Chapter 15: The Naked Sorceress

XV. The naked sorceress

 

1.

 

We get to Vladimir’s and find it nearly empty. One table has four hill trolls playing poker, and there’s one tired-looking warrior in heavy chain mail sitting at the bar. Lali goes and sits next to him, while Gurth grabs the far table. Forced to choose, Fenric sits by Lali, Jan and Zelin and I go join Gurth, and Lucette and Glee sit at the next table over.

 

“We got to the front door,” says Gurth, “and she, Thyrssa I mean, either she was just about to go out and do her rounds, or she was just getting in, because she was in that hallway. The door was open a crack. We got a little concerned but Lali, guess what.”

 

“Threw open the door,” Lucette says.

 

“Effing cowards,” says Lali. “Beer me, bar man.”

 

“Of course,” says Vladimir, “but you throw a punch and you’re out in the hall in one second, you understand?”

 

“Threw open the door,” says Fenric, glaring at Lali, because he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. I saw him try and pick up an armorer’s apprentice once last year. I couldn’t fault his taste, but the armorer’s apprentice was straight as a ruler, and the armorer was his dad, and each of them was twice Fenric’s weight.

 

“Naturally,” says Gurth, “there was Thyrssa. Fortunately she was more surprised than we were. Unfortunately, she can get her breath up to full heat in about five seconds.”

 

“If that,” says Fenric. “So Gurth grabs Lali and pulls her back, and we take off, and we almost get our butts burned off, and then the cave dragon wakes up and gets in the act, and—well, you can guess the rest.”

 

“And I get cussed out for my trouble,” says Gurth.

 

“You’re an effin’ coward,” says Lali.

 

“Maybe he’s effin’ sensible,” says Lucette.

 

“What the frick do you know,” says Lali.

 

“Yeah, you’re a frickin’ genius,” says Lucette.

 

“You want a piece of this? You little effin’ runt sorceress?”

 

“I think that last word was the one you want to remember, Amazon babe.”

 

“So the cave dragon comes out,” says Fenric, “and we accelerate, and to Lali’s credit she catches up with us, and then Thryrssa’s coming around the corner and the two dragons decide to exchange points of view, and that buys us time to get all the way to the top of the stairs. So I wouldn’t do anything right now but hunker down for a few hours, however long it takes for Her Blackness to sort of settle down again.”

 

“You seriously want to take me on,” says Lucette. I look over there. Lali is standing in front of her, her big hand on Lucette’s table. “You seriously think you want to go out in the hall and take me on. You think I can’t put you down before you even get your sword out of your shoulder sheath, which is such a cool way to carry a broadsword because, well, it’s like over your shoulder or something! That what you think?”

 

Lali gives her ten seconds of glare, then picks up her big hand off the table, shrugs and turns away. “Effin’ cowards,” she says. She gets to the bar, turns and says, “How we ever gonna get anything down here till we get brave enough to fight a stinkin’ dragon?”

 

“Vladimir, sir,” asks Fenric.

 

“Want another beer?” asks the barman. “Because I don’t really want to get involved in your dispute.”

 

“Just a bit of statistics. As in, how many warriors has Thyrssa eaten or fried to a crisp since she’s been in Odnorek’s old place?”

 

“How many?” Vladimir turns away, rummages his inbox or whatever, then comes up with a piece of paper. “It would be, at a minimum, 107 warriors and/or archers. 43 magical practitioners, 37 clerics, five druids, seven thieves and/or assassins, two mariners 14 bards and 26 of unknown classification. I don’t have it broken down in terms of eaten versus merely fried.”

 

“And how much of her treasure has been stolen, since she moved into that place and started accumulating?”

 

“Ah,” Vladimir laughs, “that would be zero.”

 

“Glee,” I say. “Got your ha’penny?”

 

Glee looks a little shy, but she reaches into her pants (she wears tight blue jeans with a loose tunic top and a darling little chain mail and leather cap) and comes out with the coin. Vladimir frowns at it, then grins and says, “That’s tied for the biggest theft ever from Thyrssa the Black.”

 

We all take this in. I find it all rather thought-provoking. After some seconds, Glee stands up, finishes her drink—an iced tea—and says, just a little nervously, “All right, I feel we need to reconnoiter, and I would like to do so myself. By myself. Don’t try to talk me out of it.”

 

None of us does. Quite the opposite. Lali downs her beer, straightens her belt and says, “If you’re going in by yourself, I’m going with you.”

 

 

 

2.

 

We are a bit too stunned to stop them, stupid though the idea seems in retrospect from, oh, ten seconds after they leave. The rest of us have gathered around that one far table. No one else is in the place; the hill trolls have left, and the lone warrior’s gone off to the sleeping room. Vladimir himself is studiously ignoring us, doing his daily maintenance on the spells of protection. Still, we’re talking in low voices.

 

“For the record,” says Fenric, “it’s unlikely we could have stopped them, or accomplished anything by offering to go with.”

 

“Glee’s not stupid,” says Lucette. “She won’t do anything rash. As for Lali—well, that girl must be charmed. Because I don’t think she has the brains that the Gods gave ganders. But Glee’s not stupid.”

 

“So,” says Gurth, “you think it’s okay that I let them go without me.”

 

“I think it’s okay that you let them go without you,” I say.

 

“Okay,” says Gurth. “Can I ask a question that might sound kinda stupid? There’s this, uh, key. I get that. But what does it do? What does it, you know, unlock?”

 

“We don’t know,” says Fenric.

 

“No,” says Zelin, “but Daisy has some sort of idea.”

 

“Me?” I say in my squeaky voice, the one that I hate.

 

“Yes, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m thinking of. Now’s not the time to act innocent. Tell us what you surmise about the Key from your long research?”

 

“My research wasn’t that long. I just—!”

 

“You know as much about this thing as anyone we have access to. True?”

 

I blink. I take a few seconds. I say, “Look, this is way beyond my actual understanding. I just turned eighteen, right? I’m an alchemist apprentice thingy. I just got my first three word spell. This is,” and I glance toward Vladimir. He’s just picked up an empty pot and gone out into the back room. “This is time warrior stuff.”

 

“What. Is it?” asks Lucette.

 

I lean forward. “There are all these back passages,” I say in a whisper. “There are all these ways around, and someone put them there, or opened them up or something, so they can get around in the back ways. You know.” I look around. They’re all staring at me. “You guys are making me nervous,” I say.

 

“You’re frickin’ making us nervous,” says Lucette.

 

“Anyway,” says Zelin, looking up. She holds her hand up: I hear Vladimir banging around back there. He turns and goes back out, and she puts her hand on the table. “Passages,” she says, in that weirdly low voice of hers, “around the Wall of Time and that type of thing.”

 

“So,” says Fenric, “it’s a key to one of these passages.”

 

“I think,” I say, “it might be a key to all of those passages, some sort of master key.”

 

“You know this?”

 

“I don’t know anything,” I say. “But if this is important—!”

 

“And you think it’s important,” says Lucette.

 

“It’s important,” Zelin and I say together.

 

They go back to staring at me, though Lucette stares at Zelin some too. “So you know about this how?” she asks. “No, it was a dream. Is that it?”

 

“I’ve been having the dream for years now,” says Zelin. “I’ve had the same dream like twenty times. A room with fire in it, and a wooden table. And this key. It was the most ordinary thing ever, like it was reminding me where I left the key to my flat, except that it kept happening. And no one in Aeraf ever locks their door. It’s kind of annoying, actually. Anyway, I asked my, uh, aunt, who’s a lore master, and she wasn’t very interested. But after I had the dream in Silon, and then I had it here? I knew it was important. And then Daisy heard something about it. From you.”

 

“I heard about it from Yanos,” says Lucette. “And apparently so did Gregorio. I have no idea where Yanos heard it.” She sort of can’t help looking at Zelin.

 

“He didn’t hear about my dream,” says Zelin. “And I don’t talk in my sleep.”

 

“This dream,” I say, “it was just telling you where the key was. It was showing it to you.”

 

“Yes. Exactly, of course. Daisy,” says Zelin, “how many times have you had the dream you had? About the woman with the brown hair tied back?”

 

“Once,” I say. “But it was really vivid.”

 

The door to the stairs opens, way across the room from us, and we all jump, but it isn’t Glee and Lali; it’s a group of service orcs. They nod at us and take spots along the bar. We all take deep breaths.

 

“Well,” says Fenric, “anyone got an opinion on spring rugby?”

 

“I think Priory is going to whup the other religious teams,” says Jan.

 

“Of course you do. Thieves’ Guild versus Assassins’?”

 

“Assassins’,” says Lucette, “unless you guys man the scoreboard. Institute would win every game if they let us use magic.”

 

“Are you very worried?” I ask Gurth.

 

“Kind of,” he says.

 

“Kind of?”

 

“I’m super worried,” he says, “but I have mixed emotions or something. Does that make any sense?”

 

“I don’t know. Explain.”

 

He finishes his beer, then pours another from the pitcher and drinks some of that. The others prattle on. Gurth looks at me with those big blue eyes of his and says, “Lali. She could get herself killed so easily. But somehow she never does.”

 

“I know, I—!”

 

“I mean,” he goes on, “I am really careful, she thinks I’m a frickin’ coward, but—!”

 

“But I worry about you every time we go up against something,” I say. “I worry about you every time we go in the dungeon. I don’t worry about her, I guess I figure she’ll always manage somehow, or she’s charmed, but I worry about you. I really do, Gurth. I—!”

 

“I worry about me too,” he says. “But now I think, why is it I think nothing could happen to her? Something could happen to her. It could happen to any of us.” We stare at each other. He leans forward, like he’s telling another big secret about the Key, and I lean forward too. He opens his mouth, and some seconds later, he says, very quietly, “It could happen to you, Daisy.”

 

We continue staring at each other.

 

The door flies open and Glee and Lali come running in. “Whoo hoo!” shouts Lali. “That was invigorating!”

 

“What happened?” asks Fenric.

 

“We, um, went in the door,” says Glee. “Then Her Ladyship chased us back out again. That’s it.”

 

“Did you find out anything?” asks Jan.

 

“We found out we run real fast when someone’s breathing fire at us,” says Lali. “Hey Gurth! Get over here! I deserve some servicing for that!” And Gurth picks himself up out of his chair and goes over and lets the Amazon neck with him a little while she waits for Vladimir to hand her a beer.

 

 

 

3.

 

I am glum. I am also fourteen levels deep in Valen Dungeon, face to face with the need to go face to face with a dragon, and my entire inventory of tools and advantages consists of one three-word spell and a few twos and ones. Oh, I could brew up a love potion.

 

I’m sitting there holding my quarter of a beer. Zelin picks it up and sort of makes me drink the rest of it, and then she refills it. Lucette’s just staring at me. I look at her. She raises her eyebrows and looks at her beer.

 

“It could be worse,” says Jan. “Our rivals could be here by now.”

 

I put my head on the table. I’m hoping Jan and Lucette will let me be, but when I look up a minute later, they’re still staring at my head. “What?” I say.

 

“Don’t what me,” says Father Jan.

 

“Don’t what?”

 

“Do not what me. We need to face up to the situation. You do. You two,” he finishes, sharing his glare with Lucette.

 

“Daisy,” says Lucette. “You know what we have to do. You just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it, either, but it’s what we have to do, Daisy Delatour.”

 

“What? I mean,” I say, “ugh. Argh. Blergh.” I put my head down, then look up and find she’s grimly smiling at me. “You feel we have to go do something stupid ourselves.”

 

“No. No. I feel we have to go look into the situation and scope out the landscape and so on, ourselves. And I feel that you know it’s true and you’re just being Daisy.”

 

I grin. “That’s why you love me, Lucette Barnswallow.”

 

She rolls her eyes. “Leaving that,” she says. “Just the two of us?”

 

“I don’t think you want me,” says Jan. “I’ll wait here to heal up whatever happens to you. I think just the two of you might actually work.”

 

“No,” says Zelin, who has been sitting next to me all this time. I thought she was zoned out but I should have known better. “You two are not going anywhere alone except possibly the bathroom. I am going with you. Let’s grab Fenric too.”

 

“Oh, I don’t want this to be a whole production,” says Lucette.

 

“Me either,” I say.

 

“Well, tough,” says Zelin. “Up!” She gets up and we two little blond sorceresses follow. “Fenric,” she says: he’s playing a board game with three orcs. “Come on.”

 

“Oh,” he says, getting up: he’s starting to get used to Zelin too. “Can we—?” he says to one of the orcs. “I’m afraid I need to bow out.”

 

“Nar, Farknorp,” says the orc to one of the others at another table. “Come play the thief’s part. You get to be the blue.”

 

“Ar,” says Farknorp, coming over. “But he only has three armies!”

 

“I have two fleets there and there,” says Fenric. “See? It’s a fine position.” He joins us at the door. “All right,” he says. “Recon?”

 

“Lots of luck,” calls Lali from the bar. She’s holding forth to Glee, with Gurth sitting quiet and docile between them.

 

We wave and take off past the bathrooms and up the stairs. The atmosphere is not encouraging. The air smells of sulphur dioxide and feels a bit ionized; there’s loads of pentons, but not the kind of penton flux that makes my magic nerves feel great. And just as we get to the T intersection, there’s a blast from down the hall toward Thyrssa’s lair. It’s a sort of roar-whoosh, heavy in the bass but reaching up into the high notes too.

 

And then another, as in a different tone.

 

And, a few seconds later, another. And a few seconds later, another. Another. Another.

 

“They’re blasting at each other,” Lucette whispers, as though that’s even necessary.

 

“I think,” says Zelin. Blast! Wait for echo to die down. “I think,” she says, “they’re just bellowing.”

 

“Who?” I say. “The cave dragon and Her?”

 

“Who the hell else?” says Lucette.

 

Several bellows later, Fenric says, “So, wait for them to tire of their little debate, or go back down and have a nice beer in that nice tavern down the stairs?” He sort of drifts back halfway down the steps and lingers there. He’s so gay. I don’t mean it in a bad way. Not at all! But he is.

 

“I think,” I start. I feel a tingle. I sniff. Lucette’s doing it too, and now Zelin is looking around without moving her head. Her hand closes on an arrow in the bag at her belt. All the real archers wear their arrows at their belts, and now I see why.

 

My hand grips my wand. I whip toward the other direction and hiss, “Xu!

 

And there, what do you know, stand nine people. And I find I know seven of them.

 

Nyk eur goth!” shouts Gregorio. “Sek nyk min!” states Samuel of Tingwall. “Kno eur!” says Lucette, almost in the same breath as them.

 

Zelin pulls her arrow out with an exaggerated wave: she’s sort of waving off Sam’s hold spell. And then she puts an arrow in his wand hand, square in the palm. Meanwhile, Greggy is failing again against his own Cease spell.

 

That’s when Stacy, Anastasia Kappa herself, steps out and throws her new sorcery at Lucette, along with an insult: “Sek nyk min, bitch.”

 

Lucette stands there as if held. Everyone else pauses to watch. A pair of dragon bellows insert themselves. Then Lucette laughs and thrusts her wand, hissing “Lek ayn goth!” Nasty spell, mind stab. Stacy doubles over in pain, then the real pain hits and she falls into a fetal position, retching.

 

There’s a bolt of lightning, almost before Gerard, from the shadows, calls it down with his Mng na. Lucette cries out and crashes backward, her hair smoldering.

 

Ag sek min!” I cry at their archer. It’s Yanos. He goes down: he’s snoring before he hits the floor.

 

Back there, there’s a big Amazon warrior and another archer, a tall girl: it is indeed the lovely Eleanor. They look concerned, and they should be. From behind me, I hear Lucette’s voice croak out ag, and the two of them roll their eyes and fall to the floor asleep.

 

But that leaves me and Zelin facing Gerard and this dark elf monk. And the dark elf monk curls her lip and hurls her own sleep spell at Zelin, who chooses this moment to fail to resist and fall down the stairs.

 

I take in a breath, and when I let it out it’s going to be something great, but Gerry starts first. He’s halfway through mng na again when he stops.

 

There’s a dagger in his stomach. And the next spell is just like my sek ag min, except it’s in Glee’s voice, and it’s directed at the dark elf monk girl. I look around for my next victim.

 

Glee steps up next to me. Lucette is picking herself up, smoldering; Fenric is already using a cloth to tenderly wipe the burned hair off her face. Sammy and Gerry have made off, leaving a trail of blood, mostly Gerry’s. Greggy has gone with them. Five others are in the hall sleeping. There is only one of them left. It’s Igbo, who is so black of skin and clothing she’s almost invisible. I see her eyes and teeth, and her pale palms, when she holds them out and says, “Peace, Daisy. I’m not into this.”

 

I take a breath. Behind me, Jan is also looking into Lucette. “She’ll be fine,” he says. “She looks and smells worse than she is.”

 

I show Igbo my own smile and my own palms. “Peace, Igbo,” I say. “Fancy a beer?”

 

“Do I,” she says.

 

 

 

4.

 

We retreat to Vladimir’s, evacuating our sleepers. Fenric and I come back for Eleanor, but we leave the others—the Amazon warrior’s frickin’ huge, and apparently she’s a blood enemy of Lali; I’m not sure why we would want Yanos down there with us; and the dark elf chick just looks great slumped out here. The bellowing continues behind us. Those two have some issues. I’m glad they’re talking things out.

 

“Snag the table way in the back,” I say.

 

“Screw that,” says Lucette. “Snag the sleeping room. No one’s in there.”

 

“Actually,” says Audrey, heading for the game table with fish and chips and two pitchers, “try out the back door, it should be clear and,” and she deposits her burdens and pulls me and Lucette together with Zelin to whisper, “the guardian radius extends out there about a meter and a half from the door. It should be nice and quiet, dears.”

 

She swerves away behind the counter. More people are coming in: well, two bone demons and three dwarves, followed by, of all things, a lady centaur. “Back door’s over there,” says a familiar voice next to us: Othgar the Gnome is sitting at the bar.

 

We look, then start over toward the little space where bands supposedly sometimes play. There’s a small door back there, small enough that I’ll have to bend to get through. I stop when we get there: there are seven people in the group. It seems like a lot. Me, Lucette, Zelin: check. Fenric, Jan: okay, sure. Glee: why not. Igbo?

 

“Daisy,” she says, “I do not know for sure what you look for this far down, and I do not need to know, but my former companions have their theories about that, and they are looking for it too. Do you wish to talk about this?”

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Out in the hall, I guess.”

 

 

 

So we try the back door. It doesn’t budge at first, so I try rok on it, and it still doesn’t budge, so it occurs to me that it’s just a sticky heavy door, and this time, with me and Lucette and Zelin and Igbo all leaning on it, it flies open and bangs against the wall of a wide grungy hall with a low ceiling and just a small amount of light coming from nowhere in particular. We step out into it and let the door swing shut behind us, which it does, not as if on a spring but more like it just prefers it that way.

 

We look up and down the hall. To the left, southward, it extends a long way and eventually turns to the left. It seems to be going down a ramp, and it seems to be letting a reddish, fiery light come up the ramp. There’s a stiff warm breeze from that direction. I can’t say exactly what the sounds are, or the smells, but I don’t like them.

 

To the right, northward, the hall immediately turns left and heads steeply up a ramp. According to my internal map, it should come out somewhere behind Thyrssa’s place, but I’m not optimistic that it connects to a back door of any useful sort, and besides, what I want is near the front door of her apartment, and that seems hard enough.

 

One thing about this place: sound seems to die here. The faint noises from below must be far from faint down here. The sound of the bellowing battle: if we hold our breaths, which we do at first, we can just make them out.

 

We gather in a clump to the right of the door. Zelin, Goddess bless her, starts filling her pipe.

 

“What I want to know is,” says Lucette, looking at Igbo while talking about her, “and pardon me if this sounds repetitive, but why do we trust her?”

 

“Igbo,” I say, “what do you think Gregorio knows, and what was he planning to do about this? Was this all his idea?”

 

No,” she says, emphatically. “No, it was that archer guy. It was all his idea. What is this thing you are looking for, I don’t know, but Ya, er, the archer? He thinks he knows what it is, and he thinks you know just where it is, and he is very desperate to get it before you do.”

 

“Gregorio’s just on for the ride?”

 

“Gregorio,” says Igbo. She frowns. Then she opens that tiny mouth and says, “Gregorio is stupid. He is nothing. That is why you flatten him every time you go against him, yes? Samuel, that,” and she uses what must be an obscenity in her native language. Zelin raises her eyebrows and hands her the pipe, which she takes a pull on and hands to Lucette.

 

“He’s a jerk,” I say.

 

“Big time,” says Igbo. “He wants only to be a big wizard. These two monks, I don’t know, they creep me out,” which sounds creepier in her accent. “Gerard is creepy, and the other, the dark elf, she is dark elf creepy, right? The others, they want adventure. But—!”

 

“But what did you want?” asks Jan.

 

“Me? I want to see, what it is like down here, you know? I never went below the first two levels before. I feel like, I feel like I went in a bubble into outer space, I look around and find myself somewhere I think I could never survive by myself and I start to wonder why I came here and how I’m gonna get myself out. But it’s not going to be with them.”

 

“So,” I say, “you think Yanos is the big mover? He’s the one with the bright idea?”

 

“He’s the one,” says Igbo, “who thinks of all this. And I don’t know if he even knows what it is about, but I think someone thinks to hire him to get this thing, whatever it is.” She leans close to me and asks in a whisper, “It is a ring? A gem? What?”

 

“No, no,” I say. “You’ll never believe it.”

 

“You don’t want to tell me.”

 

“No,” I say, “I don’t want to tell anyone I don’t have to tell. I want to get this thing over and see—!”

 

“Listen,” says Zelin.

 

We hold our breaths again. All we can hear is the faint sound of tormented spirits wailing from below.

 

“I don’t hear anything,” Lucette, of course, says.

 

“Exactly,” I say. “The dragons have settled their differences.”

 

 

 

5.

 

Getting back into Vladimir’s requires the rok spell, as it turns out, but we only figure this out after all six of us put all our might into pulling on the door handle, and then, just for the heck of it, put all our weight into pushing the door even though we know it opens out. We give pulling one more shot, then quit, and that’s when I try rok, and the door pops open.

 

“Sometimes it’s the simple answer,” says Glee. “Say, the place is getting crowded.”

 

“Hey,” I say, “it’s Gregorio.” We stand there in a little clump, staring at him. He’s sitting at the bar, at the end closest to us (and farthest from the front door). He’s by himself.

 

“I’m gonna go talk to him,” says Lucette. “Daisy, you’re coming with me.” She turns to Zelin. “Just us, okay?”

 

“Sure,” says Zelin. “Come on, you guys, let’s get that last table.”

 

We take positions on either side of our target. I elbow between him and some sort of minor league evil priestess with an acne issue; Lucette gets the open end of the bar. Gregorio ignores us. He lifts his beer and Lucette takes it from his hand and puts it down again. He looks at her blankly. I poke him and say, “Where are your friends?”

 

“What friends,” he says, without any sort of emotion one way or the other.

 

“Aw, Greggy,” says Lucette, “it’s so sad to see you so sad. Why the long face? Samuel get mad at you about the arrow in his hand? Tell him he can keep it, we’ll buy our elf friend another one.”

 

“Samuel,” says Gregorio. He laughs slightly, then shakes his head. “He’s a jerk.”

 

“It’s not a unique observation. Okay. Gerard? Yanos?”

 

“They’re gone.” He laughs. “Especially Yanos.” He reaches for his glass. We both put our hands on it. He gives Lucette a vulnerable look. “Can I have my beer?”

 

Lucette looks at me. I say, “Just answer one question. Um, wait. Two questions. One: What do you mean, especially Yanos?”

 

“He’s not into it anymore,” says Gregorio. “He’s a little burnt out.” He laughs, then stops, then laughs some more. “Burnt out,” he mutters.

 

“I’m guessing the dragons got him,” says Lucette.

 

“Jeez,” I say. “Okay. Clarifying question—?”

 

“Dragon,” says Gregorio, seriously. “Singular.”

 

“The cave or the black?” asks Lucette.

 

“Actually,” says Gregorio, “if you’ll let me have a drink, I’ll tell you the whole thing.” We both sort of shrug and take our hands away. He slugs down the second half of what is at least his second beer in the last ten minutes. We lean against the bar on either side. We get up real close. “So me and Gerard and Samuel get out of there after that spell battle,” he says. “Nice work, there. Can I have another beer?”

 

“Sure, dear,” says Audrey in one of her comet-like passes, and ten seconds later he has his third beer.

 

“So Gerard heals up Samuel, and we sort of bandage up Gerard, and then we, I mean I, try to wake up Leyran, she’s the dark elf, that three-word sleep is pretty tough. But it’s loud and smells really smoky and I guess that helps rouse her, and then we rouse Yanos and Enka, she’s the warrior. And Leyran heals Gerard and we’re, you know. Kinda good to go.”

 

“And you went?” I ask.

 

“No, no, we argued about it. Leyran and Samuel, they both want out of this whole thing, they take off. Enka goes with them. So does Gerard. He’s a jerk too.”

 

“No argument,” says Lucette.

 

“But Yanos is like, we’re so close, man, let’s just go look. He’s, er, he was, so persuasive.” Gregorio laughs and cries (actually cries) and then he laughs a little more.

 

“Okay, we know about that,” I say. “So what were you looking for?”

 

“Ah, who knows,” he says, and my heart sinks a bit. Then he shakes his head, says, “Some sort of key or something,” and drinks half his beer while my heart buoys back up. “Says Thyrssa the Black has it. He only guessed that because he knew where you guys had gone.”

 

“Really.”

 

“He was freakin’ paranoid about you two,” says Gregorio. “He had this weird fascination about sorcerers, magic people. You know I’m a wimp for magic. I mean, I can do it, but you guys both, you guys each have more punch than I’ll ever have. I should be an alchemist, not a spell chucker. What was I thinking?”

 

“Hey, alchemist’s harder than you think,” I say.

 

“So, on with the story,” says Lucette.

 

“So I figure, what the heck. I didn’t have any spell power, because of what your spell did to my spell. But he didn’t care. I don’t think he really ever understood about magic.”

 

“Except that he wished he was born with some,” I put in.

 

“Yeah.” He rolls his eyes, then shrugs. “So we sneak down there and we get the door open, because that’s easy, it doesn’t require any spell power, and he slips in and I’m about to follow when she sticks her head around the corner and just gives him a blast.” He takes a drink, then another. He shakes his head. “She was ready for us. She was ready for someone.” He looks at his clothes. “I came through pretty well, huh? My cloak’s a mess, I left it there. My boots are, well.” He turns on his stool so Lucette and I can see what he has on his feet: nothing. He’s wearing soot for socks and shoes. The rest of him looks fine, considering it’s him. I’m sure he looks better than Yanos.

 

“Are you sure he’s dead?” I ask.

 

“There’s no doubt,” says Gregorio. “That dragon filled that hall with fire. Crinkle crinkle crinkle. He crinkled right up like a leaf.” He laughs.

 

“Your plans?” asks Lucette.

 

“Might stay here till I die of old age,” he says. “Might try and get out after I’ve been drinking here for a month or two. Maybe I’ll get killed by orcs and eaten. Maybe stomped by giants. Maybe a purple worm’ll swallow me whole. At least I won’t go crinkle crinkle and smell bad.” He laughs and then finishes his third beer. He laughs some more.

 

“You’re a gas, Greggy,” says Lucette. “Life of the frickin’ party. Come on, Dais, we got stuff to talk about, you and me.”

 

 

 

6.

 

Lucette takes me by the elbow and escorts me past Lali and Gurth, past two orcs and a giantess, past Audrey serving breaded mushrooms to Glee and Igbo and Zelin and Eleanor, and out the front door. Immediately outside we find ourselves in the company of a couple, one of whom, it transpires, is a vampiress, and seems to be feeding in a sort of romantic way on the other. Ew.

 

“Excuse us,” says Lucette. She hustles me into the women’s bathroom. It’s not what you would see in Sleepy’s, but it does have three stalls with magical toilets, plus a sink with a magical water supply. Some other sort of couple is making out in one of the stalls. Ew. They sound human, anyway. Not that I’m prejudiced.

 

“Nice atmosphere,” I say.

 

“You’d prefer up the stairs? We could do that, but it would beg the question.”

 

“What question?”

 

“You know what question,” says Lucette. “The question of how the hell we’re going to do what needs to be done.” She turns on the tap and out comes lots of very hot water. We lean close over it and she goes on in a low voice. “Either we are going to try to get that thing, or we aren’t. If we’re not, I say we’re never going to get another chance, don’t you? Yanos is gone, but there’s Samuel, there’s Gerard, there’s this dark elf chick, heck, there’s Greggy. Who knows who else there is? Oh, I know. There’s whoever was going to buy it from Yanos. There’s lots of people who might just want this thing. You said you’d rather we had it than any of them. I mean, either it matters. Or it doesn’t.”

 

“Your dad might be one of those people,” I point out. Our faces in the mist of the sink are about an inch apart. We are glaring, blue eyes into blue eyes.

 

“Yeah,” she says, unblinking. “He might. So, does that change anything?”

 

“Okay,” I say, “what do you propose we do?”

 

“Well, question. You think we can take eight people in there, nine people, really go at it? Lali, Gurth, Glee frickin’ Fredkin? Think that’ll work?”

 

“No,” I scoff. “But what else? We go back and pick four people?”

 

“Four’s too many. You know that.”

 

“What then? Just us two? Go knock on Miss T’s door, just you and me?”

 

“Why the frick not?”

 

“You need three,” says Zelin. We both turn and there she is, holding her pipe.

 

 

 

We pass the pipe a couple of times. It works: my nerves are calmed back down to some semblance of normality. Maybe, just maybe, it keeps me from thinking that the three of us, none much over five feet tall, none with a broadsword or a Staff of Power or a Wand of Wonder or the ability to call lightning from the ceiling, none with a healing spell, are going to head upstairs and sneak into a dragon’s lair.

 

We get out into the hall. The vampirish couple have moved on. I know it’s a cliché to say “there was an eerie silence,” but this silence has as much claim to being an eerie silence as any silence I’ve ever not heard.

 

And then there’s the sound of my brain coming back to me.

 

“Zelin,” I say. “Let’s go get a couple of drinks first.”

 

“What kind of drinks?” she asks.

 

“You get an absinthe with a sprinkle of clove. Don’t drink it. Luce, go ask Vlad for a glass of goat milk and a shot of gin. I’ll be back in the ladies’ room with my spider legs and some cat pee.”

 

 

 

7.

 

Suitably armed, about five minutes later, we three ladies come out of the ladies’ room. We have three glasses: I’m carrying the tall one with the goat milk, Lucette has a little one filled with gin, and the Elf’s got a medium-sized, cool-looking glass with absinthe and clove. The cat pee and spider legs are in the milk, which I drank down a little first to accommodate them.

 

So here we are, climbing the stairs, stepping through, no doubt, a centuries-old veneer of dried blood and vomit and trampled guts, eyeballs and toe bones and brains, of Goddess knows how many warriors, monks, priests, archers, druids, orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls, wyverns, axe-beaks, manticores, gryphons (gryphins? griffons? griffins? grypheons?), giant rats, giant frogs, giant ants, giant squirrels, just plain giants, mind frickin’ flayers, dragons of all colors, not to mention petite sorceresses and smug little elf chicks, me in my off-white peasant dress, Lucette in her cute top, necklace and black skirt, Zelin in her elf girl duds, each of us armed, basically, with a glass of liquid. Fortune smiles on us and we are not accosted by a gang of norkers or a gaggle of carnivorous geese.

 

Maybe thinking these very thoughts, Lucette stops us at the top of the steps, waves her wand across me and says par ouag. I know what it is, but am still a bit surprised when my arms disappear in front of me. I look down and there’s nobody there, there’s no body there. She does it to Zelin, who giggles, the sound emerging from seemingly thin air; then she does herself, and we’re all invisible.

 

“This won’t fool a dragon,” I whisper.

 

“It might just buy us time,” she whispers back. “You good?”

 

“We’re good,” we say.

 

Left at the four way. Left again at the T. The cave dragon, off to the right somewhere, is taking a well-deserved nap. Into the ghouls’ chamber, but the ghouls have been fried to a crisp; two of them are detectable as lumps of something once not quite dead; any others that had been there are just marks on the floor and walls.

 

“This must be where the dragons had their discussion,” says Lucette.

 

“Shush,” I advise her.

 

We come to the black wall with the door up a step. It seems very quiet, here and all around. We have arrived at the party, invisible ladies carrying drinks. I suppose we all smirk. We all listen.

 

“Snoring,” mutters Lucette after some seconds. I look toward her, but I don’t see anything (of course) and I’m afraid to make a sound. Telepathy would sure be useful in a situation like this.

 

But “a situation like this” isn’t something I plan on having to ever plan on.

 

Thyrssa is asleep. Not expecting visitors. Naturally, being Thyrssa, she doesn’t lock up.

 

I raise my wand and touch the middle of the door. The wand tip appears for a moment. The door swings open with a slight tinkling. “Shesh,” I say. The tinkling stops. Lucette whispers, “Nice spell.”

 

The two of us lead on. Zelin hangs back a step or two. Snoring, definitely. A hot breeze, in fact.

 

We get to the end of the hall, and peer around the corner. I can see the gold shining. I can see the racks and shelves and pegboards, I can see a bit of that gold-spattered black tail, I can see a couple of small, orbital piles of gold and silver.

 

I can see the table. I can see more necklaces, gems, coins, goblets, medallions, coins, bars, rings, circlets, coins, ingots, coins. And there, in a little space of charred wood, in the firelight of Zelin’s dream, I see it: a large but otherwise ordinary-looking key.

 

It’s actually on a string, but not anything fancy, a bit of twine rather than a gold chain. There is absolutely nothing about it, not even its size, which would suggest it’s valuable. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just Madame T’s trunk key.

 

Maybe I’m the Mayor of Semvov. And it’s the key to the city.

 

We eyeball the situation, but we’ve already, I’ve already done all the planning one could possibly do for a situation like this. As if there is ever going to be a situation like this that isn’t, in fact, this situation.

 

I put my goat milk glass on the floor. It appears out of my invisibility. They get the idea and put their glasses next to it. I take the gin and pour it into the goat milk. I pour back some of this into the little shot glass, and then take the absinthe and add it to the rest of the goat milk. I pour some of this back in the absinthe glass and add the bit from the shot glass. I take up the absinthe glass, the medium glass, and place it on the table next to the key.

 

No move from the dragon. I don’t even look.

 

I lean back into the hall. The big glass is steaming a bit.

 

I take it quickly but without spilling. I step into the room, almost on the tail. Now I look at the dragon—my goddess she’s enormous. Enormous doesn’t even come close. And black, set off by all the blotchy gold and silver melted onto her, a fortune in itself just stuck like chocolate frosting on a kid’s face. How about all the gold and silver piled on the floor, hanging from the walls, dripping from shelves, stuck to everything—? No. Toss. The glass. Now.

 

Her head, seen from over her left shoulder in sleep, moves a little to the left. She lets out a sleepy little sigh.

 

I swing the big glass, letting it go at the end of its swing. I do a good job, spraying it across her upper body and neck, finishing with the head. Oh, whoops. I hit her in the head with the glass.

 

Well, it’ll all work out. I grab the key, pull its string over my head, and turn. We run into each other but stay invisible and can’t see each other to get untangled. Zelin extricates herself first, Lucette and I start after her, and halfway down that little hall we hear Thyrssa’s rage. The world fills with noise, then heat pushes the noise out, then we get both. We tumble forward on a wind from the sun, our hands around our heads.

 

I am in flames. I’m flying and rolling and tumbling through the air, through the narrow corridor and out the door, rolling on waves of flame. Bounding off the walls, I land in a ball and spring to my feet, covered in thin soot, some of it still burning. I desperately try to shake and throw it off.

 

That thud behind me, and that whoosh: it’s not till later I figure out that’s Thyrssa finally succumbing to my potion.

 

We’re still invisible. We run, bumping down the walls, through the Burnt Ghoul Room. Zelin, in front, runs smack into a lone goblin and is suddenly visible. Out comes her hunting knife, and snicker-snack, the goblin’s a dead goblin. We charge on, through the four way, down the stairs, past the bathrooms.

 

The place has largely cleared out in the brief time we were away. Glee and Igbo and Jan and Fenric are playing cards. Gurth is sitting by himself at the bar, close by the entrance. Lali is at the far end, apparently trying to pick up Greg’s spirits a bit. We three ladies come to a halt.

 

“Gotta use the restroom,” says Lucette. “Barely held it in that far.”

 

“I got it,” I say. “Lucette. I got the—I got it.”

 

“I would hope so!”

 

Zelin saunters into the middle of the room and looks around. Even visible, she’s not especially obvious. She looks back at me.

 

I step up next to Gurth. “Hey, big boy,” I say. “Want a surprise?”

 

“Daisy,” says Zelin from the middle of the room, in a warning voice.

 

I realize I have dirt and ash all over me. I start brushing it off. Gurth, who can’t see me, reaches out and his hand collides with my shoulder.

 

I straighten up. I look down. I’m visible. I’m not wearing anything. My dress has burned off. Even my underwear did not survive the conflagration; my hair isn’t looking too great, for that matter. I’m standing in the middle of a room full of people I know, and I’m not wearing anything, except for one thing. Everyone, including Audrey, is looking at that one thing, or somewhere near it.

 

“You did it,” says Jan. I look down: the Dread Key, its twine largely burned away, is glued by ash and sweat to a spot between my boobs.

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