AoM Chpt 17: The Crossroads

“Karsk!” said Tess. “I wondered when you were going to spring him on us.”

“That could work out,” said Curt. “If you can get control of him.”

Tess gave this some thought, then nodded. “Yeah, maybe. Cool.”

“So the other guys are still alive?” said Rei. “That’s awesome.”

Curt frowned. “Seems a little unbelievable. Those werewolves were pissed. I doubt they’d take prisoners.”

Steve bristled a little. “You’ll understand later how they survived,” he said. “Jonril cast a spell.”

“Yeah? With a dozen werewolves on top of him? I doubt it.”

“He had a trigger spell for Stone Preservation. Now do you get it?” He put his exasperation into his tone. He had thought this through. The trigger meant that the spell would go off automatically. Stone Preservation would turn everyone within ten feet to stone for one hour.

Curt was an annoying rules lawyer sometimes, but he wasn’t stupid. He frowned thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said.

For the last hour, the adventure had drawn them into a focused unit, excluding all distractions, but now conversation bled in from the other table. Aaron had gotten his players into crypts under a castle, and they were looting a king’s burial vault.

“I open the sarcophagus,” Mary said.

“You hear a click and a grating of stone as you touch the lid.”

“Jump!” yelled Keith.

“I leap on top of it,” said Mary.

“Make your agility roll,” said Aaron.

Mary shook the die two-handed and spilled it onto the table; everyone craned forward to look. Aaron frowned. The other two men groaned and laughed nervously.

“The coffin and the entire slab drop through the floor, just as you leap… in the wrong direction.” Aaron rolled some dice and shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s a hundred-foot fall.”

Mary glanced around helplessly, and, surrounded only by sympathetic looks, she heaved a sigh and got up, her face blank. Jack forced a chuckle. “You all right, babe?”

“Yeah, I’m going to browse the store.” She wiped her hands on her jeans and left.

“Maybe it’s time for a break,” said Aaron.

“Uh, yeah,” said Keith, his tone irritated.

“Bummer,” murmured Rei.

Keith and Jack walked out, and Aaron got up and stretched. “Well, that sucks,” he said.

“Bad roll, huh?” said Curt.

“Well, yeah, but the roll isn’t what dooms the character. That’s the player’s fault. The roll can only save you. I laid on the foreshadowing really heavy; you didn’t hear because you were into your game. We stopped and listened in on you a couple times. Did you notice?”

“Uh uh,” said Steve. Rei shook his head, but Curt nodded, and Tess said, “Yeah, I noticed once, but then, I have a habit of looking up after an intense part. I want to see if everyone else is as into it as I am. Steve’s good, huh?”

“Absolutely, the bit about the ophidiag was great. Did you make that up?” Steve nodded. “Cool.

“Anyway,” he went on, glancing toward the door as if expecting his players to come back. “It’s not just her fault. Unless I’m trying to get rid of someone who’s being a jerk, it’s never just the one player’s fault when they lose a character, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” said Steve. “If only one player isn’t being stupid, they can save the whole party.”

“Exactly.” He got up. “Excuse me. I need to check on my crew.”

After Aaron left, Tess asked them, “So what do you think of this place?”

“Honestly,” said Curt, “I like it better at Steve’s, but this is okay. It’s fun to see another group play.”

“Right,” said Tess, “I didn’t think we’d make a habit of it, but it’s cool for a change. These guys are dorks, of course, but obviously smart, so they’re all right.”

“I’d like to join his group sometime,” said Steve. He liked Aaron already, and thought he’d make a great mentor.

“Unh-uh,” said Tess. “We need you to stay focused.”

“Where’s the john?” said Rei.

Tess waved at him in annoyance as if shooing a fly. “It’s the door behind the counter. Ask Magnus.”

Steve turned his attention to his notes. Tess got up, paced, and left, muttering, “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Curt said, “I’m going to check out the science fiction section.” Steve nodded and then mulled over the next encounter. How would Karsk get there? He’d probably fly from the giant’s citadel as a bat, so it wouldn’t take him long to reach the crossroads with the giant guards. And what about the werewolves holding the baron and Jonril? Would they be there too? The werewolves weren’t allowed to pass the crossroads, so they’d turn over the prisoners at that point, and a giant would take them to Raglar’s dungeons.

When Steve felt sure he could handle the next scene, he got up and went out. There were several patrons milling around in the store. Magnus had a stereo strumming out Celtic harp music. At the cash register, a middle-aged woman examined one of the cassette tapes stacked by a hand-lettered sign: “Now Playing.”

Rei emerged from the bathroom, still tucking his T-shirt into his jeans. He nodded at Steve and went by him into the back room. Steve strolled past the bookshelves toward the entrance. Late-afternoon shadows slanted toward the store from the opposite buildings, and the sun leaked amber-yellow through the dirty picture window. Tess and Mary were just outside, in the shadowed entryway. Mary slumped against the brickwork beside the door, smoking and gesticulating. She reached into her back pocket, took out cigarettes and a lighter, and held out the pack. Tess pulled one free, stuck it in her mouth, and leaned forward as Mary shielded a flame. As they talked, she wielded the cigarette casually. She turned her head just enough to blow away the smoke while holding Mary’s gaze; made graceful backhand gestures with the cigarette between her fingers. A lot of things came easily to Tess.

Was she talking about him? He turned and pretended to check out an endcap of fantasy novels while he watched from the corner of his eye. Would she glance up looking for him? A few minutes went by, and she never did. Down a nearby aisle, Curt was talking to Magnus about an Andre Norton book he’d been reading, one set in a gaming world. Aaron, Keith, and Jack were flipping through art books near the front of the store. A moment later, Rei appeared. “What’s everyone doing?” he asked.

“Still taking a break,” said Steve.

“Hey, Tess is smoking with that college chick. Did you see that?”

“Yeah, dummy, of course. So what?”

“I didn’t know she smoked, is all. Huh, look. She just smushed it on the wall and stuck it in her pocket.”

Steve glanced up. Tess had opened the door, and she walked smartly toward him like she’d been aware of his attention. He felt a jolt of elation. Mary slouched in behind her and met Jack, who’d drifted close to the entrance.

“Hey,” said Tess, “I was filling Mary in on the adventure, and she wants to play out the session with us.”

“As Zadrian?” said Rei.

“No, as Lydia.”

Rei’s brows lifted. “Huh.”

So they had been talking about him, sort of. Content, he thought about Mary playing the werewolf. It might be interesting. He’d decided that Lydia would help the party in order to free the werewolf rebel leader, but not how she’d react to Karsk, or what she’d do if she ran into her packmates. He wouldn’t mind having those decisions made by someone else. “Okay,” he said, “but first I need to talk to her.” Tess went and extricated Mary from a close discussion with Jack, and brought her over. She fixed Steve with a condescending gaze. He felt like a kid.

“You rang, O master? Tell me about this werewolf.”

Steve turned to the others. “It’ll just be a minute.”

Curt had arrived, watching in confusion, and Tess herded him and Rei to the back room. When they’d gone, Mary made a tight, impatient smile, and raised her eyebrows.

Steve said, “Okay, Tess probably told you about the werewolf ambush and taking Lydia prisoner. Instead of killing her they’ve begun to trust her.”

“This prisoner werewolf she’s going to help them free—is this like her boyfriend or something?”

“Yeah. Lydia’s been watched by the other werewolves for being friendly with him. They don’t really trust her.”

“She’s on probation,” said Mary.

“Yeah, right, exactly. And the party is going to meet a bunch of werewolves pretty soon. The werewolves already turned over the other characters they captured to some giants. I’m telling you this so you can decide how to act. Megaera — that’s Tess’s character — suspects Lydia is in love with the rebel werewolf, which is why she’s trusting her, but she doesn’t know just how much on the outs Lydia is with her pack. There are five werewolves and two very tough giants coming up. One of the werewolves is also loyal to Lydia’s boyfriend.”

“What’s its name?”

“Alain.”

“And the others?”

“Let’s see. Garulf, Hrothgar… I forget the others.”

“Huh, very Old English of you. So Tess said Lydia used the crystal ball and told the hag that the party’s dead. Does the hag believe that?”

“Well… maybe. She might still trust Lydia, because the hag doesn’t follow werewolf politics too closely and probably can’t even keep the different werewolves straight.”

“So what happens when Lydia meets up with the other werewolves?”

“If they see she’s cooperating with the party, it won’t be good for her. Even if she gets a chance to explain that she wants to rescue her boyfriend, only Alain will be sympathetic.”

“What about this vampire?”

“All the werewolves, including Lydia, are afraid of him. Karsk is mean.”

“But Tess said her character is going to hypnotize the vampire.”

Steve sighed. “Lydia doesn’t know that.”

“I guess, but she could tell her.”

“No, Megaera doesn’t trust her that much.”

“It would make things a lot more smooth if she did, but okay. She doesn’t know. So there’s probably going to be a fight with two giants and at least some of the werewolves. So what about these other guys that the werewolves took prisoner?”

“Like I said, the werewolves gave them to some giants who already took them away. Other giants stayed behind with the werewolves. Those are the ones you’re going to meet.”

“Are those guys still turned to stone?”

“No, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve been taken away. You won’t catch up with them.”

“What happens if we start to lose the fight? Does Lydia know an escape route?”

“Not really. They could try to run. The party is going to intersect a main tunnel that runs north and south. To the south, it goes to the hills above the baron’s lands. North, it goes to the crossroads, which branches left toward the giant’s lair and right toward the deep underworld city. The crossroads area coming up is kinda neat. When I describe it, I’ll pass you notes so you can have the werewolf tell the party more stuff about it.”

“Okay, cool, let’s see how it works out. Oh, what shape is she in right now: woman, wolf, or half-wolf? And why does she change?”

“She’s a human right now. She becomes human to make the party trust her, like just after she came back from ripping apart the last gruant. My idea is that she mostly becomes a woman-wolf for fighting and a wolf for running. It’s up to you, though.”

They rejoined the group and sat down. Steve hastily wrote up a sheet of the werewolf’s vital statistics — combat bonuses, strength, swiftness, and so on — and passed it to Mary.

He said, “Lydia is naked and holding up the crystal ball she took out of the pouch. Its blue glow on her face dims and flickers out, but you can still see, thanks to Megaera’s light. The gruants are all dead, and their weapons and gear lie about on the floor.”

Mary said, “Okay, I’m hanging out in the buff like an idiot here. Is there anything to wear?”

“Not really, just sword belts and that pouch.”

“Time for some fur.”

* * *

When the globe went dark, Lydia stuffed it in the pouch. She transformed back into woman-wolf shape, and took a belt from one of the gruants, outfitted it with the pouch, and took up the scimitar as her own. “Come,” she growled, in imitation of the gruant, and emitted a rumbling chuckle.

Dirk recovered his daggers, and Zadrian and Arslan cleaned their own weapons as Megaera went ahead, following Lydia down the passage. Behind, the ophidiag rattled the portcullis and mewled like a forlorn cat. The sound belied the monster’s reptilian savagery; it raised Megaera’s neck hairs.

A mile passed, and a bluish phosphorescent lichen blotched the walls in faint, stipply patches, which grew dense and joined into a solid coating. At last, the werewolf stopped up ahead and came slinking back, silhouetted against the blue glow. “Put out your light,” she growled. “We approach the crossroads. I will go ahead. As we reach the highway entrance, conceal yourselves and wait for me.”

“No,” said Megaera, “I’ll follow along the wall in my cloak. I have to see this vampire you’re going to meet.”

“Why?”

“I command vampires. I can attempt to control him.”

The werewolf drew back as if surprised. “If you fail, he will marshal the giants against us and flee back to his mistress. How close will you need to approach him?”

“I have to look him in the face, no more than a dozen yards away.”

The werewolf clawed gently at its head as if drawing out a thought. “Watch then. I will lure it to the side of the cavern, in a sheltered place if I can. Be ready and meet us there.”

“Wait,” said Arslan. “What if you do fail? What can we do?”

“The highway is much traveled and there are many guard posts,” said the werewolf. “Your best chance would be to flee back to the hills.”

“Isn’t that hopeless?” asked Dirk. “Even if we got past the ophidiag, the pack would be waiting for us.”

“I said your best chance,” said the werewolf with a chuckle. “You fools are all going to die anyway. Come on.”

With each step forward, the air grew warmer, and a rich, musky smell of fungi asserted itself, along with a high rushing and twittering that resolved into the unmistakable chorus of thousands of bats. After a few hundred yards, the cave intersected a huge passage fifty yards wide, lit not only by the blue lichen, which showed craggy heights marching up into a diffuse glow, but also by banks of greenish light from various mushrooms and molds piled several feet deep along the walls. The fungi carpeted over whatever organic matter fed them, but the shifting black clouds of the flocks overhead and the smell of their guano told at least part of the tale. The track out from their side cavern crossed through the fungi in a narrow line pebbly with guano, as if its traffic were sparse and mostly single-file. It intersected a much broader avenue of exposed floor up ahead.

The werewolf crept forward to the highway, paused, and looked both ways.

Megaera waved for the others to stay back and picked along the narrow trail to join her. To the left far out of sight rose distant growls and chuckling interspersed with a low rumbling voice—evidently a convocation of werewolves and at least one giant.

Megaera whispered, “With all the fungus, I can’t move along the walls.”

* * *

Steve passed Mary a note, and she considered it, then nodded. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them, impressively transformed. She was a good actress and attacked the part of Lydia seriously. Rei made a nervous smirk at her attitude, but her look of cold werewolf contempt wiped it off his face.

* * *

“The fungi on the ground dwindles before we reach the crossroads. Volcanic springs keep this cavern section warm, and the bats cluster over their heat. Listen.”

Megaera strained. Beyond the cacophony of the bats, she caught something else: a faint burbling, as of thick stew heating in a pot.

Lydia exposed her long canines in a wicked smile and then slunk ahead onto the highway. Megaera put up her hood and waved the others forward. After about fifty feet, they reached a bubbling pool, inky black with faint highlights. It stretched about thirty feet. Huge domes formed languidly on its surface and popped with a gasp.

A bat flew low over the pool and something that could have been a head or a large hand erupted out and struck at it, but the bat wheeled away, shrieking into the heights. Lydia spared the scene an unconcerned glance.

The growling, rumbling notes of conversation grew louder as they skirted the pool, and the cavern floor sloped upward. The green banks of fungus to either side dwindled out, and the walls grew closer. A hundred yards off, the cavern branched. On the left and right the distant ceiling closed down to exits forty feet or so high, the one on the right limned more brightly, for some reason, in the blue lichen. Dark forms gathered against the left cavern mouth: humped werewolves and a pair of giants twice their height, dressed in rough leather breeches, with torsos bare except for mangy hide capes. The sour odor of the giants crept into the mushroom smell all around. A pocket of cool air from that direction rolled against Megaera’s face, and then hot, humid air closed from all sides after it.

Megaera hung back and the others gathered around her. Zadrian whispered in her ear, “If we are betrayed, we must kill Lydia first. When you go off to the left wall we will go to the right. If things go badly, I will fight across to you, but flee if you must.”

Megaera crept over to the wall, which here was straight and smooth. The shimmering forms of her companions hurried off opposite, becoming indistinct, and then invisible.

Slow but resolute, Lydia stalked forward to within hailing distance. “Brothers!” she shouted. “Garulf, what news?”

“Lydia!” the leader growled. “Are you alone?”

“You know I am. Where are the prisoners?”

“We’ve sent them ahead with a giant.”

“Where is Karsk?”

The werewolves split into two groups as they approached: Garulf and a somewhat smaller werewolf moved nearer Megaera, on the left, and three others on the right. The two giants shuffled apart as well and revealed between them a pale figure, who strolled up the gap.

“Karsk is here,” said the vampire, in a high, hollow voice that contrasted his powerful stride. His gray paleness, long bald head, and pointed ears bespoke extreme age. His eyes glowed red, and bulged with turgid veins, a sign of recent and immoderate feeding. “Come with me, werewolf.”

Megaera had reached a place directly to the side of Karsk where the rock had crumbled from the wall, making a shallow alcove. She slid among the boulders and receded into the slot, waiting. Just then, the vampire pivoted toward her, not moving its feet, and stared. Megaera held her breath. The light of the vampire’s eyes flared up, but she averted her gaze, for the present.

“What is here?” he said. “I sense something . . . familiar.”

Lydia glanced around wildly. The other werewolves murmured. Garulf raised his head, sniffed the air, and said, “You are still downwind, Lydia. Come forward.”

The vampire held out a hand. “No, stay.” It continued to stare in Megaera’s direction. “It reminds me of Vidal,” he said.

“Something has been following me,” said Lydia. “I smelled it from the shadows. Like an elf.”

“Curious,” said the vampire, and glided forward. When it had approached within twenty yards, Megaera strode out and locked its gaze. She had only a split second to feel a crushing panic. Her will shattered and evanesced like boiling ice. Karsk’s power and antiquity drew her in helpless, bodiless, far out of her depth.

Like a claw of irresistible steel, the vampire’s mind gripped her own, and then, unhurried, he examined her thoughts.

“You,” the vampire said. “The acolyte. So the mother superior made good her promise. You annoyed her once, did you know? She said she would send you as a present, to pay you for your arrogance.”

Megaera struggled feebly against Karsk’s mind, trying to draw out a memory that would betray him, but the vampire chuckled, like the echo of a rockslide in some barren place. “Oh, you want that, do you?”

Scenes flitted past. Adults nervously patting the head of a contemptuous young boy. A playmate reduced to tears and cringing. The bleeding, severed head of a small cat, eyelids pushed back by child fingers, exposing glazed black eyes. A woman fleeing a teenage gang. Every memory evoked cruelty and indifference or morbid curiosity. Temperamentally, Karsk had been a vampire since his cold eyes first opened on the world.

A mist fell over her mind. She began to slip fully under the vampire’s control. She groped at the air, her legs growing weak, and then latched a hand onto Bugclaw at her waist. Dark energy surged up her arm, suffused her torso and all her limbs. Last of all, it powered through her head, filling her with rage and indignation, dispelling the mist, to pursue the vampire’s retracting will. Karsk’s petty, negative memories formed a small black sphere before her. With her free hand she snatched it from the air, and tugged. The sneering confidence left Karsk’s face, but now she was also more than half-controlled by Bugclaw. The flail urged her to violence. She wanted to use the vampire, punish all who opposed her, the mother superior most of all. In the meantime, a werewolf would do. “Call that creature named Garulf,” Megaera whispered.

The vampire revolved smoothly. “Garulf!” it shouted, its voice thin but authoritative. The werewolf rocked forward and back again, uncertain, made one reluctant step, as if dragged, then another. His eyes widened and reflected the vampire’s red gaze; his shoulders fell. Garulf’s smaller companion followed, cautious. Megaera felt her control extend through the vampire and into Garulf.

The nearest giant raised his head, sniffed the air, and cut his narrowed eyes toward Megaera. With a grunt, he heaved up his club, steadied it on his shoulder, and stalked forward. Wary and suspicious at first, the giant advanced with increasing purpose. It had noticed her. “Kill the giant!” yelled Megaera, and the vampire passed the order silently on. Garulf snarled and sprang. For a moment, the giant was surprised. He glanced over, sidestepped, and tried to interpose the club. The werewolf latched onto his side, raking hind claws down his flank, and bit the giant’s armpit.

The giant roared, dropped the club, and grabbed the werewolf about the neck. The smaller werewolf just behind tensed to spring. “No, Alain!” barked Lydia, and she bounded up and faced him. “Listen to me.” Her hurried speech became drowned by an agonized high-pitched yelp from Garulf. The giant pulled him free, a hand clamped over his head, and dangled him at arm’s length. With the other hand, the giant delivered bone-shattering punches to his body.

Across the chamber, the three other werewolves began howling. They had suddenly entered a standoff with the second giant. Megaera exulted in their confusion. Evidently the giants and werewolves suspected mutual treachery.

“Move, dogs!” the distant giant yelled. “The mistress will have your hides!”

One of the werewolves barked a curse, and the giant drew itself up and swung its spiked club in a fearsome arc. Two werewolves leapt nimbly aside. The one that provoked it hesitated and was swept up and tossed fifty feet to the near wall. It hit with a smacking crunch, and fell broken to the floor.

Meanwhile, the giant near Megaera made a final windup, then drove a piledriver fist that crushed Garulf’s breastbone and ribs, knocking him slack.

Megaera backed away, the vampire in tow. The second giant flattened one of the two remaining werewolves as the third leapt onto his back and tore at his throat. A flash from Zadrian’s sword marked her entry to the fight. The blade danced aloft and then scythed down through the calf of the giant’s trailing leg. He stumbled, fell to one knee, reached back, and then plucked off the werewolf, raising him hammerlike, head downward. Arslan’s scimitar sparkled in the gloom, and the giant’s neck fountained blood. With a final effort, the giant dashed out the werewolf’s brains on the floor and collapsed.

Only the last giant remained, but it had won its fight. It tightened its fist, breaking Garulf’s skull with a crunch, then released it with wet, red fingers. It refocused on Megaera. She backed up to the rock tumble and began to slide into the gap between it and the wall but it was not deep enough to shield her. Nearby, Karsk stood impassive.

The giant swept up its club and resumed its advance, and she made a sudden decision and ran, ordering Karsk before her: “Flee!” Instantly, the vampire launched forward in a blur of speed, and she ran after him.

The giant pounded behind her. She gained the edge of the bubbling pool, skidded to a stop. The shadow of the giant’s club descended over her, just missing, and came splashing down on some humanoid of mud and slime that had begun to rise. The giant tottered at the pool’s edge and then heaved up its club with both hands. Megaera raced off, not sparing a look back. Fifty feet ahead, Karsk floated smoothly on. She ran to the limit of her strength, past the banks of glowing green fungus. The giant’s steps pounded up behind. Having no choice, she willed Karsk to meet him.

The vampire reversed direction and blurred straight by her. She felt and heard the giant’s stride falter and recede. He bellowed. The vampire hissed. Megaera redoubled her sprint. Her control over Karsk became strained, and then broke altogether.

* * *

Steve said, “All you guys bringing up the rear see the giant grab the vampire, smash its head against the floor, and toss it over its shoulder. As it hits the ground, it puffs across the stone as a heavy mist that goes creeping down the passage toward you. The werewolf Alain is with Lydia, and he seems to notice Zadrian, Arslan, and Dirk now. He growls low at you all.”

“ ‘Stop it, Alain,’ ” said Mary. “ ‘They’re friends.’ I howl to Megaera, ‘Keep running, elf girl!’ I then shout to you other guys, ‘Alain and I will follow the vampire. We can’t let him escape. Go save her from the giant, and then try to catch up to us!’ ”

* * *

Cavern walls flashed by Megaera, and seconds passed, five, ten, fifteen. She heard Lydia shout, “Keep running!” The pounding of the giant’s stride resumed, faint but growing louder just as she turned into the side passage. She raced along the familiar floor; the light dimmed to a softer blue glow. In places, the cave was a scant three feet across and winding, and while this was a generous passage for her, it slowed the giant. She could hear him groping his way along, slipping behind.

She reached the end of the blue lichen, but her darksight took over. Finally, she entered the last stretch. The cave grew straighter, and she could again hear the giant making progress. The portcullis loomed ahead, the bulk of the ophidiag slinking just beyond. She ran up past the scattered corpses of gruants, reached the winch, shoved Bugclaw into her belt, and gripped the handle. At first the winch wouldn’t move; then link by link the chain curled over the barrel. The portcullis eased its fat teeth loose of the floor. Drawing near, the ophidiag regarded her quizzically through the bars. The portcullis came a foot off the floor, two feet. She needed five, at the very least, for the monster to squeeze under, and then what? The sound of the giant’s approach grew. She strained, but her energy was depleted.

The giant’s steps pounded up behind, maybe a hundred yards off. She couldn’t see him, but she knew her time had run out. Her hand went to Bugclaw, and she steeled herself to make a last desperate stand.

The ophidiag thrust itself under the gate. The chain went slack. Megaera threw herself against the winch, which turned almost on its own. The handle spun, the chains purred, and the portcullis leapt another three feet. Another turn. She heard the giant stop behind her, could almost feel the club rise overhead. She lingered to the last possible instant, and dove away.

The club smashed onto the winch. Megaera fell beside it. The portcullis lurched and hung crooked. Again the giant raised his club.

Then the ophidiag hit him like a wave.

Rushing up the giant’s side, it opened its vast jaws.

Megaera rolled away from the stumbling legs and the tree-trunk coils sweeping the floor. She gained her feet and dashed forward barely in time to avoid the giant’s club, which he smacked one-handed against the snake-beast’s underside. The ophidiag constricted the giant’s waist, looped around his hips, and squeezed his legs together, then bit the giant savagely on the neck and shoulder. With a frustrated bellow, the giant pitched forward into the winch. The chain shook, the portcullis hopped upward under his weight, and he groped out with one hand.

Megaera backed away, Bugclaw at the ready, uncertain whether to support one combatant or the other. The ophidiag released its jaws for a better grip and blood spurted out of the giant’s neck. Fixing Megaera with one cold black eye, the ophidiag got the entire head in its mouth, twisting and pulling. Flesh began to tear, sinew to pop. The giant’s thrusting arms stiffened up as if to call surrender, and then fell limp.

Megaera turned into the cold gleam of a magic sword swimming from the darkness. The others had arrived. They became rooted, watching the battle’s gory aftermath. After some tugging at cloaks, she got them moving. The noise of crunching and tearing pursued as they began to run.

* * *

“Ehh,” said Tess, “nasty. Another narrow escape.”

“So what happens now? Does it come after you?” said Mary. Steve had been watching as the time crept up on nine o’clock. His dad would be waiting for him. This was as good a place as any to wrap things up.

“We’ll have to see next time, right?” Steve began to hastily pack up his notes and books.

“Good job,” said Mary. “This was fun. Here.” She took a pen off the table and wrote down a phone number at the bottom of Lydia’s stat sheet before handing it over to Steve. “That’s my dorm room phone. Call when you’re going to pick it up again, and maybe I’ll meet you down here. Who knows? Maybe Jack can play Alain.” She glanced over at the other table. The three older guys — Aaron, Jack, and Keith — were all watching them quietly, and Steve realized that it had been some time since they’d said anything. Aaron struck his palms together in three slow, emphatic claps.

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