by Kevin J. Anderson
Copyright (c)1989 by Kevin J. Anderson
Sunday night, like every Sunday night, they played the Game.
Melanie carried four glasses of soda to the table, hating the real-world role of hostess. "We can make popcorn later, if you guys want." She flipped a strand of brown hair behind her ear and stared at the master map on the table. Gamearth, their beautiful fantasy world....
try my dip instead," Tyrone said. "Black bean and shrimp this week. And I brought some sesame crackers, too."
David arrived, late as usual. He stuck the keys from his Mustang in the pocket of his denim jacket. His dark hair looked soft, but his eyes were hard.
"We ready to play?" he asked, finding a seat at the table. He bent over to frown at the map and did not say hello. Melanie made him get his own glass of soda.
Her parents had found someplace else to go, as they always did when the group met at Melanie's house. At first her mother and father had stood on the sidelines to watch, curious and condescending. But the concept of a role-playing game seemed beyond them
where it was all pretend and no one really won or lost. They (use another pronoun or names here?) played the parts of characters through adventure after adventure in a world created from their own imaginations.
The colorful map beckoned from the table. Flat, with precise hexagonal sections of forest, grasslands, mountains, ocean. She touched the smooth paint and thought of the characters they had played, generation after generation after generation. In her father's study she had used the computer to generate scores and to keep track of all their characters.
Scott cracked his knuckles. "Hey, Tyrone
you know when geese fly south for the winter, how they always fly in a vee formation, right? And one side of the vee is always longer than the other, right? Why do you suppose that is?"
Tyrone pondered and shrugged. "Why don't you tell us, Mister Science?"
"Because there's more geese on that side!"
Tyrone coughed on his own dip. Melanie found Tyrone's reaction more amusing than the joke itself. Scott blinked behind his glasses, looking proud of himself but baffled, as if he hadn't considered the joke very funny in the first place.
Their group, the same group for two years, had started out playing with hexagonal graph paper, scrawling haphazard terrain markings with colored pencils. They were playing for fun, for something to do. But Melanie spent a month painting and color-coding each hexagon of terrain with bright acrylics to make a permanent master map on wood. She had looked at real maps to develop geography that made sense, deserts where the weather patterns might leave the air dry, forests where the climate should have been hospitable.
"Everybody's here. Can we start playing then?" David drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Where were we last week?"
Melanie talked as fast as she could, trying to outrun his impatience.
"My characters Delrael and Vailret were just about to go into the swamp terrain to rescue Bryl, their half-Sorcerer friend." Melanie pointed to the map. "He was captured by an ogre, remember?"
"Well, go ahead and play," David said.
Melanie looked at him, but he kept his expression neutral. His brown eyes contained no emotion, his face showed no smile whatsoever. Something was bothering him. She didn't know what it could be, but Melanie thought he might try to take it out on the Game.
She gripped the dice in her hand. Twenty-sided. Eight sided. Six-sided.
Four-sided. They seemed to exude a kind of power, so much that she almost dropped them in surprise.
Melanie marked on the graph paper where her characters would begin their movement. She threw the dice.
Always remember this: every character on Gamearth was created by the Outsiders. We exist solely for the amusement of those who Play our world. Our ambitions, our concerns mean nothing
everything is determined by the roll of the dice."
The Book of Rules
* 1 *
Cesspools of Gairoth
"RULE #1: Always have fun."
As they crossed the thick black line that separated one hexagon of terrain from the next, the forest suddenly became an oozing swamp. Even the fresh woodland smell changed to the festering dampness of decay.
"Bryl is supposed to be lost somewhere in here?" Vailret promptly sank up to the top of his boot in swamp muck.
His burly cousin Delrael strode over the sharp hexagon line into the swamp, heedless of where he put his foot. He walked confidently, ready for anything. "Good thing friendship runs deep
Bryl wasn't that much of a Sorcerer."
Vailret searched for a safer place to step, but it all looked the same to him. His eyes were weak from too much reading in dim rooms, though he found the reading much more interesting than questing from hexagon to hexagon.
"He hasn't had any training, Del. He's three times our age, but nobody's ever taught him worthwhile magic." He scratched through his spiky blond hair and thought of the manuscripts still waiting to be deciphered, chronologies of legends to be worked out. "You of all people know how important training is."
The thin mud slurped against Vailret's boot as he took another step.
Running from quest to quest, exploring catacombs, searching for monsters and treasure
it struck him as being juvenile. The world had changed since all that. He wished the Outsiders could amuse themselves by playing more sophisticated games, like hexagon-chess.
Delrael slogged ahead. His leather armor covered broad shoulders, but he wore no helmet to protect his head. Vailret saw bits of forest debris clinging to his cousin's brown hair from sleeping on the ground the night before. Even on an adventure, Delrael wore his gold rings, badges, and especially the silver belt his father had given him.
Delrael sighed. "About time we had another quest together
it's been, what, six years? The world is settling down too much. I spend all my time down at the game tables or practicing with the trainees at the Stronghold, and you waste away poring over manuscripts. We should find us a good cave to explore, maybe even an ancient dungeon left over from the early days of the Game."
Vailret squinted into the hazy air, frowning. "Bryl was looking for the Air Stone, not just wandering around for fun."
"Well, I wish he'd waited for us to give him some reinforcements -whoever heard of going on a quest by yourself?" Delrael shouldered branches and weeds aside, grumbling. "And now we have to rescue him."
Delrael had plenty of strength, charisma, and endurance for situations like this. Vailret was by no means weak, but he had trouble doing anything graceful with a broadsword or a battle-axe; and with his weak eyesight, he made a poor archer. He could prove his worth if they needed some serious thinking or planning. He had not been born with any Sorcerer blood, so he could not use magic to defend them.
"Next time we'll have to teach him to leave a trail of breadcrumbs."
Vailret brushed aside a beard of Spanish moss and followed behind his cousin.
Delrael pushed ahead without slowing. "Come on, we should be able to cross another hex or two before nightfall."
As the swamp thickened and began to drool with humidity, clouds of starving mosquitoes feasted on the two men. The forest sank in on itself, separated by scattered pools of stagnant water the color of tea. Dusty brown butterflies flitted across the ground.
Wide-boled cypress trees dangled branches like fingers and thrust knobby knees upward as if trying to keep their balance in the muck. Huge pitcher plants, large enough to swallow a man, gaped with wide and colorful mouths, exuding a sweet aroma that made Vailret feel dizzy. Curious, he peered down the gullet of one plant and saw partially digested birds and a dead frog.
He stumbled away, breathing deeply to clear his head.
"When is this swamp terrain going to end?" Vailret heaved in a lungful of the thick air. Sweat seemed to hang on him. He thought of his own dwelling with the scented candles lit, with the manuscripts of scribbled folktales stacked up, waiting to be read....
Around midmorning they encountered a stench so overpowering that it hit them like a slap on the face. Vailret pushed his nose into the crook of his elbow.
Delrael blinked his watering eyes. "We have to investigate."
"Don't you dare, Del!"
"Anything out of the ordinary. You know how to Play the Game. We can't just ignore it. Besides, I'm a fighter, remember? We might find Bryl."
Vailret grumbled to himself. "I'd like to have a talk with whoever wrote the damned Rules."
Thorns lined the rim of a wide cesspool. Decomposing matter and stagnant water had condensed into one horrible battering ram of smell.
More mammoth pitcher plants clustered near the thornbushes, but the cloying narcotic fragrance did little to abate the cesspool's miasma. The slime-covered surface of the pool stirred, as if something actually lived within it.
"So, now what do we do?" Vailret asked, covering his nostrils. He spoke in a whisper as the sounds of the swamp hummed and faded into the background.
He focused his attention. "Wait, I hear something."
Delrael cocked his head. "What?"
A rhythmic crashing grew louder, nearing the cesspool.
Bom bom bom BAM!
Delrael stood up and stared into the forest across from the cesspool until Vailret pulled him down to cover. They watched through the tangled peepholes in the thorns.
Something massive stomped toward the pool, rattled a chain, and grumbled, accompanied by splashing sounds. Vailret blinked his eyes, trying to see more details, squinting until he had a headache.
A burly ogre emerged from the trees, wiping gobs of mud from his dirty fur garments. As he strode forward, the ogre knocked his spiked club against the cypress trunks, keeping his beat and smashing against every fourth trunk.
Bom bom bom BAM!
The wobbly cypress trees shivered with the impact.
The ogre stood nine feet tall, with muscles big enough for him to break rocks. A nose the size of a potato peeped out from between strands of long black hair like hand-drawn wire. One of the ogre's eye-sockets was empty, and his pockmarked face sported a drooping overhung lip. Garments of brown furs held themselves together with crude stitches that were popping in many places.
His big feet squished swamp mud between his toes.
In his free hand the ogre clasped a rusty iron chain that led to a small dragon like a dog on a leash. A bulky iron collar throttled the dragon's neck, apparently put on years before and never replaced as the creature grew.
The dragon panted and wheezed, lolling a purple forked tongue and looking more like an overgrown crocodile than a fearsome fire-breathing reptile. Two stubby wings stuck upward from its body like arthritic elbows. Many of the dragon's scales had fallen off, and its pointed teeth were brown and cracked.
"Doesn't look like much of a dragon," Delrael said. "Nothing we can't handle. It'll be fun."
Vailret squeezed his eyes shut. He felt his heart leap, then grow cold.
"The ogres were supposed to have been wiped out in the Scouring." Vailret breathed in deeply. His stomach churned, and sweat popped out from his pores.
"Your father said he killed them all."
Vailret felt a bitterness in his voice that surprised even him. He kept seeing visions, ghosts from his childhood. He had only been eight years old, but the sight of the ogre brought all of his memories into razor-sharp focus.
He stood just inside the gate of the Stronghold, a little boy with his mother and his Aunt Fielle. His father Cayon had gone hunting with Uncle Drodanis, Delrael's father. By the first weeks of spring, everyone in the Stronghold got tired of the old stores buried in the cellars, and fresh meat would make a good feast down at Jorte's gaming hall. They might even dig up an early barrel of spring cider.
Cayon and Drodanis were always competing with each other, in the true Game spirit
dicing, hunting, weaponry contests. They had adventures that were legendary in the Game lore. But this time Drodanis came back alone. Young Vailret watched his uncle plodding up the path of Steep Hill to reach the Stronghold on top. Drodanis had marched in silent grief through the village, bearing Cayon's body in his arms, letting the villagers' questions bounce off him unheard. Young Vailret was afraid, but he kept himself quiet. He didn't understand.
Aunt Fielle shuddered. Vailret's mother, Siya, watched in horror.
Drodanis did not speak until he had met them at the gates, gently placing Cayon's body on the ground in front of the already-weeping Siya. Drodanis untied a sack from his waist and tossed the bloated head of an ogre to the dirt.
"I'm going to wipe out all of the ogres," he said.
Drodanis gathered a small party of the Stronghold's best trainees, including his wife Fielle, and set off eastward. Two months later another slow procession returned with the heads of five ogres Drodanis and his fighters had slain, along with the bodies of two trainees....