The next morning after breakfast, Steve got out a book on intensive bodybuilding from his dad’s office and studied it downstairs in private. For some of the lifts, he didn’t have the equipment, and a lot of others seemed too awkward, so he decided to just do push-ups, curls, behind-the-head tricep extensions, bent rows, and light squats. He set up the dumbbells and a barbell and went to work, going from one lift to the other without a pause. By the tenth set, he’d begun to sweat hard and feel shaky; at fifteen, he got nauseated and had to lie down. He could feel his pulse throb in his neck and the bile churning at the back of his throat. Suddenly, his stomach gave a squeeze, and he rushed to the toilet just in time to lose his eggs and pancakes. Afterward, he flopped down and pressed his forehead against the cool linoleum floor until the nausea subsided.
The thought of Tess’s green eyes shining amusement made him rally. He went back and tackled the last fifteen sets gasping for breath. He imagined being Limax with a host body rebelling against him. It wasn’t a stirring thought, but it captured the experience, “mind over matter.” At last, he pushed out a final rep, put the bar bell aside, and flopped on his bed, completely drained but no longer sick. When his head cleared somewhat, he realized that he’d only done half the prescribed routine.
This was going to be a long, long haul.
* * *
Just before lunch, Tess rang. “Guess who just called me?” she said.
“Remember that college girl, Mary? She asked how I was doing and whether we were ever coming back to the store. Tina says she can take us if you want to go tonight.”
They picked him up at six. Tina Harrison drove a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel, which idled with a nervous purr. Steve got the front passenger seat, and Tess leaned in from the back to chat. “Thanks for taking us, Tina,” she said. A wan amber light suffused the boiling overcast and the warm air felt heavy and charged, promising a storm. Tina asked about their adventure, and Tess spared no details. When she described Limax’s attack on Orson, Mrs. Harrison’s mouth hung open and Steve wished keenly that Tess had skipped it.
A squall hit just as they pulled up to the Game Den. “Have fun. I’ll be back to get you at nine, all right?” Tess hiked her denim vest over her head for shelter as she ran out. Steve was about to follow when he felt Mrs. Harrison’s long fingers on his shoulder. He turned automatically, and her brown doe eyes shone. “Tess thinks you’re really something, you know that?” When she drew her hand back, she didn’t know what to do with it for a second before planting it on the steering wheel. Bemused, Steve merely smiled and then plunged into the rain.
Once in the shop, he pushed water back out of his hair, and Tess removed her vest and brushed at her sodden forelocks. Rei and Curt had gotten to the store ahead of them. Rei thumbed a romance novel. When he noticed them, he replaced the book with a self-conscious expression and headed over. Meanwhile, at the counter, Magnus the store owner talked with Curt.
“My character Bard the Blade just reached seventh rank,” Magnus was saying. “I hadn’t thought of retraining him as a wizard, but that’s a good idea.” There was no condescension in his attitude. Magnus respected what kids had to say about Castles & Catacombs.
Curt nodded happily and expounded on some loophole he thought he’d found in the rules that would let a warrior increase his damage a huge amount with a certain low-rank spell. While Tess wandered off to explore the shelves, Steve stood by a full minute trying to make sense of the argument. The statistical dimension of the rules hadn’t interested him since sixth grade, when he started to develop his storytelling skills, and being the gamemaster, he could arbitrarily sweep them away. Curt, on the other hand, seemed to live for technicalities.
At last, Steve interrupted and told Curt they should get started.
In the back room, they found Aaron’s group deep in play. Mary got up quietly so as not to disturb Aaron’s narrative and gave Tess a quick hug, then slipped back to her seat. Aaron had them all on edge. They traveled a misty swamp, and every now and then something shadowy attacked before disappearing into the vapors. The table they’d used last time was occupied by a new group of high school kids. Their game didn’t seem to be going well. A boy with a huge overbite and coke-bottom glasses stared into space with a dim smile, while a fat kid stirred dice on the table, clearly bored. Their flustered, acne-plagued gamemaster seemed unable to make a confident statement. “You see an orc— Wait, no. Not an orc. It’s a troll. He’s got a longsword, I think. I mean a spear. He’s got a spear, and he’s right in front of you.”
The fat kid demurred hopelessly. “You just said that there’s a pit trap in front of us.”
Rei pulled a table out from the wall on the other side of Aaron’s group. When they’d all grabbed a seat, Curt said, “Rei caught me up over the phone. He explained the oblimid thing and the werebear and stuff. If this Orson guy was so tough, how did the oblimid paralyze him? He must have had a serious resistance score. What’d you roll?”
“Nothing,” Steve said.
“You didn’t even roll? Isn’t that unbalanced? I mean, if you don’t get a resistance roll, that makes oblimids too powerful. And shooting his dart thing into the helmet must have had a pretty bad penalty check. You had to roll high for that.”
Tess said, “Okayyy. Let’s get moving.”
“Right,” said Steve, “let’s first get back to Dirk and Arslan.”
“Shouldn’t Tess step out for this part?” said Curt. She huffed. “I mean, Megaera’s not there,” he said, “and you might be tempted to give us hints.”
Steve said, “We’re not playing this out. I’ll just summarize. So, Dirk and Arslan, are in Varanor’s palace, and last you knew, Megaera and Karsk left for the inn, and you were led to cozy bed chambers. After you had a good rest, a dwarf came and summoned you to the main hall. The dragon and some other dwarves were there, looking a little beat up, and they had Zadrian and this little girl, Xanthe, with them. Then Stefan teleported in with a bunch more dwarves, and he had a heavy sack over his shoulder. He spilled the sack on the ground, and Annabis’s head tumbled out, the eyes rolled up in their sockets. Varanor says, ‘Now the war is joined with Cax. Soon news will reach the neutral Powers. The teleportation circles will be blocked.”
“Why?” said Tess.
“He’s played a complicated strategy game against Cax for thousands of years, and now the final moves are happening. To Megaera, it just seemed like a rescue operation, but to Varanor and to Cax, there’s a much bigger picture. Every little battle has larger significance. Sometimes the little battles are actually more important to the overall war than battles that wipe out whole worlds. Your fight in the inn was a turning point.”
“Sounds pretty philosophical,” Tess said, a little sarcastically. “Are we going to find out what these ‘larger significances’ are?”
“I can give you an example of one. Xanthe’s parents were descended from one of the dragon kings. Varanor had his servants keep a close eye on them, because he thought they might produce an heir to the throne if something happened to Stefan. To be an heir, it’s not even a matter of ancestry. A child just has to be especially smart and considerate and strong, but Varanor got to where he could predict which humans might have the right children, and over time, a lot of them came down through the dragon king lines.”
“You mean there’s some kind of breeding experiment?” Tess said.
“Well, maybe. Maybe he secretly arranged for people to fall in love. My ideas is that he’s so powerful, you can’t really understand him. Cax arranged for Xanthe to be kidnapped so that Varanor would send Stefan to the rescue and he’d be killed. That would tip the war against Varanor. However, Cax’s plans didn’t take Megaera into account. Things are going against Cax instead.”
“What about Dirk and Arslan?” Rei asked. Curt stared at the table, lips pursed, brows knit. Steve guessed that he felt sidelined.
“Well, you guys are clearly good. Cax has his feelers out, so to speak, for guys like you. He saw you coming the day you were born. I mean, these Powers are very, very old. They plot against each other over thousands and thousands of years, and they keep tabs on all the minor players.”
Tess smiled and chuckled. “Huh, okay, I kind of get it. Sometimes, Steve, I can’t tell whether you’re super smart or just really good at b.s.”
“I don’t think it’s b.s.,” Rei muttered.
“No, it’s cool,” said Tess. “Keep going.”
“So that’s it, basically, but now you’ve brought things to a head. Stefan couldn’t have gotten into the inn with Davron alive. Cax himself had a secret agreement with Davron to protect his inn. If it came under serious attack, Cax would draw it into his own world. When Megaera showed up with Karsk, Davron thought he might have been sold out, so he didn’t summon Cax to help him.”
“You’re just making all this stuff up,” said Curt. “You’ve got all these overpowered monsters and demigods that aren’t in the rules. They muddy up the game.”
“You wanna quit?” said Rei, irritated.
Curt shrugged, unhappy. “I guess not,” he said.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Steve. “What’s coming up will be a straightforward dungeon adventure. There are mazes and traps and secret passageways and all that good stuff under Raglar’s castle. Just bear with me, okay?”
Curt looked a little unsure, but straightened in his chair. “Okay.”
“Before Varanor sends you all on your way to find Megaera, he tells you that events are unfolding quickly and he needs to press his advantage. ‘It won’t be enough to kill Raglar,’ he says, and explains that the giant has three magical artifacts hidden somewhere in his fortress. They hold his guilt, his fear, and his doubt.”
“Sounds like a fairy tale,” said Curt, frowning.
“Yeah, it does,” said Tess, with a smile.
Steve brought out a notebook, found a page he’d bookmarked, and started reading. “ ‘Raglar was only a minor chieftain a few years ago, until Annabis helped him subjugate the other giant leaders. Annabis sought him out because she learned that he’d killed the dragon Avarix and obtained two giant-sized magic items from its hoard that the Powers created long ago: the Crown of Worry and the Gorget of Guilt. Together with another item that she already owned, the Scepter of Intimidation, a giant could transfer his negative emotions into other giants and make them do whatever he wanted, and she struck a deal to help him use them.
“ ‘Soon he united all the giants under his rule, but through long use the artifacts have absorbed too much negative energy, which radiates off them, disturbing his dreams.’ ” Steve set the notes aside. “That’s all that Varanor’s spies have figured out. He thinks that Annabis controls the scepter, and that Raglar has hidden the gorget and crown somewhere in his fortress. There’s going to be guards and traps around them. If all the artifacts are brought to Varanor, he can cast a spell to release everyone enslaved by them. Once that happens, the giant armies will fall apart. Or you could just kill Raglar, but another giant will probably take his place after that.”
“So what are the statistics on these items?” said Curt. Steve was about to heave a sigh, but Tess did it for him, and Curt said quickly, “I mean, what do they do? It’s important, right? If they’re used against us, we have to be prepared.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “that’s reasonable. From what Varanor describes, you get the idea that the scepter’s a mace that casts a Fright spell. The crown casts Mass Confusion and gives very high bonuses to persuasion rolls. The gorget casts wide-area Mind Control spells. If they’re all used together on a single person, he has to make a roll against fright or he’ll do anything to avoid making that person angry. But they only work for someone who’s giant-sized or has giant strength.”
Curt nodded. “Yeah, okay, cool.”
“After you get all the artifacts or kill Raglar, Varanor has a really big mission for you, to either shut Cax out of the world or destroy him for good.”
“And what’s that?” said Rei, straightening in his seat.
“He doesn’t tell you yet, but I wanted to let you know it was coming.” Steve paused and caught Tess’s eye. “It’s one of those ‘larger significances.’ ” She smiled. “The teleporters are closed down, but Varanor can send you into the caverns under the keep himself.”
“So why didn’t the rock-shaper dwarves just dig into Raglar’s dungeons and free the prisoners a long time ago?” said Curt.
“Good question,” said Steve. “It’s because their picks lose strength beyond a certain radius of Varanor’s fortress. Remember how I told you guys a long time ago that undead lose their power the farther they get from an evil base? Well, the rock shapers are like that, only they’re good guys.”
“Sounds arbitrary,” said Curt.
“It’s all arbitrary,” said Tess, “that’s what this is, the whole game. Being uptight about the rules doesn’t make the game less arbitrary, just less fun.”
Curt scowled at her.
Rei rocked his head from side to side, impatient and annoyed. “What’s ‘arbitrary’ mean again? Oh, yeah, it’s like when you do something however you want.”
Steve said, “Okay, so you’ve got Stefan, Tom and Jim, Zadrian and Dirk, and Arslan gathered together in the hall. Varanor, in old-man form, holds up a hand, but he’s not teleporting you. He turns and walks into the shadows deep in the hall and comes back leading two people. At first you don’t recognize Alain and Lydia. They’re washed and cleaned up and have nice clothes on. Lydia is in a brown dress with elbow-length sleeves, and Alain has on a white V-neck tunic with black piping and belted leather pants. They’ve each got a traveling cloak on. Alain wears a longsword at his hip, and Lydia’s got a short sword. Lydia and Alain are coming with you to help get the werewolf prisoners on your side.”
“Sounds like the cover of a romance novel,” said Tess.
“Yeah, they’re both pretty good-looking, and Alain has a lot of chest hair.” Steve laughed. “But then, he’s a werewolf. Or he was a werewolf. Varanor presents them, and says, ‘Lydia and Alain have been cured of lycanthropy.’ ”
“That sucks,” said Tess.
This was her first serious reproach against his plot decisions. “Why?” he asked, feeling hurt.
“I mean, that’s what they are, werewolves. Now he’s changed them, just because he wanted to.”
“But they were monsters. He had to do that; otherwise, they’d be a threat. And it was like a disease or an addiction. He says, ‘Without the bloodlust, Lydia and Alain are free to be themselves.’ The evil Powers invented werewolf lycanthropy.”
“What about other shapechangers like Karl? Who invented their lycanthropy?”
“The good Powers did, but with them it’s more like Indian totems. Bearlike people became bears.”
“So what about the werewolves who have wolf natures?”
“I was getting to that. Varanor says that even though they were werewolves a long time, they weren’t essentially werewolves, just people. Now they’re human again. But they’ll always have some wildness, heightened senses, super strength.”
“Huh, that’s sure not existentialism.”
“How do you mean?” said Steve, hedging: he didn’t know anything about existentialism.
“All this essential-self stuff. But never mind. If you’ve got a world with magical powers and everything, existentialism doesn’t really apply anyway.”
“So why’d you bring it up?” Curt asked impatiently.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what I was thinking,” Tess said. “In the middle ages, they took it for granted that you had an unchanging soul. But we know that people can be changed quite a bit. If a person’s taught to be a werewolf, then maybe they’re a werewolf. Taking that away is just teaching them to be something else. That’s what an existentialist might say. Existentialism is about what you make exist by free choice. Classical philosophy is all about spirit and essences and stuff.”
“So we make our own selves?” said Steve.
“Yeah, mostly, that would be the existentialist view, but I’ve read some philosophy on the other side. Plato would say that we’re just messy shadows cast from a world of perfect forms.”
“So are you an existentialist?” asked Steve.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think so; then I go the other way. I guess I try to be the opposite of most other people, just to balance things out. You can’t prove philosophy, but it’s fun to talk about.”
“You guys are boring the crap out of me,” said Rei. “You know what? I’ve been thinking too.”
“Yeah?” Tess said.
“Won’t there be a lot of giants guarding all the ways into the fortress?”
Tess made an amused snort. Steve smiled at her, gathered his thoughts, and said, “Varanor warns you about that. He tells you to get ready for a fight. He thinks that with the hag dead, things might be chaotic. Anyway, he gets you all together, then says good luck and teleports you. You end up in a large cavern, glowing with blue fungus. Behind you, a tunnel goes down at a gentle slope. That way, the light fades out and goes dark. In front of you, the ceiling is fifty feet tall; there’s an arch of stalactites curving almost to the floor, like fangs over a giant mouth. Through them you see ironbound double doors, twenty feet tall. In front of the doors is a scatter of giant bodies. One is nearly torn in half with his guts pulled across the ground; another is missing his head and one arm. The lower half of one door has been peeled open; the iron framework is twisted out. The rent has left a gap about seven feet tall and four feet wide.”
“I wonder what did that?” Rei said.
“The ophidiag,” said Tess. Curt nodded.
Steve continued: “Could be. The tunnel behind Dirk and Arslan is the highway and goes back fifty miles to the crossroads. Anyway, Stefan takes the lead with Tom and Jim. Through the doors, it’s all dark, but his claw weapon lights the way. Here, the walls have been shaped square, twenty feet on a side. Ahead, there are tall broad steps, perfect for giants. They come to your knees. You clamber up them a hundred feet and then there’s a hallway with a branch. To the left, the hall goes out of sight. To the right, there’s a heavy door, barred on this side. A slick of blood on the ground marks where something was killed and dragged off down the hall to the left…”
“…and eaten, probably,” said Tess.
“Stefan goes up to the door and listens. He motions to the two dwarves to spread out on either side; then he lifts the bar.”