Chapter 12: At Vladimir & Audrey’s

XII. At Vladimir & Audrey’s

1.

I’m expecting Club Six South, or maybe Sleepy’s Deep. Instead, it’s that dive bar by the East Gate, the one which changes ownership and name every couple of years and no one remembers its name anyway. The dive. The place where people go when they just want to indulge their alcoholism without being bothered by someone else’s after work party.

 

Of course, Vladimir’s has a name everyone knows, and its owners, who are reputed to be a Guardian (Vladimir) married to a Time Warrior (Audrey), haven’t stopped being its owners in the past several centuries. There he is behind the bar, a big man with a thin reddish beard, wearing a stained tunic with an apron over it. There she is, in and out of the little back room with plates of food or wine bottles, a not-short, not-skinny woman with tousled reddish hair reaching down around her collar bone, in a once-nice dress and a necklace with an eye-catching diamond. No doubt it has some powerful magic in it, but what really catches the eye is the ring on her finger. So, yes, she is a Time Warrior.

 

The bar stretches most of the length of the left side of the room, maybe thirty feet, with twelve stools. There are eight little square tables crowded in the middle and along the right wall. There is a tiny space for a few people to set up and play music at the far right corner, but no one is there now. Six of the eight tables and eight of the twelve bar seats are taken. Unlike the dive at the end of town, these people are not dead-enders drinking themselves into oblivion. No, these are driven, successful adventurers drinking themselves into oblivion. Of course half of them aren’t human, and that’s counting Elves and Dwarves as human, which Elves and Dwarves would find offensive.

 

There are old grizzled warriors, and one table of old grizzled wizards. A guy who looks like the Archbishop of Thomasport is sitting with three Amazon warriors. There are three ogres hunched over the bar; the last person along turns out to be a smallish giantess. At the corner table to our right as we come in are two leering demons, a gal who must be a vampire and a greenish dude with tentacles around his face. They’re playing cards.

 

“That would be a mind flayer,” Zelin whispers in my ear. But I’m not looking at them. I’m watching Audrey, arguably the most normal-looking person in the room, except for that big fat gold ring with a greyish gem the size of a sparrow.

 

I’ve seen a time warrior ring before. But I don’t realize that until just now.

 

Professor Shmoke has one. That’s what that ring is, his only ring. It’s much like hers, but with a purple gem, a sort of dark amethyst. That he only wears one ring when most wizards sport at least four is always a topic of discussion at the Institute. But no one ever said, “He’s a Time Warrior, you know.” Why would a Time Warrior be teaching History of Magic at the Insmoor Magic Institute? Well, why would a Time Warrior be delivering a plate of nachos to two demons, a vampiress and a mind flayer fourteen levels deep in Valen Dungeon?

 

“Tables over there,” says Lali. “Excuse me. Can we put these tables together?”

 

“Oh, certainly, dear,” says Audrey, not stopping as she passes. “Pitchers and glasses? Bottles of wine?”

 

“Your best ale,” says Fenric amiably.

 

“Two pitchers,” says Audrey, already behind the bar. “We only have our best, dear.”

 

“Am I allowed to say,” asks Othgar the Gnome, “that this is your first time here? Do you mind if I say that aloud?”

 

“You’re an old hand, I guess,” says Padric.

 

“My mates and I have a place you can get to off Level Ten,” the gnome replies. “Stop by any time, just mention my name, presuming that by that time they know I’m still alive. Don’t want to shock my brethren: most gnomes don’t react well to pleasant surprises. Anyway,” and he leans over the table in a way that makes all the rest of us do the same, “I guess I’ll have a beer or two and head home, but before I do, I suppose you want the lowdown on local dragons?”

 

“Yes, actually,” says Fenric. “Those two we saw—?”

 

“Those are both wandering cave dragons. Cave dragons are stupid, they have the brains of a reptile. But they’re fire breathers, so they can be quite dangerous. But, you, you are looking for a dragon with some sort of treasure.

 

The party manages to all look at one another, except that I’m still watching Audrey move about the bar, and Glee Fredkin is still just in awe or something.

 

“It’s fair to say,” replies Zelin, “that we are looking for treasure.”

 

“And you consider that you lot are ready to take on the type of dragon that would sit atop a major hoard?” He looks around; so does everyone else, including me and Glee. At the next table, a beautiful witch with long silvery hair, in a classic witch hat and a black bikini, raises a bored eyebrow at us. We lean back together.

 

“No,” and “Yes,” various of us say: Lali and Fenric are in the Yes column, while Zelin, Jan, Lucette and Gurth are all No. “It’s not a simple question,” says Zelin.

 

“We’re gonna lose a few people,” says Lucette. “But then me and Daisy will be up for Sorceress and—!”

 

“Make room, dears,” says Audrey, plunking down ten mugs and two pitchers of coppery ale. That left hand with that big ring is right in my face.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

3.

 

Vladimir’s, too, has a back room people can sleep in, which makes sense if you think about it. You’re far down into the Earth, beneath unimaginable tons of rock and fourteen levels of labyrinth. The Abyss is nearer than the surface: in fact, outside the back entrance there’s a ramp down into the notorious Level Fifteen, which apparently has a Hideous Altar and, a little further on, a Guardian Figure, both of which are there to prevent an escape of demons from the Abyss; that would be the moral and spiritual equivalent of severe acid reflux. You’re tired, you’re possibly wounded, you’re probably low on spell energy, and, by the way, you’re drunk. Naturally you’re going to want to crash somewhere.

 

The somewhere is a surprisingly small room, no more than twenty by thirty feet, off to the right of the kitchen. Audrey directs us there, and we throw down whatever we have for bedding and grab what we can for z’s. I cuddle with Padric; but even Lali can’t bring herself to get in some lovin’. After some hours, another eight people (including several dwarves and some sort of sylph or something) come in and we make room. Me being me, I can’t fall back asleep.

 

I come out and the place’s clientele has turned over. Now there are a couple of youngish blue dragons at a table playing backgammon, and a new gang of six adventurers (not including Gregorio, Gerald or Stacy, thank the Virgin) around our two tables. There’s a game of Parcheesi with a vampire, an evil high priest, and a black-skinned nude Amazon warrior. Their fourth member is the only one not definable by her outfit: a plain but pretty woman in jeans and a tee shirt. Must be a wizard. Zelin and Othgar are sitting at the bar, drinking wine, passing a bowl and conferring with Vladimir.

 

“So you’re Daisy,” says the barman. “Your Elvish friend has been telling me about you.”

 

“Really?” I reply. “What’s to say?” But they just laugh.

 

“Othgar was telling me about the layout down here,” says Zelin. “And Vladimir has been putting in his, what do you say? Two pennies?”

 

“That’s all it’s worth,” says the bartender.

 

“Oh, sure,” I say. “You’re a Guardian? What’s that like?”

 

“I am a Guardian,” he says with a sort of humble laugh. He reaches into his work shirt and pulls out a chain with a big skeleton key on it. “But just of this little zone around Vladimir’s.” He looks around as if afraid. “Vladimir and Audrey’s,” he corrects himself. He leans toward me. “I understand you are looking for Thyrssa the Black.”

 

“Uh, yes, not for me, for my friend,” I babble, my eye perhaps lingering on his key. He notices me look at it, and several thoughts rush through my brain knocking stuff over: a sexual innuendo (think about what a key does; do I admire his key? Etc.) and a suspicion that he knows what I’m actually looking for (which is very much a key and not a metaphor for anything).

 

He grins. I panic. But he says, “Perhaps you would think you could become a Guardian yourself, little enchantress?”

 

“Well, I, uh,” and at that point I run out. His laugh saves me from finishing.

 

“It is a very hard thing,” he says. What is that accent? I suppose he made it up himself. “Becoming a Guardian is much harder, much harder than you would think. Set yourself an easier goal. Say, Time Warrior. Ha!” The laugh is directed at Audrey, passing with a pizza.

 

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “So much easier being a T W. My husband is an endless source of hilarity, don’t you think? Here you are, dears,” she says, depositing the pizza, which is very deep dish and seems to have literally everything on it, by the two dragons.

 

“Thank you, dear lady,” one of them says in a snake-like voice. The other bows its big head politely. She smiles and heads back behind the bar, passing behind Vladimir and giving him a quick kiss on the lips. She stops, backs up and looks at me.

 

“You can do it,” she says. “I think you have it in you. I do.” She smiles at Zelin, then bustles back into the kitchen to make more pub grub.

 

 

 

4.

 

We’re eating breakfast at Vlad & Audrey’s. They never charge anything, which might seem strange except that he’s a Guardian and she’s a Time Warrior and why bother? Anyway, Jan and Fen and Lucette and I, and Gurth and Lali and Padric, are sitting around Glee eating muffins with syrup and some very dark roasted coffee. Zelin and Othgar are over along the bar with Vladimir, having muffins with syrup and coffee, and sharing a bowl (of course). No one else is in the place. Audrey is apparently in a “meeting.”

 

“She’s on all kinds of committees,” says Vladimir. “Huh! Time Warrior stuff. She can have it.”

 

“Say,” Lucette mutters after a sip, “this is some good stuff.”

 

“Never had coffee before?” I ask.

 

“You haven’t either, don’t even start.”

 

“They grow it on South Land,” says Glee. “They import it in Sigurd Bay. But I don’t think it’s ever tasted as good as this.”

 

“You could do some good alchemy with this stuff,” says Lucette.

 

I reply, “I’m thinking about it.”

 

“So, we all go, or just a few of us, or just Glee and Othgar?” asks Jan.

 

“I could do this by myself,” says Glee, “but I wouldn’t say no to some company.”

 

“Oh, let’s just all go,” says Lucette. “Maybe I’ll learn something. Also, I remember reading about schooling fish, where if there’s more fish on the outside for the sharks to eat, the ones on the inside are more likely to be okay.”

 

“Unless it’s like Shmoke’s friend Kasen,” I say, “plucked from the third row and swallowed whole.”

 

“Whole?” says Padric.

 

“Armor and all?” says Gurth. “Did Odnorek like, poop out an armor ball or something?”

 

“Dragons’ tum-tums,” says Jan, “run hot. They melt gold and silver. I wouldn’t be surprised if they melt iron too.”

 

“At twenty-eight hundred degrees?” says Gurth. “Hey, I paid attention in school too.”

 

“No, it’s true,” says Othgar from the bar. “They crap out lumps of metal. You look at a gold dragon hoard, if you ever get the chance before they fry you where you stand, you’ll notice a lot of the gold and silver is melted together just by being under them. It’s the heat of their stomachs. Who knows how that works, but it’s true.”

 

“And I’m supposed to go stand there,” says Glee.

 

“I didn’t say you had to,” the gnome replies. “I didn’t say you had to make sorceress. You’re the one who wants to make sorceress. I’ll show you to the place, but I’m standing outside.”

 

“Me too,” says Lucette. “I’ll go up there but I’m not going in. I bet you’re supposed to do it on your own.” There’s general agreement on this point. Glee shrugs.

 

“All you have to do is stand in the cave for a moment?” I ask.

 

“Well,” she says, “I have to take at least a copper piece to prove I was there.” We all sort of ooh and several of us move away from her a few inches. “What?”

 

“Well, okay, sure,” says Fenric, in his most grown-up voice. “I can give you some pointers, um, Glee. But obviously you have to do this yourself. We can’t go in with you.”

 

“Nope, sorry,” say several of the others.

 

“Glee,” says Jan, “you know, don’t you, that taking a coin from a dragon, even a copper penny, will, um, tend to rile up said dragon?”

 

“Just a copper?”

 

“They’re very particular,” says Othgar. He lifts his coffee, takes a big swig, puts it down and says, while the rest of us are still trying to decide if we want to be in the same room with Glee Fredkin, “I gather your professor really didn’t like you.”

 

“No,” she says in a small voice.

 

“I mean really didn’t like you.”

 

“Nope,” she says. She takes a drink of coffee and then holds it in front of her like she’s trying to hide behind it.

 

“Because Thyrssa’s a mean mother. I mean, you need to know that, right?” Glee just raises her eyebrows. A wave of raised eyebrows rolls out from her across the tables, ending at Zelin, who gives her raised eyebrows to Othgar. “Okay, then,” he says. “In this case, you’ll definitely want to know about the Shaft.”

 

 

 

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 earthworm 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 huma 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 at the four way. 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.”

 

 

 

6.

 

The dragon Thyrssa lives in a lovely place that would only be considered a lovely place if one was a dead king or a dragon. As with Castle Valentia after Landarcus took over, she’s taken the great Odnorek’s considerable manor house and made it her own. Odnorek, for a dragon, was and still is thought of kindly. Apart from a taste for archers, he’s apparently a sort of dragon mensch. This is not how people think of Thyrssa the Black.

 

I know just a little about dragons from my studies, and just a little more from having a few younger or stupider ones threaten me and my friends in these halls. I do know that the ranking of dragons by intelligence goes something like this: Cave dragons < White, red and a few other low-class colors of dragon < Black dragons < Your typical goblin < Brown dragons < Green dragons < Silvers < Golds < Platinums, which may not even be an actual thing < Anything above this level is a one-off, and you probably don’t stand a chance against it anyway, whether it’s eating you, breathing on you or playing chess with you.

 

But there are exceptions, and I clearly recall Professor Zing-Grey, in my first year Draconology class, making a big deal of the fact that dragons continue to grow, in body and in brain, throughout their long lives. “People have to work their brains or they become stupid,” I remember her telling us, “as is often seen, but an old dragon can sit there for centuries calculating. They just love to calculate.”

 

Thus, Professor Shmoke continues to maintain that Odnorek was always smarter than him, and Shmoke may be many things but he’s neither stupid nor especially humble. And Thyrssa the Black may not be able to beat Odnorek at chess, but she’s no fool and no mere beast.

 

Standing out in the hall, Glee looks sufficiently concerned, so I step up next to her. She looks nervously at me. I smile. She takes my left hand with her right, which surprises and alarms me at first, and then raises her wand in her left hand and touches the door in the middle. It swings open slowly, revealing a hallway wide enough for three abreast, arched upward to twice my height, and walled in the same shiny black wood as the door. It goes back maybe twenty feet and then turns left. A modest amount of light comes around the corner.

 

The door makes a slight tinkling sound, but Glee is prepared for that: “Shesh,” she says, the quiet spell, that most underrated spell of all time. We smile at each other and look in.

 

It all is very clean, as if, say, a large, hot beast shoved itself through the hallway on a regular basis.

 

“Well, okay,” whispers Glee. “I’m off.”

 

“How far do you have to go?” I ask.

 

“I guess down and around the corner.” She looks that way. She doesn’t seem anywhere near actually moving forward.

 

I hold up the hand she’s still holding. I squeeze her hand and ask, “Do you need someone to go with you just inside?”

 

I’m not sure what makes me ask this. I don’t know Glee, not yet, though it turns out she’s not the sort of person who conceals deep wells of secret inner life. I should be extremely frightened: that would be a normal reaction for me. Intellectually, I know this is a bad situation. The environmental cues are distinctly negative. And I know I don’t need to go in: it really is her mission, not mine. My friends commence to quietly urge me to restrain myself.

 

Glee holds my gaze for a little. Finally she whispers, “Maybe just inside.”

 

We go in, hand in hand, her wand in her left hand, my wand in my right. We don’t purposely shut off our wands’ light; somehow the place does that for us, so that by the time we’re close to the far end of the hall, the only light is the curious glow from the next chamber. There’s plenty of sound, of course—I can’t even hear my boots on the stone floor. It’s sort of like the wind over a boiling ocean, and also sort of like a large hot beast snoring. Still, unaccountably, I find myself wanting to hurry to get there.

 

The hall turns sharply left and goes on for a few feet, and then expands into a large chamber. I do not, at this point, see much of the chamber, but the scattered gold and silver cross the floor into the little bit of hall; just inside there are the racks of crowns and huge gems and precious items, along with handy pegboards full of rings and necklaces and hooks hung with jewelry and robes of precious metals festooned with gems. Festoon: how I love that word; I bet it’s one of Thyrssa’s favorite words as well, and you would be hard-put to describe her place without it. In front of the racks and pegboards is a sort of bench or table, also mostly covered with jewelry. It’s wood, but it’s been slowly roasted in this hot room to the point that nothing could make it catch fire.

 

After a few seconds standing there in the corner, we both realize with a start that we’re looking at a gigantic swollen tail. It’s black as night, its scales just discernable, but it has gold and silver coins stuck to it like bits of frosting to the face of a toddler at a birthday party. It’s twitching ever so slightly.

 

I make myself look away from it. I can tell Glee is hypnotized just a little by that tail. I tug on her hand and we look at each other. “I can’t go in with you,” I whisper, just audible to me over the snoring. “Just try not to look at it.”

 

We smile at each other, and then we both look away, finding something else in there to set our eyes on besides the dragon’s tail. Because, you know, a dragon’s tail tends to be attached to a dragon, and a tail this formidable—well, you get the picture. So: pegboards. Hooks. Table.

 

And that is when I see something that makes this whole stupid idea worthwhile.

 

 

 

7.

 

I literally back up all the way out to the hall. About the time I get there, there’s a change in the sound from inside: the snoring sort of snorts and bumps. The ground shakes just perceptibly. Glee comes careening around the corner, bounces off the wall and charges into us.

 

We shut the door. I toss paf nis on it. Glee turns and does the same.

 

“This way, mates,” Othgar suggests. We follow him down the hall and around the next corner. We’re not in any order: we’re lucky to all be going the same way. Glee and I are in back; right in front of us are Lucette and Zelin. As we get to the corner, all four of us involuntarily look back.

 

The doors bow out observably. Then I feel like I’m slapped: my lock spell breaks. The doors fly open.

 

We all articulate our feelings with short obscenities. The Elvish word lenk has a distinct expressive power, for instance: say it slowly, then say it fast. See?

 

By the time you’ve done that, we’re halfway down the next hall. Behind us, a stream of fire fills the corner, and a hot breeze hurries after us. It buoys us along as we dash to the next corner. Othgar, bless his tiny heart, is standing in the T intersection waving us to the right and saying, in case we didn’t get it, “This way, move it, best hurry!” Falling in next to me he says, “We’ll see how long she stays interested, eh?”

 

“Yeah,” I reply. “How much further?”

 

We careen left around another corner. “Hold up, hold up!” Othgar yell/whispers.

 

Somehow this gets through to everyone. He pushes up to the front, where Lali and Gurth and Padric are passing the time fighting off a small group of attacking goblins. Lali is especially pissed off; the goblins get the idea and cheese it with only four dead.

 

“Guys, guys,” says Othgar, elbowing past Zelin. “The, um, what you’re lookin’ for right now is—!”

 

“Is it this?” asks Jan. He and Fenric are standing in front of what was a blank section of wall, but Fenric appears to be peeling back a sort of stony wallpaper to reveal a flat metallic door.

 

Othgar looks back at us. “Gather close, gather close,” he says, and we do. “Dragon got tired of chasing us?” he asks me.

 

“I think so,” I say.

 

“Excellent. Miss Glee Fredkin here must’ve thought better of taking anything, eh?”

 

“Oh, trust me,” says Glee, “I took as little as I could.” She holds up a single copper half-penny, half-melted. She looks around as if she expects Thyrssa to come around the corner after all.

 

“That’s a ha’penny too much,” says Othgar. “But, a mission is a mission, I reckon.” He looks at Fenric. “Well, Mr. Smart Thief, open it.”

 

Fenric messes around a little and then finds a spot he can push in and another spot pops out and he pushes that in, and the door pops open about a quarter of an inch. He laughs.

 

“There you go,” says Othgar. “The Shaft. You’re extremely welcome, best get on, time’s passing and the day’s wasting away, must go, nice to meet, hope to see you again, we’ll have a beer, bye now, good day all!” He pushes past Lali, whose waist the top of his helmet is at, and hurries on around the bend.

 

We look at each other. “Well, let’s go,” says Lucette. “Like the little guy said—!”

 

So we pile in through the door. Fenric pulls it shut; I presume the stony wallpaper seals itself up again. We three enchantresses raise our wands: actually one of us is basically a sorceress now. We are in a small room with rungs carved into the stone all around all four sides, including above the door on the side the door’s on. There appears to be no ceiling.

 

“The Shaft,” several of us say.

 

“Okay!” says Padric. “We may as well start climbing!”

 

And we’re about five million rungs up when Lucette calls a halt. She waves her wand at Lali, who’s in the lead, and goes, Gfug!

 

And Glee and I do the same for Gurth and Padric, and pretty soon all of us are floating upward. It lasts just long enough for me to start worrying whether my magic energy is going to run out before we get to the top, and then we’re at the top. We all bob out into a medium-sized, low-ceilinged room, into the floor of which the Shaft opens.

 

I don’t want to look down, into a hole that’s approximately five hundred feet deep, that I just climbed out of, so I don’t. The room is lit only by our wands. There are assorted crates here and there about, as well as a pile of rocks near the Shaft, possibly for use on pursuers coming up the ladders.

 

There’s a trap door on the floor a little way from where the Shaft opens. Fenric pulls on its strap and we look down. Below us is a parallelogram of sunlight. It’s the bottom of the entrance stairs.

 

 

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