Throughout the session Steve had felt complimented by Tess’s unreserved performance.
For the last few minutes, he’d barely noticed his cast, which had itched him badly all evening. The others were all focused too, and Steve felt the drama take on that rare life of its own where he could describe everything as if watching it happen. He said, “You fall about thirty feet and plunge into very cold water. Megaera’s globe of light wavers in front of her face, and it illuminates to the bottom of a very clear pool, about fifteen feet. You can see white crayfish scuttle among rounded stones and trout flash away at the edge of your view. A few kicks bring you up to the surface, where you hear the swarm buzzing overhead. Everyone but Arslan is treading water. His armor drags him down.”
“I’m going to claw my way over to the side and drag myself up,” said Curt.
Steve rolled a die, checked the result against a table, and said, “You manage to save yourself from drowning, but the sides are slick, and you have to grip and claw and dog paddle. You can’t keep it up too long.”
“I look around at the walls for a spot to climb out,” said Rei.
“Dirk sees the iron rungs up above, just below the parapet and below them the ledge that skirts the pool but it’s five feet from the water, and the sides of the pool are too steep and slick to climb — even if you had time. The water is flowing slow but strong toward a drop forty feet away, where the cave ceiling also comes down to within a foot of the pool. Zadrian does a wriggling surface stroke toward the drop and calls you to follow. The buzzing overhead grows louder as the swarm descends.”
“Uh oh,” said Curt. “We’re going to follow her, right?” Tess and Rei nodded, and he continued, “Arslan lets go of the bank and does an underwater breaststroke. He can crawl along the bottom if he has to. Let’s just hope there’s no monsters here.”
“You follow Megaera’s light. It accelerates as the current speeds up, then disappears. You two guys are in the dark and have to dive as you hear the swarm coming down. There’s no way around it.” Steve rolled a die behind the screen. “You’re a little slow, Dirk, and you take a few stings but nothing bad, three life points. Arslan, your lungs just start to burn, when the current sweeps you forward and you tumble through a chute of water at a steep slope. You see the light again, rushing below you. You’re all caught in the flow now. It’s not quite a cliff, but there’s no way you’d ever swim back up it. The waterfall gets wide and shallow and your faces are out of water.” Steve completed a few more rolls. “You’re all buffeted against smooth boulders but no one is struck hard or pinned. In about half a minute, a cave mouth with a view of daylight appears. The slope eases and turns into a pool, and soon you’re blinking against sunlight, in a bay of the lake that surrounds the town. The water’s not deep, and you wade out of an eddy to the shore.”
Steve leaned back in the chair and dug his fingers under the end of his cast as far as they’d go, to scratch. He could feel a flush in his cheeks. He watched the others’ faces relax from a pitch of tension and excitement, and sighed. “And that’s the end for tonight.”
“Wow,” said Rei. “That was better than last week even.”
“Thanks,” said Steve. The narrative had been tiring to pace and although he’d developed a clear picture of Zadrian, he’d really had to think on his feet to make a good first impression on the party, especially Megaera. He wanted Zadrian to join the party, which was sort of a conflict of interest: as gamemaster he was supposed to be impartial and play the antagonists and yet he’d be using Zadrian to help them succeed, but ultimately the dice would tell the story. If she failed a roll, he wouldn’t give her any breaks.
“Yeah, you did a great job. Zadrian seems like an interesting character,” said Tess, and pride lifted Steve above his exhaustion. “But before we take off, can’t we ask the baron about the sorcerer guy being his son?”
Steve had wanted to save this part. He’d been very proud of it when he’d dreamed it up before Tess joined the group, but now he wasn’t so sure. Still, it was his best effort. He took a deep breath and consulted his notes. “When you get on the bank, you clean out your gear. Everything is soaked, of course. Zadrian dropped the lantern back in the pool, but you’ve got all your weapons and important stuff.”
“Okay, okay. Get on with it,” said Tess. “It’s late.”
“Zadrian tells you that you need to get moving. She leads you into the nearby pines that stretch up away from the town. You’re in the narrow strip that connects the island with the mainland. When you look back, you see a deep dike at the base of the hill stretching to the bay and across to water on the other side. A wall forty feet high rises over it, and there’s a big gate and portcullis set in its middle. Everything’s shut up. The wall is patrolled, but Zadrian tells you that these are probably loyal foot soldiers that don’t have any idea that not everything’s right. A couple of them point at you, but there’s no big outcry; they’re just curious. Everyone knows the giants are coming and that’s what they’re really worried about.”
“Are you stalling?” said Rei.
“No, I just want to get this right. So, the pines are big and straggle into the distance. Zadrian leads you at a good pace. After about ten minutes you’ve finally gone through enough forest that you can’t see through the trees behind you, but you can just glimpse the island and the keep at its top rising above them. Finally, Zadrian slackens her pace, and she says to the baron, ‘Father, how can that sorcerer be your son?’
“He sighs and stops walking. His eyes look pained. You’re all on edge and a crow caws from a branch overhead. It kind of startles you, but he doesn’t even seem to hear it.” Steve found the speech he’d written up. He looked to see that he had their attention and lowered his head and smiled to himself at how eager they seemed.
He got ready to pitch his voice slightly low, but not too theatrical. Taking care not to rush the words, he began to read.
* * *
“ ‘Years before you were born, before I met your mother, the gods rest her, I joined an expedition to the far south, where the hot fens run along the delta of the Great River. We went to war. The local villagers were beset by a sorcerous hag that ate men and livestock. She had a keep far out in the swamp, and had gathered many monsters. This creature had been a terror of other lands for a hundred years, and many heroes had failed to subdue her, though she’d once been driven from the realm of the Tezcat, whose priests sacrifice men to power their sun temples.
“ ‘When we came to oppose her, she was confident. The nearby villages had no strength to withstand her, and she seemed to think that, since they were poor, the king would not bother to waste men defending them. But she had not reckoned on a king raised by the father of dragons, and now that we have one again after long centuries, the kingdom defends the weak and poor as well as the strong.
“ ‘At that time, I was but a squire. A hundred of us went into the swamp, picked knights armed with magic, powerful rangers. I was least among them, but callow enough to think otherwise. I learned a hard lesson.
“ ‘The tale of our assault would make a saga. When I told you this story before, Zadrian, I did not speak plainly. Some of the battles that I attributed to other campaigns actually took place there. The horror was so relentless, I’ve chosen to spread it over more time and space, maybe to be more easily believed or maybe to not risk too much remembering. A giant snake killed half a dozen knights on our first day in the swamp. Fish-men ogres snatched several more and bore them into pools to drown, then returned by night and killed half the watch before our elven archers brought them down. A young dragon met us in the dawn as we neared the hag’s keep. My liege was thrown from his horse and broke his back on an outcrop. I stood over him as the dragon shrugged off a hail of arrows, and then the monster plucked us up, each to a claw.
“ ‘We were borne to the keep. In a rough courtyard surrounded by two-score orcs, ogres, and other monsters, we were set before a young woman, divinely beautiful with shining gold hair and dressed in royal purple. She raised me to my feet. I remember the amber shade of the dragon’s outstretched wings mapped with veins against the sun and how her face glowed.
“ ‘Her regard was all pitiless ice. In those days, in my youth, I was handsome after a fashion, or so I’d been told. She seemed to reach a decision and stared hard into my eyes. Suddenly I knew nothing but a terrible need to please her. I knelt, offered her my sword and helmet, took her hand and held it to my cheek. I would have debased myself further, but she pulled away and waved at her creatures to remove me. Orcs dragged me to a dungeon, stripped me, and lashed me till I bled, but the pain of their tortures was dull and distant to the agony of being separated from her.
“ ‘That night she visited me in the torture chamber, and gave herself to me. Her skin was hot and hard, like the iron of a statue still cooling from the forge. Every touch was agony, but not to touch would have been worse. After it was over, I yearned to approach her, but my body was too injured. I lay shuddering with the effort to drag myself closer. And then she revealed herself, a hideous giant, nine feet tall, purple-skinned, fanged, muscled like a warrior, dugs hanging like spear points. She laughed and mocked me, and teased me with the idea that she might bear me a child. Her orcs came and threw me in a further dungeon. Perhaps she thought to use me some more before discarding me, but she never got the chance. The king’s men prevailed. The elves and sorcerers brought down her dragon. The knights slew her orcs and ogres and manticores. She fled.
“ ‘They found and freed me a week later, and dragged me away unwillingly. I lay in fever a month, healed by priests and magicians, before her spell finally broke. Even knowing what she was, I needed her that long.
“ ‘This hag had lived for hundreds of years studying magic. She was more demigod than sorceress. For a decade there was no word of her; then rumor came north that she had appeared on the Granite Coast, and that she had taken an apprentice that she called her son. Now, it seems, she’s abandoned the hot lands. She’s here.’ The baron pointed up the slope ahead, where hills massed above the trees. ‘She’s gathered a more powerful army, and she has decided to punish me for her defeat in the swamps thirty years ago.’ ”
* * *
“Ho-lee crap!” said Rei. “How long have you been working on that?”
Tess’s eyebrows rode high in sustained surprise. “You know, you really are talented at this. I had hopes during the first adventure, but that’s like something from The Odyssey or King Arthur. Where did you get all that?”
Steve shrugged. “I don’t know. It just kind of came to me.”
“Good job,” said Curt and leaned back, lips pursed as if tasting something uncertain, but slightly agreeable.
Tess cocked her head and stared thoughtfully at the table, brows knit in calculation, and worried that she might be trying to connect the abusive sex in the story to some unflattering insight about him, he said, “Megaera did really well.” The other guys nodded. “She’s easily reached fourth rank. I’ll have all your advancement points figured out by next session. It’ll get even tougher coming up, though. Megaera already got lucky. That vampire probably should have ripped her throat out; I cut you a break.”
“I thought maybe. I also thought the baron would turn into a vampire after he was bitten,” Tess said.
“Actually,” said Rei, “Steve has this idea. All his undead lose powers outside of a limited area. Like, they get charged up by an evil shrine or something. So unless a vampire is right on top of his crypt, he can’t make another vampire. And an undead skeleton or a zombie just goes inert.”
“Normally—” said Steve, and Rei cut in, “Yeah, right, normally, but you could have an army of undead if its leaders had a demon with them or carried some evil magic idol or something. And an area of evil power from another dimension could flow out and expand.” Rei waggled his fingers and spread his hands over the table, to represent the expansion of undead evil.
Steve was just a little too flattered by the performance to comment on how stupid this looked. “Anyway,” he said, “going up a rank will help a little, but you’ll still be pretty weak for the next part.”
Rei said, “Maybe you could run a side adventure so she can go up a few ranks.”
“What?” said Curt. “Without us?”
Steve bowed his head to keep the smile tugging at his mouth out of view. Rei said, “You could play at school, like over lunch.”
Tess grew restive and took interest in the ceiling.
“No,” Steve said, “that never works, and I don’t like explaining to other people what we’re doing.”
“Yeah,” Tess hastily agreed, pulled back to earth. “Maybe you could run a side adventure for all of us before we have to tackle the giants.”
As if in answer, the top of the stairs groaned. Steve’s mother stopped midway down, just visible to the waist, and bent to peer at them under the ceiling. “Sounds quieter. Are you done? Mr. Harrison has been upstairs with us for half an hour.”
Tess cringed. “Sorry, I didn’t even hear him drive up.” They all exchanged surprised looks. Curt glanced at his wristwatch. “It’s almost midnight! My mom’s gonna be pissed.” Curt and Rei had ridden bikes over, and they were each several miles away.
The group handed Steve their character sheets as they got up and dragged on coats and backpacks, then hurried off. Steve watched Tess as she took the stairs ahead of his friends. When she’d gone, he busied himself straightening papers. He felt flushed and almost dizzy from mental exertion, and tried to ignore the unintelligible murmur of conversation overhead.
The front door closed, and at least two people walked across the floor above toward the middle of the room. The conversation was still going on. He could make out only its cadence, a lazy buzz too casual for a talk between his folks and the guys. He heard the door to the pantry close, a few notes of his mother’s voice in that high scale she reached only when being solicitous to some kid, a brief rumble of the couch moving under someone’s weight, and then protracted dialog too settled in for goodbyes.
Just then Tess bounded down the stairs clutching a bowl of chips. Steve’s exhaustion turned to spaced-out euphoria, and his heart beat fast. As if to prove she was real, Tess stomped over to the fridge, shouldered the bowl as she fumbled out a Coke, and then came and plopped into her chair. “It looks like Alex is too drunk to go yet.” She smiled. “Actually, he’s only had a couple beers, but he needs another half hour or so. He called Tina and she’s going to bed anyway, so she doesn’t mind.”
“Rei and Curt left already?”
She nodded. “Actually, Rei’s dad had just pulled up. He’s taking them both home. Your dad was ready to send me out the door, but when Alex got him talking he changed his mind pretty quick.”
“Yeah, he can do a one-eighty. He does that a lot.” Steve walked over and eased into Curt’s chair with an effort at nonchalance. She extended the bowl and he fished out a handful of chips.
Tess studied the Death Dealer. “Maybe we could do a side adventure, after all,” she mused. “I wouldn’t mind getting to know Zadrian better, find out how another tough girl makes it on her own.” He couldn’t tell if she were making fun of him or just trying to keep the moment from getting awkward. “Do you think you could get an adventure together soon?” She fixed him with an earnestness that surprised and gratified him.
“For next weekend?”
“Tomorrow? Alex is talking with your dad about fishing, and I think they’ve already planned to go. When he’s not around, I get stuck babysitting his and Tina’s kids unless I have an excuse.”
“Sure, okay.” Steve had no adventure idea at all, but he’d worry about that later.
Tess nodded. “So, you don’t have any brothers or sisters,” she observed.
“Nope. My parents wanted just one kid, so they could have careers. My mom kinda wanted more, I think, before they had me and saw how much work a baby was. You?”
“Just me. My mom couldn’t take having any more kids—physically, I mean. She’s got a lot of health problems. My dad wasn’t supportive. He gave her a lot of shit for not feeling well because she couldn’t take care of him.”
“God, that’s awful,” Steve said.
“He was pretty awful, messed up really. His mom, my grandmother, was like a version of that giant hag, I think.”
“How do you mean?”
Tess’s eyes went suddenly vacant. Her cheeks colored a bit and seconds ticked by.
Steve waved her down. “Nah, nah, forget it. Tell me about your character.”
He had meant only to distract her with this comment and didn’t really have any special interest, but he persisted. “Megaera. What’s with wanting to play her evil? I think that impressed Rei, though.”
Tess lounged back in the chair.
“That’s funny. If he thought it was cool, why doesn’t he play an evil guy? I guess a thief is sort of evil, though.”
“No, he’s a good thief. Rei wanted to be a heroic-ninja Robin Hood-type thief.”
“Dirk’s kind of a lame name,” she said; “although, a dirk’s a dagger and since he’s got two, it fits, I guess.” After a thoughtful moment, she frowned. “Why the hell wouldn’t you want to play an evil character? You’ve got to keep everything together in the real world. In the game, you can kill and torture and steal and get away with it.”
Steve felt disappointed in her. “Why would you want to?”
“You guys like killing monsters.”
“Good guys kill the bad guys. They face the demons and beat them. It’s fun to be the hero.”
“I get that, but sometimes it’s tough to see yourself as a hero, you know? And when it’s just a game, you can do really bad stuff you’d never do in real life and get all that shit out of your system. Don’t you ever just feel like you want to get in someone’s face and stab them with a pair of scissors?”
“I guess,” Steve said, unsure. “But those are the kind of feelings I try to escape when I game.”
“But you’re the gamemaster. You get to play the bad guys!”
“Yeah, but that’s to make the game work. I want the good guys to win. I like playing the bad guys to get a reaction from the players, not because I enjoy being evil.”
“I don’t know. You seemed to enjoy messing Dirk up with that vampire and torturing us with those bugs. You’ve got some bad guy in you. Does the baron have some bad guy in him? I think he kind of enjoyed what the hag did. Maybe she woke him up some and made him not such a goody-goody.” Before Steve could protest that the baron didn’t feel like that at all, she said, “Maybe I should learn how to run a game. I’d enjoy playing the bad guys.”
Steve thought for a minute. She was pushing him, and his immediate reaction was to fall back. He didn’t like that, having to be the proper one. He decided to mimic her tone, if not her position. “The world is already too nasty,” he said. “School is full of assholes. Some of the teachers are jerks. I want to keep the fantasy world above all that, you know. Keep it noble.”
“ ‘Noble’?” Tess drawled, mocking him. “I think ‘no bull’ is totally bull.”
“I think you’re noble.”
Tess pulled back. “Me?”
“You stood up to those girls in the lunchroom. It was totally great how you did that. You were really smart and patient and you destroyed them — or at least Beth; the others were impressed, though.”
This took the wind out of Tess. “I’ve been feeling kind of bad about that. Beth may be a creep, but she’s not all that smart, and she’s probably insecure. I got a rush off it at first, but now I just feel shitty.” Tess crossed her arms and dropped her eyes. A moment later, she faced him at a thought. “And you! That thing you did with the vampire, having it be like her, you jerk. I was almost annoyed, I think, but not enough to break out of the character, and then it kinda sucked me deeper in. You’re pretty tricky.” She half-smiled and grew thoughtful again, staring down. Time passed and Steve began to think that surely her thoughts had drifted to some other topic entirely. He wanted to bring her back and was about to say something, when she said, “I’m not noble, Steve. Don’t say I am.” She sighed. “I meant it, I’m a bitch.”
“You aren’t. I won’t let you be.” He smiled, but she grew dark.
“You won’t let me?” Her shout apparently registered with the adults upstairs. There was a halt in the steady murmur of their talk. After an interval, it resumed.
“I don’t mean that,” Steve said hastily. “I mean, I can’t think of you that way. I don’t want to think of you that way. You’re awesome.”
“That’s getting a little old. Maybe you should drop it.”
“Okay, but I just—”
“You just what?”
“I just wish I could make you see yourself like I do, how cool you are. You make me want to be cool too.” He glanced down at his arm in the cast, and had a sudden impression of his own ridiculousness.
“That’s a heavy trip to lay on me.”
“Is it? Sorry, it’s true.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” she said. “Say, have you got a permanent ink marker?”
Steve got up and retrieved one from a cup on his nightstand. She took it from him, uncapped it smartly, and grabbed his cast arm, pulling him in so that he was close while she wrote. He yielded patiently and watched her face, which bore a wicked half-smirk. “There,” she said, and thrust his arm away. She recapped the pen, and held it to her lips, eyes shining.
“To Steve the Rock-Armed, cursed by witches, maimed by giants. Stay fantastic! From her most exalted nobility, the Lady Megaera — XXOO”