“Come on!” said Curt. “She’s not working for the hag.”
Rei frowned and wiggled in his seat. He shifted his eyes to avoid Curt’s gaze. Steve was enjoying this. He felt a little apprehensive, though. Having the extra characters join the party might have been a bad idea. There would be critical decisions that should be up to the players, not baron Dunstan or Jonril. He needed to split up the party, and he thought he knew how.
Tess said, “I just don’t buy her story. Would Vidal have told her his name? Would they have spared a giant just to keep an eye on her? Something’s not right. I’m going to convince the baron to leave me alone with her; then I’m going to use Bugclaw to find out what’s going on.”
“You’re going to piss the baron off!” said Curt.
“What do I care?”
“Okay,” said Steve. “Go ahead and do what you’re going to do.”
* * *
Megaera caught the baron’s eye under his hood and tilted her head for a private conference. A little apart, they turned their backs on the party. She said, “I think she’s lying. Call the others off and leave me alone with her? I won’t hurt her,” Megaera said.
“Tell me your plan.”
“If she’s met Vidal, she’ll recognize my flail. Vidal told me that the flail was not unique, and that only highly favored lieutenants could wield it. If she’s working for the hag, maybe I can get her to reveal herself. Maybe I can make her think I’m a spy working against you.”
“What else did Vidal tell you about your weapon?” said the baron suspiciously.
“That the magic that created it works only once in a thousand years.”
“And what else?”
He met her gaze, and she remained as impassive as she could. At length, he frowned, and said, “If you are wrong, this will be cruel.”
“And if she’s leading us into a trap, your scruples will be worse. I’ll make you a deal. Once I’ve had my time alone with her, you and Zadrian can have yours. We’ll see which of us she confides in. You and the others have me outnumbered. If she’s honest, she’ll betray me to you as a servant of the hag.”
“Your mind is too subtle by half, but your plan is good. I’ll have Arslan call the others to scout the area and leave you to guard her. Do not tell her who I am! You can say that Arslan is the leader and that he let you ‘console’ her.”
Megaera nodded. “Give me the snake key. I may discover what it’s for.” He sighed, dug into the satchel at his hip, and handed it over. She tucked it in her belt under her cloak, opposite Bugclaw.
They returned to the group. The woman wiped dramatically at her eyes and rocked back and forth over her knees. The baron pulled Arslan aside.
A moment later Arslan returned and said to Jonril and Zadrian, “I want you to scout for me. I have an uneasy feeling. Megaera will stay here with Lydia.”
The others went away reluctantly, shooting puzzled looks at Megaera. When they’d gone, Lydia frowned at her, and said, “You don’t trust me. I can see it in your face.”
Megaera threw her cloak back from her hip and pulled out Bugclaw. It seemed to whisper for her to be harsh. She extended her will into it, and it lashed the air casually like the tail of a hunting cat, impatient for the kill. Lydia’s eyes widened. “Do you know what this is?”
“Vidal’s weapon,” she breathed.
“You think so? You think that there is no other weapon like this?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Maybe not,” replied Megaera. “But if this is not his weapon, then perhaps you know what this means?”
“No,” she said warily.
“Annabis placed me long ago among the men here, and before that Cax himself favored me. I wield his token because he blessed me.”
Lydia shot furtive glances from side to side and looked behind her, then curled her lip in a wicked smile, exposing a long, strangely sharp canine.
Megaera nodded and then decided to risk exposing her ignorance: “Why did you wish to lead them from this track instead of to the door?”
“Do you have a key?”
“The serpent key?” asked Megaera, and she produced it and handed it over. Lydia stroked it before giving it back. “The door is just ahead, is it not?” Megaera pointed her chin up the path, and Lydia nodded. “So why lead us to a different place?”
Lydia scowled. “We were given orders about where to ambush. We hold the main entrances, not the side ones. Surely you knew that?”
“Yes,” Megaera lied, thinking fast, “but which division do you belong to?”
Again, the look of suspicion.
“What tribes are there?” The woman narrowed her eyes. Megaera knew she was being tested.
“How can you expect me to know the names of each pathetic band?” Megaera sneered. “Cax holds them all in low esteem.”
Lydia’s eyes widened, her pupils seeming to bleed into the irises rather than expand. “You lie!” she snarled. The lovely face contorted, becoming feral. Suddenly Megaera knew what she was dealing with. She gripped Bugclaw, and forced a laugh. “I see by your spirit you’re not one of those werewolves from the Prowler clan. They answer an insult by cringing and licking my boots.”
“There is no such pack.”
“Not here,” Megaera said. “But far south there once was, in the swamps of the Great River delta.” Megaera thought this lie would be safe. Lydia was young, and the baron had forced the hag from the delta a long time ago. “Which noble pack is yours, and how many will help if we take this other path?”
Lydia held up her chin. “We are Shadow Walker, the largest pack under Annabis. We number over one hundred and fifty, and at least half of us are very near. If I call, many will come.”
Megaera tried to keep her dismay from showing. At a sudden thought, she said, “Are any of them watching this area, on the trail ahead?” She nodded the way forward.
Lydia said, “Almost certainly.”
“We’ll go to the door ahead, not your way. You must come. You have your orders, and I have mine.”
“It would be better if we led them into our ambush at the other door.”
“No, Annabis will deal with them directly.”
Lydia shrugged. “An ambush is no doubt closing around us anyway. The slaying of the giant will have been seen. If we wait just a little longer, my people will descend on us. I will speak for you.”
Megaera thought frantically. “Do you know the paths under the earth?”
Megaera whipped out Bugclaw and encircled Lydia’s neck. She startled and then began to rise. Megaera extruded the claws. “Stay.”
“What are you doing?” Lydia demanded. Megaera ignored her. “Arslan!”
The warrior was a swift-moving blur in his chameleon cloak; the others closed in behind like wraiths. “We’re surrounded by werewolves. We have to run for the door.”
“You’ll never arrive!” Lydia said, and struggled against Bugclaw so that Megaera had to tighten down to subdue her.
“Get up and move!” Megaera commanded, and loosened the flail just enough that she could gain her feet and face away.
“You lied to me!” Lydia gasped.
“Use the silver-headed arrows, Zadrian!” the baron ordered, and then seemed to remember himself. “I suggest, Arslan, we spread out as we go.”
They descended the bank and struck the trail. Megaera glanced back. Gray forms were milling around the giant’s carcass fifty yards away. The scene was just like the one from the day before. She wondered if those hadn’t been werewolves too. One of them raised its bloody muzzle from the giant’s neck and stared. It cast back its head and howled. The baron loosed an arrow that broke its cry to a high yelp. The werewolf flopped over and raked uselessly at the shaft where it had impaled its throat; forelegs suddenly turned into clutching human arms.
“No!” screamed Lydia.
Megaera pressed the woman to her knees. Then she kicked her in the back. “Run!”
Beside the giant’s corpse, four other werewolves put their heads down and flowed after them, their tails waving high. Zadrian and the baron felled two more. Megaera cast about and saw half a dozen others appear on the rimrock above the trail ahead. “Run, now, damn it. Run!”
Lydia stumbled along in front of her. Arslan and Dirk came up to either hand, their cloak hoods flapping back. The trail sloped up. Both it and the head of the draw entered a gap. Megaera glanced back to see Jonril the sorcerer stir his staff and point with it. His target, rushing down on him, burst into flame and turned circles, yelping and howling in the dust at his feet. Another werewolf leaped down on Zadrian from the rocks above, and she looked up just in time to drop her bow, draw her longsword, and run it through.
Encumbered by Lydia, Megaera lost her lead. The others helped pull her along into the gap. Two werewolves plunged down to cut them off, transforming into towering, half-human monstrosities. Arslan met one with his scimitar, cut off its reaching claw and then beheaded it. Dirk ducked the arms of the other one and stabbed both daggers through its chest. The werewolf collapsed.
Lydia snarled and twisted her neck to stare back, her eyes now bloodshot and protruding against the choking restraint, suffused with hatred. Her teeth had become fangs. Megaera sank the flail’s claws into her throat. Blood trickled out. Lydia tore back and forth, but there was no longer any play in the coil; the claws only sank deeper. At last, she yelped and subsided. Megaera prodded her viciously forward until she ran, cursing but obedient.
They soon entered a bay cul-de-sac with a smooth stretch of wall at one end, a small keyhole slot in its center. “Take the key from my belt!” Megaera yelled. Zadrian leapt forward, sword to one side, wrestled out the key with her free hand, and plunged it into the door. The sound of snarling monsters was all about them. With a booming series of cracks, a portal twelve feet high slid aside. Dirk, Arslan, and Zadrian rushed in. Megaera glanced back and saw werewolves boiling through the gap into the bay and hopping down from the ledges, all half-human and grotesque. The baron and the sorcerer stood back to back, and a massed tide of furred bodies rushed upon them. Then Jonril released a spell.
A shock wave rocked Megaera. She stumbled into Lydia, and stepped over the threshold. With a tremendous grating, the door began to close. Megaera glimpsed the two men surrounded by a dike of wolf bodies; then a fresh circle of them closed in and they fell beneath fur and slashing claws. Megaera thrust Lydia back into the cave and summoned light into her hand. A snarling werewolf clawed after her in the gap between the closing portal and the cliff wall. It wriggled quickly, lost speed, then stiffened as it was pinned at the waist. The door slab compressed it with a grisly crunch, and it continued to struggle, eyes bulging, muzzle working in silent gasps. Zadrian stepped forward and removed its head with a backhand stroke.
Snarling, weeping, and cursing under her tightening restraint, Lydia cringed away from the light.
* * *
“Mr. Harrison’s here!” Steve’s dad called from upstairs.
Tess sighed and frowned at an eight-sided die she was turning in her fingers. After a few seconds, she threw her head back and yelled, “Okay! I’ll be up in a minute!” She looked at Steve. “They’re really dead, huh? Well, that sucks. I was just starting to get interested in those guys.”
“Me too,” said Rei.
Tess said, “It seemed like my plan was decent. How the hell were we supposed to get out of that one?”
“I guess I didn’t write it very well,” said Steve. “I had in mind that you’d go to the tower and spy on Lydia talking to the giant, who also had a snake key; then they’d leave on an errand to the cliff door and you could follow them and get in that way. It worked out, though.”
“Worked out?” said Rei. “We lost probably the strongest guys in the party!”
“Yeah,” said Tess, and then made a regretful frown. “I’m really bummed about the baron, but I’m sorry we have to stop.” She looked at Rei, and he nodded.
“Yeah,” Curt said. “It was cool. Personally, I’m glad you took out two nonplayers. By the way, I noticed the Mt. St. Helens angle, where the old guy refuses to leave just like Truman did. What was up with that? Did she just make all that up about her father?”
“Not exactly. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot. If you really want to ask the werewolf, remind me, and I’ll explain it next time.”
“You’ll tell me at school,” said Tess. She seemed upset. With that she launched up and sprinted out of the room.
They were all quiet for a minute, listening. When the front door shut, Rei said, “Man, she really gets stirred up. Did you see how intense she got when she was roleplaying, and when we were trying to get away from the werewolves?”
“Really? So you think she’s into the adventure?” Steve asked, hopeful.
“Yeah,” said Rei, “definitely. I think she’s broken up about the baron. She seemed to like what he and Zadrian had going on. Anyway, tonight started out a little slow, but it got pretty good. If you keep it up, it’ll be classic. You really know when to roll the dice and when to just tell the story. Whenever I try to run games for my cousins, I run out of things to say and I take forever to look up whether the monster’s hit and how much damage the weapons do. How do you keep it all in your head?”
“I don’t.” Steve fell silent for a moment, regretting that he’d upset Tess. “Generally, if you roll high, it’s a hit, and if you roll real low, it’s a miss. I usually know roughly what the hit score is. I don’t look up most rolls unless it’s really going to change the plot — I just guess.”
“That’s kinda lame,” said Curt. “I always thought you stuck to the book.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Steve said, and sort of, he was.