Chapter 9: Club Six

IX. Club Six

 

1.

So Lucette is a no go, and it’s Gurth Fembark, of all people, who does our recruiting. And there we are at Sleepy’s, on a warmish morning a few days after Yule, eating piles of sugary pastries and swilling tea: myself, Jan and Fenric, Zelin and Eleanor, and Gurth and Lali and another warrior named Unwin. Lali is the tallest of the group, and is wearing a long tunic of chain mail over leather pants and big boots; she carries a two-handed broadsword but generally only uses one hand to swing it. Unwin is the other warrior from the group that we met coming back from Valen that long ago day when we were going to Valen for our first time. I remember that Gurth had slash wounds on his arm, and Unwin had a head bandage. He’s got that covered this time: he has a full steel helmet with chain down the back and sides of his neck and a hinged two-piece jaw guard. He plays with it while we eat and drink.

 

“Yeh,” he says, in a Thomasport slum accent, “saved up fer this buggah, sh’d keep me from gettin’ me bell rung again.”

 

“You haven’t been in since that time?” asks Fenric, who still only wears leather coat and pants and suave boots.

 

“Right disahstah that was,” says Unwin.

 

“It really was,” says Eleanor. She looks at me. “Are we going to actually get anywhere and do anything this time? You know all my experience in these things is—! Oh. I just had a thought.”

 

“What’s that?” I ask, keeping my sarcasm to myself.

 

“What if I’m the one who gets shot fourteen times and bleeds to death on the first level down this time?” She laughs.

 

“Don’t think twice, dear,” says Unwin, patting her hand. “I’ll jump in front of ya.”

 

Unexpectedly (to me, anyway) they lean across the table toward each other and kiss. This stimulates Gurth to do the same thing, but Lali takes his head in her two big hands and makes sure it’s she who kisses him, and gets full service from it. It’s deeply exciting and revolting and leaves me an emotional wreck. I look up and Fenric meets my eyes.

 

“Don’t even think it,” I say.

 

“What? No. I was just,” and he smiles, “noting your reactions.”

 

“What reactions?”

 

 

 

Then we’re out into the weather. It snowed right after Yule, six inches in town and a good foot in the upland manors. Here, south of town, it might be six inches but it’s blowing around enough to act like three feet. But the wind is mild, and half the snow that hits us melts on contact. The Sun is out, so, soaked though we all soon are, we’re singing as we march down the south road, bend to the east toward the mountains and climb up onto the barren table land where Valentia once thought to plunk down a castle of evil. The castle now gone, there’s nothing to stop the wind off the mountains, and we soon turn into walking icicles. The singing stops and is replaced by sniffling. We hustle up to the swath of exposed basement, and without pausing to take it in or scan for survivors, we run for the cover of the stairs down.

 

We’re at the bottom, in the big (fortunately empty) room, before we think to organize ourselves. It’s much warmer in here—a bit above freezing with no wind, but it seems like a summer afternoon. Mist rises from our clothes. Everyone looks at everyone else.

 

“You do it,” is all Zelin says.

 

“What? Okay.” I scan them. “Okay,” I say. “Gurth, and, um—?”

 

“Lali,” says the Amazon. “Of the Hill Sisters!” She and Gurth laugh as at a private joke.

 

“It’d be a pity to separate you two,” I say, “so yeah, you guys in front. That means Unwin in back, um, I guess let’s put Eleanor back there?”

 

“Oh. Good,” says Eleanor. “Perfect.”

 

“Me and Zelin second, Jan and Fen third, you two can map.”

 

“Grumble grumble,” says Fenric.

 

“What are you grumbling about?”

 

“Being in the third row. It’s fine, I just need to grumble about it.”

 

“Don’t worry. You get door opening duties. So. Before we form up. Um, warriors, could you just keep an eye out while we hold council? Gurth to the east way, Lali to the south, Unwin to the west. Okay?”

 

“Leaders,” says Fenric, “don’t need to ask if it’s okay.”

 

“I wasn’t asking you if it was okay. I was telling you it’s okay. Okay?” He grins and shrugs. I look at the others. “So we’re going to the sixth level down. Do we go the way we know or try a new way?”

 

“I think we try a new way,” says Fenric. “Elf girl, didn’t you come up that south way?”

 

“I did,” says Zelin, “and I don’t remember much about it, I was in a bit of a hurry, being by myself. So yeah, I’d love to do that.”

 

“Does it seem a little quiet here today?” asks Jan.

 

“Quiet is good,” I say.

 

“Just let’s not get used to it,” says Fenric. “We have come in here and not found any treasure, we have come in here and not done what we meant to do, but we have never come in here and not lost someone.”

 

 

 

2.

 

Zelin drops back to help Jan with the map, and Fenric moves up with me, and we march off in good formation and without complaining. We take the southward hall out of that first big room. It’s quiet until we’ve gone maybe a hundred feet and we come to a four-way intersection.

 

Quiet for Valen means the halls echo only a little. Quiet means you can actually hear the grinding of rock on rock as the hills shift, which is going on all the time, even though you don’t hear it so much when it’s drowned out by the mad war cries of orcs charging. Quiet means you hear lots of water in lots of directions, and a certain amount of lava in the lower levels. Quiet means a faint blend of ghostly wails and grunting yells of combat and the clang of weapons being forged and used and broken and reforged. Quiet means you hear a lot of your own boots. So do other things.

 

We get to the intersection of four halls and have a look around. I actually bought Fenric a compass for Yule, and he’s using it. He and Jan and Zelin are poring over the map, and I’m standing there with my wand stuck in between them lighting the scene, thinking maybe it would have been okay if we’d gotten another enchantress. Lali and Gurth are giggling and kissy-facing, which is disgusting and very unwise and I can’t see, politically, how I can get in between them and make them stop. Eleanor is looking down the west way, and Unwin is looking down the east way.

 

So of course it’s from the south way that, with a sudden chorus of screams, a troop of goblins comes charging. The map gets dropped, they pick it back up, I swing my wand around and yell trt sko, and a moderately sized fireball rolls off toward them. They back away from it, but it catches up with the front two and they go up in flames, with accompanying sickly sound and smell.

 

“There’s some’at coming from this way,” Unwin calls.

 

Lali comes up next to me and says, “I’ll hold them off till they start shooting, darlin’.”

 

Everyone else is still freaking out, so I say, “Eleanor, is anything your way?”

 

“I think it’s clear,” she says.

 

“Kay, let’s go, folks. Gurth, Fen, Jan, get down that west hall.” I back into the four way, wand wagging between south and east. Unwin backs into me, sword out. “Unwin—!”

 

There’s a clunk. Unwin goes, “Ow!” and ducks a little. He stands back up and faces east, as Lali is backing toward us from the south. The goblin troop is a little intimidated by her, and they can smell the smell of burnt goblin better than I can. Still.

 

“Okay, folks, let’s make our exit,” I say.

 

“You back away first,” says Lali. “What’s up your hall, Unwin?”

 

“I can’t—ow!” he says. “It’s throwin’ stuff.” We look down at his left hand. He’s just caught a rock the size of a rugby ball.

 

“That hit you on the head?” I ask.

 

“Yeh,” he says, throwing it back. “Jerk hit the same spot on me helmet twice. Man. I’m a bit dizzy.”

 

“Well, get it together,” says Lali. “Let’s run.”

 

And just as she says this, the goblins charge under a thin cover of arrows. And with a bellow, a troll comes lumbering down the hall from the east. We back just into the west hall, but I keep the two warriors from moving further. “Timing,” I say. “Timing… timing… now. Run!”

 

And we run. And a glance behind tells us—we all glance back at the same moment, three seconds into our dash—that the goblins have met the troll, and that they’re having a disagreement. We run on till we catch up with the other five.

 

I turn and look back east: the four way is a good hundred feet behind us. “Poj,” I say, waving the wand in a crooked circle. I put a few more waves in, and there’s a copy of that same troll, looking ready to rumble. “That should put off pursuit,” I say, “till they actually make contact with it and find out it’s just an illusion.” I turn around to the others. “So what have we got?”

 

“Stairs,” says Jan.

 

“Yeh,” says Unwin, “and a concussion, I think. Faddah, can you—?”

 

“I’m just a vicar right now,” says Jan. “Gla fron!” Jan touches his forehead just under his helmet. He winces, then smiles. “Better?”

 

“Loads,” says Unwin.

 

“Okay,” I say. “Well, that was interesting. I note with pleasure that we did not lose anyone.”

 

“We jolly well could have,” says Fenric. “Zelin, is this the way you came?”

 

“No,” she says, “I came from the south at that intersection, I’m sure of it. So, yeah, this will all be new.”

 

“Exciting,” I say. I’m feeling excited, a little, because suddenly I’m like a leader. I’m also scared stiff, for basically the same reason. Then there’s the lingering smell of burnt goblin. I did that. But I keep it together. “Okay,” I say, “let’s see what’s downstairs.”

 

 

 

3.

 

We encounter a series of halls, rooms and occasional stairs and ramps. It’s very confusing, and our map experts, Jan and Fen, get so discombobulated at one point on the fourth level down that we get in a sort of polite frightened argument in the middle of a wide, rough hallway about what goes where and whether we’re to the west or east of the chapel where Fred & Ed met their demise. My opinion, which is that we’re south of there, I keep to myself; I settle for holding the wand light over them. Gurth and Lali, Unwin and Eleanor stand in pairs on either side of the knot, eying the darkness.

 

It’s still very quiet, in the sense of quiet in Valen. We’ve gotten more than halfway down to the level we want and the only thing that’s happened is that we facilitated a fight between a troll and some goblins, and Unwin’s gotten bonked on the head, from which, due to Jan’s ministrations, he’s fully recovered. His helmet has a couple of dents.

 

The argument is clearly one of those that aren’t going to get settled by arguing. So when my arm gets tired from holding up my wand, I say, “Okay, folks, let’s just try that hall to the left.”

 

“I agree,” says Zelin, looking that way. “This wide hall makes me nervous.”

 

“I don’t like it,” says Jan.

 

“That’s the way we’re going, then,” says Fenric. The darkness hides Jan’s eye-rolling: I’m already down the wide hall to where a narrower, less rough hallway goes to the left, eastward. We form up again and start down this new way, and about forty paces down, we come to another four-way intersection. Lali, Gurth, Zelin and I are all in the intersection when the rock moves under our feet and we’re all thrown lurching against one another. Lali and Gurth have to pick themselves up off the ground; I pick myself up off Zelin, who’s shoved against the wall of one of the outgoing passages.

 

“What the,” I say.

 

“Rotation,” says Zelin. “Ninety degrees, I think.”

 

“Great,” says Jan, from the hall we came from. Or is it?

 

“Dak,” I think Unwin says.

 

“Hey!” says Eleanor. There’s a scuffle. Fenric says something. Someone else says something, a few words cut off in a grunt.

 

“Ow,” says Unwin.

 

“Are you okay?” asks Eleanor.

 

“Um, I’m bleedin’. Ow! An’ I hit my head I think.”

 

“Wait, wait,” says Jan. “Let me see. Light!”

 

“What the?” I say. “You guys. What happened?” I push my way back there, and I see Jan has Unwin up against the wall. He’s bleeding from a flesh wound in his side: Unwin has a bit of padding there, mostly from his appetite for cheesy pie, I suppose. Jan is already healing him. I move my wand beyond them and look at Eleanor and Fenric. They’re looking down.

 

“Stinkin’ assassin,” says Fenric. “Junior grade.” There before us sprawled is a young man, much like Fenric really, dressed in black without visible armor. He’s dead, a dagger in each hand; the knife that killed him is in Fenric’s hand.

 

“Assassin?” I repeat. “What, someone’s out to get Unwin?”

 

“It sure seems like it,” the warrior pipes up.

 

“No,” says Fenric, “he probably had a mission just to prove himself by sneaking up on some party and stabbing the rearmost guy. So he waited by this very interesting intersection, and when it rotated, that was his cue. I don’t suppose it hurt that Unwin banged his head on the wall when the thing moved.”

 

“Hurt me,” says Unwin. “This was his mission? Mission accomplished, I guess.” But he’s looking much better. “Thanks, Faddah.”

 

“No problem,” says Jan. She, er, he picks up the board with the map on it, and hands it off to Fenric. “I guess there’s no point in arguing about the map anymore. I guess we can stop worrying about mapping too.”

 

“We have a compass, you know,” says Fenric.

 

“Yes,” I say, “and I think we should go south.”

 

“Why? The Chapel—!”

 

“Wherever the Chapel is, I want to go the other way. And I think that means this way. And since you thought it was east and you thought it was west, you don’t really disagree.”

 

“And,” says Zelin, “there’s a door on the left down there, and we can get out of these hallways, which I find a bit sinister, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Okey doke,” says Gurth. “That’s a good enough reason to me.” Unwin and Lali agree.

 

So we form up and troop down there. It’s maybe fifteen steps from us, just at the limit of the wand light. We get down there and Fenric elbows his way to the front. We all shut up and he goes through his whole listening routine. He turns and says, “Definitely noises. Orcs on the march.”

 

“This way?” I ask.

 

He puts his ear to the door again. “No,” he says, “they’re going out of earshot.” After a moment he looks back at us. “We should be good.”

 

“Well, you’re going to find out.”

 

He grins and gives a thumb up. Then he puts a finger over his lips and slips through the door. There’s a twangy sound, and a thump, and then the door opens and Fenric slides back out and falls into Jan’s arms. “Not so good,” he says. There’s an arrow in his chest.

 

 

 

4.

 

“It’s shallow, you wimp,” says Jan. She pulls the arrow out and Fenric gives a very quiet whimper as she puts one of her soaked rags over the wound. “What was it?”

 

“I told you,” Fenric replies. “Orcs on the march. But apparently these ones leave a rearguard.”

 

“Stupid me,” says Zelin. “They’re already getting ready for the orc wars. They’re in training. They would be organized and they would leave a rearguard.”

 

“And they could probably smell Elf,” says Lali.

 

“Or Amazon,” says Zelin.

 

“So what do we do?” I ask.

 

“How many were there?” asks Gurth.

 

“Five or ten,” says Fenric.

 

“Quite the range,” Zelin says. “Narrow it down a little?”

 

“Aw hell,” says Lali. “I’m gonna narrow it down myself. Gurth, Unwin, you with me?”

 

“Of course, babe,” says Gurth. Unwin shrugs and pulls out his sword.

 

“Archer support?” The Amazon looks at the Elf , then at Eleanor.

 

Zelin nods. Eleanor looks perky and says, “Sure!”

 

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, and Jan is saying basically the same thing, but the door swings open and Lali, followed by the other four, bursts into the next room. Jan and Fen and I are left looking at each other.

 

There are cries and shouts and the twanging of bows, and then the clash of arms and the splintering of wood. Our guys all have swords (or bows), so that’s a good sign. The twanging is high-pitched at first, but now I can clearly hear Zelin’s bow firing, a sound I can already recognize, just as, as of this morning, I know the sound of Cudgel throwing up: it’s actually a similar sort of noise. It’s pretty surprising how fast she’s firing (it’s also surprising how often Cudge can blarp in a given thirty second span). There’s a sudden ghastly end, with the unmistakable din of three orcs being slaughtered at once. Zelin yells, “Medic please. It’s over.”

 

We go through the door and find ourselves in either a long open-ended room or a wide hallway, extending north almost to the edge of my light, where it narrows to a passage into darkness; south, maybe thirty feet from the door we came in, it ends, and in the southeast corner there’s a stairway down.

 

Ten or twelve orcs lie dead, five with arrows in them (three green and two long ones from Eleanor’s quiver); two are completely decapitated. Unwin is sitting against the near wall, a hand over a wound in his shoulder. His legs are cut up and he has an arrow stuck in his chain neck guard. Lali has a few bleeding wounds on her arms and her bare legs—she doesn’t like her armor to be too restrictive, apparently. Gurth has a couple of arrows sticking out of his torso, but they don’t seem to have got very far in past his chain mail. Zelin has her bow shouldered and her long knife out; she has cuts on her left arm, which seems to be her dominant side. She gives me a grin, wipes the knife, sheathes it and goes to administer her favorite medicine to Unwin. Eleanor is unwounded but looks shaken.

 

Jan scurries to Unwin and starts in with gla fron, her heal spell, followed by some stuff she bought off my mom to sanitize wounds. Unwin doesn’t love it, but respects the result. “This is not a safe place,” says Fenric, which I would think was unnecessary except that everyone else seems to be making themselves comfy here. “Maybe we should move down the stairs?”

 

“Seems reasonable,” says Gurth. He pulls an arrow out, looks at it, throws it down, pulls out the other one. “The orcs were coming from there, so it’s less likely we’ll meet more of them or anything else.”

 

“Gurth,” I say. He looks at me and I wave toward the stairs. He’s pretty good at taking orders. We go to the top of the stairs and look down. I can see a solid-looking wooden door on the right. “Hey,” I call back to the others, “room down here.”

 

By this time Unwin is up and ready to move again. Zelin and Eleanor have been gathering arrows and lightly looting the bodies: Eleanor’s spirits seem buoyed by finding a pouch of silver and gems on one of the orcs. But they’re not reluctant to leave the scene. We transplant ourselves down the stairs and into what turns out to be a small but comfortable room, with a door into a closet and nothing else. It has a cooking grate with a little vent, just like Jorg’s room.

 

“Must have been a guard post,” says Zelin. “Honey, can you get the door?”

 

“What?” I say. I digest quickly. I turn to the door, Jan slams it shut, and I wave my wand, saying, “Paf nis!” My favorite spell. I turn, as the others are settling in. “Rest stop?”

 

“Yeh,” says Unwin. “I also got clonked on the head again. Mannn.”

 

“Yeah,” I say, “I probably need to rest and recharge my energy. What’s in the closet?”

 

“Huh,” says Fenric, checking it out. He pulls out a board and some tokens. “Parcheesi.”

 

 

 

5.

 

We spend a relaxing evening playing gin rummy (the three warriors and Eleanor) and Parcheesi (me, Fenric, Jan and Zelin). We play three rounds of Parcheesi, and I win two of them: other people might be cleverer than me, or better in all sorts of ways, but dealing with my mom has given me the skill set needed for this.

 

“I like you,” Zelin says after I hold her down while escaping for the win in the third game. “You’re ruthless and sneaky and yet somehow no one ever seems to get mad at you.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” says Jan, who still has three of her pawns stuck at home.

 

“Don’t play her at chess,” says Fenric.

 

“Oh,” says Zelin, giving me her teeny tiny smile, “I think I will.”

 

“I won again?!” we hear Eleanor say from behind me. I don’t know what skill set gin rummy requires, but apparently she has that.

 

Eventually people start to nod off. Jan’s healing skills have got all our wounded back to health, but she used up pretty much all her daily energy, so she lays out her bedroll, puts her head on her backpack and goes straight to sleep. The warriors are all worn out, especially Unwin, whose headache is gone to wherever Jan’s poultice sent it. Presently, I’m the only one awake, rolling around restlessly, thinking.

 

What I’m thinking is, which of these guys is going to die?

 

Unwin, the new guy, who seems to attract arrows, and whose head seems to be a clonk magnet? He’s the nicest person in the world. Gurth? I can’t even think what it would be like to see him dead. It’s all too easy to imagine it happening; what’s hard is to imagine how I would cope with it. Even Lali, who rubs me the wrong way, just a very little bit but a very little is just as annoying as a lot—no. I want her alive and annoying, oh yeah, I want her alive, with that charge-right-in way she has. Or how about Eleanor? Or even Zelin? She could take an orc arrow just as easily as the rest of us. We’ve been pretty lucky about the placement of those orc arrows so far this trip. Unlike all my previous adventures down here. Oh yeah. Maybe this is the lucky one. Or not.

 

Or maybe this is the one where we open a door and there’s a dragon and it reaches over the first two rows and chomps up Jan or Fen from the third row.

 

And it’s all because I want to find some stupid key, some stupid circlet. It’s true that the Lapis Circlet mattered to the Dwarves, and maybe to the Hill Priestesses’ ghosts, but it was just a thing to me. Or I like bags of gold; sure, my job pays well, but there’s no way I would make a hundred plus gold florins in a month. Or maybe it’s a nobler purpose: maybe I seek for adventure. Or, to put it another way, maybe I’m turned on by taking groups of people into places where some of them are going to get killed.

 

I go round and round with those thoughts and finally just get up and look around. Six sleepers. No Zelin. And I have to pee.

 

So I step out in the hall and there she is, the little Elf, leaning against the wall holding her pipe. “Good timing,” she says. “Could we have a light?”

 

I light her pipe. We pass it a couple of times. I go a little ways down and have a good leak, and then I go back and we smoke a little more and chat in low voices. We’re at the bottom of the stairs to that wide hall (or long room) on the fourth level. “Did you come this way?” I ask.

 

“I’m fairly sure I didn’t,” she says. “I would’ve remembered that stair and that room. It’s the type of thing that sticks in my mind.”

 

We smoke, and after a minute I say, “Zelin. Do you worry about getting killed down here?”

 

As often with her, she thinks about that long enough that I think she’s not going to answer. Then she blows out smoke and says, “No. I worry about other people getting killed.”

 

“Whew,” I say. “That’s exactly what I worry about.”

 

“Like you,” she says. “You’re our only magic person. You could get killed a lot of ways, and a lot of people would be trying to take you out in a battle.”

 

I’m a little shocked. I didn’t ever look at it that way. I’m a little shocked, too, that Zelin even cares: she always has this feel of being, you know, an Elf among mere mortals. Well, she’s really thinking of herself here, right? Wouldn’t want to lose the only magic user. Several other thoughts go through my mind.

 

“I didn’t realize,” I say, “that I had a target on my forehead.”

 

“Yes, and you have to carry the wand with the light on it. It’s a natural target.”

 

“But they also like to shoot at the archers, Zelin.”

 

“Oh, I know. Because I like to shoot at their archers.”

 

“So let’s not let each other get killed,” I say.

 

“Good plan.”

 

We look at each other. “Jeez,” I say. Sigh. “Why the heck do we do this?”

 

The Elf, I swear, she looks up the stairs, then down the hall the other way, then looks me in the eyes. It’s dark out here, but in a little wand light, I can see her eyes. We have the same shade of blue eyes. She looks at me as if she’s just noticed something weird about me. After about a minute, she says, in a voice I can barely hear, “This key.”

 

It takes me a bit to think to answer, “That’s why?”

 

She sort of shakes her head and sort of sighs. Then she hits me again with that look. Another long moment, and she says, the way she says things: “It’s, um, it might be kind of important.” She looks away. “That’s all,” she says to the stairs. “Another bowl?”

 

 

 

6.

 

Zelin and I are standing there, kind of zoning out, when we hear, above the general gasping and creaking of the whole underground, what sounds like something large shuffling and then pausing to draw breath. Not wanting to take on an asthmatic wyvern, we retreat behind the door. I check that my lock spell is still good, and we lie down side by side. I let the wand light dissipate completely, and prepare to lie there thinking through the same rounds, but the next thing I know, I’m being somewhat gently shaken awake.

 

“Daisy,” says Jan, “you’re the only one who can light the fire so we can make tea.”

 

She has to repeat this a couple of times: at first I’m sure there’s some sort of desperate situation, and thus my instinct is to roll over and go back to sleep. I definitely didn’t get my full eight hours. But my energy feels pretty full up. So I get up and go zap the heck out of some small branches and pieces of bark, and Zelin slaps on some bigger pieces she brought, and it’s not fifteen minutes before we’re having some nice hot mint tea. We share out the middle third of the batch of molasses cookies I brought, along with an apple each.

 

It’s clear which way to go, anyway: the hall only goes one way that isn’t up the stairs. We’re about to take off when we hear and feel the stamping of boots outside. The boots, and accompanying loud voices, are moving past us in less than a minute.

 

“Men,” says Fenric.

 

“I. e. humans,” says Zelin.

 

“Anyone we know?” asks Unwin.

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

So we wait them out, discretion being the better part of valor, or, as my magic algebra teacher would put it, the expected value being in the negative. Their noise fades out, Fenric reports the hall empty (and comes back in without an arrow in his belly) and we form up and move down the hall. Marching armies of men are not the rule today after all: it’s bloody quiet on the fifth level down, actually. We’re not out fifteen minutes before we try a door and find it opens into an octagonal room with a ramp on the other side of it leading downward.

 

“Sixth level ahead,” says Jan.

 

“What was this place?” I ask.

 

“This would be an arena, I think,” says Fenric. “Sort of a training arena. Bring warriors in here to fight your lions, your wyverns and your giant scorpions, which would come up that ramp. Whoever survived would be all the more ready to go attack Insmoor or wherever your heart desired, whether you were Valentia or Landarcus or some Wall dude or just your run-of-the-mill evil wizard.”

 

“Evil people are strange,” says Zelin. I give her a quizzical look, but she shrugs it off and has a glance down the ramp. “Seems quiet enough.”

 

“Club Six, here we come,” says Unwin.

 

But the sixth level down does not give up its secrets so easily. We go down the ramp and find ourselves in a gallery of halls and small rooms, the quarters, presumably, of those warriors and lions and wyverns and giant scorpions. It’s creepy enough anyway, the way the same hall and room shapes repeat but not quite, so it becomes quite the challenge to map; then there’s the persistent smell of long-rotted meat and the coarse dust of bone bits. I keep seeing lost reptilian teeth in corners and in curious indentations in the floor; the occasional well-holes must be nearly full of teeth and bones and fragments of sword and helmet.

 

But nothing evil is in there, in all the twists and turns. Nor, it seems, is there any outlet.

 

“This is getting to me,” I hear Unwin say in the back.

 

“I know, me too,” says Eleanor. “We can handle it. Together.”

 

“There just doesn’t seem to be a gap,” says Jan. “I think we have to go back up the ramp and up the stairs and try again from Four.”

 

So we stop and gather around. “Here,” says Fenric, pointing to a place on the map. “The one gap in our map. See?”

 

So we troop off around and about and come up the hallway between the two rooms on the left and the open area with the empty racks on the right, and behind the racks, sure enough, there’s a hallway we hadn’t seen. Down twenty feet and bend left, then bend right and we’re on a very familiar-looking wide hall.

 

“Do you think,” Jan asks, “this connects up to the hall on Three, wasn’t it? Or the diagonal one on Four?”

 

“Who cares,” says Lali. “I only need it to connect to this Club Six.”

 

But even that doesn’t seem so easy. The wide hall takes us around the far side to the east of the gallery of rooms, and then back to the north and west, then zigs north and zags west and then south and west again, and sure enough, there we are—at the foot of a ramp upward. The far end of the ramp is in dense shadow, but not solid shadow.

 

“Eyes,” says Gurth. “Red eyes,” says Lali.

 

“Hellhounds,” says Zelin, as if checking them off in her nature book. “I would go the other way.”

 

“About face,” I say.

 

“Well,” says Zelin, “sure, but the back two rows, that would be us—we would be well advised to walk backwards, face backwards.”

 

“Because they’ll charge after us if we turn tail?” asks Gurth.

 

“That would be yes. On the other hand, if we back up facing them, they should settle for following us at a distance.”

 

“And they won’t figure this out and just attack?”

 

“Oh, they will,” she says, “just not right away. And watch for those jaws. They have a shot or two of fire in them, once they close for combat.” She pulls an arrow and puts it on her bowstring. “Swords out, you two. Okay, we’re good to go.”

 

None of this makes me feel great. I’m looking over Jan’s shoulder at the map, and it looks like there’s very little room for a Club Six left. We’re being followed by creatures that, if I recall correctly from my studies, are resistant to magic. Well, poop. I remember I’m supposed to walk backwards, but then I’m walking backwards thinking, what about stuff in front of us, stuff I might actually be able to do something about?

 

So I turn around, muttering to myself, and hold my wand up high, and just then we’re turning a corner a little past where that hall came in, and now the wand light pushes the dark ahead. I rub my eye. It looks blurry.

 

“What exactly am I seeing?” asks Jan.

 

“God damn,” says Unwin. Eleanor says something like it. They’re in the blur. “Spider web,” says Fenric. “Damn dense spider web.”

 

“That’s not good,” says Zelin over her shoulder. “Daisy!”

 

I squint forward. Something big is moving in the blur of the webs. “Tro clf!” I shout, flipping my wand tip.

 

“No, no, no,” cries Eleanor, and I instantly know what I’ve done. Webs? You don’t throw a web spell at webs. I don’t have time to whack myself in the head. I raise my wand again, but to throw flame this time—then I stop myself before I incinerate Eleanor.

 

An arrow flies from beside me. The shape in the web squeals, but keeps advancing. “Daisy!” Zelin says.

 

Trt sko!” I cry, waving my wand at the back of the thing. The webs there go up in foul-smelling flames. The shape hurries forward, away from the fire and toward the tangled Unwin and Eleanor.

 

The archer girl manages to pull free and drops onto her butt on the hard floor. The spider, and it is a very large spider indeed, converges on Unwin. He cries out in pain—it’s at him. Two arrows fly, one from the ground and one from by me. This time they hit something vital. The giant spider flops off the web, its legs scurry at the air one more time, and it goes still.

 

We whip around. With a howl, half a dozen hellhounds hurl themselves on the back row. Gurth and Lali are just about up to holding them off; I toss my tro clf at them, which at least tangles the things up until they expend their fire breath to burn my webs off. The combined foulness of their breath and of the burnt magical webs washes across us, but now Fen is throwing his daggers, Zelin’s bow is singing, and Jan even manages to call in some rather incongruous lightning. Four hellhounds go down, and the other two evidently think better of it and make off.

 

We stand there staring at them. “Why don’t you,” Zelin says, “put some webs across this, behind us, and then burn off the spider’s webs on that side of us?”

 

“Sure,” I say, and I set about that job. Behind me, Jan is healing people, primarily Unwin, who is pale and shaky from poison and also managed to hit his head yet again. Eleanor is sobbing and babbling, Jan is mapping like crazy, there’s music coming from somewhere and Fenric and Lali are cutting down a bundle from high in the spider’s webs.

 

“Dang,” says Gurth. “Gold. Silver. Are those really rubies? What else is in there?”

 

“Uh, guys,” says Jan, who’s looking around the next corner. “Did you wonder what that music was?”

 

 

 

7.

 

That’s how we make it to Club Six. That’s how we make it somewhere, finally, without losing anyone.

 

Club Six is a dozen small to medium-sized rooms letting into one another by doorways whose doors have been removed. Various kinds of music and various colors of light flood the rooms and mix at the openings between. The wide passage we’ve been on ends in a wide low warehouse of a room, which smells of urine and vomit, and it’s hard to explain how comforting that is. On the far side of this room is an open double door with a reddish glow streaming out, and we make out figures outside the door: humans in armor, but also a couple of ogres and a half dozen orcs and something with tentacles on its face. This brings me up a bit short, but Zelin is reassuring.

 

“Don’t concern yourself,” she says. “They’re under a Word of Peace even out here.”

 

“That’s right,” says Jan. “I sense at least three faiths involved: Virgin, Valar and one of the Archdemons, maybe a couple.”

 

“Besides,” says Fenric, coming up to stand next to us, “they’re having a smoke. The ones that aren’t peeing. Either way, that’s as good as a word of peace.”

 

“I still don’t know about this,” says Eleanor.

 

“Me frickin’ head,” says Unwin. “I’m so sick of this place.”

 

“Let’s get you inside and get you a big ol’ brewski,” says Lali.

 

“Let’s get you inside, anyway,” says Eleanor, and she commences to drag Unwin toward the door. The rest of us follow.

 

And what I had thought was a darn good team immediately fragments. Eleanor and Unwin find the quietest corner and obtain the most medicinal items they can, which they apply to Unwin’s collection of concussions and lacerations, along with a healthy dose of Eleanor’s tender loving care. Lali and Gurth, who wander into the middle of the loudest dance floor in the largest room and commence to boogie. Then there’s Fenric and Jan, who disappear into the back rooms together, in deep discussion with certain shady characters.

 

I’m standing there between the first, relatively quiet room, and the second, which is long with a crowded bar running the long way, and which is filled with a sort of zany parody of music.

 

“Hey Daisy,” says a guy next to me, in a voice that’s trying to be both suave and loud enough to be heard. It’s my second-least-beloved fellow enchanter student. He’s nice-looking, fairly polite, possibly talented and sexually ambitious in the way all boys my age are, even the gay ones.

 

“Oh,” I say, “Gregorio.”

 

“You just got here? Time to party. Whoo!” He actually whoops; people (and orcs and ogres and so on) around us turn to look and whoop back. “Need a beer?” he asks helpfully. He has two, in fancy looking conjured glasses.

“Oh,” I say. I consider, but I can’t think of a reason not to, so I take one.

 

“So,” he yells over the music, “you’re an enchanter?”

 

“Enchantress,” I say absently.

 

“I am too,” he shouts. “I’m a backup on the sorcerer teams for the orc war, so I figure I’ll probably make sorcerer by spring. You gonna be working on the sorcerer teams?”

 

“Maybe,” I shout back. I sip my beer. It doesn’t suck horribly. “Okay,” I say. “See ya, Gregorio.”

 

“I’m working under Reginald Barnswallow,” he’s yelling, just as I turn to leave. I hesitate, but everyone on the sorcery teams thinks he’s going to be working closely with Lucette’s dad. Even Lucette thinks so, and even Lucette’s wrong. Reginald Barnswallow is going to be working closely with a bunch of secretaries and functionaries well inside the cozy walls of the Count’s Citadel while the sorcery teams are out fighting the other side’s sorcery teams amidst the snow and sleet, not to mention the magical weather effects. In any case, Gregorio isn’t paying me any actual attention. I make my escape.

 

In a small darkish room mostly filled with a bar, I spot an elf maid sitting at a tiny table with two chairs and one bottle of wine. I grab a mug off the bar and join her.

 

“Quite the party, huh,” says Zelin. I reiterate my idea that we’d seemed a great team till we got here. She says, “Yeah, we lack the unifying force of our feelings about Yanos and Barb.”

 

“I get the feeling that Unwin isn’t enjoying himself on this trip,” I say. “At least he’s not dead.”

 

“There’s always the way back,” says Zelin. “How’s the beer?”

 

“Awful, actually,” I judge, taking one more sip to make sure. Yes, my first judgement was clouded by the nearness of the flavorlessly handsome Gregorio. I put it on the next small table over, and Zelin takes my mug and fills it.

 

“In all honesty,” says Zelin, “I think our friends Unwin and Eleanor are going to return to the surface with us and we will never get them to come back.”

 

“But we come back,” I say. “Why is that, anyway?”

 

“Good question.”

 

“You mean you’re thinking of—?”

 

“Oh,” she says, “I think it’s fair to say that this is the furthest we’re going this trip. And later, if you come back down here, Daisy, I’m going to come back with you. And I expect your friends Fenric and, um, Jan, and Gurth and his Amazon lady friend, will also come back.”

 

“The lure of adventure? The treasure? The, um—?”

 

She takes a drink, savors it, then sips a bit more. “Fenric, treasure. Father Jan, adventure, I guess? Gurth and Lali, well, it’s more interesting than guard duty.”

 

“What about you?”

 

“Me?” She looks me in the eye. “Or you?” I challenge her eyes. She smiles and whispers, “Knowing that would be the key to knowing what I’m here for.”

 

“Ohhh,” I say. “It would be—it would be, wouldn’t it? Zelin, what is the—um, the Key?”

 

“I don’t know.” Drink. “I want to know.” She looks at me. “It’s the sort of thing I feel like I need to know.”

 

“Um, me too,” I say. We both drink. I’m still staring at her; I hope she doesn’t feel self-conscious. That there is actually someone like Zelin is an increasing source of astonishment to me. She spends a good thirty seconds staring into her mug. “Zelin,” I say. “Where are you from?”

 

“Aeraf,” she says. “In the mountains.”

 

“Along the Silontian border,” I say. She nods. “Zelin,” I say, “why did you come to Insmoor?”

 

“I liked it here better than there,” she says.

 

“You’d been here before?”

 

“Nope,” she says. She’s the first Elf I’ve ever heard use that term. “I thought the name sounded cool.”

 

“And Insmoor is better than Aeraf of the Elves?” But she just raises her mug, and we clunk our mugs together and finish them and she refills us both.

 

 

 

8.

 

We finish the bottle, Zelin and I. Halfway through the last mug each, Fenric and Jan appear and pull up chairs to our tiny table.

 

“If we’re going to get another bottle,” I say, “I’ll need a nap to clear my head before we head back.”

 

“They have a place,” says Jan, “there’s a room where you can crash out for a few hours.”

 

“Is it actually safe though?”

 

“I’ll go sit next to you,” says Zelin. “You know, we of the fair folk don’t need sleep, we just wander in dream under the skies or whatever.”

 

“You,” says Fenric, “are the most self-conscious Elf I’ve ever met. It’s always, ‘we of the fair folk’ and ‘well, I’m an Elf, so—!’ But how is it that you’re also the least typical Elf I’ve ever met? I’ve never even seen you with other Elves.”

 

“I really don’t like them,” she says.

 

“Because they live forever,” says Fenric, “while we’re mortals, and since you really don’t like people of any kind, the shorter they live the better. Right?”

 

“Fenric,” says Jan.

 

“No,” says Zelin, “it’s a fair question, and okay, there’s some of that in there. But I actually like you, Fenric, you’re very, um, genuine, you are a genuine thief and you have no illusions about it. And I liked Daisy from the moment I met her. I like you, Father, I really do. It’s very easy to overthink this.”

 

“Call me Father a few more times,” says Jan, “and you’re my best friend. But I’m still only a vicar.”

 

“In any case,” says Fenric, “we have some info you might find useful. Trust a cleric and a thief to get info, you know.”

 

“About?” says Zelin.

 

“A certain thing you might put in a lock.”

 

“Source?”

 

“Asked a couple people,” says Jan. “Overheard a couple more.”

 

There’s been an increasing commotion from the next room, and at this point it overcomes our ability to ignore it. There’s shouting and swearing and glass breaking and the thud of fists and elbows and boots and knees into other parts of bodies. And then there’s an Amazon obscenity, and then a sort of bellow and then, with some more noises and a crash, a large red-haired object lands near us and slides over to our table.

 

Lali, lying on the ground with a bruise on her cheek, looks up at me and says, “This is the place, man, I love this place! Where’s Gurth?”

 

“Right here,” says Gurth. He helps her up and she gives his butt a feel, which appears to embarrass him. He looks at me and Zelin and says, “I guess we better hit the road, huh? Before Lali gets beat up any further?”

 

“Aah, you baby,” says Lali. “I note you have no bruises. Except where I left ‘em, and you guys don’t see those ones.”

 

“By all means,” says Fenric, “let’s hit the road, but: onward, I mean downward, or upward?”

 

Gurth looks around, then says, “You know Eleanor and Unwin already left.”

 

“They what??” I ask.

 

“They left. They joined up with that guy Gregorio and some higher-grade warriors and that sorcerer who was with us, you know, Z, when we came down that time? Bohemund.”

 

“They jumped ship?”

 

“The faithless bastards,” says Lali.

 

“Oh yes,” says Zelin. “Unwin and Eleanor were taken aback, I think, by the danger and, you know, the concussions. It’s unfortunate but unsurprising. Do you still feel the need to rest before we go?”

 

“No, I guess not,” I say. “But seriously, just leaving us?”

 

“Don’t blame them. They aren’t going to be any help to us in seeking this thing that goes in a lock, you must see that.”

 

“Maybe it’s just us,” says Jan.

 

“Although,” says Zelin, “you have to admit, adding another mage would be prudent. Next time, I mean.”

 

“Oh jeez,” I say. “Okay. Fine. Let’s be prudent.”

 

 

 

9.

 

We don’t recruit anyone new at Club Six. Instead, we get out into the “outside” room, relieve ourselves to our hearts’ content, and form up: Lali and Gurth, me and Jan, Fen and Zelin.

 

We head on up the double-wide passage. This is almost as good as I could have hoped: it takes us as far as the third level from the top, where we apparently interrupt a little spell battle, and I, for my trouble in just using my xu spell to see if anyone’s invisible, get ceased again. Among other things, this leaves us in the dark, as the two mages doing battle with the other two mages race off down a side passage.

 

“Great,” I say, flicking my dead wand around. “That jerk. No light now.”

 

“Lo,” says Zelin, “do my elven eyes detect a few photons from yon?”

 

“What the heck’s a photon?” asks Gurth.

 

“It’s like a penton,” I say. “Okay, I see light there. Go on, Gurth, go that way.” Jan and I start gently directing the warriors in the direction of what becomes more clearly a corner in the wide hall. Around it, lying on the floor is a corpse. I think it’s a half orc, or possibly a very handsome goblin, or a very ugly human. Near it is a torch, guttering a bit but still lit. Jan picks it up.

 

“Someone’s looking out for us,” she says. “I choose to think it’s the Virgin.”

 

“Fair enough,” says Zelin.

 

A little way on, Gurth and Lali get in a knock-down drag-out with what turns out to be a young black dragon. It all happens way too fast: Time is still up to tricks, it seems. I spend the entire minute this takes unable to breathe because of my heart being jammed way up my throat.

 

The thing’s just learning about how to use its fiery breath, but it manages to chomp both of them pretty good; at one point, both our warriors have to be pulled back by me and Jan, and Zelin and Fenric have to fight the relentless little worm. Finally, ten seconds later, healed up again, Gurth and Lali get in fatal blows, although they take one last nasty raking from those claws, and they, and Fen and Zelin, have to get healed up some more.

 

“That’s it,” says Jan. “That’s basically all my energy for the day.”

 

“What’s that mean, then?” asks Gurth.

 

What that means is that when, on the second level, we find ourselves pursued by thirty or forty goblins, we have no recourse but to sprint at top speed down hall and through room and up stairs, unable to put them to sleep en masse or lock a door or throw webs in their way. We come bolting through a sort of gallery, with critters yelling and shooting at us from the darkness on either side, and then we’re dashing up the stairs and into that first square room, from the east. We keep running.

 

We get to the top and count up. Six of us, still alive, though we have a few arrows sticking out. “We made it,” I proclaim.

 

“We’re not the only ones,” says Fenric. He points to a pillar.

 

Someone has written, in a blue chalk that is not to be confused with anyone’s blood, “Eleanor ♥ Unwin” and just below, in another hand but the same color, “Unwin ♥ Eleanor.”

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