Stargirl

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Chapter 7: Adventure

A dark, cold wind is in the air tonight. The four heroes, who made camp last week –

‘Oh, yeah, I remember now,’ said Marty. Veggie shushed him theatrically.

The four heroes are awoken by the rustling of leaves and the sound of footsteps. The sound, perhaps, of somebody sneaking around in the woods not twenty feet from their soundly sleeping tushies.

‘Perception check,’ Derrida said quickly, rolling a six-sided and an eight-sided die. Ziggy watched them skitter across the table as if they were the most amazing things she had ever laid eyes upon, an expression that TM was coming to recognise as fairly common. It looked good with her new features.

Atgard, the Serpentine Monk whose stats are all… like, so much higher than they ought to be because Jack ‘The Exploit’ Derrida decided to fuck around with his abilities –

‘Entirely within the rules,’ Derrida interjected.

‘True,’ conceded Veggie, ‘but you have this habit of doing shit that’s technically legal but is actually really douchey and makes you way overpowered.’

Derrida sank back into his chair, folding his arms and sticking his bottom lip out.

‘Don’t sulk at me, bitch, it’ll get you nowhere,’ Veggie said.

Anyway, Atgard scans his surroundings with his really abnormally good vision, but – Veggie made a dice roll of his own, and gave a wide grin at the result – he simply can’t see anything through the trees and the heavy darkness.

‘Balls,’ said Derrida.

Dominika riffled through her hand of picture cards, each emblazoned with details – names, icons, the occasional graphic drawing of an enemy being disembowelled – and pushed one in Veggie’s direction, tapping it with a pastel-nailed finger.

Iveline, the blind and mute Half-Elven Ranger, uses her enhanced sense of hearing to pass the detection check and instantly knows exactly what’s up: four orcs are making their way towards the heroes, trying to surround them.

Dominika folded another card down on top of the first; Veggie glanced down at it and adjusted his glasses.

Iveline nocks an arrow to her bow.

Dominika turned her character sheet so that he could see it, indicating the ‘equipment’ section.

The really high-stat-bonus bow that she won a couple of weeks ago from that travelling carny mage who turned out to be the king of… somewhere.

She nodded judiciously.

She looses the arrow into the trees, but hears it strike wood.

‘Cock,’ said Derrida.

‘Okay,’ said Marty thoughtfully. ‘It’s still the middle of the night, yeah?’

Veggie blinked and shuffled through his campaign papers. ‘Uh, yeah. Didn’t I mention?’

‘You said it was dark or something.’

‘Okay,’ Veggie said with a sigh. ‘Not that I didn’t already set the scene in a masterful way, but for Marty’s benefit –’ everyone groaned, and Marty blushed ‘– let me reiterate.’

You four heroes are still in the deep darkness of the night, in the middle of the woods. Hence the trees. Also, you’re still really sleepy ‘cos you just got woken up, and who the hell can deal with that shit? So everyone take a penalty to all perception bonuses. Clear enough? Good. Okay, so the shuffling around you starts to intensify, and a ripping sound reaches your ears as one of the orcs pulls Iveline’s arrow from the tree with malicious… maliciousness.’

‘Pff,’ said Derrida.

‘Shut it, you,’ said Veggie. ‘I ran out of words.’

‘Wouldn’t it be “malice”, anyway?’

‘Light Source,’ Marty interrupted them, slapping a card down on the table.

Malachi, the Sorceror of the half-demon Rithling race, raises his hand. A bright ball of light springs forth and shoots into the air, where it hovers and illuminates the surroundings. The orcs flinch away from the sudden bright light, but now they know that there’s no more hiding, they quickly draw their weapons with no more fear of detection.

‘Nicely done, Rook,’ said Derrida, poring over his character sheet. ‘I think my reaction score of… nineteen should allow me to get a priority attack on one of these scumbags, since they’re flinching?’

‘Why not,’ said Veggie. ‘You’ll find some weird way of engineering a sneak attack anyway. Deconstructive bastard.’

Derrida rolled the dice, watching intently. ‘That’s a natural max value,’ he announced as they came to a halt, clapping his hands together with excitement. ‘Critical one-shot, I should think?’

A noise somewhere between a sigh, a groan and whale song escaped Veggie, who looked fully ready to slam his head on the table in exasperation. Ziggy put a hand gently on his forehead.

Atgard, dick that he is, leaps towards the nearest distracted orc and rips his head from his body, puling the whole spine out in one intact piece from skull to ass.

‘And eats the brain, don’t forget,’ said Derrida smugly.

‘So subtle,’ Marty groaned.

And, of course, he eats the brain.

Veggie made a quick roll.

Or, at least, he would, if it weren’t for the fact that one of the other orcs has instantly jumped him.

Veggie dropped a few counters on the table to illustrate the placement of each character, and slid a red one violently in Derrida’s general direction.

‘I’ll save it for later,’ Derrida conceded.

‘TM, you’ve been relatively inactive,’ said Marty. ‘You wanna get that, I’ll sort out these two?’

‘Yeah, go on,’ TM said, leafing through ability cards. ‘I’ll slip through here,’ he said decisively, sliding counters around the table, ‘behind this one, and then backstab.’

‘Roll for it,’ Veggie instructed.

TM rolled. Ziggy patted his arm encouragingly at the result.

Barry the Shadowguard –

‘I still can’t believe you actually named your character Barry,’ said Marty.

– former prince of the Ascended Humans, bearer of the Blessing of the Summoner Queen… um.

‘Kepper of the Peace of the Sister Nations of Water, Mist and Low Cloud,’ TM reminded him.

‘Wow,’ said Ziggy with a note of admiration. ‘You’ve done a lot.’

’He hasn’t actually done a lot,’ Derrida said. ‘He just wrote a really long and detailed backstory, and he was so proud of it all that we just decided to let him have it.’

Anyway, that guy descends into the shadow of Iveline, his elfishly tall comrade. He travels through her shadow in the form of a black mist, then arises from the earth right behind the orc as it approaches Atgard.

‘Sinks his dagger into its neck, aaaand… it’s got one hit point left,’ Veggie announced, making a note on one of his many sheets of paper.

‘Finish it with an attack roll,’ Derrida completed, throwing his dice down.

Atgard’s long Serpentine arms plunge into the orc’s belly and rip out its intestines, shredding them into confetti before his enormous teeth bury themselves in its throat and tear its trachea apart as if it were rice paper. Then he crushes its brain and tramples on its eyes. It is now quite dead.

‘Subtle,’ Marty said again.

‘You keep using that word,’ Derrida told him. ‘I do not think it means what you think it means.’

‘It’s sarcasm, you dolt.’

Dominika tapped her fingers on the table; Veggie peered over his glasses at her.

‘Oh, yeah, it is your turn, D. Sorry.’

Dominika gave a wave, which evidently meant that it was alright, and rolled her dice.

Iveline fires an arrow at one of the remaining two orcs, which strikes it right in the eye. It’s still alive, though, flailing about in pain but still very much able to attack.

‘Marty, you’re closest,’ TM said.

Marty glanced down at the counters on the table. ‘Oh, yeah. Er… hang on.’ He shuffled through his cards rapidly, dropping a couple on the floor in the process. ‘Area of effect… aha. Lightning Storm, please.’

He rolled the dice. Veggie exhaled with glee.

Malachi attempts to summon a cataclysm of lethal electricity, but his powers fail him. The orc swings its sword about wildly, catching him in the arm for…

Veggie rolled.

Two hit points of damage. The final orc, who I kind of forgot about but I’m pretty sure it must be his turn at this point, strolls up to Malachi and smacks him right in the face with its big fuck-off hammer for three points of damage.

‘Bummer,’ said Marty.

‘Righty ho,’ Veggie said, folding over a few sheets. ’I need to tell Ziggy what’s up with her, ‘kay?’

TM gave him a questioning look.

‘Well, she hasn’t joined up with the rest of you douchebags yet,’ Veggie pointed out. ‘She needs a storyline, some sort of intersection par excellence, dig. I gotta make sure she acts independently, anyway. Them’s the rules.’

Ziggy leaned over, putting her head close to Veggie’s, and the two of them exchanged a series of brief whispers. TM thought he caught the words ‘you sure?’ from Veggie, and an eager ‘fuck yes’ in reply. They nodded and broke the huddle. Veggie jotted a few lines of scribbled writing.

Okay, so. The two orcs approach Malachi, who’s helpless to resist on account of it not being his turn. But wait! Lo, what light shineth forth from yonder mysticism?

Derrida spent a few moments gurning as if trying to work out how best to rudely tell Veggie just how terrible he considered that sentence, but shook his head and gave up.

The light from Malachi’s floating light ball shines on, and he looks up to see a figure nimbly making its way through the branches of the surrounding trees.

‘Shouldn’t he have to roll some sort of check for that?’ Derrida interjected.

His eyes are just drawn to the movement so he doesn’t need to roll a check, okay? Christ. Anyway, he sees a figure skittering about in the trees, leaping between thin branches with all the grace of a ballet-dancing flying squirrel. Which is to say, really really gracefully.

‘Agility check!’ Ziggy declared, rolling the dice around in her hands before letting them fly across the table.

‘Ooh, be careful,’ said Marty. ‘That’s how I lost my first character. She got a critical fail walking along a narrow beam a couple of inches off the ground, and somehow managed to flip over and crack her skull.’

‘Sounds distressing,’ Ziggy sympathised.

The figure passes the agility check – thank the Lord for that – and leaps from the branches. The leaves rustle about with a dramatic flourish, and her cloak flaps behind her as she soars down to the ground. She lands atop the fresher of the two orcs, driving its face into the ground with a knife to the back of the skull. Then she instantly whirls about and sinks a hidden blade into the remaining good eye of that other orc, the arrow-stricken one. It falls dead with a thump. She puts a foot on its corpse in a heroic pose.

‘That was fucking awesome,’ said Marty appreciatively.

‘Overpowered, more like,’ Derrida said. ‘Favouritism much.’

Dominika stuck her tongue out in his direction, which shut him up. It was a small, pink tongue, like a cat’s.

The mysterious newcomer gazes majestically about at the four blood-covered heroes.

‘I lower my hood in a really dramatic way,’ Ziggy declared in a theatrical vibrato, ‘and do, like, this really badass stare at them all.’

‘I munch on brains,’ Derrida added.

Atgard feasts upon the grey matter of his kills, imbibing their strength and gaining a temporary boost to his signature skill of Berserk Attack thanks to the Serpentine racial skill of Parasitic Consumption. The others…?

Veggie glanced around at each of them with a placid smile of anticipation.

‘I could have taken them,’ Marty grumped.

Malachi stares warily at the stranger. She lowers her hood and the half-mask covering her face from the nose down.

‘What’s your charisma score?’ Veggie asked Ziggy. She held up her character sheet, rather than bother to look through it. ‘And Marty, judgement modifier?’

Marty rolled. ‘Critical fail,’ he said.

Malachi, who considers himself a pretty good judge of character, divines that the stranger is an obese man holding a trombone in each hand, who is clearly very evil.

‘Well, if that’s a critical fail she’s obviously decent,’ TM pointed out.

‘Yadda yadda,’ said Veggie dismissively. ‘There’s stuff the characters know, there’s stuff the players know. Use your knowledge wisely, metagaming dork.’

‘I introduce myself,’ said TM, after giving him a scathing look.

Barry slinks through the shadows. His pure black armour reflects no light whatsoever, which TM thought was the coolest thing ever when he bought it for a frankly ridiculous price. He stares at the stranger with his black eyes and extends a hand.

TM assumed a deep voice.

‘I am Barry,’ says Barry, ‘with a whole shit ton of suffixes.’

Ziggy gave something like a giggle and put on a mysterious voice of her own.

‘I am known as L,’ says the stranger. Now that her face is visible, it is clear that she is a young human. A high-born one, judging by her cheekbones and immaculate hairstyle.

‘Well met, L,’ says Barry. ‘Where do you come from?’

‘I do not wish to say, nor do I think it relevant,’ L replies, ‘as all that matters is where I am now.’

‘Lame,’ said Marty.

Dominika picked up Veggie’s attention with a glance, and pursed her lips at him.

‘You sure?’ Veggie asked, with a raise of one eyebrow. She nodded. He grinned. ‘Awesome.’

Iveline approaches L. Her blind eyes stare passionately into the newcomer’s – she still has, like, normal-looking eyes, though, otherwise it’d be a bit creepy weird – and she kisses her deeply before stalking away, the cape of her ranger’s armour swishing along the leafy forest floor.

‘Oh,’ said Ziggy, blinking rapidly as she stared at Dominika. ‘I think I see how you guys managed to keep up a relationship without ever talking at all.’

‘Dom’s really weirdly good at being an insanely awesome lover-person purely via multiplayer gaming,’ Veggie said with a wistful sigh of reminiscence.

‘Nice,’ said Ziggy, giving Dominika what TM thought was intended to be a congratulatory nod. ‘So… I guess she likes me?’

‘Well, she can’t see,’ Derrida pointed out. ’She has to get an impression of all her comrades somehow.’

Malachi, realising that he must have been a worse judge of character than his fellow adventurers, shakes L’s hand with respect. Also, slight embarrassment at the fact that he required saving.

‘Hey,’ said Marty, spreading his hands wide. ‘If I got to be the catalyst for a totally awesome entrance, I’m down with that.’

Ziggy pushed a card across the table towards Veggie with one finger, giving him a questioning glance.

‘Yeah, I guess you can do that,’ Veggie said with a shrug, peering down at the card through his glasses.

L’s knowledge of the forest and her experience of traditional healing – not, like, homeopathy or whatever, like fantasy-style traditional healing, so probably magic and therefore perfectly reliable – enables her to bind up Malachi’s wounds with the appropriate medicinal plants. He’ll regain all his hit points next time he sleeps.

‘Aw,’ said Marty. ‘Thanks, Z-bro.’

Ziggy almost blushed. Her smile looked as if it were trying to widen while she struggled to keep a straight face.

‘You’re welcome,’ says L, wiping her bloodied blades on her sleeve before sheathing them. A short bow appears to be attached to a bracer at her wrist, and that she keeps at the ready. She looks like the sort of chick who’ll keep herself to herself. Hardened by the streets or something, probably.

‘Barry watches her carefully,’ said TM. ‘I was once a prince of the Ascended Humans, and she looks like nobility of the… regular humans to me.’

Barry glares openly at L, who pulls her cloak tightly around herself.

‘Well,’ sad Marty. ‘We’re all awake now. May as well carry on with the adventures and that.’

‘Agreed,’ said Derrida. TM nodded; Dominika wandered over to the fridge and came back munching on a slice of leftover takeaway pizza, which they took as agreement.

‘Arcane detection check,’ Marty announced, rolling for it. ‘If I remember rightly, I put down a magical rune last time so we’d know which direction we were travelling in.’

‘Nice thinking,’ said Ziggy. Marty looked rather pleased with himself.

‘Awwwwww,’ said Veggie, looking at the result of the roll. ‘Looks like the battle with the orcs must have disrupted some of the energy in the area and destroyed Malachi’s sigil thing.’

Marty spoke in a booming, sorcerous voice.

‘Well, shit,’ says Malachi.

‘I’m not good with directions,’ Barry admits.

Iveline shrugs, since her enhanced senses will only go so far. Atgard finishes off some yummy brains.

‘Tell me, heroes,’ says L. ‘What is your quest?’

‘Er,’ says Barry.

‘What were we doing again?’ TM asked Veggie.

‘You were heading for the nearest big city, hub of adventure, that sort of thing.’

‘Which was?’

Veggie checked his papers. ‘You seek the city of Lanriel.’

‘Cheers.’

‘We seek the city of Lanriel,’ Barry tells L.

‘Knowledge check?’ Ziggy asked TM, who nodded. ‘Knowledge check!’ she almost shouted at Veggie, pointing vigorously at her character sheet.

‘Yeah, no roll needed on this one,’ Veggie conceded, ‘you got this.’

‘I know these forests well,’ L tells the heroes.

‘Ooh, she’s enigmatic, isn’t she?’ Marty said. ‘There’s some backstory there, I can tell.’

‘Follow me,’ says L. ‘I am… familiar with Lanriel.’

‘Atgard gives his fellow heroes a questioning glance,’ said Derrida thoughtfully. ‘Do we trust her?’

‘Well, yeah,’ said TM. ‘It’s Ziggy.’

‘Our characters don’t know that, though,’ Derrida pointed out. ‘For all they know, she’s an evil NPC… bitch.’

Marty snorted. ‘You,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘are the absolute last person I would expect to be a stickler for role-playing verisimilitude.’

Derrida shrugged, as if proud of himself. ‘I’m surrendering myself to the experience.’

The four heroes stand in a huddle, talking quietly among themselves.

‘Hearing check,’ said Ziggy, smirking.

‘Iveline hears you trying to listen in and gives you the finger,’ said Veggie. Dominika nodded wisely.

’How do you hear someone trying to listen in?!’ Ziggy demanded.

The heroes turn back to L. Their hands stay close to their weapons, but do not draw them.

‘We’re going to trust you,’ Barry tells her. The other three nod. ‘We’ll be watching you, but… welcome to the party.’

‘Fuckin’ A,’ says L.

‘Come on, Z,’ said TM, ’at least keep the voice up.

‘Sorry,’ Ziggy said, and tried again.

‘I will prove to you that I am worthy of such trust,’ L says with great wisdom and portent. ‘I shall lead thee to the place you seek.’

Dominika tapped the end of her pencil on her character sheet, indicating one of its many boxes.

‘Zig, what’s your deception?’ Veggie asked, poring over the numbers carefully.

‘Er… twelve,’ said Ziggy.

‘That’s pretty high,’ said Derrida. ‘Must be good at… hiding things.’

‘Iveline passes the check,’ Veggie said. ‘She’s not hiding anything, at the moment.’

Iveline nods at L, indicating her trust, and the others relax. L folds her bow away and stores it under her cloak –

‘TM, perception?’

‘Nine.’

– and Barry can see through the shadows to observe that, under her swishing cloak, her clothing is well-made and expensive, albeit showing the wear and tear of heavy use. She also has what seems to be a pretty impressive array of weaponry stashed under there.

‘Barry isn’t bothered,’ TM said dismissively. ‘She’s proved herself enough, as far as he’s concerned.’

Barry can also tell that she’s pretty fine.

‘Did you just roll a separate check for that?’ TM asked Veggie with a withering furrow of his eyebrows. Veggie shrugged. Ziggy did what looked like a mini fist pump.

Then L starts to examine the earth, checking for… whatever sort of signs and stuff people who know shit about forests check for, and then turns her gaze to the heavens and scans the stars. She stares up for a moment, then nods decisively and leads the heroes into the forest. They fetch their belongings as she starts to ascend the branches, silently making her way through the trees above and in front of them. A small light dangling her hip shows them the way to follow.

Veggie stopped suddenly and flipped through a few pages. ‘Z, perception check.’

‘That’s never a good sign,’ Derrida lamented.

Ziggy rolled the dice.

L continues on her way through the trees.

‘Wait,’ said Marty. ‘What was she checking for?’

‘Well, she failed it,’ explained Veggie, entirely unhelpfully.

‘Well, I wanna make the check!’ Marty thrust his character sheet in Veggie’s face. ‘Arcane, nature, danger, whatever.’

Malachi senses something in the air, and puts out his arms to stop his companions. The four heroes come to a sharp halt, their toes just shy of the edge of a deep pit filled with spikes. L hears them stop and turns back. She’s already passed over the trap safely, up above the ground and therefore not really at much risk of impalement.

‘Everybody roll priority,’ Veggie instructed.

‘Shit,’ said Marty. ‘Why are we making a priority roll?’

‘Just do it,’ Veggie said impatiently. ‘Everybody score above six?’

‘Four,’ said TM.

‘Aahhhh,’ said Veggie, in a tone that instantly let TM know he was about to do something dickish. ‘Oh, Barry. Barry, Barry, Barry.’

A dark figure dashes out at the party from deep within the forest, moving quickly and quietly. It strikes Barry in the back as they stand before the pit, sending him toppling in.

‘Saving throw,’ TM said quickly. The dice rattled down.

Barry shifts into his non-corporeal shadow gas form as he falls, but not fast enough to avoid getting stuck in the leg with one of the spikes. He’s alive, but wounded.

‘So that’ll be half hit points, reduced movement and no line dancing for a while,’ Veggie told TM, jotting it down.

‘Better than death,’ said TM, shrugging optimistically.

The figure draws twin daggers, curved and glimmering in the starlight. Everyone except Barry reacted quickly enough to already have their own weapons drawn, luckily, plus L is still hanging out up in the trees.

‘Speaking of which, sneak check.’

Ziggy rolled.

She remains undetected for now, but her movement will be seriously slowed while she’s trying to stay hidden in the trees. She’s also still a few metres away from the rest of the group.

‘Atgard reacted first,’ Veggie said, examining the dice, ‘so Derrida, do as you will.’

Atgard roars and enters his Berserk Attack state, which raises his attack bonus by one six-sided die roll. His sharp-clawed fists strike at the hooded figure, who takes… six points of damage, but stays upright.

‘Shite,’ said Marty.

‘We’ve only really done orcs and the occasional merchant who was being a stingy dick,’ TM told Ziggy.

‘Plus the parents of Iveline’s conquests,’ Derrida reminded them. Dominika checked her nails, exposing a few teeth.

‘An actual boss fight is kind of new to these characters, is the point,’ TM finished.

Malachi casts a spell of shielding over Barry, trying to protect him from harm. Meanwhile, up in the trees, L creeps a little closer. Back on the ground, Iveline passes an agility check and leaps over the pit, looking across the spiky gap at the group from the other side. No attack this turn, though, that counts as an action.

Dominika batted her eyelids at Veggie.

‘No attack this turn!’ he said sternly.

She folded her arms, sticking her tongue out at him.

The enemy makes its move now, slashing at Atgard’s arms. Unprotected by armour, with only his thick scales to save him from harm, he takes four his points of damage and…

Veggie rolled and grinned.

And he now has full use of only one arm.

Derrida scoffed.

‘I can’t use my leg, right?’ TM thought aloud, considering his turn. ‘So that means I can’t use Shadow Sprint –’ he slid the appropriate ability card to the bottom of his deck ‘– or Devastating Blow, that takes both legs to use at full power.’

Ziggy leaned over and cut into TM’s stack of cards with a fingernail, pointing at one in particular.

‘Oh, shit, yeah!’ said TM. ‘Cheers, Zig.’

‘No problemo.’

‘Dark Blast,’ TM instructed firmly.

Barry summons his strength, drawing power from the pain of his wound and all the emotional trauma inflicted by his unusually detailed backstory, and forms it all into an explosion of dark magic. The figure falls back, taking damage, but he’s got pretty high shadow resistance keeping him alive. Barry also loses two more hit points, sacrificing his own life energy to fuel the attack.

‘Better be careful,’ Marty mused. TM gave a wail of lament.

‘My go again,’ Derrida said, pushing two ability cards forward. ‘Martial Form into Sharp Fangs, if you would, and we’ll target the neck.’

‘Roll for it,’ Veggie told him.

Atgard uses the discipline and martial skill he learned from his time in the Monastery of the Blood Monks to tense his muscles into a powerful stance, then lunges forward to grab the enemy and sinks his snakey fangs into its neck. A wound opens up, but it doesn’t bleed.

‘Death from Above!’ Ziggy almost sang, rolling eagerly and flinging a card across the table.

L leaps out of the trees, jumping so far and so fast that she soars down like an enormous but really sneaky eagle. She made her move from enough of a distance that her target has time to react, bringing up an arm protected with a metal bracer, but L’s attack still knocks the strength out of him.

Dominika gave a low chuckle and held up a card.

Iveline uses Blindsight Shot, her ranger senses more accurate and deadly than any normal vision. She draws her bow, and fires.

Dominika rolled.

L struggles with the enemy, her knife locked in his armour. Suddenly, she’s released, as an arrow sprouts from his face.

TM whistled.

’Through the back of the head and out the eye socket,’ Derrida said with appreciation. ‘Nicely done.’

Dominika winked at him.

‘Force Push,’ said Marty, eliciting a snort of amusement from Derrida.

‘That’s almost disrespectful.’

‘Most basic sorcery in the book,’ Marty said, snapping his fingers with sass.

Malachi extends a hand and gently exerts his magical ability, giving the enemy a little nudge. He falls lifelessly backwards, into the pit of spikes. His hood falls, revealing his face, as the spikes go through him with a –

Veggie made a noise that sounded like someone punching a half-thawed tub of ice-cream.

– with a noise that… sounds like spikes going through a guy.

‘Niiiiiiice,’ TM said. He held his fist out to Marty, who bumped it.

As the enemy’s face is exposed, Barry recognises the facial marks identifying him as a Hunter of Men: a member of the secretive order of humans who aren’t Ascended Humans but are still slightly badass than normal humans, and who can be hired to murder just about anyone for the right price. L recognises the markings, too.

‘How does she know that?’ Derrida butted in. ‘I smell a secretive and mysterious backstory in this young lady.’

‘If you can smell that, your nose is too close to me,’ Ziggy said.

Barry hoists himself out of the pit –

‘You didn’t even get out of the pit?’ Derrida scoffed.

‘Forgot,’ TM said with a shrug.

Barry hoists himself out of the pit with some difficulty, tests his weight on his injured leg and looks down at the dead Hunter. ‘Look at all the skulls in there,’ he says, nodding down at the pit.

Malachi creates a little floating light so the other, non-shadowy people can see through the darkness. Except Iveline, obviously, who can’t see at all, so she just busies herself checking over her weapons and that.

‘That’s a lot of skulls,’ Malachi concurs.

‘Hunters of Men don’t kill unless they’re paid to,’ Barry says. ‘Some orcs or forest-dwelling Low Men made the pit, but the Hunter was here for us. Specifically us.’

While Barry and the others carry on their conversation, Iveline hears a scuffle of movement from just behind the trees. She makes her way over quietly, and…

‘Dom, checks for nature and… your Ranger’s Blessing ability, if you would,’ Veggie said.

And there on the ground lies a young falcon, injured and abandoned.

Dominika nodded. Veggie handed her a token bearing a badly-drawn falcon.

Iveline takes the bird into her arms, her ranger’s instincts and elfish affinity for all nature’s creatures kicking in.

‘You gain the power of pet!’ Veggie declared. Dominika did a surreptitious fist-pump. At the sound of the word ‘pet’, a muted scratching sound reached their ears from somewhere across the flat; TM dashed over to let Michel Furcoat – the cat – out.

‘Barry, you’re still pretty hurt,’ Veggie told TM, as the latter resumed his seat. ‘Best get him to that city pretty quick, y’all.’

‘Next time,’ Derrida said, standing and stretching. ‘I gotta get going.’

‘Whaaaaaa,’ Ziggy pined. ‘We’ve only just started!’

‘We’ve been playing for six hours, Zig,’ TM told her.

‘Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,’ Ziggy said again.

‘Yeah, tabletop RPGs tend to take… like, waaaaay longer than you plan for,’ Marty said with a wide yawn.

‘To be continued, then,’ said Veggie, sliding his glasses off his nose and throwing them down on top of his pile of papers.

‘Oh, hey, TM,’ Derrida said as Marty and Dominika made for the door, hugging Veggie affectionately on the way out. ‘How come you weren’t at the park today?’

TM coughed. ‘I was makin’ dollars, playa,’ he said casually.

‘Dude, it was your dad’s birthday thing.’

Ziggy turned to TM. ‘You blew off your dad’s birthday?!’

TM shrank back under her glare. ‘We’d just met you, we were trying to introduce you to the world, then you came up with the invention and the pitch, and…’ He sighed, avoiding eye contact, and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I was kind of excited just to be hanging out with you.’

Ziggy blinked at him. ‘So you skipped your dad’s birthday to… hang out with me?’

TM nodded.

‘I am… kind of flattered,’ she said uncertainly. ‘But that’s not cool.’

‘We’re all gonna be at the fair tomorrow, and your dad said he’ll be popping over,’ Derrida said, sliding towards the door. ‘You better show, okay?’

‘Ugggggggghhh,’ replied TM.

‘Do you not get on with your dad, or something?’ Ziggy asked curiously.

‘Nah, we get on fine,’ TM told her. ‘My family just get a bit weird if I introduce them to girls.’

A sly smile spread across Ziggy’s face. ‘Sounds like fun.’

‘See ya, Veg,’ Derrida said, kissing Veggie on the cheek. Veggie carried on gathering up his campaign papers obliviously. ‘TM, quick word?’

TM followed him into the hall, where Derrida fixed him with a serious gaze.

‘What?’

Derrida nodded back towards the flat. Through the open door, TM could see Ziggy still sitting at the table, spinning a pencil around in her fingers. ‘What’s the deal with her?’ Derrida asked.

‘I don’t –’

’Look, she seems cool and all, but as far as I can tell you’d never met her until yesterday and suddenly she’s living with you and being part of Veggie TM, Inventors Incorporated? That’s your baby,’ Derrida said, almost pleadingly.

‘She’s… special,’ TM said, which he knew was unsatisfactory.

‘Oh, good,’ said Derrida. ‘You know, I have a theory.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘She seems like a bit of an outsider to me, you know? A misfit.’ Derrida gave TM a pointed look. ‘And you have a bit of a thing for misfits.’

‘I do?’

‘Of course you do!’ exclaimed Derrida. ‘People who’ve never felt part of one family or the other, you know. It’s probably all down to your own childhood experiences of ostracism.’

‘Fuck off, Derrida,’ said TM, ‘you’re meant to be a deconstructionist, not a psychoanalyst. Go home and rethink your worldview.’

Derrida laughed and patted TM on the shoulder. ‘See ya in the morning,’ he said, strolling away.

‘Night,’ TM said, and headed back inside.

Veggie was there, of course, picking up the remaining sheets and stacking them away neatly. TM picked up the Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard and dragged it over to the sofa, intending to make full use of its rarely-seen but often-advertised ‘bedsheet’ feature. Ziggy hopped over to the door of the bedroom usually shared by Veggie and TM, opening it and peering inside.

‘Do you actually sleep?’ Veggie asked, wandering up behind her.

‘Yeah, why not,’ said Ziggy. ‘Seems like a thing I might enjoy.’

‘Night, then,’ TM said with a wave, making up his bed on the couch.

‘See ya in the morning,’ Veggie said, saluting.

’We’re going to this fair thingy,’ Ziggy told TM firmly; TM nodded. She stepped out of Veggie’s way as he meandered into the bedroom, and gave TM a look. ‘Hey, look at it all optimistic-like,’ she instructed. ‘It sounds like fun. And besides, if I’m gonna be living with you, I should probably meet your family, no?’

‘Possibly,’ TM admitted.

Ziggy beamed and dashed back into the bedroom, leaping up into the top bunk. ‘Night,’ she called. Veggie made as if to tell her off, but gave up and took the bottom bunk.

‘Night, all,’ TM said, and tucked himself in.

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