Megaera and Limax stood in the orc jailer’s cell, looking at the crystal ball. Outside, Karl growled. “I hear footsteps past the locked doors. Someone’s coming.”
They rushed into the hall. Down the passage, Jonril had taken the lead and waved everyone back. His arms were thrust out, ready to cast some spell. Heavy rasping marked the lifting of the bar, the doors shook and parted, a crescent of near-blinding light appeared high in the gap.
“Wait!” Megaera shouted. The sorcerer dropped his hands and stepped back. Ahead, Stefan and the dwarves entered the dungeons.
“Megaera!” Stefan cried. He rushed forward and gripped her shoulder. He wore an odd imploring look mingled with relief. Megaera glanced away to see Zadrian, Arslan, and Dirk pour into the hall behind him, followed by Alain and Lydia. The baron shouldered his way past the werebear and seized up his daughter in a strong embrace, his eyes shut tight. Megaera breathed deep, imagining Zadrian’s elation. Though she felt a small ache of regret and self-pity in her chest, she did not begrudge Zadrian her good luck. The world seemed a little less dark. At last she faced Stefan again, who seemed to have watched her the whole time. He smiled almost shyly and stepped back. The werebear grunted, and Stefan tore his gaze away to acknowledge him. “And Karl! Well met.”
“You’re late, princeling.”
He cast about and noticed Limax holding back from the others. “Wait!” Stefan pointed his glowing scythe at him. “You were the hag’s captain!”
The helmed figure slowly pulled his sword, and Stefan tensed, but Limax reversed it to offer out the hilts, stepped forward, and dropped to one knee. “My lord, it is I, Limax.”
Stefan glanced to Megaera, who nodded. At this point, Arslan and Dirk crowded close with the two former werewolves and the rock-shaper dwarves. Stefan put a hand to the sword pommel, and said, “Rise, good friend and faithful knight.”
Limax quickly explained how he and Megaera had been abused by Orson, and he’d been obliged to incorporate him. “What of little Xanthe? Is she safe, Stefan?” Limax asked.
“More than safe. Healed and comforted, and worried for her friend Lim who calmed her in the dark.”
* * *
“Aww,” said Tess, mocking Steve a bit.
He felt his cheeks warm up. “Anyway,” he said, “Alain steps forward and asks where his people are. Karl the werebear glowers, looks askance, and asks what people he means.”
Curt said, “Sigurd and his men.”
“The werebear growls, and says, ‘You don’t smell like werewolves.’ ”
“The dragon cured Alain and Lydia,” said Tess as Megaera.
“Karl says, ‘Nice trick. I prefer the ripping-off-the-head cure myself. If I catch that Sigurd out of his cage, I’m going for him. Look what he did to me.’ The werebear brushes a hand across the scars all over his chest. ‘You can’t trust them. You need to let them know who’s boss.’ ”
“So maybe that’s what you should do,” said Tess.
“Karl doesn’t understand,” said Steve.
“Show him who’s boss. Maybe if you can best him in a fight, he’ll be on our side.”
“Lydia starts to object, but Karl shuts her down. ‘Seems like a good idea to me,’ he says. Stefan leads Karl, Alain, Lydia, and you other guys down the hall. You pass cells of cheering prisoners into a farther wing. It’s quiet there, a shifty sullen type of quiet.
“In the middle of the wing, about five cells down, Stefan stops and yells, ‘Sigurd!’
“An answer comes from a nearby cell: ‘Over here.’ Behind the bars, Sigurd’s face is hidden in a profusion of wild long hair. You catch the gleam of gold eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a sketch of lean jaw.”
Tess’s brows knit and she leaned forward and stared close into his face.
“You’ve got wolf eyes,” said Tess. She subsided into her chair and forced a shrug. Curt and Rei turned toward her, in evident confusion. She shrugged again, but her lack of interest wasn’t convincing.
Curt sighed. “Stop flirting so he can get on with it!” She narrowed her eyes at him.
Steve forced himself to ignore the heat rising to his face and resume. “Stefan tells Sigurd that you’ve all come from Varanor and offers Sigurd a choice. He can help destroy Raglar the giant chief or he can stay in prison. Sigurd says that he’ll help kill Raglar but won’t make any promises after then. Then Karl speaks up. He’d been hanging back to one side. ‘Wait, Sigurd,’ he says. ‘You and I need a separate understanding.’ Sigurd and Karl start trading insults and shouting at each other then and Karl challenges him to a fight in the hall.”
“Cool,” said Rei.
* * *
Sigurd stumbled naked into the light, a lean, chiseled youth, long-muscled, near gaunt; his shaggy hair hung down to his chest, and a wispy beard shadowed his sharp-angled jawline. Lydia came up and embraced him, and he hugged her back fiercely, put his nose to her neck, sniffing. “Lydia,” he said, “what have they done to you?” He looked up at Alain, imploring.
“Enough chatter,” said Karl.
The watchers made room. Karl spread his arms and circled. Sigurd glared sidelong at him through a veil of hair.
The werewolf struck first in a balletic twirl and crouching leg sweep, transforming mid turn. An elongated foot sprouted claws, ripping Karl’s ankle just above the foot. The werebear toppled, still in human shape, and caught himself as a manbear. The werewolf dove in, long jaws snapping for his throat, but Karl grabbed him by the neck, lifted him up, and dashed him against the floor, cracking his skull. Lydia gasped and moaned.
The werewolf stumbled back, dazed, eyes rolling crazily, trying to put the pupils forward. Karl drove in. The werewolf took the werebear’s charge in his midsection, howled, and drove his claws into Karl’s kidneys. Karl lifted him up. Sigurd head-butted, again and again. Blood masked both their foreheads, ran over their muzzles, painted their exposed fangs. A red sheen coated the werebear’s near eye, and he blinked rapidly against it. With a bellow he flexed his arms, his back muscles rolled and convulsed, bending the werewolf over. They reached a straining impasse. Then something snapped. A barking scream convulsed Sigurd’s throat. Karl threw him down. The werewolf tried to stir, but his lower legs hung limp at an angle to his body. A forlorn baying went up from the cells all around. Lydia dove in, but Alain grabbed her around the waist and dragged her back.
Monstrous chest heaving, the werebear grabbed his foe by the nape and held him up. Sigurd made feeble pawing motions at the air, eyes shut. His long tongue lolled out. “Look, all you curs!” Karl yelled from his bear’s rough muzzle, more animal than human. “Your leader is beaten.” He shook Sigurd and said to him, “Do you yield or shall I pull out your heart?”
An eye opened; a hint of a snarl, or was it a smile?, twitched his upper lip. “Yield,” he grunted. Karl lowered him gently and then backed away. Lydia ran up and cradled Sigurd’s head in her lap.
* * *
Steve said, “Karl spreads his arms and turns a slow circle like a pro wrestler. His claws retract, fur recedes, and the cuts and bruises evaporate off him, even the deep gash in his leg. He says, ‘All of you wolves, I’ve won the command. If you cross me, I won’t have to kill you.’ He points down at Sigurd, and says, ‘He will.’ Sigurd nods as his broken back straightens out with faint crunching sounds.”
Steve belatedly noticed he had an audience. A the next table, Aaron, Mary, and Jack were watching him, still poised over their own character sheets, but Keith had turned all the way around to sit reversed in his chair, gripping the backrest, his chin lowered to his hands. “Damn,” he said, “that werebear is great. I’d like to play him.”
Curt said, “You shouldn’t play a lycanthrope, according to the rules.”
Curt shrugged. “They’re tough, but they’re unpredictable.”
“Who wants to be predictable?” Keith said.
Next to him, Jack reached over and tugged at Keith’s shirt, and he lumbered up to get in his chair the right way and rejoin Aaron’s game. Rei excused himself for a bathroom break. When he got back, they resumed.
* * *
“Let them out,” Karl said.
Megaera opened all the cells, and six werewolves, naked to a man, shuffled into the hall. Without being directed, they silently formed a rough line and approached the werebear. Karl drew himself up and held out his hand, palm down. Each knelt in turn and licked it. When they were done, Karl regarded the moist slick with satisfaction, and then made a fist.
“We need to find an armory,” said Stefan. “First, we must release all the prisoners and attend to any wounded. Karl, you and your men keep lookout. You have the sharpest senses. Get Jonril down here. Limax can stay. Tell him not to use that orb yet.”
Dirk, Arslan, and Zadrian came back with Jonril, and with Megaera they went and unlocked the remaining cells, which yielded more dwarves, an old male fallen elf, several human foot soldiers, and a strange pair, who claimed to be half-brothers — one part dwarf, part human; the other human and ogre. Dirk leaned in toward Megaera. “That’s a story I’d like to hear sometime.”
Last, in separate cells, they found the woman Lydia had impersonated out in the hills, and her father, the hermit who had ignored the baron’s order to evacuate. They reunited tearfully, and when they’d been gathered with the others at the end of the hall, the father began a rehearsed apology to everyone present. “You’ve all risked your lives to rescue us, and no service I could render will ever—”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Karl. “Just shut up and do what you’re told, and if I ever see you again, you can pay our bar tab.”
A couple of the humans were badly beaten and dehydrated. Megaera healed their wounds, and Stefan gave them a skin of water. When everyone seemed in tolerable shape, Arslan suggested they scout for an armory or at least a better staging area where they would have more than one exit. Stefan gave leave for Arslan, Megaera, Dirk, and Zadrian to go while he and the rest organized the prisoners, and they drew tight their concealment cloaks and left the dungeons.
* * *
They went past the stairs that led down to the broken gates and moved slowly along the vast dark hall, following the wide slick of blood on the floor. Zadrian lit the way with her magic sword. Far ahead gleamed a vertical bar of orangish light where a giant-size door was slightly ajar; beyond it, the hall continued into darkness. As they reached the door, summery heat could be felt throbbing out. A low furnace-crackle eroded the stillness, and there was another sound now and then, methodical, wet and slurping. Zadrian sheathed her sword and barely made a shimmer in the air as she moved crabwise inside; Megaera followed.
They found themselves in a smithy the size of a feasting hall. Various weapons and suits of armor hung about the room. The forge in the center was ten feet square and the window into its orange-gleaming bed was at nearly a man’s height. On a chain, a great bellows eight feet long connected into the forge on the left. Hammers and tongs hung just above the doors where the coke went in. Two four-cornered block anvils stood at either hand, each chest-high to a man. Beyond the forge something huge shifted amid a wreck of tumbled benches and scattered armor pieces.
The monster was languidly gulping down what appeared to be an ogre, its eyes shut as it swallowed flesh and drank the room’s heat.
* * *
“Okay,” said Tess, “we slip out, and we all go back down the hall a ways to talk this over.”
“Maybe we could sneak up on it,” said Rei. “All of us attacking at once might be enough.”
“No way,” she said. “Let it take a nap.”
“You know what would be really cool, is if we could control it,” said Rei.
“Hmm, yeah,” said Tess. “I’ll bet the hag had something for that. Where’s the hag’s lair again?”
“You never found out exactly,” said Steve, “but if you remember, Lydia told you that she split her time between here and Barathrum, so she’s probably got a place here.”
“We’ll just have to explore,” said Curt.
“No,” said Tess. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get an escort.”
“We’ve got a crystal ball, remember? And they probably don’t know the hag is dead. Let’s go back and talk to Limax.”
* * *
After a hurried conference with Stefan and the others, Megaera had Limax bring the coffer into one of the empty cells. He was obviously the one to speak, since he had Orson’s body. She briefed him on the proper things to say, and he produced the crystal ball and passed a hand over it. Nothing happened for almost a minute. Finally a worm of light twitched deep inside, seemingly miles distant. The light expanded in a rush, and revealed a rough scarred head, bald except for lank drapes of gray hair over the ears. Sunlight gleamed on the head, and the pupils were pinpricks within circles of slate blue. “Who calls?” intoned the giant. “Oh, it’s you, Orson. But who’s that?”
Megaera held up her flail. Limax answered, “A fellow servant of Cax, the Lady Megaera. We are in haste, lord.”
“Lord?” said the giant.
Megaera feared that he’d made a serious mistake, using the wrong address, but the giant said, “Call me ‘lord’ again, and I’ll have you in the arena. It’s ‘your majesty,’ human scum.”
“Pardon, your majesty,” said Limax. “We’re in haste. Annabis sent me ahead. She needs something from her chambers.”
“I daresay she does. Her damned pet is loose!” The giant seemed distracted. His eyes drifted away. The sound of cheering could be heard in the background, a faint rasp of metal, and then a high agonized scream. The giant smiled and called out, “Well played! Well played!” His hands could just be seen coming together in strenuous applause.
“The ophidiag. Yes, we know,” Limax said.
The giant’s attention was wholly lost for a moment. He turned back reluctantly, with a scowl. “I can’t spare anyone to let you out.”
“Yes,” Limax repeated. “We managed to get ourselves out.”
“ ‘We’?” The giant’s attention began to wander again.
“Yes, the lady Megaera and I, and a few others, your majesty.”
The giant looked at Limax, eyes narrowed. “Something’s gotten into you. You’re not usually this polite.”
Limax said, “Your majesty, we’ve explored the hall and found the ophidiag in the smithy. It appears to be sleeping in the heat.”
“The smithy, eh? Did my smith escape?”
Limax raised his helmet in query, and Megaera said, “No, your majesty, the monster is chewing up what’s left right now.”
“Good. He was incompetent. The boss on my shield is off-center.”
“Your majesty,” said Limax.
“Yes?” said the giant, greatly annoyed.
“Annabis asks that you send us an escort to her chambers.”
“Begging your pardon, your majesty, she didn’t say.”
The giant raised an eyebrow and smiled. “She doesn’t trust her own ladies to leave you alone, I suppose. Oh all right, if it means you’ll take care of this snake of hers. And after, you tell her I expect full payment for my eaten men. It didn’t get into the prisoners, did it?”
“No, your majesty.”
“Good! A few have some fight left, and I need them for the games.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Meet my warriors at the end of the hall past the smithy. Don’t disturb that thing. If it eats my werewolves, you’ll face it in the pit!”
The giant’s hand loomed inside the ball and the light snuffed out.
* * *
They conferred with Stefan, and after some argument, he reluctantly agreed that Limax and Megaera could meet the giants and go to the hag’s quarters. He wanted to accompany them, but Megaera said that he should stay and make sure the ophidiag didn’t leave the smithy. Dirk, Zadrian, and Arslan insisted on coming, and Megaera reluctantly agreed they could hang back in their concealment cloaks and try to follow.
Once more they left the dungeons, this time with Limax. Megaera slipped within the smithy for a moment as they passed. The ophidiag lay curled near the forge, twisting now and then to luxuriate in the heat. Outside again, she waved them on and gave her report as they went.
Darkness closed about them. Megaera summoned her light globe. They passed a few doors, and long stretches of blank wall. Abruptly a pair of figures towered ahead, bringing them up short.
“Raglar said we’d meet two of you, but I see three more slinking behind. Take your hoods down, little men!”
Limax said, “These are all trusted warriors from Barathrum. Show them respect.”
The giant grunted. His companion, evidently the lower-ranked of the pair, dug vacantly in his nose with his pinky. Both giants were clad in what looked like crocodile-hide armor, and glowered from a height of at least twelve feet. The nose-picker carried a club, but the other had a fine two-handed greatsword at his belt, made for humans, with hilts of pearl and lapis. To the giant, it was a one-handed weapon.
“Where’s the snake monster?” he asked. Megaera noticed that behind the giants was a dead end. Whatever door they’d used was evidently hidden.
“Asleep in the smithy,” she said.
The two parties faced each other in silence. “You came to lead,” Limax said. “So lead.”
The giants slunk by them, back toward the smithy.
After only a few strides, the lead giant turned left and confronted a blank stretch of wall. He found one stone gapped slightly to its neighbor. He pulled out a key from a belt pouch, fitted it to the chink, and turned. A section of wall ten feet high popped out, and he dug both hands around the side and eased it open, casting worried glances toward the smithy’s distant red glow.
The giants ducked inside, and they followed. “The door will close behind us in a few seconds,” said the lead giant. A stair descended just past the door to a landing bathed in mysterious green light, forty feet below. The giants picked their way down, grunting. Though the ceiling was only five feet away measured perpendicular, the stairs were so steep that the giants had headroom to spare.
They had not quite reached halfway, when Megaera smelled rotting vegetation. The air was warm and moist, and the walls showed condensation and streaks of niter like old bird droppings. A splash echoed up from a cavernous space.
They emerged from the stair on the end of a wide stone causeway and paused as the giants strode ahead. To either side stretched a lake mottled with green phosphorescent scum. The cavern dome stretched a hundred feet above. Straight ahead a score of yards, the causeway led to a small island that emerged from the water in three tiers like a squat ziggurat. Overhanging the top level was a silken tent, lit faintly within by a hanging globe of grubs. The giants reached the island and sat on its lowest tier, waiting.
Limax led them forward, and they’d closed about half the distance when a subtle movement in the water caught their attention. Ten yards to the left, a pale lump rose slowly out, gradually revealed as a large head. The algae ran in glistening rivulets from it and mingled with the fronds of hair spreading in a slick all about. Heavy-lidded eyes broke the water, then a long nose and a lipless mouth that revealed sharklike teeth. “Orson,” said the creature. The voice was high and sweet and playful. “What are you doing here without our mistress, Orson? Maybe you would like to bathe?” A cold worm of ice seemed to inch along Megaera’s spine.
Five other heads surfaced, three on the right side of the causeway. As the party hurried along, the heads glided smoothly beside them, stirring green eddies.
The giants glanced nervously to each side. “So what now?” the leader asked Megaera.
The first of the hags moved to the causeway and reached out a long forearm corded with stringy muscle, hands tipped with wicked black nails, curved and sharp. With a rush of greasy water, she pulled herself out and rose. She was gaunt and elongated like an old human woman somehow stretched to eight feet tall. A fleshy growth of small tentacles writhed over most of her body, and hung from long wrinkled dugs that looked like sausage skins. Megaera realized with choking revulsion that the hag was clothed in leeches.
“What are you doing here, Orson?” the hag repeated with a leer.
“The ophidiag is loose. We need to restrain it,” Limax answered.
“No, Orson, don’t tell lies.” She smiled. Another hag laid an arm along the causeway edge behind her, and heaved herself up. And then another followed.
“I can see into your helmet. Something’s not right. Is that really you, little Orson?” The hag tittered. “Shame on you. What have you done with our little Orson?”
Megaera heard the slow scrape of the giant’s sword being drawn behind them.
“Yes, it is, Sycorax. Leave off your game.”
The hag attempted a moue, and managed only a grotesque pucker of skin around her clustered shark’s teeth. “We are hungry, Orson. Very, very hungry. Annabis grew cross and forgot to feed us. And you should not be here, not at all.”
Megaera felt her heart pound. She stepped forward right beneath the hag, looming like a blasted tree, and whispered, “We’ve brought you dinner, two big dinners, but you’ll have to help us serve them.”
“But why should I, my dear?” whispered the hag. The hag’s eyes seemed to have no irises. Four other hags now crowded behind her, and the last was on the point of emerging. “King Raglar will be cross with us. He will miss them.”
Megaera leaned in even closer. The hag bent low to hear, claws twitching. Megaera watched those claws, and kept her hand on her flail. “But he will blame the ophidiag.”
“Will he?” Pupil displaced the white of the hag’s eyes.
“Oh yes,” said Megaera. “Our mistress said you’d enjoy her little joke. Why do you think she let the monster out in the first place?”
“You there!” boomed the giant leader. “What are you saying?”
Megaera raised her voice: “Our lady Sycorax does not believe that the ophidiag is loose and eating giants.”
“It’s true,” said the giant. “Stop chatting and get what you need.”
Megaera gave the hag a meaningful nod. The hag turned and conferred with her sisters, and then they all knelt down and slipped back into the water. Megaera said under her breath, “Keep your eyes on the tent, and walk toward the giants. When I give the word, attack. Limax and Arslan take the one with the club. We’ll get the leader.”
* * *
“Great,” said Curt, “I hope you know what you’re doing. What if we get thrown in the water? And why wouldn’t they eat us too?”
Steve said, “You see the heads of the hags bob up near the giants, three to a side.”
Tess said, “Here goes nothing.”
* * *
“Attack!” yelled Megaera, and leapt ahead. The giant was taken off guard. He brandished his sword as Megaera’s flail encircled his ankle. Zadrian drove in and stabbed him in the guts. Dirk threw a dagger. The dagger took the giant in the eye, and its swing went wide. Megaera pulled the flail, undoing the giant’s tendons above the foot. Zadrian’s magic sword split a belly seam in the scale armor and came back drawing a fountain of blood. The giant recovered its swing, and tried to plant its injured foot but stumbled. Just then, a hag launched out of the water and wrapped its arms around the giant’s head. The shark teeth found the neck. The giant bellowed, became unbalanced and fell into the lake, sending up waves that broke over the flagstones.
At the corner of her eye, Megaera saw the other giant’s club come down. It hit Arslan in the chest, knocking him backward. He fell flat, all his ribs crushed.
* * *
“Aw, crap, not a critical!” said Curt, checking the rules. “He’s got to make a recovery check to survive the shock.” Curt rolled a twenty-sided die. He stared at the number in dismay.