AoM Chpt 7: Vampires, and Worse

Tess arrived on time for the game session that Friday, and in full punk regalia with her hair gelled so that it stood out in front like porcupine quills. She’d even put a button on her denim jacket: “The Ramones.” Steve hadn’t heard of them.

Rei had no smart comments at all, just stared as she came over and slumped into her chair. She raised her eyes to him. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m in character. Get me a Coke, Finnish boy.”

Steve waited till everyone was settled and tuned in. “No more shapestealers come into the hall. The baron is getting to his feet. He seems in remarkably good shape, considering. ‘Thank you for rescuing me,’ he says.”

In Megaera’s highbrow London accent Tess said, “ ‘If you have to thank someone, thank that dark giant and his little friend. I just came to loot your home.’ ”

“ ‘That’s very honest. I appreciate that.’ ”

“Well,” said Tess in her normal voice. “Megaera doesn’t trust him yet. I’ve been working on my history. Before the Dark Lady convent took me in, I’d been raised by a drunk who beat his wife. When she finally ran away, she took me with her and dropped me off at the convent. ‘Stay with the sisters. You don’t need a father, and men will always disappoint you.’ ”

“Is that what you think?” said Curt.

Tess shrugged. “Megaera doesn’t know what to think.”

* * *

From The Giants Campaign, a Novel

The baron cast about among the shapestealer corpses, and went and stood over one that still clutched a jagged knife. He planted a heel into the creature’s wrist to loosen its grip, kicked the blade away, and then went and picked it up. Arslan rummaged a spare linen tunic from his pack and gave it to him. The baron put it on. Its lower hem dropped almost to his knees and he shrugged off the annoyance with a wry smirk.

“You almost died, but you don’t seem upset,” said Megaera.

The baron’s expression became grave. “Ah, my dear, I have suffered far, far worse.” A memory, it seemed, glazed his eyes.

Arslan cut in: “Who is this boy? What’s his grudge against you?”

The baron shook his head. “Some other time, not now. Suffice to say that he was raised by monsters and cannot be reasoned with. Will you help me find my daughter?”

“In exchange for what?” said Megaera. The baron frowned.

“We’ll help you!” Dirk said, and gave Megaera a reproachful glance.

She said, “If your daughter eluded capture, she might have left the keep.”

“Possibly.”

“Wouldn’t that be prudent for us, as well?” she asked.

“You go. Find my men in the hills and tell them what’s happened. My lieutenant is Jonril; tell him to hold a guard around the keep, but not to risk any men trying to rescue me.”

“Why?” Megaera asked.

“Because my first duty is to my men, not my family.”

“Then why not leave? Your first duty is to lead.”

He shook his head. “My distraction makes me unfit. Don’t you understand? She is my daughter.”

* * *

Tess had been sitting straighter in her chair during their exchange with the baron. Now she tossed down a pencil she’d been toying with, slumped back, and frowned.

“What’s wrong?” said Rei. “That was pretty good.”

“Nothing. He just— I don’t know.”

Steve leaned forward and strained to read her mood. “What?” he asked.

“I kinda wanted him to be a bastard so that we could go nuts and trash the place. Now it’s like we’re in the middle of family trouble.” She looked up at Steve a little sad and then forced a smile. “It’s okay. Megaera laughs, and then says, ‘I think I like this guy.’ ”

* * *

From The Giants Campaign

Awkward silence prevailed in the dining hall. Dirk and Arslan stepped up beside Megaera. Her heart seemed to grow warm, a sensation she scarcely recognized, and then sadness stole in, like a thin fog over sun.

Arslan said to the baron: “We’re with you.” Megaera nodded, keeping her eyes shifted away.

“Thank you,” he said. “We’ll explore the dungeons and then my chambers. First, barricade those.” He indicated the doors that the last shapestealers had come through.

Arslan went over and pushed them shut, and ran two shapestealer knives through their handles. For good measure he upended a table and wedged its top under them.

“There’s a secret passage, over here.” The baron went to the distant end of the fireplace and tugged and pushed at some loose hearth stones, then bent to the ground and hooked his fingers into a small gap between the floorboards and the chimney, took a wide stance, and pulled hard. A section three feet square came away, revealing a hole with a ladder.

Dirk fetched his lantern from the kitchen exit, and lit it from the hearth. After taking the lantern, the baron descended into a passage. Megaera and Arslan followed. Dirk came last and dragged the section of floor over him using a handle on its underside, blocking all light from the hall.

With the lantern held up against the dark, the baron led them through a stone hallway. A hundred yards on, they passed a side corridor on the left and kept straight for fifty yards, to a dead end, where they came to another ladder bolted to the wall. The baron handed the lantern to Arslan. Then he clambered up and gave a tentative push at the trap door above. It didn’t move. He got up higher and strained, head bowed, with his shoulders against it. His effort budged the door up a mere inch and it fell back; then he sighed and climbed down.

“The room above is a cell of the dungeons, normally kept empty. Perhaps your dusky giant here can try.”

Megaera had a sudden presentiment of dark power up above. She had trained to recognize the feeling, like cold heavy air pressing down, raising the hairs on her arms, and tugging at her mind with a sympathetic discomfort of hunger and boredom. “You’ve disturbed something.”

“A vampire?” the baron asked.

She concentrated on the source of the hunger. To her relief, she felt the alertness of only one, but it was surrounded by other, torpid vampires that might wake at any time. There was a dragging sound overhead. “It’s coming.” She waved them all back down the corridor. “Stand your ground behind me, but give me room.”

“Are you insane? My best men couldn’t face these monsters.”

“I’m not a man! I’ll try to control it, but if I fail, run. Don’t look the beast in the eyes!”

* * *

Both Curt and Rei were fixed on Tess, as if she were really in control. He almost resented the competition.

Steve said, “You look back and see the baron glance at the ceiling. He has a terrified expression.”

Tess heaved a slow sigh and became Megaera. She glowered right through Steve, and clenched her jaw. “ ‘If the vampire gets control of me, run fast, because you’ll have two of us to worry about.’ ”

“Whoa,” said Rei, almost breaking the mood. “Where’d you get that?”

“Rei?” said Steve.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.

* * *

From The Giants Campaign

Megaera’s heart began to pound, but less with fear than dread. The sisters used vampires in their rituals to commune with the Dark Lady. She had controlled her first one when scarcely more than a child, but she did not enjoy it. To control vampires, you became more like them: cold and remorseless, and emotionally numb.

A moment later, they could hear the trapdoor being smoothly lifted away. A heavy mist poured through the revealed slot. As its leading edge reached the floor, the mist hung in a churning column the height of a man. A pale figure emerged, seeming to draw the mist behind and into itself, and head bowed, it strode up within two yards of Megaera. As it stopped, it raised its head. Long fangs crowded its slack mouth. Megaera lifted her free hand as she met the creature’s gaze.

The vampire’s eyes were pits, now bottomless, now shallow. Vertigo threatened to topple her; she concentrated. Faint cataracts on the eyes reflected the light from Arslan’s lantern, the pupils swallowed the irises, splotches of blood stained the scant white. Megaera could feel the vampire’s will vying with hers, as if they pushed on opposite sides of a two-way door, and soundless incoherent whispers twined her thoughts: hunger, for blood, violence, pain. Her mother superior had taught her that to trap a vampire, she must not feed its emptiness with her own passion.

She took slow, even breaths. Behind her, the lantern wavered, her breath caught, the vampire growled low in its throat.

Her heart began to race with creeping fear. She fought down her panic, regained her breathing.

It helped to complete this ritual by holding up a mirror. Though onlookers could not see a vampire’s reflection, it could still see its own. But she didn’t have a mirror. Instead she concentrated on how it had once been human, someone’s parent or friend. She felt the vampire falter, caught a memory from it: a child playing under the sun, running beside a dog. She imagined the memory as a marble inside her fist. Her arm felt a shock, like a great, recoiling tug on her veins.

The vampire’s eyes widened to reveal more of their bloody sclera, its face bunched with hate, and it snarled and hissed. The vampire began to retreat. Megaera hauled back her arm, feeling the connection like a taut rope, and the creature tugged forward.

The vampire resisted. She stumbled. Light from behind her surged forward, as Arslan came up beside her with the scimitar. If he struck the creature, she would lose!

Arslan suspended his strike. The vampire hung, quivering. Arslan cut his eyes toward her, questioning.

She shook her head and bore down with her arm, with her mind, making a tremendous effort. The vampire now shook so hard it became a blur. Fire seemed to creep up her arm through her veins. She gritted her teeth, and held firm. At last, the pull in her grip went slack. The vampire dropped its shoulders and its gaze.

Arslan lowered the scimitar.

She’d won.

But it was not over. She had a few seconds in which she could destroy the vampire, merely by willing it, to cause the thing to slump into dust. But if she did that, she could not use it. The opportunity passed. She felt a hollow, wicked exhilaration at dominating her enemy. And then a guilty regret. No matter how great her need, to control a vampire was to bully the weak, frightened human buried deep within it. It was an evil thing to do.

“It’s ours now,” Megaera said.

“What do you mean?” said the baron, aghast.

“I control it.” She could hear all her companions sigh.

“To what purpose?”

The disgust in his voice stung her, as if he had known the decision she made and judged her for it.

Megaera addressed the vampire: “Lead us up.”

The vampire turned to the nearest smooth wall beside the ladder, climbed it like a spider, and slithered into the opening, as if drawn by some reverse gravity. The sight made her dizzy.

“Who’s first?” she asked. Feigning cockiness, she smiled at the men’s hesitation. Before they could answer, she turned so they could not see her lower lip tremble or the weight of doubt and gloom pulling down on her face. Then she led the way.

Megaera took the lantern from Arslan and held it up as she climbed. A tomb smell reached her nostrils, sweetish, like faded myrrh or the last vestige of rot inside dried-out meat. The vampire stood above, over the opening, and she willed it to back away. Its shadow, and that of a pair of surrounding coffins, leapt up on the walls ahead. Five coffins total were laid out on the stone floor. Megaera could feel the undead within. One of them, somewhere, began to stir.

Just below the trapdoor, Arslan faced her with a quizzical look and she motioned him to hurry. A moment later he was up. Dirk followed, with the baron on his heels. As Dirk helped the baron into the chamber, a faint snap sounded, causing everyone to freeze. Somewhere claws scored wood, with the slow crackle of bristling splinters.

“We need stakes!” said Megaera. Adrenaline cleared the fog of regret that had settled on her. She could feel the vampires stirring all around. Even knowing how powerful they could be, she had grown inured to their danger over the years. They had always been kept well in hand. Now she fought a rising panic. She had a flash of memory, a man who trained lions. He had visited her village when she was very small, to great excitement. A week later, he created an even bigger stir, when in the next town his lions had ripped him apart. “Smash that lid!” She pointed at the coffin that had been dragged out of line from the others to expose the trapdoor.

Arslan brushed by the vampire, watching it, and shuddered as he passed. “What about this thing?” He pointed at the stoic figure.

“I think we’ll need it,” said Dirk.

Arslan tore his gaze away and stepped up to the coffin Megaera had indicated and kicked down onto it, repeatedly. On the fifth try, he managed to splinter the lid. The cracking noise continued after he withdrew his boot, and a moment later, the next coffin over trembled and its lid exploded from it. The vampire within swung upward as if its heels were hinged to the floor. It was female; a few strands of long black hair were still attached to the balding scalp.

Megaera shouted to her own vampire: “Stop her!” It remained impassive. Meanwhile, the undead woman crouched with the fluid menace of a jungle cat, picked out the baron, and leapt, fangs bared.

In a blur Megaera’s vampire rushed forward. He tackled the female in mid-leap and struggled up with her as she thrashed and hissed.

“Dirk!” yelled Arslan. He had freed a long splinter of wood from the coffin lid, and he tossed it to the smaller man the moment he had his attention. The thief jabbed his right-hand dagger back into its sheath, caught the stake, whirled, and jabbed it through the chest of the struggling vampiress. A look of relief washed the snarl from her face. She arched her back, and then went rigid. Megaera’s vampire released his hold and she plopped to the floor.

Crack! Crack! Two more coffin lids became unsealed. Thick gray mist curled over their sides and cascaded across the floor.

In a moment, two male vampires sprang up, and one moved to attack Megaera, but was intercepted by her servant. As the vampires struggled, Arslan impaled the attacker on a stake. Meanwhile, Dirk engaged the other, but it overbore him and threw him like a doll across the chamber. He smacked the far wall, and slumped limp at its base. The baron drove in, but the monster rushed under his guard, and sunk fangs into his neck. It began to twist its head as if to worry out the baron’s throat.

Arslan’s scimitar swept through the vampire’s neck; the jaws went slack, and the head fell away. The baron clapped a hand to his wound and blood pumped through his fingers. He sat heavily on the floor.

The vampire’s head and body resolved into mist that swirled back into a nearby coffin. For a night and a day, it would lie helpless. In the abrupt silence, Megaera’s breaths reverberated in her ears and mingled with those of her companions, echoing in the chamber. She looked around. Counting the servant standing close at hand, four vampires were dealt with. Something stirred at the base of the far wall. She retrieved and lifted the lantern, but it was only Dirk, almost invisible in his chameleon armor, rising where he’d lain stunned. The baron sat white-faced, his wind shallow and ragged. She realized she had no healing power left.

She could feel the energy of a restless vampire nearby. Her heart raced, and panic like diaphanous hands tightened on her throat.

“Arslan, more stakes,” she said.

He nodded, sheathed his scimitar, and returned to breaking chunks free of the coffin lid. Hurry, she thought. She now sensed where the newly awakened vampire was. “That one,” she said, pointing to the coffin nearest Dirk. The slump of Dirk’s left shoulder told of an injury, and when Arslan threw him a stake, Dirk winced as he caught it.

Arslan drew his scimitar again, and strode over to the coffin with a stake in his other hand. He reached down with his sword, extending two fingers from the hilt to pry up the coffin lid. The vampire within was the female they’d dispelled the previous night, still recovering, eyes wide, skinny arms folded over her chest. Megaera could see through the vampire’s mask of age that it had once been a girl, pretty in a bland way, with eyes a striking blue but now dulled. The vampire shifted its gaze fearfully toward Dirk, but it could not yet move.

* * *

Coiled up, Rei lunged in his seat. “I jump in and stake her.”

Steve frowned at him for breaking the mood. “Okay, she closes her eyes with a grimace that quickly goes slack. You killed her.” He said to Tess: “A couple years ago, you made a fool of an acolyte who was being mean to a younger girl, and you cast silence to shut her up.”

“Seems appropriate,” said Tess.

“Later she called you a freak and made racist comments about your ears.”

Tess said, “And then I beat the crap out of her.”

“Did you?” said Rei.

Steve held his breath, hoping she’d run with it. She didn’t disappoint him. “No, actually I said to her, ‘Yeah, well, I get why you’d make fun of me. You wanted to distract your friends from what a shitty spellcaster you are, that you couldn’t even counter my silence spell.’ ”

Steve nodded. “Right, that’s what you did. That shut her up as good as the spell. A few hours later, she lost control of a vampire in a training ritual. It should have been easy. The mother superior took the girl off before you could see how bad the vampire had bit her, and the next day the mother superior told you all the girl was sent home. Apparently not, though.”

Tess frowned at the table a moment. “So you’re saying Megaera got her killed?” She gave him an annoyed look. “Who cares if some idiot got turned into a vampire? I do an evil-priestess chant to get my shit together, and then look around.”

Steve worried he’d made Tess upset.

* * *

From The Giants Campaign

Megaera regarded the vampire that Dirk put to rest. In the convent, Megaera had been smarter than the other young acolytes and sometimes took a wicked pleasure in humiliating would-be bullies, girls like this one. Megaera had once broken her self-confidence.

A tide of horror and guilt threatened to overwhelm Megaera. But she could not afford to acknowledge it. They were not yet safe. Automatically, she began to chant in her own head: The heat and cold I abjure. / I move without distraction, / summoning my own path, / Over the abyss. She seemed to find her mooring. Her head cleared; her heart went numb. She was possessed by the dark goddess, callous and indifferent and decisive.

She said, “The one Arslan beheaded is back in its—” She caught sight of mist as it left the coffin and then swirled in retreat to the chamber door. It sifted under the bottom. Such a thing never happened, that mist would leave its coffin. The door had no handle, and its barred window was shuttered on the far side. Arslan ran up and tried to get a grip at its edge, but it was no use.

“It’s probably locked,” Megaera said. It worried her that the mist had fled. She went to the baron, sparing a nervous glance at her tamed vampire, standing by impassive. The baron seemed stable, but helpless. “Can you speak?” she asked. He shook his head. “Will you live?” A hesitant nod. “I can’t heal you yet.” She considered him grimly; he would be a liability. He fixed her with an odd look, raised a hand, eyes wide. Something was wrong. She felt a magical tug in her arm and made a fist. A weight seemed to slip out of it.

Puzzled, she turned, too late. Her vampire servant caught her under the chin and lifted her off her feet as it tightened its grip. The claws felt like they were about to meet in her throat. She couldn’t draw breath. The blood in her veins pulsed against the cold, stone-hard fingers. Blackness pressed in from all sides. The vampire hissed, and tilted its head, preparing to strike. It seemed to rush backward in a tunnel of darkness that swallowed her. Megaera had a sensation of floating and then something struck her side, hard.

It was the floor.

She came back to herself a moment later, to see the vampire staring down at a chunk of wood protruding through its chest. Arslan had one hand planted firmly over the monster’s shoulder. He pushed, and the vampire fell headlong to the ground.

“Lucky for you I didn’t trust the damned thing.”

She nodded. Shock had settled in. Blood flowed down her bruised neck, but she’d only been scratched. The monster should not have been able to break her hold, not for hours at least. An outside power had interfered.

“That vampire mist,” Megaera croaked, pointing to the door. “It should not have left the room. It was called. Whoever did it took this one out of my control. We’re not alone.”

A panel slid away beyond the barred window in the door, and a young man’s voice said, “No, indeed. You have done great damage to my plans. Normally, I would spare you for entertainment, but you seem a threat I should dispatch.” Eyes gleamed and took inventory; Megaera glimpsed heavy brows, blond hair.

Just then a flash of silver crossed the room, and the bright point of a dagger passed the window and extinguished the far eye with a squelching sound. The man’s scream was frantic and high-pitched. His head pulled back, dragging the dagger with it, but the quillons fetched up against the bars. The dagger came free and tumbled down inside the cell. Outside, the screaming went on and on, away down the corridor.

Arm dragging at his side, Dirk scampered over and retrieved his weapon.

“Well thrown!” said Arslan. “The son of a bitch will be wearing a patch after that!”

Megaera took stock of the four vampire corpses. All lay still. “We should retreat,” she said.

Silence prevailed for a few heartbeats, and then Megaera’s ears caught at the noise of something stirring unseen near the trapdoor. The baron seemed to hear it too. He glanced over, still pressing a hand to his neck.

“Good idea,” said a woman’s cool voice. The air shimmered, and the speaker appeared.

“Zadrian,” croaked the baron.

Her face below a mane of luxurious white-blond hair was chiseled and hard, mannish, but attractive, save for a broad scar that crossed vertically over one heavy brow and continued in a spot below her eye like a milky tear. She was clad in form-fitting leather armor much like Dirk’s, though reinforced with metal at the vambraces and greaves. A sword hilt peeked over her shoulder, and a dagger rode along her flank in a belted sheath.

“Hello, father,” the woman replied as she rummaged in a belt pouch at her hip. She drew out a flask with some sapphire liquid inside it, and she stooped beside him. With a short glance at the party, she said, “Gather round, quickly. Our foe will be healing himself too.” Megaera bristled at the woman’s presumption in giving orders, even with the need for haste.

Zadrian gripped the baron’s chin with a gloved hand, tilted it up to thrust the flask between his lips, and measured a portion of the liquid into his mouth. Then she handed the flask to Megaera. She paused before relinquishing it, caught Megaera’s eye, and made a deferential nod. Grudgingly, Megaera suspended her resentment.

Zadrian said, “Divide the remainder between yourself and your injured companion. Quickly.” Megaera did not need to be told. She quaffed her portion, and gave the flask to Dirk as he rushed to join them.

“My apologies,” said Zadrian, “I came late to your work in the dining hall, and arrived just in time to hear the boy’s screams.” She turned to the baron, who had begun to remove his hand from his neck. The bleeding had stopped and the rent flesh curled back together in a familiar way. “Is it true, father, that this boy is your son?”

The baron lowered his head. When he replied, his voice was clear. “It is not . . . impossible.”

She nodded, then grabbed the baron under the shoulders and dragged him to the trapdoor, hefted him easily with a strength that could only be magical, and lowered him onto the ladder. “We’ll talk later. Follow me.” Zadrian then waved Megaera ahead. Seconds later Megaera was at the bottom, helping the baron to stay upright. Arslan leapt the last few rungs to the floor, followed by Dirk. The air seemed to go heavy, and the scuff of Zadrian’s boot on the floor above seemed as loud as a rockslide. A moment of silence followed, and then Megaera caught the distant sound of complex, guttural chanting. “Move!” Zadrian shouted down, and they backpedaled away.

A ferocious yellow-orange light bloomed roaring overhead. Zadrian hurtled down before it in stark silhouette, landed in a crouch, and ducked a roiling jet of flame that groped within a foot of her back. Dirk flattened himself to the wall just in time.

Heat washed them, singeing hair and skin, and shadows sprang back from a dazzling flare on their bodies and faces, then flowed back as the flames curled up in retreat. Megaera saw her companions rooted in wide-eyed shock. Overhead, the muffled roaring and popping of the burning coffins was all that could be heard.

“Immolation spell,” said Arslan. “Very high rank. The boy?” Still in her crouch, Zadrian nodded; so did her father.

Zadrian rose and gained her composure. She took the lantern from Megaera and brushed past Arslan. “He will soon learn he missed us. Your dagger bought us no more time than we needed. Come.”

They followed her at a jog, the lantern throwing frantic shadows. She turned into the side passage they’d noticed on the way in.

“Where does this go?” asked Arslan. She ignored him.

The baron sprinted up to her and matched her pace. “Why didn’t you leave the keep?” he asked. Megaera strained to catch their words as she ran, curious to understand their relationship.

Not looking at him, Zadrian said, “You know why. Whom could I trust? The boy may have agents in the town.”

“You could have joined the rangers in the hills on patrol.”

“I thought of that.” A moment later she added simply: “I stayed for you.”

Megaera felt her chest warm and her breath catch for a moment. She had never known a father. Their mutual loyalty struck her with an odd, sad longing.

The passage now sloped down and ran a surprisingly long way. The baron gradually fell back with the others, leaving Zadrian far ahead. They had gone several hundred yards, when they turned abruptly around an acute angle and went at the same pitch, in a switchback. They passed into natural cavern for a while, and then back into paved tunnel. After another long descent, they met another switchback . . . and then another. Now the air began to grow colder. Beaded moisture glinted in the lantern light, and Megaera nearly slipped on the slimy flagstones. She could hear dripping, and then a heavy murmur as of deep, slow-moving water. The end was in sight. A low parapet loomed across the tunnel, on the edge of an open space. Zadrian raised her hand for a halt, skidded down to the parapet, and caught herself with her boot heel. Megaera, the others beside her, managed to stop sooner, but not by much.

They all took a moment to gain their wind. “There are iron rungs,” said Zadrian looking beyond her feet. “We can descend to a ledge and skirt the chamber.”

The sound of moving water was now unmistakable. Beneath it, however, another noise began to rise up, a buzzing, ticking, and clattering, like the churning of a great insect hive. Dirk tilted his head and turned slowly back the way they’d come. Almost unconsciously, Megaera followed his example, and sure enough, the noise steadily grew from that direction. “What is that?” Dirk asked.

Before anyone could respond, four shapestealers rushed down the corridor into their light. Megaera stepped back as Zadrian, Arslan, and Dirk advanced and drew weapons. From her back sheath, Zadrian pulled a formidable longsword that pulsed with a blue glow. The first three shapestealers held their feet with impressive agility but could not stop their forward momentum on the begrimed floor. Arslan and Zadrian pivoted aside and removed the heads of the outer two. Dirk met the middle one directly, crossed daggers through the creature’s throat, blocked a thrust on his vambrace, and side-stepped. The shapestealer fetched up against the parapet, turned, and wobbled, blood cascading over its tunic front. Momentarily, it held its footing, then slumped on the parapet and flopped over the edge. A second later, a faint splash could be heard from below.

The shapestealer bringing up the rear managed to halt, and glanced back to the corridor behind. The buzzing and ticking grew louder and coalesced into a low, generalized rumble. Then a darkness shot with thousands of glittering reflections, like obsidian dust, rolled forward. The shapestealer turned back toward the party, and the sword and the scimitar flashed out to bar its way. On the ground at Megaera’s feet, a spot appeared, then another, then a patter of spots, like a thick spring rain. The spots unfurled many thin legs and crawled away. A puff of gnats buzzed between Arslan and Zadrian. Several wasps sizzled angrily out of the darkness to batter against the lens eye of Zadrian’s lantern. Then the shapestealer began to scream.

A black mass of insects had folded around the sides of its head. It clawed its scalp with hands already gloved with bugs, and crouched as the swarm began to mask its face. The screaming became muffled, the shapestealer’s figure seemed to swell, became a formless hump, then disintegrated. From under the scattering mass, blood rushed across the stones like ocean surf.

“Jump!” screamed Zadrian, and not waiting for the others, she turned and leaped off the parapet into the dark, lantern held far to one side, sword to the other. She and the lantern arced out, down, and the light reflected briefly in a patch of roiling water before extinguishing with a splash. In the sudden dark, the buzzing of the swarm pulsed around them.

Megaera heard the baron yell as he leapt, then Dirk following. Not waiting for her darkvision to assert itself, she concentrated on a plea to the light god, and a ball of pale, heatless flame appeared in her fist. Her arm was awash in insects. They tore at her flesh and stung. Arslan beat at his face and arms with one hand and slashed out wildly with his scimitar. She caught a flash of his wide, crazed eyes. Then they both hopped onto the parapet, just in time, as the main body of the insect cloud shifted forward.

* * *

Tess said, “We jump already!”

Curt said, “Do we have to roll or something? C’mon!”

Steve enjoyed prolonging the suspense.

“We jump!” yelled Tess, raising her fists.

“Burning with stings and lacerations, blinking against pincers . . . .”

“What?” said Rei, looking pissed.

“You jump.”

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