Just after she left, Steve got into bed and thought hard over the adventure, aware that Tess’s regard depended on his coming up with something good. Did she really like him? No, he couldn’t think that way. He’d get distracted and blow it.
The party had rescued the baron, and Zadrian too, in a way. That had to be worth a reward. The baron was really devoted to his daughter, not like Megaera’s mother superior, who’d sent her to fetch a vampire. What did she have against Te–, uh, Megaera, anyway? He could come up with that later, when he knew more about Tess’s family life. Had Megaera’s vampire been one of those that got staked and burned up? No, probably not. And what about that dog in the pantry? Did Tess like dogs? Maybe Zadrian should rescue it. Nah, that was dumb. Besides, it was locked in the pantry. It wouldn’t starve….
The giant adventure was going to lead to a big underground campaign. The hag would be a tough opponent, but even she wasn’t the worst. The party would have to do a lot of sneaking around. Rei, especially, always wanted Dirk to charge in and fight stuff, and that would get him flattened in what was coming up. He at least had stealth skills and magic armor. Zadrian was covered that way too. Arslan and Megaera needed some help, maybe elvish cloaks.
What Megaera really needed was a better weapon. She had starting skill in the morningstar. Luckily she hadn’t needed to fight hand to hand. In general a morningstar wasn’t that great, at least a normal one. Tess’d want something wicked. Presumably the hag’s captains had weapons to get, if the party could just beat one of them; they’d be powerful, evil weapons. He didn’t want to indulge Tess’s dark side, so whatever she got would have to be a pain in the ass too, if it was evil.
An idea began to take shape in his mind. Finally, it ran its course and let him fall asleep.
* * *
Late the next morning, he found himself sitting across from Tess at the gaming table, so tired he couldn’t quite believe the situation was real. His mom had left just before Tess arrived, after informing him that his dad had indeed gone fishing for the day with Alex Harrison. Mrs. Harrison had dropped off Tess on the way to the zoo with her boys.
Tess looked muzzy. She had on sweats and sneakers, her face was puffy and devoid of makeup, and bags showed under her eyes.
She was gorgeous. Her advantage over him was hopeless. He was too tired to care.
“Do you have any coffee?” she said. “I stayed up and read till late.”
“You drink coffee?”
“When I can get it, which is never at the Harrisons’.”
“I suppose it’s too early to drink Coke. I’ll go see what’s in the kitchen.” He struggled to his feet and plodded upstairs.
In the kitchen, he groped through cupboards with his one good arm, and finally located the coffee can and some filters, before looking to the coffeemaker and seeing that his mom had left an almost-full pot. This confused him for just a second. She’d probably made it out of habit, forgetting that his dad had already left. He tapped the side, and sure enough, it was cold. He put a pan on the range, emptied the pot in, and turned on the burner. He went to the window while he waited for it to heat.
The day was bright, and the last of the willow and maple leaves had come out in the yard below the house. Hood was clean, like alabaster. St. Helens looked gray and kinda lumpy. They said on the radio the day before that a five-point quake had shifted the summit. He’d stopped following all the small eruptions a month ago. It was big news at the end of March, but now it was getting routine. Everyone had been warning that old guy to evacuate, the one who lived under the mountain’s shadow on Spirit Lake, but so far, he seemed all right to stay. He’d die of old age up there, probably.
Steve turned off the burner, poured out two cups, and carried them downstairs.
Tess sent him back for milk and sugar. “You’re not my girlfriend,” he muttered, well out of earshot. “You’re my wife.”
They sipped coffee in a long awkward silence before Steve remembered what they’d been talking about.
“You said you were up reading.”
“I told Alex about the Dark Tower serial you mentioned. He was at Powell’s last night before he came over, and he found all the issues. You’re right; it’s great. I couldn’t stop.”
“How far did you get?”
“All the way.”
Already under a nice push from the coffee, Steve felt the last fog in his head evaporate. “All the way? You finished it?”
“Yeah, so now I’m pissed. I may have finished it, but you didn’t tell me that King didn’t.”
“Sorry, I got distracted.”
“Yeah,” she huffed.
Steve could not really understand her reaction. The Dark Tower story had engaged him while it lasted. He didn’t need a nice, tidy ending. Did that really ruin it for her? “I really liked the book, though, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, the atmosphere and ideas and everything were cool, but I wouldn’t call it a ‘book’; it’s just a fragment, and that sucks.”
“But that’s all there is so far. Maybe he’ll pick it up again someday.”
“I don’t like to wait for ‘someday.’ ” Tess frowned, and absently picked at one of her nails. “I guess the story was good, but now I’ll think about it, and I don’t want to think about it. When I’m done with an experience, I like to move on.” Her eyes slowly focused on him. Her gaze became keen. He felt a lump in his throat. “So let’s do this thing,” she said.
Steve was momentarily at a loss, heart pounding. Oh, right, the adventure. “I figured your advancement points last night, and you’ve reached fourth rank. You don’t get any new powers, but you’re tougher by four life points and you get an extra heal and darkness every day.” He took her character sheet for a minute to write down her new advancement-point total and other figures, then slid it back to her. She looked it all over, nodded, and then sipped coffee, staring at him over the rim of her cup.
“Okay,” he said, “here goes.
* * *
The baron lead the party through faint trails up into ancient magma flows. The trees thinned out and they emerged onto lava slopes. After half a mile through red rock and obsidian, they reached a patch of forest like an island. Camouflaged rangers detached from tree trunks and hailed the baron. They gave him clothes and a good cloak, and led the party first down into a river valley, then up through more hills to an encampment below an escarpment lookout.
In camp, men stood at attention as the baron passed, and he acknowledge them with a nod. Six fell in behind him with the group. Everyone went into a big pavilion tent, and the baron gave a full report as the party members stood a little awkwardly. He didn’t hold much back, and the men looked at Megaera sideways now and then, seeming both impressed and disturbed. Then the baron asked for news, and one of the rangers replied that they’d managed to isolate a group of giants led by powerful bandits. They slew all but the bandit leader, who had single-handedly defeated two rangers and a dwarf named Norli. The rangers survived but would be long recovering. Norli was killed. The baron grimaced and closed his eyes, and Zadrian gasped.
“Who was Norli?” asked Megaera.
Zadrian said, “A famed giantslayer and an old and dear friend. He taught me to fight.”
“So a bandit killed him? Did he get away?”
The ranger giving the report looked from Megaera to the baron, who nodded permission for him to speak. He said, “No, and he would have died of the hurt Norli did him, but we healed him for questioning.”
The baron said, “We’ll attend to him soon.” His eyes went suddenly red, as if he’d been crying, but he hadn’t shed a tear. ‘What did you recover from the foe?’ he asked.
The ranger went to a corner and hefted a large oilskin bundle, brought it to the center of the gathering, and opened it out, revealing a jumble of clothing and weapons, which he separated and arranged: a pair of giant-sized helmets, a few scrolls and potions, gemstones, four rings, three cloaks, a pile of coins, half a dozen fine daggers, a longsword, and a greatsword. He explained: “The cloaks are magical cloaks of concealment and armoring. They were proof against our arrows, and almost against the eyes of our elf scouts in full daylight. The blades are highly magical.” Megaera badly wanted to have one of the cloaks.
The baron gestured toward her, Arslan, and Dirk. “When you’re done with your inspections and have learned everything you can, you may give to these two men and this woman each a magic cloak, and a weapon of their choosing. They saved my life.”
To the obvious surprise and discomfort of everyone, Megaera walked over to the pile of loot, took up a cloak, and put it on, and instantly, she seemed to grow transparent. Aside from her fully exposed hands and face, all she presented was a faint outline shot with the smoky trails of the cloak’s folds.
Frowning, the baron said, “Is this everything then before we inspect the prisoner?” The ranger hesitated. “Yes?” said the baron, in a stern voice.
“The bandit leader carried a strangely foul weapon, my lord, like a morningstar, but of a dark substance that no metal can scratch, and in battle it moved under its own power like a snake. It is the weapon that felled Norli.”
* * *
Steve had been watching Tess as he described the morningstar, and her eyebrows rose. “I want to see it,” she said as Megaera, and then, in her normal voice, “What do they say?”
“They’re shocked by how presumptuous you are, taking loot in the middle of the conference. The head ranger looks uneasy, but the baron shrugs, motions for him to lead the way, and tells the other men they’re dismissed. You go through camp to another tent. A guard is posted outside, and you can hear a steady chanting coming from it. At the sight of the baron, the guard ducks inside. The chanting stops, and a thin, imperious-looking man comes out ahead of the guard.”
Tess thrust out her chin, and nodded: “ ‘Imperious.’ Good word.”
“The man has a well-trimmed goatee and wears a rune-embroidered gray cloak over purple leather jerkin. His left sleeve is bunched up in his grip against his right forearm, like a compress.” Steve pressed his own fist against his arm to demonstrate. “He makes a dutiful bow, but seems a little pissed off. As you watch him, blood soaks the wad of cloak, leaks over his fingers, and drips on the pine needles at his feet.”
“ ‘What have you discovered about this weapon?’ says the baron, and nods at the guy’s wound.
“He says, ‘I was careless. As you may have been told, it fights on its own. I suspect it has to feed. At first, we thought it was made of some metal, but it is not a thing of metal at all. It appears to be the tail of some creature from the infernal planes.’ ”
“You mean like a demon?” said Tess.
Steve assumed an arch expression he thought would be appropriate for the sorcerer. Tess wasn’t speaking in character, but he pretended she was. He looked between Tess and an invisible third party near the Molly Hatchet poster. “ ‘Perhaps this woman knows more of these matters than I do?’ ” He stiffened to convey the sorcerer’s hurt pride. “The baron says to the guy: ‘You have performed well, as usual. You have my thanks. Please go and have the chirurgeons fix that arm.’ The sorcerer hesitates, but finally he bows again and strides away.” Steve made a sweeping gesture with one hand. “The baron ushers you to the tent.
“Inside, you get an odd feeling immediately, like you’re not alone.”
* * *
In the bivouac shelter, Megaera and the baron found themselves at close quarters with its occupant. The flail had been lashed to an iron rod. It writhed in its bonds like the severed appendage of some giant insect. Megaera had never seen anything like it. The stiff two-foot handle was banded with iron, but between the bands, fat scales like massed shields overlapped seamlessly. Above the handle, a foot-and-a-half flexible, segmented tail writhed and dragged at a finely scaled bulb shaped like a turban. From the bulb’s top jutted a spike, and spaced around its equator, eight leonine, metallic claws arced out and down.
Nearby on the tent floor rested a chunk of horseshoe. Megaera picked it up and saw that it had been smoothly cut. At a thought, she dragged the horseshoe across one of the claw spikes, and startled as the ball flexed against the contact, extending all the claws. The one that pinned down the bit of iron sliced it through. The claws retracted again, poised. The baron said, “I wondered at first how the claws would not catch in armor. I think I see.”
Megaera nodded, feeling a warm stir of excitement in her gut. She ran a palm above the handle, and sinister energy pulsed into her like heat.
* * *
“Are you sure you want to do that?” said Steve. “You have this slight buzzing in your ears, like whispering. Remember when you told me how you wanted to stick scissors in someone’s ear when they pissed you off? It makes you feel like that.”
“Yeah, and mean.”
“Cool. I go with it.”
“Well, you think it’s really powerful dark magic and you should go slow.”
“Okay, I pray to the dark goddess for help.”
“Uh, if anything, that’s not the one I’d choose.”
“Tough, she’s the one who knows the most about this kinda stuff.”
* * *
As Megaera willed a connection with the dark goddess, a magnetic pull forced her hand down. When she gripped the handle, her arm felt abruptly elongated and constrained by the leather wrappings.
“Be careful,” the baron said, worried.
She glanced back and frowned at him, but felt distant gratitude for his concern.
The flail gave a shudder that she experienced like a muscle spasm, and then it went under her control: the flexible tail, the ball like a powerful fist, the claws aching for contact with flesh, iron, or rock. She flexed the claws, then retracted them completely. She could feel them sheathed under impenetrable lips of scale.
Megaera wasn’t quite sure of her control over the weapon. She decided not to unwrap it yet from the bar. She had the impression of sharing a close space, perhaps inside her own mind, with another consciousness, watchful and quiet, but powerful—and malicious.
“What are you doing?” asked the baron.
“I can feel it as my own arm.” She willed herself to release it, and suddenly its sentience thrust into her mind and forced her to keep hold, like a dog that had gone from sniffing at her fingers to gently but firmly clamping its jaws over her hand. It didn’t hurt, but she was stuck.
* * *
“Hmm,” said Tess, “I don’t like that.”
“It wraps its mind inside of yours, but you take a deep breath, and you can feel the edges of it, like a knot of anger and meanness. If you meditate, maybe you can pull away from it.”
“But if I pull away, is that it? I mean, can I still use it?”
“You don’t know, but you’re sure it’s the only way to control it.”
Tess planted her elbows on the table and leaned her cheeks into her knuckles, looking thoughtful. Steve waited patiently.
“One of my therapists had me do this exercise,” she said, “where I’d concentrate on hearing nothing but my thoughts for awhile and then I’d take in nearby sounds and then farther-away ones, and let my mind expand. I try that.”
Steve hadn’t expected this. He said, “Is that to get calm, or what?”
Tess shrugged. “Maybe, or maybe it will just give me an idea about what to do next.”
* * *
Megaera used her meditation training. She imagined her mind extending beyond her body to everything she could see, and beyond that—to everything she could hear: some routine order being shouted from the camp, a rush of wind in the pine boughs. The weapon could not match her expanded self, but it remained restive and imploring. She concentrated on her hand and slowly she could feel it as separate from the flail. At last, she opened her fingers and let it go. The flail lay quiet.
* * *
Steve said, “The baron asks if you’re all right. He asks why you let go.”
“ ‘It takes some practice to control, is all.’ Does he want to try?”
“The baron shakes his head.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, so now what?”
“You feel like you want to try again. The flail made you feel tough, and you got kind of a rush off it.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. What happens when I grip the handle again?”
“You feel it become like part of your arm and get inside your head, but now it seems tame.”
“What can I make it do?”
“You hardly have to think. It’s like part of you. Extending the claws is like making a fist. You can feel the neck of it like your own arm, flexing against the straps.”
“Am I really in control?”
“You think so.”
“Okay, can I untie it?”
Steve hadn’t forgotten that Tess asked for help from the dark goddess, who would still be watching.
* * *
Megaera picked the knot loose in the leather thong with her free hand and unwrapped it from the bar, which fell away. An exhilaration of relief and freedom ran through the weapon. She could not say whether she originated this feeling, nor did she know whether her impulse to lash the air and extend the claws was all her own. No mere tool had ever felt like this. Its slight weight was more than compensated by its own strength and energy. The baron, alarmed, took a step back and reached for the tent flap. In a flash, she was filled with ecstatic cruelty. She wanted to rip him apart. No one in the camp could stand against her.
The dark goddess herself seemed to be looking over Megaera’s shoulder, urging her to give in. In a flash of panic, she realized that she liked the baron and Zadrian and had hoped to learn more about them, but she knew that in seconds, the hope would end.
* * *
“Well?” said Steve. “What do you do?”
“I have a choice?”
Tess’s cheeks had gone pink. “Well, it would be stupid to kill the baron after we’d just rescued him. What good would it do?”
“What good does evil ever do?” said Steve. He thought about that line a second and cringed.
“Pfft. That’s lame.” She leaned back and her color faded.
“I thought you wanted to play an evil character,” said Steve.
“Edgy and dark, yeah; evil the way most people think of evil.”
“Well, I don’t think of edgy and dark as evil,” said Steve. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m not going to kill him.”
“Okay, so how are you not going to do that?” asked Steve.
“I just won’t.”
“The flail pulls back like a rearing cobra. It feels good. If you just act passive, you’ll kill him; you can tell.”
“Okay, I’ll resist. I’ll do that meditation thing.”
“That’s very hard to do, but you manage to get a little perspective. Just enough to know you’ve got to try something else and that the goddess you called is enjoying this over your shoulder.”
“Can I call on the light god?”
“Steve,” Tess said, exasperated. “Do you know what ‘didactic’ means?”
“Yeah, I do.” Actually, he wanted to move her character away from all the praying stuff.
“Then stop that shit. You’re bumming me out.” After a pause, “Okay, if I can’t do it on my own, I ask for help from the light god.”
“You feel a presence intervene, and the impression of watching over your shoulder goes away. The light god doesn’t help you more than that, but now you’re alone with the flail. It’s still very hard to resist, but you can see the separation between you and it more clearly. Then the flail asks a question, or really it’s more like the impression of a question, not words. ‘What should we do?’ ”
“You can tell it doesn’t think of itself apart from you.”
“I tell it, ‘There’s no we, buddy.’ There’s me. I’m in control. You do what I want.”
“It’s puzzled, but it agrees, grudgingly. It can’t understand why you’d restrain yourself.”
“Maybe I won’t, later, if someone pisses me off.”
“That idea makes it very happy,” Steve said with a frown. Tess curled her lip in a snarl.