Non Player Character (Chapter 6: Point of Honour)

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 Six: Point of Honour

After a week of chatting on and off on the chatroom with the others, I was standing on my dungeon master’s doorstep and still resisting the urge to run. I don’t know what it is about my brain that puts me in a constant state of fleeing for my life, but my heart was beating way too fast and my chest was tight and I was pretty sure I’d forgotten everyone’s names and also my own.

Currently, I was hovering, which was the first step before running. The prospect of going down a hallway into a closed room to sit around a table with several other people was pressing down on me and thus far I had not knocked, rung the bell, made any noises or taken any actions such as might cause me to be noticed.

I was going to run. I could feel it coming on with the certainty of a hook in the gut drawing me away. I didn’t know if I could face sitting on the outside of this group of friends again. I didn’t know if I could bring myself to put on the stern voice of Astara and act like I didn’t mind that I wasn’t part of this party yet — I was, to them, an NPC of unknown motivations.

NPC — non player character. It was a phrase the niggled at me, had always gotten under my skin. In games, it wasn’t just that NPCs weren’t the heroes — they weren’t players. They had no active control in their lives. They weren’t real, the way the players were real. Limited dialogue, limited actions, scripted behaviour. Sometimes I felt like that described me, because I didn’t seem to have the words, the initiative, or the strength to direct my own life. Perhaps, I was just an NPC in someone else’s game.

Finally, my tenuous resolve snapped. I spun away from the door, my hand going to my pocket for my phone. I would make my excuses in the chatroom and —

My forehead hit someone’s chin. I squeaked and squeezed my eyes shut and stumbled back, horrified that my gasp had caused me to inhale the person’s — admittedly mild and fruity — scent.

‘Tar!’

My eyes sprang open. ‘I’m so, so sorry –’

‘It’s okay, I just — um, accidents happen.’ It was Rex, looking sheepish. His hood was down today, and he looked pale and vulnerable in the summer sun. He wore ripped jeans and a patchy dragon-patterned grey and blue hoodie, the same ARO backpack slung over one shoulder.

But I was somehow still apologising and feeling a bit manic about it. I had walked into someone. I could smell him. My face had touched his actual face. And I knew it was getting weird, how I kept talking, but I couldn’t seem to stop the words from coming and he was probably horrified, he certainly looked it, and —

‘Tar? Do you — could you come sit here, with me, for a minute?’ He put his hands in his hoodie pocket, meeting my eyes briefly before looking down again.

The question froze my frantically spinning thoughts. ‘I — yeah.’

He walked over to the little stone wall surrounding Pauline’s small front garden and sat down on it. I was so grateful that something had stopped my neverending apologising that I sat down next to him without my panic building.

‘I usually need a minute,’ he said. ‘Before I go in. I need to … assemble myself.’ He kicked his feet against the wall and added in a murmur, ‘Remember how to talk.’ He glanced up at me, then away. ‘I get it if you need to go, but if you want to stay, you can sit here with me for a while before going in.’

He threaded his fingers and put his hands in his lap, his expression turning inward. He didn’t seem to be waiting for an answer, and that alone gave me the room to stay. His head was half-turned away from me, his body language loose-jointed except for a brittleness about the shoulders. His eyelashes were long and pale, resting on his cheeks when his gaze lowered.

I looked away from him, not wanting to be weird. That was a thing I knew I needed to watch — not just that I avoided people’s eyes too much, but also that I was too willing to observe when I knew I was unobserved myself. There were so many rules around looking — where you should look, and for how long, and in what way. None of it came naturally to me.

But Rex wasn’t looking at me, or talking to me, or asking anything of me that I could tell. He’d made an invitation with no pressure and an easy out.

And somehow that made it easier to stay, and stare at my feet, and think about Astara, and the Ninth Rain, and everything I had been looking forward to all week. I was aware of Rex beside me, but his presence wasn’t a burden, the way other people often were. He wasn’t waiting for me to be something or do something. He was content with this.

After a few minutes, when the whirlwind of my thoughts had at last stilled to a nervous breeze, I looked to Rex, and he straightened and looked at me. ‘Good?’

I nodded, and, to prove it: ‘Yeah. Thanks.’

He smiled briefly. ‘Good. Me too.’ He looked around at the door and took a shuddering breath. ‘Okay. Let’s do this.’

When we knocked on the door, Arries was there to greet us — just as he’d been there to greet me last week. ‘Rex! Tar!’ He gripped the door and leaned out to us, all smiles and sparkling eyes. ‘I wasn’t sure if you would come!’

I followed him in with a nervous shrug. ‘I said I was coming,’ I murmured.

‘He’s talking about me,’ Rex said. His high-tops seemed to take a while to untangle, and I could seem him flushing in embarrassment as he fumbled with the laces.

Arries’ smile turned sideways. ‘I meant both of you, actually. Can’t play without two of my favourite party members!’

‘Everyone is your favourite,’ said Rex glancing at me.

‘Well … yeah. But that doesn’t make you any less special.’

I smiled and ducked my head as I followed him down the hall.

In Pauline’s game room, the scene was much as the week before — a chaos not yet familiar to me. Pauline at the head of the table shuffling through binders, books, and stacks of paper while Hanna baited and heckled, Ellis across from her with his dry humour and relaxed demeanour.

Without really meaning to, I took the same seat I had before — I had always been a creature of habit — and Rex took the seat beside me, and Arries again across from us.

Ellis greeted the three of us with an easy ‘hello’ and turned back to Pauline. ‘Good week?’

‘Yeah, did you get time to re-alphabetise your library? That always cheers you right the fuck up,’ said Hanna.

‘Yes,’ Pauline gave Ellis a flicker of a smile. ‘And yes,’ she said to Hanna, her smile turning into a scowl while Hanna barked a laugh.

‘Oh come on, P! It’s funny! You’re so fucking predictable — it’s pretty fucking adorable.’

Beside me, Rex murmured, ‘Three guesses what Hanna’s favourite word is this year.’

‘Does it rhyme with ducking?’ I replied.

Arries frowned, eyes darting between Hanna and Pauline. ‘Predictable isn’t always bad. It’s reliable. You know, something you can count on.’ He gave Pauline an encouraging smile.

‘I said it was cute, didn’t I?’ Hanna made a face at Pauline.

Pauline disappeared behind her dungeon master’s screen. ‘I really don’t care either way.’

Hanna threaded her hands and leaned forwards. ‘Sure sounds like you care, P.’

‘Get away from my screen, Hanna.’

‘Wouldn’t you say it sounds like she cares, Ellis?’ Hanna leaned back in her seat and gestured at Pauline.

‘I would, but I don’t want Pauline to drop rocks on my head in-game. I think I’ll sit this one out.’

‘Coward.’

‘Very wise.’ Pauline’s eyes appeared briefly above her screen before she disappeared again.

I checked the time on my phone. Still five minutes until the official start of the game, and I was getting the impression Pauline was an ‘on-the-dot’ kind of dungeon master.

Arries caught my eye. ‘You okay?’ he mouthed, so obviously I didn’t know whether to smile or hide.

I nodded and dropped my gaze.

‘So why a druid?’ Rex suddenly asked.

I glanced at him; his eyes were on his hands, fingers drumming on his character sheet.

I hesitated, wondering how best to phrase it, wondering if it would make me sound strange. ‘I like how druids almost always live on the fringes,’ I said. ‘In all the lore, they’re usually loners or in very small, sparse communities that meet infrequently. They don’t do people: they spend their time with animals, trees, you know, nature stuff. So that aesthetic appealed.’ I paused. His eyes flicked to me, then away again. ‘But, um — it’s the game mechanics that sold me, if that doesn’t make me sound too nerdy.’

‘Not at all,’ he said, smiling crookedly down at his own binder-load of character sheet. ‘I chose wizard for the same reason. I like how I have to think about everything I do — get creative with my spells, plan ahead.’

‘That’s what I like about playing a druid!’ I said. ‘There are so many shapeshifting options that go ignored — people go for heavy hitters and tanks when you can play a giant octopus and completely grapple up to a large creature in combat, or a giant spider and climb literally any surface, or play a giant toad and swallow a creature whole and carry it, alive, in your belly.’

‘You’ve put a lot of thought into this,’ he said approvingly, and I realised that we were actually looking at each other, meeting each other’s eyes, and it didn’t feel weird. ‘Although I’m hearing a theme of “giant animals”.’

‘Who doesn’t like giant animals?’ I replied. ‘But the small animals are overlooked as well. If you want to be inconspicuous, you can hardly do better than a cat. If you want to get through a locked door, a mouse is perfect. And changing into a regular-sized scorpion makes it a lot more likely that you can sneak up on someone and sting them.’

‘This is exactly why I choose the spells I do as well,’ said Rex.

‘Animate rope?’ I asked, my eyebrows raising.

Always useful. All a fireball will do is set something on fire. You can do a hundred things with a good rope trick. I make it a point of honour never to take a spell that only does straight damage. That’s what Ellis and Arries are for.’

I dipped my head in acknowledgement. ‘Well, I look forward to seeing it in-game,’ I said.

‘Same here.’

An alarm went off on Pauline’s phone, quickly silenced. ‘It’s 7pm,’ she said, and the room fell silent, even Hanna cutting off mid-conversation.

 

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