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. Megaera dispelled her darkness, and the baron is getting to his feet. The baron seems in remarkably good shape, considering. ‘Thank you for rescuing me,’ he says.”
In the highbrow London accent Tess used, she 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.”
* * *
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 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. My daughter may be in danger. Will you help me find her?”
“In exchange for what?” said Megaera. The baron frowned.
“We’ll help you!” Dirk said, eager.
Megaera said, “If she eluded capture, she might have left the keep.”
“Don’t you think that would 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.”
“Because my first duty is to my men, not my family.”
“Then why not leave?”
“I cannot. Don’t you understand? She’s my daughter, my child.”
* * *
Tess had been sitting straighter in her chair during this exchange. Now she tossed down a pencil she’d been toying with and slumped back and frowned.
“What’s wrong?” said Rei. “That was pretty good.”
“Nothing. He just— I don’t know.”
Steve leaned forward and watched her intently but couldn’t read her mood. “What?” he asked.
“I thought he’d be to blame somehow.”
“Why’s that important?” said Curt, as blank and surprised as Steve felt himself.
“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.’ ”
* * *
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, 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 and pulled it tight from below with a handle on its underside, blocking all light from the hall.
With the lantern held up against the dark, the baron led the way through a stone corridor like the one they’d used to enter the keep. A hundred yards on, they passed a side corridor on the left and kept straight for fifty more. The hall ended in another ladder, bolted to the wall. The baron 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 moved 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 that shifted away when she tried to pin down its source, coupled with a vague discomfort of hunger and boredom. “You’ve disturbed something.”
“A vampire?” the baron asked.
She concentrated for a moment on the source of the hunger. To her relief, she felt the attention of only one, but it was surrounded by other, torpid vampires. There was a dragging sound overhead. “It’s coming.” After taking the light from Arslan, 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. ‘How do you control it?’ he says.”
Tess heaved a slow sigh and became Megaera. She glowered right through Steve, and clenched her jaw. “ ‘To control vampires, you have to become even more empty than they are, and you don’t ever want to know what it’s like. 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.
“A moment later, you hear the trapdoor being smoothly lifted away. A heavy mist pours through the opening. When its leading edge hits the floor, the mist hangs in a churning column six feet high. A pale figure steps out, and the mist is sucked up into his back until it’s gone. Long fangs crowd his mouth.”
“I do my thing,” said Tess.
Steve rolled a die behind the screen, and said, “The vampire’s eyes seem like pits, first bottomless, then shallow. You get dizzy and feel like you might fall over, but you concentrate on the surface details. The lens is a little milky, with pupils that swallow the irises; the white’s bruised with patches of blood.” Tess peered at Steve closely. He realized she was looking at his own hurt eye, and he turned his head in annoyance before going on.
* * *
Megaera could feel the vampire’s will vying with hers, as if they pushed on opposite sides of a door, and all about a fog of emotions and incoherent whispers seemed to twine her thoughts: hunger, for blood, violence, pain. It was a dull, jaded lust, with no heat. Her mother superior had taught her that to trap a vampire, she must first refuse to feed its emptiness with her own passion; she tried to experience the thing not so much as a monster but a corpse, purposeless and dead, and sought the dead place in herself, even as her heart began to race with creeping fear.
It helped to complete this ritual by holding up a mirror to the creature. Onlookers could not see a vampire’s reflection, but it could see its own. However, 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. She struggled against the pull and then, abruptly, the vampire was slack in her grip. She’d won.
* * *
Steve said, “And here’s where you have a choice. You can control it, or you can have it crumble into dust. In the convent, you were smarter than the other students and got a rush when you insulted them. To control a vampire’s like that: you have to bully what’s left of the weak, frightened person inside it. You might be better off getting rid of it.”
“Yeah, well, tough. I control it.” But her defiance came across half-hearted.
* * *
The vampire lowered its head; the shoulders slumped forward.
“It’s ours now,” Megaera said.
“To what purpose?” said the baron, aghast.
“We shall see.” 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 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 couldn’t see her lower lip tremble. Then she led the way.
Megaera held the lantern up as she climbed. A tomb smell reached her nostrils, sweetish, like a trace of rot inside dried-out meat. The vampire stood over the opening, and she willed it to back away. Its shadow, and that 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 looked up questioningly 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 pop sounded, making everyone freeze. Somewhere claws scored a coffin lid, with the slow crackle of bristling wood.
* * *
Now Steve had their full attention. He knew better than to plunge ahead.
Tess leaned forward, nervous.
“Megaera’s never been in a situation quite like this with so many uncontrolled vampires, and you remember something from before you joined the convent.”
He knew he was pushing it, taking over Megaera’s point of view, but Tess just asked, “What?”
“A lion tamer came through your village, and everyone talked about it. No one knew that big cats could be tamed like that. But…”
Rei said, “What’s this got to do with anything?”
“But,” said Steve, “everyone talked about him even more later, when his lions ripped him apart in the next town.” He let this sink in a moment and said, “By the way, you don’t have any stakes.”
Tess actually cast about the room before her face lit with an idea. “We don’t want to open a coffin yet, but the vampire must have left his empty. Do I see the lid?”
In Steve’s notes, each vampire would come out as mist through a hole. “No, all the lids are on.” She frowned. “But the coffins are laid out neatly side by side, except for one….”
“Arslan, rip the lid off that one.”
* * *
The coffin was empty. The men broke the lid into rough stakes. As they passed them out, a mist crept up all around, and then three vampires rose up out of it and attacked. Dirk got flung across the room, and hit the far wall, stunned.
The battle was furious. Arslan, Megaera, and the baron managed to stake two of the vampires with the help of Megaera’s pet one, but the last vampire sunk its fangs in the baron’s neck just before Arslan could behead it. The vampire turned to fog that sifted up under a coffin lid.
Megaera’s own deep breaths filled the abrupt silence. As she watched, 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. The baron clapped a hand to his wound. Blood pumped through his fingers. He sat heavily on the floor. Counting the servant standing nearby, 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 drew ragged breaths, and she reflected that she had no healing power left.
“Arslan,” she said, “more stakes.” He nodded, sheathed his scimitar, and returned to breaking chunks free of the coffin lid. Hurry, she thought. A vampire was restless nearby, but she couldn’t tell where. “That one.” She pointed to the coffin nearest Dirk. The slump of Dirk’s left shoulder told of an injury, and as Arslan threw him a stake, he winced as he caught it. Arslan drew his scimitar, 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. He jerked in surprise, and Megaera drew close to look.
* * *
Steve said, “It’s the female vampire Arslan dispelled outside the inn. What stops you is the eyes. They’re open wide and fearful, but the face is snarling. She’s still paralyzed for a few more hours. Megaera recognizes the vampire too.”
“Really?” Tess said.
Steve nodded. He’d made up the bit about the lions on the spot, but he’d actually come up with this idea earlier, trying to personalize the encounter for her.
“You knew her in the convent. She was pretty once, in a generic-blond sort of way, but her blue eyes are cloudy now. Her dead gaze shifts toward Dirk.”
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 goes slack. You killed her.” He said to Tess: “A couple years ago, you made a fool of an acolyte. She finally learned to summon darkness, and when she bragged about it to a group of girls, you cast silence to shut her up.”
“Seems appropriate,” said Tess.
“Later she called you a freak and made racist comments about your ears.”
“And then I beat the crap out 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.’ ”
Steve nodded. “Right, that’s what you did. That had shut her up even better than your silence 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 it was. 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 began to worry. He didn’t want to upset her.
* * *
Megaera’s head cleared; her heart went numb. She was possessed by the dark goddess, callous and indifferent and decisive. Then something odd happened. Mist left a coffin at her feet and swirled to the chamber door. It sifted under the bottom. 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 from its coffin. That had never happened before. Her tamed vampire stood by as she went to the baron. He 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 breathe. Her veins pulsed against the cold, stone-hard fingers. Blackness pressed in from all sides; and as the vampire tilted its head, preparing to strike, it seemed to rush away in a tunnel of darkness. 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 over the monster’s shoulder. He pushed, and the vampire fell headlong to the ground.
* * *
“Lucky for you I didn’t trust it,” said Curt.
Tess said, “Uh, yeah, sure, whatever. So what went wrong?”
“The mist left the room, and it never does that, and the vampire left your control. What do you think?”
Tess looked askance at Rei, and muttered, “ ‘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 quickly.” An eye gleamed and took inventory; Megaera glimpsed heavy brows, blond hair.
A flash of silver crossed the room, and the bright point of a dagger passed the window and extinguished the eye with a squelch. 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.
“Good throw!” 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 go,” she said.
Silence prevailed for a few heartbeats, and then Megaera caught 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.
“That would seem good sense,” said a woman’s cool voice, sending a tingle of alarm up Megaera’s nape.
“Zadrian,” croaked the baron.
The air shimmered, and the speaker appeared. “Hello, father,” the woman replied.
* * *
Steve consulted his notes: “She has luxurious white-blond hair and wears form-fitting leather armor, like Dirk’s, but it’s got metal at the vambraces and greaves. A sword hilt peeks over her shoulder, and a dagger rides along her flank. Her face is chiseled and hard, a little mannish, but attractive, except that she’s got a broad knife scar that crosses vertically over her brow and continues below her eye like a milky tear.”
“Badass,” said Rei.
* * *
Zadrian rummaged in a belt pouch at her hip. She drew out a flask with some sapphire liquid inside it, and she stooped beside the baron. With a short glance at the party, she said, “Gather round, quickly. Our foe will be healing himself too.” 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 throat. “My apologies,” she said, “I came late to your work in the dining hall, and arrived just in time to hear the boy’s screams.” She waited for the baron to finish swallowing. He removed 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.”
Zadrian began to offer the flask to Megaera. She paused, caught her eye, and nodded at her in respect.
* * *
Tess’s wry smirk wavered toward being sheepish. “Shouldn’t we have this reunion later?” she said.
“Yeah, okay,” said Steve. “Zadrian tells you to divide the potion with Dirk. While you do that, she drags the baron to the trapdoor, and hefts him up and lowers him onto the ladder so easily that you guess she’s got magic strength.”
“It’s probably those vambraces,” said Curt.
“She waves the rest of you after her father, Megaera first. A few seconds later, you’re at the bottom. The baron’s really woozy.”
“I help him stay up,” said Tess.
Curt said, “I jump the last few rungs and help.”
“I’m right behind,” said Rei.
Steve rolled a die. “Glad you didn’t waste time, because suddenly the air seems to go heavy, and the scuff of Zadrian’s boot on the floor above sounds as loud as a rockslide. You feel magic building in the air from up above and hear chanting.”
* * *
“Move!” Zadrian shouted down.
Dirk just managed to flatten himself to the wall as a ferocious yellow-orange light bloomed roaring overhead. Zadrian hurtled through the trapdoor in stark silhouette, hit the ground in a light crouch, and ducked a roiling jet of flame that groped within a foot of her back.
Heat washed them, singeing hair and skin, and shadows sprang back from a dazzling flare on their bodies and faces. Megaera saw her companions rooted in wide-eyed shock. The light dropped to a glow, and overhead the coffins roared and popped faintly through the ceiling.
“Immolation spell!” yelled Arslan. Still in her crouch, Zadrian nodded. So did her father.
Zadrian rose, took the lantern from Megaera, and brushed past Arslan. “He’ll soon figure out that he missed us. Your dagger bought us little time. 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.”
* * *
Tess folded her arms. “How’d they get so close? You’d think that if he’s the kind of guy who has bastard kids like that sorcerer dude, then neither of them would care so much.”
Steve sighed into a space of uncomfortable quiet. “It’s not like that,” he said. “You’ll find out. He’s really a decent guy.”
Curt rolled his eyes.
* * *
The passage now sloped down and ran a surprisingly long way. The baron gradually fell back with the others, leaving Zadrian far ahead. The party had gone several hundred yards, when they came to a very sharp switchback. They passed through natural cavern stone a while, and then back into paved tunnel. They met another switchback after an equally long descent, and then another. Now the air got colder. Beaded moisture glinted in Zadrian’s lantern light, and Megaera nearly lost her footing on the slimy flagstones.
Megaera heard 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 check, and skidded all the way down, to catch herself on the parapet with her boot heel. Megaera, and the others beside her, managed to stop sooner, but not by much.
Zadrian held up the lantern and peered over the wall. “There are iron rungs going down. We can descend to a ledge and skirt the chamber.”
The sound of water was now unmistakable. Beneath it, however, another noise rose up, a buzzing, ticking, and clattering, like the churning of a great insect hive. Dirk cocked his head and turned slowly back the way they’d come. Megaera followed his example, and sure enough, the noise steadily grew from that direction. “What’s that?” said Dirk.
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 skidded toward them. Arslan and Zadrian pivoted aside and removed the heads of the outer ones. Dirk met the middle one directly, crossed daggers through the creature’s throat, blocked a thrust on his vambrace, and side-stepped.
The shapestealer wobbled past, blood pouring from its neck. It slumped over the parapet and lay there, twitching. Meanwhile, the shapestealer bringing up the rear managed to stop about twenty feet away. The buzzing and ticking grew to a low rumble. The shapestealer glanced back. A glittery darkness, like obsidian chips hanging in midair, rolled forward. The creature faced the party, snarling. The sword and the scimitar flashed out to bar its way. On the ground at Megaera’s feet, a spot appeared and crawled on tiny legs, then another, then a patter of spots, like a thick spring rain. 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, lantern held far to one side, sword to the other. The lantern arced out, down, and 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.
* * *
Tess said, “I summon light and jump!”
“You hear the baron yell as he leaps. A ball of pale, heatless flame appears in your fist, and Arslan and Dirk are beside you. Your arm is covered in insects. They tear at your flesh and sting. Arslan’s beating at his face and arms with one hand and slashes out wildly with his scimitar.”
Tess said, “We jump already!”
Curt said, “Do we have to roll or something? C’mon!”
Steve enjoyed prolonging the suspense. “Megaera, you catch a flash of Arslan’s wide, crazed eyes, before you hop onto the parapet, just in time. The insect cloud shifts forward right where you were.”
“We jump!” yelled Tess, raising her fists.
“Burning with stings and lacerations, blinking against pincers ….”
“What?” said Rei, looking pissed.