Non Player Character (Chapter 1: The Ultimate Escapism)

Non Player Character is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it!

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Chapter One: The Ultimate Escapism

I was standing on a stranger’s doorstep and wishing my feet were nailed to the ground. Even now, I could feel the build up of pressure in my chest, the restlessness growing in my legs making me jiggle slightly on the spot. I was a champion of accidental “ding-dong-ditch”. I would go somewhere new, ring the bell, and the next thing I knew I was sprinting to my car with my hood up and the sense that the wolves were on my heels.

But this time was different. There was a friend waiting inside, and there was a game that was going to change my life.

That’s what he’d promised me, anyway, when we were on a raid in the Tomb of the Witch King. I was knee-deep in zombies and taking a beating, crouched under my shield, when he sent a blast of golden energy across the floor, setting me free.

‘Oh my god.’ I pulled a glowing silver potion from one of the corpses scattered around me. ‘This is a potion of experience! This is the best thing to happen to me all week!’

‘Haha, yeah!’ Arries laughed down the line. He had the voice of a natural encourager, the kind of person who could cheerfully talk you into anything without ever seeming like he was trying to. Which was something I really liked about him but should probably have put me more on guard. He’d already talked me into voice chat (‘it’ll be so much more convenient than typing while we play!’) and joining his in-game guild (‘I’ll get you better gear from the guild equipment and you can finally do that sixteen man raid!’) and though it seemed insane whenever I thought back, I’d given him my phone number (‘we can text each other whenever we’re online!’) which I think was three more things than anyone had talked me into ever.

Right now, his laughter was fading into silence, which was always a warning sign with Arries. ‘Wait — this was really the best thing to happen to you all week?’

I stared at the game, trying to see this robed-and-hooded lizardman healer as anything more than pixels on a screen. ‘When you say it like that, it sounds sad,’ I said.

His character raised its hands. ‘XP potions are ultra-rare and amazing,’ he said.

‘Right,’ I said.

‘So I’m not suggesting that you couldn’t have had a week full of fun and thrills …’

I frowned at the screen. ‘I don’t like the way you say thrills.’

‘… Have you, though?’

‘Arries!’ I konked him on the head with the pommel of my sword. ‘Yes, my week of guiding bored customers through a lifeless tourist trap museum has been exhilarating.’ I paused. ‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t need anything more thrilling than this.’

‘Okay,’ he said, like he was talking me down from a ledge. ‘Wanna trigger the boss fight?’

‘Sure,’ I said. But it niggled at me. And twenty minutes and several resurrections later, when we were sitting on the mountainous form of the fallen undead yeti and were dividing the spoils, I said, ‘You work full-time and still play ARO four hours a day.’

‘Yeah?’

I  chewed my lip, staring at the screen. ‘So this game is your whole life, too.’ I winced at the sound of my own voice. I sounded defensive, and I hated sounding defensive. I wanted to be the kind of person who could let things go. Who could breeze through life unaffected.

I was not breezy, however. If I was weather, I’d be suffocating still air or gale force winds, with no inbetween. Maybe that was good, though. Mum was the kind of person people described as breezy, but she was also the kind of person who got parking tickets every week and had four psychics in her phone contacts.

‘I wouldn’t say it’s my whole life,’ said Arries. ‘I socialise a lot. You know: parties. Game nights. I’m in a lot of clubs, too.’

‘You go clubbing?’ I boggled, trying to paint a picture of this guy I’d known for two years through the world’s third most popular online roleplaying game and match it up with the kind of person who got into a lot of clubs.

‘No, clubs. You know — tennis, bowling. I’m in a knitting group, too.’

‘Right, that makes sense.’ I wiped a bit of sweat from my brow. Sweating made me feel uncomfortable, like I was being watched — or worse, smelled. Which you might think wouldn’t matter when the person I was talking to was the other end of an internet connection, but you’d be underestimating my ability to worry.

We discussed the loot a bit more, Arries giving me all his biggest weapons and spikiest armour, me giving him all the magic scrolls I’d collected. A pause, then: ‘Tar?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Are you, you know … happy?’

‘My therapist thinks so,’ I said, then, because I hated lying, ‘That was a joke, by the way.’

‘A joke because you don’t have a therapist or a joke because you have one and she thinks you’re unhappy?’

‘Kind of both,’ I said. ‘I’m meant to have a therapist but I kind of hate her. Her job seems to consist entirely of trying to make me do things I don’t want to do.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like talk about my feelings,’ I said. ‘Which we are somehow doing. Now. Instead of playing.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to — look, do you want to join my D&D group?’

‘Your what?’

‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ he said, and his voice took on a reverence I’d only heard when people talked about god. ‘Tar, it’s the real deal.’

‘You’re going to have to explain more than that,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure I know what the ‘fake’ deal is either.’

‘It’s … it’s another world. Another life, you know? Like ARO, except you can do anything. Anything at all. But it’s still fun, because there are consequences and like … story. Like a cross between a book and an MMO.’

‘I already have both of those things,’ I said.

‘This is better,’ he said. ‘This is a game that’ll change your life.’

And somehow, a week later I left the house where I lodged in my small room, donned my ARO hoodie and my least ratty jeans, and now I was standing on the doorstep of Arries’ mysterious ‘dungeon master’ which he assured me was not even a tenth as kinky as it sounded.

Because even though I hated change, I was ready for it. I wanted ‘the real deal’. I wanted escapism on a higher level than online fantasy games could give me.

So when the door clicked with the sound of a key turning in the lock, I tensed but I didn’t flee, as my prey animal ‘fight or flight’ instincts wanted me too.

The door swung open and there was a guy I’d never seen before, somehow taking up the entire doorway with his smile. I flinched from the intensity of it. He looked eighteen or nineteen, which was only a handful of years younger than me but it felt like centuries. He was short and slender with jewel brown skin and close-cropped black hair.

He was also wearing an ARO hoodie the twin of my own.

‘TarAntula?’ He said, and being greeted by my username forced a smile from me.

‘It’s just Tar, IRL,’ I said, and his smile somehow got even bigger.

‘I feel like I should hug you. Can I hug you?’

I laughed. ‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said, because I was certain that I was even now becoming disgustingly sticky with what I called ‘the social sweats’.

If he thought I was sweaty, he didn’t say it. He said, ‘Come in! Come in! The actual TarAntula, in the flesh, at my actual dungeon master’s house. Shoes go there,’ he said, as casually as if he lived here, but I knew he didn’t.

I toed off my shoes, stumbling as I did. Arries grabbed my elbow to save me from face-planting directly into the wall. He quickly released me when I’d stabilised.

‘You okay?’ he said. I didn’t think he was talking about my near-miss with a concussion. Even though I’d never seen his face before, everything about his expression seemed familiar — it was a look of friendly concern that perfectly matched the voice of my best friend.

Maybe this whole ‘in real life’ thing wasn’t as terrible as I’d thought. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, because my chest was tight and I was sweaty and my thoughts were jumping between flatline and defibrillator. ‘Can we pretend that I am?’

‘Fake it ‘til you make it,’ he said, his smile toned down to something more gentle. ‘Yeah, we can do. And you will be. Okay, I mean. I’ve got a good feeling about this.’

‘About me?’

‘About the party — the D&D adventuring party.’ And he got a sort of glint in his eyes. ‘I get the feeling you’re going to be exactly what we need.’

‘You need an anxious recluse?’

He gestured that I follow him down a magnolia-painted corridor that wouldn’t look out of place in a showhome. All the doors were closed. ‘We need a new perspective. An outsider.’

‘An outsider,’ I repeated. I crossed my arms because it made me feel safer even though I’d been told it made me look unfriendly. I could handle that. I’d been an outsider in every situation I’d ever been in. I couldn’t imagine this being any different.

Arries opened the door at the end of the corridor and stepped inside, sweeping his hand to encompass the room. ‘Everyone, meet Tar. Tar, welcome to The Ninth Rain.’

I got one quick look at a dice-scattered table and the four unfamiliar figures seated at it before my gaze dropped to my feet and I was seized by the urge to run.

 

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