- In the pits
Padric is kind of sweet. He seems at pains to not offend me. We have dinner at Tony’s, which is classy for me, and then he takes me to a little chamber concert at the Count’s Palace. This is free, but it’s very classy, and we get great seats because no one under the age of fifty goes. Then he takes me home. It’s basically a First Date in nature, complete with awkward good night kiss. No waking up next to a farting warrior this time.
The next day I work all day, then head for the School to work on my over-break project, which I was supposed to start on about two weeks ago, and on which, by starting now, I am ahead of 75% of my classmates.
Zelin sees me on the block outside the school, and she manages to tag along. She’s actually some help in the alchemy lab, although she’s absolutely not supposed to be there, since she has no magical skill whatever. Lucette sees us in the lab, and instead of ratting us out, she joins us. She too is just starting the project, and we manage to combine work with socializing with planning for yet another foray.
I work all the next day. Lucette stops by in mid-afternoon to say that she is now on the Reserve Sorcery Unit, and would I like to get in on some of that? Well, how can I say no? Gurth, Lali and Padric are all on the guard; Zelin’s apparently signed up for some elf girl archer wall duty; Jan’s signed on as a healer; I suppose Fenric might have a gig thieving around the back of the orc horde.
I have a date with Padric. We go to the new place which serves some sort of weird stuff from the far continents, but I kind of like it, whatever it is: a pam tak wango with bang bang sauce and some flingflangs as appetizers. The tea is weird and wonderful. We talk about the plan during dinner: he’s in. We hold hands on the way home. For the heck of it, I opt to go back to his garrison closet, and we have a night of love followed by a morning waking up in bed with a sweaty farting snoring archer and sneaking out to wash the man stank off me with a long hot bath.
And there I sit, thinking, what the hell am I doing dating this guy?
I kind of like him. He’s nice to me. He doesn’t think he’s smarter than me: rather the opposite. He listens pretty well. He’s very nice in bed, at least on the night side of a night together, before all the farting and snoring. But there are oh so many reasons why I should not be doing this.
One: everyone has targets on them. Archers definitely do. And he’s a pretty big target, for an archer. What will I do when (okay, let’s give this an if, just for argument) he gets plugged?
Two: What does Padric want out of this? All this paying for dinner and holding hands and listening to my girl talk, all this being really sweet to me. Maybe he’s in love with me. Am I in love with him? I can’t say so. But either way, the outcome, at best, would be that my plans for my life and his plans for his life would have to somehow be made to be the same plans. I can’t go off to U of Thomasport and study higher alchemy while he goes off to Edscastle to take command of the Army of the East. But let’s not kid ourselves, dearie. Most men would assume that I would go wherever they went, and give up my own plans for whatever their plans were. And then there would be the relatives. And the babies. And the rugrats.
Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself. But the fact is, being a girlfriend, being just a steady date, that means giving up my own plans, my own independence. Yanos certainly never needed that kind of commitment.
And that brings me to three. I’m sitting there in my bath thinking of reasons why I’m concerned about the direction things are going with Padric, whom I like a lot, I really do. And every five minutes my mind puts Gurth up in front of me. And I have to shake myself because Gurth is not the subject right now. And anyway, Gurth is subject to all the same objections as Padric, well, except for number three, but Gurth’s got his own reason number three, which is this Amazon girlfriend of his.
And besides, I think, there’s—but I can’t think of any other reasons. I’m so confused about my feelings I can’t even count.
I drag myself out of the bathtub and work a shift in the back room. Lucette comes in and works the front, so Mom can go off to Travishome and buy exotics. She’s spending the night there, with her old witch pal Katlina. One can only imagine what exotic intoxicants the two of them get into. Lucette, and Zelin and Fenric and Jan, all come back and talk plans with me while I make potions. Padric shows up, and we’re all nice to him. He helps around the back, hauling stuff. He’s, like, 28 or something, he’s seen several orc wars already, but he’s quiet and shy and generally acts like I’m the older one. The others are a little amused.
Gurth and Lali stop by around closing. Guess what great idea is had? We double date. We hit the Rose and have a big dinner and some drinks, and then we go dancing. It’s really fun. It’s so much fun I’m smiling as hard as I can, just to remind myself how much fun I’m having. I find myself talking to Lali and just looking at Lali, because I find myself looking at Gurth and I make myself stop, and then I look at Padric and he gives me that smile of his, and so I look at Lali, because, well, I got nothing at stake with Lali. And by the way, Lali and Gurth get in some bickering between dances. Oh what fun.
I take Padric back to my place this time, and we share the bed with Cudgel. The next morning, it’s my bed that’s sweaty and being farted in. Cudgel doesn’t care. The little furry slut gets up, uses the litter box in the corner of the room, then comes back and dozes off on top of Padric.
And the morning after that, my mom’s stuck giving both me and Lucette the day off, because we’re all assembling at dawn outside Sleepy’s, ready to return to Valen for the first time since the new year.
It is frickin’ cold. I’m in about five layers: I’ve dug out my old tights and my longest woolen socks and my warm boots and about three sweaters. We walk the five billion miles to the ruins, entertained by Lali and Gurth arguing over something each of them said. Just to balance things, Fenric and Jan get in an argument of their own. Lucette puts in her two pence worth in both arguments, just to keep them going, I guess. Zelin walks next to me, making little asides only I can hear, a sort of ongoing commentary. Padric walks behind me, politely silent.
A gust of wind from the North Pole shuts us all up. It passes, and we find ourselves walking in one of those wonderful tranquil frickin’ cold winter mornings. After a minute, apparently realizing it’s quiet, Lali says, “You should have your effin’ ears checked because I didn’t say an effin’ thing.”
“I heard what you said,” Gurth replies, “and I know how you meant it because,” and the rest of us at this point manage to tune them out again.
We get to Valen and hustle into the cover of the entering stairs. I pause five steps down to arrange everyone, but no one else pauses. We’re in the room at the bottom before I catch up. A squad of service orcs is just entering from the south hall, and with a disciplined yell they charge us.
“Aw, screw you,” mutters Jan. “Mng na!” Lightning strikes from the ceiling and fries the big one leading the charge.
“You little bastards,” says Lali, unshouldering her brand new crossbow, putting a bolt through the forehead of an orc, then reloading and cranking it up faster than I ever imagined anyone could do, and putting another bolt in the forehead of another orc. Zelin is swearing in Klurin, her native language; pretty much all I know of it is “hello,” “goodbye,” aiya vallari, and a dozen swear words. She’s shot four orcs, and Padric three, by the time the stragglers make it to Gurth and Lali.
“You effing little bastards,” says Lali as she drops her crossbow and pulls her broadsword off her shoulder sheath. She and Gurth and Padric, with his own new guard sword, wade into the mess. Presently we’re alone in the room with about twenty orcs who won’t be there for the orc war.
“You know what?” Lali shouts at the dead, fried leader. “I hate you.”
“Okey dokey,” I say. “Shall we form up?”
“Give me a light, actually,” says Zelin. “I think we need this.”
I’m sure we did. Suitably calmed or emboldened, we arrange ourselves: Gurth & Lali, me & Zelin, Jan & Lucette, Fenric & Padric. We take the south hall, and turn west at the four way: apparently the monsters have been warned that we’re here and that we’re not taking crap from anyone. Padric kisses me awkwardly. Lali and Gurth smooch and it turns into a one minute necking session. By the time we find the stairs down, they’re bickering again.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” says Lali in a low, stiff voice.
“I don’t know that,” says Gurth in the same voice.
“Well, if you listened to what I actually said—!”
“I listen to every, stinking, word.”
“Well, if you listened to what I said,” says Zelin in a low voice, “you’d know what I said about what you said.”
“If I listened to what you said,” I reply, “I’d light your bowl every time you asked and you wouldn’t have to ask twice.” Padric giggles.
“You’re so uncaring,” says Zelin.
“Honestly,” says Jan from behind me, “you can be so bitchy sometimes.”
“Almost as bitchy as me,” says Fenric. Gurth and Lali turn to give us dirty looks. We’ve stopped at the bottom of the stairs to the third level, and so of course Zelin is filling her pipe. I light it without being told. It is very, very quiet: I can hear earth tremors from the continued settling of the Sunken Realm of Kazmin.
“Is everything just scared of us?” asks Lucette. “I have never got this far with only one encounter.”
“Really,” I say. “I was hoping for enough excitement that I can qualify for my sorcery exam.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“Wait for it,” says Fenric. We all look around.
But there’s nothing.
So we go on into the dark quiet. Down a hall, left at a T, down to Level Four, then left instead of straight at the next, to avoid that rotating intersection, and we’re out into that wide hall that runs at a diagonal. We look, see nothing, step out and get attacked.
“Nyk eur goth,” comes a voice near me. I look, and a sorceress a little older than me is standing there, dressed in a stunning black outfit with a short skirt and a bare midriff. I wonder where she left her coat—as her cease spell washes over me. I steel myself—and it turns out that I’ve resisted.
“Tro clf,” I say, flipping my wand tip at her. Webs shoot out and wrap her: guess what? She didn’t resist my spell.
“Sek nyk min,” I hear from a male voice. “Kno eur,” says Lucette. And this one works too: his hold spell is resisted, somehow, and her reverse spell sends it back at him. His fervent oath shows that he too has failed.
Around us, another struggle is underway. Two nasty-looking warriors, invisible by spell till they attacked, have at Lali and Gurth, but those first wounds, more bloody than harmful, land on Gurth’s shoulder, not his neck, and Lali’s right arm, not her dominant left arm. The advantage is squandered. With a shout of “Aiya!” Zelin’s arrow decorates one warrior’s chest, and Padric’s the other. Jan uses his guy deep voice to intone “Mng na!” and call down lightning, which just adds insult to the lethal injury one of the warriors has received.
I hear a clunk and turn around to see Padric confronting someone who seems to be just turning visible. The invisibility spell goes away the moment you attack someone, and this has just happened to someone who is either a half dark elf or just dresses and does his eye makeup that way. “Dang it,” says Padric, his cap askew, “I don’t want to be a warrior, okay?” The dark elf or whatever laughs an evil laugh and has at him with a flashy sabre, which breaks against Padric’s sturdy little short sword. Padric’s opponent throws down his broken weapon and pulls out a knife, and while he’s doing that, Padric pulls an arrow and shoots him in the chest. He stands over his opponent and yells, “I’m not a warrior, okay? I’m an archer! I shoot stuff!”
“Xu!” I cry out, and four more people appear: I’m guessing a cleric of some evil cult and three more warriors and archers. They panic and flee, arrows pursuing them. One goes down; two more escape, and from the sound, don’t stop running for a while. The cleric uses mng na herself, but just to cut through my webs, so as to free the sorceress in the black dress. She grabs the guy who held himself. They all disappear through a door and lock it, leaving three mortally wounded warriors behind.
“Whoo!” Lucette exults. “We are bad! Everybody be very afraid!”
“I already am,” says Zelin. “Let’s get on with this.”
We hurry along the wide hall, and it leads us to Club Six. The last half mile or so of this winding journey, we are followed by the hellhounds again, but Jan gets out his cross and walks backwards at the back, and the hounds never quite find the opening they want.
Club Six is quieter than last time. The dance floor is inhabited by languid wraith-like drunks, some of whom may actually be wraiths. The loudest bar is blasting its music at no one other than a barmaid, who is reading a book on alchemical geology. I’d love to ask her about it, but there’s no hope for my little tiny voice in there.
At the very back of the place, there is a little pub room that smells strongly of pub grub. Half the people in the entirety of Club Six are in this room, occupying about two thirds of its tables. One table has two ogres playing a sort of six by six chess; another has four of what look like some sort of minor demon; six Amazons and a couple of boyish elves have pushed three more tables together, with five or six cheese pies and several bowls full of fried things. The Amazons are chowing down while they engage in heavy flirting and light petting with the elf boys. At another table, three of what I think must be half orcs are playing cards and eating what is either breaded mushrooms or some sort of breaded, fried body part. There’s a couple, both more or less human, having pasta and looking like they’re in the middle of the cold phase of a major argument.
We manage to join two tables together. Lali waves at the other Amazons, then shouts some orders to the waiter, whom I recognize as a magic school dropout from last year. Poor squib. I wonder where he lives—down here? We shout some additional orders, and he goes off to fetch our pies, fish and chips, chips without fish, fried vegetables of various sorts, fried cheese sticks, fried pickles of course, burgers, chowder, curry, cheesy bread and, of course, beer.
“I need to use the bathroom, like, real bad,” I say.
“Oh, me too,” says Lucette.
So we rush off and find the bathroom. Down here, it’s so cute: a door marked Ladies, another marked Gents and then a larger door marked Monsters.
“This is way more fun than I expected,” she says to me from stall to stall.
“Oh, yeah,” I say, thinking about what peeing in the hall is like, and how much I appreciate magical plumbing. “No one dead and we’re already six levels down.”
We finish, wash our hands—luxury!—and step back out. A nice looking gent is coming out of the Gents’. Judging from his lack of armor, he’s some kind of mage, some kind of cleric, some kind of druid, or possibly a vampire. He says, “Hey, Lucette, how’s it goin’?”
“Great,” she says in a way that communicates to me her complete lack of memory of this guy.
“You come down just for the Club or are you on some kind of mission?”
“Oh, ha ha,” she says. I say, “Actually, kind of thinking of trying to find the way to Vladimir’s. Got any hints about that?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Go there all the time. On the way back up right now or I’d show you. So you’re going to want to find the Long Stair, it actually starts on Three, but you can get on from Seven through a secret door. Goes all the way there, almost. It’s a big help.”
“All the way there almost,” I say. “Secret door on Seven.”
“Gosh, thanks,” says Lucette.
“So,” he goes on, closing the distance to Lucette by half, “you staying the night down here?”
She looks at me. “We haven’t figured that out,” she says.
“Well,” he says, “keep me in mind, right?” He squeezes her arm, looks at me for the first time and says, “Heeeey.” With a flirty wave, he’s off toward the wraith-crowded dance floor.
“Who was that guy?” I ask.
“Gerald,” she says.
“What is he?”
“Monk. Yeah, I know, right?” We look back into the pub. I can see Lali and Gurth still bickering. “Daisy,” says Lucette. “We do need to sleep, right?”
“Eat, then sleep, then go.”
“Do you think we’re really going to get all the way to Vladimir’s?”
“I don’t know why not,” I say, even though I’m having lots of second thoughts.
“Daisy. Is this insane? Are we going to find the—the thing? Are we going to get there before anyone else? What if we meet someone really powerful? I mean, you don’t suppose anyone more powerful than a frickin’ enchantress or two is looking for this, do you?”
“I know, I know.” I look around. Is this happening? I’m reassuring Lucette Barnswallow, whose dad is the Count Dago’s head of magic security? Whose dad, in fact, might be one of those more powerful people? And now I’m wondering about Lucette. Again. What if Dad sent her down here to look because he can’t tear himself away from his work? What if she’s just his agent on the ground? But it doesn’t scan. She wouldn’t be here, asking these questions, if she were his stooge. And the double cross doesn’t work that way. She wouldn’t fool me into thinking her dad wasn’t up to something by suggesting someone powerful (like her dad) might be up to something. All this shoots through my brain in a second or two, because, obviously, I’m a frickin’ genius. Yeah. Suitably reassured, I go back to reassuring her. “Lucette,” I say. “I don’t see Gregorio, I don’t see Yanos, and that Gerald guy, he doesn’t seem like the sort, do you think?”
“No,” she says distastefully.
“The thing we’re looking for is not something everyone’s looking for. It’s not a gold rush. We’re just scouting this time, anyway. The quieter we can be, the better. As long as we trust each other, I—!” I stop. I can’t help cracking a smile.
She laughs a little. “Okay,” she says, “that was a good one. Ha.”
“But if we have to, we can trust each other. Right? Right?”
She pats down her smile and says, “Right. Pinky promise?” And we do. And that has to be good enough for now.
We try out the special room for people who need to sleep over. Lali and Gurth bicker for a few minutes in the far corner, then have a make-out session that is loud in spite of their effort to keep it quiet. Fenric is much quieter in another corner, making out with some archer he knows from somewhere. Padric wants to smooch with me, but he’s shy about doing it in the same room with everyone else, so he settles for awkward cuddling. I can tell he’s in his head: he practically mutters to himself while I’m laying my head on his shoulder. Finally he sort of sighs, mutters something that I hope isn’t “I love you,” and ten seconds later is snoring. Jan just lies down and goes straight to sleep. Zelin is sitting near the door, reading a cheap novel of the sort they print in Thomasport. Lucette tries to sleep near her, then moves over near us where it’s dark, can’t sleep there either, goes back out to get another drink, and is on her way back into the sleeping room when she bumps into me on my way out.
“I’ve had it with him,” she says.
“I have too,” I whisper. “Who have you had it with?”
“Gerard,” says Zelin, not looking up.
“How did you know?” asks Lucette. Zelin sort of shrugs. “He’s a frickin’ monk,” says Lucette. “No, I don’t want to know if he wears anything under the robe. Who have you had it with?”
I look back into the dark room. “Oh,” I say, “just guys. In general.”
“Even Padric?” Zelin asks quietly without looking up.
I sigh again. “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well, you’d better get some sleep,” says the Elf. “We’ve never been below Six, and they say Vladimir’s is on Fourteen.”
Lucette and I look at each other. “And why,” asks Lucette, “do we want to go there again? Just remind me.”
“Because,” I say, “we are going to be sorceresses.”
She thinks about that for a minute and then says, “You guys want to split a bottle of wine?”
We do that. We go back to one of the empty bars and have a bottle at a corner table. And there we are, an hour later, finishing our last glasses, having figured out pretty much what the meaning of life is. “We should go get some sleep,” says Lucette sensibly.
“Yeah,” I say, and I follow that with, “Oh great.”
Lucette and Zelin look up just in time to see a group of eight or so pass by the little room we’re in. We know some of them.
“That’s Stacy,” says Lucette.
“Stacy?” asks Zelin.
“Anastasia,” says Lucette. “Anastasia Kappa.”
“One of the Three Graces,” I say.
“The Three Graces??”” Lucette repeats. “Oh, I see. Stacy and Penny and Peach. Well, Stace is the one with all the brains, of those three.”
“You’re smarter than all three of them together,” I say. “Which isn’t that much of a compliment.”
“No, it isn’t, but I’ll take it anyway,” she says. Zelin gives a tiny elfin snort.
“Anyway, that’s not what the ‘oh great’ was about.”
“What was it about?”
“It was that guy Gregor or something, wasn’t it?” says Zelin. “Gregorio.”
“Yup,” I say. “Well, let’s get some sleep, Luce. But Zelin. Don’t let us sleep too long.”
But Zelin is still reading when I wake up, maybe an hour and a half later, fresh from a strange dream in which I’m in a dark cellar, watching people playing a game with dice. Whatever. It’s not a dream that tells me what to do next. I wake up knowing what to do next on my own, because, as you know, I am frickin’ brilliant.
“To the bar,” I say to Zelin. “Is Gregorio still around?”
“He’s playing a card game,” says the Elf. “He and several other magical types. I believe they’re trying to use spells on one another.”
“Oh yes,” I say. “Mages’ poker. All non-damage spells are legal. They throw charms, they try to change each other’s cards, they’re using telepathy, block telepathy, frickin’ invisible roving eyes and stuff. It’s real macho. The game of geniuses, that is. It always ends up in a fight.”
“Interesting,” says Zelin. “So this got you out of bed? You want to go join them?”
“Oh, no,” I say. “I just want to help them, um, express themselves to the fullest. You coming?”
“Of course. Do you need me to do anything?”
“Sure. Order a glass of absinthe with a sprinkle of clove. Don’t drink it.”
To Zelin’s credit, she doesn’t say, “What?” Instead, a minute later, once I’ve ordered a gin and goat milk, we sit together at yet another little round table. The card game is in the next room, a small room filled by a large table with nine men and a woman around it, all looking like they’re smarter than anyone else in the County of Insmoor. Gregorio is making a smart remark to Stacy. A sorcerer a few years older than me, on the other side of Stace the Grace, chortles.
I take a drink of the goat milk cocktail I have, then get the glass back up to full by adding from the absinthe. I look at her, and she says nothing. I go into my pack and pull out a couple of vials. One has spider legs, which have these tiny hairs on them that give off this particular fluid that has a surprising number of uses. The other, larger vial is full of cat pee. Cudgel likes to pee on the stone slab in the alley out back, and not bury it: I suspect it’s territorial or something. Males, you know. Anyway, that too has its uses and I’m not shy about gathering it.
We won’t even get into how useful menstruation can be. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to go rummaging through my pack if you’re not me or someone a lot like me.
I scatter a few spider legs into the goat milk. I look at the bar.
“What next?” Zelin asks in a whisper.
“There,” I say. She turns to look: a waitress, who appears to be some sort of spirit servant or possibly some kind of undead, is gathering a tray of drinks. “See, part of this game, I’ve seen them do this in town, over in the back room at the Mouse, they order weird varieties of drinks and pass them around.”
“So you have a weird drink to add to the mix.”
“Kinda.” I wait a few more moments, then pour the cat pee into the drink. “Put this on the tray,” I tell Zelin.
Again to her credit, she doesn’t ask any questions. The waitress has already taken up the tray with its ten weird drinks, so Zelin glides over and puts my concoction in the middle of the tray. The waitress doesn’t say a thing. Zelin comes back. I’m already up. In just a few moments, my cocktail will begin to fume, in that cramped little room, and those clever card players will stop trying to throw spells on one another and take a nice nap, from which they will wake in twelve hours or so with nasty hangovers.
Magical geniuses. Never bet against a good alchemist.
“Let’s get everyone going,” I say. “We just bought ourselves some time.”
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.”
“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.
I’m not at the front of the pack. I land on Lali and Gurth and Padric, and I’m fairly glad it was that way and not the other way around. Lucette lands on me. Fenric lands on both of us, and Jan and Zelin land to the sides. There is a lot of swearing. Then we all try to stand up, and there’s a lot more swearing.
The chamber we’re in is narrow and bowl-shaped. In it already are two live people, and several more not so live. These form a sort of carpet. It’s a challenge just standing up. But presently we manage, and then we start to ask the important questions.
“What the hell?” says Lucette.
“What the hell just happened?” asks Padric.
“Are you guys okay?” asks a woman who was here before us.
“Who are you?” asks Jan.
“What the hell am I standing on?” I ask.
“Where is my frickin’ wand?” asks Lucette.
“Here,” says Fenric. Lucette takes her wand back and gets it lit again. I raise mine too.
We are in a narrow, round room with smooth walls. The floor is down there somewhere, its concavity buried in several dead bodies. Right next to me is a gnome in a round iron helmet. He’s looking up at me—finally someone shorter than I am!—and squinting against the light. He gives me a serious look, then gestures at our feet. “That,” he says in almost no accent, “is Harald. He was with my group. This one,” he goes on, seriously, gesturing at the body Lucette is standing on, “he was here when we fell in here. The others are goblins, as I think you can still tell. I think there are a couple more buried under the ones on top. Me, I am called Othgar. Oh, and this is Glee,” he finishes, indicating the other living person, a brunette my age whom I have never met. She’s wedged between Gurth and Padric, and Lali is looking upon her with loathing. The woman is holding a wand too.
“Glee Fredkin,” she says. She whispers to her wand, and it lights up blue. “Sorry I didn’t have this going before. It might have helped.”
“I doubt it,” I say. “Zelin, are you around here somewhere?”
“I’m behind Padric,” her voice says from what seems a great distance. “I gather that this is an orc trap, a trap set by orcs that is. But of course they’re already being called to the surface for the Wars, so perhaps they aren’t checking their trap like they should.”
“You’re saying,” Lucette replies, “orcs trap people here and rob them. Or what?”
“Or kill them and eat them. And that would be an inclusive or.”
“But they trapped some goblins,” says Padric. “Is that something they would do?”
“Oh, sure,” says Gurth. “Orcs think goblins are lesser beings. I actually took some Orkish at the Institute, you know, before they figured out I couldn’t even manage a light spell and kicked me out.”
“I didn’t know you’d tried magic,” I say.
“Oh, he’s full of surprises,” says Lali. “And he’s, my, boyfriend. What are you, an enchantress?”
“Hey now,” says Glee. “I am on my mission for sorceress.”
“Well,” says Lali, “if your mission was to get trapped and starve to death, I guess you’re well on your way.”
“We’re going to starve to death?” asks Lucette. “There’s no way out?”
“There’s a way out,” says Zelin. “Actually there are two.”
“Okay, elf girl, explain about that.”
“Okay. Obviously we could go back the way we came.”
“Right. If we had like a ladder, or we’d thought to anchor a rope up there or something. I don’t even know how far we fell. I think I twisted my ankle.”
“There is also the entrance the orcs would use to kill us and take our things. You can just make it out up there,” and she moves around Padric so she can direct my wand light at a smooth area on the wall about twenty feet up. Sure enough, there are cracks that indicate a well-fitted secret door.
“Again,” says Lucette, “great if you could climb a sheer wall.”
“Or,” says Zelin, “if you had the Levitate spell.”
“Dang,” I say. “I was going to get that next. You don’t have it, do you, Glee Fredkin?”
“No. You’re an enchantress? Both you guys?”
“Yep. We should be ready for our sorceress missions too, if we ever get out of this.”
“So none of you knows the spell,” says Zelin. We all wait a beat, and then she says, “I know the word, if you want to try it.”
“You what?” asks Lucette. “You’re a magic user too now?”
“No, no,” I say. “She just remembers the words. She doesn’t have any actual power.”
“And you can learn them off her?”
“Yes,” says Zelin, “because Daisy is a good learner. Are you a good learner?”
Understand that where we are is basically just big enough for the ten of us who are actually alive to stand in a little crowd, on top of a sort of floor formed by people who used to be alive but aren’t anymore. It’s toasty warm, all right—it may be January outside but I am sweating more even than during sex with Padric. The thought occurs to me and I half laugh: sex was the furthest thing from my mind.
Everyone looks at me. I look at them too. The short people are in the middle: me, Zelin, Glee, Othgar the Gnome, and Lucette (who is the tall one of the five of us). Around us are the taller members: Jan, Fenric, Gurth, Padric, and Lali. Lucette and Glee have their wands up and lit. I hold my wand close, between me and Zelin.
“Ready?” asks the Elf.
“I’ve heard this a few times,” she says, “and I’m pretty sure it’s right, but if you say it and turn into a slug, we’ll have to rethink.” She clears her throat, and so do I. “Gafoog,” she says.
I flick my wand to the extent that I can between my chest and hers. “Gafoog.” We both look down. “I think I felt something. Maybe a little lighter?”
“I’d say hold your wand up,” Lucette advises. “That’s the direction you want to go, right?”
“And I’m pretty sure,” says Glee, “it’s supposed to be just one word. One syllable.”
“One syllable. Ga-foog.”
“I think it’s like g, f, u, g. Can I try?”
“Gfug,” I say. I point my wand up and intone, enthusiastically, “Gfug!” I shoot up off the ground and in about one second whack my pretty head on the slimy slanted ceiling right next to the hole we all fell out of. I figure out how to dial it back and settle in with my feet just over the heads of the warriors. It’s not walking on air; it’s more as if I’m supposed to be at a certain height off the ground, and when I’m there I’m without weight. My hair even floats a bit.
In a moment, Glee is shooting past me with a smile on her face, and then dropping back down again, going ow and holding her head. She winds up booting Padric—she wears big ass leather boots that come up past the knee, which I know because she also favors a fairly short skirt. He looks up to see what hit him, and appears fascinated, which makes me wonder what color (if any) her underwear are.
Lucette drifts up amongst us, looking dubious to the point of nausea, but settles next to me and smiles. “New spell,” she says. “Cool.”
“So if you’re done adjusting,” says Zelin from below, “would you mind—?”
I look down on the others—really, I love this spell. Anyway, I look down and the Elf is handing a piece of rope to Padric, who holds the end up to me. I drop a yard or two, then steady myself with a wand move that I really can’t describe to someone who is not a magic practitioner—sorry. I gently descend a couple more feet, squat down on the air and take the end of the rope.
Holding it in one hand, I use my wand to drag me up and over toward the door. Curiously, horizontal movement is a lot harder than vertical. Well, it’s only a one-word spell. Glee and Lucette give me a push toward the door, and this does the trick, although it propels them in the opposite direction.
This is already helping me understand all that stuff I learned and forgot about momentum and inertia and Balthazar’s Four Laws of Motion.
A quick rok! and a flick of the wand, and the half-secret door pops open inward. I step off of the air and into a low wide room that reeks of orc. There are no live orcs in there. There are a couple of dead ones, but not recent: probably casualties of the party they had before taking off.
I look around, then back out on the throng. Lucette and Glee are now gfug-ing the others one by one up to our level, using the rope just to help people with the horizontal stuff. In a minute, all ten of us are in the orc room.
“All right,” says Othgar, who is now the museum guide. “Here we have the orcs’ multi-use parlor. Off there, through the arch, is the kitchen, where they cut you up before they eat you uncooked. Over here are the barracks. And this,” he says, entering a room with a heavy, lockable door, which is standing open, “is the treasure room. Note its empty state.”
“Wait,” says Fenric, “how about—?” He finagles open the one small chest he finds in an open closet. It’s full of copper pieces. “Dang.”
“Sorry,” says Othgar. “You would be a thief, no?”
“I think introductions are in order, don’t you?” says Jan.
And she proceeds to introduce us all. It turns out that Glee fell in through the same trap as us, a day or two ago, and Othgar was captured in a skirmish and dumped in the same trap by some goblins who knew where it was.
“I guess the rest of my squad left me for dead,” says Othgar. “Harald was dead, whereas I was merely hit on the head.”
“I don’t even know,” says Glee, “if the others noticed I was gone. We had a sorcerer as well, and I think they sort of tolerated me as an apprentice or something. Maybe they were glad to be rid of me.”
“Was it Samuel of Tingwall?” asks Zelin.
“His name was Samuel,” says Glee. “Kind of a jerk.”
Zelin and Gurth exchange chortles. “That would be Samuel of Tingwall,” says Gurth.
“So,” I say to Othgar, “know the way from here to Vladimir’s?”
“Not very well,” says Othgar. “Only been there five billion times. Shall we?”
And indeed, from there, it’s down a stair, down a hall, around a corner, left at the four way, down another stair, past the doors marked MEN, WOMEN and MONSTERS, and we’re there. And we only see two dragons on the way down, and only one of them sees us. And it doesn’t quite manage to burn the back row into a crisp, though we all get to find out what burnt cloak smells like.