That Friday, Rei and Curt had objections to Bugclaw. Curt complained first and loudest. “It took us months to get our weapons. This unbalances the whole game. She’s not even a warrior, and now she’s got the best damage potential.”
Tess fixed Curt with a vindictive smirk. “You wanna fight me for it?”
“Arslan would cream your character. He’s got way more life points, even if you did manage to do more damage.”
“What a dork thing to say! No, I mean, do you want to fight me for it?” A look of bewildered panic swept Curt’s face, and Rei sniggered. A moment later, though, Rei went quiet and said, “He’s got a point, Tess. You didn’t quite earn it. I know it’ll come in handy, but when someone gets a really powerful item like that, they can take over the game.”
Tess snorted. “I seem to remember you guys whining about a third-rank character who gave you a spanking. It’s not what you’ve got but how you use it.”
“Trust me,” said Steve. “You’ll all have stuff to do.” He’d worked out some ideas for placating the guys if they acted this way. “Even with her help, you’ll both be lucky to make it through alive, and this isn’t just a weapon, it’s more like another character in the party, and that’s up to me to run.”
Rei, bouncing, cut in: “Like the runeswords in Moorcock’s Elric books, except this one doesn’t suck your soul out… Right?” Steve shook his head, embarrassed by Rei’s earnestness.
He said to Tess, “I forgot to mention something else the baron and his men found in the giant’s cave…”
* * *
Night was already falling when Megaera and an escort of two rangers arrived back at camp. The other baron and the rest of his guard had stayed behind to inspect the cave a while longer and see to the remains of the giant and the bandit Vidal. Megaera met up with Dirk and Arslan and told them what had happened. Later, the baron and his men returned, and the baron summoned them to a meeting in a large pavilion tent. Under a sphere of bright light conjured by his sorcerer, he spread a sheet of scorched vellum. Lines, like the roots of a tree or tentacles of a jellyfish, branched down from a central point near the top, and at its lower right corner, it bore a compass rose and some hills with their heights written by them, giving the map direction and scale.
“We found this among the giant’s treasure,” said the baron. “It was guarded with a burning spell triggered when the wrong hands removed it from its bone tube. Fortunately, our counterspells proved stronger. These lines you see must be tunnels. Here.” He pointed to the end of one line near the map’s lower edge. “We believe this is the underground entrance to Vidal’s cave. We found a seam in the wall by the fire pit; however, it appears the entrance is one-way. We’ve posted a guard in the cave, to await the door’s next opening. Our foes are clever. We’ve suspected they’ve been moving through lava-tube caverns, but we haven’t had proof, until now. At this point,” the baron indicated a spot near the top of the map, “must be the door closest to either their base or deeper passages; it’s two days’ trek through the hills. We will want a stealth team to watch for the opening of the door, enter, spy out the enemy’s stronghold, and return with information. But I have few to spare.”
“And what is the reward for this mission?” said Megaera.
“Added to our gratitude, a thousand doubloons, a knighthood, and lands, to be dispensed according to the value of what’s learned. You will also be referred to the king for any further honors he sees fit to bestow. I have already deeded each of you—” he extended his index finger in a sweep to include the three party members— “a thousand acres, including prime building land within the heart of town itself, and tenanted farms on which to collect rents. You may perceive my thinking: Should Annabis overrun this country, your lands will be hers. You have a stake in this fight.”
“That sounds agreeable,” said Arslan. Dirk nodded.
“I thought of sending you back to rescue any of our people left alive in my dungeons. However, the current master of the keep will expect an attack and may have already left to seek his mother. While I expect you to travel in secret and avoid discovery, you will likely have to negotiate with servants of the enemy. Given what Megaera learned from the bandit—that only someone conversant with the Dark Powers can wield her weapon—I believe the flail may help her bluff Annabis’ lesser minions.”
“I will join the expedition,” said Zadrian.
* * *
“Cool,” said Tess, nodding.
Steve set his face hard. “All eyes drift to the baron, who says, ‘No, they tried to use you once. If they capture you, they’ll try harder.’ ”
“Do we really need a non-player character?” said Curt.
Steve just glared and nodded, still feeling himself in the role of the baron.
Tess said, “We’ll take care of her.”
“That’s right,” said Rei.
“They both ignore you,” said Steve. “Zadrian says, ‘Father, you promised my dying mother that you would not command me as a lord.’
“The sorcerer in purple armor cuts in and tells her to listen to her father.”
Tess pursed her lips, and said, “Screw off, buddy. Let them work it out.”
“Zadrian was obviously thinking the same thing. She turns on the sorcerer and says, ‘Don’t patronize me, Jonril. I’ve saved your life in battle. If you won’t take my part, have the grace to be silent!’ ” Steve had to restrain a smile when Tess bristled in her chair.
“Right on,” she said.
“The sorcerer’s pride is hurt and he jerks up his chin, but only for a moment. His eyes go blank and thoughtful and then he bows. ‘Milady.’ When he straightens up, he turns to the baron and says, ‘But send me too, my lord, to watch this one.’ He points at Megaera. ‘You’ve done fine enough, by all accounts. Slaying giants, taming vampires, wielding sinister weapons—but who are you, I wonder.’ ”
“It seems you don’t trust me.”
Steve took time considering how to respond. “The sorcerer—his name is Jonril–says, ‘I don’t trust the dark power that you attract.’ ”
“Yeah, well, that makes both of us.”
Steve nodded, as if to mime sage reflection, but was really just stalling for time. He glanced at the other guys. They watched both him and Tess quietly. Steve looked at the table to gather his thoughts, and resumed: “The baron keeps hard-set eyes on his daughter while he says, ‘Jonril, take our guests to their tents, see they have good bedding, and order provisions for their journey. Tomorrow, I’ll decide who stays and who goes.’ ”
* * *
Each of the three party members was given a separate tent at the center of the encampment. Megaera lay awake, listening to a muffled argument in the near distance between Zadrian and the baron that dragged long into the night. Nearby in a corner, Bugclaw whispered into her mind, a pulse of emotion and thoughts twining with her own, scarcely separable. They would slay their enemies, rule a fiefdom. “So strong, so beautiful, so intelligent, so commanding…” The flattery soothed her, so that she sunk into dark dreams of power and sensual rewards, while a small alarmed voice walled off in her mind shouted to no effect that she should resist.
In the morning, she, Dirk, and Arslan assembled around a large campfire with several dozen warriors. The sun was quickly warming the slopes of the hill, but the air was cold, and everyone hung close by the fire and puffed steaming breath into their fists. Sides of bacon had been roasted with apples, and bits of the meat and hot fruit were doled around, along with loaves of crusty bread and wooden mugs steaming with thin mulled wine. Over this standing breakfast, the party learned that scouts had intercepted a group of ogres and orcs a mile off and slain them with arrows.
Zadrian came late and hugged herself by the fire, looking harried and exhausted. The unspoken question hung in the air for a full minute before she said, “I’m going with you. Just me.”
They set off in the late morning with full packs readied by the baron’s camp crew. Just down the hill, Dirk inspected the contents of his pack and found meat, jars of lard, nuts, and a dried fibrous, purple-colored mass. “That’s smoked fish mixed with berries,” Zadrian informed him. “It makes it easier to eat the lard.”
“Eat the lard?” said Dirk, who had just discovered that lard made up a lot of the commons in his own pack.
“We may be traveling a long time. Lard has energy, but I suggest you just mix it with lime to make soap.” Zadrian caught Megaera’s eye and made a faint smirk.
By midday they’d made fair progress along the uneven valley floor. The trees were large and well-spaced and a thick duff of pine needles coated the ground. Arslan pointed out a raven in the distance, and soon they spied a small pack of gray wolves worrying a carcass ahead. The animals scattered at their approach, but the raven continued to circle. Zadrian brushed a hand in its direction: “They lead wolves on the hunt and then feast after them.”
A giant lay dead, facedown, several elvish arrows sticking up from its back. At its side was a satchel. Zadrian drew her longsword, cut the leather tie on the flap with a flick of her blade, and laid it back. A bright green snake slithered out, and whipped upslope through the duff. Zadrian straightened and peered far ahead of it, suddenly on her guard. “We’re not alone,” she said.
* * *
Steve said, “You’re surprised to see Jonril step out from behind a tree, holding a staff. He runs down and pins the snake against the dirt, where it curls and twists. He mutters a spell and the snake grows stiff; then a copper sheen flows over it from the staff’s point, and it changes into something. He bends down and picks it up, showing you a long key, with a spiral handle and a vaguely snakey head whose thick, downward-pointing fangs are the blade.”
“The ‘blade’?” said Rei.
“That’s what the end of a key is called,” said Tess.
“Yeah,” said Curt and turned to Steve. “So it really wasn’t a snake at all, but a key with a spell on it. Makes sense.”
“How?” said Rei.
“Obviously so the wrong person wouldn’t get it,” said Curt, a little disdainful.
Tess bent her head toward Rei and said in a loud undertone, “It’s not that obvious.” Rei smiled, but Steve felt a little stung.
He continued: “Zadrian says, ‘What are you doing here? My father agreed you’d stay with him.’ Just then there’s a shimmer behind the sorcerer, like from a wave of heat, and the baron appears and throws back the hood to his chameleon cloak.
“He says, ‘And so he will, and with you.’ ”
Steve let this sink.
Curt leaned back with his arms crossed and said, “Really? Then who’s going to lead all his men while he’s with us?”
“He left his rangers in charge; they’re all high-rank veterans.”
Curt remained uptight. “So now we’ve got three non-players?”
“Will you shut up?” said Tess. “Go ahead, Steve.”
“Zadrian starts to object, but the baron says, ‘My men suffer because they stand between me and the hag; I won’t let my daughter do the same. Last night, I said many hard things. You make me despair, almost as much as you make me proud. You refuse to be commanded. So be it. I will be honored to fight with you.’ ”
Steve delivered this speech with as much gravitas and sincerity as he could. Tess looked blank all of a sudden. She swallowed hard.
“Zadrian sheathes her sword and runs to her father and he gives her a strong hug. When they part, Zadrian wipes her eyes on her gauntleted hand.”
Tess shifted her eyes toward the floor. Steve could see her chest moving under a couple of deep breaths. The other guys seemed oblivious.
“Uh, I’ve gotta take a bathroom break,” she said.
When she came back, her nose and eyes were a little red. She nodded with a tight smile. “Okay, keep going.”
“Jonril hands the key to Megaera, and says, ‘Keep it safe. We might find out what it’s used for.’ After an awkward silence, the baron waves you forward, and you’re off on your journey.”
* * *
Over the next few hours of their trek, the group passed other carcasses, not giants but orcs, one or two every mile, stripped and trampled into the dirt.
“Their second-worst enemy is another orc,” the baron muttered by way of explanation. They had seen many by this point.
“What’s their first?” said Dirk.
He flashed a broad smile. “Me.”
All that day they hiked, covering some ten miles. Zadrian made frequent sallies ahead. By late afternoon, they’d taken a fork away from the trail the orcs had used, and afterward they’d encountered nothing, except marmots and pikas that whistled and cheeped at them from talus piles and scree slopes along the trail.
At one rest stop, Megaera asked where the giant army was that they’d heard about.
“North, and behind us, encamped not far from the town,” said the baron. “They stopped and dug in early yesterday. They’re waiting for something, orders maybe. Maybe our work at the keep has set back their plans.”
The baron pressed the march hard into late evening. The map they’d captured suggested they were within a couple miles of their destination. After a cold supper, they picked out a spot on a slope above the trail among tumbled boulders that offered sheltering crannies.
In the middle of the night, a line of torches appeared on the opposite slopes, the noise of tramping feet and tumbling stones preceded a line of dozens of giants wending down from the heights. Fortunately, the keen-sniffing monsters were upwind; they carried an odor like livestock overlaid with a sweet-sour taint of meat gone bad.
Megaera, who was near Zadrian, saw her tap an arrow thoughtfully against her bowstring as the giants passed below, heading the way they’d come. Noticing her attention, Zadrian shrugged, placed the bow aside, and turned over to settle back to sleep.
In the morning, they followed the clear trail the giants had made, and Zadrian and the baron, both expert trackers, hardly stopped at all for the next half hour.
At the top of the slope, the trail led through a broad swath of trees and then on to a level stretch of forest that ended at a dark lava flow fifty feet high. Here and there amid the basalt, roughly faceted boulders of volcanic glass shone in the sun. Mounds of flakes and chips a yard high had been piled up along the skirts of the flow where someone, or something, had been making arrow and spear heads.
The baron motioned a halt, and he and Jonril checked the map. “The flow is half a mile wide, and then a short valley leads to the rock where we can expect the entrance. From here, we keep our cloaks tight about us and go slowly. Follow me and keep a low profile. Be alert and stop when I raise my hand. It will be hard to see.”
The track the giants had taken over the lava was obvious. They had collapsed a section of beetling cliff in their descent and scuffed the boulders white in many places. The baron did not lead them that way. Instead, he motioned them along the flow a hundred yards downhill and picked out a spot where two streams of lava had met and formed a shallow cleft. As they went forward, Megaera noted how they appeared as a rippling blur in their cloaks, coordinated and sinuous as if an invisible snake rippling with heat waves were thrusting up among the rocks. Now and then the baron motioned for a check, thrusting a disembodied hand out from under his cloak sleeve, usually when someone slipped or disturbed a rock, sending echoes over the desolate hills.
After several minutes a gap opened to their left, revealing a crudely built tower of mortared lava far downslope, rising thirty feet above the plain. Ancient pines in a strip of the forest stood behind it and to the sides. The baron motioned another halt.
No sound issued from the tower; no movement could be seen on its girdling parapet or within its open window.
For ten minutes he watched, then motioned them onward, holding his cloak tight. Megaera brought up the rear. She was just about to descend out of the tower’s view, when she saw something. The small, pale face of a young woman flashed before the window. Megaera waited until they were fully sheltered by the surrounding rock, then tapped Arslan and whispered to pass up a message to stop. The group formed a huddle around her.
“A woman appeared in the watchtower,” she said.
“That is no watchtower but a hermit dwelling,” said the baron. “Prospectors and hunters lived in these hills until recently. I ordered them out when the first giants appeared; not all of them heeded me.”
“What should we do?” asked Dirk.
“Do?” said the baron. “Nothing. We cannot delay, nor spare anyone to take her back.”
After a rueful silence, they variously nodded and then continued on. An hour later, they descended the edge of the flow and came out on an open dusty saddle with only a few scattered juniper trees and sagebrush growing over it. To the right, the ground sloped steeply up to the rimrock of a mesa; to the left, it curved down into a draw, along which ran a trail. The baron had just motioned them down, when a ragged figure leapt and scrabbled up the trail below them. It was a woman, long blond hair flapping at her neck and shoulders.
A moment later a fourteen-foot giant clad in bearskins hove into view behind her, a club jutting from one hand. The baron unslung his longbow; Dirk unstrapped the crossbow lashed to his back. They sighted and shot. The arrow found the giant’s near eye, and the quarrel struck through its neck. It jerked, grunting, and strained to turn its head to see them. Both men shot again, extinguishing the other eye, impaling the skull through the temple, and the giant flopped backward into the ravine. At that moment, Zadrian blurred down like a wraith onto the trail to envelop and tackle the fleeing woman.
The sorcerer raised his staff and left hand as if poised to cast a spell; the baron fitted a third arrow to the string. The woman Zadrian had enfolded within her cloak raised a muffled cry. Megaera rushed down to help.
“Stop struggling. We’re not enemies!” said Zadrian and then thrust off and stepped away. The woman went to her knees and sucked gasping breaths. When she gained her wind, she looked up and faced each member of the assembling party in turn. “You slew the giant. You rescued me.” Her face was streaked with dirt, her long dress torn and soiled, but even so she was impressively beautiful. Her eyes shone amber in the sunlight.
The baron was the last to arrive; he had already replaced his hood to hide his face. “Was that why you ran, because the giant was chasing you?” he asked. She looked uncertain, and Megaera thought she glimpsed a passing scowl before she nodded.
“Come, let’s get back among the rocks,” said the baron. A minute later, upslope below the flow, in the shade of a juniper tree, they gathered around the woman as she sat heavily.
“What is your name, lady?” Dirk asked.
“What are you doing in these lands?” said Zadrian.
With a grim stare into nothing, she hugged her knees. “My father lived in these hills; he wouldn’t leave when the messengers arrived. He served long in the royal army and had come to retire. When I got news of the danger here, I journeyed from Oldport to the lake town, meaning to find him and take him back south, but prospectors at the inn told me that he meant to stay. One of them sketched me a map, and I rode out some days ago. Orcs stole my horse when I scouted the lava beds on foot.”
“And you’ve been here since?” Zadrian asked. She looked doubtful. “You never found your father?”
Lydia glanced at them sidelong, then slunk lower over her knees. “I found him.” She went quiet a while. “Just where the prospector said I would, but then giants and the orcs found us, just when he agreed to leave. He had a hut on the edge of the flow, not far from the tower back that way. They dragged us out. He tried to fight, but the orcs overpowered and held him. A man was with them, Vidal.” She shuddered and then spat. “He was… cruel. Later, he took us to a secret door in the hills.”
The baron handed over his vellum map to Arslan, who showed it to her. “Here?” he asked. “Up in this cleft?”
The woman paused and, Megaera thought, calculated. “No,” she said. “Not there. A different place, over that way,” and she pointed straight over the lava flow, perpendicular to the line they had come.
“What then?” asked Zadrian.
“Vidal said they needed me to occupy the tower, to make myself visible, and to help the giant ambush anyone who came to rescue me. He said that in a fortnight, all the lands to the town would be under his control, that he would come back for me, and that if in the meantime I had held my post, he would make me his consort and let my father live.”
“Why did you run from the giant?” asked Megaera. “Why just then?”
“I—” The woman met her gaze and held it. Megaera felt a contest of wills. Bugclaw stirred at her side. Lydia averted her eyes. “I saw you pass. I came this way to have the giant head you off, as I was told to do. You’ve saved me! But now what’s to become of my father?” She put her head in her hands and sobbed.