From The Giants Campaign, a novel
Lakebridge barony sat high up in the Piney Mountains, amid ancient lava flows and the trees that gave the mountains their name. The main road passed over the water by a causeway and went up to the main town, which sat on an island formed by a long-dormant cinder cone. A crenelated rampart towered along the narrow strip of rock where the island connected to the far shore. The fortifications defied human attack. Unfortunately, humans were not the problem. The town held the frontier against giants.
After a hundred-league journey, Dirk the thief and Arslan the barbarian trudged up to the Inn of the Golden Cat as the alleys grew dark. A muttering drunk, sprawled on the boardwalk beside the inn door, straightened at the sight of them. His eyes widened. Arslan was a large, dark-skinned warrior. On his hip rode a scimitar he stole off a genie. His elvish scale-mail rested on him lightly, its gleaming metal imbued with spells against fire and dragon’s breath. Dirk presented a small wiry figure, encased in black armor of shiny leather. When Dirk willed it, the armor assumed the color and texture of his surroundings, like a chameleon’s skin. The men were freelancers, companions of a hundred adventures.
Some hazy time long distant, Arslan and Dirk started their careers with almost no gold, and such meager fighting skill that weak monsters like orcs routinely beat them up. They’d rest for a week after each fight. Now they had powerful magic, and lots of gold, jewels, and healing potions; they could go head-to-head (or head-to-knee) against giants.
They were officially badass.
The drunk scrambled away from Arslan as the huge man nodded a greeting. Arslan pushed open the door. Inside at the bar, the hostler, a dwarf, berated a patron wearing chainmail under the tabard of the city watch, which depicted a keep on a hill. “You’ve had too much, Alfric. Better rest it off.”
“Like hell! I’m going back to the keep, and if they won’t open the postern, I’ll climb the damn wall!”
The guardsman stomped past our heroes out into the dusk. The dwarf beckoned them over and installed himself behind the taps. Arslan and Dirk exchanged looks, and shrugged, but just as they took a step, the guardsman gave a surprised shout out in the night. The hostler’s head jerked up. Arslan and Dirk whirled around as a weight slammed the door so that dust puffed around its iron bands. Something hissed outside. Wet crunching and rending followed, and then a rushing sound like a blast of wind through trees. Arslan drew his scimitar, strode over, and threw the door wide.
At first, there was nothing there; then a ragged figure jumped around the corner. Arslan almost ran him through. It was the drunk. He started to gibber and chew his nails. The drunk’s eyes showed big pupils and lots of blood-shot white. Dirk stepped up and gave him a steadying slap across the face; meanwhile, Arslan noticed on the door’s outer side a head-sized circle of blood, just beginning to run.
“That’s not a good sign,” said Dirk.
The drunk clawed at Dirk’s armor. “They killed the guard. They took him.” Dirk caught his hands and held him still. “Red eyes! Red eyes and mist.” He pointed back into the dark before squeezing past them into the inn. A pair of man-sized shadows appeared and began to advance.
The night after he met Tess, years before the publication of The Giants Campaign, Steve sat on his bed and added to his adventure notebook. He was the game master and created the scenario for his players, Rei and Curt. Rei played a big, Moorish-looking warrior named Arslan, and Curt played a nimble thief named Dirk. They had just arrived at Lakebridge, following rumors that giants were about to attack, and they planned to offer their services to the local baron. What they didn’t know was that the baron was imprisoned by an evil magician named Sethis, the son of a powerful sorceress hag that had been organizing and helping the giants assault the human lands. The evil magician looked like a teenager, but that’s because he aged slowly, thanks to his mother’s blood. Sethis the Evil had a cohort of shape-shifting monsters who impersonated the baron’s men. He also controlled several vampires who had been turning villagers into fellow undead. Arslan and Dirk would have to work hard to figure out what was going on and then to defeat Sethis, let alone his mother the hag.
Steve finished writing notes about the monsters that Rei and Curt would fight. Then he closed the notebook and picked up a graph-paper map lying nearby, and used the book as a little desk as he sketched the halls and dungeons of the baron’s keep. Now and then his mind wandered to Tess. What would interest her about the campaign? Well for one, the baron’s daughter, Zadrian, had avoided capture. She had on magical shadow armor and roamed the keep to free her father.
Maybe Tess would think Zadrian was cool, because she was a tough girl fighter. He tried making a sketch of Zadrian’s face, on the edge of the graph paper next to the dungeon hall where she’d probably find the party, but the tough, beautiful woman in his head came out looking like a dude with sloped brow. He stared at what he’d wrought. At last he erased the sketch with a sigh. Maybe he was kidding himself to think Tess might be interested after all.
To Steve’s huge dismay, Tess wasn’t in class the next morning. But then at lunch, he spotted her, alone in a far corner. She noticed him approaching halfway across the cafeteria and pursed her lips in what could have been either annoyance or dry humor. He swallowed a lump in his throat. When he reached the table, she said, “Don’t you have any friends in this school?”
He shrugged, taking pains to seem casual. “My friends go to private schools, mostly.”
“You hang with a rich crowd.” Steve took a seat, and she shifted from lounging to sitting up straight.
“Yeah, we live up in the West Hills. Most of the kids are well off. But my dad says private school is a waste till high school.”
Tess picked up a fork and poked at her salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumber with bright red French dressing. She tried a small bite, then grimaced and took the pizza square from the main cup in her tray. The hard crust was painted with some tomatoey stuff too dry to call sauce, and its web of cheese had hamburger crumbs trapped inside it. She nibbled at the square like she was trying not to get any on her tongue. “They have this pizza in every crappy institution, you know? I had a dorm friend in the Home that called it ‘shit on a shingle.’ ”
“Sounds like being in the military.”
“Yeah, she heard it from her brother in the army,” Tess said.
“No, I meant ‘the Home.’ What’s that?”
“Residential treatment. It’s like a cross between a hospital and a boarding school. I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Steve watched her as she hunched her shoulders and became absorbed with her plate. She took several bites without looking up. Steve said, “I was gonna ask how it went with the— with your foster dad.”
“He’s cool,” she said, in a way that meant, it was okay. She picked some cheese off her pizza. “So,” she said, pausing, and then looking up at him sidelong, “why’d you stick up for me?”
Steve took a couple seconds to find his voice. “Uh, you seem smart . . . and tough.”
“You like girls who are smart and bitchy, huh? What’s your mom like?”
This set Steve back again; it seemed a change of subject. “My mom’s a professor.”
“So she’s smart,” Tess said. “Is she bitchy?”
“No, she’s—” What was she like? “She’s polite.”
“No, she says she doesn’t trust nice people.”
“Sounds tough,” Tess said.
Steve knew that Tess was playing him, but he didn’t understand how. Was she implying he had a weird relationship with his mom? “No,” Steve said, glad to contradict her again. “She’s not tough. She’s not weak. She doesn’t seem to think about being one or the other.”
“So you think I’m tough?”
She shrugged and dropped her gaze back to her plate.
Steve said, “You’re worried about your mom, right?”
“How’d you know?”
“Yesterday, you said she’s sick. So I thought maybe you’re really worried and don’t have patience for bullshit.”
Tess nodded. She grabbed the edge of the table like she was about to push herself away. Hastily, Steve added, “I don’t know if you’re tough, but I think you’re brave.”
Her arms relaxed a little, and she settled back into her chair. She raised her eyes to challenge him. “Yeah? How?”
“You got in the teacher’s face.” He had a sudden inspiration, remembering an ABC Network Afterschool Special from a couple weeks ago. The TV psychiatrist used a line on the troubled boy. Steve said, “If it’s not safe in this school, you’re gonna find out right away, even if you don’t want to.”
“You know, whether you can trust the teachers, or at least trust them not to be idiots.”
“You know, Steve, you’re not as dumb as I thought.”
“I’m not dumb at all,” he said, angry.
She smiled, opened her mouth, shut it, then snorted and smiled again. The smile made her whole face glow. Steve cleared his throat. His cheeks felt hot.
“I was kidding,” she said. She pushed him, hard, so the front legs came up on his chair and he almost tipped over. She covered her mouth; it was the first girlish gesture he’d seen from her. “Sorry.”
With one hand, he feinted like he was going to push her back; as she flinched, he grabbed her leg with the other just above the knee and squeezed. “Oww.” She kicked out and hit the center stand of the table with her foot. He let go, and she flipped a lock of hair over her shoulder, affecting indifference.
“Huh,” said Steve.
Tess made another attempt at the pizza. After a few seconds, she looked at him sidelong again. “ ‘Huh’ what?”
“You know, you’re not quite as bitchy as I thought.”
“Haw haw.” Across the cafeteria, kids had their heads together and cast glances back at them. Tess picked at her food.
“What is ‘Tess’ short for, anyway?” Steve asked. He tried to make it casual, but he’d been wondering all day. He’d thought “Teresa” maybe, but that didn’t seem to fit.
She sighed. “I’d rather not.”
“My full name’s Theresse” — Steve repeated the name in his head, the soft th, the regal accent on the second syllable; the last part like on “duchess” or “countess” —“after my great-grandmother.”
“Nice.” He smiled to himself.
She shrugged. They ate a while, until finally, she said, “So you don’t look like a jock, and you don’t seem like a complete nerd. What are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re that boring, huh? What did you do last night besides homework?”
“Worked on my writing.”
“What, like stories or something?”
“Sort of. I run a game called C&C for a couple friends, and I create the adventures.”
“Really?” she said. “You play Castles?”
He felt a thrill at first, but then contained himself. Was she excited or just incredulous? “Yeah, do you?”
A genuine smile lit her face. “Uh-unh, but it looks kinda neat. There was an article a couple years back in The Oregonian. They had pictures of college students dressed as knights and princesses and werewolves and stuff.”
Steve leaned in, mouth open, and then, self-conscious, forced himself to ease back. “That’s what made me interested too,” he said, “but they got it all wrong. A guy sent his troll to drink a potion, and it turns out to be poison and kills it. You don’t play a troll. And they didn’t even mention the luck roll to survive the poison.”
Tess got a shifty look, and for a second Steve thought he’d turned her off. “Actually,” she said, “I was so curious, I got my mom to buy me the player’s guide for Christmas.”
“Have you read it?”
“Yeah, basically. I know about the classes and everything, but I never actually made a character. So what’s your adventure about?”
He reminded himself to go slow. He was putting a secret and vulnerable part of himself on display. “There’s a lake-side town, and evil giants are organizing nearby. Something weird is going on with the local baron. His men arrested a drifter, and after that, the keep was closed, and no one has come out. The baron’s own men left in the town don’t know what’s going on. The players will have to sneak inside.”
“Sounds complicated. What do the giants have to do with it?”
“It’s all connected.”
Steve hesitated. Was this really such a good idea, after all? What would she think of Rei? He could be kind of twitchy. No, what would she think of Curt—what would that be like? Curt nitpicked the rules, and had even less social skill than Rei. “Why don’t you join the campaign?” he asked.
“Campaign?” She laughed, and he thought she was turning him down. “You mean like running for office?”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “No, it’s a series of adventures. Roleplaying games came out of miniatures rules, where battles are laid out with lead figures. A campaign is a series of field battles. There’s a lot more to adventures than battles, but you get the idea. A campaign is a bunch of related adventures.”
Tess looked chagrined and said, half to herself, “Yeah, duh, so a presidential campaign’s a metaphor about battles. I hate it when I miss connections like that.”
Steve said, “Hardly. I didn’t get it either.”
The lunch bell rang. Next period was Social Studies, another class with Mrs. Isobel. But when they got up, Tess said, “I’m not in what’s-her-name’s classes anymore. Alex got me out. I have independent study in the library.”
Ah, Steve thought, so that’s why she wasn’t in class that morning. She started to walk away. Steve felt desolate.
“So what about the campaign?” he said.
“Huh?” She turned back. “Seriously? Okay, yeah. Where?”
“At my place. The group meets at eight on Friday.”
“Sure.” She took a few more steps, then turned again. “See you here at lunch tomorrow. We can talk about it then, right?”
He nodded, his face hot.
“See ya,” she said.
Steve wanted to laugh like a maniac. He stood and watched her fight her way into the crowd of kids pushing to the exit until she passed the doors. Maybe she didn’t think of him as a hopeless dork after all.
The next day, Wednesday, Tess was not in the cafeteria. Steve looked for her and waited all lunch period by himself, hardly touching his food, despite its being the most palatable lunch they got — mashed potatoes with meat gravy. When he finally remembered that Tess had independent study the next hour, he quickly dumped his tray, raced down to the library and slipped inside just before the bell rang. The librarian, Mrs. Crane, was away shelving. Steve hid in some stacks and waited. A class bustled in, and after the librarian became distracted calling them to order, he came out and began to check the carrels at the end of each row. All were empty. The librarian caught sight of him as he crossed to the exit.
“Can I help you?” she asked. About twenty seventh-graders seated on the floor turned to face him.
“I was looking for someone, Tess Arthur?”
“Ah, she’s out sick today. If you’re supposed to be in class, you’d better hurry. The bell rang a while ago.”
Outside, he saw the principal himself coming down the hall, his attention focused on a newspaper. Steve turned away, thinking he’d gone unnoticed, but he’d hardly taken two steps before Mr. Harrison called out, “Steve? Can you wait a second?” The principal closed the distance in brisk strides. “I’ve got a message. Tess is sick but said she’s looking forward to your game this weekend, if it’s still on?”
“We’re playing Friday. Is she okay?”
“She’ll be fine; she gets these headaches occasionally, and she may have a bout of the stomach flu. She could be out for another day or so.” He added, “You know, I’m grateful you’re being nice to Tess. She can be abrasive until you get to know her. She just needs some good people near her. If she’s rude, hold your ground and don’t take it personally.”
“I like Tess—a lot.”
“I think she values your, ah, friendship too.”
This wasn’t quite the high level of encouragement he’d been hoping for, but he guessed it wasn’t too bad. Steve was impressed by Mr. Harrison’s attention to Tess and whether she had friends. He wished his own dad looked out for him as much.
Mr. Harrison glanced around the hall, as if just noticing it empty. He checked his wristwatch. “Say, you need to get to class. C’mon, I’ll take you.”
Mrs. Isobel jerked her head up from her notes as Steve came in. Mr. Harrison held the door open a moment. She immediately glanced away.
Tess didn’t come Thursday, either, and he’d begun to suspect she wouldn’t show up Friday after all. When he got home, the house was empty as usual — both his parents worked late — but he found a note on the counter saying that Tess had called, along with a number. His mother evidently took it down while home for lunch, between teaching classes. There was no message.
He dialed up immediately. A woman answered, and when he asked for Tess, she said to hold on. He could hear little boys shouting and laughing in the distance. He could feel his heart pounding. A full minute ticked by.
“Yeah? Hello?” Tess croaked as if she’d been woken up amid bouts of being sick.
“It’s Steve calling you back.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I just wanted to get your address, for tomorrow. I’ve been studying the equipment in the player’s guide, like weapons and climbing gear, and I’ve got some ideas about what to put together for my character. You still want me to play?”
“Great! I mean, yeah, of course, if you’re up for it. You sound terrible.”
“I’ve had the flu the past day, and now I got a migraine and cramps. It’s getting better right now. Tomorrow will be okay, I can tell. You know, it’s a girl thing, and I’m still getting used to it. Be grateful you’re a guy.”
Steve felt uncomfortable at this revelation. “Isn’t there anything you can take?”
“Last time we visited, my mom said I might try going on the Pill if it’s still bad next year. She says that worked for her.”
Silence hung on the line for a while as Steve strained for a casual rejoinder. His paltry male problems, like what a drag it was he had a wet dream that messed his sleeping bag during a camping trip, didn’t measure up. “That must really suck.”
“God, I guess you don’t need to hear this. It’s just that Mom and I were real open about this stuff. Maybe it’s had something to do with not having a guy around much.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m really sorry you’re not feeling well.”
“Thanks, Steve.” His pulse tripped faster as she used his name. “Like I said, by tomorrow, it should be okay.”
Awkward silence stretched out on the line. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Like what? I said I’d be in school tomorrow.”
“I don’t know.” His cheeks started to burn. “Maybe bring some dice to roll up a character?”
She laughed. “How’s that going to make me feel better? No, actually, can’t we just make the character at your place?”
He felt like she’d thrown him a lifeline. “Sure, and Curt loves that kind of thing too; he’s got the rules memorized. Actually, that’s also annoying sometimes. So are you really going to come over?”
“Uh, why wouldn’t I?”
Steve felt his confidence drop through a hole in his stomach. “I mean, because you’ve been sick. Do you need a ride?”
“Alex can handle it. I’ll come.”
“Good. We get started around eight. You know the zoo exit after the tunnel going west on 26?”
“Just a sec; hold on while I get a pen. . . . Okay, go ahead.”
He gave her the rest of the directions and an address, then added, “Get well.”
“Heh. Okay, bye.” He listened to the dead line for several seconds before hanging up.
He went downstairs and surveyed his apartment. Picture windows dominated the east wall, but the sun had retreated far into the backyard, leaving the basement in heavy shade. At the bottom of the stairs, Steve flipped the switch to the fluorescents, and the ballasts flickered awake with a sullen glow. When Steve was ten, his parents had given him the entire daylight basement, and while he’d done his best to clutter his living area, he hadn’t quite achieved the effect of full occupancy. A ten-foot square of green shag carpet drifted on a sea of concrete. Against the wall opposite the window view, next to his bathroom door, a full refrigerator emitted a congested hum. And directly across the room, by the arch that led to his bedroom, a scarred oak dining table was strewn with lead warrior figures and plastic dice. The seats around the table were oddly matched: a couple of office swivel chairs, black and brown, covered in vinyl and another, a green-gold upholstered one. The stack of the original dining chairs gathered dust under the window.
On the wall over the gaming table hung the album cover for a band called Molly Hatchet. The cover was Rei’s idea: he referred to Frank Frazetta’s axe-wielding “Death Dealer” — a sinister horseman lifting a wicked axe, face shadowed in a horned helmet — as their “mascot.”
It was not a place for impressing a girl. Or was it? Tess wasn’t like anyone he’d ever met. He drifted into the room, went over to the table, and was about to drop into his seat, when he paused to look out the window.
Below the back lawn, the slope dropped off to a view of Portland, the Willamette River winding among its sun-shot towers. The sky, cirrus-painted, had gone an orange pink, and fifty miles away the upper glaciers of Mount Hood’s conical spire flared like a beacon. Just visible to the north over the distant arch of the Fremont suspension bridge, the rounder dome of Mount St. Helens shone under a veil of what might have been either cloud or ash. For the first time in over a hundred and twenty years, several minor eruptions had shaken the mountain, and now only researchers were allowed within a wide quarantine zone around it.
Rei said Steve had the best view in the West Hills. It didn’t take much imagination to see it as a fantastic kingdom, a capital of glass towers that had been reared by magic amid untamed lands, where monsters crawled the ancient lava tubes beneath white-capped volcanoes. He sat down and swiveled back and forth, pondering his spare redoubt. Yep, he decided, it could be a lot worse.
A few minutes later, he went upstairs and called Rei. “We’ve got a new player.”
“Aw, c’mon, tell me.”
“Trust me, it’ll be a cool surprise. Anyway, I want you guys to come an hour early and get a head start.”
“Huh, you’re acting weird, man. Is this some older guy or something?”
“It’s not a girl, is it?”
“Rei, do you know any girls who game?”
“Good point. So why is he joining the group? You think we need help?”
“For what you’ve got coming up? Maybe, yeah.”
“Decent. We need a priest, right?”
“Right. Anyway, you can tell Curt for me. I need you to come an hour early. I told the new player too much about the adventure, so I need you guys a little further along to catch up.” Steve often asked Rei to be the go-between with Curt. Rei knew Curt better than he did, and Curt and Rei went to the same school.
“Yeah, okay,” said Rei. “We’ll see you Friday.”
Later that evening, after dinner, Steve paced his den some more. He considered the Death Dealer, and took him down. What could he put up instead of the mascot? Maybe a painting from the Tolkien calendar on his desk, something with Aragorn or a dragon. Not the Luthien picture. Unless he punked her up with a Sharpie, a half-naked elf draped in silks, dancing in the moonlit forest, showing off tattoos. That might be kind of cool. Yeah, right, and what would Rei say about that? “Where’s the mascot? What’s with this shit? You into punk chicks now?” He put the Death Dealer back.
He stalked upstairs, across the long hardwood floor, and into the carpeted hall. His dad’s study was open a crack and dim light spilled out. He rapped at the door lightly with his knuckle.
“Yeah? Come in.”
The room was dark except for an extensible lamp focused into the rolltop desk where his dad hunched over a fly-tying vise, wielding forceps and thread spool to twirl a feather around the fuzzy black body of a wooly bugger.
“Dad, how much is a personal trainer?”
“Trainer in what?” he said. “You going out for sports?”
“No, just to get in shape. Weightlifting.”
“You’ve got a weight set.” This was true, and he worked out a little each week, but he wasn’t seeing the results he wanted.
“I need someone to help me.”
“It’s just discipline, Chuck.” His dad finished off the hackles on his fly, tied off the body, then painted some shellac on the head. He capped the shellac bottle, and turned toward Steve. “Why the sudden interest in weightlifting?”
“I want to be stronger.”
“Someone bothering you at school?”
“Okay, how about this. I’ll make a call to a local gym sometime this week and ask about a personal trainer, just for a visit. Then we’ll see if you can follow a routine at home. I’ll spot you on the exercises.” He considered for a moment. “I guess I could train myself a little.” He smacked his paunch, which over-spilled his belt.
“Yeah, okay, I guess.”
His dad nodded and turned back to his fly-tying.
“Uh, Dad, I’m having the guys over tomorrow again, and we’ve got another kid coming too.”
“New guy from school?” His father seated another hook in the vice and picked among the detritus of quail feathers, tinsel, and piping scattered over his desktop.
His dad’s fingers hung over a scrap of deer pelt. His head came up a bit. “Hmm, I think I get it now. Anything you want to tell me about this girl?”
“No. Just — just be cool about it. She knows me as Steve, like the other guys. Okay.”
“You got it, Chuck.”