The dwarves ran to the gap and pulled it open once more. Arslan and Dirk cast about uncertainly. “Go!” Megaera shouted. The two men ducked into the five-foot-wide tunnel. Zadrian followed, and Stefan, gory scythe dripping in one hand, tugged Megaera’s cloak sleeve as she sidled to the opening, straining to see down the main passage. The orcs had turned back toward them. As the dwarves removed their picks from the stone, they paused to let Megaera slip ahead after Stefan, into a cocoon of hot, humid air. As soon as they’d all entered, the sides of the opening slumped down to a thin embrasure, and the stone became hard once more. Suddenly, purple light shone in the gap and on the faces of Tom and Jim facing toward it, and the bellowing and tramping of several monsters rose up beyond. Tom and Jim passed their glowing picks over the tunnel walls at either hand, which made the rock flow down like melted wax. It hardened as soon as the picks withdrew. A moment later, the wall trembled under a great blow. Pebbles dislodged from the ceiling and pattered around them. Megaera summoned her magical light sphere into her left hand as the dwarves redoubled their efforts. She had to backpedal quickly to give them room. Another, harder blow fell, staggering the wall. The dwarves closed two yards of tunnel. The next blow threatened to break through. The stone flowed together almost as fast as the dwarves could walk, but still each impact came as hard as the last. The party backed away in a unit. Megaera turned to see Stefan watching anxiously beside her.
“Will the giants reach us?” she asked.
“Giants cannot strike so hard,” said Stefan. “The hag is using spells to attack the rock. Tom and Jim are the most talented shapers in our army, but the hag is powerful. Very powerful.”
At last, when the dwarves had merged at least fifty feet of passage, the blows seemed to come through a greater distance of rock, more and more feebly. After another twenty feet, they were a distant rumble, and soon ceased. Exhausted, Tom and Jim laid their picks down and slumped against opposite sides of the tunnel.
“Well done!” said Stefan. “Now we must hurry to the Barathrum gates!”
“Who are you?” demanded Megaera. “And where are we going?”
“We are going to our master. You will learn more presently,” said Stefan. He took a bit of rag out of a pouch in his cloak and used it to clean his weapon, then said something that sounded like “lux varanoris” and the amber, translucent blade glowed with a light to rival Megaera’s. Zadrian came and took the rag from him without a word, cleaned and sheathed her sword, and then tossed the rag aside. Arslan and Dirk had already replaced their weapons. Stefan walked by Megaera down the tunnel, and she realized she still gripped Bugclaw, in her white-knuckled right hand. Blood did not stick to Bugclaw. After stowing the flail, she trotted after Stefan down the passage, the dwarves dragging wearily behind.
Stefan turned back and said, “Spread out, and follow!” then broke into a sprint. His crescent-shaped light receded fast and Megaera and the others quickened to an almost reckless pace before they started to catch him up.
The oppressive heat and humidity made Megaera sweat. She wished she could at least remove her cloak. Minutes trickled by. The hall, she noticed, continued to be an even ten feet around, ribbed as if quarried by the peristaltic munching of a vast worm. It twisted slightly from side to side here and there but mostly kept a straight line, steadily downwards.
After perhaps half a mile, they reached the lizards. The rearmost ones stared back into the approaching light with their huge lambent eyes. Less camouflaged now than when Megaera had last seen them, they showed themselves to be like a hybrid of giant gecko and tiny dragon, with a crest of small spines along their heads. Membranes like glide wings connected their shoulders to their sides. Stefan called to them in a croaking, hissing language. The hindmost repeated the instruction to those in front, initiating a pattering stampede. Within seconds, the nearest lizard was also on the move, and an instant later its spade-ended tail waved off into darkness. “Brave of them to wait,” he gasped. “But I’ve sent them ahead. All the way.”
Megaera did not ask what this meant. She could barely keep stride with Stefan, Zadrian, the dwarves, and Dirk. Arslan lagged behind, but the heavy, widely spaced thuds of his footfalls could be heard, now slipping back, now catching up. Half an hour passed, at least, when finally a blue glow appeared in the distance. Abruptly, the walls fell away, and they intersected a vast tunnel that slanted to the left, lit by the blue lichen. They all stopped, and Megaera doubled over to catch her wind as she glanced around her. Wisps of steam or smoke curled past along the ceiling, borne on a languid draft from below. The air smelled of sulfur and other things, a kind of spicy rot that burned the back of Megaera’s throat as she heaved each breath.
Stefan looked left and right. He gasped, “Nothing here. So far, so good.”
The dwarves also caught their wind for a few seconds, then unclipped their hammers and turned their attention to closing the shaft they’d come through. In a minute, the gap was sealed over with lichen-covered rock.
“Thank you, my friends,” said Stefan to the dwarves, “but the gesture is probably useless. We dare not go that way again while Annabis lives. Now we must move as swiftly as we can, but much more cautiously. Keep an ear cocked for any noise from ahead or behind. The gate lies only half a mile from here. She cannot harm us there.”
“Because the guardians will not allow it, of course. You seem to know much and very little at the same time. Which of the Powers sent you?”
Zadrian cut in. “What do you mean by ‘Powers’?”
“The demiurges — like Cax… and my master.”
“Who is your master?” said Megaera.
“Later.” Stefan adjusted a band on his arm, and his whole body shivered under the blue light as if behind a wall of heat. The dwarves did likewise. The trio faded until they were perfectly invisible. Only as they began to move was there a shimmer against the walls that marked their positions. “Come,” Stefan whispered. Megaera joined her own companions in putting up their cloak hoods, and then followed.
Five minutes later, they turned a bend in the cavern, and at the end of a very long, straight slope, huge statues faced each other under the steady blue light—if the word “facing” could be applied. Each had only a crease across the brows to suggest eyes. Beyond the statues, the corridor ended in a tongue of rock thrust out into a wide vertical shaft, up which rose steaming vapors, some continuing out of sight, others wafting into the cavern to crawl along the ceiling. Stefan and the dwarves blurred steadily ahead.
When they had approached within fifty yards, a metallic line could be seen in the floor a foot wide, that reflected the overhead arrays of blue lichen.
“Cross slowly and smoothly, and make no sound,” said Stefan. “Do not draw a weapon, on your life, even if monsters come and menace you. They cannot harm you across the line.”
As they approached, the statues towered up some forty feet high.
Megaera could feel the close press of her companions and hear their breathing. The rotten, spicy, sulfurous odor of the moist vapors intensified, and now had a salt tang. They made a faint, steady hissing as they curled up beyond the ledge.
Megaera was first to cross. A hum passed up through her body from the metal line. The nearby heel of the leftmost statue reached almost to her knees.
Stefan’s hand appeared out of the air and began to wave them forward, but then stopped and thrust back to motion a halt instead. Inscribed on the center of the floor between the statues, a twenty-foot circle of strange black letters began to glow white. In a blink, a giant appeared inside it. The twelve-foot monster had a club like all the others they had seen, and was gnawing the torso of some stiff and well-cooked humanoid creature, using its legs as handles. Lowering its snack, the giant began to take a step, and then paused. Its eyes narrowed and nostrils twitched in a manner all too familiar. Megaera’s hand went to Bugclaw.
The giant turned and stepped straight toward the party. Megaera’s grip tightened.
“It’s only curious,” whispered Stefan. “Be still, everyone.”
The giant took another step, and suddenly, with a sound like an avalanche, the statue overhead knelt and faced it. The giant hastened away across the line and up into the tunnel, swiveled back, and threw the grim remains of its meal straight at Megaera. She ducked, but with a flash the missile evaporated between them, over the line. She could see now how neutrality was imposed. The giant paced back and forth a minute, grunted what sounded like a curse, and stalked off up the cavern.
Stefan’s hand appeared again, waved them forward, and all followed with haste. “Do not step outside the runes, or you will be left behind.” A moment later his hand descended to various points around the circle, each time lighting the rune it touched. Megaera strove to commit the pattern to memory, but the runes were so strange that it was hopeless.
At the sixth touch, her vision went black for a moment, and then cleared… on a new scene. They had arrived in what at first she took for a lamplit castle courtyard under a clear midnight sky, but the stars overhead were unnaturally thick, and all were blue. And the lamps on the battlements were baskets filled with two-foot squirming grubs whose ends glowed yellow-green. A broad, paved avenue, lit to either hand by even lines of green mushrooms, stretched before her to a magnificent central keep far in the distance, its pinnacle rising up hundreds of feet. Lesser keeps rose here and there, connected by smaller tributaries of the main path.
Dropping their hoods, Stefan and the dwarves resolved out of the air with a shimmer. “Come. Our master awaits.”
Arslan, Dirk, and Zadrian put their own hoods down, and with some misgiving, Megaera did as well. They walked in silence. Finally, Megaera demanded, “Who is your master? When you commanded light from your weapon, I heard a name. What was it?”
Zadrian answered for him in a quiet, even voice. “Varanoris,” she said: “ ‘of Varanor’.” Stefan made no answer. Zadrian said to Megaera, “Among the noble families, it is rumored that the king’s male heir is sent away in early childhood to a mysterious tutor known as ‘Varanor.’ ”
“Varanor is the master,” said Stefan, nodding. “But the king has no son. Varanor’s servants found me in the forest, set out to die when I was a newborn.”
“That’s rough,” said Dirk. Stefan waved off the comment.
“Someday, you will present yourself to the king, though, won’t you?” said Zadrian. “He will make you his heir, and you will take the throne.” Stefan shrugged and kept walking. “Some people say that the dragon kings are no fit rulers because they are loyal to the creature that trains them, that they speak for him and not for men.”
“And what do you say?” said Stefan.
“I don’t know enough to judge. My father said that the policies of the king have been good and wise. He casts down nobles who abuse their people. He maintains colonies for all those who suffer from madness and melancholy, feeblemindedness and disease. Anyone, serf or nobleman, may present himself for training as a king’s knight, and only the best will be admitted.”
“Yet still nobles claim divine rights,” said Stefan.
“How so?” said Zadrian.
* * *
Steve continued reading his rehearsed speech. He’d written up this exchange between Zadrian and Stefan, and it had taken almost an hour to get it right. “Stefan says, ‘Once they have power, the dukes, counts, and barons cannot be removed without sacrificing innocent lives. Any dragon king who has striven too hard for justice has been slain, though many histories taught in the kingdom do not reveal this — that is the way of men. Eventually, the kingdom devolves into chaos, but Varanor is patient. A new dragon king emerges to set things right, and that is the way of Varanor.’ ”
“Not bad,” said Tess. “So you’re saying that Varanor is trying to spread democracy through the kings he set up, but they get assassinated?”
“Yeah, the good kings do, but most of the dragon kings aren’t that great. They don’t try to change things that much, because they’re afraid of making the nobles mad.”
“Sounds plausible,” she said.
“When a dragon king is overthrown, humans soon make a mess of it and Varanor sends a new candidate to be king.”
“What I don’t get,” said Rei, “is that teleporter thing, you know, the circle with runes around it. Who made that?”
“The neutral Powers made both it and the guardians. They chose Barathrum as a place where all the Powers could meet.”
“Share information, negotiate truces in their wars, spy on each other. All that sort of stuff, I guess. The Powers live in their own little universes just outside this one. They are gates all over between their worlds and Barathrum.”
“Another thing,” said Tess. “Why does Varanor bother with men at all?”
* * *
“Why does Varanor treat with men at all?” said Megaera. “Why does he care what they do?”
Stefan answered patiently, “Because Varanor sees that someday, men will challenge the gods, and Varanor hopes to hold a place in the world of men and in a small way to shape it.”
They strode along the avenue together for some time without speaking. Despite the awesome scenery, Megaera had to fight to keep her attention open. She had become intrigued by this strange, well-spoken young knight — prince, she supposed — and felt a challenge to her own sophistication and competence. She envied his having a patron like Varanor. As they neared the citadel, Megaera picked out some specks far over the central tower, dark against the blue, floating down through the air in lazy spirals. She nodded at them.
“Ah,” said Stefan, “the dractyls have arrived ahead of us. We are only a few miles from the teleporter; they do not use it. The dractyls came through the shaft and climbed along the ceiling.”
The central keep loomed nearer. Megaera could now make out tiers of battlements, crenelated terraces, embrasures, and hanging platforms. There were creatures on the walls, small humanoids like gargoyles lounging on the parapets, watching curiously with huge eyes, and big shaggy figures, ogre-sized but straight and tall, not twisted like the hag’s monsters.
The doors of the keep were forty feet high and thirty wide, and reached by a round three-level dais of stone steps. Megaera looked up and saw two shaggy giants watching over a parapet just above the doors. The rest of the tower dwindled overhead to a distant point against the blue, so tall it dizzied her and she had to look away or stumble.
Stefan sprang onto the first step and held up a hand. As if he’d projected some force, the doors swung inward. Darkness filled the space within and even Megaera’s sight could barely penetrate; she had an impression of a vast presence there. The air stirred, and a pair of golden eyes as large as kite shields unshuttered thirty feet above. A powerful will drew her, but gently, and she had no inclination to resist.
When she’d reached Stefan’s side, a golden radiance blazed out from the body of a massive dragon, its wings, like tent walls, thrusting toward them. It drew itself to full height, some sixty feet above the marble floor, and a host of milk-eyed dwarves stepped out around it.
Like night wind through a pine forest, the dragon’s voice murmured soft but strong. “Welcome,” it said.
* * *
“So it is a real dragon,” said Tess. “I was kinda hoping for something different.”
“In a way, he’s not,” said Steve. “He’s one of the Powers, like Cax. He was the first dragon. He didn’t have a body until the Powers brought the dinosaurs in from across the universe, and then he created one using them as a rough pattern.”
“How’s that go again?” Rei asked.
Curt broke in. “There’s weather in space, shifting it from soft to hard, kind of like low pressure and high pressure, but we wouldn’t notice. When there’s high-pressure space around the earth, which is most of the time, the Powers can’t get in; otherwise, they can rip open gates and step across the universe to Earth. I helped him work it out.”
This last statement wasn’t quite true, but Steve didn’t feel like contradicting him. When he’d been thinking of the background mythology for the campaign a year ago, he’d run some ideas by Curt, including this one. Curt had come up with the air-pressure analogy, but the actual idea was Steve’s.
Rei chewed this over. “Huh,” he said. “Is that based on real science?”
“Uhhh, no,” said Tess. “That’s make-believe. Okay, so are we gonna play, or what? It’s getting late. I tell what’s-his-name—Varanor?… Where’d you get that name, by the way?”
“I was looking at a book with komodo dragons in it, and the first part of their scientific name is ‘varanus,’ so I took it from that.”
“Cool,” she said, “like ‘Barathrum.’ I pay attention to your names.”
“What’s that?” said Rei.
“It’s the name of the city, and it’s Latin for hell,” said Tess, then added, “I looked it up.” Steve felt gratified that she took the trouble. “Anyway, let’s get going.”
“Okay, Stefan bows to Varanor and introduces you as agents of the baron, and then gives an account of everything that happened since you’d met. He asks if the werewolves reached him safely, and the dragon nods but doesn’t say anything. He sweeps out the globe that Lydia took from the gruant, and says, ‘One of the seeing eyes of Annabis, my lord,’ and then he takes out the smaller globe that has Karsk trapped inside it, and says, ‘The vampire Karsk.’ Then he tells Varanor that he found you chasing after some friends and that you narrowly escaped from Annabis. Zadrian blurts out that her father and his wizard were the ones taken prisoner, and she begs his help. Stefan whips his head around in surprise, but the dragon just nods, like he knew it all along. He says that he’ll help, but that first he wants to know who Megaera is and why she’s with you guys.”
Tess said, “Okay, I step forward, and tell Varanor everything we’ve been doing.”
“Why you?” said Curt.
“Because I’m the one he’s obviously most suspicious of.”
Steve was surprised she jumped to this conclusion so fast, and also how earnest she was to be understood. He said, “So you tell him everything, back to the baron’s castle, and how you got Bugclaw?”
“What do you tell him about that?”
* * *
The dragon cocked its head at Megaera; and perhaps by faint telepathy, she received a clear impression of his will: she swept back the wing of her cloak and pulled out Bugclaw. “I could track Vidal just by holding this. It led me to him.” The dragon nodded. “I found him in a hidden cave with a giant; the giant scented me out, and I had to kill it. Vidal fought me but yielded.”
Varanor’s murmur filled the cavernous chamber, rolling along the walls. “Yet he is dead.” It was more of an accusation than a question.
“But I didn’t do it. The baron’s rangers did when they caught up to me. They killed him in self-defense.”
The dragon heaved a long, deep breath.
An uncomfortable silence followed, and Megaera spoke to dispel it. “Vidal called this ‘Night Talon,’ but I’ve got a new name. Bugclaw, I call it.”
Varanor said, “An apt name. The tendril forced you to a confrontation, and chose the strongest wielder. Had you slain him yourself, it would have an even firmer hold on you than it does. Do you know what may happen if you keep that weapon? It can transform you, first mind and soul, then bodily. Over several decades, you will become half insect and seek out Cax. He will accept your service at first (to pre-chew his food, groom his body), and then one day, for strange reasons or none at all, he will slay and devour you. He chose his form too early in the history of the world, and has the instincts of the most primitive and brutal creatures—for all his intelligence and cunning.”
“So how long, then, before I start growing extra legs?”
“You seem to find this amusing,” said the dragon.
“I assume I have some time,” said Megaera.
“That depends on how you use the weapon, but yes, if you resist, you might wield it your whole life in safety, or you might succumb to its violent whispers and become its slave in a week.” The dragon waited patiently while Megaera explained the rest of their quest, their plan to rescue not only Jonril and the baron but also the prisoners from Raglar’s dungeons. She also related how she learned her mother superior had betrayed her in sending her after Karsk, and how she would leave the priestess order and take the baron’s offered lands if the war against the hag was won.
When she’d finished, the dragon said, “The balance among the powers of Barathrum has been upset and needs to be restored. They know of me, of course. Cax and I have long been enemies, but I have moved quietly against him, biding my time. This creature Annabis, she has made a grave error in coming here to serve as Cax’s vassal. She thinks that she has been careful, but my spies have followed her every move through Barathrum. She visits a common house on the border of Cax’s region by the Nightwater, and every evening, she orders an abominable meal. She thinks that she gets it, but the hosteler serves her pig, magicked into the form of a roasted human child.”
“So the innkeeper is your spy?” asked Zadrian, obviously fighting to be calm and attentive. She had become almost breathless, and her face had drawn tight with signs of worry and impatience. Megaera knew she was thinking of her father.
The dragon shifted his head slightly to fix the baron’s daughter with his calm gaze. “No, the innkeeper is an evil man. He merely cheats her. It is not easy to obtain such victims here. However, I am afraid he has recently succeeded. A young girl was smuggled into the inn this morning.”
Stefan stepped forward. “This is horrible! I’ll leave at once to rescue her.”
The dragon heaved a rumbling breath, like a distant mountain slide. “No, young prince, you cannot go. You would be detected.”
“I will go,” said Zadrian. “If you will aid me in rescuing my father.”
Dirk said, “Yeah, of course, me and Arslan, too.”
“None of you may go, only Megaera.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Because you alone can enter Cax’s realm unmolested. I sense you balanced between dark and light. Just as no evil creature can infiltrate my fortress here, none of my servants can go undetected there. But with the tendril, and accompanied by the vampire, you might pass.”
The dragon bent his attention on the smooth marble floor, and then idly extended a claw and dragged it in a perfect circle some ten feet across. When he withdrew the claw, a hoop of fire glowed in the stone. Varanor then wrote on the circle’s outside edge, incising words in a delicate script unfamiliar to Megaera. She marveled to see the dragon work at the same quick pace writing sideways and upside down. As the script returned to its starting point and the dragon made the last stroke, the circle glowed faintly white at its middle.
“Hand me the vampire, Stefan,” said Varanor.
Stefan held up the fist-sized globe, and the dragon plucked it away, his huge claws like forceps pinching a tiny bead. Varanor released it high above the circle, and when it shattered, the vampire’s pressurized mist swirled instantly to a man’s height, and hung there in a column.
“Normally,” Varanor explained, “the creature would need to rest on the soil of its grave to regain its shape. I will remake it.”
“Remake it?” said Megaera.
“Yes, did you not know? The Powers invented the undead and the lycanthropes. Their weaknesses were designed so their masters could control them. I cannot make this wretched thing good, but I can make it wholly dependent on you.”
“So can I,” said Megaera, laying a hand at her belt.
“Not like this.” The dragon cupped its claws around the edge of the circle and breathed a thin jet of flame over the vampire’s mist. The ruddy campfire glow warmed Megaera’s face, and gleamed deep in the dragon’s onyx eyes. The flame filled the mist and then coalesced into the form of Karsk, still dancing and flickering. “Enter the circle and touch the vampire on the brow,” Varanor said.
The vampire’s skin felt like cold, dry stone. The fire went out, leaving Karsk revealed in his familiar pale, leather-wrapped guise. The vampire’s gaze looked weary, rather than impassive and alien. “Let me die,” he whispered.
“Not yet,” said the dragon. “That will be your reward for faithful service. You must first amend your long years of wickedness.”
“So what does this mean?” said Megaera, still looking at the vampire. She could not feel the vampire’s thoughts, had no sense of pulling its strings. “How do I command it?”
“Simply tell it what to do, by voice or by thought. The vampire must obey. If it is ever compelled away from your service, or if you release it, it will be instantly destroyed. Otherwise, it has all its former power.”
“But I cannot sense it.”
“No, that communication is unhealthy. Using Cax’s tendril to control the monster may be effective, but it exposes you to Cax’s influence. Now that necessity is gone.”
“So what now?”
“I’m sorry that I must delay my hospitality. Tim will go with you to the teleport circle at the wharves, and there, he will await your return with the girl. From the wharves, Karsk can lead you himself. He is well known in Barathrum, and has escaped my justice many times. Now, approach me. I will send you to the wharves myself.”
The dwarf stepped forward and tugged on Megaera’s cloak, and she let herself be led toward the dragon. Karsk strolled behind, blank-faced except for his weary eyes. Only then did it occur to Megaera that she’d never actually agreed to carry out the rescue, but agreement, as both she and the dragon understood, was a time-wasting formality. She worked for Varanor now. Her old allegiances were dead.
* * *
“Okay, guys, time to wrap it up!” called Steve’s dad from upstairs.
“So what’s this mean then?” said Rei. “You’re really going to take her on this adventure without us?”
“It’s kinda the other way around,” said Tess. “I’ll be gone for the next month. You guys might even have time to rescue the prisoners and take down the king giant.” She got up and put the empty folio over her shoulder. Steve scrambled to his feet.
He put his hand over Megaera’s character sheet on the table. “I’ll write up your new advancement points. By now you’ve reached sixth rank.”
“Cool,” said Tess, “we’ll figure out the new abilities when I get back.”
She stood dithering a little, reluctant to go. At last, she turned to Curt and gave him a perfunctory hug, putting her hands on his shoulders and leaning over him for a moment. He went stiff at first but then relaxed and patted the side of her waist. Rei stepped forward and pulled her in with both arms. She patted his upper back in a way that seemed half impatient until he released her. When she faced Steve, she said, “Don’t make it too easy on them.” All he could do was nod. Her eyes were moist. She stood there then, as if expecting him to make the first move, and he reached out tentatively with his good arm, keeping his cast tight to his side. She leapt forward and threw herself around his neck, just like that time a few weeks before when he’d comforted her at school. She held him for several heartbeats, the folio knocking against him, then kissed him briskly on the cheek, before rushing away. When she was gone, he noticed Rei watching him with a grin. Rei shook his head. “Lucky son of a bitch,” he said.
Steve returned a halfhearted smile, grateful Rei took it so well — whatever it meant. He didn’t feel smug, however. He was missing her already.