AoM Chpt 4: Megaera

“Chuck and the guys are in the basement.”

Steve winced at his dad’s use of his name, and then wandered back to the table. Curt was studying the dice. Rei now had a Coke and watched the upper stairs.

Tess’s blue jeans and boots preceded her into view. As she entered the room, she hopped over the last few steps. She had on a knit turquoise sweater. The eyeliner was toned back. This new Tess was even prettier than the old one. Steve glanced over to see Rei stop his Coke halfway to his open mouth.

He wished she’d come punked out.

She walked up and stood at a slight remove. “Hi, Steve,” she said, uncertainly, and looked past him toward the other guys.

Steve’s mouth felt dry. A second later, he caught a floral scent from her hair, not quite perfume.

Rei sauntered over and extended his hand, sticking the other in his back pocket. “I’m Rei.” He slouched as if in apology for his height. Tess was actually just a couple inches shorter.

“Hi, Rei.”

Curt swiveled around and waved. Steve introduced him.

“Say, you want a Coke?” said Rei, making an open-handed gesture toward the refrigerator.

“Yeah, sure.”

Rei rushed over and extracted an armful of cans, then waltzed back smoothly as Tess took the upholstered swivel chair. He lightly placed a can before her, set three others on the table as if arranging flowers, and glided into his seat. Steve caught his eye and shook his head.

“What?”

Tess frowned at the table as she took the can and pried the tab with a nail done up in clean, translucent pearl. She scanned the room without turning her head, timid under their regard, just like any girl from school might be. Then her eyes locked on the Death Dealer. Rei turned to follow her gaze. “That’s our mascot,” he said.

Curt winced and shielded his brow with one hand, obviously embarrassed by Rei’s lack of cool.

Tess’s eyes narrowed and seemed to darken; the familiar steel crept into her attitude. She slouched back in the chair and cracked the can open. “Nice.”

“Steve said you’re a punk,” said Rei. Tess’s head spun toward Steve and she fixed him with a narrow-eyed stare, as if trying to read some betrayal in his face.

She slid her attention back to Rei. “I am when I feel like it. Steve says you’re Finnish.”

“And Japanese,” he said brightly.

“That too, huh?” Her smile was clearly ironic.

Rei’s hands got suddenly twitchy. He grabbed the table edge as if to control them. After an uneasy silence, he said, “You’re right, Steve.”

Tess scowled and cocked her head at Steve. “Right about what?” She took a drink of Coke.

“He said to watch it or you’d tear me a new asshole.”

Tess choked, and laughed hard. Steve had never heard her laugh with all the stops pulled. It was rich and hoarse and would have sounded right coming out of a grown woman.

When she had herself under control, she shifted forward in her chair and studied the table. A pen and blank character sheet had been set out for her. “So how do I do this?” she said.

Curt cut in, businesslike: “Roll four six-sided dice for each attribute and take the highest three and add them together.”

“Yeah, I remember.” She looked up at Steve. “Sorry, I forgot my book.”

“You can borrow mine,” said Rei, holding out the player’s guide.

“Is it in Finnish? . . . Sorry, couldn’t resist. Thanks.”

Curt reached over and helped her open the book to the chapter on character creation. “We really need a priest. Did Steve tell you what’s going on? We went up against some vampires, and we need someone to repel undead.”

“I was kind of hoping to be an evil character.”

Curt frowned, but Rei chuckled. “You are cool,” he said.

“I don’t know if that will work,” said Steve. “We need everyone to get along, and they’re both good-aligned.”

“What if I just worshiped an evil goddess? Maybe I got raised that way and don’t know any different. I’ve got a mean streak—but . . . I’m trying to change.”

“That could mess up your spells,” said Curt. “Your god doesn’t like it when you change like that.”

“So maybe there’s a good god who wants me, and they’re fighting over me. You know, like being good at a job that everyone wants you for. I’m the best priestess around.”

“That’s pretty cool, but you have to start at third rank at the highest. You’ll be just out of training,” said Steve.

“I’m new but I’m good. Alex says the smartest kids get job offers sometimes while they’re still in college.”

Steve looked from Rei to Curt for help. He wanted to accommodate her but not make them mad.

“Yeah, and I’ve got a sack full of gems and gold,” said Rei. “We can buy her some pretty good stuff to start out.”

“Roll your abilities and skills,” said Steve. “There are several shops, an armorer, and a stables in town. Pick anything non-magical you want for starting equipment. Rei can hold onto his treasure. We’ll assume you got good sponsorship from your church or something. Oh yeah, a name . . .”

“How about Megaera?” Tess said. “It’s the name of—”

“—one of the Furies,” said Steve. “Yeah, sure.”

“What are Furies?” asked Rei.

“They’re goddesses in The Iliad. Also in the Oresteia,” said Tess. “They punish oathbreakers and people who’ve killed their family. In Greek they were called Erinyes, but when people talked about them, they called them Eumenides, which means ‘good guys’ or ‘nice ones.’ No one really thought they were nice, though; people were just afraid of pissing them off.”

Rei looked blank.

“They’re from the Gods and Demigods rulebook,” explained Steve.

“Ah, cool.”

“How do you know so much about Greek myth?” asked Curt.

“My mom has a master’s degree in classics. My dad was one of her professors. He forced himself on her, and then I was born.”

Steve’s guts went cold. He glanced at the other guys and saw them gaping and realized his mouth was open too.

“Someday, I’m going to kill him.” Her nostrils flared and she looked defiantly from Rei to Curt.

“Shit,” said Rei.

She dropped her head and glowered up at them, hateful and dangerous. Then she laughed. “Just getting into character. My dad wasn’t a professor; he was a drunk and an asshole, and we kicked him out years ago, just before Mom got sick. . . . Mom does have a degree in classics, though.”

“Shit,” said Rei again, seeming just as impressed with the lie as he had been when he believed it. “You’re freakin’ me out.”

She squinted at him. “Good,” she said with a smirk.

Several minutes passed as Tess rolled dice and scribbled down figures. “I’m going to have this black cloak over dark metal armor that’ll have an upside-down female symbol painted on it, with red drips coming off the circle part.” She sketched it out on a corner of her sheet. “And I need a cool weapon. Maybe a metal glove with claws on it.”

Rei said, “Neko-te.”

“What?”

“Metal claws. Women ninja used them. You dip the nails in poison. But that’s more of an assassin weapon than a melee weapon.”

“I’ll get a couple of those and put them in my belt. And one of those things with a handle joined to a chain and spiky ball.”

“Chigiriki,” said Rei. Tess looked doubtful.

“Military flail,” said Steve, and she nodded.

“Yeah, one of those.”

“So,” he said, “as an evil priestess who’s turning good, you can have a mix of powers. Choose from the lists for both the dark and light.”

“There should be some kind of penalty for this,” said Curt.

“Hey, she’ll be covering our asses,” said Rei.

“We’ll need a backstory to explain how you met up with these two, Arslan and Dirk.” Steve described the characters and Tess knit her brows to listen.

“Which is which again?” Tess asked.

“Dirk is the little guy, the thief, and he’s Rei’s character. The big barbarian with the scale-male vest is Arslan, and he’s Curt’s character.”

“So the big guy’s playing the little guy and the little guy’s playing the big guy. Got it.” Rei smiled; Curt frowned, and his face reddened. She continued, “Okay, so we meet up somehow, but we’re really different.” Tess stared into the middle distance, thinking.

“Maybe you’re an old girlfriend of mine,” said Rei. Steve wanted to punch him.

Tess shook her head. “You wish.” At last she said, “Maybe I’m looking for a vampire. I just happened to be in town, and I heard about your attack. My mother superior had a pet vampire she used in her evil rituals, and it got loose, and I’m supposed to bring it back. But maybe the mother superior has been pissing me off, so I’m not that into it. I contact this good deity on the side. There’s a ritual I do so the evil god can’t snoop on me. Oh, yeah, and the evil god lets me control a vampire once a day; that’ll be my starting bonus skill. I saw that one in the priest section of the player’s guide.”

“Awesome,” said Rei, and squirmed in his chair, excited.

Curt looked vaguely troubled. “I don’t know. The rules don’t provide for having two gods like that, and keeping one from seeing what the other is doing would be a very high-rank power.”

Steve ignored him.

“So do we meet at the inn?” asked Tess.

“No, let’s not do it that way,” said Steve. He got up and motioned Tess to follow him through the arch into his bedroom. When they’d gotten out of earshot of Rei and Curt, he whispered, “You’ve been staking out the inn. You should follow them and look for a chance to mess with them. We’ll play it out from there. You could stay here in my room out of earshot, and I could move back and forth between you and the guys until your characters meet, but I don’t think we need that. Megaera is following them and pretty much hears whatever they say. Since they don’t know what Megaera’s up to, you can just pass me notes to say what you’re doing.”

She seemed to think about this a moment. “Okay, sure.”

They went and regained their seats. The adventure began.

“Dirk and I are headed to the main gate,” said Curt.

Steve said, “The streets wind up through several levels of houses and businesses. Close to the keep, you see the gate portcullis is down, and so are the siege doors behind it. The guard towers on either side are empty.” He passed the group a map of the keep that he’d drawn up on graph paper. Curt spread it out for everyone’s inspection, and quickly pointed out the sally port marked on the curtain wall, far to the right of the gate. An asterisk keyed it to a diagram of four rough polygons, where it said “Push stones in order.”

“We want to go here,” said Curt, and glanced at Rei, who nodded.

“The street gives way to rubble, grass, and shrubs. The ground slopes into a jungle of close-set alder trees, and you hear burbling just before you hit a boggy patch and cross a little stream. The water pours from a culvert in the wall.”

Tess’s hand crept around the screen holding a note. He took it without shifting his attention from Curt, who studiously ignored her.

“Could we crawl in the culvert?” asked Rei.

“No, it’s tiny. You keep going up the far bank, but when you get to the place on the map, you actually don’t find the sally port.”

He read the note: “I watch them from the shadows of a building and then follow, trying to keep quiet.” And then another line, hard to read as if written in a hurry: “I wait in the thicket and spy on them.”

Curt said, “I run my hands along the wall, looking for a secret door.”

“You find a small section where the stones are loosely placed, and there’s no mortar between them; one looks roughly diamond-shaped.”

“Yeah, that’s here,” Curt pointed at the diagram. “Do the others match up? Okay, I do what it says and press them: north, south, east, west, and then the diamond again.”

“That does it,” said Steve. “A section of wall four feet high and three wide pops out. You have to kick grass away from the base to get it completely open.”

“I’ll have Dirk go in first,” said Rei, “since he’s the smallest and stealthiest.”

“Do you take the map?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Curt nodded. “I give it to him.”

While Curt had his character Arslan stand behind, Dirk took a small lantern from his backpack, lit the wick with flint and tinder, and adjusted the chimney. A lens in it focused the light forward. Steve told them the four-foot-high passage opened up after about twenty feet. “The walls foundations were twenty feet,” said Curt, pointing at the map he’d given Rei. “So you’re inside the keep.”

The passage became eight feet high and five feet wide and was sealed off directly ahead by an ironbound door. Dirk ran up and found it locked. He extracted a set of picks from his boot. A die roll of eighteen indicated that Dirk worked them confidently in the keyhole and the tumblers soon clicked.

“Have Arslan go back and close the outside door,” Rei said.

“Yeah, but he looks out first to make sure no one’s followed us,” said Curt.

Tess passed Steve another note on the sly: “I creep out of the trees and follow them.”

Steve quietly rolled a twenty-sided die to see if she made noise, and it came up a four, indicating she did.

Steve said, “Arslan goes back and sticks his head into the sunlight, listening for a moment. He’s just about to withdraw, when he hears a branch crack back in the tree stand across the stream.”

“I’ll go investigate,” said Curt, speaking for Arslan.

Steve said, “Into the trees?”

“Yeah, but carefully.”

Tess put her head down and wrote furiously, and then looked askance to see Curt and Rei now watching her. Sheepish, she handed the note straight to Steve.

“I pray for magical silence. If that seems to work, I’ll sneak downslope and run up and through the door and close it behind me. I don’t need light in the tunnel, because I have darkvision.”

Steve rolled some dice. Rei began to drum the fingers of one hand impatiently while holding up his chin with the other. Steve stood up, reached over his screen, and took away his map. “I’ll give it back in a minute. Arslan emerges from the trees, and blinks in the sunlight.”

“Do I see anyone?” said Curt.

“No,” said Steve.

“Okay, I go back.”

“You’re about a dozen yards away, when you notice the door is now shut.”

“Crap! I run over and try to pry it open.”

“You can’t. There’s no handhold.”

“Okay, where’s that map.”

“Dirk has it, inside. You gave it to him, remember?” He glanced at Tess, who wore a huge smile.

Curt stammered, “Uh, okay. It was north, south, east. East again? West. Diamond.”

Steve consulted the map diagram. “Nope, sorry. The door remains closed.”

“Damn it.”

“Dirk hears the door close and notices there’s no daylight leaking up the passage.”

“ ‘Hey, Arslan, everything all right?’ ” Rei asked.

Tess wrote another quick note and passed it over: “I’ll try a deception check to mimic Arslan. If it works, make Curt say everything’s okay.”

Steve got up and motioned Curt back to his room, where he explained he’d have to pretend everything was okay if her deception check succeeded. He’d have to answer Dirk as Arslan, even though Arslan was really stuck outside and currently out of the picture. He noticed that Curt’s face was now ruddier than usual. They returned, and sat down.

Rei said to Curt, “Hey, Arslan, answer me. Is everything all right?”

Curt folded his arms and frowned at him. Steve tossed a die for Tess’s deception check, and nodded at Curt, who huffed, and asked, “What am I supposed to say?”

“Tell him you’re okay,” said Steve.

In a high falsetto, Curt muttered, “Yeah. Great.” Rei frowned. Tess hid her smile behind her fist.

“I go back and meet him anyway,” said Rei. “Something’s wrong, obviously.”

“With the lantern, right?” asked Steve.

“Yeah.”

“Are you suspicious?” asked Steve.

“Of course,” said Rei.

“Then you were stupid to bring the lantern. That chameleon armor’s not much good now. The light gives you away.”

“Aw, shit.”

Steve said, “As Dirk steals back along the passageway, suddenly his lantern dims and almost goes out.”

“I pick it up and see what’s wrong,” said Rei.

“You try to examine the lantern chimney. As you lift it to your eyes, you only see a faint glow. Do you look closer?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“You bring it close to your face and see fine particles like soot dancing in the air. When your eye comes right up to the lens, you get a painful blast of light.”

“What the heck?”

Tess passed him another note. “I hit him with Sleep Touch.”

Steve rolled a die, nodded to her. He motioned for Rei to get up, and he leaned over and whispered to him so that Curt would not learn something his character Arslan shouldn’t know: “Something grabs the back of Dirk’s head, and then it’s like falling through warm dark water. You’re out cold.”

Curt huffed in frustration. “Arslan’s really pounding on the door trying to get it open.”

Tess had begun writing another note. “Wait,” she said, holding up a hand as she worked. After a minute, she gave it to Steve: “I hammer pitons into each side of the corridor and stretch a rope between them. Then I go open the door when he stops hitting it, and run back ahead of him past Dirk to wait and see if Arslan trips.”

Steve rolled more dice. “Okay, Arslan, you knock until you’re tired. When you stop, the wall opens with a click.”

“I stoop down and run in with my scimitar out. What do I see?”

“It’s dark. Suddenly, you trip over a taut rope and go sprawling. Your helmet rolls off your head, and you land on a body. You feel leather armor, a cloak, and know that it’s Dirk. Then something grabs the back of your head, and you feel like you’re sinking. Weightless. Through warm, black space. You got hit with Sleep Touch.”

Tess said, “And ten minutes later, the spell wears off and Dirk and Arslan find themselves all tied up. A sinister cloaked figure steps forward.

“ ‘Hi, guys,’ ” said Tess.

“Okay, that’s b.s.,” said Curt. “A third-rank character took both of us out. What was that rope in the hallway? You’d have to tie it to something.”

Steve passed him Tess’s latest note over his game master’s screen.

After reading it aloud, Curt said, “When you made your character, did you really buy climbing gear? Let’s see your character sheet.” Tess delicately handed it over. He scanned the item list and then flung the paper back at her. “Pitons and rope.”

“What made you think to bring pitons?” said Rei.

“What good is plain rope if you want to climb something?” Tess said.

“He didn’t even get a luck roll to see if he resisted the spell,” said Rei.

“There isn’t one if the enemy gets a successful touch,” Curt said, pouting. “That’s one of the most overpowered low-rank spells in the game.”

Steve looked at Tess, who grinned. Without taking his eyes off her, he said, “She could have just used her mace.”

Curt said, “I’ve got the life points to survive that. Probably. And how could she see in her own darkness?”

Tess picked up her character sheet and tapped the line under her name that read “Race: Elf.” Elves had darkvision.

Curt tossed the pencil he’d been holding and spread his hands. “Okay.”

“Ready to go on?” asked Steve.

Curt shrugged.

“Yeah,” said Tess. She then affected a sardonic English accent. “You men are careless. What are you doing here?” The guys looked up and Rei began to smile uncertainly, but she was good.

Tess held a poise of lofty disdain while the guys worked up the courage to answer. The seconds ticked by awkwardly, but she didn’t break character. A little pale now, Curt glanced back to Steve as if for support. The guys usually didn’t get deep into character, which he’d always considered lazy.

“Uh,” said Curt at last, “okay, Arslan says, ‘Why did you attack us and tie us up?’ ”

“To demonstrate my skills and test yours. I’m hunting a vampire named Karsk, and I understand from the innkeeper you’re good in a fight. I find that hard to believe.”

“Okay,” said Rei in the role of Dirk the Thief. “You proved your point. Now untie us.”

“First, I want a half share in any treasure. That’s half for me and the rest you divide among yourselves.”

“No deal,” said Dirk.

“Okay, then. You can rot down here.” And then, Tess broke character to say, “I pick up the lantern, go down the corridor, and try to open the door.”

Steve said, “Remember, Dirk unlocked it already.”

“Wait,” said Curt, and assumed a low voice for Arslan: “This isn’t a treasure hunt. We’re finding out what the stranger is up to who’s brought the vampires. He’s probably kidnapped the baron, and we’re hoping to rescue him. If there’s a reward, we’ll split that with you.”

She paused, seemed to think, and answered as Megaera, “Adventurers with scruples, huh? How tedious. Well, if you’re not interested in looting, I suppose that means we’ve got a deal. All the treasure’s mine and half the reward.”

“You’re going to get us into trouble,” said Rei. It was hard to tell if he was in character or not.

She said loftily, “You’re infiltrating a vampire-infested keep. You’re in a remote town, and giants are coming to destroy it. You’re already in trouble.”

“When the baron finds some treasure missing . . . .”

“He can blame it on the vampires.”

“Whatever,” said Arslan. “We’ve got no choice. Untie us.”

“Okay,” said Tess, “as I let them go, I say, ‘I’m Megaera, by the way, but you can call me mistress.’ ”

The session moved along briskly then. At the end of the passage, they found a ladder bolted to the wall, and over it, a trapdoor. When Dirk went up and pushed the door, a heavy sack above ripped and spilled grain from what turned out to be a storeroom. They found more grain, some wheels of cheese, casks of wine and ale, and a side of salted pork.

Tess suggested they cut strips from the pork in case they found a dog. Then Rei had Dirk go ahead in his chameleon armor, and sure enough, the storeroom led into a kitchen guarded by a huge boarhound. When Dirk came back, he reported the dog, and then Megaera crept in and cast magical silence over the room. After a brief standoff, they tamed the dog with the meat.

Steve said, “You look around and see a large preparation table and several stone ovens built into the walls. The arched windows have their shutters open, and you can see into the courtyard. A half-naked man is tied to a stake some thirty yards off. He’s slumped forward against his bonds and has an arrow sticking out of him. It’s an older guy, with a beard.”

Tess said, “I watch him for any signs of life.”

“At first you think he’s dead, but then you see him twitch and heave a breath.”

“Can we get to the courtyard?”

“There’s a door to the courtyard next to the windows, and it has brackets to hold a bar, which leans against the wall.”

“Has my silence worn off?”

“Yeah, you guys can hear.”

In character she whispered to the others, “That man’s not dead. But if we go charging out, someone or something is going to see us. Let’s explore first.”

At the end of the kitchen loomed double doors. After a brief discussion, Megaera cast another magical silence over them, and then Dirk opened them up.

Steve said, “When Dirk opens the door, the dog slinks away and cowers under the table. You look into the main dining hall. It’s big as a church. Trestle tables surround a large open area. A hearth on the far side has banked coals that cast a red light over a pair of cloaked and hooded figures. They have their backs to you and are eating a roast pig.”

“Dirk goes in and creeps along the wall,” said Rei.

“We stay back behind the doors,” said Curt.

Steve rolled a die. “Okay, Dirk’s near-invisible outline slides along the walls. One of the figures glances in his direction. Its head is hairless, with a pale face like melted wax, and eyes black like they’re all pupil. The creature’s gaze lingers, but finally it turns away, apparently fooled by the chameleon armor.”

Rei said, “I creep back to tell the others that I think they’re shapestealers.”

Curt nodded.

“What are those?” said Tess.

“They can look like anyone but they don’t like to hold another form longer than a couple of hours.”

Tess said, “They must have been getting things ready for the guy who controls the vampires.”

“How do you know he controls the vampires?” said Curt.

“He must be. I think he’s going to be the big problem. We need to find out what’s going on with that guy in the courtyard first. Why would they stake him out there? Why did they shoot him?”

“To make an example of him?” mused Rei.

“Hey, not bad,” said Tess. Rei beamed at the compliment. “But no use trying to figure it out. Here’s the plan. . . .”

From The Giants Campaign, a Novel

As the thief crept back through the magically silenced doors to the dining hall, Megaera waved her new companions back toward the pantry out of range of the spell. She stopped them in the kitchen, and whispered, “What did you see?”

“They are not men. Beneath the hoods, their half-melted faces glisten pale, like wax or tallow, and bear the eyes of cats.”

In the convent, Megaera had been taught every creature known, in Brasdain and from the planes outside the world. She said, “I’ve heard of these, but they have no name.”

The thief, Dirk, looked to his huge, dusky friend Arslan, who growled, “They have a name.”

“Shapestealers?” asked Dirk.

“Yes,” said Arslan. “They can assume the form of any person their size. Solitary and friendless, they lurk deep in the earth, cannibals who approach each other seldom.”

Megaera pondered this. “So they have taken over the keep. Maybe there are more.”

There was a moan from outside. Arslan went to the kitchen window. He studied the man staked out in the courtyard, but the man did not move. Absently, he said, “The shapestealers are seldom heard of. A powerful Emir sought to capture a pair, to breed himself spies. His armies sought in vain for years, and fell prey to nameless monsters.”

Megaera said, “If our foe can enslave vampires, he likely has gathered and enslaved these shapestealers too.”

Arslan paced, eyes unfocused, as he scratched at his chin. “But how? Only the hero Rastim ever brought one back to the Emir’s dungeons. The creature learned our tongue and said that even mating for its kind was a treacherous contest. It spoke no other secrets. One day it overcame the guard and escaped the keep. The soldiers found it just outside, burned to death by the desert sun. . . .

“They do not cooperate, nor leave their dark caverns.”

Megaera said, “Apparently they can do both . . . perhaps if tamed by something more powerful than your Emir.”

Arslan scowled, but then grew thoughtful again, as if he confronted the possibility.

“We will be cautious,” said Megaera. “Here’s what we’ll do.”

Her plan met no resistance. As she and Arslan watched through the half-open door, Dirk reentered the hall and grew invisible against the near stone wall as his chameleon armor assumed the texture of the wall. Megaera could see the faint blur of his outline as he crept near the oblivious shapestealers. Megaera entered next, her hood pulled low to shadow her face, and boldly approached. The shapestealers turned and caught sight of her and leapt up. Dirk stole forward from behind as they challenged her in some strange, guttural language.

Megaera thrust out her hand and silenced them with magic. Dirk stabbed one expertly in the back, then leapt on the other and slit its throat. Arslan barreled through the doors a moment later, with the dog bounding up behind, but the job was done.

The dog ran up and sniffed each corpse as Megaera dispelled her magic. The dog’s soft whimper filled the hall. “So far, so good. But we should hurry.”

Arslan took and put on the least bloody cloak. It had a deep hood and distinctive white trim. Dirk and Megaera followed him back to the kitchen.

Hunching his shoulders to better hide his head, he opened the courtyard door. The hound started to follow, and Dirk caught it by its spiked collar and held it back.

As they watched, Arslan went to the man tied to the stake, who was stripped to the waist. Arslan cut his bonds with a dagger from his belt. He hoisted him over his shoulder. There was a shout from the walls in the language of the shapestealers. Arslan ignored it, and carried his charge unhurriedly back.

Megaera took stock of the man as Arslan brought him in. He had a gray beard, the solidly muscled arms of a warrior, and a paunch that bespoke a recent stint of soft living. He moaned as Arslan laid him down. His eyes rolled. The arrow had taken him just under the collarbone. His breathing came shallow and ragged, and his chest seemed to fill unevenly with air.

Dirk moved quickly to shut and bar the courtyard door. The dog licked at the man’s face and then barked. Arslan clamped a hand over its muzzle, and it struggled for a second before giving in. “We may have company soon,” he said.

“Dirk, put the dog in the pantry. Arslan, guard the doors to the hall.”

Dirk caught the dog by its spiked collar and dragged it away. Megaera renewed her silence over the hall doors, then bent to the injured man, who was just outside the range of her stifling spell. His burbling gasps told he was fading. She planted one hand on his chest around the arrow and, with the other, jerked it out. Dark blood welled up; the man’s breath caught and stopped. She mumbled the ritual that would shield her from the dark god and asked the light one for help. Her hand buzzed with healing power as she laid it over the wound. Blood reversed its flow; the torn flesh curled over the hole and knit. The man arched his back and drew a deep lungful of air, then subsided into restful breathing.

Megaera looked up to see a shapestealer crack open one of the hall doors and peer in. Arslan grabbed it by the throat and threw it into the room, all in the underwater silence of Megaera’s spell. The creature recovered almost instantly from a stumble and turned snake-swift, a short wicked sword in its grip. Suddenly, a figure appeared out of thin air against the brickwork nearby. It was Dirk in his chameleon armor, and he rammed his dagger into the creature’s side. The shapestealer danced gracefully away, spilling blood, but before he could counterattack, Arslan removed his head.

Megaera drew the flail at her belt and rose, just as three more shapestealers burst into the room. Arslan ran one through. Dirk crouched under a stroke aimed at his neck, and caught a glancing blow on his forehead as he stabbed another. The third had focused on Arslan, and turned too late as Megaera brought the flail down on its skull. Arslan grabbed it from behind, pulled back its head, and cut its throat.

The men caught their breath and nodded to each other. Dirk wiped the back of his hand over his cut forehead. “How is it?” said Arslan.

“No burning. No poison.” He straightened and slid back fading into the wall, ready for the next encounter.

The sprawled bodies slowly pumped blood over the floor. Megaera returned to the rescued man, waited for her healing spell to run its course, and then bent to his ear. The man stirred. At a guess, she added, “Wake up, lord baron.”

“Who are you?” the man said, struggling to sit.

Megaera held him down, and he relaxed to one forearm. “The enemy of your enemy,” she said. “How many of these monsters are in the castle?”

“I don’t know. A dozen maybe.”

“You know they can change their appearance?”

He nodded. “A boy arrived a week ago, slandering my family. When I tried to have him imprisoned, my own men moved against me, or so I’d thought. They’d been replaced. Slain, I suppose.”

“Vampires have attacked the inn,” said Megaera.

“Yesterday, the boy took me to see their coffins being unloaded, and told me they would subdue all my fighters still left in the town. He’s a sorcerer.” The baron pushed himself up, and this time Megaera did not hinder him.

“Why did they stake you out in the courtyard?”

“My daughter is hiding in the keep. They thought to draw her out by torturing me.”

“So is she really carrying the boy’s child?”

“No, though they tried to make me believe so when I’d been imprisoned. A creature in her guise came and told me this lie. But Zadrian is craftier than I am. When they made their move, she eluded them. She came to my cell two days ago, but she could not free me. She roams the keep.”

Arslan moved to the hall doors, tense, and looked inside, then relaxed. He drifted over and his third footfall made a soft thud as he left the range of silence. “Why would the boy embarrass and discredit you?” he asked the baron. “He put himself at unnecessary risk.”

“Aye, the boy is crazed. He was sent by his powerful mistress to harass the town until the giants come to finish it. He told me this as well.”

“I don’t understand. Why would the boy slander your daughter?”

“He seeks revenge on me.”

“Revenge for what?”

“It seems that I too am his father.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Rei said.

“Obviously his son’s a bastard he didn’t know about and resented him or something, and then fell in with the vampires and giants,” said Tess. “I’m more interested in the daughter. She must be tough.”

Steve’s dad called down from upstairs. “Mr. Harrison’s here, troops. Time to move out!”

“ ‘Troops’?” said Curt. “What’s he think we’re playing? Army?”

Tess got up. Curt and Rei looked at her, waiting for a statement. She dithered a bit, crossed her arms, uncrossed them, and planted her hands on the chair back. “I guess we’ll do this again next Friday?”

“Sure!” said Rei.

“Fine with me,” said Curt, then added, grudgingly, “You’re a really good player.”

“See you Monday?” said Steve.

She nodded and hurried off. Before taking the stairs, she paused and said, “Thanks, Steve. This was a blast.” Then she was gone.

Steve looked after her for a moment, then at her chair, trying to convince himself she’d really been in it.

You said she was a punk,” said Rei.

“She’s pretty cool, huh?” Steve said.

“Uh huh, and this was the best adventure yet.”

“Yeah,” Curt agreed. “She’s smart. She gets into character. I’m just afraid this might all go south.”

“What do you mean?” said Steve.

“We’re already bending a lot of rules for her. The whole game could break down.”

“How?” Steve asked, bewildered.

Curt shrugged off the question. “Also, she’s a girl; we’re guys — when’s the last time you’ve heard of that working out?”

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