Part One: The Lapis Circlet
I: Daisy recruits
I walk into Sleepy’s and find it about half empty. Something makes me stop in the doorway and look back outside, onto Beaker Street in Insmoor, two blocks from the river. Nice sunset, for November. But that wasn’t it. There’s something familiar, but not. Ah, it’s gone. Forget it. I go in, and push the big wooden door shut behind me.
I step up to the bar, and the bar lady glides over and says, “Yeah?”
“A pint of your best, please,” I pipe up.
“Pay for it in cash this time,” she says.
“Of course!” I dig a copper double-penny out of the pocket I added to my peasant dress and slap it on the bar. I turn to scan the crowd—yep, there’s Fenric, waxing witty among a group of warriors, and Janet in her casual black tunic and black pants watching him. A pint of ale appears, the same color as the penny, or of the other two double-pennies I have to my name. “Thanks!”
“I’m hoping you pay your past bill sometime,” says the barmaid.
“I am too!” With a smile, I turn and head for Janet and Fenric. Before I can get there, I’m accosted.
“Heeey, Daisy,” says Lucette Barnswallow, stepping in front of me. “Whatcha up to?” She’s not from around here, or she wasn’t but now she is, now that her dad is some kind of magical bigwig in the Count’s Palace. Somehow she identified me on her arrival in town as her rival. She looks behind her at my friends’ table. Over there, Janet stands and waves, and Fenric half stands too. Janet is tall and red-headed, and strangely, she’s studying for the priesthood; Fenric is not quite her height but still a head above me. “Planning something?”
“Um,” I say.
“Going dungeon-crawling in Valen the Dreadful? Got a hot tip on a treasure? Maybe a magical ring? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? Just to be sporting?”
“Sure, Lucette,” I say. “No secrets between us. Goes both ways, right?”
“Of course,” she says perkily. She’s very cute. She gives me her smile of double cuteness, says see you later in Grey Elvish (pronounced wrong) and heads off in a perpendicular direction.
I aim myself toward my pals. Janet waves again; Fenric waves around at the knot of warriors. Fenric is about as gay as anyone I ever heard of, and these are macho young men indeed. At a distance, I have to guess he has more brain in his head than all four of his new pals combined.
It’s just recruiting, and they’re just recruits. We need some warriors. Everyone knows that. If we’re going to find treasure in the Catacombs of Valen and enrich ourselves beyond the dreams of avarice, we need some muscle.
I wasn’t aware I would be recruiting too, but I sense someone hurrying up behind me and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn and find myself looking up at a tall brunette in a dark shirt and riding pants. “Archer,” I say.
“What? Yes! How did you know?”
“The bow over your shoulder,” I say. “And the quiver, which you really ought to try hanging from your belt, I’m told it’s easier.”
“You’re a wizard, aren’t you?” she asks.
I try not to roll my eyes. I’m also thinking about places to hide, in case any professors have found their way into Sleepy’s Bar & Grill. “Hush,” I say. “I’m a student at the School. Second year.”
“But you have spells. Are you going on an adventure? You guys are adventurers, aren’t you? I’d really—I could really contribute,” she finishes.
I give her the once over. I’m thinking: she’s kind of an idiot, she’s likely to hit one of us rather than the dragon or whatever, she really doesn’t know poo, she seems nice and she ought to go home to her family. I’m also thinking, we need an archer, those warriors Fenric’s buddying up with don’t look terribly impressive at this range—are they now pouring beer on one another’s heads?—and here’s someone who actually wants to go with us without any mention of how we divvy the treasure. And I’m thinking that she thinks I’m a wizard. Like, five word spells. Death! Stone Figure! Maybe a familiar! And I’m thinking, what was that spell we were supposed to practice? Lil something: some kind of illusion. Sigh.
I smile at her. “What’s your name?”
“Elaine,” she says, or Eleanor, I’m not absolutely sure the first time. “I’m from North Waldo!”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m a local Insmoor girl. You’re in, Ace.”
“Oh, no, I’m just a junior scout—! Oh, yeah,” she says. Gosh, she’s pretty. She has a foot on me height-wise. I bet she has a boyfriend, unless all the boys in North Waldo are scared of her. I’m not. I feel like I could take her down with one conjured mouse. And I can do conjured mice. It was the first spell I learned, of course. So far it’s about tied for most useful. She says, “Are you going to introduce me to—?”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” I saunter over to where Janet and Fenric have pulled two tables together. The warrior recruits are gathered around, not sitting. There are four of them, and at a distance they all look like pigs in armor. “Hey, guys,” I say.
“Oh, Daisy,” says Fenric, jumping up and hugging me. It’s a thing of his: it’s so precious. I check the pockets of my dress. “Sorry,” he says, handing back my coin purse.
“Nice try,” I say. “Hey everybody, this here’s Elaine!”
“Eleanor,” says Eleanor.
“Sorry. That’s my pal Fenric, he’s a thief, passed the first test and all, that’s my BFF, Jan, Janet the Red we call her, she’s a novice or something, and—!”
“Acolyte,” says Janet, for the tenth time in the past week. “Of the Virgin Goddess.” The four men around her smirk. Fenric rolls his eyes and then winks at me. “And these gentlemen,” says Janet, with great patience, “are Benvolio, Harmon, Hurcus and Ompontonius. They’re all a buncha warriors. Did I get those right?”
“I,” says Harmon, a well-groomed fellow in leather tunic and rough pants, with a white jersey over it bearing a big red plus sign, “am not a Warrior, technically. My application is in with the Priory of St Draic. I am to become a Paladin of the Cross.”
“Ar,” says Hurcus, who is wearing much less of everything, “I am no warrior, I am a berserkie.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harmon states.
“Warriors,” cries Benvolio. He jumps up and high fives Ompontonius.
“You’d be an archer,” says Janet.
“Yes, yes,” says Eleanor. “I’m, um, an archer.”
“Looks like a good’un,” says Hurcus. He laughs as if he’s made some sort of terribly bawdy comment. Ompontonius and Benvolio join in with sexist remarks of their own which are not worth repeating.
“So,” I say, “looks like you guys were as good as your word.”
“Word?” says Hurcus. “Is it time for swearing?”
“Only if you mean foul language,” Janet tells him. He looks like he’s about to make her a proposition, virgin or no. “Well,” she says a little louder, “once we found one, the rest sort of followed on.”
“No bull,” says Fenric. “Each can’t abide the others going on an adventure and not him.”
“Are you fellas all in the Guard?” I ask. The three who really are just warriors chorus in the affirmative and smash beer mugs into one another.
“As I indicated,” says Harmon, “I am set to join the priory.”
“What he means,” says one of the others, “is he takes the night shift in the Guard.”
“So, any need for a plan?” asks Janet, always keeping us on task.
“I don’t see why,” says Fenric. “It’s widely known that the Lapis Circlet is on the fourth level beneath.” Fenric’s voice isn’t loud, but it has a curious penetration: everyone goes silent. He looks at me and Eleanor, then down at two flimsy chairs across from him at the rectangular table. We get the message and sit. I manage to check around for Lucette, but she’s way over on the far side of the tavern, flirting with some archer guy I almost went out with last year. Fenric’s saying, “We need to scout, so we scout. But we know what we have to do, and we know where we have to do it.”
“Well,” I say, “it’s got to be better than hanging around Mom’s shop while she tries to make time with the constable so he won’t throw us out in the street for violating the town code. Any chance of gold, silver? I wouldn’t mind a nice bag of copper pieces.”
“Oh, there should be plenty of gold. It’s said the Circlet once was, and possibly remains, in the keeping of the Old Order.”
“The Old Order!” the warriors mutter. “I thought it was extinct,” says Janet. Fenric shrugs.
“Something will have moved in where they were,” I point out. “We’ll have plenty of challenge.”
“Something mean and nasty,” says Janet.
“Or, they’re extinct but they’re still there, if you know what I mean,” says Fenric. “All kinds of ways that could be true. None of them nice.”
“Yes but,” says Eleanor, “Daisy is a sorceress!”
“Not yet, not yet!” I try to get in before Fenric and Janet starts giving me crap.
“She can do her magic on me,” says Benvolio, who, by the way, makes me want to retch.
“I hear ya,” says Ompontonius. Ew. He also makes me want to retch.
“Anyway,” says Fenric, as Janet and I lean over him, “I’ll meet you two here tomorrow at the fourth hour of the morning and we’ll roust these out of the upstairs rooms. Or the alley,” he adds, as we all look at Ompontonius and Hurcus trying to pour beer down each other’s mouths.
The sun is well up from the dreary November hills when I finally make it back to Sleepy’s. My day began a lot earlier, with Mom prodding me awake, pulling me out of bed and throwing my cooking apron at me. “Need twenty jugs of potion blank pronto,” she says. “I hafta go out. You mind store today.”
“Nineteen days in a row,” I say, climbing to my feet. “Not gonna happen, Mom.”
“Gonna happen. Count on it, lass. Who’s paying for your schooling?”
“Mom. I have plans. I told you.”
“You have plans, all right, my girl. You have plans to be here all day and into the night and make twenty jugs of potion blank, and mind store. I got business. You don’t like it, you can thank your stars I feed you and put a roof over your head.”
“Mom,” I say, “yesterday you were all, you work today, you get tomorrow off. Now’s tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s always tomorrow,” she says with a laugh. I think about strangling her but instead go into the shop kitchen with the apron and my walking clothes, which look like my working clothes because they’re the same clothes. “That’s the way,” she calls after me. “I may be back by noon, but then again I may be off on business, you know,” she finishes with a high tone that I suppose is meant to make me think she’s meeting with wealthy foreigners with long order sheets.
I make sure she hears the bolt of the lock sliding into place. “Mother,” I call out, “I am going to make you a deal.”
“You are going to what?” she calls through the door. I can tell she’s just a little concerned.
“I am going to make you up ten jugs of potion blank. No one ever comes to the shop before the fourth hour of the morning anyway, so I’ll keep you locked out and I’ll get some work done. You go do what you need to do with Constable, but be back by fourth hour, because I’m going to be gone about then. If you don’t like it, I suppose you won’t like the stink potion I might leave in your bedroom. I’ll work all day tomorrow. Am I clear?”
She takes a minute or two, stomping around the shop muttering, to come up with something to say to that, and by the time she starts yelling back at me, I’m half the kitchen away, banging pots and pans and getting the fires banked up good. Her voice isn’t as penetrating as she thinks, nor are her threats.
So it’s nearly noon when I finally get to Sleepy’s, two blocks from the house. Fenric and Janet are sipping green tea and sharing a scone. “Oi, it’s here,” says Janet, but she takes her knife and cuts off half of her half of the scone, and pushes her cup toward me. “You look like you need it,” she says, “and I’m on my second pot anyway.”
“Oh thank the Virgin,” I say.
“Knew you’d come around to my point of view on faith issues.”
“I would,” I say, “if only all religious people were like you.”
“Or all thieves were like me?” asked Fenric, cutting his own half scone in half and plopping that in front of me. I’ve already finished Janet’s piece. “Doesn’t Mother Dear feed one?”
“No,” I say, “one needs to be one’s own lookout around Mother Dear. Mother Dear did not want to let one come today.”
“But you work every stupid day,” says Janet.
“And half the nights.”
“And half the nights! Laboring over that cauldron—!”
“Those cauldrons. There’s eight of them.”
“Those cauldrons. While one inhales who knows what combination of fumes, and while aforesaid Mother Dear makes it with who knows whom in order to get good prices for her intoxicant needs.”
“And in order to get Constable to look the other way about her intoxicant needs,” says Fenric. “And one knows that nice boy Fenric does not have the highest opinion of said Constable.”
“Oh, one knows that,” I reply. “For example, one knows Constable shares aforesaid intoxicants. Among other things.”
“Constable would be Constable Robert?” asks Janet. “He’s a pig.”
“That would be the one. One would have thought often what a pig he is. Anyway, here I finally am. Where are our—?”
Just then Eleanor comes in from the back door and heads over. “All that tea,” she says, by way of morning greeting. “I think I have enough coin for another pot and another grande scone.”
“Sounds great,” says Janet. “Fen, wouldn’t you love to go roust the boys again? The first rousting seems not to have taken.”
An hour and a half later, the eight of us, five men and three women, four more or less warriors, an archer, a thief, an acolyte of the Virgin Goddess and a conjurer, turn off River Street and onto Bridge Street, away from the direction of the Bridge and toward the South Gate. We take a nice hour hike through farmland and then up, winding to the southwest into high country.
The road is not on anyone’s trade route, like North River Road which runs to Travishome and Sigurd Bay and connects with the Royal Road to Thomasport. But it’s well-traveled, by a certain sort of traveler. Under an early afternoon sun of June, sure enough, we meet people coming back. There are four of them, and they seem happy enough. They’re well-armed: two have swords loose in their hands, swords that look a bit worn, and the other two are a girl, probably of elf blood, with a bow taller than her, and a small plain fellow in a tunic of leather-studded armor over blue jeans, holding a wand.
“Have you been up to the Ruins?” calls Harmon in a cheery voice.
The four shamble to a halt. I’m a bit nervous, wondering if these might pass for bandits in this area, but the fellow with the wand gives a tired smile, as if to hail the fellow magic user and therefore presumed brains of the operation. He says to Harmon, “Ayup. You going that way?”
“Yes, we are, my good sorcerer,” says Harmon, apparently proud to have read the wand as a sign that the fellow did magic. “Anything we should look out for?”
The two warriors chuckle. They’re both in chain mail, and both show significant wounds. The magic user looks at the archer and then says, “I would look out for goblins. And orcs. Other things too, but—those primarily.”
“Don’t you guys have a healer?” asks Janet. “Never go into danger without a cleric of some kind.”
“We didn’t,” says one of the warriors.
“So where—?” Janet stops in mid question. “You need some healing?”
“Save your energy, girl,” says the warrior, who has two parallel, medium-deep slashes on his bare left arm. “We’re fine, and in town we’ll get healed up. You take care o’ your own.”
“Well, then,” says Harmon. “We’ll see you at Sleepy’s, perchance. We can spend some of the treasure we take!”
“Oh, yeah,” says the other warrior. He has a smash on his head, uncovered but no longer bleeding. “That’s one thing.”
“That’s one thing about losing a few of your party,” says the magic user. “You only have to split the sixteen silver pieces you managed to scrape up four ways.”
We don’t know quite what to say to this. The archer finally speaks up. “Well, friends,” she says, in a slight but distinct accent, “let us leave these people to whatever they are doing. We must be on our way.”
“Good luck,” says the magic user. “You’ll want that.”
“Thanks, you too,” I manage to say. I’d planned on throwing out some flowery blessing, something along the lines of ‘may our roads draw together at the end of day, and may we raise our glasses together at the rise of the moon.’
“Oh, and I’m not a sorcerer,” says the magic user. “But as of right now, I should be ready to pass the test for sorcerer. I’m fairly sure the faculty will accept that I did enough in the way of an ordeal.” He shakes his head. “Seen enough, yeah.” We share a smile, which I can just about stand without vomiting. “So fare thee well and I hope I ever see you again.”
The four wave and trudge past with further mumbled parting words. I mumble some words of my own. “Buh-bye,” says Eleanor. “Boy, those guys were sort of interesting. Makes you think.”
“Yeah, makes you think,” says Janet. “Right, Dais?”
“Sixteen silvers??” says Benvolio.
“They left plenty for us,” says Ompontonius.
“Okay, okay,” says Fenric. “We’re just scouting today. Let’s get there and see what things look like.”
What things look like is the exposed basement left when a castle is physically removed from the top of a hill, which is more or less what the old tales told. How it got removed: that varies from tale to tale.
Of course my History of Magic class has been very helpful. The curriculum itself has nothing about the Catacombs of Valen, but the scuttlebutt in the halls before and after have informed me that the Wizard Valentia and her century-later successor the Wizard Landarcus both had a hand in the Horrid Castle of Valen that once stood here, as well as all the deep delvings under it. This Landarcus eventually ran afoul of someone or other in the reign of King Edgar and Count Roedark, though evidently he’d moved castles by then. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I can see why he’d move: the site is windblown and wide open and way too easy to get to from town.
And of course it doesn’t hurt that Professor Shmoke is easily distracted from his lecture on the Five Hundred Years of the Eleven and the Terrible Treaties of Karn by questions about his youthful adventures, oh, a hundred and forty years ago when he was actually youthful. And his youthful adventures were, well, here, because I gather the City of Sigurd Bay, where he’s from (he only mentions this once every seven minutes), does not have Valen’s exciting underground night life. He doesn’t have much more useful information about Valen than that a dragon ate a friend of his right out of the third row on the stairs, and he wound up marrying that guy’s betrothed, but on the other hand he claims to remember Sleepy’s being here a hundred and forty years ago.
What’s left of the Castle of Valen still looks like a castle basement. We’re standing on the low rubble hill overlooking it guessing what it all used to be: windowless prison chamber here, torture room there, blacksmith’s shop (for hot pokers) over there, cages for mutant beasts here and over there. Now it’s all filled in with rubble and soil, except for one place where a wide stair has been cleared down into the sub-basement.
“Well,” says Harmon, “there is the way in. How far down is it said to be, this stronghold of the Old Order?”
“Hey,” I say. Rather than explain, I scramble down into the shallow trench near the stairway into the darkness. I pull up in front of a guy in chain mail, sitting against a big chunk of cut stone. He looks tired, and I notice that his leg was half bitten off. He smiles at me. “Dude,” I say. “Need some help?”
“You a healer?” he asks, but he smiles.
“I am,” says Janet, scrambling down next to me. We look at his leg. “I don’t know how much I can do with this,” she says, “but you’re not going to die, that’s got to be something.”
“Yeah,” he says. He laughs painfully.
“You an archer?” I ask. “You’re better off than your bow.”
“I know, right?” We regard it. The bowstring is intact. The bow has been bitten clean in two, and, guessing at the part that’s missing, I think the jaws that bit were about two feet across. “Check out my sword,” he says. He pulls it out: it’s broken off at the hilt.
“You a warrior at all?” I ask.
“Nope. Archer.” He smiles at me. “You a mage?”
“I am,” I say dramatically, “a conjurer.”
“You have a sword?”
“I do, a short one.”
“Don’t use it. Stick to what you do best. This?” He holds up one side of his dead bow. “Happened when I tried to use it to whack something.”
“What was the something?” I ask.
“Somewhere between an alligator and a tortoise and a bear and an earthworm,” he says. He laughs.
“Fron,” says Janet. She observes the result. She says it again, this time with more resonance. She waves her hands over his foot. We both look there, and notice that she has his boot off—he’s going to need a new one of those too. But his foot looks halfway okay. “Listen,” she says. “It’s just the surface healing spell. You need to get an actual healer, or at least you need to bandage it up and stay off it for a few days. But you’re going to get full use back, that’s better than it looked.”
“I’ll say,” he replies. “You’re very good at the surface healing spell, you are. You know that.”
“I think so, yeah,” she says shyly.
“Better than Bela, our healer. Bela’s a burp now.”
“A burp. A burp of a thing that’s sort of an alligator and sort of an earthworm and all that.” He laughs painfully. “Get it?”
“Ah, yes,” she says primly. Janet, prim? Well, she’s trying to be an acolyte of the Virgin.
“Listen,” he says. “My name’s Padric. You on an adventure? Into the Dungeon of Dread?”
“Yeah, actually. I’m Janet, Jan, and this is Daisy, and those are our, um, fellow adventurers.”
“Howdy,” he says. “These are my fellow adventurers.” He waves around. “Oh, right. They all got eaten.”
“Did he say his friends all got eaten?” asks Eleanor, who’s just jumped down by Janet.
“Yeah, some sort of alligator worm tortoise bugbear,” says Janet.
“Actually,” says Padric, “the kobolds got most of the warriors and our, ah, conjurer. Those little guys are murder.”
“You okay now?” I ask, standing up.
He starts to get up, stops halfway through and sits down again. “Sure,” he says. “But all in all, I think I shall rest a few minutes before the long push back to Insmoor. See you at Sleepy’s?”
“Yeah!” says Eleanor.
“Hope so,” says Janet.
“It’s a plan,” I say. I look at Janet, then step back and say, “Okay, so, well met, Padric.” I look up at Fenric, who’s watching with concern from among the warriors.
“We ready?” Fenric asks.
“You’re not,” says Padric. We all look at him. He’s smiling. His face is grimy and a little bloody and there’s actually some green slime on his leather jacket, which is a bit torn. “I’m just saying. You’ll be ready, though.” Maybe we don’t look convinced, because he widens his smile, shows some teeth, and gives me and Janet and Eleanor a grimy thumb up.
“I reckon he’s right,” I mutter to Janet. “Shall we?”