Chapter 14: Three word spells

XIV. Three word spells

 

1.

I spend the next two hours feeling horrible and relieved. I wander down to the official Institute bar, the Book Dragon, and have two pints of ale. Zelin shows up toward the end of the first one. How she knew I would be there I have no idea. We basically don’t talk about it, or anything else. Then she walks me to the board where they post the results and there’s Shmoke standing there.

 

“As if there was any doubt,” he says, shaking my hand. We joke around. I feel 85% relieved, 10% sad and 5% anticlimactic. Next thing I know, Shmoke is lighting a bowl—no, not the Golden Bowl. Lucette wanders in and timidly approaches; Shmoke lets her read her result on the board. She reads it four times, then fist pumps, and then I hand her the pipe.

 

“So,” says Shmoke amiably, “what’s your first sorcery spell? Wanna learn it right now?”

 

Spells. Spells, spells. I think about it for half a second and go for the three-word sleep spell, commonly referred to as “stone sleep.” This makes my spell book look like this:

 

AG SEK MIN: Stone sleep

 

PAF NIS: Lock; TRT SKO: Fire attack; TRO CLF: Webs; KNO EUR: Reverse; TRO STIST: Throw person (I like this for various reasons, just one of which is that I can throw myself to the other side of a wall, which could be great or dangerous but is certain to surprise someone, possibly me)

 

AG: Sleep; GAO: Light; ROK: Knock; SKO: Flame; PAF: Hold door; XU: Reveal; POJ: Conjure; PRAG: Partial invisibility; GFUG: Rise up; SHESH: Quiet

 

We chat a bit, the old guy makes me practice (on a convenient mouse), and then we split. In a few minutes I’m back in the shop, the night already pitch black outside with the rainy sleet of March about to turn to snow. Mom smiles at me (wow!) and asks how I did (oh my gosh! I passed, Mom) and then takes off for her exciting evening with Constable. Gloom settles right down around my head. I go upstairs to cuddle with Cudgel and find someone else already there doing just that.

 

“How did you get in?” I can’t help asking.

 

“I’m a thief,” says my best gay thief friend, “didn’t you know?”

 

“Okay,” I say, “why are you here?”

 

“Wait,” he says. He cocks his head to listen. I roll my eyes and do the same. The toilet (work of magic, that is) flushes. The bathroom door creaks. “I think someone’s in your house,” he says.

 

The door opens. It’s Zelin. “Ag sek min,” I hiss at her, twirling my wand.

 

“Ak vika,” she says, slumping. Laughing, Fen and I catch her and lay her on the bed. Cudgel is discomfited, but soon assumes the proper place atop the sleeping Elf as though he had conquered her on his own. Fen and I sit on the rug.

 

“So we’re off to Valen again, right?” he says.

 

“We are off to Valen again.”

 

“To get the Key!”

 

“To get, as you say, the Key. Capital K.”

 

“Aw, Peach, why so sad?”

 

“Did you just call me Peach?” I ask.

 

“Term of endearment, dear,” he says. “So? Had a hard time at the orals?”

 

“I had a hard time at everything,” I say, “and then in between I broke up with Padric.”

 

“Ohhh. Oh, I am so sorry, Dais. I really am.” We both think about that for a moment, and then he says, “That man was never right for you. You do know that.”

 

“Yeah,” I say, examining my lap. “Yeah. I knew it all along, I guess. Still, it was kinda comforting, knowing he was there, knowing he was, you know, Padric.” I wipe my eyes. Damn it. I seem to be crying a little.

 

“He’s a great guy,” says Fenric. He adjusts so he can put his arm around my shoulder and pull me in for a light cuddle. “He really is a good guy. He’s just not the right guy for you.” We think about that for a minute. Fenric is surprisingly comforting too. But obviously he’s not the guy for me. Presently he says, “Want to talk about what brought this about, or would you prefer another subject?”

 

“Another subject,” I sniffle.

 

“Okay,” he says. “So. You and me, Jan and Gurth and Lali, Sleepyhead here, Lucette if she deigns to accompany such déclassé individuals as us. That’s seven. Want another?”

 

I note with comfort that he left out any mention of the ex. Whoa. I am now old enough to have an actual ex. I laugh. “Yanos?” I suggest.

 

He gives me a look, then decides I’m joking. “Actually,” he says, “maybe Glee Fredkin? She’s been in there. Maybe it’s time we tried the three sorceress thing.”

 

I tilt my head left and right, thinking about it. Maybe I do the head tilt thing just to make the marbles fall into their holes. I shrug and say, “Worth a try. How many is that?”

 

“Eight,” he says. “You, me, J, Z, G, Lali, Glee and Lucette. Traditional number.”

 

“Okay,” I say. “And when should we plan on embarking?”

 

“Soon,” he says. “Is tomorrow too soon?”

 

“No, we should,” says Zelin from the bed. I look at her. Her eyes are still closed. She says, “Saw Grego, Greggy, Gregorio an’ some people talking in Sleepy’s, Stacy, frickin’ Eleanor.”

 

“Eleanor??” I reply.

 

“Not Unwin?” asks Fenric.

 

“Nope,” replies the recumbent elf maid. “I figure she just got bit by the bug, huh? Anyway. What else could they be up to?”

 

“Do either of you know what the heck this Key is?” asks Fenric.

 

“No,” says Zelin, “but it’s something real.” She opens her eyes. “Something important. Kickass spell, Daisy.”

 

“Thank you,” I say. “Yeah. Important. As in, I want it and I don’t want Greggy to have it.”

 

 

 

2.

 

The next day isn’t the day. It’s pouring rain, and besides, both Lucette and I have to work. There’s always this day when the town of Insmoor sort of collectively realizes the orc war is over, and everyone rushes out to get healing potions and stuff for their gardens and all those love potions they ran out of during the siege and just generally go shopping. We do accomplish one thing. Zelin brings Glee by the shop about the second hour of evening, and this turns into a meeting.

 

“I’m so thrilled you even asked,” she says, once we’ve locked up and eight of us—me, Lucette, Fenric, Jan, Gurth and Lali, Zelin and Glee—are all ensconced on my bed and my floor. Cudgel, as per standard procedure, takes Zelin’s lap. “Do I want to go back down there? Yes I do!”

 

“What happened to the rest of your group, anyway?” asks Fenric. “Think we can recruit any of them? I’m not sure eight is quite enough.”

 

“Well, actually,” says Glee, “I did see some of those guys, one of the warriors is this Amazon called Enka, there’s a dark elf who’s some sort of monk. There’s Samuel.”

 

“The jerk,” says Zelin.

 

“Where did you see them?” Fenric asks.

 

“At Sleepy’s,” the brunette sorceress says. “They were with that new sorcerer Gregorio.”

 

“Did they have a girl archer with beautifully combed long brown hair?” asks Lucette. “That would be Eleanor. Who hates going into the dungeon, she just hates it, except that she keeps finding new, cooler people to go with. Was there another monk with them? Didn’t look like he was a real monk, more a pickup artist dressed like a monk?”

 

Glee, who strikes me as being pure as the driven snow and as innocent as a baby child, gets big wide eyes and a big smile and says, “Gerard! Yes! Oh how I long to kill that man!”

 

Lucette looks at me and says, “Did you ever sleep with that guy Gerard?”

 

“Me? Nope. You?”

 

“Show of hands,” says Lucette. “Come on, get ‘em up.”

 

I look around. It’s Fenric, Lucette, Glee and Lali. “Never got around to that,” says Zelin.

 

“Not missing much,” says Lali. “Not like—!” She slaps Gurth on the shoulder. He doesn’t look like he finds it all very humorous. Ha! Humorous. See what I did there? “That Amazon Enka,” Lali goes on, “she’s my sworn enemy. Actually she’s my cousin but my mom and her sister fell out and her daughters have it in for my mom’s daughters, you know how it is.”

 

Of course none of us do, but Zelin says, “And we think this whole group is headed for Vladimir’s and is interested in the Key?” She looks at Glee and asks, “Anyone told Brownie here about the Key?”

 

“No,” says Glee, “but just point me the way and I’ll have my brand new spell ready to go.”

 

“Whatcha got, Brownie?” I ask.

 

“Oh, I took Hold. And I finally got Invisibility, I got sick of waiting to find a ring.”

 

“You could throw it on all of us,” says Gurth, “and we could sneak on up on the dragon. We could walk right by orcs.” We sorceresses all roll our eyes. “Oh. It doesn’t work that way, right?”

 

“You lose your invis if you attack or bump into anyone,” says Lali.

 

“Yeah,” says Fenric, “we all thought of that, sad it doesn’t work. So, we have our crew, we have our objective, do we need any kind of plan?”

 

“I think we need to get to Vladimir’s and do recon,” says Zelin. “That is my humble opinion.”

 

“Okay then,” I say. “Tomorrow at Sleepy’s. Do we like early?”

 

 

 

And as it happens, we do like early. I hardly sleep for bad dreams. I don’t know. I feel resolved on the outside but clearly my subconscious is in turmoil. There’s Gregorio with the Key, there’s my friends getting skewered by orc arrows, there’s a dragon eating some of us and breathing fireballs at the rest, there’s a lot of running around in shadowy corridors with shadowy things chasing me, there’s Lucette and Zelin and Lali and Glee saying rude things about my hair or my choice of spells. There is, underneath those things, the fact that I don’t know what the hell this key is supposed to be or do.

 

There’s the fact that I want it. There’s the fact that Zelin wants it, and thinks it’s Important. There’s a basic dread, which we both share and which Fenric and Janet and Lucette at least are catching, of anyone else having it.

 

My last little nightmare is that the Key is sliding away from me down a slanted hall toward something or someone I fear, and Zelin is next to me, reminding me fervently how important, how Important the Key actually is.

 

I wake up as I’m sliding after it, wondering how a person sliding goes about catching up with a thing sliding.

 

“Jeez,” I say, sitting up. Zelin is sitting next to me on the bed, dressed in her undershirt, petting Cudgel. I jump out of my nighty (figuratively). “You stayed over?”

 

“Your cat wouldn’t let me go home,” she says. She gets out her bowl. “You look like you could use a light.”

 

 

 

3.

 

It’s still raining in a lazy sort of way when we set off from Sleepy’s about the third hour of the morning on the third of March. The mist rising from the snow cuts the visibility to about five feet.

 

“You got that throw spell,” says Fenric as we pass through the suddenly laid-back South Gate. “Why not throw us there?”

 

“I could throw each of us about fifty feet,” I say. “At that rate, I’d be out of energy before we were up the first hill.”

 

There’s some more complaining, of course. Gurth and Lali seem to be even more at odds than usual: yes, they’re turning into That Couple. Then Glee sort of hits herself on the forehead, stops and gets an umbrella out of her backpack. There’s a little more complaining, but not from me, and pretty soon we settle into a march. Glee lets me share the umbrella.

 

Still, we’re all pretty soaked by the time we climb the last slope and pick our way through the ruins to the stair down.

 

There’s no one else in the place. At first.

 

So we’re forming up in the middle of that first room. There’s a dozen or so dead orcs and goblins and a couple of dead ogres. It’s Lali’s opinion, agreed to by Zelin and Gurth, that this was the result of a discussion of how the orc wars might have been conducted better. It’s the first thing Gurth and his Amazon girlfriend have agreed on all morning.

 

I get us all arranged: we’re going down the west way to the double wide hall and the idea is to take that as far as it will lead us, hopefully all the way to Club Six.

 

“Pity we can’t get up into the Shaft,” says Fenric, eying the ceiling, presumably in hope of spotting a hidden trap door that latches on the other side and is twenty feet above our heads in almost total shadow.

 

“Front row,” I say, ignoring him, “Lali and Gurth, if you can stop wrangling for a minute. Second row, me and Zelin. Third, Jan and Lucette. Fourth, Glee and Fenric. Lucette and I have the light. Glee, no light on your wand unless you need to look back.”

 

“That sounds great to me,” says Glee. I like her.

 

“Any words to say before we set off?” asks Lali.

 

Sek nyk min!” comes a male voice from the stairs, along with another male saying ag and a third guy throwing nyk eur goth. Hold, sleep, cease.

 

Kno eur!” comes from Glee and Lucette. I yawn at the sleep spell, which seems to have been tossed over all of us: it’s not enough to do me. So I give back better than I got, with my new “Ag sek min!

 

There’s the swish of a dagger thrown, and the sounds of Lali and Gurth pulling out their swords. There’s a thump near me. Jan tosses back a blanket ag. Several more thumps sound from the stairs. We all take a breath, and then lightning crackles toward Glee, who dodges. Lucette puts her all into lek ayn goth: the air crackles. Mind stab.

 

Then a light is kindled ahead of us on the stairs up. Its bearer is Eleanor of North Waldo.

 

 

 

4.

 

“Okay, stop, stop,” she says. “Stop! Parley! Peace!”

 

We stare at her for a moment. Then we look at each other. I step forward, back toward the stair. “You attacked us,” I say, truthfully.

 

“Nonlethal!” she says. “We didn’t shoot or anything!”

 

“Are any of you hurt?” asks Jan.

 

Eleanor looks down. “Ralphie,” she says. “He took a dagger in the stomach. He was ceased anyway.” She looks around. We move back to the stairs and have a look for ourselves.

 

Let’s see: Gregorio is held, standing there glaring out from his own reversed spell. Samuel of Tingwall is blissfully asleep, sprawled on the stairs. Jerk. Several warrior types are lying near him snoozing. Several more adventurers are huddled behind Eleanor, just out of the rain. Ralph, for it is he, is sitting on the step holding his stomach.

 

“Looks serious,” says Jan, “but not life-threatening. You really should go back to town and get that fixed up.”

 

“You’re not going to heal him?” asks Eleanor.

 

“What’s wrong with your healer?”

 

“Um, it’s Gerard, he’s—!” A bit up the stair, the monk is sitting holding his head and groaning.

 

“My bad,” says Lucette. “I like that spell.”

 

“You would,” says Jan. “Mind Stab? Seriously? Okay, Ralph. Fron.” She waves a hand at his abdomen. “That should get you back to Insmoor.”

 

“That’s all you’re going to do?” asks Eleanor, genuinely shocked.

 

“Eleanor,” I say, “what exactly was this all about?”

 

“What do you mean?” she asks, a little indignant. Yeah, get that emotion in there. Maybe it’ll help.

 

“You hate going into the dungeon. Yet you came with us, you came with Lucette, you came back with us, and now here you are with—you can’t look at Greggy here and think he’s one of the good guys.” I glare at Gregorio.

 

“Bitch,” he manages to get out.

 

“He needed an archer,” she says.

 

“What, to shoot at us?” says Jan. By now, she and Lali are eying Gerard as if choosing a part of him to rough up first. I note that the huddling warriors and archers have begun to move up the stairs and into the rain, presumably to straggle back in the direction of Insmoor.

 

“He needed an archer to shoot orcs,” I say. “But why did you go for it? That’s my question.”

 

“He said,” and Eleanor checks Gregorio, who doesn’t look her way, “he said we were going after something important.” She looks at the ground at Gregorio’s stupid feet. She’s so frickin’ cute I can hardly stand it. “Something we needed to keep away from you.”

 

“Me? Me personally?”

 

“Yeah,” she says. She looks down at her own stupid feet. They are quite lovely but she doesn’t look like she likes feet much right now.

 

“The Dread Sorceress Daisy?” I go on. “You swear again and again you just hate going in here, and yet here you are, and with these guys? And you say the primary motivation for this change of heart is the fact that Daisy Delatour was going to gain control of the Terrible Whatchamacallit from Hell?”

 

“Well, you and, um, her,” she says sheepishly, pointing a nose in Lucette’s direction.

 

“Yeah baby,” says Lucette. “I’m in the club. I was all ready to be really humiliated if you hadn’t included me in your roll of dishonor.”

 

“Eleanor,” I say. “Does this make any sense at all? I note Unwin isn’t here. Right?”

 

“No,” she says.

 

“Probably still in bed,” says Lucette. Eleanor slouches a little: yeah. She dragged herself out of Unwin’s embrace this morning, and all because Gregorio talked her into the idea that the Terrible Daisy was going to get the Terrible Whatchamacallit. I turn to Gregorio.

 

“What’s the thing here?” I ask him. “You were never in after the Lapis Circlet. I don’t remember running into you here at all before, um, I started looking for the Terrible Whatchamacallit. So do you know something, or are you just being competitive, or is someone whispering in your ear? Are you doing this for yourself or for someone else? I mean,” and I tap him on the nose with my wand, “taking me on is kinda stupid. Taking Lucette on is kinda stupid, and I’m starting to think taking Glee on is kinda stupid. I wouldn’t be pushing my luck with Fenric either if I were you, and the Dread Amazon Lali? Yeah. So what is it? What’s your motivation?”

 

He looks like he wants to spit at me, but this hold of his is pretty tight. He switches to a smile he probably thinks is sweet, snide and venomous. He manages snide. He presumably can’t think of a witty rejoinder, so he leaves it at that.

 

“Stupid women,” says Gerard from up the stairs. His next word is oof, as Lali, her hand on his shoulder, knees him in the stomach. He’s lucky she’s so tall.

 

“You need to reconsider your life choices,” Lucette tells Eleanor. “You too, Greggy. Gerard.” She gives Ralph the merest scornful glance, then turns to me and says, “Shall we?”

 

“Let’s,” I say.

 

 

 

5.

 

And while our journey down to Club Six is hardly uneventful, it’s the spell battle we’re still laughing about, and not the five goblins Gurth and Lali saw off or the ogre who found out what a good knife thrower Fenric is, or the three ghouls Jan shot lightning at.

 

Club Six turns out to be a happening place. We agree to give it an hour or so and then meet up at the wine bar where Zelin hid out the first time we came here, and then we split up. Lali, Gurth and Lucette all go off in various directions; Jan and Fenric go in search of shady characters, probably just to keep in the game; Zelin, Glee and I go get a couple of slices of cheesy pie.

 

We sit down around the largest table in the smallest bar in Club Six. I slump down before I realize I didn’t carry a single plate, glass or bottle. Zelin puts a lovely glass in front of me and fills it with red wine; Glee hands me a plate with two thick slices on it.

 

“I have no idea why I’m so tired,” I say.

 

“I don’t know,” says Zelin seriously. “Are spell battles wearing?”

 

“Oh, they are,” says Glee. “I think we did really good back there. Do you think they’ll follow us?”

 

“I’m seriously still trying to figure out the motivation,” I say. “Anyone’s motivation. Mine. Yours. Definitely wonder about Greggy’s.”

 

“I wonder more about Samuel,” says Zelin. “Gregorio and his friends, they’re interested in exotic treasure, everyone loves a secret, they don’t want you to find it before they do. I mean, no offense, but we are talking about teenage boys for the most part: Gregorio, Gerard the Monk, what was the other? Ralph. Have you wondered what Miss Barnswallow’s motivation is? But with Samuel, one starts to wonder if his interest is a sign of something.”

 

“How do you mean?” asks Glee. “And, um, what exactly is this thing anyway?”

 

Zelin and I do double takes between Glee and each other. “Well, Glee,” says Zelin after a long ten seconds of this, “it could be a sign that this thing, as you call it, is more valuable than one thought; or it could be a sign that someone outside is interested in it; Samuel always likes to let on that he has interesting acquaintances who have interesting acquaintances. As it is, what we have—Daisy, might I ask?”

 

“Anything, Elf Babe.”

 

“Can we trust Glee? Or, why can we trust Glee?”

 

“Because,” Glee suggests, “you can kill me any time because I’m actually pretty pathetic?”

 

“I’ve seen you in action,” says Zelin. “You didn’t seem pathetic.” She looks at me. “Did you think?”

 

“I have to agree,” I say. “But, yeah, I trust her, I don’t know why. Maybe we should be suspicious because she’s so trustable?”

 

“Perhaps we’re just really good judges of character. As I said before, it’s possible to overthink things. When I left home, I was rather happy to discover that I’m not that bad at judging people. Humans, I mean.”

 

“Humans are simple.”

 

“No. That’s the thing. You’re not. But I knew right away that you were a gem, Daisy. And I knew when I first met him at some party before Yule that Gregorio was an asshole.”

 

“And what did you know about me?” asks Lucette, sitting down. She is plastered, but seems pretty cogent in spite of that.

 

“I would have to say you’re the most difficult one to figure out,” says Zelin without batting an eye. “And yet I trust you, or something. So, Glee. The thing is a key, as I think you know, but it’s not any particular key, it’s not the Great Key or a guardian key or anything, it’s just a key. So it shouldn’t be something one could sell for five thousand florins, and it shouldn’t be something everybody who’s been through their sorcerer test has heard of.”

 

“So why,” I say, “do all these sorcerers want it?”

 

“And are they going to come back after it?” asks Glee.

 

“Not Eleanor,” says Lucette. “I will bet anyone ten gold we won’t see her down here.”

 

“Not Ralphie, either,” I say.

 

“But,” asks Zelin, “Gregorio? Gerard? Samuel? Your old friend Stacy perhaps?”

 

“I wouldn’t bet against that,” says Lucette.

 

“Think we’ll see them in Vladimir’s?” asks Glee.

 

“They’ll have to go back to Insmoor,” I say. “They won’t be there ahead of us unless we get distracted by, oh, falling in an orc pit.”

 

“So we should get going,” says Glee. “Soon as we finish this pie and have a nice rest.”

 

Noise from the next room interrupts us. It grows louder in steps, as if more and more people are strenuously objecting. Then, with a crash, then a crunch, then a series of oofs and thunks, Lali and Gurth fly through the door and land a few feet into our room, grappling and exchanging body punches and curses. A couple more people fly in and land on top of them. The whole thing looks like it’s only going to get worse, so I jump up, and so do Lucette and Glee, and we all aim our wands at the four—no, five? Six?—warriors and throw our old faithful ag. The scrum subsides into slumber.

 

 

 

6.

 

Jan and Fen materialize just when we need them: none of us is capable of dragging Gurth, much less Lali, through two rooms and into the sleeping chamber. The other four people in the pile are around Lali’s weight (which is about two of me) though it’s distributed in various ways. We leave them sprawled about; several waiters (wouldn’t that be an interesting job) show up and set about depositing them out in the big urine-smelling chamber outside the club.

 

“I hope this doesn’t delay us much,” says Glee.

 

“I hope Gurth and Lali can stand to be in the same party,” says Lucette. “They don’t seem on the best of terms, even for them.”

 

“They’ll stand it,” I say, “because I say they’ll stand it.”

 

“Can you guys help at all?” asks Fenric. “Just the Amazon alone is too much for me and Father.”

 

“Ah you baby,” says Lucette. “Gfug.

 

And again I find myself actually revising my estimate of Lucette’s brain and usefulness, as we guide the hovering unconscious warriors to their beds on the floor. The room is fuller than I’ve seen it, but we manage to find some space together. We all throw ourselves down in a little group, and Zelin sits nearby in the dark, meditating or something.

 

About two seconds later, Zelin is waking me from a deep sleep and a dream about people playing a dice game in a shallow cellar. There was a sofa and I was half sleeping on it, sleeping while I was asleep forsooth, and it was way more comfortable than the floor with a thin blanket under me. She’s shaking me and saying something like, “Roll three dice, roll three dice!”

 

“What? What?”

 

“Daisy, get up,” Zelin says, apparently for the tenth time, in that penetrating whisper of hers: highly effective at a range of one foot or less. I sit up.

 

Jan, kneeling nearby, says to me, “Certain persons have been sighted within the perimeter of the club, and leadership thinks it wise to bug out.”

 

“Don’t ask any questions,” says Fenric over Jan’s shoulder, “till we’re on our way.”

 

So I don’t.

 

We are out the far end of Club Six in a few minutes. Gurth and Lali wake up angry: it transpires that she was flirting with several men, flirting to the point of light petting, and he tried to get back at her by returning the advances of a young priestess of Baal, whose virtues were understandably questionable but were still valued by her Black Amazon companion, and grievances accumulated from there. Lucette and I threaten to put them to sleep and leave them outside, and they drop their argument to whispers.

 

So we get outside and form up in the far-side cavern. “In front,” I say, “let’s have Gurth and Fenric. Then me and Zelin, then Lucette and Jan, then Lali and Glee. Objections?”

 

There are none. We go down the spiral ramp and find the five south-pointing halls. I have an itchy feeling. I lead the group into the middle one of the five and stop.

 

“So who was it and where did you see them?” I ask no one in particular.

 

“It was Gerard and Gregorio,” says Jan, “and with them were, let’s see. Stacy. Igbo, that other new sorceress. I think I saw Eleanor. No Ralphie of course, no Unwin.”

 

“You’re sure about Eleanor?” asks Lucette. “Damn. That would mean I was wrong.”

 

“Pretty sure,” says Jan, adjusting his collar.

 

“Samuel of Tingwall?”

 

“Yep,” says Fenric.

 

“No warriors or archers?” I ask. “Except Eleanor?”

 

“We saw them coming out of the wide hall,” says Jan. “We were both out there peeing.”

 

“That must be interesting for you, huh,” says Lucette.

 

“I’m trying various modalities. Never mind that. They have, like, these four magic users, and Gerard and this dark elf monk chick, and some big warrior guy and Eleanor, and guess who is the other archer?”

 

“Yanos,” several of us say.

 

“You got it. So I put it away, Fenric puts it away, which takes a second longer of course, not that I’m smug or anything, we come right to you guys and five minutes later we are all out the back door, you know why?”

 

“Why?” asks Glee.

 

“Because we are a freaking awesome team,” says Jan. “Now, anyone know the way down without falling in an orc pit?”

 

“I’m going to say onward, and what the hell,” says Lucette. “We went the east way before, and that didn’t work out great. So—?”

 

“I’m up for it,” I say.

 

We all sort of shrug and head on southward, and after a long way it turns sharply east. Fenric is in front with Lali, and, since he doesn’t get to be in front much, he makes a big deal of sneaking around the corner and reporting. His report is that he doesn’t see anything but a hall going on for a while.

 

“That’s not very interesting,” I say.

 

“What would be interesting?” he replies. “A gold dragon? A hundred orcs?”

 

“I don’t know, a spell battle? A secret door?” We stand there just around the corner. On a whim I twirl my wand and say, “Xu.” Reveal.

 

And something is revealed: a rectangle seven feet high and four wide appears in the stone wall on the right, the south wall. It’s a door. A secret door. And behind it is a narrow little stairway going up to the right and down to the left.

 

“Well, I’ll be,” says Zelin. “The Long Stair.”

 

 

 

7.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Really,” says Jan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Right,” says Gurth.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Now wait,” says Jan, “let’s—!”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Uh, yeah,” says Gurth.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We don’t need to be told again.

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