“Settle down,” said Tess. “We’ve got the armband thing. We can regenerate him.”
“Oh. Oh yeah, I forgot.”
Rei muttered, “Damn, it’s gonna run out of charges. How many does it have left?”
Normally Steve would make them cast a spell to find out, but there was no question of their using it. “Last one,” said Steve.
* * *
Limax stabbed the giant in the arm. It recovered the club and brought it crashing down, but he dodged. Megaera glanced back and saw the first giant struggling against three hags in the churning water. It managed to grab one by the throat and, with a terrific wrench, broke her neck. “Sister!” wailed the other two. They redoubled their attack, slashing with claws, worrying with teeth. The giant howled and went under. The water roiled.
Zadrian rushed the remaining giant at the other side of the causeway, just ahead of Megaera. It swept its club in a wide arc, which both women ducked. The club passed out over the water. Two hags exploded up and grabbed it. As the giant struggled to hold on, Zadrian stabbed him in the buttock. He kicked out at her, missed, went off balance, and fell headfirst into the lake. Joined by a third sister, the hags swarmed over him. An arm came up, beat at the water, and slowly sank into the depths.
On both sides of the causeway, the waters went still.
Megaera pulled the rune-covered armband from her belt pouch and rushed it over to Arslan. He was groping out like a drowning man, and she captured one of his hands and pressed the fingers over it. The band glowed, his hand clenched, and his broken chest began to fill out. He gasped a great ragged lungful of the chamber’s foul air, and his eyes opened. After the light went out of the armband, it continued to darken, past its normal silver hue, until it became dull as lead, and then broke into several pieces.
The others gathered around, but Arslan got up and waved them off. “I’m all right. Let’s go.”
Megaera took the lead forward with Zadrian. They clambered onto the first ziggurat tier between edges of the gauzy tent. “Try not to touch it,” Megaera said. “You can’t trust the way anything looks, especially if it looks harmless.”
At the second tier, the upper edges of the tent came closer together, and to enter the third without touching them, they had to climb single-file. Megaera went first, her flail readied.
She pulled herself onto a carpeting of elaborately styled rugs, three to four thick, piled haphazardly, each depicting improbable mixed fields of roses, poppies, iris, and lily. A sinister pattern of skulls and bones began to resolve out of the blooms. She became fascinated. A moment later, she felt her shoulder gripped and shaken, and saw Zadrian. Megaera glanced back down, and the flowers now suggested outlines of screaming faces in ecstatic torment. She jerked her eyes away.
The tent roofed a vast chamber, somehow far bigger inside than it appeared from without. The layered rugs stretched before them. In the middle distance, twenty yards away, stood a purple divan. Before it on an ottoman lounged an almost feline woman. She wore a silk kimono, embroidered with dragons that resembled the ophidiag. They seemed to writhe under the glow grubs’ shifting yellow light.
“What are you doing here, Orson?” the woman purred. Belying its gauzy ceiling, the hall echoed with steely overtones.
Limax stood silent. Megaera said, “Who is she?”
“Orson’s memories have grown fragmented, but I believe she’s a vampire. One thing is clear. Orson feared her. Greatly.”
The vampire spoke again. “What is this rabble you’ve got with you, Orson? I do not recognize them, and if I do not recognize them, they are not welcome.”
Megaera strode forward, flail held up. The vampire rose, and her eyes locked Megaera’s, but this was all familiar. She let the dark energy of the flail rush howling up through her mind, and she grabbed the vampire’s thoughts and memories, sought to compress them into an inky pearl. The vampire’s expression was shocked, and she hissed, exposing long fangs. But this one was stronger even than Karsk, and her power base of dark magic was all around them. Megaera struggled, mind to mind, caught a name: “Selene.” The vampire tore away and made groping gestures as if pulling the strings of a puppet, and suddenly rugs began to crawl toward the party from all around the chamber, shifting and sliding like amoebas. A pair of spider men, previously camouflaged, slid down from the ceiling on silk lines. Megaera jumped forward, lashed out with the flail to encircle the vampire’s head, covering one eye, and pulled, digging the claws deep. The physical contact made a new channel to the vampire’s mind. Megaera imagined her will squeezing ahead, fighting a dark, roiling wall of mental resistance.
Zadrian ran into view and engaged the spider man on the left. Limax took the one on the right. The creatures shrieked as their limbs were expertly lopped away. One long twitching claw spun onto a moving rug just behind the vampire and sank into its now-gelatinous surface, hissing and bubbling, streaming smoke. Dozens of other rugs had almost reached them.
“Selene! Stop!” Megaera commanded. The vampire fixed her with one burning red eye, the other still concealed beneath a loop of the flail’s coil.
“You would have to destroy me!” the vampire said.
“So be it.” Megaera tightened the flail, pushed with her mind. Selene slashed out with her claws and opened the front of Megaera’s armor. Energy drained out of Megaera; nausea broke her concentration. The vampire drove forward and sank her hands into Megaera’s shoulders, and Megaera toppled back onto a squirming rug. All thought of controlling the vampire fled. Selene plunged down, seeking Megaera’s throat, and it took all Megaera’s strength, pressing upward with both hands on the flail handle, to keep the vampire suspended. By degrees, the pale, snarling face came down, unraveling under the flexing claws of the flail, but still deadly.
Limax appeared. He heaved the vampire up by the waist and dragged her back. The flail slithered free from the vampire’s head, and Megaera tried to rise, but at her back, the heavy rug had stuck to her concealment cloak. She could only watch as Selene groped behind her to catch Limax. With a reverberating screech, the vampire’s claws scored his helmet. Arslan’s scimitar came around and slashed the vampire’s near hand off at the wrist.
The rugs surged forward like ocean breakers, all seemingly intent on Limax. The vampire twisted in his grip, spread her fangs. Rugs attached to his legs. Just then, Zadrian whirled in and took off the vampire’s head. But even as the vampire dissolved to mist in Limax’s embrace, the rugs streamed over him. Megaera felt the rug at her back let go; it scurried off toward him across the floor, joining the others, which had cocooned him and walled him off from the rest of the dismayed party trying to get in to help.
Limax stumbled back toward the canopy entrance under the weight of dozens of the rugs. He fell, dragged the rugs along, almost to the chamber edge. By now, the rugs had completed their transformation. Shapeless, liquid horrors, they lashed with crimson and blue pseudopods, burying Limax under a mound ten feet high. A few real rugs remained scattered around the chamber, but wide patches of the floor were exposed now as bare stone. Limax’s sword thrust up through the writhing mound, and its metal disintegrated as they watched. Arslan leaped in and slashed, but he seemed to make little progress. His magic blade did not corrode but smoked with sticky protoplasm.
The mass constricted and then seemed to lose energy. The amoebas started to dissolve and ran streaming over the stones, melting any real rugs in their path. The party skipped back to avoid the hazardous tide.
A vaguely humanoid shape heaved up out of the slime and fell limp over the edge of the chamber and out of sight. Limax was gone.
* * *
“Bummer,” said Rei, “so he’s dead, huh? That was a cool character.”
Steve shrugged. “He got a lot done for you. Trying to tackle the rugs on your own would have been almost impossible. They were actually giant amoebas transformed to look like rugs.”
“So what happened?” asked Tess. “Why’d they attack Limax.”
“She controlled them and called them to help.”
“So why did they dissolve?” asked Curt.
“They just did,” said Steve. “Maybe they melted each other trying to kill Limax.” Curt frowned at this explanation.
“We can hold a memorial or something later,” said Rei. “Let’s find some treasure. I lost one of my daggers, and I need a new one.”
“We’ll start with the divan,” said Tess, “and the ottoman.”
* * *
The party watched Limax disappear with sadness and disgust, and drifted back to the center of the room. The floor was slicked with the passage of the rug monsters, and fragments of the two spider men were scattered over the floor.
Shreds of mist withdrew between the cushions on the divan. Arslan tugged the cushions free and threw them aside, revealing a gleaming mahogany coffin. Zadrian pulled a stake from her belt pouch, found the lid of the coffin, and threw it back. Selene reposed inside, eyes shut, both hands — the severed one restored — folded over her breast. Zadrian handed the stake to Megaera.
* * *
“Stake her,” said Rei.
“I don’t know,” said Tess. She gave Steve a slantwise, appraising look. “Maybe we shouldn’t do it in here. The rugs all went for Limax when he got ahold of her. There might be other traps…”
The college students got up from their own table and stretched. Aaron Slayton drifted over. “You guys are way into it. Is it the same adventure you were on last time?”
“Yeah,” said Rei, “Tess and Steve played through a big chunk without us. Now we’re in the dungeons of a giant looking for the magic items he uses to control the other giants.”
“Sounds like you’ve come a long way.”
“Tess is making good decisions,” said Rei. She smiled and nodded.
“Sorry to interrupt. We’re going out for dinner, but here.” Aaron flipped a business card from his palm, held between two fingers. Steve took it and read aloud, “The Island Illuminati, Aaron Slayton, CEO.” The embossed logo on the left side depicted a lighthouse with a star behind it.
“My game company. I just incorporated it. We publish source books and campaigns for C&C and other systems, and I thought maybe you’d like to help out, maybe show me some of your material.”
“Seriously?” Steve had a vision of his campaign notes made into a book. “Awesome. Yeah, sure.”
“We’ve already got a couple of my small modules ready to publish, but in a few months, we might be ready to do more.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” asked Tess.
“Jack and I, and Mary’s doing some artwork.”
“Tess does artwork!” said Rei. “She’s amazing.”
“Really?” Aaron fished another card out of his pocket and handed it to Tess. “I’d love to see a portfolio, or I could give you an assignment, no promises. I’ve got some funding.”
“I haven’t done much fantasy stuff,” she said.
“That’s okay. If you can draw, you can draw. I’ll talk to you guys later.”
When he’d left, Curt stared at the table, face red. Steve guessed he felt left out and also overshadowed by Tess.
“So,” Steve said, wishing he could address Curt’s jealousy. “Let’s let Arslan take the lead.”
* * *
Arslan’s ribs still felt sore, but that was a mere ghost of the terrible piercing constriction that had stopped his lungs and held him prone against the causeway. He’d begun to doubt this quest. Megaera had somehow taken control, and although over the last few days she had surprised him with her cleverness, she’d finally taken them all out of their depth.
“We should leave,” he said.
Megaera turned, wooden stake in her hand. She lacked even the resolve to slay the vampire, and it showed on her face.
“We should get Stefan,” he said. “We’ve already lost Limax.”
She sighed and stared at the floor. At length, she said, “All right, but first let’s explore this couch.”
He shrugged, oddly hopeless. Nothing felt right, stay or go. He felt like his luck was running out. He came over and considered the vampire, and put his hand out for the stake. Megaera gave it to him. Without a pause, he plunged it into the vampire’s heart. Her eyes bulged, her fangs bared, and he calmly swung his scimitar and cut off her head. Selene’s eyes looked shocked, almost sad, and then both head and corpse moldered away to fine ash. Arslan stirred the ash with the sword, and turned over gold coins, a silver necklace set with an emerald the size of a plum, and a jeweled dagger. After giving the dagger to Dirk to replace the one that went into the lake, he got out a canvas sack from his backpack and gathered up the treasure into it. No one challenged him.
The couch’s bottom ran flush to the floor, and when he’d re-shouldered his pack, he walked around it, considering what might be hidden underneath. He gave it an experimental push, but it was rooted. At a thought, he said, “Dirk, help me pry out the coffin.” With difficulty, they managed to get a rough grip on the head and base and pull it up. Underneath, there was a narrow staircase leading into a green glow much like the one from the lake.
“I’m going first,” he announced, and threw a leg over the couch edge onto the top step.
“Wait,” Megaera said. “This protects against flame traps.” She pulled a ruby-set ring from her hand and gave it to him. “It changes size to fit your hand.”
The ring slithered easily over his finger, and then gripped tight. “You all wait,” he said. “I’ll explore and come back to report or else shout if there’s trouble.”
Scimitar held out, Arslan descended into the light of algal growth on the sweating stone walls. After a dozen yards, he entered a chamber fifteen feet square, with a tall door bound in niter-caked, rusty iron set in each of the other three walls. He was now below the level of the lake and seemed to feel the press of the water around him. He stepped forward, and a flagstone shifted and clicked beneath his boot.
Nothing threatened, neither in front, nor above. Cautiously, he drew his foot back, and the far door swung open. A broad, featureless metal statue was revealed, offering out a dull-black scepter on its upturned palms. “Password,” said the statue.
Arslan half turned, about to go back, but then he hesitated. What had he accomplished lately? Since Megaera had joined them, his bond with Dirk had weakened, and her evil weapon had won her respect and renown everywhere they went. There seemed little glory left for Arslan. He thought back to his youth far away, in a small town near the sea, where he had begun his life of adventure. When giant ants had overrun the family bakery and killed his parents, he had led the assault on the queen’s nest armed only with a club, makeshift padded armor, and the last tray of date-syrup pastry to use as bait. When he’d met up with that gutter punk Dirk, he’d wrestled the bar toughs for money until they could buy Dirk’s first set of daggers. Arslan had killed the pair’s first goblin, first giant tick, first swamp snake, first dragonet, first ogre, first giant…. Arslan needed to reclaim his leadership.
Thus resolved, he strode up to the statue.
“Password,” it repeated.
* * *
“No, seriously, don’t do it,” said Rei. Steve hadn’t bothered to pull Curt aside, even though the other characters should have no idea what Arslan was up to.
“Yeah, don’t,” said Tess. “We might be able to find a clue to the password. You can’t just guess, and those statue things are tough. Megaera yells, ‘What’s going on down there? You okay?’ ”
* * *
“Fine,” shouted Arslan over his shoulder. “A metal guardian holds the scepter.”
“Come back!” Megaera shouted.
“Password,” the golem said again. A horripilating energy boiled off the scepter, but it didn’t seem to harm him.
“Annabis,” said Arslan, holding his scimitar ready.
Nothing happened. He lowered the blade, reached out for the scepter.
“Wrong!” said the statue, flipped up the scepter, and brought it crashing, two-handed, on Arslan’s head. The blow connected with a crunch, making his vision blur. He parried up and scored the golem’s forearm with a shriek of metal and danced back. The golem swung sideways and caught him across the ribs. He heard the crunch, but did not feel the hurt until he tried to raise his arms. Pain lanced him. He stabbed out and ran the golem through, his magic blade glowing white, melting iron as it went. The golem raised the scepter and the negative energy came blasting down like dark lightning. Arslan tried to resist, but panic shook him. He dropped his sword, turned to run.
Megaera came pelting down the stairs, Zadrian and Dirk close behind. All he could think was, “They’re blocking my exit!” He felt the golem’s heavy pursuit through his feet, heard the scepter whistle up, poised, behind him.
* * *
“I’m going to let you roll the golem’s strike,” said Steve.
Curt swallowed hard, his face had gone slack. “I’d rather not.”
“I’ll do it,” said Tess. “I told you to let us help you.” She plucked up a twenty-sided die and threw it down.
“Oh no,” said Curt and planted a palm against his forehead. It was a twenty, another critical.
* * *
Arslan felt the impact at the base of his neck, and he collapsed like an unstrung puppet. There was no pain, except for a mild throbbing in his skull. In fact, he could not feel his body at all. He’d fallen on his side and could shift his gaze up and see the golem poised for a final obliterating strike. The others rushed past. Megaera wrapped her flail around one of the golem’s arms. Zadrian hacked at the other. Between the two of them, the scepter’s next descent was arrested. The claws of the flail bit into the arm, tearing off curlicues of metal, and the golem’s hand twitched open. On the other side, Zadrian’s fourth blow took the arm off at the shoulder. Arm and scepter fell away. Dirk jumped feet first into the golem’s chest and toppled it backward.
“Arslan!” Megaera cried and stooped over him, but it was too late. Blackness closed in from all sides and rushed over his sight. He felt warm, floating in a contented dark dream, and then he felt nothing at all.
* * *
“What’s the damage at?” Curt moaned hopelessly.
“It doesn’t matter. Megaera can heal him,” said Steve.
“It does too matter. What’s the damage? Would it put him all the way down?”
Steve shrugged. He knew he should lie. “Yeah, you’re all the way.”
“Then that’s it. You can’t heal when he’s dead.” Curt snatched up Arslan’s character sheet in one hand and crumpled it.
“Don’t—” Tess began. In answer, Curt started furiously tearing the sheet up. He said, “You can’t just change the rules.”
Steve watched in dull despair. He’d blown it. Curt had been stubborn and careless, but Steve controlled things. He could have steered them away from this.
Curt stuffed the shreds into his pocket and got up. “My dad’s going to be here pretty soon. I’ll see you later.” And then he stalked off.
Tess folded her arms and stared at the table. After a few seconds, she raised her eyes toward Steve. “You’d better go and calm him down.”
“Nah,” said Rei, getting up. “I can talk to him. Having Steve do it will just make it worse.”
“Thanks,” said Steve, and meant it.
When Rei had left, Tess sighed and lounged back in the chair. “This is probably the breaking of the fellowship.”
“It’s not over. We can still finish up.”
“Yeah, I guess. But let’s say it is over. How would it wrap up? We got one of the magic items. Stefan could get the rest. We’re not really necessary, are we?”
“What do you mean? You’re the players.”
“I think we’ve passed the climax. I think we passed it when Lim took over Orson and we started letting the prisoners go. Up till then, we seemed to be making a difference, or at least Megaera did. But now, it’s just ‘get the treasures or kill the giant.’ Anyone can do that.”
“Well, I said I had another big quest for you guys coming up.”
“Maybe we could skip to that one. You can finish this with Rei, and then you and I could do that other one,” Tess said. “Just the two of us.”
“Sure, why not?”
“With Megaera?” Steve said.
“Or another character with a new story, but I like Megaera. She could leave now, right? She’ll just take the scepter to Stefan and say, ‘Thanks, but I’ve had enough.’ ”
“But Rei really likes playing with you,” said Steve.
“Rei’s great,” said Tess. “I like him a lot. We can still hang out, but remember what you said during the camping trip? One-on-one adventures are the best, because you can build a story around the character’s issues and work together on the viewpoint.”
Steve strained to remember the conversation. Once again, she humbled him with her brain power. “Okay,” he said. “Sure, it’ll be good. I can run a separate adventure for Rei or something.”
Rei stalked back in and sat heavily in his chair. “Curt’s dad just came and got him.”
“And?” Tess said.
“I think he’s out of the campaign. Can I have all his magic stuff?”
They all agreed that the mood had been killed by Arslan’s demise. Rei stared into the middle distance and chattered about everything that had happened in the game, made predictions about what might happen, and wondered aloud how Curt would be. Neither Tess nor Steve interrupted his monolog until Tina arrived ten minutes later to get them.
* * *
Steve tried to call Tess the next day, but she was out with Tina, and Mr. Harrison took a message. She didn’t return his call. Over the next few days after picking berries, Steve applied himself to both writing new adventures and weightlifting. He made himself do ten sets of some exercise after each page of notes he finished. By Tuesday, all his muscles were sore. The adventure was a quest to gather the bits of a powerful artifact that could destroy Cax. Megaera would have to travel to other worlds. Karl the werebear and Zadrian could go along with her, and maybe Stefan, too, or maybe not. He had a hard time separating himself from Stefan, and Stefan and Megaera didn’t seem to have much chemistry. Having just Megaera as the focus seemed to work. Tess would have the last word, of course, but it seemed that Megaera had become his character too.
By Wednesday with still no word from Tess, Steve had become numb with worry that she had lost interest in him. Rei chattered constantly in the field. The only thing that caught Steve’s attention was his mention of Curt. As they moved along yet another row of dwindling strawberries, Rei said Curt was working on his own adventure, just for the two of them. “I have zero faith in it, but I’ll play anyway. We both like comic books and movies. He doesn’t seem to mind when I talk. I just wish he wasn’t so serious all the time. It’s like C&C is some kind of job that he doesn’t even enjoy all that much.”
“Maybe he’s playing at being a grownup,” Steve said.
“Yeah, with taxes and bills and everything, and none of the good stuff like eating all the chips you want or getting drunk and staying up all night watching movies or having sex.”
Steve got home from the fields and was just in the middle of changing clothes, when the phone rang.
He went upstairs and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Steve?” the voice was small and forlorn. He had a sick feeling all of a sudden, though he didn’t know why.
“Oh, hi, I was just going to call. I didn’t even recognize you.”
“Oh, Steve. It’s my mom…” And Tess began to cry.