I decide to move. Iago and Aegrith have been arguing for at least five minutes and our time is running out. I glance down at the floor, which is an odd sensation when you’re standing on the ceiling.
“Just check for traps!” Iago shouts. Aegrith repeats that there isn’t enough time. It could take hours. We know it’s on the ceiling and likely a fire trap, but the chamber is massive. It’s at least 250 feet to the other side. We’ve been able to walk on walls and ceilings for about two hours now. My spell will wear off in an hour more.
That stops their arguing and they turn to stare at me. Bundy whines by my side. My faithful wolf will surely want to stay with me, despite the danger.
“You can’t.”Aegrith. Passionate.
“It’s suicide.” Iago. Logical.
I can and I know and I tell them so. I’m stubborn and stoic and despite the brevity of our acquaintance, they know they won’t change my mind.
I feel Iago’s hand on my shoulder. “At least let me cast a Resistance spell on you first. To ease the blow.” I turn to him and nod. He places his hand on my cheek and six seconds later I feel the familiar warmth of magic and I know the spell is in effect.
“I’ll be fine,” I announce. “I haven’t taken a hit in weeks. I’m not going to go down now. Besides, if I do we found the healing water in the Fountain of Sarabi earlier. I’ll trip the trap, hopefully dodge, and wait for you on the other side of this chamber.”
Aegrith gives me a half-hearted smile and pulls me into a tight hug. Iago lays his palms together and bows. I take a moment to appreciate how the wizard intuited early on in our acquaintanceship that I prefer not to be touched.
“Good luck, Karynia,” he says. I nod.
Bundy, you need to stay, I use our bond to emote to my longest friend. He whines and nuzzles my hip, but I know he’ll obey.
I don’t allow myself to feel fear and run hard across the ceiling. I make it eighty feet, what feels like forever but is only a third of the way, and know it’s done. My body feels as if it has passed through a thin layer of electricity and then hot, searing pain and I know it was a firebolt.
My body falls and my magic fails. I shout “GO!” and my chest feels ready to explode. The falling feels forever even though the chamber is shallow. I tilt my head and see my companions running across the ceiling. Dutiful Bundy stays where I left him. My body makes contact with the stone floor.
I am going to die. I know it. This dungeon has been too difficult from the start. My friends – my adopted family – will likely die as well. Aegrith and Iago have no idea how much larger the rest of the dungeon is, and neither of them are prepared to take damage in combat. That was always me, Idell, and Ishta. Idell is guarding the entrance and Ishta lost most of his strength. Neither will know what happened to us, and I doubt either would be able to save us.
We weren’t even supposed to be here. We were on our way to Southpoint to gather intel on a powerful statue the great mage Domino had interest in, when we had no option but to engage in battle with a mountain giant and his pack of wargs. We had barely finished that battle when the storm giants showed up. We were unprepared to enter another round of combat, and chose to cooperate and go with the storm giants. Their master set us on a task to retrieve the Sword of Sarabi, which had been stolen from him by a group of Hunters a century ago. If we declined, we would be killed. The choice was obvious.
The storm giant patrols carried us to the grove where we found the entrance to the Tomb of Sarabi. Our present dungeon. My final dungeon.
I remember becoming the Babylon Five. I had just arrived in Westport and stopped in at the tavern. The bartender had just taken my two silver pieces for a pint of hard cider when a woman ran past the tavern screaming, “Murder!” I left my drink and ran out to see what was going on, and vaguely registered four other patrons do the same.
A group of three dragoons had descended on the east section of the town and were terrorizing the Westportians. I readied an arrow and sent it into the shoulder of the dragoon nearest me. It seemed to have little effect.
A minotaur in military garb approached me and shouted, “Civilians, cease! Follow the others to safety. This is a job for the militia.”
Listening to him did not suit me, and it did not seem to suit some of the other tavern-goers who had been roused by the ruckus. A wizard ten feet to my left fired a crossbow bolt at the same dragoon I had targeted moments earlier and missed.
“Cease,” the minotaur commanded again, this time grabbing the wizard by the elbow and shoving him toward me. “Go. This is not your place.”
I readied another arrow, determined to ignore the minotaur.
I loosed the arrow and turned to the wizard.
“My name is Iago.”
“Karynia,” I nodded in response.
“We do not have to listen to the minotaur. I do not wish to obey him. But it seems we are having little effect on these creatures,” Iago reasoned. While we were speaking, a ranger joined us and introduced herself as Idell, shortly followed by a rogue, Aegrith, and a bard, Ishta. The other tavern patrons.
“The citizens seem safe inside. We should instruct them to remain in their homes and ignore the evacuation,” Ishta noted.
Group work was never my strong suit and strangers made me uncomfortable, but the plan seemed sound. We agreed to meet in an empty house down the block from where we were planning once we had secured all of the homes, so we could further attempt to fight off the dragoons.
When the battle was done, I approached the corpse of a child that had been ripped from the arms of a woman in the evacuation. The sight was horrific. The child was hardly recognizable. The death toll seemed high and I didn’t believe in mass graves. The child had a mother. A mother had lost her child. Savagely. It struck a chord. I wrapped the corpse in a sheet of muslin and slipped it into my pack.
The minotaur found us after the battle and took us into custody. The custody turned out to be a formality. Instead of prison, we were led to the mayor’s office. He explained the national power struggle, how the last Grand Mage had died and powerful mages around Babylon were vying for the position, how only a magic caster could hold it, how dragons were descending from every direction to assert their claims, how the dragoon attack was a sign of the dragons coming down from the north. Incredible amounts of gold were offered in exchange for our services in expelling the dragons from Babylon. We agreed. We were dubbed the Babylon Five.
I had tried so hard to find the child’s mother. After we became the Babylon Five, I learned that the child’s mother was a woman named Daisy, that the child was illegitimate, that it had a father named Domino who was a great mage in a city to the southeast. Daisy had evacuated and the rumours suggested she wasn’t coming back to the town where she had lost her child.
I kept the child with me, and tried to ease the scent of its decay with flowers and herbs. My fellow party members tried time and again to convince me to bury the child or to feed it to Bundy, but I could not. They couldn’t understand.
Reaching Daisy was difficult. Ishta and Idell wanted to go north and fight the red dragons who were trying to claim Babylon. I probably would never have found closure over the child if it wasn’t for Iago. The moment he learned Domino was a great mage, he became my strongest supporter in returning the child, as we assumed Daisy would have gone to Domino after the attack.
We finally made it to Domino’s door and bluffed our way inside. We were invited to dinner under the guise that we were the party he had hired to gather intel on the statue in Southpoint. He was warning us about spontaneous summoning agents – individuals who were under a permanent spell set to leech their life force to summon infernal beasts – when I heard him say the word “girlfriend.”
“Daisy?” I blurted. All warmth left the room. Silence fell. Every eye was on me.
“What in the hell do you know about Daisy?” Domino demanded. His face reddened and his fists clenched. I met his gaze.
“She lost her child in a dragoon attack.”
“Daisy is dead.”
Oh. A plate met the wall. No. Shouting. Lots of shouting. I couldn’t focus on any of it. None of the words meant anything to me. Daisy was dead. I heard my name. Iago’s hand was on my shoulder.
“We’re being asked to leave,” he told me.
I nodded and stood. “I have the child with me. I was hoping to return the body to Daisy.”
More shouting. Idell was crying. We were being commanded to sit back down. Silence. Dead. Domino spoke, still red. “Why would you present a mother with her child’s corpse?”
Everyone stared at me. Comprehension seemed to dawn on Iago and Ishta’s faces, but Domino’s expression told me my answer was not enough.
I explained that I came from a family in the forests of Esselon. My father herded deer and my mother kept the garden and the house. I was the eldest of four children. When I was eighteen, I was initiated into the Druidic Circle of Esselon. When I returned home from the ceremony to say goodbye to my family and join the Circle as it traveled, I found tragedy. My forest was gone. My home was in ruins. My parents and sister, the baby of the family, were smoking corpses. My brothers were nowhere to be found, but their footsteps led away from the scene. I turned to adventuring as a means of seeing the world and finding my brothers, who had become ghosts in my mind. I would never have familial closure until I did. Daisy deserved the same. No person should be unable to bury their loved ones.
Domino allowed me to cremate the child and lay its ashes on Daisy’s grave. The Babylon Five moved on.
I am dying and I am a failure. I failed to dodge the firebolt. I failed to find Daisy in time to return her child. I failed to thank Iago for supporting the trip to Domino’s. But, worst of all, I failed to find my brothers.
“And that’s where we’ll stop for now,” Bob says. The session is over. I am Karynn again instead of Karynia.
“Level 8. Not bad,” Paul says. He is right. This is the highest level I’ve reached before losing a character, although this one hurts more. It had taken me three years to find a serious campaign at school and now my character was dead. I don’t see myself as creative and tend to play my characters as myself.
“Yeah, but I had finally picked up a level in Wolf Lord! And I rolled really well for this character.”
“You can feel free to roll out a new character. I have no issue writing new ones into the storyline,” Bob assures me. He’s a good Dungeon Master.
“Thanks, Bob. I’ll let you know by next week.”
“Oh, yeah. My roommates are going to be gone so we can go back to playing at my place. Six o’clock on Saturday good for everyone?” Joe asks.
Six o’clock is good. The group starts shuffling as we put Players’ Handbooks into our bags and collect our dice and minis. I put an end date at the top of my character sheet for Karynia and slip her into the back of my book, where I keep all of my finished characters.
Today we had to write about someone tripping, looking around in embarrassment, and seeing someone smile at them in limited third person.
The band bus pulled into the parking lot of Cedar Point. It was a two hour drive down from Metro Detroit and the high schoolers were restless, despite the seven AM departure.
Vic was nervous. He had never been on a roller coaster before. Vic was terrified. His friends did not know. He was nowhere near being the coolest kid on the drum line, and he didn’t need being scared of going on the rides making things worse.
The bus was stopping and the kids were shouting in excitement. They were at the front gates.
Vic felt himself go through the motion of walking down the bus aisle, following the form of Big Mike. Big Mike was marching band royalty. He was a senior and the low brass section leader. Everyone seemed to love him.
It was Vic’s turn to step off the bus.
"Don’t fall, freshie," came from behind him.
He felt a hand push him. He tried to catch himself but tripped down the steps and tumbled into Big Mike.
"Watch it, drum dork!"
Big Mike walked away but the other upperclassmen had stopped to laugh. Vic couldn’t lift his head. He wanted to go home.
"Leave him alone."
A girl’s voice. Her voice. Vic looked up and searched for her face. There she was. Hayley Macintosh. Smiling. Hand out. For him.
My professor put a list of locations on the board, including places like “midnight on a farm,” “a dusty road,” “1890 in a parlor,” “dawn in a strange place,” etc. Next to it, he listed moods, like “suicidal,” “lovesick,” “a fresh start,” etc. We had to pick one from each list and convey that mood in that location.
The cat was curled up on a rug in front of the fire. The only peaceful creature in the house.
Martin hasn’t said a word to Wanda since the man left their living room. One of Monsanto’s men. There to take their livelihood.
Apparently some GMO seeds got blown into their farm at some point, because the tests came back sayin’ they were growin’ Monsanto wheat when they never meant to.
Martin married Wanda when this was still his daddy’s farm. It’s been in the Oliver family for four generations and nobody ever bought any GMO seed. Shit, they only grew the wheat to feed to the pigs. They weren’t tryin’ to profit off of it or nothin’.
Martin stood abruptly and left the room. He climbed the stairs and paced the bedroom. They had two options: Stop growing or pay Monsanto and couldn’t afford either.
Wanda was still in her chair when Martin came back down. He was carrying his gun in one hand and clutching a letter in the other.
"Martin, please." Wanda was scared. "What are you doing? Come over here and we’ll figure this out. We can sell it all and move up to Kentucky and stay with my Ma and Pa. They’d like that. I’d like that. Martin! Wait!"
She was hysterical.
Martin ignored her and walked out the back door, locking it behind him. He folded the note and left it in the door handle.
One of the dogs came to greet him. The pair walked through the rows of crops until they reached the pastures.
"Well, Shep, it looks like we’re comin’ to an end of sorts." Martin rubbed the dog behind his ears and laughed. Laughter turned to sobbing.
He knew other farmers like this. Honest to good folk who just wanted to farm the ways their daddies farmed and got shut down by the Big Agriculture guys. Some shot themselves, some could afford to settle, and some went bankrupt. Those were really the only choices they had.
This time we each wrote a location on a slip of paper and passed it two people to the right. I ended up with the Grand Canyon.
I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. Hell, I’ve never been west of the Mississippi. My family was almost always too poor for vacations and when we weren’t, my dad was working sixty hour weeks for a company that wouldn’t let him take time off. We almost went to Florida when I was six, but the CFO came to town and they made my dad stay. My parents lost $3000. All non-refundable. He finally quit working for Sam’s when his dad died. The new bigwig was going to be in my dad’s store and his boss wouldn’t let him go to the funeral. I’m glad he quit.
I’ve always said I wanted to see it all. I’m the liberal in the family and most people fear I’m becoming a hippie. I just don’t want to compromise my integrity and beliefs to feed a system I want to dismantle.
Mom says if I see the world she wants to come. She knows she won’t, that she and dad can’t afford it, that they can’t leave the dogs. But whenever she says she wants to come she uses my full name. Margaret Elizabeth. And I feel like I’m in trouble.
I tell her if I go west I’ll see the Grand Canyon, because I know she’ll want to see the pictures. I’d rather see Pike’s Peak or Donner Pass, but she doesn’t like when I talk about morbid things, and I like to make her happy.
The prompt for the day’s writing exercise was to chase a character into the tree and throw rocks at him. Literally.
Mark’s fingers grasped for the branch overhead. He was almost there. His distinct phalanges could just brush the bottom of the branch. Another rock blew past his cheek and his heart sped up by another beat per minute.
He could feel his blood pumping and chanced a glance at the ground. The kids were still there, scrambling to find more ammo. He seized the opportunity of their distraction, shuffled inward toward the trunk of the tree, and jumped for the branch that would allow him to rest out of range of the rocks.
When he had accepted a research position eight months ago, he did not expect he’d have to hustle up a tree in India.
Mark understood that the group of kids at the base of his tree thought he was a poacher. It was probably the gun that did it. After all, who wouldn’t assume the white man traipsing through a protected forest in India with a loaded rifle was a poacher? What, especially with those fools who had been chased into trees by tigers just last week? Pathetic, Mark thought, that I was treed by kids.
He wasn’t there to poach. He was there to study elephants and the gun was purely for defense. Truth be told, he didn’t even know how to shoot.
On the first day of my summer fiction writing class, we had to blindly grab an item out of a bag and write something inspired by it. I grabbed a baseball.
"Alright, guys. What game do we want to play?"
Announcements are over. Most people say quiet. A few call out BuzzWord. One for Catchphrase. The frat guys standing in the back of the room shout Wiffleball.
My heart sinks. I knew it was coming but I always hope for something different.
A few people groan and a few more nod and voice support. The supervisor on my left calls for a vote. Seven hands for BuzzWord. Two for Catchphrase. Twelve for Wiffleball. The majority has it and those who lost groan, joined by the few who never vote.
I direct everyone outside, make sure people grab the balls, bats, and bases, and lock the door.
Even though half the shift did not want to play, everyone seems happy to be outside. We get to the field and I let the other supervisor set up the bases while I split the callers into teams. Ones in the field; twos up to bat. Most lie to stay with their friends and the teams are horribly uneven.
The game starts and I lose my focus. Four years here and i still don’t fully understand the rules. I was never a Tigers fan in Detroit and I’m not a Cubs fan here.