AoM Chpt 4: Megaera

Chapter 4: Megaera

“Chuck and the guys are in the basement.”

Steve winced at his dad’s use of his name, paced for a moment, 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, and her brows had been thinned. Steve glanced back to see Rei stop his Coke halfway to his open mouth. This new Tess was even prettier than the old one.

He wished she’d come punked out.

“Hi, Steve,” she said, uncertainly, and looked past him toward the other guys.

Steve’s mouth felt dry. A second later, he caught a faint jasmine 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 down 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 she noticed the Death Dealer. Rei turned to follow her gaze. “That’s our mascot,” he said.

Curt winced and shielded his brow with one hand.

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 noisily. “Nice.” She slurped her Coke.

“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. 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 and add them together for each attribute.”

“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 worshipped 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. 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. Actually 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.

“Morningstar,” 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. When they’d gotten near the stairs, 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 can 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 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 don’t see the 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 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.”

The tiny passage opened out after about twenty feet, which Curt observed to be the thickness of the wall’s foundations. While his character Arslan stood 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. The passage was eight feet high and five feet wide at this point, 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, worked them confidently in the keyhole until the tumblers 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 and follow them.”

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

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.”

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, because I have darkvision.”

Steve rolled some dice. Rei began to drum the fingers of one hand while holding 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.”

“So I see anyone?” said Curt.

“No.”

“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.” He glanced at Tess, who wore a huge smile.

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

“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 roleplay Tess’s character for Rei if her deception check succeeded. In any case, Arslan was 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 in confusion. Tess hid her smile behind her fist.

“I go back and meet him anyway,” said Rei. “Something’s not right, 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.”

“Aw, shit.”

“Dirk steals back along the passageway. Suddenly his lantern dims and almost goes out.”

“I pick it up and see what’s wrong.”

“You try to examine the chimney. As you lift it to your eyes, you see a faint glow where the lens was. 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 in his ear: “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 and said, “Arslan’s really pounding on the door trying to get it open.”

Tess had begun writing another note. “Wait,” she said. 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 to see if he trips.”

Steve rolled more dice. “Okay, Curt, 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. Then something grabs the back of your head, and you sink. Weightless. Through warm, black space. You got hit with Sleep Touch.”

Tess said, “And sometime later, Dirk and Arslan find themselves all tied up. A sinister cloaked figure says, ‘Hi, guys.’ ”

“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, “Let’s see your character sheet.” 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,” said Rei.

“There isn’t one if the enemy gets a successful touch,” Curt pouted. “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.”

“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.”

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 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, honestly.”

“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. 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, and sure enough, the storeroom led into a kitchen guarded by a huge boarhound. Rei sent Dirk ahead in his chameleon armor. He came back and 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.”

“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 two double doors. After a brief discussion, Megaera cast another magical silence over them, and then Dirk opened them up.

Steve said, “When Rei 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 and 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. 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….”

Tess had them attack the shapestealers to get their cloaks. Dirk reentered the hall and circled around them. Then Megaera walked in with her hood pulled down over her face. When the creatures noticed her, she cast silence on them and retreated to the kitchen. There, Arslan sprang an ambush while Dirk attacked from behind.

The plan went perfectly, and in a flurry of dice rolls to decide attacks and counterattacks, they killed the shapestealers.

They executed the rest of Tess’s plan. Arslan took the least-messy cloak, which had a deep hood and distinctive white trim. Dirk and Megaera followed him to the outside door. Hunching his shoulders to better hide his head, he opened it. The hound started to follow, but at Megaera’s direction, Dirk caught it by its spiked collar and held it back.

The man in the courtyard was stripped to the waist. 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 lifted his head, and 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. Arslan cut him away from the stake with a dagger from his belt, and hoisted him over his shoulder. There was a shout from the walls in the language of the shapestealers. Arslan pretended to ignore it, and carried the man back unhurriedly.

Once inside, he laid him on the ground and shut and barred the door. The dog licked at the man’s face and then barked loudly. Arslan clamped a hand over its muzzle; it struggled for a minute before giving in.

“Okay,” said Tess, “we need Dirk to take the dog back and shut it up in the pantry.”

Rei said, “Why didn’t we think about that earlier?”

“I did think of it,” said Tess, “but I wanted to see what it would do. The dog didn’t like the invaders, but he likes this guy, so he must be all right.”

“Yeah,” said Rei, surprised. “I guess so.”

“I have Arslan carry him back into the dining hall,” said Curt.

In the hall, the party noticed double doors leading to another wing of the keep. Megaera silenced the doors and then tended to the man while Arslan and Dirk guarded them.

Steve said, “His gasping breaths tell you he’s fading.”

“Okay, first I plant one hand on his chest around the arrow and jerk it out with the other, and then I quickly cast a healing spell.”

“Dark blood wells up; the man’s breath catches and stops. Before you can cast healing, you need to do a quick ritual to shield your mind from the dark god and ask the light one for help.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Tess said, exasperated.

“Your hand buzzes with healing power and you lay it over the wound. His leaking blood reverses its flow, and the torn flesh curls and knits together. He arches his back and gasps, then breathes calmly.

“Meanwhile, where Dirk and Arslan are at, a shapestealer cracks the double doors, and looks inside. Roll to see if Arslan can ambush him, Curt.”

Arslan managed to surprise the shapestealer and drag it into the room. Meanwhile, three more followed. Steve kept an anxious eye on Tess, alert for impatience while he and the guys rolled dice. Arslan made some attack rolls that normally would have indicated near misses, but to move things along, he said they hit. The battle wrapped up in record time, and he turned back to Tess.

“Done?” she said with a frown. “I think I’ve figured out who this guy is. I say, ‘Wake up, lord baron.’ ”

“ ‘Who are you?’ the man asks.”

“The enemy of your enemy. How many shapestealers are in the castle?”

“A score, maybe fewer.”

“Vampires?”

“ ‘I don’t know. The boy has control of them.’ The baron tries to sit up.”

“Megaera pushes him back. ‘What else do we face?’ ”

“Shapestealers began taking over the keep last week, I think. Perhaps they’ve been here longer. When I tried to imprison the boy, they all made their move; I thought my own men had been bewitched against me. Instead, they’d been replaced. Slain, I suppose. I’ve been a prisoner. The vampires and their coffins arrived yesterday by wagon. The boy took me to see them being unloaded, and told me the vampires would subdue all my men still left in the town. He was sent to harass the town until the giants might finish it. He’s a sorcerer.”

“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 did this sorcerer get her pregnant?”

“No, he never touched her; she’s not pregnant. They managed to surprise me, but Zadrian is craftier. When they’d made their move, she escaped. She visited my cell two days ago, but she could not free me. She roams the keep.”

“I don’t understand. Why would the sorcerer try to embarrass you and your daughter?”

“He seeks revenge.”

“Revenge for what?”

“It seems that I am his father too.”

“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 great, 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 that working out?”

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