The flail reared over the baron like a cobra, claws out, and then went limp. The baron seemed to read the homicidal fit in Megaera’s eyes and backed up against the tent, groping for the entrance. She held up a reassuring hand and the baron relaxed somewhat, but remained alert. She tucked the weapon into her belt.
“It wanted to kill you; but I’ve tamed it.” He frowned, doubtful, and she felt a pang at his mistrust. “It expects the behavior of its former master. Maybe it’s time to confront him.”
“That weapon would be better destroyed or hidden away,” said the baron.
“You said I could choose. I choose this flail,” she said.
“I did not mean to include it as a choice.”
Megaera gestured for him to lead them out.
They met up with the sorcerer in purple armor a short time later. He regarded the flail at Megaera’s side in dismay, but the baron said he trusted her, and so he made a bow and departed.
The baron took them downslope to a tent apart from the rest. He paused, concerned, as they approached. “Where is the guard?” They hurried to find out.
The young man lay within, gasping, unable to move. His throat had been cut, and the blood pooled about his head, his eyes glazing toward death. At the rear of the tent, a broad slash in the canvas gave a view of tree boles and blue sky. Megaera quickly knelt, composed herself, and summoned healing. In a few seconds, the young man’s eyes cleared and focused.
“He used a spell, stole my sword. Hurry!”
The baron ran ahead through the slashed canvas. They glimpsed the bandit far downslope as he jumped over an outcrop and disappeared. The baron said, “Get help while I pursue.”
* * *
Tess said, “Does the baron even have a sword?” When Steve shook his head, she said, “I run after him and yell to go back and get his men.”
“He keeps up with you a while, then falters. You hear him going the other way, shouting toward camp.”
“He’s kind of reckless.”
Tess smiled. “Yeah, I suppose. So what now?”
“You plunge full tilt through the trees, and your cloak flaps around you, and the flail is writhing like a wild snake as you pump your arms. It’s thrusting toward the left.”
“Is that where the guy is?”
“He was straight downslope when you last saw him, but you reach the outcrop, and as you run to the top of it, you see him for a second off to the left, and the flail is clearly pointing towards him.”
“That’s handy, but how does that work?”
“It senses his location, and knows you want to find him.”
Steve then narrated a long chase. Megaera followed to a shallow dell. A line of grass at the bottom marked a rill. The rill became a chuckling stream, and soon she was following the headwaters of a river through old, mottled pines. At the edge of a glade, she saw the bandit catching his breath. Far behind, the baron was shouting her name, but Tess decided not to answer. The chase took Megaera miles through a wide forested valley, past cinder-cone mountains, and eventually into a pass walled with tight-packed columns of rock.
The canyon got deeper and narrower, then opened in a wide space like a quarry. The flail directed Megaera to an expanse of smooth granite wall.
Megaera drew back from the bay with slow steps, pulled her cloak around her, put up the hood, and then hugged the cliff as she sidled back in. Somewhere, she knew, there had to be a hidden door, and, if so, holes for spying out. As she edged along the rock, the flail gave an urgent twitch. She ran her hands up and down the seamless stone, until she felt a slight depression at chest height. When she prodded it, a small square of rock pivoted out, its back molded as if to fit human fingers. She tugged, and a section of wall, nine feet high and three wide, swung from the cliff with a grating noise. Alarm squeezed the wind in her chest for several heartbeats, but nothing threatened. She armed herself, adjusted the cloak, and slipped through the doorway.
The corridor stretched long and even, ten feet wide and high. Megaera kept to the left-hand wall. Soon the outside light dwindled behind. She continued on, until the blackness swam with afterimages of sunlit rocks and trees. Just as her darkvision began to resolve the walls of the corridor into lines of black and white, her hand brushed an open space and she turned into a side passage.
There was a faint glow in the distance. She could hear indistinct voices, or more accurately, a man’s commanding tones answered by a guttural mumbling and bellowing in a register too low for a human throat. She padded along. Dancing firelight cast towering ambiguous shadows on a stretch of fissured cave wall ahead. Both fire and speakers were around the corner, out of sight.
“We should leave now. Their rangers are expert trackers.…” An answer rumbled through the cave in a strange language. The first voice replied: “No, they will find the door. Perhaps a day, perhaps an hour….” A deep, angry retort followed that shivered the rock in the hall. The first voice then rose in nervous outrage: “That is not your concern! The weapon obeys me alone. I will recover it!” Silence. Then a murmur. “What do you smell?” Megaera strained to hear more. She caught a faint squelch of a vast, soft weight.
Abruptly, a giant’s head and torso stooped around the corner, drawing a trunklike club with it. She suppressed a scream. Though crouched almost double at the waist, the giant scarcely cleared the ten-foot ceiling. Its head swung above her, extended on a corded neck like a battering ram. She pulled her magic cloak tight and flattened herself to the wall. The giant’s eyes roamed over the passage; the nostrils worked like a bellows, and then stopped; the eyes narrowed and slid her way, pinning her down. Drawing the club in toward its chest, the monster tensed for a backhand strike.
Megaera heaved up the flail in a double grip under the giant’s exposed throat. She felt the claws imbed and tear. The giant startled, its eyes wide. She pulled, flexing the weapon like an extension of her arm, and the claws parted muscle, arteries, veins, and windpipe as she cut it from ear to ear. The giant choked and jerked away, dragging a veil of blood.
* * *
Tess said, “Wow, really? A giant’s pretty tough.”
“So’s this weapon.”
Her eyes widened with excitement. “I chase him and finish him off!”
“You run into the cave, and the giant swings behind itself without really looking.” Steve tossed a die behind his screen that came up seventeen, and even assigning a penalty for a wild swing and her camouflage, it would have hit. He decided to fudge: “You duck a wild backstroke of the giant’s club as he stumbles away.”
“I hit him in the leg.” She rolled a nine, not high enough according to the rules, but Steve followed up with a damage die anyway.
“The flail wraps around his ankle; the tendon snaps as you draw it back, and the giant falls to its knees. It crawls toward a pit where fire burns red. Smoke haze fills the chamber. Blinking through it, just beyond the light stands the bandit, a longsword in his hand. The giant claws to a stop; then folds, shudders, and goes still. ‘Show yourself!’ yells the bandit.”
* * *
Megaera threw back her hood and opened the wings of her cloak. She held the flail far to one side, ready.
“So, you wield my night talon.” The bandit had a dark, well-trimmed beard, and a badly scarred face. Half his nose was a streak of raw pink scar. He wore chain armor that had been ripped and slashed; and freed links trembled in the gaps. Bloody wounds winked through, but he seemed composed. “How have you mastered it so soon, I wonder. You must not be a proper friend to the baron, to use that weapon.”
Megaera considered trying a bluff, but curiosity got the better of her. “What do you mean?”
“Come now. Only a dark adept could bear its touch. You feel it, eh? Your own claws, like a cat’s, though far more fine. Have you used it yet on a man, or dwarf? That is particularly satisfying.”
“I will ask the questions,” said Megaera. Her heart pounded, and a flush of blood went to her cheeks, but not from exertion or even battle-readiness. She did not know how to gauge this man, treacherous and sly. He was like her abusive foster father, maybe, but in a more unctuous way.
“All right, then.” The bandit gave a slight mocking bow. “Ask.”
“Who are you?”
“That is no secret. Your friends, if they are your friends, knew me. I am Vidal Ortresor, chief lieutenant of her majesty Annabis.”
He growled. “The queen.”
“What is this weapon I’m holding?”
The man’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth, seemed to think, then said, “Let us have an agreement. If you can best me, I’ll answer your questions. If not, you will answer mine, and give me the flail.”
He whirled his blade, stepped around the fire, and plunged forward expertly. Megaera raised her free hand, summoned darkness, and sidestepped as he came on. Her darksight asserted itself a moment late. He had somehow anticipated her and turned his stroke, and it slashed her weapon arm from shoulder to elbow. She winced, struggling to hold up the flail, but the wound held down her arm like a hot wire.
Luckily, the darkness now put him off. His eyes were unfocussed, and he thrust beside her. Megaera willed the flail to move. It lashed out, spun around the sword, and tore it in half. The man stumbled back, then came on slashing with the remainder. She transferred the flail to her good hand, parried with the handle. The man released the sword and jerked back his hand. Too late. A claw removed the tip of his forefinger. He staggered, clutching his wound, head turning frantically, and then dropped to a knee. “I yield.” But his body was poised. Even blind, his upward glance spoke deceit.
Megaera lowered the flail between herself and the man, flicked her wrist, and encircled his neck, claws retracted. He jerked back, but she pulled to steady him. She extruded the claws a pinprick in warning, making him swallow hard.
* * *
Tess smiled wickedly. “ ‘Now you do yield, and if you want to keep your head, you’ll answer me.’ I snap the fingers of my free hand to dispel the darkness. I want him to get a look at me. ‘Did you know that this thing could lead me to you? How does it do that?’ ”
Steve wondered if she’d forgotten the answer he’d given, but he decided he could add to it. “Vidal chokes out a whisper because you’re squeezing him so tight. He says, ‘We’ve been together a long time.’ ”
“Okay, I give him a little slack.”
“He starts to get up.”
“Uh uh. I squeeze him again till he’s settled.”
“He shifts his legs under him and sits. He says, ‘It could be that my lord himself intervened. He may be unhappy with me.’ ”
“ ‘Your “lord”? I thought you served the hag queen.’ ”
“ ‘Annabis is a queen, but Cax is a god. Did you think the talon was hammered out by smiths and magicked by sorcerers?’ ” Steve snorted the bandit’s contempt, then said, “By the way, you feel the night talon urging you to torture and kill this guy. It’s getting hard to resist.”
“Right, so I tell him, ‘You know, you’re making me impatient. I can feel this thing wants to kill you. No vague hints or gloats. You’re my dog, and I’m holding your life on this leash. Carelessly.’ ”
Steve smiled to himself at how deeply she’d gotten into the role, and said, “He nods. ‘The night talon senses vibrations that humans cannot feel. Every thousand years, the demon-lord Cax drops one of his fighting limbs, and that is what you hold.’ ”
Steve forgot he’d written stuff on this. He flipped through his notebook and found a description he’d worked on a long time: ‘He is one of the oldest demons. When the universe was made, the powers had no form. Then primitive creatures arose in the deeps of time. The powers observed them and some took the shapes they admired. When the first arthropods crawled hungry on the land, Cax recognized his proper body. He is magnificent, like a jet mantis, but many-legged in his lower parts. His eyes are faceted like jewels. His pink mouths line the spiracles of his armored body and chorus and command, inciting passion, devotion, murder, or madness. He can crawl the land, fly the air, swim the deeps. He is the perfected, ancient master.’ ”
“You wrote that?” Tess asked.
She blinked. “Okay, so he said that he drops a leg every thousand years?”
“More like an antenna, but yeah,” and then, speaking in Vidal’s haughty voice: ‘Only his most favored lieutenants may wield it. You are blessed.’ ”
* * *
Megaera answered him: “You mean that this flail is the claw of a demon?”
“Demon lord, and he has forsaken me.” The man shrugged, his eyes suddenly tired and hopeless, yet his jaw was set in poorly veiled arrogance and defiance. Megaera realized that he was a slave, as subservient and pathetic as the drunk that fostered her. Rather than pity him, though, she despised him. How could he admire a grotesque, insectoid monster? The weapon whispered for her to kill him.
“No!” shouted Megaera. “That will be my choice.” Vidal did not appear surprised at this one-sided argument. She said to him, “You call this thing ‘night talon’? That’s too fancy. I call it Bugclaw, and someday I’ll collect all the claws from this bug you worship.”
It seemed that anger, consternation, and fear creased the man’s brow and made his water. He took time battling these intense emotions, then gulped down his outrage and whispered perilously, “You will be stripped to the marrow.”
“What plans does Cax have?” asked Megaera.
“The lord Cax has long prepared a final assault. Many powers vie against him, but his calculations are slow and precise. He will emerge from his lair outside this world and feed. The chosen few will rule as lords.”
“He will enslave everyone?”
“The humanoid shape affronts him. He will alter those who have served him to experience the world as he does, to see into the layered planes with many eyes, to feel the fine sensation of many limbs, to flay a mind nerve by nerve, to hear color and to taste agonies.”
* * *
Tess sighed, picked up a die from the table and dropped it. “Blah, blah, blah. What an asshole.” But her face still glowed with excitement. He and Tess had shared a connection. He’d been “on his game,” so to speak. But the session had peaked for now, and she was getting tired. He needed to wrap things up.
“Just then,” he said, “rangers stream into the cave, quiet as a whisper. Either they’re really skilled or magically silenced. The baron follows them. A couple of rangers take position just behind Vidal, swords drawn, and three others begin looking over the giant’s corpse, with many respectful glances in your direction. The baron walks up, extends his sword toward you, and gently presses down your weapon arm with the flat of the blade.”
Tess frowned and then heaved a sigh. “Okay, I let Bugclaw relax and slip off the guy’s neck when I’m sure the rangers have him. ‘Watch this guy,’ I say.”
“The baron looks casually back at the giant. ‘You did this, with the flail?’ ”
Tess said, “I nod yes. Hmm, maybe I should have killed the guy after all. Now he’ll tell them about it being from a demon and the baron will want me to ditch it.”
“Actually….” Steve rolled a twenty-sided die several times for a succession of attacks and counterattacks. The numbers told the rest of Vidal’s story. “Vidal relaxes, but you catch him glancing up at you sideways. A second later, he does a spinning kick and trips the ranger behind him, gets the ranger’s sword arm behind his back, and takes his weapon. He’s just about to lunge for you when the other ranger and the baron run him through from two directions at once. They pull out their blades and he squints hard, then slumps open-eyed to the cave floor.”
“Well, that takes care of that, I guess.”
“Yeah, that’s it for now. The baron and his men find some loot in the cave, and you get half of it, a thousand doubloons, some rubies, and a Ring of Blurring that will make your cloak even harder to see and give you a plus-one bonus on your concealment.”
Steve leaned back in his chair. “Vidal and the giant were both really tough. You had some good rolls. He could have finished you off with that slash on your arm, but I didn’t have to cheat for you. Oh, yeah, I forgot, you can heal yourself now, so you’ll be good to go when we do the next session.”
“I wanted to know what made that guy tick, but I guess he was just nuts, right?”
Steve nodded, wishing he had more to say about that.
“You think a guy could really be like that?” she asked, dubious. “I mean like a psycho nerd interested in giant bugs?”
Dismayed, Steve thought she meant this as a comment on him. He could feel the blood run from his face, but Tess assumed an inward stare, as if puzzling it out.
She continued: “I guess some guys you can’t ever understand, like Charles Manson or Dave Berkowitz. You think Vidal’s like that?”
Steve relaxed. He didn’t know much about those guys, other than they’d been killers and crazy. “Yeah. He might have just been a bully once, but Cax twisted him, so even though he looked like a person, he basically had alien thoughts.” She nodded but looked unsatisfied. Steve picked up a pencil, did some quick figuring on notebook paper, and told her the new total of her advancement points. “That’s enough to put you at fifth rank. You get to choose a new spell. With that, your new life points, the Bugclaw, and your cloak and ring, you’re already tough enough to adventure with the other characters, if you let them do most of the fighting. You can deal a lot of damage, but you don’t have enough luck and skill to keep from getting hurt worse than them. Still, it took months for Curt and Rei to get this far.”
Tess got up and wiped her hands down the front of her sweats. The sunlight that had streamed directly into the room when they started had retreated into the yard outside. It was well after noon. Mt. Hood gleamed white and beautiful. The sky was bird’s-egg blue and the yellow-green flower clusters among the new leaves of the maples were aswarm with bumblebees.
Steve found Tess staring at him. She came and cupped her left hand on his cheek. It was warm and a little moist. Then she leaned in, and kissed him on the opposite cheek. Her lips were warm too, and soft. She stepped away, leaving him stunned, heart pounding. “Let’s get some lunch,” she said.
He passed the next few minutes in a light-headed daze that slowly faded, until he became strangely calm and alert. They had peanut-butter sandwiches and milk, and then walked around the yard. It was nice and warm, mid-seventies. Swifts came and went under the eaves between the basement and first floor, making a nest, and Tess pointed this out. She seemed interested in the natural signs of full spring: the pollen cones from the fir tree in the corner of the yard, the wild rose blooming along the fenceline below the rear lawn. He kept a respectful distance but stayed beside or just behind her as she rushed off to explore.
“Can you smell the trees and flowers?” She raised her face to the sunlight and closed her eyes as she breathed deep.
“Yeah,” he said. He smelled humus and maybe dogshit, but he could catch the rosemary tinge of fir needles in the sun, and the bakery smell, like old cinnamon, of pollens mixing in the air. He didn’t close his eyes, though. He wanted to study her face, white as porcelain, like some elegant night creature, or a princess after a long stint in her tower. A shadow stretched from the side of her delicately shaped nose. He wanted to take her chin and tilt it into the light. A gust of wind freed a gleaming black lock and whipped it along the side of her face. Unconsciously, he reached forward with his injured arm in the sling, hooked the hair in his two exposed fingers, and brushed it back over her shoulder. She flinched, wary a moment, and then the hair blew back, across her lips. Far overhead a passenger jet made a tearing rumble, and she pulled the hair away, smiling. She went back to watching the mountain. “You have an awesome view, you know?”
He made a soft, private chortle. “Yeah, it doesn’t get any better.”
“You can even see St. Helens, and, what’s that one?” Between Hood and St. Helens a further low white hump showed.
“You think St. Helens will really blow up?” It seemed less a question than a thought spoken aloud. He didn’t answer. “I hope not,” she said. “It would really mess up the rivers and lakes, I think.”
Steve had to step back out of himself. He remembered he’d first seen Tess enter the classroom and never would have envisioned this moment. Now she was spending a beautiful afternoon with him, looking out over a view that he’d become complacent about; showing him how to see it right, showing him what a marvelous kingdom he presided over, even if only a well-placed stretch of suburban backyard. He felt helpless to explain this and became filled with a terrible jealous greed to mean as much to her as she did to him. And yet, he wondered, would he really be happier if he could simply take her affection for granted? No, the problem was that he couldn’t be satisfied with himself yet.
* * *
An hour later, Tess’s foster mother, Tina, picked her up. When they’d gone, Steve went downstairs to mull over the next stage of the adventure and work on his maps. Tess had left her character sheet on the table, and he looked it over. Her sketch of Megaera was dismayingly good. The other guys didn’t draw the foreheads high enough on their characters; they looked like Neanderthals. Tess got the proportions right. She had a strong line style, and she could probably be a pro if she wanted. On the other hand, Megaera’s eyes were a little wide, and the ears too tall….
Oh, yeah. He forgot — she was an elf. He needed to do more with that in the adventure.
Suddenly, Steve realized he felt unpleasantly wound up. This adventure was his creation, and he’d let her into it as more than a player. She’d become his muse, and if she decided she didn’t like him, what then? He tried to put her out of his mind as he got back to work.