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7.

The Long Stair takes us all the way to Level Thirteen, and the only reason it runs out there is that beyond that point the roof and walls have collapsed in. We would seem to be in a dead end, except that it’s obvious that people have been through here, people and not orcs or dragons. The Long Stair is a secret known to all the survivors and a reason for their continued survival: i.e., we are now in the club.

Xu!” I say at the wall, triumphantly, knowing that there will be a secret door, and there is. And we push it open and find ourselves in a rugged back corridor. That we are on Level Thirteen is not obvious at first, but two turns of the rough-hewn hallway and we find ourselves at the top of the stairs that go down to Vladimir’s.

There it is. We’re basically there. First. We gather at the top of the stairs and look down.

“What do you say,” Fenric suggests, “that we take a little recon trip? Have a look at Madame T’s place? Isn’t it just up this way?”

“Oh sure,” says Lucette. “Like this isn’t a terrible idea.”

“I have to agree,” says Zelin. “There is a pint down there calling. Can you hear it? Lenar, Zelin-fath, lenar zin!

“I hear the breath of dragons,” says Gurth. “Not saying it like it’s a good thing.”

We stand there for a moment listening, as if we all wanted to take in the sound of dragons snoring.

“Ah, spit,” says Lali, “we’re down here. Why not go have a frickin’ look? Aren’t you up for it, you big wuss?”

“I’m totally up for it,” says Gurth, glaring.

“Really,” says Jan.

“If she is, I am. Let’s go. You guys?”

“I really would feel,” says Fenric, “like I had let down my profession. But I’ll tell you what. Let me go recky on my own. As I say, professional pride, you know.”

I know he’s serious, I know Fen has his sensitive side, but the Amazon doesn’t know him as well and assumes he’s up to something. “No way,” says Lali, “we are going with you. Just to see. Right?”

“Right,” says Gurth.

“Well, I am not,” says Lucette. “Listen! I hear that beer calling me too! Lucette Barnswallow! You think you like white wine but you really want this pint! And some pie!”

“I’m inclined to agree,” says Glee. “It seems dangerous—!”

“Only if you don’t trust your warriors,” says Lali.

“Now wait,” says Jan, “let’s—!”

“You a warrior? No, I thought not, Faddah.

We all glare at each other. Lali glares very well, for someone whose name rhymes with Holly.

“Okay, then, it’s just me,” says Fenric. “Fine.”

“No it isn’t,” says the Amazon. “We’re going with you, right, hunk?”

“Uh, yeah,” says Gurth.

“Uh,” I say, and I look at Zelin, who rolls her eyes. “We’ll be right here. In sight of Vlad’s.”

And there we are, five minutes later, cooling our heels on Level Thirteen, when there’s a muffled sound that’s halfway between a bellow and an explosion. Then there’s another, not quite so muffled, and then pounding footsteps, and then Fenric comes around the corner at full sprint, Lali and Gurth behind him, cussing each other out. “Frickin’ pussy,” she says. “Stupid, stupid, stupid woman,” is his characterization. They’re three steps past the next corner when there’s a sort of double explosion, in two different tonalities. Fenric runs into the stair and off the wall and bounces on down the hall below, saying something witty that none of us catch. Lali and Gurth pull up in the midst of us.

“Best head for Vladimir’s,” says Gurth. “Right, Amazon?”

“Yeah, whatever,” says Lali, looking back. “But fast.”

We don’t need to be told again.

 

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