Non-Player Character Sample Chapters 1-3

This is a free sample of the novel Non-Player Character! If you’d like to buy it, please visit the book info page.

 

CHAPTER ONE

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 made 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. It was a hard instinct to resist.

The house, with its mossy hip-height stone fence and cheerful yellow walls, seemed to loom over me with all the frightening charisma of a haunted mansion rather than the cosy terraced house it was.

So yes. I wanted to run. And under any normal circumstances, I would have.

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 Arcadia: Redux Online. I had been knee-deep in skeletons 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’d pulled a glowing silver potion from one of the bone piles scattered around me. Or my in-game avatar had, anyway, but the lines on this kind of thing get blurry after a few thousand hours of gameplay. ‘This is a potion of experience! This is the best thing to happen to me all week!’

‘Haha, yeah!’ Arries had laughed. 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 player 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.

Truthfully, he might not have gotten past my guard even so if he hadn’t been asexual, like me, and aromantic besides. Easier to befriend someone I knew wasn’t likely to use my contact details to bombard me with dick pics.

We even lived in the same town. I think it excited him that we could meet in person one day. I wasn’t so sure, which was why in two years I’d never suggested it. I was 32 and not worried about being an object of prey; I just wasn’t great at ‘in-person’.

Arries’ laughter had faded into silence, which was always a warning sign. ‘Wait — this was really the best thing to happen to you all week?’

I had 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’d said.

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

‘Right,’ I’d said.

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

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

‘… Have you, though?’

‘Arries!’ I had conked 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’d paused. ‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t need anything more thrilling than this.’

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

‘Sure,’ I had replied. But it had 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 A:RO four hours a day.’

‘Yeah?’

I had chewed my lip, staring at the screen. ‘So this game is your whole life, too.’ I’d winced at the sound of my own voice. I’d 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. Not then, and not now. If I was weather, I’d be suffocating still air or gale force winds, with no in-between. 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,’ Arries had said. ‘I socialise a lot. You know: parties. Game nights. I’m in a lot of clubs, too.’

‘You go clubbing?’ I’d 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’d 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 at the other end of an internet connection, but you’d be underestimating my ability to worry.

We’d 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’d 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’d admitted. ‘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’d said. ‘Which we are somehow doing. Now. Instead of playing.’

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

‘Your what?’

‘Tabletop Role-playing Game,’ he’d 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’d said. ‘I’m not sure I know what the ‘fake’ deal is either.’

‘It’s like Lairs & Lizards. You’ve heard of that, right? It’s … it’s another world. Another life, you know? Like A:RO, 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.’ MMOs being games like A:RO, where you role-played alongside other players.

I had heard of Lairs & Lizards. It conjured to mind thick rulebooks and dice rolls and people acting out their characters. I didn’t know how I felt about that.

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

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

And somehow, a week later I’d donned my glasses, my A:RO hoodie and my least ratty jeans, tied my ash-blonde hair into a tail, and glared at my own reflection. Pale-skinned, round-faced, rounder-bodied. As ready as I’d ever be.

I’d left the house where I lodged in my small room, and now I was standing on the doorstep of Arries’ mysterious ‘lair 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.

Needed it, really.

So, when a shadow passed across the frosted glass inserts and 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 urged me to.

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 late twenties, which was only a handful of years younger than me but it felt like centuries. He was short and broad, with jewel brown skin and short black hair in a twist-out style.

He was also wearing an A:RO 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 lair master’s house. Shoes go there,’ he said, as casually as if he lived here, but I knew he didn’t. It was shared between the lair master and one of the players.

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.

I wasn’t normally clumsy but I was so damn nervous.

‘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.

I’d never really had IRL friends before. It was a strange feeling — terrifying, but not terrible. Maybe this whole ‘in real life’ thing would work out. ‘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 TTRPG 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 spotless pastel-blue corridor that wouldn’t look out of place in a showhome. All the doors were closed. It smelled of cinnamon and roses, likely from the diffusers plugged in at the wall.

‘We need a new perspective,’ said Arries. ‘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 Kin, and the Amethyst Hand.’

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.

CHAPTER TWO

I backed up, bumping into the doorframe. Though I kept my gaze low, I could feel their eyes on me, like someone had turned several searchlights in my direction.

I didn’t want to look like a frightened rabbit, so I raised my gaze, but I couldn’t quite bear to meet any of their eyes yet. They all looked roughly my age. I took in the room. Modern floral wallpaper in bold patterns. The longest wall fully lined with bookshelves stuffed with board games and guidebooks. A worn, long table of dark oak surrounded by padded chairs, bringing to mind a conference room.

‘Nice to meet you,’ I mumbled, as I had been trained to as a little kid, but what I wanted to say was, ‘There’s been some sort of mistake, I’m not supposed to mix with people.’

‘I suppose,’ said a woman sitting behind a dragon art screen. She had shoulder-length black box braids tipped with gold beads. Her dark eyes weighed me in a way I didn’t like, and she was impressive in an elegant, angular way, like a ballerina. She wore a knitted cardigan in a mixture of reds, blues, and greens, autumnal and beautiful against her cool umber skin. The sleeves were rolled up neatly to the elbow. A purple wheelchair was tucked into the corner beside her.

Another woman tossed her ombre beach curls and leaned forward, resting her hands on the table. She was pale and pink-cheeked, with lean, muscled arms and a hard grey gaze. ‘Don’t fucking listen to Pauline; she’s not a people person. And possibly not a human at all, but some kind of rule-obsessed cyborg.’ She was wearing what looked like a blue tennis dress, branded leggings, and another hand-knitted cardigan, this one deep red. There was the start of a knitting project on the table beside her; I wondered if she went to the same club as Arries.

‘Hanna.’ The first woman, Pauline, could take a tone that was only one step above a growl. She frowned at the other woman.

A big guy nearly my equal in fatness turned in his seat, putting his elbow on the back of the chair and smiling to one side in what could only be called a smirk. His skin was the colour of aged parchment and his eyes were brown and full of mirth. His hair was black, short on the sides, and combed back. ‘Better sit down before a fight breaks out. Unless you’d find that amusing; I know I would.’ He gestured to the seat between him and a guy with his hood up, and although I hated being walled in by strangers I couldn’t see a non-awkward way out of it. I edged in between him and the other guy — as narrow-boned as the first guy was broad.

‘I’m Kenta,’ said the first. ‘Ken is fine.’ He looked like the kind of person who liked to shake hands, but perhaps he could read my nerves in the tight set of my shoulders, because he didn’t attempt that hated social nicety.

‘Tar,’ I replied, before remembering that Arries had already introduced me.

‘Short for Tara?’

I stiffened at the traditionally feminine name.

‘Short for TarAntula!’ Arries said excitedly, taking the seat across from me.

I didn’t usually tell people my full name. It led to assumptions, some of them woefully accurate. ‘Just Tar,’ I said. ‘They/Them.’

Kenta looked chagrined. ‘Oh! Right, Arries said.’

I resisted the urge to touch my chest and reassure myself that there were no breasts there. I knew I was still read as feminine in most contexts. It was a look I liked. I wasn’t so much trans masc as agender. But being misgendered still made my skin itch in a way I didn’t like.

I glanced at the man sitting on my other side, but his head was lowered, his expression hard to read between the waterfall of thick pink-and-black locs obscuring the side of his face and the white hoodie he wore with hood drawn. His skin was a cool, dark brown. As I watched, his long fingers drummed on an open binder thick with character stats and spells; more paper than anyone else had in front of them, except possibly Pauline, as I couldn’t see behind her special screen. I sort of wanted to ask him about it, but as he hadn’t spoken yet, I couldn’t see how I would.

‘Rex, are you going to introduce yourself?’ Arries’ tone was patronisingly encouraging. I grimaced in sympathy.

‘It seems that you just did,’ he replied. He turned his head toward me so that he could look at me without really looking at me, which was honestly a relief. He had a sharp jaw-line and high cheekbones. ‘Sorry. Welcome to the party.’

I dipped my head in acknowledgement. Without really thinking about it, I started rubbing my legs, which relieved some of my restlessness.

‘Do you need help making a character?’ Pauline asked. ‘I’m willing to assist you. Or I have a pre-generated character you can play if you’d prefer. An NPC I was planning to introduce.’ A Non-Player Character, or the background and side characters of a game that were part of the game world rather than player-controlled.

It was a relief that the terminology was so similar to video games. Made it feel less like I was diving headfirst into a pool of unknown depth.

‘I um … I’ve actually already made a character,’ I said. ‘If that’s all right?’

There was a beat before Pauline said, ‘Of course.’ I tried to hide my embarrassment. I wondered if this was a TTRPG faux pas. Even among other geeks, I was the awkward one … ‘Mind if I take a look?’

I handed Pauline my character sheet and supporting materials, thicker than anyone but Rex’s. Not so much because I was playing a complicated character as that I wanted to make sure I had everything I’d need ready.

‘You didn’t find the rules confusing?’ Arries looked impressed. ‘I always find the rules confusing.’

‘Beginners usually struggle,’ said Kenta. ‘You must be smart.’

I didn’t think I was especially unintelligent, but I was also pretty sure it was more down to the week I’d spent poring over the rulebook and drawing up character build ideas than any inherent cleverness. I’d been frustrated that as it was a ‘homebrew’ or homemade game, there weren’t any character builds or guides online.

‘Or a total nerd, like Rex and P,’ said Hanna, as if she could read it on my skin. ‘No offense to you other nerds.’

‘We can be both,’ said Rex, flipping through his binder.

‘Hanna … you’re playing Kin too.’ Kenta rolled his eyes.

Hanna shrugged. ‘I’m only playing because Pauline is my housemate and she runs the game. Besides, a cool person can play a TTRPG and still be cool. Nerdiness is inherent. You fucking nerds were already in too deep before we started. And rules nerd is on a whole other level. That’s the bottom of the pile.’ She bared her teeth at me. ‘Don’t worry. I’m great with nerds.’

‘And children, I bet,’ I said, then blinked as she burst into laughter. She laughed like a bear might laugh, throwing her head back and guffawing.

‘Fucking burn,’ she said, one hand on her chest. ‘I’ll remember that.’ But the words held no venom. If anything, she looked pleased.

What a terrifying woman. Yet, I already kind of liked her. It would be easy to tell what she was thinking, considering she clearly didn’t bother to filter at all.

‘So what’s your build like?’ This from Rex, beside me. His voice was mellow and hesitant.

‘Healer!’ Arries jumped in before I could say anything. ‘I am barely holding this team together with one heal spell.’

‘Oh my god, do we need a healer,’ said Hanna. ‘We’re always this close from a total party kill.’

‘Because you keep getting us into fights we can’t win,’ said Kenta.

‘No. Because P won’t balance the fights for a party without healers!’

‘You’re not dead yet,’ Pauline murmured, still looking through my sheet.

‘I didn’t take any healing spells,’ I said. I looked at Pauline to see if this would be a problem, just as she finished the last sheet.

‘This is good,’ she said. ‘You even wrote some backstory I can work with. Most of them have barely glanced at the rules.’ She passed it all back to me.

‘I definitely glanced at the rules,’ said Kenta, spreading his hands.

Hanna rolled her eyes. ‘What’s the point of having a lair master if I have to learn the rules?’

‘I make the story,’ said Pauline, face impassive.

‘The players make the story,’ said Hanna.

‘Both can be true,’ said Arries, looking anxiously between the two.

I looked around the group. With all their fast-paced bickering, there was a feeling of family about this group. I got the sense they had known each other a long time, and I liked that, but it was hard not to feel like an intruder.

There was a lot here I liked. The room, with its wall lined with alphabetically organised board game shelves and an entire bookcase devoted to RPG books of all kinds. The way all the chairs around this long table were padded desk chairs, as if this whole room was set up specifically for this.

But liking it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable, or feel any less like I needed to bolt. I kept my exit strategy in my mind — I’d told my mum to call me in an hour. If I couldn’t cope, I would use that call to make my excuses.

‘Are you a spellcaster?’ Rex asked quietly while Hanna and Pauline’s standoff continued over Arries’ head. His words distracted me from the increasingly knotty feeling in my brain.

I smoothed my hands over my carefully crafted character sheet. When I’d been building it, it had seemed like the most incredible character in the world. I’d customised everything the game allowed, sucked in by the depth and complexity you could build into a character just by following the basic rules. I’d been excited to become them, however briefly, and at his question I could feel stats and backstory bubbling up. ‘Actually, I’m playing a —’

‘No meta-gaming!’ Pauline’s voice was sharp. Her head whipped around to face me. She looked like she’d been mid-argument with Hanna.

The words dried up in my mouth.

Fuck, Pauline. Don’t scare them.’ Hanna rolled her eyes.

Pauline inclined her head. ‘Sorry. I don’t allow meta-gaming — using outside, out-of-character knowledge in-game. Your introduction will be more natural if the other players know nothing of your character until you’re introduced. Speaking of which: you might as well forget all the names you just learned because you’re only allowed to refer to each other by your in-character names.’

‘Are all TTRPGs as strict as this?’ I asked.

‘Pauline’s a natural dictator,’ said Kenta. ‘We’re very lucky to have her here.’

‘Instead of in Parliament,’ said Hanna.

Arries smiled encouragingly. ‘Don’t listen to them. Pauline’s lovely.’

‘Deep down,’ said Kenta.

Beside me, I heard Rex murmur, ‘She’s the best. Only the axe murderer LMs ever are.’

It was hard to keep up with their pace and energy, but I liked it. I smiled nervously around the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

‘We have a rule, by the way,’ Pauline said. ‘You can leave the table whenever you need to. Just stand up and I’ll pause the game. If you need to quit early, just let me know. We don’t need a reason.’

‘It’s for me,’ Rex said in a low voice. ‘I’m autistic. Sometimes I just need to go.’

‘Oh! Me too.’ I didn’t know what to make of that. I hadn’t had much to do with other neurodivergent people. Just Arries, who had ADHD and no anxiety to speak of, so we had as much in common as not. A seed of hope planted in my belly. Maybe I could fit in here. Maybe.

Rex smiled to one side, turning over a page in his binder. ‘Tap my binder if you want to go early,’ he said. ‘I’ll get us out.’

Pauline’s watch beeped; she casually muted it, but the whole table fell silent. I glanced at my phone: 12pm, the official start time. I took out my bag of dice — seven odd little polyhedrons — and spilled them onto the table. I’d spent a full week deciding which set of dice to get. They came in so many beautiful colours, and there were even shops online that custom-made them with flowers or plants trapped in the resin. I’d decided to be in-theme with my character and had done just that, getting a crystal-clear set of dice with tiny spirals of moss inside.

Pauline took a long breath. When she next spoke, her voice was even and calm.

‘Barely escaped from the betrayal at the Obsidian Palace, the Amethyst Hand slog through a swamp: wounded, pursued, and uncertain who to trust. The shapeshifter posing as Queen Ivemaya has taken control of Uxrn, and you decided that your only hope was to disappear, and make your way through the Long Marsh to the kingdom of Tormalan. Night is falling …’

As she wove a story recapping the group’s most recent adventures, I could feel it coming alive in my mind’s eye. The players started to chime in with their own actions — what they wanted to do now, in the present, occasionally rolling dice to resolve actions. But I could barely process the mechanics of the game. It was all background noise to the story — to the adventurers of the Amethyst Hand, who I was soon to meet.

I let myself sink into the character of Astaran, witch of the Silver Grove, waiting for Pauline to signal my entrance, and hoping desperately that I wasn’t about to screw this up.

 

CHAPTER THREE

I watched from the trees as the outsiders passed below.

Their steps were heavy and laden in the bog; they were unable to handle the thick swamp muck. I wondered whether they would be eaten by the grove guardians. I wondered whether I should care. And yet I was concerned; not for their lives, but for the danger they brought. Weapons hung from their belts or were strapped to their backs. Though obscured under heavy cloaks, I could hear the jingle of mail and the creak of leather. Armour, then, as well.

My grip tightened on the claw gifted to me by The Old One before she passed: a curved sickle taken from a cruel farmer who’d been poisoning the local wildlife in a scheme for gold and glory, honed over the years and given a handle of blessed ash. I didn’t want to fight these people — they were numerous and of unknown strength and power. But I could not let them pass unchallenged if they meant us harm.

And sadly, many did, these days.

I followed them from the trees, watching closely.

(Pauline: Astaran, make a stealth check. Roll a d20 and add your Stealth die — yeah, for you that’s a d6. So the twenty-sided die and the six-sided one.)

(Me: 18? Is that good?)

‘Are we there yet?’ said the smallest one. She was maybe four feet tall, with deer-like legs and doe-like ears and features. A feykin, most likely. She was also pale purple. Her black hair was in a long twisting plait that came over one shoulder. I could see a flash of opulent dark fabric under her cloak, and though the others carried weapons, she had a flute hanging from her belt.

‘No.’ replied one of her companions. The man wasn’t especially large, but was broad, and by the bulk of his cloak, armoured as well. He rubbed his chin tiredly. If he had any extraplanar traits at all, I couldn’t detect them. A rare thing to see. ‘We’re obviously not there yet, and we obviously weren’t there yet the last hundred times you asked. The gods have terrible punishments for complainers.’

‘Not any gods I’ve heard of,’ said the peach-furred fox-man on the man’s other side. Another feykin. His large, wedge-shaped ears twitched, taking in the surroundings. He had a bright shine in his eyes and his stance was far less beleaguered than the others in spite of his heavy golden plate armour. Though there was just as much mud climbing his shins, he seemed as cheerful as if he were taking a stroll through the woods.

‘Maybe not your Gods, Arries, but my god definitely does.’

(Me: I thought we weren’t allowed to use our real names?)

(Arries: I get special dispensation. When you have a name this good, you use it as much as possible.)

(Hanna: Arries comes from a nerd lineage. His mum’s a Tolkien scholar and his dad’s an anime weeb.)

The feykin woman sighed and pressed her hand to her forehead, like a noblewoman in full-swoon. ‘I can’t go on any longer. Carry me, Kendallien!’

‘You’ll get mud on my cloak.’

‘There’s already mud on your cloak.’

‘I’ll carry you,’ said Arries. He offered the feykin a hand, which she took, and he lifted her onto his shoulders.

‘See? At least someone has respect for the leader of this party.’

‘You’re not the leader,’ said the final member of their group. He’d been silent until now and had barely drawn my eye, but now I noticed that his hood was misshapen. I could just make out a sharp chin and dark brown skin.

‘Who talks us into jobs and out of tight situations? Who is always the first person to submit a strategy?’

‘Leadership doesn’t default to whoever is shouting the loudest,’ he replied. He glanced up at the treeline, and for a moment I froze, certain that his gaze had landed on me. But all he said was, ‘It’s getting dark. We need to set up camp for the night.’

(Rex: Natural 20 on Perception!)

(Me: Does that mean he sees me?)

I tensed. I did not want these outsiders chopping wood and destroying trees. As the broad one took a hatchet from his belt, I knew that it was time to act.

I dropped down from the tree, landing lightly atop a rock, free of the mud. My claw was loose in one hand and with the other I summoned a wind that threw back their hoods.

Immediately, a rope snaked around my ankle.

(Pauline: Astaran, roll Agility. That’s your Agility skill die plus a D20)

(Me: Oh no. I rolled a 1 on the D20 — is that bad?) 

‘Aargh!’ I tried to skip away but it tightened and hoisted me into the air so that I was dangling from a tree by my ankle.

I could see the hooded one clearly now as his hood fell away. His hands sparkled with arcane energy and his eyes glowed an eerie blue, wisps of ethereal energy floating at the edges of his eyes. It was clear now that what had been hidden under his hood were two curling ram’s horns, each embedded with crystalline imagery the same ethereal blue, then fading into ghostly points as if only half-corporeal. His ears were pointed and again faded at the tips and a lizard-like tail lashed the ground behind him — with similarly crystalline scales and ghostly edges — and he bared fanged teeth while he concentrated on his spell. A voidkin.

The broad one, Kendallien, immediately strode forward and placed the tip of his hatchet against my throat. ‘Can I kill them?’ he asked mildly. ‘I’d really like to kill them.’

‘Not yet! We don’t even know who they are!’ Hanley, the little bard, scrambled down from the golden-armoured feykin to peer up at me. ‘Who are you?’ She asked. ‘Why did you attack us?’

I stared pointedly at Kendallien until he huffed and eased up with his hatchet. ‘I didn’t attack you. I wanted to see who you are. You’re trespassers in this sacred Grove!’

Hanley looked down at the mud climbing her thighs. ‘This place is sacred? Are we looking at the same place?’

‘Would you let me down?’

‘Please Ram?’ Arries, the armoured foxman asked. ‘It looks uncomfortable.’

‘Bleeding heart,’ Kendallien muttered.

The voidkin met my eyes with his. ‘No sudden moves,’ he warned. With a sudden slicing motion with his hands, the rope released me.

(Me: I rolled a 21 on Agility!)

I twisted in the air and just managed to get my feet under me, stumbling slightly. Hanley put out a hand to steady me. I flinched at her touch, but she seemed to mean well.

‘We’re the Amethyst Hand, defenders of Vanthis,’ she told me. Something about the way she said the words, some trick of her voice, made the words sound laden with destiny.

‘For hire,’ Kendallien added with a dark chuckle.

Hanley gave him a narrow look. ‘We … are on an important mission.’ She looked me up and down. ‘There’s a great threat to nature in this area —’

Arries’ furry brow furrowed. ‘There is?’

‘— and we need to pass safely through this swamp to deal with it.’ She looked me up and down. ‘You look like you know the area. Perhaps you could guide us?’

(Me: Do I believe her?)

(Pauline: Hanley, roll Liar)

(Hanna: 28)

(Me: That’s crazy!)

(Hanna: I’m very careful with my skill points)

(Pauline: Astaran, make a Social Instinct check opposed to Hanley’s Liar.)

(Me: Okay, I rolled okay on the fate die but my skill die — oh no. 14?)

I considered her words, searching them for dishonesty. I had no reason to trust these people, but thus far they had done me no harm. ‘What evil?’ I asked.

‘I don’t completely know, but our instructions are clear.’

‘Instructions from who?

Hanley hesitated a moment. ‘A priest of Lunala,’ she said, naming a forest guardian god — one of the fey ones, I thought.

(Me: Do I still believe her?)

(Pauline: She rolled high. You do.)

‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’ll show you the way through the swamp. But I warn you: this land is sacred. And the creatures in it are not all peaceful.’ I glanced around us. ‘Tread lightly.’


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