Setting up camp proceeded in a mood of general good humor. His parents drank beer with the Harrisons. A cooling afternoon breeze had come up, which stilled the monotonous cicadas. The young boys had tired out and been sent to their tent to nap. And Tess, the biggest marvel of all, had become cheerful and solicitous, as if to forget the topic they’d just abandoned. She called Steve’s dad “Mr. O’Reilly,” and smiled when he thanked her for taking a corner of the tent while he staked it down. Steve’s mom asked Tess what she’d been up to during the trip, and both his parents seemed impressed that she’d been reading Lord Jim, a book his father knew and one of his mom’s favorites. Tina praised Tess’s help with the boys and said she was sorry for imposing on her. An embarrassed silence followed.
“So, Steve,” Tina said, “Tess has told me a bit about this adventure game. I know you create the story, but I’m not quite clear how it works.”
Half absorbed with pounding a final tent stake, Tess said, “You can’t really sum it up.” Tina bent a reproachful look her way, but she didn’t notice. “He’s got a universe and a whole ecosystem worked out, and it’s about vampires, and werewolves, and dragons and heroes, but it’s the way he tells the story — like improv theater.”
Tina faced Steve with a shocked expression. “Wow. How do you manage all that?”
Steve shrugged, but Mrs. Harrison stayed attentive, and he strained for an answer worthy of Tess’s praise. “I do spend a lot of time thinking of scenarios and how to pace the narrative.” He delivered the last word a little self-consciously, and Tina smiled. “But what really makes an adventure work is the preparation and the smart players. I get ideas from the questions they ask and try to run with them.”
“Exactly,” said Tess. “The monsters and fantasy and violence are just tools. They help you put together certain feelings. Just like music and theater have their own vocabulary.”
“So it’s not just plain make-believe?” said Tina.
“Well, it is…” began Steve, but Tess finished for him.
“He writes plot outlines, but there are rules that everyone, even he, has to follow. Like real life, there’s consequences. Your characters can get killed if the dice, and rules, and logic of the game all say so.”
“The logic of the game?” said Tina.
“It’s a little science but mostly art. Steve decides what should logically happen in every situation.”
Tina blinked and shook her head. “I’m impressed. Can I watch one of these games?”
“Uh…” said Steve.
“No,” said Tess. “That would be too awkward.”
Steve caught Tess’s serious look, nodded, and shrugged apologetically. He glanced over to Mr. Harrison, who was sitting near his dad at the picnic table, studying the trees with a calm, satisfied look, tuned out of the conversation. He then noticed his dad watching him with some of the same surprise that had crossed Tina Harrison’s face. They shared a private stare: at length, his dad took a drink of beer, and then nodded with exaggerated seriousness and raised the bottle to Steve in mock salute.
Steve was grateful to see that neither Tess nor Tina had noticed.
* * *
Later, the little boys rose from their nap, and the families held a shared dinner. When they’d finished, Mr. Harrison put Jacob on his shoulders and went to reconnoiter the river with Steve’s dad. Steve and Tess took pity on Adam, who had been talking about frogs all through the meal.
“What kind of frogs are they?” asked Steve, as they got up from the picnic table.
“Leopard frogs or tree frogs or bullfrogs or toads?” Steve persisted.
“Yes,” said Adam.
“Can you show me where to find them?” Adam nodded. “Can Tess come?” A nod and a smile.
“And, Adam,” his mother began seriously.
“I know, I know,” said Adam with Tess’s own world-weary air. “No snakes.”
* * *
Just upstream from camp, a side-channel of the river eddied about the foot of an egg-shaped lava boulder that towered up twenty feet. Grass grew thick in the boulder’s shade, and duckweed floated in the almost stagnant, deep pool behind it. As the three of them came down the steep bank, kicking up dust, a striped garter snake darted from a patch of sun toward the pond, and Adam leapt after it. Tess plunged down and pulled him back by the shoulders just as he lost his footing and was about to go in headfirst.
The snake shot through the grass verge right onto the water, and whipped over the duckweed. Previously camouflaged, the heads of several leopard frogs swirled under at its approach. The snake crossed into the main river current, and rode downstream out of sight.
Tess watched after it with concern. “Will it drown?”
“Nah,” said Steve, amused and impressed that she’d be tenderhearted on this point. “They take the rapids a few yards and then head into the bank. I’ve watched them do it since I was his age.”
“Look!” said Adam. “The frogs.”
Several pairs of eyes had popped back to the surface among the weeds.
“Those are leopard frogs, Adam,” Steve said. “They’re really hard to catch, unless you’ve got a net.”
“He’s got a butterfly net back at camp,” Tess said.
“Actually, they’re hard to catch even with a net.”
Tess stared at him quizzically.
“I mean, that’s what I remember. It’s been a long time.”
“Surrre,” she said.
“Tell you what, Adam,” said Steve. “We’ll go get your net, and I’ll get my fishing pole, and you can catch frogs, and I’ll fish right here.”
They returned a few minutes later. Steve had his spin-casting pole with a couple of Rooster Tail spinners, Adam had his net, and Tess followed with a large pickle jar for housing any frogs they managed to nab. Steve had just gotten his pole set up when Adam, who’d been hunting along the bank, stumped over and handed him the net.
“Catch me a frog, Steve. Please? It’s too deep, and they all scared away.”
Before long, Steve had gone from looking along the shore, to removing his shoes and wading in the shallows. He moved slow, careful not to disturb the mud and cloud the pool. Adam watched nervously from the sidelines. Steve lost his lead on the last frog, and straightened up to offer an apology. Tess didn’t notice. She’d removed her sandals and rolled up her jeans, and moved along the bank cranelike, head down, searching. Her ponytail had come loose and every few seconds, she automatically brushed hair back over her ears. He smiled to himself at how absorbed she’d become, playing outdoors like a tomboy, unselfconscious. He wished he could see her like this more often.
“There,” she shouted, pointing, and he looked just in time to see a frog make a spectacular leap from the bank and arrow into the water beside his legs and into the mud. He plunged the net after it, scooped up a chunk of the bottom. Mud swirled up and veiled the pool all around him. Steve held the net high for inspection. A knot of mud and weed rolled down the inner side and came to rest on the net’s bottom, inanimate and reproachful. Tess’s shoulders slumped. Suddenly, the lump began to twist and squirm and webbed flippers splayed out, seeking purchase.
“Yay!” Tess and Adam shouted together. A minute later, Steve upended the net over the jar, and Tess sealed in the frog and handed it to Adam two-handed. She laughed when he bounded off with it clutched to his chest. Steve squeezed as much of the remaining water out of his jean cuffs as he could.
“Thanks,” she said. “You made his day.”
“You flushed the frog. I was just the guy with the net.”
“I’d better make sure he gets it back safe. Wait here.”
He nodded, disappointed, and watched her long, purposeful strides up the bank. When she’d gone, he sighed, picked up his fishing pole, and made a few casts beyond the pool. The current there was choppy gray-green water, barred with the long shadow of a ponderosa pine towering on the far shore. The sun had just started to touch the rimrock above, and the darkening mesa rocks frowned like serious old Indians.
Fifteen minutes passed. He’d missed half a dozen strikes, the fish flashing bladelike at his lure. He felt mocked by their noncommittal attacks.
The sun pulled off the water. Wood ducks came low, down the canyon and burred past. The river chuckled away. A curl of wood smoke from an early campfire rose from the next stand of trees a quarter mile ahead. All around him, juniper boughs that had been roasting all day in the sun gave up a faint odor of turpentine and gin.
Another fish tapped his lure, straightened his line, and he set the hook… on nothing. Damn.
He’d just gotten tranquil and a little bored, trying to read some pattern in the green and yellow lichen on the rock walls across the river, when Tess thudded down the bank and came to a stop just behind him. “What’s up?” she said over his shoulder, a little breathless.
“Can’t seem to catch a fish, but I’ve had a ton of bites.”
“Alex and your dad are on the other side of camp. Your dad caught three or four.”
“Dad always catches fish,” Steve said.
She continued, “Sorry it took so long. I had to punch holes in the jar for Adam, and then look at Jake’s pine cone collection. I’ve got to admit: they are cute.”
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“Why not?” she said.
Steve shrugged. He was grateful she had.
“I want to know more about the adventure.”
“How does this underground city work? I mean, all these powerful demigods and stuff just live side by side with their armies down there? How do they eat? What keeps them from killing each other?”
Casting and reeling over the same patch of water — his dad would say, “Half your problem is, you need to move along. Don’t be afraid to try a different spot” — he explained to her more about the neutral powers who’d installed the iron automata, about the safe zones, especially on the Nightwater and along its shores, where all the denizens could mix. Trade ships came over the Nightwater, bearing seafood and supplies from the upper world. The demigods clustered in Barathrum because it was an ancient weak spot in space-time and many pocket universes opened into it. The neutral powers weren’t really balanced between good and evil. They were a loose organization that didn’t want any single power to win and end up ruling all the others. Whole universes were at stake. Cax had been working for millennia, forging alliances, undermining his rivals.
In his head, it was fairly well ordered but he had trouble explaining it quite so succinctly. He said, “umm,” and “oh, yeah” too much. But he thought he’d communicated the gist of it.
“Reminds me of baron Harkonnen in Dune,” Tess said. “You know, how he plots against the Atreides and works deals so the Empire looks the other way when he makes his move against the duke.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “Anyhow, Barathrum is really, really complicated. I don’t quite have a handle on it. Even the sewage is complicated.”
“Yeah. There’s a network of lava tubes and tunnels that carry away sewage from all parts of the city, but it doesn’t just go straight into the sea. Some flows into breeding pits for glow grubs and the larvae of insect men, some gets dried and used as fuel; a lot gets used in fungus farming. There are dozens of races in Barathrum, and everything gets used up by somebody—slaughterhouse offal, poop, you name it.”
She laughed. “Wow, you have thought of everything. What are some of the races?”
“I don’t know them all. There are some really weird and nasty ones, like the oblimids.”
“What are they?”
“They’ll be a surprise. They’re kinda gross.”
“Aww,” she murmured, disappointed.
Actually, the oblimids were beyond gross; they were in downright poor taste. Steve worried about Tess’s reaction. The oblimids started a billion years ago as mollusk parasites that lived on giant sea creatures. Cax and other demons had enslaved and bred them for their own purposes, eventually adapting them to land creatures. They resembled a cross between a fat slug and a remora, and they stung their victims with a dart on a line, like the ones tropical cone snails shoot to paralyze fish or unlucky divers. When the victim was immobilized, the oblimid crawled into his mouth and ate away the palate with its rasplike tongue, called a radula. Then it ate the forebrain and eyes. The wrinkled remora patch on the oblimid’s back was actually a nerve plug-in, and it crawled into the partially vacated skull and used it to hook up to what was left of the brainstem. Then it popped its eyes out through the vacated sockets, and took the host for a drive. Cax used oblimids as spies. They could inhabit a dog one day and a man the next. Varanor had rehabilitated some of them and used them as spies himself.
Steve knew oblimids lacked the gloss of high fantasy. On the other hand, they did have a certain nasty coolness and plausibility that was hard to let go. He knew the guys would love it, anyway.
The last rays of sun had been filtered through the cracks in the distant mesa top. He’d had to squint against it when Tess first came back. Now the light had passed from a dull orange to a light red blush. He retrieved his lure again, but instead of casting, he turned to face her and saw the last of the glow suffuse her skin. A moment later, she faded right before his eyes to an almost lunar paleness, accentuated by her dark eyebrows and hair.
“What are you looking at?” she said, curious, unselfconscious.
“The light changed,” he said. “Just like that.” He explained the shift in her skin tones. “It was kinda neat.”
She looked around, crossed her arms against a slight, cool breeze that suddenly came down the river, and he shivered off the abrupt chill. “It’s quieter,” she said. A pair of swifts went twittering over the water. In the distance, just audible through the chuckle of the current, came the slow “hoom, hoom” of a bullfrog, or maybe the lowing of a real cow; it was hard to tell. The cicadas had stopped. The air seemed closer.
He continued to stare at her; she met his gaze with a slight frown. He shrugged, turned away, and made another cast.
Feeling bold, he said, “You’re very pretty, you know. Just an observation. I don’t mean—” He was going to say that he didn’t mean to freak her out or make a move on her, but just then a fish slammed his lure. He’d had a premonition about it. He’d placed the line perfectly over a spot of slack water eddying behind a stone, and had retrieved right through it, not too slow, not too fast. The strike was somehow no surprise at all, like a magic trick he’d done to rescue them from awkwardness.
He tautened the rod firmly to set the hook, and the fish sizzled line off his reel in an upstream run. Tess stepped up beside him, peering over the water. She didn’t say anything, and he suddenly realized he was in the midst of a performance. To make it good, he needed to land the fish.
The trout began to horse his rod, and he loosened the drag screw on the reel so that the line could come easier. Just in time. The fish ran again, so hard it might have broken him off. When it stopped, he raised the rod to pull it toward him and then reeled fast to take up the slack. Then again: raise, reel, and wait as the fish renewed the fight.
For five minutes, he gently played it, gaining a couple yards against each run. Finally, he pulled the fish in close enough to see, tight and fat as a football, silvery with a faint red slash on the side and over fourteen inches long. Tess crouched beside him as he drew back the rod with one hand and reached out with the other. The fish planed forward. Just before he could grab it, though, he noticed it tethered by only a loose strip of mouth skin. The fish flipped water over them both, tore loose, and slid away.
Tess heaved a sigh, slapped her knees, and straightened up. The freed lure bounced around Steve like a live thing, taunting. He watched the trout glide off, turn up slightly under the current, right itself, and then streak away, camouflaged against the gravel.
Steve rose. Tess’s slight, amused frown was offset by a heaviness in her eyes that might have been sympathy or disappointment, or both. “You’d better change those wet clothes,” she said.