored swings of Lali and Gurth.

“Okay,” I say, “so much for the prologue. Let’s get to the main event.”

 

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