Megaera pursued the werewolves with Zadrian, Dirk, and Arslan. They’d just left the now-quiescent pool of bubbling slime, and the chittering of the bats faded with every step.
Up ahead, the carnage of the second giant and the werewolves loomed, but something was odd. The bodies sprouted feathery growths that twitched in a breeze Megaera couldn’t feel. What’s more, low, indistinct humps pressed here and there next to the oddly transformed carrion. Zadrian drew her sword with a slithering rasp of metal, and the feathers on the corpses lifted into the air, revealed as swarming bats. At the same time, the low, dark forms turned, startled, their eyes glowing red in shadowed black faces, chunks of gristle and flesh hanging from their short dark snouts. The creatures growled, and then one by one, they curled into spheres and rolled off, trailing stiff hairs or spines.
Megaera felt a weight of ominous dread pressing out her wind. She didn’t know the rules of this place, of its layers of predatory and scavenging life. A werewolf or a giant she could face with stoicism. The unknown distressed her. “What are those?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Zadrian, “but they fear us. Come on!”
They passed the slain monsters and reached the crossroad exits. The one to the left breathed cold air; the one to the right, hot and wet. The right way was lit with fungi to the edge of sight, a hundred yards or more; the leftward one extended glowing blue fingers that dwindled into a black hole. Megaera said, “The left way, remember? Lydia said the right path leads to the city.” As they went, a musty breeze chilled Megaera’s face like the exhalation of an undead giant.
With some misgiving for this colder path, Megaera drew Bugclaw. “Zadrian’s sword will be enough light,” she said. “More would be dangerous. Arslan, you go ahead with her; Dirk and I will follow at a distance. I will hang back from Dirk and use my darksight to guard the rear.”
The cavern grew colder. After half a mile, they hit an odd pocket of warmth. Amid the faint noises of dripping, something rasped lightly overhead. Megaera paused and let the others move off. As the sword light dwindled, her darksight grew stronger and she could see the rough outlines of the cavern, from the far side to the uneven ceiling. Here and there, the smooth ceiling was interrupted by bumps of rock, four to seven feet in length. She was about to move on, when one opened a yellow, slit-pupiled eye.
Megaera hurried toward Dirk, intending to whisper her discovery to him. A moment later, Zadrian halted. Just visible under the gleam of her blade lay a crystal orb, and beside it the satchel Lydia had removed from the gruant. Zadrian held up a fist, signaling a check, and crept forward.
Megaera recognized a trap but decided, helplessly, that crying out would only betray the rest of them. How could Zadrian be so careless? And then she realized with a pang that she had erred in encouraging Zadrian to go on ahead, because naturally her anxiety for her father had made her reckless. Megaera slunk up to Dirk and Arslan’s near-invisible forms. “No sound,” she whispered. “Whatever happens.”
Zadrian looked up, and shouted, “ ’Ware!” too late, as a large weighted net fell over her. A crossbow thrummed; then a thunk sounded overhead and a spitting star flooded the cavern with white light. Suspended from the ceiling, giant lizards, almost perfectly camouflaged, scuttled away on padded, sticky digits, their splayed feet like human hands. Megaera shielded her eyes and strained into the actinic flare, and could just glimpse the barbed shaft that anchored it to the rock. She tore her gaze away, and afterimages danced like frantic ghosts in every shadow. Zadrian struggled to saw at the net, but its mesh resisted her magic sword.
“Hold!” a young man’s shout magically echoed from the walls on every side. “You are surrounded.” The voice was unfamiliar, but Megaera’s stomach seemed to drop — the son of Annabis must have arrived ahead of them. “Do not resist. Call your fellows from the shadows to lay down arms.”
Zadrian stopped struggling. “I am not the leader.”
“Then I address the leader!” shouted the voice. “Reveal yourself and lay down your arms.”
“No!” shouted Zadrian. “Save yourselves!”
“Are you so willing to lose your life?”
“Come face me, slinking coward!” shouted Zadrian.
“Whom do you serve?” asked the voice. “We captured your werewolf companion, but she would not speak.”
“No werewolf is my companion!” said Zadrian. “The beast was our guide.”
“Whom do you serve?” the voice repeated. “My spies say you slew the guardian giant. But one of you wields a foul weapon and commanded the vampire.”
Megaera watched the eyes of the roaming lizards gleam overhead. She stepped backward, and the necks swiveled, the eyes tracking. Her cloak did not fool them. On impulse she stepped forward into the light, threw back her hood, and swept Bugclaw out of her belt. “This weapon came from a lieutenant of the hag, a man named Vidal. I have mastered it, and it is mine.”
“And who are you?” said the voice.
“I am Megaera.” She turned right and left to acknowledge Dirk and Arslan, who stepped up to join her. “This is Dirk, and this, Arslan, giantslayers and vampire hunters. I am a priestess and serve both the light and the dark. We rescued baron Dunstan from the hag’s sorcerer son. I came here to reclaim a renegade vampire named Karsk and return him to my mother superior.”
“One cannot serve light and dark and remain whole, mistress of the Night Talon. Vidal is known to me, and so is Karsk, and both names are evil. Your mother superior must also be evil, to treat with such monsters. And what about you? Few in the underworld know what Annabis truly is. How do you know her if you are not her confidant?”
Zadrian, mustering her dignity despite being shrouded in the net, said loudly, “We are foes of Annabis. My father, baron Dunstan, fought her in the Great River Delta with the King’s army. Megaera has been faithful and good, and so have Dirk and Arslan. You speak as a foe of the hag as well. We are all in the open. Show yourself if you are not a coward.”
The sides of a thin crack in the opposite wall flowed apart, as if the stone had suddenly turned to liquid, and then a tall cloaked figure emerged. Two squat dwarves in leaf-mail armor followed him, and their bushy hair shone red as flame. Their eyes, shrouded with cataracts, appeared blind, and they carried long-handled picks, like battle hammers.
The central figure threw back his hood and the wings of his cloak, and stood revealed as a pale, dark-haired young man. He wore black chain armor under a black livery with a red dragon rampant upon it. He had a powerful jaw, short nose, and a pointed chin, a face that struck Megaera as strong but untested, like a clean new shield. She looked toward Zadrian, who tilted her head under the net, and they exchanged a significant glance.
“I am Stefan,” he said.
* * *
“ ‘Stefan’?” said Curt. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Is he fourteen too?”
“Looks like we’ve met Steve’s alter ego,” said Tess, smirking.
“Yeah, all right. I honestly didn’t think about the name thing.” Still, he felt his face grow warm.
“Uh-huh,” said Tess.
“It’s not that close,” said Rei. The others ignored him.
Steve soldiered on. “Stefan’s about twenty. At his belt on one side is a small crossbow, and on the other is what looks like a thin, sharply curved scimitar in its sheath.”
“Does it curve to the right or the left?” said Rei. Tess looked at him, startled.
“What?” he said. “Okay, sorry. That was over the top.”
“No, it’s not that,” said Tess. “It’s just that it was actually kinda clever. Way to go.”
Rei smiled big. “Thanks,” he said.
“No, see there. Now you went and ruined it. You seriously need ‘cool’ lessons. You’re supposed to be all like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ What would Dirk say?”
Rei fidgeted, looking uncomfortable.
“All right,” said Steve, “lay off. And I’m not changing the name. Maybe I did blow it, but you’re stuck with it.”
Tess shrugged. “We’ll give you this one. You may proceed, Maestro.”
“Thanks,” Steve said dryly.
* * *
Stefan stepped forward. He indicated the dwarves to either side. “These are my companions: Dagashkol and Alradthi. However, they allow me to call them Tom and Jim.” The dwarves crossed their arms and stared at Megaera out of their cataract-clouded eyes, as if daring her to find this amusing.
“And as I’ve said, I’m Megaera, but ‘Night Talon’ is no longer the name of my weapon. I prefer ‘Bugclaw.’ And I don’t serve Cax.” After a pause that grew uncomfortable, she nodded at Zadrian, still webbed in the net. “Let her out, please.”
Stefan pulled his attention from Megaera, and he waved to Tom and Jim. “Please, my friends.” The dwarves clipped their hammers to their belts, and began to roll up one end of the net. In less than a minute, they reached Zadrian and she stepped through the arch they made. “My apologies, lady,” said Stefan with a bow. The dwarves bowed, too, each sweeping a free arm toward the floor. Zadrian curtly sheathed her sword. Her attention strayed to the crystal orb nearby. Stefan strode forward, and picked up both it and the satchel. He held the orb up and turned it under the fitful light. “We took this from your werewolf.”
“Have a care!” said Zadrian. “The hag uses those to see and be seen. We watched the werewolf use it.”
Stefan shrugged and put the orb into the satchel. “She can neither see nor hear. I have put a spell of blinding and deafness on it. Perhaps my master will find some use for it.” The flare made a spitting sound, and its light dimmed. Megaera could smell its acrid, metallic smoke. The lizards clustered thick overhead now, converging on the light, as if drawing heat or some other comfort from it. She could smell them too; they had an ammonia tang like bird droppings or rotting fish.
“What are those?” she asked.
“They are my faithful entourage: dractyls from the countries far south. We serve the same master. Come. The light is dying, and we’ve lingered too long.”
“Come where?” asked Arslan.
“To Barathrum, to my master’s house.”
“Isn’t that an evil city controlled by Cax?” said Dirk.
“No one controls Barathrum. It is still neutral. And my master is foe to Cax, and mightier than he. Cax is ascendant now, and his evil minions come and go, but that will be set right. Come!”
“Wait!” said Megaera. “Karsk was smashed by a giant and his mist fled this way. He’s no longer under my control. We need to find him before he tells the hag that we’re here.”
“And what have you done with the werewolves?” said Zadrian, her tone more curious than concerned.
“The werewolves have been sent ahead. And your vampire…” Stefan reached into his cloak and pulled out another, smaller orb and held it up between thumb and forefinger. A glowing mist swirled within. “Your vampire is in hand, so to speak.” He studied the orb, and mused, “So this bit of smoke is the infamous Karsk. Well, well.”
“We have other companions to save,” said Megaera. “We were ambushed by werewolves in the outside world, and two of our party fell behind.”
“We saw a giant and two ogres bearing statues, not long before the vampire’s mist flowed down the hall.”
“Statues?” said Zadrian. “Could they have been men turned to stone?”
“Yes, they were suspiciously fine statues. If my master deems it wise, he will help you rescue your friends, but that will be later. They’ve gone to the hag. You can’t save them by yourselves.”
A croaking bark sounded in the darkness farther on, and Stefan’s head jerked up. A lizard bigger than the others rushed toward them upside down along the ceiling in a slinking, twisting run.
Stefan waved a hand and the flare in the ceiling dimmed. “Come, something approaches.” He hastily stowed the small sphere in his robe, and donned the satchel with the crystal ball. The dwarves unclipped their belt hammers and planted them on opposite sides of the narrow tunnel opening. Each then pulled, his hammer glowing white, and the rock grew pliant and drew back like a heavy curtain, revealing a five-foot-wide passage beyond. Moist warm air blew out, smelling of fungus. The lizards overhead surged around and into the gap. Megaera counted twenty before the last one dragged its tail inside.
Stefan had begun to wave them impatiently after the lizards, when, without sound or movement of the air, a black fog rolled up and enveloped them all. Megaera struggled to see down the corridor, but she was blind, without a hint of darksight. She scooped air beneath her nose, but the darkness lacked odor. Something bulked swiftly into the chamber with a ponderous, staccato clicking. Megaera turned toward it. A second later, it drew breath with a many-throated hiss.
“Ai!” shouted one of the dwarves whose feet slapped the ground as he charged by her to meet the threat. A whistling arc of white fire from his pike hammer slashed the darkness, revealing an ox-sized spider, its constellation of oily eyes shining, dazzled by the light. The hammer passed between the eyes with a slick ripping noise, and the spider’s wail reverberated like a high chord smashed out on a pipe organ.
Stefan’s crossbow twanged. Again, light flared and spat overhead, but it was now dimmed to a feeble, ale-colored cinder that lit only a small space on the floor. The dwarf stood over the twitching carcass of the spider, weapon readied. Ahead another spider loomed, bigger than the first, flanked by two ogres and a herd of orcs. Zadrian swept out her sword and met the first ogre on the left, Megaera stepped up beside the dwarf, Arslan and Dirk met the ogre on the right. The spider reared up, and the dwarf’s hammer again flared with clean, white light. Megaera lunged out with Bugclaw, and the spider’s tree-trunk leg, sheathed in razor-sharp metal, came slicing down to meet it. She deflected the blow with the upper haft, and the head of the black flail struck like a snake and wrapped the leg, claws extruded. The limb dragged her forward and embedded in the ground, the spider’s elephantine weight shifting over it. Megaera gained her balance and pulled. The claws furrowed the leg as the coils slithered free. The spider crumpled.
As Megaera leapt aside, the dwarf’s weapon went up and then down, cracking the spider’s thorax. The spider’s jaws worked, drooling poison. Megaera slashed its head open with Bugclaw. The spider gathered up its bulk, and then settled with a wheeze.
She turned to Zadrian, now beset not only by the ogre but also half a dozen orcs. She wrapped the flail around the ogre’s near arm, distracting it so Zadrian could remove its head.
Stefan jumped into the midst of orcs that filled the gap left by the spider and ogre — and what Megaera had taken for his scimitar was now revealed as something else. A translucent crescent, like a thin claw, the blade scythed down, cutting on its inner edge, and split the foremost orc from top to bottom. Stefan spun the scythe horizontal, and separated the legs and torsos from four more orcs in one clean sweep. Shocked at this, Megaera recovered just in time to parry the blow from another attacker, encircle its bristly neck with the flail, and rip the head from its body. Zadrian drove in and skewered the orc just behind it.
In the pause that followed, Megaera glanced over to see Dirk and Arslan take down their ogre with the second dwarf, who had abandoned his post at the exit. The remaining dozen orcs were holding their line uncertainly. Stefan jumped forward and slew another three in a single stroke and the others fled.
“Run!” Stefan yelled. The magical darkness had lifted somewhat, and a purple glow emanated from a point in the distance, limning the figure of a tall woman atop some kind of trundling beast. The hunched figures of giants or ogres milled in silhouette before her. “Annabis is coming!”