- Our first time
“What was that all about?” asks Harmon, once we climb up again and we’re all together.
“You healed him?” Fenric asks. “Why’d you do that? You have energy left to heal us? Did it occur to you, actually, that we might have a few minor cuts and bruises ourselves before the day is out?”
“I do know that, actually,” says Janet. “Look, I actually haven’t used that spell up to now, I had to know if it would work, they don’t always work the first time. And in fact it didn’t, if you need to know, it took me two shots. I’m all set now.”
“So you were just working it up to make sure you could use it. Excellent. And how many more times today can you use it before you’re out of juice, Janet?”
“Um, two,” she says. She looks to me for support. I’m not really sure what expression I have on my face. “Pretty sure it’s two,” she finishes.
“We go with what we have,” says Harmon, but he looks at the other three warriors as if, well, it’s not what he would have ordered.
“All shall be well,” cries Hurcus, and Benvolio and Opmpontonius give a hail of agreement. He waves his sword at the stairway down. “So, then, that-away? That where the lapis circular thingy is?”
“Sssh,” Fenric hisses, glancing back toward where the wounded Padric is still sitting against his rock. We exchange looks. He grabs the other men in a sort of rugby huddle; I and Janet and Eleanor settle for exchanging glances. “The Lapis Circlet,” he says in a very low voice. “Is said to have been held by the Old Order on the Fourth Level Beneath. Now we are not ready to go for that just yet, we’re not idiots, okay? We are only scouting.”
“And hoping to pick up some treasure, eh?” Hurcus suggests.
“Well, I know I am,” I say to the other ladies. Benvolio and Ompontonius are saying exactly the same words over there in the huddle.
“Okay,” says Fenric, glaring at me. I’m like, what? I turn to examining my wand. It was my fourteenth birthday present, a bit beat up now three years on, light brown wood, walnut, nicely polished. I managed to carve the word Daisy and a bit of a flower on it, near the base. “Okay,” he repeats. “Here’s the order. Harmon, Hurcus, you’re in front. Then me and Eleanor, I’ll do the mapping. Then Daisy and Jan, then you two take up the rear.”
“Aw, bloody right I can do that,” Benvolio and Ompontonius say, more or less intelligibly, along with various oaths, snickers, innuendoes and bodily noises.
Fenric tries to ignore them and says, “Daisy, make light?”
“If anyone can make light of this, I can,” I say, and before Fenric can complain about my humor, I hold my wand up and say Gao! This one I had practiced often, and it works first time: a glowing orb of pink appears at my wand tip and casts light about us.
“We’re good to go, then,” says Harmon. “Ready, all?”
And so we hop down into the wide trench before the stairway, form up, and without further discussion head down into the earth.
The stairway is a good twenty feet wide, and not steep. It goes on for a good forty steps, the ceiling dropping down above till, at the bottom, Harmon can reach up and touch it. Then suddenly it ends: with the sunlight of a cloudy November day behind us, the way ahead looks black. But there’s no doubt the stair has run out.
Harmon and Hurcus move to the left and right. I push between Fenric and Eleanor, my wand forward. The ceiling rises up out of sight, and at first I can’t detect any other walls. But the chamber is large, not colossal. I move out into the middle, holding my wand up and out. I breathe another syllable of gao, my light spell, into it, and the light grows out to walls perhaps fifty feet away. In the middle of each wall is a hallway out. We descended into the room from the north; the hallways lead out east, west and south. There is nothing in the room but a few bones and some trash. There’s a lot of empty space in here, but I’m feeling smothered by the vast tons of rock surrounding it.
There’s a noise from the eastward hall. Something flies past me and clatters off to my right. I turn just in time to duck the second arrow, which also clatters harmlessly.
Hurcus and Harmon rush to my side. “Come forth, reveal yourselves, cowards!” cries Harmon. The third arrow flies. He throws his arm up instinctively and it lodges in his wrist-guard. The head has just gotten far enough to stick in his arm. “Ow, Jesus,” he says, “that stings!”
“Foul vermin,” cries Hurcus. He adjusts his iron cap, raises his sword high, lets out an inchoate bellow, and charges into the darkness.
“Let me look at that,” says Janet, coming to help Harmon. “No, don’t pull it out just yet.” The rest of us gather round and gawk as she cuts the wrist-guard loose with her knife, then gets a rag from her pack, soaks it in what I presume is either holy water or alcohol from a flask, and then yanks out the arrow and puts the rag on it. “You’ll be fine,” she says, checking the bleeding, which isn’t much.
“Hurts like the dickens,” says Harmon, a little giddy.
“You lot, spread out,” says Fenric to Benvolio and Ompontonius. “Prime spot for an ambush, don’t you think?”
“It sure was,” says Harmon. “I’m all right. They put stuff on their arrowheads, it makes them sting more, you know.” We all look around. “Uh, Hurcus?”
“Hurcus?” we call. “Hurcus?”
“He went over that way,” says Benvolio helpfully.
“Should we go over there?” asks Eleanor, who has her bow in one hand, and an arrow in her other hand. She’s ready.
Fenric looks at Harmon, then at me. He looks down at the two-foot-square board he’s drawing a map on. Okay, square room, four halls, one’s a stairway up, you can tell by the helpful up-arrow. “What do you think, Dais?”
“Me?” I wave my wand toward the eastward way. “Well, we could go look, I guess.”
So we form up again. This time Fenric and I are in front with Harmon. Eleanor and Janet are behind, and the two oafs are behind them, talking in low and suddenly serious voices. We move slowly toward the eastward hall.
It’s a black rectangle of night. And then I pick up detail in the black rectangle, but I can’t figure out what it means. And then I realize, and say aloud: “It’s a stairway down.”
“Huh,” is the general consensus.
“Did you hear him run down steps?” asks Janet. “Or fall down steps?”
“I didn’t hear poo,” says Benvolio.
“He must’ve gone down the stairs,” says Eleanor.
“Well,” says Harmon, “the thing we seek is said to be on the fourth level down, right? This would be the first, and the stairs would go down at least to the second.”
“Right,” says Fenric. “I’d hoped to look around this level a little first, of course. But, um, yeah, if he’s down there—!”
“We could just go down the stairs and see what’s at the bottom,” says Ompontonius.
“It’s the least we could do,” says Harmon. “Our comrade may have rashly run off, but for all we know, he has put our enemies to flight, and if they lie in wait for him further on, we should be there to relieve him.”
“Save his bacon,” says Benvolio.
“Troops out,” says Ompontonius.
“Okay,” says Fenric, “but listen up. It’s wide enough we can go in two rows. Front, me, Harmon, Benvolio, Ompontonius. Back, Eleanor, Janet, and Daisy in the middle. We go slow and when we reach the bottom of the stairs we stop and take stock of the situation. Everyone agree?”
“Got it,” says Benvolio, who, with Ompontonius, is already following Harmon down the stairs. “Bring the light, will ya?”
The other girls and I look at Fenric. “Well, let’s go,” he says.
“I’m the light, I guess I should bring myself,” I mutter to Janet, who laughs. The steps aren’t as long as the first set. After perhaps twenty of them, we spill out into another large, dark room. We step a little way in, and I have to shove Eleanor aside to get my light free of everyone’s shadow. As usual, I’m the shortest person in the party. Harmon and Ompontonius have stopped, and beyond them their shadows stretch black to the far wall. There’s something at their feet.
It’s Hurcus. He looks somewhat akin to a pin-cushion.
People say that Time Slows Down in situations like this. Considering that I’ve literally never been in a situation like this at this point, all I can say is that slowing down is just the first of the tricks Time tries on me. We’re standing there looking at Hurcus. He’s definitely dead. The dark sticky stuff on the stone floor is clearly his blood. The five bazillion arrows in him are definitely to blame.
“Orc arrows,” Harmon notes, with his characteristic willingness to share his deep knowledge. It’s a quality of his I’m sure I’ll miss.
The room is a low rectangle, lit by no light but my own. The walls on either side are within ten feet of us, but the far end is hidden in shadow. I can make out doors along both sides, perhaps one every six or eight feet, perhaps into side galleries which are totally dark.
That’s when Time decides to go on a spree. Cries break out from both sides. Arrows fly, in their bazillions. Harmon goes down in front of me. I guess instinct makes me step back, because suddenly I’m on the bottom stair. Janet is just in front of me, shouting; Eleanor takes a moment to just freak out. Fenric’s shouting as well.
Some light must have been kindled in those side galleries, because I can see with more than just my wand. The place is crawling with goblins, these sort of humanoid vermin in leather armor. All the ones I can see have hand weapons: swords, hatchets, cudgels, a pitchfork, a shovel. The two oaf warriors wade right into this wave of awfulness—I really am sorry, I can’t tell which is which at this point.
“Can’t you do something!” shouts Eleanor. “Ow!” She holds up her left arm—an arrow’s stuck up her sleeve.
There’s a lot of blood, but it could have been worse. Instead of telling her so, I say, “Shoot! Shoot for gosh sakes!” She pulls the arrow out, puts it on her bowstring and shoots it into the face of an orc about two feet away. She follows it with more arrows of her own.
Fenric throws a couple of his fancy daggers, but who, honestly, can tell what the hell happened to them. He pulls out his short sword and backs toward the stair. Five of the goblins converge on him, waving swords, axes and a length of chain.
“Ag!” I cry. The simple sleep spell. What the hell. I put half my energy into it. Three of them topple backwards in slumber.
“It’s a start, god damn it,” says Fenric, using his sword just to keep the other two, and three more who’ve joined them, out of range of his throat.
“Ag!” I cry again, and this time Janet joins in: it’s the first I knew of her having that spell. Six more go down, and two behind them fall to arrows. Fenric actually does one more of them harm with his sword, then backs to the stairs. More arrows are flying, mostly not hitting us.
“Back up the stairs,” he says.
Janet and I are inclined to agree, but Eleanor says, “No! We—!”
“Back. Up. The stairs,” says Janet. She and Fenric grab Eleanor by the armpits and give her the backwards bum’s rush. Next thing we know, we’re in the big square room.
“But,” says Eleanor.
“But we’re alive,” says Janet.
“But the others.”
“But they’re not. Alive.”
“How do you—how do you just know something like that?”
“Look,” I say, “do you think, honestly, we should go back down there and find out?”
Eleanor thinks about that a moment. I can’t help but admire her looks. She’s sweaty and dirty and a little bloody, she’s just been through hell, but she’s still so darn pretty. And still kind of an airhead. She looks about to throw up.
Then she shakes herself, turns and storms off toward the way out. The next we see of her, she’s back in Insmoor with a bandage on her arm.
“Well, that sucked,” says Fenric, as we stand in the middle of the room, Eleanor’s footsteps diminishing up toward the surface.
So we’re standing there. It’s quiet, except for the distant sounds of gobliny jubilation from down the stairs. It’s like being in the Winter Market at midnight of a holiday.
“Okay,” says Janet. “So it’s back to Insmoor for us as well, I guess.”
“Yeah,” says Fenric. “Try again later.” He laughs. “The Lapis Circlet still beckons! Well, this was but a scouting foray.”
“Yeah,” I say. I start walking toward the stairs up. I’m playing with my wand, thinking a million thoughts. I hold it up and have a try at reinforcing my light spell, but evidently I’ve used the last drop of my spell energy.
At some point on the steps I realize I’m well ahead of the other two. I don’t stop till I’m in daylight. It’s early afternoon: the Sun has come out and I practically have to cover my eyes in fingers till they adjust.
I feel Janet and Fenric on either side of me. I squint at them in turn—they’re squinting too.
“You okay?” asks Jan.
My eyes adjusted, I look around. I can’t think what to say. I can’t think what to think. It’s just one of those days. And Time? It’s tired out after its little outburst of bizarreness down there. It seems to have dozed off.
“Hey,” says Fenric. “You okay?” He waits a moment, then goes on: “We have to shake it off. Go back and get on that horse. I mean, there’s lessons, there’s tons of lessons. We learn those lessons, right? We hire some more warriors—!” He laughs. “Those guys. I mean, really. I feel bad for Hurcus, I really do, but—!”
“Discipline,” says Janet.
“Exactly. I’m sorry to say it, but—!”
“Then don’t,” I burst out. It literally feels like it’s bursting out of me.
“Just don’t. Don’t say it.” I take four steps away from them, toward town.
“Daisy,” says Janet. I stop and let her talk, but I don’t go so far as to turn toward her. “Daisy, we lost those four guys. They didn’t deserve it. We can’t put them back together. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. But we can’t put them back.”
“Daisy,” says Fenric, “we can’t change what happened. We can’t change what we did. The only question is what we’re going to do now.”
“Well,” I say, still not turning, “I guess I’m going back to work. Because you know what? I still don’t have a stinkin’ shilling.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” says Fenric, as I start walking away. “We all need to go back to work. Then we can think about next time—!”
“Not listening,” I call over my shoulder. “La la la la la, not listening.” And singing that song, I pick up the pace and soon leave them behind. I’m pretty sure they’re already planning their next foray for the Famous Circlet.
Around the bend in the road, I see a half dozen people coming toward me. They’re mostly men, and two women, one with a bow and one with a wand. The wand girl is my age, but she’s not from around here. She’s pretty, she’s in a short dress over leggings, and she looks in charge.
“Hail, enchantress,” she addresses me. “Have you come from the Catacombs of Valen? How goes it there?”
“Oh, it’s great,” I say. “Gold strewn in the halls. Only mind the orc arrows.” And with that, I go around them and head on into town. I have potion blanks to jug up.