IV. Look see
“We’re all here?” Yanos asks. We’re assembled in the lot next to the Rose, and it’s just rung the second hour after dawn. It’s frickin’ cold: it’s November Frickin’ Twenty-first. It’s a lot of things with “frickin’” in them.
We are all here. We are: me and Janet and Fenric; Yanos and Zelin; Zelin’s warrior friend Gurth; the big young warrior Jorg, wearing a big iron helmet; and Barb, the enchantress, dressed as for a polar expedition.
“All here,” says Zelin.
“Great,” says Yanos. “We all know the way. This is just a look see, okay? Everybody gets that?” Everybody gets that, I gather. “Anyone got cold feet?”
“Poor choice of words,” I point out.
“Hah, yeah, maybe I should rephrase that,” says Yanos. “Anyone wish to remain behind, understanding that you lose your share—?”
“Of course not, Yanos,” says Barb. I’m already filled with loathing for her. It’s hard to say why. It can’t be that I’ve been in her presence now for a total of two hours of my life, and she’s spent at least an hour and a half of that flirting with Yanos. Now I think of it, they both have hair tousled the same way. I wonder, if I pushed them up against each other, if their bed hair would sort of fit. “Lead on to glory, and all that!” She laughs. Her mirth tinkles among the dead grasses.
Early birds that we are, we make the ruins of Valen without meeting anyone bigger than a crow. Lots of crows. How many of them are sorcerers using the polymorph spell, I do not try to guess.
We all climb down into the trench above the stairway in, and gather in a loose group for Yanos to form us up. He and Fenric and Zelin huddle, but I doubt the thief or the elf has a lot of say in the matter. They break after ten seconds, and Yanos starts arranging us.
“Row of three,” he says, “row of two, row of three. In front, Gurth here, Jorg on the right, Daisy in the middle with the light.”
“I’m in front??” I squeak. I look around, but no one seems to have heard me.
“Second row,” Yanos goes on, “the cleric, and Zelin. Cleric—!”
“Jan,” she says.
“Jan, you get to do the mapping.”
“Me? Fenric does the—!”
“He’s going to be in back,” says Yanos calmly, “with me, and Barb in the middle. Everybody clear?”
“I’m in front, for real?”
“We need you in front,” says Yanos, “because we need your light in front, and you can lay enemies low with your sleep spell. If we meet anything bigger, feel free to drop back a bit.”
“In other words, yes,” Janet says to me.
“All right then,” says Yanos, “wands out, swords out, arrows at ready. If you see something ahead, unless you can tell it’s not a bad guy, assume it’s a bad guy. Lead on, good Gurth! We’re all behind you!”
We march down the stairs into the earth. That smell: I’d forgotten it but it comes right back to me, that and the peculiar low din. We emerge into the first big roughly square chamber. Jan and I both glance at the east doorway.
“Light over here,” says Zelin, moving out of formation to the right.
“Come on, big guy,” I say to Jorg. I grab his left hand. My new boyfriend. We move over to where Zelin is standing, and at her feet is a single corpse, a dead man in damaged chain mail with a broken sword and a bunch less blood on the inside than on the outside. The mortal blow was probably a spear wound just behind and below the neck in back.
The rest of the group forms up around us. Jan moves up next to me, but she’s mostly just getting her version of the room right on her version of the map.
“Okay,” says Gurth, “don’t know the guy. Think he was by himself?”
“From the way he’s lying,” says Zelin, “I think he was on his way out and got attacked from behind. I suppose his friends just went on out.” She pushes his torso with her long black boot, but not disrespectfully. “He’s been dead for twelve hours,” she judges. “Either he was foolish and went in by himself, or he fell as his group was leaving.”
“Fleeing,” I say. They look at me. “He fell on his face. They were running. That’s why they didn’t stop. They were probably out by the time they realized he’d got left behind.”
“All right,” says Yanos pleasantly, “this is a good lesson from this poor fellow. Everyone learned everything we’re going to learn from him?”
I guess we have. We form up again and head for the west doorway.
We take the west hall. It’s so quiet I start to think that the bad things have all slept in. The passageway is ten feet wide and almost square; I give Gurth and Jorg room by hanging back half a step, in my own sort of Row 1b. As far as light’s concerned, it only means their huge shadows are angled forward on the side walls; we can see what’s ahead exactly as well as we could if I were walking out in front by myself, which is: not very well, really. I’m sure what’s ahead can see us much better.
I like these guys. Gurth is quiet and Jorg is absolutely silent, aside from his boots and his occasional burping and farting.
After thirty or forty steps, after passing four or five rough wooden doors, the passage comes to an abrupt 90 degree turn to the right. We bunch up, look around the corner, confer in whispers. “Are you at all concerned with how quiet it is?” I ask Janet.
“Should I be?” she asks.
“Same distance on,” says Yanos, after a short conference with Zelin, his elf archer, “and we should find a door on the left.”
So we take the right turn and push on into the blackness. It looks exactly the same, but it’s different. Perhaps there is just a tiny bit less light here than the tiny bit of light there was in the last stretch of hall. My wand light, blue to white, should take care of that. But I’m keenly aware that before, I could look back and see, through the ranks of my comrades, a room from which you could see up the stairs to daylight. Now, looking back would only get you a view of the corner, carved out of the damp black stone of the Earth. Not that I freak out. I am not on track to freak out, and besides, there are these seven other people trudging along with me. But the fact of the darkness settles into my heart, which literally feels heavy in my chest. The gulfs of solid rock all around weigh. Still we trudge, my wand light wavering out ahead of the two warriors.
“Door,” says Gurth all of a sudden. And there is a door indeed, in the wall on the left.
“What’s through there?” asks Yanos “Barbara, can you—?”
“I sure can, peachykins,” Barb replies. While a little part of me reruns that sentence to make sure she actually called him peachykins, she steps up to the door and intones, “Gos shok.”
She twirls her wand, and something separates from her lit wand-tip. It looks like a large marble, but it has an iris and a pupil on one side. She directs it down toward the bottom of the door, where the crack is large enough for it to fit through, and that’s what it does.
“So?” asks Yanos after waiting a whole two seconds. “Is it the stairs?”
“I don’t think so,” says Barb. “Are they right away, or is there some hall or a room first?” She and Zelin and Yanos all stand there blinking at each other. Barb finally adds, “It’s pitch black in there.”
“So what did you expect you’d be able to see with your roving eye?” asks Zelin.
“I didn’t know it’d be pitch black in there! And I wasted energy. This spell costs, you know. Spells cost.” With a little tsk of disgust, she twirls her wand (a very nice one with a gold band) and dissolves the spell.
“Couldn’t you have known it was dark in there?” asks Zelin.
Barb looks at Yanos. I think she’s about to throw herself weeping into his strong arms. He sighs and gestures to Jorg and Gurth. “Can you two be bothered to open the door?” he asks.
Gurth looks at Jorg, who grins and gestures him to stand back. Jorg puts his shoulder to the door, backs up a few inches, and throws himself into it. The door bursts open. Gurth grabs onto Jorg—so do I, but I weigh about a tenth what Jorg does. He manages not to fall on the floor. We pull him back into the hall, and the door, having swung 180° and hit the wall, now swings back shut.
One second later, there’s another wooden thump. From the middle of the door, the point of something sharp protrudes.
“Crom,” says Jorg. “Holy bleep,” says Gurth. I say something along that line myself.
“It’s a spear head,” says Gurth. “Either there’s some really big guy in there who doesn’t cotton to visitors, or there’s some sort of spear-chucking machinery, in which case, let’s not make wagers on whether it automatically reloads.”
“Thanks,” says Jorg.
“The question is,” says Fenric, “could this all have been handled better?”
“What are you saying?” replies Yanos.
“Nothing, brother, nothing at all. Shall we move along?”
And twenty steps further along, we come to another door on the left-hand wall. We listen to it, quiet as church mice in a church with a large and attentive cat; we tap on it and jiggle it; we discuss it in whispers. Fenric, looking bored, waves us aside, gives the door one more listen, then opens it just enough to slip through, which he does.
His voice comes through: “By the Gods! If only you could see what I’m seeing! It’s just too—!” He flings the door open. He’s standing a step below our level. He’s now at eye level with my scalp. “It’s a stairway down,” he concludes.
The second level down is much less fraught this time than last. Instead of a comrade’s dead body and then a goblin ambush, the worst thing we meet is: puddles of an unknown liquid in the hall. None of us is barefoot; even Janet has exchanged her sandals for sensible boots. I just try to avoid splashing in it.
The stair lets out into a small square room, and the only way out is a crooked-looking hallway straight back the direction the stair came down from. It’s so narrow we really have to get to know each other well; Gurth lets Jorg take the lead just because the two of them can’t possibly walk side by side. The situation doesn’t last more than about twelve paces before Jorg steps out into a wide open space, turns to the right and swings his sword around. There’s a loud, jagged clang.
Gurth and I are out into the open space in a moment. There’s Jorg, and facing him is someone a half again bigger than him, armed with a club. Jorg’s sword is broken a third of the way down from the point. He and his foe both look at it, then Jorg utters a loud growl and has at his foe, who parries with the club. The sword breaks off right at the hilt. Jorg throws it down. He’s about to put up his dukes when Gurth steps in and whacks at the foe’s leg, cutting through the hide outfit it’s wearing and into its big boot. It steps on Gurth’s blade, which snaps. It regards Gurth thoughtfully.
Arrows fly: two, precisely, and the opposing person teeters backward and falls. One arrow is in its forehead, and the other in the middle of its neck. The one in the forehead is pretty well embedded. It has green feathers.
“Aiya vallari!” cries Zelin. Then she steps up to the corpse and has a try at pulling out her arrow. It won’t budge. She sort of shrugs and steps back, looking around as if to get her bearings.
“Ogre,” says Yanos, pulling his arrow from the ogre’s neck. “Sorry about your swords, gents.”
“I have a backup,” says Gurth, pulling a shorter sword from over his shoulder. “Jorg, think you can heft this guy’s club?”
“Can try,” says Jorg. He hefts away. “Kinda big,” he judges, but he manages to lug it. I don’t doubt he could do damage with the thing, which is basically a grimy hunk of trunk from a smallish tree.
We are not in a vast open room, as I thought at first, but a wide hall running perpendicular to the crooked passage we came out of. Looking back, it really seems like we came out of a crack. The wide hall goes off into darkness in both directions. Zelin has a look either way, then nods her tiny pointy nose to the right. “This way,” she says. “It appears Shermak knew what he was talking about.”
“All right,” says Yanos, “four in front, four in back. Gurth, Jorg, um, Daisy and Zelin, then me and Barb, Fenric and the cleric.”
“The cleric,” Janet says.
“Who’s Shermak?” I ask, as we walk.
“Dead friend,” says Zelin.
“Reliable dead friend,” says Yanos from behind me.
“What’d he die of?”
“We’re not sure,” says Zelin, “but it was at least five levels down.”
“He went off on his own, this Shermak?”
“Not at all,” says Yanos. “There were people with him. Just none of them came back.”
I have a bunch of questions about this, but it doesn’t seem the time to ask them. So we take a nice quiet stroll down the hall. This must have been the Main Street of old Valen Castle’s dungeons: it’s wide and straight with high ceilings and smooth floors and no goblin ambushes. I imagine double rows of shackled prisoners led through here to their work or their torment or both; columns of misshapen beasts led by leashes to their assigned cells or arenas; companies of orcs marching to their mess halls or their maneuvers, griping about the damp. The damp is still here, of course: we splash through puddle after puddle.
I can hear Janet counting the steps, and trying to make sure she marks the doors we see in the right paces. I can also hear Barb keeping up a conversation with Yanos, though I tune out what she’s actually saying. It’s something to do with her thesis that she’s done with school now she’s an enchantress and she shouldn’t have to go back just to become a sorceress, but it goes on from there. I can make out Yanos tossing off the occasional “really” and “yes, sure” and “I get that.”
The main way zigs right for about ten feet and then left, returning to its (southerly?) former course. Ten feet beyond the corner, on the right-hand wall, there is an iron door. We stop before rounding the first corner, and Barb sends her roving eye around to check it, though I need to put my wand around the corner too so the eyeball can actually see anything. The eyeball sees nothing, nor does it see anything around the second corner, but Zelin says, “Wait here, let me take Gurth and the conjurer to check things out.”
“Go, check,” says Yanos, who then turns all his attention to making Barb feel like he’s listening to her. I look at Zelin, who’s already making a bit of a show of peering around the second corner. I look up at Gurth, who shrugs. The odd thing is, and I am consciously aware of this: I find these people much more reassuringly professional than my previous team, not that that’s saying much.
Zelin waves me to join her. She and I and Gurth creep up to the door, which is perhaps twenty feet down from the inside corner. We creep across the hall, which is perhaps twenty feet wide, and line up on either side of the iron door: Gurth on the near side, Zelin and me on the far side, Zelin nearer to the door than me. She turns and catches my eye.
“Daisy,” she whispers.
“How am I going to not murder those two?”
She gives me another of her inscrutable looks, then creeps up and puts her head against the iron door. Gurth does the same from his side; I check on down the hall and see nothing. It looks like it goes on all the way to South Land. I look back at them, just in time for Zelin to turn back to me and shrug. She nods to Gurth, who lays hold of the iron handle and pulls the door open. It creaks on rusty hinges. Behind it, a narrower hall runs a short distance and then turns right.
Holding my wand out, I can see steps around that corner, headed down to the third level of the Valen dungeons.
As we start down the stone steps, which are very steep this time, my thoughts are drifting between “this is easy after all” and “this is too easy.” There’s a certain amount of “I’m really here” in there.
The dungeon. The catacombs under the ruins of Valen Castle. Valen Castle, for Goddess’s sake.
The place where, according to Professor Shmoke, the Wizard Valentina ruled, while she was trying to carve out a little evil empire in the Ash Mountains. The place where her enemies caught up with her, the ones who weren’t already imprisoned and suffering torture in her dungeons. The place Landarcus found already a century-old ruin, the place Landarcus fixed up, the place where he had Count Roedark the Nice, trapped in a crystal, stuck in his desk drawer. The place Landarcus built, upward and especially downward, into the Castle and Dungeon of people’s nightmares.
Not, as Professor Shmoke would point out, that it was ever more than an homage to Dread Ipre on the Cold Lake on the far side of the Sannian Plain, where the River of Swans curls through a once-prosperous land now under an eternal curse and blight; and even that, Professor Shmoke would point out, is but a toy model of the transcendent ugliness and horror that is Lofty Sinafror.
But before he could elaborate on that, Professor Shmoke would usually let himself get side-tracked into how he and his friends searched for invisibility rings here the way children bob for apples; how, seeking the Way to the Abyss, they found the lair of the Brown Dragon Odnorek; how they happened on Vladimir’s Pub, where Vladimir and Audre offer food and drink to those who have made it to the lowest levels ever carved out by the minions of Landarcus, who ceased carving once they had opened a passage into something even old Shmoke didn’t want to talk about. And how, as they were descending a set of stairs two by two, the door at the bottom popped open and there was old Odnorek, and before anyone could think to do anything, that one guy had gotten picked out of the third row and swallowed.
“Then what did you do?” generations of enchanter students have asked.
“Then the door shut,” Shmoke has told generations of students, “and we turned around and went the other way, and that was the last I saw of Kasen” (the name sticks in my mind) “and that is how I got married to my first wife.”
We’re at the bottom of the stairs. There isn’t a door, and there isn’t an ancient brown dragon waiting to grab some lunch out of our third row, which right now consists of me and Zelin.
The steps dump us out in a little square room, and a door beyond, half open, lets out into a hallway. Jorg and Gurth take peeks either way, and then move out into it so Janet, with the map, and Yanos and Barb can get out there. Pushed aside, I find myself with Zelin and Fenric. Zelin waves at my wand. She has a pipe.
“It’s just light,” I say of the wand-light. “It can’t set anything on fire.”
“I know the spell,” says Zelin. “I just don’t have any magic. I’ll teach you.”
“Okay,” I say. “What’s the spell?”
“Sko,” she says.
“S, K, O?” She nods. I hold my wand forward and say, “Sko.” I try twirling a bit and say it again: “Sko.” The wand light hisses a bit and emits a few sparks. I’m not sure it’s worked, but Zelin pulls the tip down and sure enough, she lights her pipe off it. She passes it to me.
“Thanks,” she says. I take a drag and pass it to Fenric. Barb and Yanos are keeping up a commentary outside. We pass the elf’s little dark wood pipe around twice, and then she dumps out the ash and pockets it. It tastes excellent, especially down here.
“What are you guys doing back there?” Yanos calls from the hallway. “We think the door we want is down this hallway.”
“Coming,” says Zelin. “You going to make room for us?”
“There’s plenty of room,” says Barb, and she’s right. It’s narrower and rougher than the hall above, but it’s not a tight squeeze. We form up again, this time with Barb and Yanos in front. She has her wand lit. Behind them, Jorg is hefting his ogre club, which takes up a lot of space; then Janet and Gurth, and finally us. We seem to be headed to the left. I look back up the other direction, into blank darkness. Never was a night as dark as this hallway, beyond the reach of my wand light.
The group lurches forward, away from my tenebrous vista; Barb’s wand light is pushing an equally tenebrous vista backward ahead of her. She and Yanos stop just on the other side of another old wooden door.
“Want to send your eye in?” asks Yanos.
“And how would it see in the dark in there?” she replies, with an extra coating of scorn for the ignorance of the non-practitioner.
“Can’t you, like, throw light in there with it?”
“Just how much of a production do you need this to be?” she asks. She puts her hand to the door. “I don’t sense anything. Let’s just open it. I can keep my energy for the locking spell.”
“All right,” says Yanos.
“See, I’m clever that way,” she feels the need to add. She looks up at Jorg.
He grins, puts his club up on his shoulder, lays hold of the door handle—a wooden gadget that does manage to latch the thing—and pushes the door open.
For a few seconds there is no sound. Then there is a series of noises, a sound of struggle, a grunt from Jorg, a grunt from something else, an odd zingy sound, then Yanos and Barb both cursing and talking semi-intelligibly.
Gurth runs in. Barb yells, “Gurth! Be careful!”
Somehow I’m in the door behind him. There’s a big old thing in front of us, a sort of biped with gigantic eyes which glow with an amber light. Gurth seems hypnotized. “Ag,” I say, uncorking my dreaded sleep spell. An arrow flies wild past me and clatters off the horny arches over the thing’s eyes. It doesn’t seem a bit drowsy.
Those eyes. Those amber eyes. Those irises, those pupils like black wells of blackness full of the black color of a black night sky festooned with black stars in a black—those amber irises, so amber, as amber as an amber color of amber.
In which I am trapped like a fly in amber. With the blackness of a black night so close with its black sky full of black stars in the blackness.
Then the eyes dim and shut off. Barb’s golden wand light floods the room. Gurth is standing over the hulk of the huge dead thing with those cooling eyes. It also has big pincers around a mouth full of smaller pincers, big legs ending in feet like boulders, and big arms like tree trunks, except with razor claws on big lobster paws.
“Umberhulk,” says Gurth. “The eyes. They can take your mind right out of you.” He turns and smiles at me. “Eh?”
“Eh,” I say. We look around. There’s Jorg, sprawled out on the floor, nearly cut into thirds by a sweep of one of those claws. He’s definitely dead, but he died with his eyes wide open.
We could freak out, but we’d wind up in the same place either way. So instead, somehow, we drag the umberhulk out into the hall and leave it there. Janet makes a pass at healing poor Jorg, but there’s nothing to be done, and we all know we’re not going to sleep with him lying there by us rotting. Fortunately Barb finds a semi-secret panel that leads into a sort of closet. In it we find about ten mismatched and damaged boots, a big sack of flour and several boxes of what appears to be rusty chain mail repair parts and tools. We trade all that stuff for Jorg, and use some of it to make sure he doesn’t fall back out.
There’s also a small grate with, of all things, a vent. Gurth and Zelin manage to get a little fire going on some mid-size tree branches, and we sit around it and eat whatever we thought to bring with us. I share out my molasses cookies. Barb has two of them but makes slightly disparaging noises. Yanos says, “It’s definitely the best cookie I’ve had on the third level down in Valen Dungeons.”
“Thanks, Daisy,” says Gurth. “This hits the spot.”
“You made these yourself?” asks Janet. “Not your mom?”
“My mom’s cookies? You wouldn’t want those,” I tell her. “Besides, she saves all her pastries for Constable Robert.”
“Oh, he’s an ass,” says Gurth.
“He doesn’t deserve anything like this molasses cookie,” says Fenric.
“Hey,” says Zelin. I look her in the eye. “Thank you for the cookie.”
“Do you think they might have some elven healing quality?” asks Yanos.
“Do you know, I think they might. May I please have one more, Daisy?”
“Anyway,” says Yanos, “I think we might scout a little further once we have some rest. Just cast about for a way down, maybe have a preliminary recon on the fourth level? I would like to look at the map, if I may.”
“Of course,” says Janet. “I hope you’re not planning on me going with you on your little recon.”
“I’ve definitely had enough,” I say. “For this trip.”
“Well,” says Yanos, “here, or this way: one really wonders what might be in this zone here? We know there’s a way down, there may be two or three we could get access to. The more ways we know, the better. And there is safety in numbers. Gurth? Fenric?”
“I definitely want to go further,” says Fenric, “but I agree with Daisy, not this trip. We were doing well, but this far in, we’re starting to meet things we can’t handle. I mean, umberhulk? Seriously?”
“We were lucky,” says Gurth. “I was lucky. I could’ve been a big ol’ steak for that thing.”
“I just feel as if, you know,” says Yanos, “we’re here. We’re this far in. And so far, for treasure, we have these lovely chain mail parts. And a sack of flour.”
“We might as well go a little further,” says Barb. “We could go, just the two of us, Yan,” she says. “An archer and an enchantress. We can slip out and slip here and slip there and—who knows where we might be able to slip in?”
“Zelin,” says Yanos, “what about—?”
“I’m happy here,” says the elf.
“Perhaps after a rest?”
“I don’t need rest,” she says.
Barb and Yanos go on talking about what they could do, just the two of them (Barb) or why we should all go (Yanos). Presently I need to pee. I’ve kind of needed to pee since we came down those first stairs, but it comes and goes. Now it’s becoming insistent.
“What does one do about the situation where—?” I start to ask Zelin.
“Out in the hall,” she says. “I’ll cover for you. Gurth?”
“I need to pee too,” he says.
Life is full of moments where you find yourself doing something you never thought you’d do, and this would be one of those, I think, as I squat down in a small alcove outside the door and down the hall about twenty feet. Gurth and Zelin stand nearby, facing away, chatting about the air movement this far down. Then I pull up my undies and come out, and Gurth wanders up the hall past the door; he stops just within the reach of my wand light, and goes ahead and waters the wall.
“You don’t need to?” I ask Zelin.
“I did, just before we came down the stairs into the dungeon,” she replies. “Hey, it’s not like the fair folk have some special ability to hold it in. We have bladders and they fill up just like yours.”
“Okay, okay,” I reply. We don’t say anything. She starts filling her pipe. Presently Gurth returns, fastening his belt. “Better?” I ask.
“Loads,” he replies. “Smoke?”
“Light me up,” says Zelin, and I do, feeling like I’ve grown up about five years in the past hour. “Daisy,” she says after we’ve all had a couple of hits, “you think you can sleep?”
I blow air out between my lips. “Actually,” I say, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be asleep as soon as I put my head on my pack. You?”
“Nah,” she says. “I have no need of sleep.”
“Ah,” I say, “fair folk wander in dream while awake and all that.”
“Yes,” she says coolly. After a moment she glances at me and says, “Kind of sucks, actually.”
“You think,” asks Gurth, “those two are going to slip out on a scout?”
“Yes, that’s what I think,” she says.
Another first for me on this trip is waking from sleep underground. Someone is pounding on the wooden door and my instinct is to yell for them to wait while I get the shop ready to open. I hear voices: Gurth and Janet inside, Yanos outside, then Zelin’s calm sarcasm.
“Daisy, time to get up. We need your awesome spell power.”
“What? What for?” I ask, shaking myself into a sitting position. I feel like a bag of potatoes someone has spelled into consciousness.
“Do you have a spell that opens a locked door?” asks Gurth.
“It’s rok,” says Zelin.
“The door is wood, dear,” I retort. I stand up. I’m still in my sensible boots, as well as my ankle-length peasant dress and my cloak and all my usual undies. I have my cloth hat pulled over my hair, which would be even more of a mess otherwise. I’m both sweaty and cold.
“No, no,” says Zelin, while Yanos is still yelling outside: yelling as one only yells when one is afraid of waking the neighbors, who might possibly be trolls or dragons. “The spell word is rok. You can say that, can’t you? Do you already know that one?”
“If you know it, why don’t you say it?” I ask, letting them lead me over to the door, still shaking the sleep out. What was I dreaming? Something about a cellar and a bunch of dice.
“Because,” the elf replies with great patience (for her), “I am not a magical practitioner.”
“And what exactly is the situation?” I ask. Yanos is quieting down: he’s settled for occasional pounding.
“Just open the door,” says Yanos somewhat quietly.
I pull my wand out of the pocket I sewed into my dress and wave it. “Rok,” I say. It works first time: the door pops open. Yanos bursts in and shuts it.
“Thank you,” he says. “Took your time about it.”
“I don’t even know that spell. Where’s Barb?”
He looks over his shoulder at the shut door, and then he looks around at us: Zelin is on one side and Janet on the other. “We, ah, went for a scout last night,” he says. “Ah, this morning.” He laughs nervously. Perhaps he expects us to be surprised. We are not. He says, “We found a trapdoor with a ladder down to the fourth level. I’ll show you on the map when we get out.”
“Where’s Barb?” asks Janet.
“Well,” he says, “we drop into this room, it has one door onto a hall, we go out and sneak down the hall, we’re keeping the wand light low, right? So we walk and walk and nothing. And then we come around a corner and there’s, I don’t know, orcs or something coming way down the hall. So we slip into a room and what do you know? It’s someone’s place.”
“I didn’t get a good look,” he says. “There’s spells being thrown. Barb tries her fire spell. They throw a three-worder. Someone throws a spell on me, I felt weird but I’m not a mage, so maybe it doesn’t do anything to me. I’m feeling really weird though.”
“Might have been cease,” I opine. “You didn’t have any spell power to lose, but maybe it’d make you feel like you’d lost all your spell power.”
“Or you barely resisted a sleep spell,” says Zelin. “What about Barb?”
“Well, I sort of fall back, and now I’m out in the hallway, and these orcs are right there. What could I do? I took off.”
“You just left her there?” asks Janet.
“I actually can’t blame you for that,” says Zelin. “I can blame you for going on a scout by yourself.”
“It was okay with you at the time. You could’ve gone with us.”
“In point of fact,” says Zelin, “I told you not to go.”
“In point of fact,” Fenric adds, “I told you not to go and I told you to take a thief with you if you did go. You should’ve sent me all by myself, that’s what you use your thief for. Not to skulk in the back and guard your wallets.”
“You’re lucky we took you at all, thief,” says Yanos.
“Don’t talk to my friend that way,” says Janet.
“So you lost our best magic user,” I say, “and what you got is: there’s this ladder down, and there’s someone down there with three-word spells, and guess what, big news, there’s orcs. Think the Old Order is still there? Or someone’s replaced them. Or, it’s just Level Four and it’s freakin’ dangerous. Take your pick. Because you know who your biggest magic user is now? Me.”
We all stand there glaring at each other. Gurth finally says, “Okay, let’s pack up and go. I think we all agree with that.”
We look around. Yeah. Not my favorite bedroom. And, I hate to say it and I miss him like crazy already, but old Jorg is starting to smell bad.
I wish I could say our hike back out was uneventful. I wish I could say I remember all of it. Suffice it to say, along about the second floor, we get charged at by a bunch of little jerks: kobolds, Gurth calls them, which I believe is Dwarvish for ankle-biters. Someone who isn’t a kobold is with them, because I get to experience that cease spell: nik er goth or something like that. And as soon as I realize what happened, I look down and there’s an arrow in my stomach.
Literally the next time I wake up, I’m lying on a block of stone in the afternoon sun (of late November), being tended by Janet and Zelin, while Gurth and Fenric look on with concern.
“She’ll be fine,” says Janet. “It didn’t hit anything important. She just lost some blood.” Pause. “Kind of a lot of blood,” she elaborates.
“It kind of hurts,” I manage to gasp out.
“Have more anesthetic,” says Zelin, pulling on her pipe and blowing the smoke into my face. I lapse slowly back into unconsciousness, just as Zelin is instructing Gurth to pick me up again.