“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. “ ‘Though it’s been a good source of information, sooner or later I’ll see the inn destroyed. Its owners and patrons have become too bold. They think that Cax is powerful enough that they can break Neutrality. I have already withdrawn all my agents. You have my permission to deal mercilessly with anyone you find there–’ ”
“Is that a good idea?” Tess asked, interrupting.
* * *
The dragon says, “You are pretending to be a lieutenant of Cax. The creatures you meet will expect you to be brutal. That will also suit my justice.”
Megaera asks, “What shall I say?”
“Tell them Annabis has sent you to inspect the child. The owner will test you to make sure you truly represent the hag and understand their bargain; he and Annabis have only a tacit agreement, and he’s risking much. Use your authority, make grand gestures, use the vampire. Now come.” The dragon laces his claws together and then slowly pulls them apart; a watery-looking sphere forms in between. The dwarf leads Megaera and Karsk into it. And in a sudden flash, they arrive somewhere else.
Megaera finds herself 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 hurry back and forth along an avenue lit every few yards by metal poles dangling baskets of glowgrubs. To the right, a low parapet stretches along a seawall. At intervals, the parapet gives way to long, paved quays, forming dark lines against the Nightwater, which twinkles with blue galaxies. Vessels are docked all along the quays, from tiny dinghies to silhouettes of giant dromonds bulking in the distance.
Megaera goes to the seawall and gazes into the water. In the depths, she sees large fast-moving stars. Then her eyes focus and the stars resolve into scuds, shrimplike things that cast pools of light on humps and fans of coral.
The dwarf taps her arm and points away from the docks toward the huge wall across the avenue; there’s an open portcullis gate forty feet high. On the other side cobbled streets lead into the city, and multistoried houses and stone towers lean overhead. He’s impatient and says, “Go now.”
“Wait,” says 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 glides in front, and the crowd parts far ahead of his approach. Men, goblins, and even tall ogres cringe and look away, and fearful whispers trail behind her. A couple of fifteen-foot iron statues guard the gate. They’re like smaller versions of the ones at the cavern teleporter. As she passes between them, they swivel their heads and bodies as if watching her closely, but they don’t attack. While everyone avoids looking at the vampire, a few monsters look at Megaera. She opens her cloak to show the black armor and the symbol on her breastplate, and Bugclaw too.
She catches faces glancing fearfully at her. Many seem to recognize Bugclaw. Past the gates, the crowd dwindles. Karsk turns her down a side street a block later, and two-story brick dwellings on either side and here and there signposts and shingles advertise lapidaries, armorers, cobblers, coopers, and smithies, though unlike ones in the upper world.
Behind a post with a hammer-and-anvil blacksmith sign stands the skeleton of a building, three stories tall. It is webbed over, and through the spider-silk walls, she can see tunnels and room-sized glowing compartments, with arachnid silhouettes inside. At street level, a web arch leads into the nest, and just through it, a pair of arachnid-men blacksmiths are working metal by a volcanic fumarole that comes right up out of the street. They have four grasping arms, and each either holds metal or wields 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 pauses to look at the smithy, but Karsk keeps moving and she has to catch up to him. Further along the street on the other side, a tower rises from a black moat. At several of its open windows, dwarves bend over tables, and as she passes, she sees a causeway leading up to it, with a freestanding arch over the near end. The arch holds a jeweler’s sign with a pearl and a gemstone. On either side of the causeway, fishmen sit on half-submerged benches, shucking oysters and laying pearls on dark mats. Again she has to catch up to the vampire, and she studiously ignores further oddities.
After several more blocks and a turn through an alley she follows Karsk to a new district that’s unlit. Her darksight kicks in. The buildings here are lower and longer; the wide streets are almost empty. Now and then a figure scuttles by, clutching a cloak or robe that hides its face. At last Karsk approaches a long, dome-roofed building. At one end shines a single peephole slit of red light. The building makes her think of a dragon with a half-lidded eye.
* * *
Tess said, “This cloak 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 draw 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.
She wanted him. Oh, God, she really wanted him. 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 spoke to him, the ogre says, ‘I’m sure that’s your business, my lord.” He adds, “How can I serve?”
At Megaera’s telepathic command, he says, “I want to see the proprietor.”
The ogre hesitates, then replies, “Of course, sir, at once,” and he leads the way down the stairs. The patrons turn their eyes away and hunker into their seats when they notice Karsk approach. A pair of men straight ahead get up from their table, and while averting their eyes, they bow low and then hurry off. The ogre offers Karsk one of their seats, but he just stands and stares. The ogre gets nervous and fidgets, then stomps off into the kitchens.
A minute passes. One of the ogres across the room peers keenly toward Megaera, shakes its head as if to clear it, and goes back to its mug. Just then an enormously fat human in an apron strolls out from the kitchens. His head is bald, his skin as pale as the vampire’s except for blotches like light brown continents that map his forearms and neck. His arms are bare to the shoulder, and a silver, rune-inscribed band clutches one bicep. Heavy rings cluster on his fat fingers, and magic light stirs within their stones. The man bows to Karsk and then stares at Megaera. He glances at the ogre hovering solicitous to one side, and says, “Who is this guest, Lord Karsk?” and flicks a finger in her direction.
The ogre, confused, looks at his master, then back to Megaera. He squats down and peers at her if he can just 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 says aloud. “The ring with the ruby will not permit me. Should I enslave his ogre?”
“What is this?” the man says, eyes narrowed.
Megaera flips back her hood, and lets her cloak fall open. Bugclaw stirs 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,” says Megaera. “And what is yours?”
This question surprises the man for the first time. “You know of me, surely. I am Davron, the owner of this house. Which of you is the master?”
“I am,” Megaera says. “Where is the girl?”
The man’s eyes narrow and shift 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 motions for the ogre to return to the door and then takes them back through the kitchens. The floor is bare cavern stone, and pots bubble over fumaroles. Cutlery hangs from the ceiling and goblins and orcs busy themselves at woodblocks, cutting fish, chopping seaweed, mushrooms, and strange plants. One long-stalked flower writhes and snaps with its fanged bloom until a cleaver-wielding orc decapitates it.
They enter 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 stands a faceless iron statue. A basket of glow grubs casts pale yellow light. Davron places one hand over the other, concealing the rings beneath, and makes a twisting motion. The statue plods into the center of the room. When it comes to a stop, Davron shuts 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 tries to keep her expression impassive. Karsk swivels his head and she reads sardonic amusement on his blank face.
“Perhaps ‘cheated’ is too strong a word,” Megaera says, “but the understanding has changed, as you know.”
Davron frowned. “More than too strong. 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 looks at Davron and smiles, strokes her chin. He grins back, uncertainly. She turns her head and scratches at her cheek, as if to indicate that he has some food stuck, just there.
Self-conscious, he mirrors the gesture, raising his ringed hand…
Bugclaw lashes out, encircles his wrist and tears the hand off, so fast that Davron smears his face with the bloody stump before he realizes what has happened.
“Now!” she shouts.
Karsk grips the man by the shoulders. As he stares into his face, Davron rolls his eyes up to avert his gaze, showing whites. Megaera stoops to the severed hand, picks out a large, unadorned iron ring, and strips it from its twitching finger. The golem now has Karsk dangling from the floor, his neck encircled in a mammoth three-fingered grip. Megaera thrusts the ring aloft. “Release him!” Just as they begin to bear down, the golem’s fingers spring apart. Karsk drifts to the floor.
Meanwhile, Davron stumbles away, clutching his good hand over the gouting stump. His eyes roll forward and focus. His nostrils flare, jaw tightening in rage. The band on his arm glows, and the drizzle of blood between his fingers stops. He pulls his hand away, showing the stump sealed over with new flesh that crawls and pulses. Another hand begins to form at the cut. With his good arm, he crooks his fingers and reaches, imploring, toward the lost hand. Alert to the summoning gesture, Megaera stomps down on the palm, just as it begins to slither toward him.
“Take him, Karsk!” she yells.
* * *
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 his 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.”
* * *
A roaring furnace blast staggers Megaera and a blinding glow suffuses the room, as if the sun has burst the earth. She crouches. Orange flames resolve in a yellow field, licking the walls. The table, burned through, spurts fire at the core of one cindered leg, and then slumps to fine ash. The basket of seared, and now lightless, glow grubs hits the floor, leaving a trailing length of charred rope above. Afterimage flares star her sight. All about, the walls glow red, as does the inert metal golem, its upper half running waxlike. Karsk’s leather is burned away. His face steams, seared to charred skull on one side. And where Davron had been, a man-sized ball of pearlescent light swirls. Megaera feels a pulse in her hand and looks to see the topaz ring throw sparks; she stares for a moment, then slowly emerges from shock to find herself unscathed.
The ring has saved her.
The force field now shows Davron within, its swirling colors dimming and transparent. “You dare to challenge an adept in his own stronghold!” he screams.
Megaera’s hand tightens on the remaining rings. On her finger, the ring of the ruined golem cracks in two, and its fragments drop away. She opens her hand to reveal the ruby ring and the sapphire one. She thrusts them on the fingers of her other hand, and pulls Bugclaw from her belt. “Yes,” she says, “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!” shouts Megaera. Davron’s force field blinks out. Beyond the innkeeper, Karsk rolls to his belly and begins to gather himself. Megaera trains her gaze on Davron’s face to distract him. She holds up her free hand. “Your rings seem useful,” she says, sparing a glance to admire them. In her other hand, the flail beats 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 flare, and hatred lights his eyes, just visible in the fading red glow from the molten walls. Karsk rises in silent menace behind him. Megaera pretends sudden alarm. Surprised, Davron spins, faces the vampire, and flinches back. His regrown hand comes up halfway to his face before it falls 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, the melted golem, and 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 still 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.”