“Okay, you’re about to leave with Karsk and the dwarf.” Steve flipped through his notebook to a prepared speech, and said in the dragon’s growly voice. . . .
* * *
From The Giants Campaign, a novel
“The inn has been a good source of information, but its owners and patrons have become too bold. They think that Cax will protect them if they break Neutrality. I have already withdrawn all my agents from the inn. You have my permission to deal mercilessly with anyone you find there. Besides, you are pretending to be a lieutenant of Cax. The creatures you meet will expect you to be brutal.”
Megaera asked, “What shall I say?”
“Tell them Annabis has sent you to inspect the child. The owner will test you to make sure you truly understand their bargain; he and Annabis have only a tacit agreement, and he’s risking much. Assert your authority, make grand gestures, use the vampire. Now come.” The dragon laced his claws together and then slowly pulled them apart; a watery-looking sphere formed in between. The dwarf led Megaera and Karsk into it. And in a sudden flash, they arrived somewhere else.
Megaera found herself, Karsk, and the dwarf in a circle like the one that teleported them from the caverns. All around, people and creatures of all different sizes and races hurried back and forth along an avenue lit every few yards by metal poles dangling baskets of glowgrubs. To the right, a low parapet stretched along a seawall. At intervals, the parapet gave way to long, paved quays, forming dark lines against the Nightwater, which twinkled with blue galaxies. Vessels were docked all along the quays, from tiny dinghies to silhouettes of giant dromonds bulking in the distance.
Willing Karsk to stay, Megaera went to the seawall and gazed into the water. In the depths, she could see large fast-moving stars, which resolved into scuds, shrimplike things that cast pools of light on humps and fans of coral.
The dwarf tapped her arm and pointed away from the docks toward the huge wall across the avenue, where an open portcullis gate yawned forty feet high. On the other side cobbled streets led into the city, and multi-storied houses and stone towers leant overhead. Impatiently, he said, “Go now.”
“Wait,” said Megaera. “Aren’t you coming with me?”
“No, I will wait here and help if you must flee. Hurry, and have the vampire lead you.”
“What’s the name of this inn again?”
“Its full title is the House of Dire Delectation, but everyone knows it as the D&D.”
“Then take me to the D&D, Karsk, now.”
The vampire glided in front, and the crowd parted far ahead of his approach. Men, goblins, and even tall ogres cringed and looked away, and fearful whispers trailed behind her. A couple of fifteen-foot iron statues guarded the gate, smaller versions of the ones they had encountered at the cavern teleporter. As she passed between them, they swiveled their heads and bodies as if watching her closely. While everyone avoided looking at the vampire, a few monsters regarded her openly. She parted her cloak to expose the black armor and the symbol on her breastplate, along with Bugclaw, and the watchers faded back.
Past the gates, the crowd dwindled. Karsk turned her down a side street a block later, and two-story brick dwellings on either side and here and there signposts and shingles advertised lapidaries, armorers, cobblers, coopers, and smithies, though unlike ones in the upper world.
Behind a post with a hammer-and-anvil blacksmith sign stood the webbed-over skeleton of a building, three stories tall. Through the spider-silk walls, she could glimpse tunnels and room-sized glowing compartments, with arachnid silhouettes inside. At street level, a web arch led into the building-nest, and just through it, a pair of arachnid-men blacksmiths worked metal by a volcanic fumarole that grew out of the street. They had four grasping arms, each either holding metal or wielding a hammer or tongs.
* * *
“Neat,” said Tess, “but wouldn’t they catch on fire? I mean, aren’t spiderwebs flammable?”
“I don’t get it then. Why would they be set up like that?”
Crap, he suddenly wondered the same thing. He’d be using arachnid-men later in the adventure and wanted to introduce them as blacksmiths to show their dexterity. He stalled, but Tess jumped in: “Maybe it’s part of their shtick, like performance art.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, grateful, “there’s not much traffic here, but half a dozen goblins are lounging and watching them with respect. There’s probably a fireproofing spell on the webs, but it looks impressive. Heat rising from the fumarole makes the webs shudder.”
Tess nodded and wiggled into a more comfortable sitting position; then gave him her rapt attention.
* * *
Megaera paused to look at the smithy, but Karsk kept moving and she had to catch up. Further along the street on the other side, a tower rose from a black moat. At several of its open windows, dwarves bent over tables, and as she passed, she could see a causeway leading up to it, with a freestanding arch over the near end. The arch held a jeweler’s sign with a pearl and a gemstone. On either side of the causeway, fishmen sat on half-submerged benches, shucking oysters and laying pearls on dark mats. Again she found herself lagging behind, and therefore studiously ignored further oddities around her to catch up.
After several more blocks and a turn through an alley she followed Karsk to a new, unlit district. Her darksight kicked in. The buildings here were lower and longer; the wide streets almost empty. Now and then a figure scuttled by, clutching a cloak or robe that hid its face. At last Karsk approached a long, dome-roofed building. At one end shone a single peephole slit of red light, like a dragon’s half-lidded eye.
* * *
Tess said, “This cloak I’ve got on can make me invisible, right?”
Steve nodded. “All your years of service to the Dark Lady have gotten you used to evil places, but you’ve got a bad feeling.”
“I pull up the hood and take out Bugclaw; then I draw the cloak around me and have one wing closed loose over it, like this.” Tess mimed folding a cloak over her clenched weapon-hand.
“Karsk strides up to the peephole and stops. The red light makes a bright slash on his white face and falls across one dead eye. Seconds tick by, then the light’s blocked out on the other side and you hear a deep voice say, ‘Lord Karsk, one moment,’ and then a door opens and a half-ogre in samurai silks ushers him in. He’s well groomed, with hair back in a topknot.”
“A fancy thug.”
“Exactly,” said Steve.
“Okay, I slip in behind Karsk before he can shut the door. Is the cloak good enough to hide me?”
“Yeah, apparently. You have to side-step to avoid the closing door, but the warden’s attention is all on Karsk and you seem to pass unnoticed. A tall oil lantern with red lenses hangs over the entryway. You’re at a corner of a railed mezzanine that circles a lower common room. On this level, there are many doors all around, like in a hotel. Ahead, to the left, and far across the room, short flights of steps lead down. The place is big, maybe sixty feet across. The tables below are mostly empty. A few humans, dwarves, orcs, and ogres are drinking and conspiring with their heads close together under glowgrub baskets that hang on long lines from the ceiling. To the right of the tables, under the mezzanine floor, you glimpse a set of double doors, one blocked open, from which you hear the sizzling and clanking of a busy kitchen.
“Your attention is drawn to one of the doors on your left, halfway along the wall. It opens, and a bat-winged succubus demon, in scanty leather, comes out, followed by a thin guy wearing a rich linen tunic who drunkenly reels toward you, one hand clapped to the side of his neck. Blood’s leaking through his fingers, but he’s got a dreamy look on his face. The succubus doesn’t even glance at him as she goes to the rail and crooks a clawed finger to a man lounging down below. He gets up eagerly and goes up the far stairs to meet her.”
Tess smiled. “Bet you made that up for the guys.”
Steve felt a little deflated. She was right, but he still thought it was kinda cool.
“So, is the bite part of her service, or is it her payment?”
Hmm. When he glanced down to think about it, Tess’s hand strayed into view and settled on his knee. Surprised he looked up. Her attention was intense, a wicked smile played at the corner of her mouth. She rubbed his knee.
What was she doing? She— he swallowed hard.
She was putting him on.
Tess grinned broadly and settled back, but then seemed to notice his angst. “Hey, just teasing.” She patted his leg and gave him a look of genuine concern. “The demon prostitute thing’s a little heavy, that’s all, but the story’s cool.” She eased back and pulled herself upright, hands in her lap. “I promise, I won’t break the mood again.”
“Yeah,” Steve croaked. “Don’t do that.”
“Okay, but it is kinda creepy.” She looked off to one side, seeming to gather her thoughts. “She looks like this sexy woman, but who knows what she’s thinking? Maybe it’s like one of those praying mantises that camouflage like another bug, you know. Guys might be just meat to her.”
“Maybe not,” Steve said. “Maybe she’s a sexy woman and a monster too.”
“Hmm, I’m thinking she’s a mantis.”
Steve had an idea. “You’re distracted and watch the guy as he passes by you, right under Karsk’s nose, but surprisingly, Karsk is still watching the succubus, and there’s a nasty smile on his face. The succubus notices. She folds an arm and one bat wing possessively around her new client and glares at Karsk while she steers the man into her room. She slams the door.”
“What was that about?”
“Do you ask him? Remember, you can use telepathy.”
“He answers back out loud: ‘An old partner. I used her badly.’ He chuckles like wind over dry canes. ‘She fears I’ll steal her food.’ ”
“Yeah, see, I was right. Just meat.”
Steve said, “Karsk adds, ‘And she misses me.’ ”
* * *
Megaera’s invisibility was holding up. Obviously thinking the vampire’s comments on the succubus were directed at him, the ogre said, “I’m sure that’s your business, my lord.” He adds, “How can I serve?”
At Megaera’s telepathic command, Karsk answered, “I want to see the proprietor.”
The ogre hesitated. “Of course, sir, at once,” and he led the way down the stairs. The patrons turned their eyes away and hunkered into their seats when they noticed Karsk approach. A pair of men straight ahead rose from their table, and while averting their eyes, they all bowed low before hurrying off. The ogre offered Karsk one of their seats, but he only stared. After growing visibly nervous, the ogre stomped off into the kitchens.
A minute passed. One of the ogres across the room peered keenly toward Megaera, shook its head as if to clear it, and returned to its mug. Just then an enormously fat human in an apron strolled out from the kitchens. His head was bald, his skin as pale as the vampire’s except for blotches like light brown continents that mapped his forearms and neck. His arms were bare to the shoulders, and a silver, rune-inscribed torc clutched one bicep. Heavy rings clustered on his fat fingers, and magic light stirred within their stones. The man bowed to Karsk and then focused his gaze on Megaera, clearly immune to its obfuscation. He glanced at the ogre hovering solicitous to one side. “Who is this guest, Lord Karsk?” the bald man asked and flicked his index finger in her direction.
The ogre, confused, looked at his master, then back to Megaera. He squatted down and peered at her, as if just able to make something out.
* * *
“Damn,” said Tess. Rain pattered steadily on the tent. “I was going to go exploring and leave Karsk with them for a while. Now I can’t sneak around. What are those rings about, and that arm band? I’ll bet that’s how he spotted me. No biggie, I guess—I just tell Karsk to charm him.”
* * *
“No,” Karsk said aloud to Megaera. “The ring with the ruby will not permit me. Should I enslave his ogre?”
“What is this?” the man said, eyes narrowed.
Megaera flipped back her hood, and let her cloak fall open. Bugclaw stirred in her grip like the tail of a restless cat. “We’re here to supervise the preparation of my mistress’s dinner.”
“And who are you?”
“Alecto is my name,” said Megaera. “And what is yours?”
This question obviously surprised the man. “You know of me, surely. I am Davron, the owner of this house. Which of you is the master?”
“I am,” Megaera said. “Where is the girl?”
The man’s eyes narrowed and shifted in a canny look. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve cheated my mistress before. She is not as ignorant as you deem.”
“I have no idea what you refer to, but come with me. Our business should not be held here.”
Davron motioned for the ogre to return to the door and then took them back through the kitchens. The floor there was bare cavern stone, and pots bubbled over fumaroles. Cutlery hung from the ceiling and goblins and orcs busied themselves at woodblocks, cutting fish, chopping seaweed, mushrooms, and strange plants. One long-stalked flower writhed and snapped with its fanged bloom until a cleaver-wielding orc decapitated it.
They entered a small side room with a table holding stacks of parchment and an inkwell and quill. At the room’s far end, stone stairs led down into a tunnel; next to it stood a faceless iron statue. A basket of glow grubs cast pale yellow light. Davron placed one hand over the other, concealing the rings beneath, and made a twisting motion. The statue plodded into the center of the room. When it came to a stop, Davron shut the heavy door, banishing the noise from the inn. “What is this? Your mistress knows I respect the Neutrality. Do you truly come here on direct orders, or seek trouble on your own? I am not one to be trifled with.”
Megaera tried to keep her expression impassive. Karsk swiveled his head and she read sardonic amusement on his blank face.
“Perhaps ‘cheated’ is too strong a word,” Megaera said, “but the understanding has changed, as you know.”
Davron frowned. “More than too strong a word. Slanderous, and in my own house. Nothing explicit was said between me and your queen. If she thinks the agreement has changed, perhaps she’s mistaken.”
“Let’s not be coy,” Megaera said. “You have a girl here. Show her to me.”
“I have many girls, and not all what they seem.”
* * *
Tess said, “Okay, this is getting icky. I ask Karsk if he can read the innkeeper.”
“He doesn’t respond, but you get the feeling that he can.”
“ ‘Karsk, Do you think he has the girl?’ ”
“He answers out loud: ‘Of course.’ Bugclaw twitches in your hand when he says this, and you feel it’s warming up for an attack.”
“Yeah, so am I.” Tess’s nostrils flared. She took a deep breath. I ask Karsk if it’s the arm band or the ring that controls the golem-thing.”
“He answers by voice again. “A ring.” Davron narrows his eyes and goes on the alert.”
“And all the rings are on his right hand?”
“I tell Karsk to hit him with vampire charm when the rings come off.”
* * *
Megaera looked at Davron and smiled, stroked her chin. He grinned back, uncertainly. She turned her head and scratched at her cheek, as if to indicate that he had some food stuck, just there.
Self-conscious, he mirrored the gesture, raising his ringed hand. . . .
Bugclaw lashed out, encircled his wrist and tore the hand off, so fast that Davron smeared his face with the bloody stump before he realized what had happened.
“Now!” she shouted.
Karsk gripped the man by the shoulders. As the vampire stared into his face, Davron rolled his eyes up to avert his gaze, showing whites. Megaera stooped to the severed hand, picked out a large, unadorned iron ring, and stripped it from its twitching finger. The golem now had Karsk dangling from the floor, his neck encircled in a mammoth three-fingered grip. Megaera thrust the ring aloft. “Release him!” Just as they began to close, the golem’s fingers sprang apart. Karsk drifted to the floor.
Meanwhile, Davron stumbled away, clutching his good hand over the gouting stump. His eyes rolled forward and focused. His nostrils flared, jaw tightening in rage. The band on his arm glowed, and the drizzle of blood between his fingers stopped. He pulled his hand away, showing the stump sealed over with new flesh that crawled and pulsed. Another hand began to form at the cut. With his good arm, he crooked his fingers and reached, imploring, toward the lost hand. Alert to the summoning gesture, Megaera stomped down on the palm, just as it begins to slither toward him.
“Take him, Karsk!” she yelled.
* * *
The rest of the combat went in a rush. Steve rolled dice and Tess hung on each result. Davron cast a spell to stop the vampire but then the golem arrived and smacked Davron’s head all the way around. When he flopped off the nearby table, the inkwell spilled over and drooled over the table’s edge and pattered on the stones.
“Nice touch,” said Tess. “I hurry and put the golem-control ring on, and then the others.”
“That goes on your thumb. It shrinks down to fit as you put it on. There’s a platinum one, yellow topaz, ruby, and sapphire. Davron’s head twists back into place and he starts to rise.”
“I put on the platinum one.”
“He starts waving his hand in a casting gesture as he gets up. You feel the room start to get warm.”
“The yellow one next.”
Steve rolled a die on the other side of his screen and brooded on it for dramatic effect. It didn’t matter that it was a two. “Good call,” he said.
* * *
A roaring furnace blast staggered Megaera and a blinding glow suffused the room, as if the sun had burst the earth. She crouched. Orange flames resolved in a yellow field, licking the walls. The table, burned through, spurted fire at the core of one cindered leg, and then slumped to fine ash. The basket of seared, and now lightless, glow grubs fell from the ceiling and hit the floor, leaving a trailing length of charred rope above. Afterimage flares starred her sight. All about, the walls glowed red, as did the inert metal golem, its upper half running waxlike. Karsk’s leather was burned away. His face steamed, seared to charred skull on one side. And where Davron had been, a man-sized ball of pearlescent light swirled. Megaera felt a pulse in her hand and looked to see the topaz ring throw sparks; she stared for a moment, then slowly emerged from shock to find herself unscathed.
The ring had saved her.
The force field now showed Davron within, its swirling colors dimming and transparent. “You dare to challenge an adept in his own stronghold!” he screamed.
Megaera’s hand tightened on the remaining rings. On her finger, the ring of the ruined golem cracked in two, and its fragments dropped away. She opened her hand to reveal the ruby ring and the sapphire one. She thrust them on the fingers of her other hand, and pulled Bugclaw from her belt. “Yes,” she said, “you’re damn right I do!”
* * *
“Steve, Tess, time for dinner!” Steve’s dad yelled.
“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Tess asked. “I mean, in the adventure.”
“Yeah, maybe. This guy’s tough. Getting his rings was smart, though.”
“What would have happened if I’d missed his hand with Bugclaw?”
Actually, her move had been so unexpected and clever that Steve had given her a break and secretly rerolled the dice. “I guess it would’ve been bad. I don’t know; it’s hard to say. You might have talked your way out of a slip-up. Or the golem might have gotten you. Davron probably wouldn’t have killed you, though. He’s pretty paranoid. He’d want to keep you alive to find out why Annabis seemed to be against him all of a sudden.”
Tess nodded with a grin. “Yeah, that makes sense. This is cool, Steve. Thanks. And about last night . . . .”
“Kids!” Steve’s dad yelled.
“Forget about it,” Steve said.
* * *
When they arrived to dinner, the adults and the boys were eating quietly at the table. Tina bustled around, cutting steak up for the boys and wiping their hands, fetching potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil from the fire, and getting drinks. Her brisk, efficient manner advertised her stress. Steve’s mom offered to help, but Tina waved her off. No one spoke. Tina handed Tess and Steve a plate, and as soon as they bolted their food, they quietly left to take a walk down by the river.
The tension from camp soon dissipated. The clouds were starting to break, and a little sun passed briefly now and then. A haze of small caddis bounced over the water. A trout rose.
“Alex said the fish here eat scuds, and you mentioned them in the game,” Tess said.
“Yeah, they’re like shrimp. Here, I’ll show you. He stooped to a place where the water had thrust some bottom weed close to the bank, reached in, pulled it up, and spread its fine leaf tendrils. Tess drew close to see. Dozens of scuds, from pinhead-sized to nearly a quarter-inch long, scooted from the weed. They turned circles on their flattened, banded sides with feathery legs.
“They look like sand fleas at the ocean,” Tess said.
“Yeah, pretty much the same thing. Amphipods. I think that’s the family they belong to.”
“Where’d you learn that?”
“I read it somewhere a couple years ago.” Sun flared out from behind a cloud; a cicada buzzed happily in a nearby juniper.
“You seem to get into all this outdoor stuff. It’s new to me.” She said this regretfully, frowning.
“Well,” Steve said, “some things have to be new to you.” He tossed the weed back to the river, washed his hands, and then wiped them on his pants. He smiled at her.
She returned the smile half-heartedly. “I just wish my dad hadn’t been such a jerk and that my mom could’ve taken me camping. I mean, not that I really wanted to go, but just that she’d been well enough.” She looked away, but Steve caught the glint of a tear in her eye. He took her hand; it seemed a natural thing to do just then. “Just a sec.” She disengaged, and wiped her face. Then she put her hand back in his. For several minutes, they walked along the river like that without talking, before heading back to camp.
“I wanted to finish this encounter,” Tess said as they neared the tent. Steve nodded, and a few minutes later, they resumed.
* * *
“Come on, then!” shouted Megaera. Davron’s force field blinked out. Beyond the innkeeper, Karsk rolled to his belly and began to gather himself. Megaera trained her gaze on Davron’s face to distract him. She held up her free hand. “Your rings seem useful,” she said, sparing a glance to admire them. In her other hand, the flail beat the air with a will of its own. “And my Bugclaw is ready. Let’s see if you can regrow a head!”
The nostrils of Davron’s flat, splayed nose flared, and hatred lit his eyes, just visible in the fading red glow from the molten walls. Karsk rose in silent menace behind him. Megaera pretended sudden alarm. Surprised, Davron spun, faced the vampire, and flinched back. His regrown hand came up halfway to his face before falling back limp at his side.
* * *
Steve rolled a die to see if Davron would get lucky, and he didn’t. Tess relaxed, but Steve wasn’t letting her off that easy. He said, “The ogre door-warden leaps into the room with his scimitar out. He has two cleaver-wielding orcs behind him. They come up short when they see their master calm among the wreckage, with the melted golem standing there, and the pools of blood and ink on the floor. The ogre asks him what happened.”
“Can I get Karsk to make the innkeeper talk? Okay, I’ll have him say there was an accident: the ring failed and the golem went nuts.”
“That’s pretty good. Davron kind of chokes it out as he strains to resist. The ogre looks suspicious but finally lowers his scimitar.”
“I have Davron shoo him off.”
“Okay, when he does, the ogre makes a stiff bow and leaves with the orcs.”
“Next, I have Karsk take the band off his arm.”
“When the vampire pulls the silver hoop down his bicep, his nails leave red furrows. They don’t heal.”
“Good. ‘Now, asshole, take us to the kid.’ ”