Stargirl

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Chapter 18: Twist

‘Time is weird,’ Ziggy murmured, as TM ushered her onto the sofa. Dominika, who TM had sort of forgotten was still there, sidled in next to her.

‘Are you feeling alright?’ TM asked the celestial body on his sofa. ‘I know Tyer weirded you out and stuff, but… you feeling any better?’

‘I think so,’ she answered. Dominika, ever sensitive to emotions, patted her encouragingly on the arm, then yawned and folded her hands behind her head. ‘Just… I don’t know. Don’t you think it’s weird that time is a thing?’

‘Extremely,’ TM reassured her.

‘Time is an illusion,’ squawked Veggie, who was busy trying to find a video of Wrestle Kingdom 11 on their crappy little laptop.

‘If you believe J.M.E. McTaggart, it’s either tensed and contradictory or tenseless and inadequate,’ TM said, remembering something Aster had told him.

‘Time’s kind of like a fourth dimension in addition to the three spatial ones, right?’ Ziggy asked. Nobody was qualified to answer.

‘I… guess?’ TM eventually offered, in the absence of any other response.

‘And the universe is expanding in the three spatial dimensions at least, so maybe what we perceive as time moving forward is just the time dimension expanding.’

‘So when inertia kicks in and it all starts coming back together…’

‘Time might go backwards,’ Ziggy theorised. ’Heck, we might already be on the backwards run. We wouldn’t know, ‘cos our brains can only analyse time as moving one way.’

‘Well, that’s funky,’ Veggie said, hooking the laptop up to the TV. ’Now let’s watch Okada versus Omega, ‘kay? Okada’s champion at this one.’

‘Okadaaaaa,’ Ziggy trilled, a genuine-looking smile returning to her face.

‘Is this the one Meltzer gave six stars out of five?’ TM asked.

‘That’s the one,’ Veggie announced, grinning.

‘Oooooooooh,’ said Ziggy.

Dominika went to the cupboard and returned with a packet of chocolate cereal, which she shovelled into her mouth with a cupped hand.

When Marty and Derrida returned, the four of them were sitting completely unmoving, absorbed in the match as it neared its end. Dominika’s hand was halfway to her mouth, pieces of cereal trickling between her fingers; Ziggy had her own hand buried in the cereal box.

‘We got pick -’ Marty started. He was immediately shushed.

Omega kept hoisting Okada onto his shoulders, preparing to end the match with his finishing move, but Okada was too nimble.

‘One-Winged Angel?!’ Veggie breathed as Omega made the set-up for what felt like the tenth time, but no: Okada slithered free.

‘Rainmaker!’ Ziggy squealed in excitement: Okada grabbed Omega from behind, holding his arms across his body. Omega, who had spent the match doing his best to avoid the Rainmaker - though, to TM’s disbelief, he had managed to kick out of one - unleashed a barrage of kicks to Okada’s face, but the champion held on to his challenger’s arm.

‘Oooooooh,’ went the audience on the sofa in unison. Okada hoisted Omega up, holding him upside down, then dropped to his knees and spiked Omega’s head into the ground. Then came the Rainmaker.

‘One! Two! Three!’

‘Okada wins?’ Ziggy demanded, hand still in the cereal box.

‘Okada wins,’ Veggie confirmed. Ziggy tried to go ‘woo’ and raise her arms, which sent cereal flying everywhere.

‘Can I talk now?’ Marty piped up as TM scrambled to clean up the mess. Veggie nodded magnanimously. ‘We got pick and mix.’

‘Yusssss,’ Veggie growled, snatching his cup from Derrida’s hand. TM passed Ziggy’s from Marty to her; she flicked the lid off with a thumb and fished out a piece of fudge.

‘Fanku,’ she mumbled.

‘Welcome,’ Marty told her, then kicked the laptop shut. ’Come ooon, bros, we’ve got adventuring to… adventure.’

Veggie leapt to his feet, as if he’d completely forgotten, and whirled over to the table like a pick and mix-eating tornado. ‘This is delicious!’ he declared. ‘Perfect adventure food!’

‘I like the idea that elves and snake people eat cola bottles and strawberry laces,’ TM mused. The group reassembled themselves at the tabletop, happily munching. Veggie chewed and swallowed loudly, then slammed his cup down on the table.

‘RIGHT,’ he boomed.

‘Where were we?’ asks Barry.

‘Atgard just ate Fist,’ L says merrily.

‘Oh, yeah.’

‘Now we’re all here, time to go and finish our mission,’ Malachi suggests. ‘Take out the Evil Cousins.’

Atgard nods, gore dripping from his mouth and hands. He has grown much stronger from undertaking many days of training and consuming a large quantity of extremely sorcerous plasma. The group scurry back up the stairs, to the middle landing, and then further up from there to the highest reaches of the Imperial Citadel.

‘Perception check,’ Veggie announced.

‘That means there’s something bad coming,’ Ziggy said, clearly having learnt something from her time as an adventurer.

L spots a tiny disturbance, like a haze in the air, and yells ‘STOP!’ just in time to prevent any of her companions from taking another step down the corridor before them.

‘What is it?’ says Barry.

Iveline draws an arrow and fires it straight down the hallway, where it almost immediately disappears in a conflagration of bright orange flame that spouts from the walls.

‘I thought we took out the security?’ Malachi says in confusion.

‘We did,’ L tells him. ‘Or, at least, we disabled the magical defences. This is just mechanical.’

‘Well, bugger,’ says Malachi.

‘I think I’ve got this,’ said Derrida, rolling eagerly.

Atgard fires up his gauntlets with his newly-absorbed magical blood strength, powering up his fists, and slams a mighty punch into the wall of the corridor. Cracks explode from the impact, running down the wall, and from the newly opened hole in the brick falls a small device, which emits a few puffs of smoke uselessly.

‘Well, that’s one of the traps,’ Barry says, ‘but that looked like more than one source of the fire.’

Atgard hisses angrily.

‘Yeah, fine, you did good,’ TM admitted to Derrida, who beamed in vindication.

‘We still need to take out the rest,’ L says.

‘I think I might have an idea,’ says Barry.

‘Yeah, I might, too,’ Malachi adds.

‘What’s yours?’ TM said to Marty, who scuffled around the table. They put their heads together, whispering quietly for a few moments, then split. Marty sat back down, grinning widely and scratching his cheek with one finger.

Barry and Malachi exchange conspiratorial words, then settle into stances like runners preparing to take off. Then Malachi, drawing on his new reserves of speciality sneaking spells, casts a magic of darkness on himself, spreading a long shadow. Barry disappears into it, and the shadow extends right down to the bottom of the corridor, past the traps: the flames erupt from the walls, but the shadow persists untouched. Then, on reaching the other side, Barry leaps from the shadows: every trap lining the walls springs to life, focusing itself on him and exposing their workings, and when they do Malachi pulls out his item from Rusk.

‘Some sort of area-of-effect EMP-type thing to disable the traps?’ Derrida guessed. ‘A shield generator?’

As they face harmlessly away from him, Malachi blasts all the trap mechanisms to shreds with his submachine gun.

‘You gave him an SMG?!’ Derrida yelled indignantly at Veggie. ‘That’s overpowered and anachronistic, and I don’t know which is worse!’

‘Who says it’s anachronistic?’ said Veggie evasively. ‘The development of technologies in this world clearly didn’t go in quite the same order as ours.’

‘That’s a lame answer,’ said Derrida, ‘but given what my item from Rusk is I’ll accept it.’

‘Ominous,’ TM said. Dominika ruffled Derrida’s hair.

The traps effectively disabled, the heroes proceed safely down the corridor. Malachi tosses his gun away sadly, having drained it of bullets. Then, emerging into a new area, they spot the largest doors in the whole place and, standing in front of them, back turned, a small man in a cloak.

‘Sneak check,’ Ziggy said, rolling.

‘Ah,’ Veggie said as the dice rattled to a stop. ‘That’s unfortunate.’

He spots the group coming around the corner, and vanishes.

‘Item from Rusk!’ Derrida declared immediately.

Atgard dons his X-ray goggles -

‘You really had trouble coming up with stuff, didn’t you?’ TM said. ‘I mean, a map, a gun and X-ray goggles?’

Veggie shrugged, making a few notes. ‘Thought they might come in handy.’

Anyway, Atgard is able to see the man with his goggles. Don’t ask me how. Invisibility charms apparently don’t work in every spectrum, I don’t know. Point is, he’s now visible, and he’s targeting L with a strike. She falls back as he kicks her hard in the face, taking mild damage.

‘Z, you’re stunned for a turn,’ Veggie said.

Iveline, who can’t see anyway, is at absolutely no disadvantage here, and uses her springy jump boots to leap up to an alcove high in the wall, in which a statue of an ancient Lanriel ruler sits. She fires an arrow straight down at the man, striking him in the back; he sprawls out, sliding along the ground, and flickers back to visibility.

‘Well, the goggles were useless,’ Derrida huffed.

‘You never know,’ TM said reassuringly, to which Derrida simply went ‘shmeh’.

Now that he’s more visible and his cloak is billowing out behind him, the armour underneath revealed, it’s clear that he too is a Hunter of Men. In fact, he’s the Chief Hunter of Men.

‘You must be Bodyguard Number 3,’ L says, staring at him with narrowed eyes.

‘I’m Strowman,’ he says. ‘The Hunter.’

‘Did you send a Hunter after us in the woods?’ Barry demands.

‘All Hunters are the ones sent by me,’ says Strowman.

‘Is that grammatically acceptable?’ Marty asked. Everyone shrugged, except Derrida, who raised a hand as if to start speaking. ‘I don’t actually care,’ Marty said, before Derrida could begin.

‘Why are the Hunters of Men after us?’ Barry asks.

‘Because there is royalty in your midst,’ Strowman says, looking Barry firmly in the eyes.

‘I’m just a Shadowguard now, not the Prince of the Ascended Men any more,’ Barry says. ‘What would the Hunters want with me anyway?’

‘That’s for those who pay me to decide,’ says Strowman, and vanishes again.

‘The goggles, the goggles!’ chirped Ziggy; Derrida perked up eagerly.

Atgard sees their enemy through his goggles and leaps upon him, holding him down.

‘Blood-Drenched Frenzy, please,’ Derrida said, sliding an ability card across the table.

Atgard roar-hisses with utter wrath, sinking his snakey, gauntleted fists into the Hunter’s invisible face over and over.

‘That’s your turn over,’ Veggie announced, ‘but you can still be holding him down for whoever’s next.’

‘That would be me,’ TM said, placing a card of his own atop Derrida’s. ‘Augmented Rage, I think.’

Barry draws dark strength from Atgard’s own enhanced anger, and zips over to where Atgard presses the still-invisible Strowman against the floor. He strikes at him with his blades, but misses.

‘Nicely done,’ Marty said sarcastically.

‘He’s invisible!’ TM protested.

L fits two bolts to her crossbow and fires them both, causing explosions around the area where Atgard held their opponent down. Atgard moves out of the way as the impacts shake Strowman and power down his invisibility again; Malachi takes the opportunity to launch a ball of lightning at him, which hits him in the chest. Strowman sinks down to one knee, panting.

‘You can’t have them,’ Strowman says. ‘Lanfal and Linske are my masters, and they’re the most powerful people in all of the city.’

‘That’s not actually saying that much,’ Malachi points out. ‘We’re not from the city.’

Strowman doesn’t quite know how to react to that, but growls in anger and pulls out a thick pole from underneath his cloak.

TM sniggered.

Strowman flicks his wrist -

Ziggy joined in, clutching TM’s arm as they both shook with laughter.

- and the pole lengthens -

Ziggy fell off her chair.

- and flips out into a scythe.

Ziggy climbed back up, still snorting.

Strowman leaps towards Malachi, bringing his scythe around in a wide sweep, and cuts at the sorcerer’s chest. Malachi falls back, alive but heavily bloodied.

‘Dominika, your turn,’ said Veggie; Dominika raised a finger, perusing her ability cards carefully. Veggie tapped his fingers on the table; she gave him a look and slapped a card down.

Dominika attaches an arrow to her bow string, pulls it back and releases. Mid-flight, it splits apart, drawing a wide net between the flying pieces of wood, and the net slams down on Strowman, who struggles in its clutches.

Atgard pounces on the captive Hunter, slamming his fist into his chest. Strowman sounds like he’s struggling for breath.

‘Target the lungs,’ Atgard hisses angrily, sliding back. Strowman brings his scythe about, slicing the ropes to shreds, and emerges ominously.

Malachi casts a spell of strengthening over his comrades, boosting their physical abilities. Barry leaps up and brings his sword down on Strowman, who blocks it with his scythe, but the knife in Barry’s other hand punctures a lung. Strowman coughs up blood, staggering back: L fires a bolt at him, but his staggering gait pulls him out of its path.

‘This attack order is getting out of hand,’ TM said, half-breathless.

‘It’s fast-paced, turn-based, whoever the fuck tells me what action they’re doing first… based!’ Veggie declared excitedly.

Strowman cuts at Barry, injuring the arm with the knife; L throws a knife at him, taking out his own arm in retribution; Strowman spins about, casting a charmed dagger at Malachi, which takes him right in the stomach.

‘Bollocks!’ Marty exclaimed.

‘Don’t worry, man,’ TM said hurriedly, ‘every good story has one of the good guys die unnecessarily.’

‘Does it have to be me?’

Malachi teleports behind Strowman, grabbing him desperately; Iveline fires five arrows in quick succession, which land so as to define the points of a star on his torso.

‘The winners,’ Strowman chokes, ‘are those who can best afford my services…’

Defiant and money-oriented to the end, Strowman finally starts to sink down in Malachi’s bear hug. L approaches him, looking down on him almost with pity.

‘Would this have bought you?’ she says, and shows Strowman the contents of her purse.

His eyes widen, and he starts laughing, blood erupting from his mouth with every breath out. ‘Such a waste,’ he says regretfully. ‘All you would have had to do was pay me.’

‘Fuck, Zig, how much money do you have?!’ TM exclaimed.

‘Enough,’ she said simply. ‘L got around.’

‘You wouldn’t have been able to earn what I could have paid,’ L says coldly, and slits Strowman’s throat.

‘Damn,’ said TM appreciatively.

‘What can I say?’ said Ziggy. ‘I’m badass.’

Strowman’s eyes look right into L’s for a few moments. Then he falls.

‘In we go, then?’ says Malachi after a second, gesturing to the large doors guarded by the Hunter.

‘Strength check,’ said Veggie.

Malachi tries to push open the doors, but they really are rather heavy. So Atgard punches them into splinters.

‘Are you alright, Malachi?’ L asks with concern; Malachi nods, but L withdraws a powerful healing serum, her item from Rusk, and rubs half of it on his wound. Malachi smiles gratefully.

‘Ah,’ says one of the two people within, a dark-haired, slender woman. ‘You must be the ones taking out our bodyguards.’

‘That we are,’ says Barry. ‘You’re going down, Lanriel-Lalamala… evil branch.’

‘I,’ says the woman, ‘am Linske Lanriel-Lanlanar. My brother, Lanfal, is also in the room.’

‘Perception check,’ Veggie instructed, his voice cracking a little as he dropped from Linske’s falsetto to his own baritone.

None of the heroes can see Lanfal.

Dominika raised an eyebrow.

Or hear him.

‘Are we fighting?’ Ziggy said cautiously, to which Veggie spread his hands.

‘Up to you,’ he said.

‘You can leave now,’ L says to Linske, who looks at her with surprise. ‘We don’t have to fight. You can just go, and let the people be free.’

‘Free?’ says Linske. ‘Of what?’

‘Of your corruption,’ Barry says heroically.

‘On the contrary,’ Linske says. ‘We are the only thing standing between the people and all the corruption that the world would bring upon them.’

‘Ugh,’ said Ziggy. ‘This is useless.’

L dashes towards Linske, striking at her with a dagger in each hand. Linske’s arm flicks around in a wide circle, and both of L’s blows find themselves deflected.

‘Didn’t the man who sent you tell you?’ says Linske with a smile, turning her hands to reveal long, slim blades, so thin as to be invisible when viewed edge-on, extending from each palm. ‘We are more than capable of being our own bodyguards.’

Linske raises her arms to her sides, and something shines in the air in front of her. Iveline, sensing the danger the others can’t see, fires off twelve arrows in the space of a second, and twelve blades, so slim that they become completely invisible to the naked eye when pointing towards the heroes, drop to the ground in front of Linske, struck by the arrows.

‘Twelve in a second?!’ Derrida exclaimed in astonishment.

Dominika winked and pointed to three ability cards stacked before her: Quick Draw (fire four arrows in one attack), Rapid Counter (multiply each arrow by two, to a maximum of eight, when deflecting an enemy’s attack), and Skill Shot (add four arrows to a trick shot when shooting multiple targets).

‘You can do that?’ Ziggy said.

‘Technically, yes,’ said Veggie grudgingly.

Linske smiles, looking as if she wants to present a superior front, but -

‘Perception check.’

- But everyone can sense that she’s slightly rattled by the display of skill.

‘Lanfal,’ she calls. ‘Get the archer.’

‘Dominika, roll,’ Veggie ordered.

She did.

‘Ooh,’ said Veggie. ‘Saving throw, if you will.’

‘Noooooo,’ TM moaned.

An arrow rockets out of nowhere, shooting from an invisible bow, and hits Iveline dead in the chest. She collapses onto her back: alive, but barely.

Dominika stood abruptly, returning a moment later with a tub of ice cream, which she ate mournfully.

Malachi starts calling the Barrier of Ages and Titans to him, a powerful shield that can protect every person in the party. It’ll take a couple of turns to cast, during which time Malachi will be basically defenceless, so he really ought to have positioned himself better.

‘Cock,’ said Marty.

Atgard lunges forwards towards Linske -

‘Roll… attack and evade.’

The dice clattered from Derrida’s hand.

Atgard finds himself stopped in his tracks by a barrier of slim blades, floating in the air before Linske. One of the blades punctures his chest, but he stops his attack before it can go too deep, or any more points can find a home in his flesh. He pulls out the offending weapon, thrusting it back towards Linske and scratching her cheek, doing almost no damage.

‘Sorry, Derrida,’ said Veggie, ‘but your weapons skills are absolutely atrocious.’

‘Minmaxed it for the unarmed attack, didn’t I?’ said Derrida regretfully.

The scratch is enough to break Linske’s concentration; the blade barrier in the air in front of her vanishes, and Barry flickers behind her, stabbing at her back.

‘Decent damage,’ Veggie noted, jotting it down. ‘I might have raised her HP a teensy bit to make up for how overpowered y’all bitches made yourselves, though.’

‘High HP is nothing when compared to the power of immersive roleplaying,’ Marty proclaimed.

Another arrow flies out of a different dark, concealing corner, striking Malachi in the shoulder.

‘Take that in your immersive roleplaying,’ Veggie said smugly. Marty grabbed Dominika’s spoon, stealing a scoop of ice cream.

L rappels up to Iveline’s alcove, applying the remainder of her healing salve. Some colour returns to the ranger’s cheeks; she struggles to a sitting position, saved but not stabilised. With difficulty she nocks an arrow to her string, pulling it back to her cheek.

Dominika dropped a card on the table: ‘Strike Undetected.’

’You want to… strike the undetected guy? Doesn’t “Strike Undetected” mean you can be undetected while you strike?’ Veggie asked. She shook her head violently, picked up the card, and slapped it down again. ‘Fine,’ Veggie sulked.

Iveline looses the arrow, her Blindsight letting her shoot at the undetected archer. It flies true, striking flesh somewhere out of visibility; a dark-haired young man, the mirror image of his sister, falls from the walls and lands in a heap.

‘Lanfal!’ Linske screams; Atgard takes advantage of the distraction, darting through her temporarily disabled wall of knives, and punches her as hard as he can in the face. She falls, a couple of teeth soaring off in a blood mist and half her face pretty much disappearing under his fist.

Linske’s brother - Lanfal - sees his sister collapse, and with a cry of distress dashes to her side. Barry takes the opportunity to stab him in the side.

‘We are the most powerful people in this city,’ Lanfal says defiantly, grabbing Barry’s hand, still gripping the knife buried in Lanfal’s flesh. ‘You cannot stop us.’

With that, he raises a hand to the Shadowguard’s face, and with his pointed fingers gouges Barry’s eyes out.

‘Aw, fuck!’ TM exclaimed. ‘You serious?’

Veggie thought about it. ‘Roll for it,’ he said after a moment.

TM rolled; Veggie watched the dice scatter with interest.

Yup, Lanfal gouges Barry’s eyes out.

‘Alas!’ Barry cries, flailing back in pain.

‘Alas?’ Ziggy repeated.

‘Roleplaying, man,’ said TM. ‘Barry’s not gonna say fuck.’

Barry falls to the ground, effectively taken out of this fight for now.

Linske, beaten but still alive, raises a hand slowly. A sphere of tiny blades begins to form around her; Lanfal darts away, back into the shadows.

‘Goggles!’ Derrida declared.

Atgard dons his goggles, which had been sat stylishly atop his forehead, and pursues Lanfal ferociously, grabbing him as he tries to make his way up the wall and pulling him back to terra firma. Around Linske, the blades begin to quake.

‘It’s gonna blow,’ Malachi warns, finally finishing his spell: all of the heroes gain boosted defence.

‘I need priority,’ Derrida said urgently.

‘Dude,’ said Ziggy, ‘it’s not your turn for, like, three.’

‘Three.’

‘Three… turn.’

Derrida made a noise like a skydiving donkey, and held his hands up exasperatedly. ‘Fine, just keep hitting them.’

Iveline fires an explosive arrowhead into the centre of Linske’s array of blades, which causes several to scatter across the room. They are instantly replaced by twice as many more.

L throws a knife at Lanfal, taking him in the back; he struggles, but can’t escape Atgard’s grip.

Barry can’t do anything because he’s in incredible pain.

‘Oh, thanks,’ said TM.

‘Atgard, do your thing,’ Veggie said; Derrida cheered.

Atgard hauls Lanfal off his feet, drags him over to his sister and holds him aloft as the thin blades surrounding her shake more violently. Then, just as the barrier explodes, sending thousands of tiny knives flying outwards, Atgard tosses Lanfal right on top of Linske.

‘Niiiiiiice,’ said Ziggy and Marty simultaneously.

Lanfal takes most of the impact of the millions -

‘I thought it was thousands,’ TM interrupted.

‘She made more,’ Veggie said.

- billions of almost invisible blades, all shooting outwards at the same time. He pretty much disappears in a cloud of shredded flesh. Linske howls from the pain of her destroyed face, the expenditure of the energy to cast the spell, and the gory death of her brother right in her face.

‘Yeowch,’ said Marty. ‘Nice thinking, though: high HP, so we use his sister’s high magical attack to take him right out.’

‘Ain’t I great,’ said Derrida, mostly seriously.

L bends down to the blood-covered Linske, looking her straight in the eyes. The imperial cousin’s eyes widen in recognition as she fully examines L’s face for the first time.

‘Lina,’ she breathes.

‘Let me guess,’ said Derrida. ‘L’s a Lanriel.’

‘Possibly,’ said Ziggy teasingly.

‘Let me be the first to assure you that we absolutely all knew that already,’ Marty said.

‘Plot twist!’ Veggie declared, doing jazz hands.

‘I think we all got that,’ Derrida reiterated.

‘Let me have this moment,’ Ziggy protested; Derrida held his palms out in surrender.

‘It’s me, cousin,’ says L.

‘No,’ Linske says quietly, looking terrified.

L leans down, whispers something in her cousin’s ear, then slams her foot down into the ruined half of her face. Linske howls in pain as L loads her crossbow and fires a corrosive bolt point-blank into her remaining eye; the imperial cousin wails and screams, her head dissolving until she finally lies still and silent.

‘What the fuck,’ said Marty.

L stands up, facing the heroes. ‘I am Lina Lanriel,’ she says, throwing her cloak off regally.

‘We had guessed,’ Malachi says.

Barry says -

‘Oh, yeah, I forgot,’ Veggie said, interrupting TM. ‘Barry’s dead.’

‘What?!’

’Well, Lanfal’s body couldn’t absorb all of those trillions of little blades, now, could it?’

‘I guess -’

‘Y’all can deal with the grief in a bit, we got plot here.’

’Barry dying isn’t plot?!’

Veggie thought about it for a moment. ‘Nawwwww.’

Iveline comes slowly down from her alcove, high up in the walls, her sightless eyes staring at L.

‘Now I reclaim my place,’ L says quietly.

‘Yes, you do,’ says Rusk, entering the room.

‘How did he get here?!’ Derrida demanded.

‘He just did, okay?’ Veggie explained.

‘Now you will support Lina as she takes her place,’ says Rusk.

Dominika put her ice cream down with a thud, and made the most intense roll TM had ever seen.

‘That’s a pass,’ Veggie said.

Iveline raises her bow, pointing it at L.

‘Whaaaaaaaaat,’ TM said helplessly.

‘What are you doing, Iveline?’ says L. ‘I’m your friend, aren’t I? It’s me, L. We had adventures together, we took over this city together.’

‘Took over?’ Malachi repeats. Atgard puts himself between Rusk and L, hissing at the head of the Leaf.

‘What is this?’ says Rusk.

‘Everybody roll,’ said Veggie seriously. ‘Except you, TM. You’re dead.’

Everyone, including Veggie, rolled. He took a few moments to look it over, then sighed.

Everyone moves at once. L raises her crossbow and lets fly at Iveline; Malachi releases all his magical might; Iveline looses her arrow, while Dogpet soars down in front of her; Rusk leaps into the air, acrobatically flipping over Atgard; the Serpentine Monk employs the greatest of the Blood Monk’s martial arts.

Around the table, each person held their breath.

L falls back with Iveline’s arrow buried in her forehead. Dogpet lands hard, skidding across the ground in a pile of feathers with L’s crossbow bolt in him. Rusk takes a bolt of magic right to the chest in mid-flip; Atgard grabs him as he falls back to earth, tearing him limb from limb.

‘How the fuck did that happen?’ TM asked, arms folded on the table.

Veggie pointed at the dice. TM examined them: three twenties from Marty, Derrida and Dominika, and two ones from Veggie and Ziggy.

‘Holy shit.’

Veggie nodded.

‘Wait,’ said Marty. ‘How come Dogpet got hit?’

Veggie shrugged. ’L and Rusk had to do something right.’

The heroes, breathing heavily, look at each other with sadness. Malachi closes Barry’s eyes, a single tear falling onto his face. Iveline bends down, picks up Dogpet, and hits him hard with her item from Rusk: a Stone of Resurrection.

‘What?!’ TM yelled. ’You got a one-up and you used it on Dogpet?! What about Barry?!’

Dominika looked at him unblinkingly for a moment, then winked and pointed both index fingers at him.

‘That is not an answer,’ TM said, though he was unable to help a grin.

Dogpet settles on Iveline’s shoulder happily, the bolt still sticking out of him. Atgard devours Rusk’s remains.

‘And then we all take power and rule the citadel with fairness and justice,’ Derrida finished.

‘The end,’ Veggie agreed.

There was a collective release of breath.

‘Whew,’ said Ziggy after a moment. ‘That was a hell of an adventure.’

‘That it was,’ TM agreed.

‘So how come you were evil, anyway?’ Derrida asked.

‘Oh, right,’ Ziggy said. ‘Yeah, basically, L was the last daughter of the Lanriel family but she got disillusioned and ran away, and then Rusk found her and took her in, found out she was one of the Lanriel line and decided to raise her up to be his pawn to take over the city.’

‘Nice,’ said TM.

‘Yeah, we were gonna have them monologue it out,’ Veggie said, ‘but you sort of killed us before we could.’

Dominika finished her ice cream, then applauded politely.

‘Speaking of people who got killed before they could do stuff, TM,’ Derrida said, eyeing the empty tub for any stray remnants, ‘I don’t believe all you got was that map, so what was Barry’s real special item?’

‘Literally a nuke.’

‘Good campaign, Veg,’ said Marty, standing and stretching. ‘What time is it?’

Veggie took his phone out of his pocket, checking. ‘Like four in the morning.’

‘Ah,’ said Marty. ‘I was gonna go home, but on second thought, maybe fuck that noise.’

Derrida tapped the table thoughtfully, his rapping finger muffled by the Bedsheet Tablecloth Whiteboard. ‘So L was secretly a major celebrity, I have no idea how come when we were researching in the taverns nobody pointed any of this stuff out, and were the Evil Cousins actually… good cousins?’

‘Yeah, probably,’ said Veggie.

‘That’s deep,’ said Derrida, eyes wide.

‘You’re just tired,’ TM said, throwing a cushion at him.

‘Fuckin’ celebrities,’ Derrida said, the cushion bouncing apparently unnoticed off his face. ‘Always turn out to be evil.’

‘Go to sleep,’ Veggie said, heading to the bedroom. Ziggy followed, a bounce in her step.

‘You seem happy,’ TM said quietly, catching up to her.

‘I have friends,’ she said, beaming. ‘Night.’

‘Night,’ TM said, watching her close the door behind them as the others made beds for themselves on the sofa, the floor or the table, in Dominika’s case. She curled up atop it like a cat, and was soon appropriately joined by Michel Furcoat, who rubbed his nose affectionately on hers before settling down beside her.

‘Night, all,’ said Derrida, yawning widely.

‘Night, gamebreaker,’ said Marty, tucking himself in.

TM grabbed a dressing gown from where it lay on the floor, found the last available space on the floor of the bathroom, took his clothes off and collapsed. Then he threw the dressing gown over himself, tucking it under his body so that he looked like an enormous fluffy caterpillar. Then he slept.

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