Chapter 3: The Campaign
After a hundred-league journey into the Piney Mountains, Dirk the thief and Arslan the barbarian hike over the long Blue Lake causeway, pass through the main gates of town, and trudge up to the Inn of the Golden Cat as the alleys grow dark. A muttering drunk sprawls on the boardwalk beside the inn door, head loose on his neck, but he straightens at the sight of the two men. Arslan is a large, dark-skinned warrior. On his hip rides a scimitar he stole off a genie. His elvish scale-mail rests on him lightly and is imbued with spells against fire and dragon’s breath. Dirk, a small wiry man, is encased in shiny black-leather chameleon armor. When Dirk wills it, the armor assumes the color and texture of his surroundings. Both the men are 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 have powerful magic, and lots of gold, jewels, and healing potions; they can go one-on-one against giants.
They are officially badass.
The drunk scrambles away. Arslan nods a greeting and then pushes open the door. Halfway across the room, the hostler, a dwarf, is berating an armed man in chainmail. “Alfric, you’ve had too much. 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!”
* * *
Steve said, “The man stomps out past you into the night and slams the door. Then something happens.”
“Just a second,” said Rei, and guzzled his Coke.
The table was now scattered with character sheets, in addition to the polyhedral dice and lead figures. Steve hid his story notes behind a cardboard screen printed with the image of a rearing dragon. Though hunched in on himself, Rei still towered over Steve and Curt. His Japanese mother had lent him her features, gleaming ebony hair, and nervous energy. His height he obviously owed to his Finnish dad. He was not merely tall but awkwardly tall, in contrast to his undersized character, Dirk the thief. His name, too, was an odd East-West compromise, spelled Japanese but sounding like it was short for “Raymond.”
The other player, Curt, huffed and rolled his eyes. Curt was a delicate auburn-haired kid with red cheeks, a stub nose, and glasses. He wore an expression of tense exasperation. A year older than Rei and Steve, he openly prided himself on knowing the game rules to the letter. “C’mon, just ignore him. What happens?”
“As the door slams to, you hear the guy make a surprised shout outside, a weight thumps against the door, and dust puffs around its iron bands. Something hisses.”
Rei slapped down his empty can. “Dirk draws his magical daggers.”
“You hear a wet crunching, really nasty.”
“Arslan draws his scimitar, and throws the door open,” said Curt.
“Okay, there’s nothing there.”
“I step outside.”
“A ragged figure jumps around the corner. Arslan almost runs him through. It’s the drunk. He’s slack-jawed and wild-eyed. He starts to gibber, ‘They killed the guard; they took him.”
“Who did?” said Rei.
Curt said, “Arslan gives him a steadying slap.”
Rei nodded his approval.
“Okay, he blinks, and then he claws weakly at your armor like he’s trying to get support. He says, ‘Red eyes! Red eyes and mist.’ ” Steve dramatically rolled a die behind his screen and pretended to look at it for guidance. He paused a moment before saying, “Meanwhile, Dirk inspects the outside of the door and finds a head-sized circle of blood, just beginning to run.”
“Uh oh,” said Rei. He wiggled in his seat and scratched peevishly at the side of his crewcut.
Steve said, “The drunk points back into the dark before squeezing past you into the inn. Two man-sized shadows appear and begin to advance. Their eyes glow red.”
“Ah, shit,” said Rei. “Not vampires!”
Curt said, “Arslan swings at the one on the left. He gets a favored-enemy bonus of plus two; with strength, agility, and magic, that’s plus six.”
Steve said, “We need to figure out who goes first. The vampires, a man and a woman, gray-faced and bald in rotting burial clothes, rush in. Roll for attack order.”
Curt and Rei scooped six-sided dice and rolled. Rei moaned at his result.
* * *
Arslan has no time for a proper swing. He manages to interpose the scimitar between himself and the male vampire and catches it right through the torso. Dirk is borne back into the wall by the female but his armor protects him as she tries to get her teeth in his throat. He stabs both magical daggers into her back. The vampire that Arslan has impaled works his way up the blade to reach him. Arslan kicks it away, out into the dark. He uses the reprieve to turn and decapitate the lady vampire trying to claw apart Dirk. Dirk pushes the female’s corpse away, and it lands just past the boardwalk, next to her still-rolling head. The male vampire creeps back, but Arslan has recovered from his swing. The monster pauses, uncertain.
“Stake the body!” Arslan roars, making feints at his opponent to keep him distracted.
After a few seconds both corpse and head dissolve into a shiny mist that whirls off into the night. The male hisses, turns into a bat, and flies away.
The companions catch their breath and ease back into the inn.
* * *
Curt said, “Okay, that’s a good break. I gotta take a leak.” He got up and as he walked off said, “Arslan’s going to clean his scimitar.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” said Rei, and Curt shook his head.
* * *
When Curt had gone, Rei picked up a book he’d been reading, a novelization of the new Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, which was coming out the next week. “So when will this new guy show up?” he asked, pretending to scan the pages. He’d been working on the book almost a month now.
“About half an hour,” Steve said. Between him and Rei, the upholstered swivel chair sat empty in anticipation. It was the most comfortable chair, but Rei hadn’t complained when Steve made him use one from the dining set.
Rei set the book aside and glanced back at the window, where sunset lit the city and mountains beyond. He turned back to frown at his character sheet, and then abruptly got up and went to take in the view. He was always twitchy, and Steve measured the quality of his game mastering by how much Rei sat still.
“Damn you’ve got an awesome place,” Rei said.
He said this every week.
Rei breathed into his hands and rubbed them together, though the room wasn’t cold. Curt returned from the bathroom, sat down, and began to pore over his player’s guide. He had on a blue velour shirt with wide lapels and a V-neck that exposed too much of his scrawny chest, probably to show off the cheesy gold choker he wore. Rei and Steve had once discussed whether he was gay, and his attire recalled the question to Steve’s mind. “Check this out,” Curt said. His voice was actually deep but he had an embarrassing nasal titter. “This picture of the succubus is pretty hot.” Rei drifted back to the table as Curt giggled through his nose.
Rei and Steve exchanged looks and started laughing.
Curt tore away from the book. “What?”
Steve shook his head. Rei went to the refrigerator for more Cokes. He brought back three and elbowed aside miniatures to plant the cans on the table. After he sucked down one in a protracted gulp, he pointed at the remaining two and nodded to Curt, who waved him off. So he helped himself, again.
* * *
“Okay,” said Steve, “let’s get back to it.”
“Why are we here?” Rei asked.
Curt said, “We heard that giants were going to attack the town and we came to offer the baron our services.”
“Yeah, right. Why is it always a reward thing?”
“It’s not just a reward thing,” Steve said, a little irritated. “You’re following rumors of an ancient underground city, and you want to find it.”
“Is that where the giants are coming from?” asked Rei.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out!” said Curt.
“Why would they have a town out in the middle of nowhere with giants all around?”
Curt rolled his eyes, exasperated, but bringing Rei up to speed several times was a ritual Steve had come to expect. Patiently Steve explained: “The town is the baron’s fiefdom. He maintains a garrison to defend the frontier. The king wants him here.”
“Where do you learn words like ‘fiefdom’ and ‘garrison’? You must be the smartest guy I know.” Steve thought this was probably true, but the flattery was also a formality — Rei’s signal that he was ready to concentrate.
This time, however, Steve had something on his mind. “The new player who’s coming is smarter,” he said.
“Really?” said Rei. “Who is this guy anyway?”
“Actually it’s not a guy. It’s this new girl at school, Tess.”
“What?” Rei stopped poking dice with his finger, and sat up. “When I asked, you said it wasn’t a girl.”
“No, I just asked if you knew any girls who play.”
“Oh, man,” said Curt, and shook his head.
Steve explained how Tess had embarrassed Mrs. Isobel with the math problem.
Rei frowned at the table, and began to stir dice with his finger again. Before Steve could finish talking about Tess’s diagram, Rei said, “She sounds a little stuck up. Is she hot?”
“Yeah, and cool. She dresses punk. She’s got long black hair, with lots of liner around her eyes.”
“Now you’re making her sound scary.”
Steve shrugged. “She stood up for me.” He explained the argument over his name. “We got kicked out of class together. Man, Mrs. Isobel’s a real bitch.”
“Yeah, you’ve said that before,” said Rei.
“Oh, get this: Tess’s foster dad is the principal.”
“Foster dad? She’s probably a juvie then. Maybe she got kicked out of juvenile hall or something.”
“I don’t think so. Her mom’s sick, and her dad isn’t around.” Steve glanced over and saw Curt brooding.
“Why didn’t you prepare us, though?” said Rei. “She sounds interesting, but having a girl in the game’s kind of a big deal.”
“I just don’t know any girls who play, is all, and you sound like you’re in love with her or something.”
“Are we gonna play, or what?” Curt said. Steve was grateful for the interruption.
“Yeah, sure,” said Rei, and stopped fooling with the dice. “Dirk goes back into the inn. So how about the drunk guy?”
“He’s inside, like I said, with the dwarf hostler.”
“ ‘Hostler’ — that’s the owner right?”
“Yes!” said Curt.
* * *
Dirk and Arslan find the inn barred against them. When Dirk shouts that it’s all right, the bar is lifted, and they burst inside to confront the innkeeper. The drunk cowers by the fireplace.
“Maybe you’d better tell us what’s going on here,” said Arslan.
“Bar the door,” says the dwarf, “and take a seat.” When they do as the innkeeper says, he double-checks the door and then goes and banks up the fire while he talks.
“No one’s allowed up at the keep now. Men have been turned away on different excuses, even the supply wagons. A few of the baron’s guard went to scale the walls with ropes this afternoon. We saw them go in, but no one’s come out. We think it has to do with the young man.”
“What young man?” asks Dirk.
“Some foppish stranger rode in the other day, throwing word about that he got the baron’s daughter pregnant and expected to marry her. The rangers here in town say that the boy is lying, the lady’s not pregnant, but what he’s up to, no one knows. Most men wouldn’t even look at the baron’s daughter.”
“Ugly?” asks Arslan.
“No, not a bit, but fierce. Zadrian, she’s called. Few men have seen her, but it’s slipped out that she’s trained up as quite a fighter. The rangers don’t talk about their work, as a rule, but one chap got drunk after a nasty battle in the hills. He said she took apart giants like steers at the butcher stall.”
* * *
Curt said, “Is that girl going to play the baron’s daughter?”
“No,” said Steve, “I don’t know what Tess is going to play.”
“We need a priest,” said Rei, then caught Steve’s eye. “Or priestess, I guess.”
“So let me get this straight,” said Curt. “A drifter came into town and started saying that he got the baron’s daughter pregnant, but she’s a badass. So why would he do that? Seems kinda dumb.”
“Right, it does,” said Steve. “Does Arslan ask the innkeeper about that?”
“Sure,” said Curt.
* * *
Arslan the barbarian says, “Spreading lies about the lady seems a dangerous game.”
“Dangerous, aye, but this man was reckless, like he had a trick up his sleeve. He got friendly with the serving girls here. Soon the baron’s personal guards came for him, werebears according to rumor. No one thought they’d see him again, but two days later, he’s free in the streets, riding a horse! Last night, he went back to the keep. A few people who questioned him in public went missing this morning. Now, we know why, I guess. He’s got vampires.”
Arslan says, “We need to find a priest. We’ll need crosses, holy wafers, holy water.… But right now, we need to secure the room.”
“Right. Just tell me what to do.”
The dwarf brings garlic out of the pantry and puts it over each doorway and builds makeshift crosses with kindling and string. Then they gather round the fire and take turns at watch, all except the drunk, who snores the whole time. Aside from a few distant screams and bumps in the night, morning arrives without further event.
Someone knocks. When the dwarf opens the door, he’s met by a breathless teenage boy who says that the priest and acolytes in the chapel are missing. Dirk and Arslan decide to go and scavenge holy items. When they get there, they find the altar and crosses have been desecrated and the holy-water fonts smashed. In the street several men saddle horses to leave town, their families standing by.
The adventurers took a break for provisions. Steve went for corn chips and salsa from upstairs. He checked the clock above the stove and saw it was now quarter to eight. When he came back, he found Rei replenishing the table with Cokes. They resumed.
* * *
“Should we go to the keep?” said Rei.
“First let’s go back and see if we there’s news at the inn,” said Curt.
Steve leafed through his notes, and read the setup to the next scene: “As soon as you arrive, the dwarf whispers that there’s someone in the private dining room who wants to talk to you. You go in and meet a cloaked figure wearing leather boots and gloves. He identifies himself as a ranger who was out on patrol. He tells you that he just came back to the keep. Scheduled visitors and delivery wagons were crowded at the gates. The baron came up on the wall and told everyone to go away for a couple of days. The baron seemed oddly stiff and blank-faced.”
Curt said, “Probably charmed or something.”
“Could be,” said Steve. “The ranger says, ‘What’s more, my scouts have spied giants sneaking toward the town.’ He pauses to let this sink in before he says, ‘I’m impressed by what you did here last night. I’d be in your debt if you could help me.’ ”
“How?” said Curt, speaking for Arslan.
“ ‘I know a secret way into the keep,’ and he pulls a map from his cloak and hands it to you. ‘Maybe you can learn something. I need to get back to my men in the forest to head off the giants. I’m sure the undead are part of a coordinated attack; however, I have no choice but to leave them and the mystery at the keep to you. Good hunting!’ ”
* * *
Rei had both hands around his can of Coke and seemed to be contemplating another swig. “What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s pretty close. I think this is a good place to stop till she gets here.”
Curt buried himself in the player guide. Rei picked up his Star Wars book and intermittently read it and paced the room. Steve felt excited and apprehensive and thought maybe Rei was too, but then that could be Rei being himself.
Another twenty minutes passed. Steve was anxious. Why hadn’t she called? He’d give it till eight-thirty and then phone her.
“Where’s this chick of yours anyway?” said Rei. “She’d better be worth the wait. I’ve only got till eleven.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Curt said, a little forced.
Steve sighed. “Both you guys, be cool, okay, when she comes? She’ll tear you a new ass if you mess with her, and it’ll piss me off.”
There was the distant sound of knocking at the front door. Both Curt and Rei looked up, startled. Rei half stood, but when Steve gained his feet, he sat down again. Steve crossed to the stairs, where he heard the door open. His father said, “Hi, you must be Tess.”