- Issue #73 – Give Thanks
- Issue #74 – Bit Part Bad Guys
- Issue #75 – Kaiju for Christmas
- Issue #76 – Silicon Soul, Adamantine Will
- Issue #77 – Date Night
- Issue #78 – Delved Too Deep (Une Mascarade Brisée Part 1)
- Issue #79 – Tome of Secrets (Une Mascarade Brisée Part 2)
- Descendants Special #7 – The Curtain Rises
- Issue #80 – Bitter Work
- Issue #81 – Kin, Speed and Ducks
- Issue #82 – What To Do With Your Downtime
- Issue #83 – Avalon Rises
- Issue #84 – Darkness Falling
- Descendants Annual #7 – First Frost
JC moved cautiously, hugging the left-hand wall of the corridor. His combat boots weren’t much help for balancing on the exposed pipes that made up the bulk of the floor, and were an active hindrance to any attempt at stealth.
Steam hissed from a pipe next to him at about chest level, rising up to obscure the open door ahead.
Not good. Anyone could be waiting in ambush up there.
He crouched to give himself the best chance of getting the first shot off and proceeded forward.
He didn’t even make it to the door. Suddenly, high-pitched beeps started sounding all around him. Glancing about wildly, he finally spotted the round, black devices—all stuck to the ceiling near pipes to make them extra hard to find.
“Oh, you suck.” He muttered as the proximity mines went off, filling his computer screen with flames and the words ‘CAPN HANDSOME BLOWN AWAY BY MAN-O-WARRICK’.
“You’re the one that picked the weapon set for this round.” Warrick shrugged, looking up from his computer. He was sitting on his bad with the laptop balanced on his knees so their guest could use his desk. “I wanted nothing but homing rockets, but noooo.”
He tapped the keyboard, causing his character to sidestep just as a shotgun blast put a scatter pattern the width of his chest in the wall in front of him. Whirling around, he opened up with a salvo from his heavy machine gun that filled the room he’s just walked out of with lead, smoke and light thanks to highly unnecessary tracer rounds.
Every bullet his nothing important as a figure ducked around the side of the door on the other side.
“Nice try, Kareem, but…”
In his headphones, Kareem heard the telltale clink of a grenade bouncing on the concrete floor of the bunker. The only way out of the chamber he’d ducked into was a ladder leading to the outside. He lunged for it, only to have his character start up, start drifting to the left because he wasn’t aiming the mouse perfectly straight forward, and then move to far off to the side and fall right back into the now-exploding room.
‘DREAM WARRIOR BLOWN AWAY BY MAN-O-WARRICK’
‘ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: PINEAPPLE BEEFCAKE – BLOW AWAY 100 OPPONENTS WITH FRAG GRENADES IN TROPICAL VOLCANO BASE MAP’
“Sweet, I didn’t even know that was a thing.” said Warrick.
“Not that it means anything.” JC said, shrugging, “John Matrix Revived II doesn’t give you anything for achievements like with Deathgate’s banner system. So: go again?”
“I would, but isn’t it almost seven? Don’t you two need to get ready for your game?”
JC checked the clock on his screen. Ten minutes til. “Shit. I better go claim a study room. Can you bring the thing when you come up, War?”
“Cool. Good game, Kareem. Good luck with the double date!”
Kareem waved, but gave him a look. “Good luck? Desiree and I have been dating for over a year; I think we’re beyond luck when it comes to our dates.”
JC paused at the door. “Kareem, Kareem, Kareem… my good chum—how many double dates have you been on in that time?”
“…None.” Kareem answered, wary.
“Oh then you don’t know.”
“JC, don’t mess with him like this.” said Warrick.
JC glared at him. “You know what I’m talking about—you were there! Several times in fact!”
“That’s a bad example, man.” Warrick came close to pouting. “You know me and Tink aren’t exactly cut out for the super-formal stuff…”
Kareem looked from one friend to the other. “Okay. What in the world are you two talking about?”
“I’m just going to come out and say it,” JC held up his hands. “Double dates are the devil. It’s a mess. It’s nothing but trouble. You think date planning is hard when it’s two of you? Try four. It is impossible to make sure everyone is having a good time and who ever isn’t having a good time is going to bring things down.”
At that point, Warrick was full-on pouting. “Okay, that was one time. And I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Plus, pottery class is a weird date.”
JC continued as if he hadn’t said anything. “And then the comparisons start. The other couple is cuter than you two—and you know that’s going to be the case since your other couple is Jun and Malcolm—they listen to each other better, the guy does things you don’t. Then it’s a week of fighting until you come up with a regular date that makes her forget about the double date.”
“You and Lisa are fighting again?” Kareem asked.
“They never stopped.” said Warrick, “They just don’t solve every fight with a break-up. I kind of wish they would sometimes considering the alternative usually means I have to crash at Freeland House for the night…”
“Speaking of things that don’t happen after a double date…” JC muttered.
Kareem put up his hands defensively. “I think I get the picture. Though that will not be an issue for Desiree and I.”
JC grinned salaciously. “So shark girl is a minx, huh?”
“I wish you would stop calling her shark girl.” Kareem sighed. “But no. If you must no… we have not been together yet. Desiree wishes to wait until the right time and I respect that.”
“Really?” Warrick asked, almost falling over in shock. “But she’s constantly all over you making out. The other week when I stopped by your place to pick up those flat formats you borrowed, she was in your lap—I was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t walk in ten minutes later.”
Kareem shrugged. “That is just how things are. Desiree is very passionate, but whenever things begin to progress she pulls herself back. Sometimes it is very hard for me not to try and peek on what she’s thinking in those moments.”
“Well, if you’re okay with it…” JC copied Kareem’s shrug. Then he made a face. “Hey, do you guys thing Jun and Malcolm…”
“Not a chance.” Warrick laughed. “Jun wouldn’t start anything and Malcolm wouldn’t know how.”
“You think she doesn’t know anything.” said JC. “But we’ve already seen on stage and off that the girl’s a hell of an actress. She could be a totally different person when she and Malcolm are alone.”
Kareem shook his head. “And on that truly unsettling speculation about our friend and her love life, I think I should be off.” He looked to Warrick. “Patrol tomorrow evening?”
“Sure, I’m hanging with Cyn most of the day tomorrow, so just give me a call when you’re ready—she’ll probably be up for it too.”
“Of course.” Kareem stood from his seat and stretched. “By the way, when you were in the bathroom earlier, JC told me about tonight’s game. I’m glad you got over your issues with that.”
Warrick gave a nervous laugh. “Yeah… me too.”
JC pulled open the door. “I’ll walk you out to the lobby Kareem. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the meeting room up front is open tonight.”
As his friends headed out, Warrick closed his laptop and slid off the bed, preparing to get their gaming supplies ready. “Yeah,” he said to himself, “Am I over it, or was I really just that desperate for a fifth to start our new campaign?”
A few minutes later, his palmtop started playing I Am A Man of Steel by Unedited Transgressions; the song he used for his default. He checked the caller ID and felt a pang of shame when he cringed inwardly. A guy shouldn’t cringe over his friends, especially good friends.
“Hey, War.” Replied the caller. In another timeline, she was the woman he was destined to marry. In the current one, she was a person he had lunch and occasionally marathoned videogames with. It was… interesting. “Just calling to see what room you guys are in.”
Warrick shrugged. “JC is looking for a place right now. You might want to give him a call when you get here. I’m on my way to pick up Tink.”
“Whoa. She only just got in?”
The lie that Tink flew in every other week to see her parents was both flimsy and insane. The only way they managed to cover it up as well as they did was because ‘she gates in via magic mirror’ was even more flimsy and insane.
“Nah, she doesn’t have Friday classes, so she got in early this morning and spent the day with her parents. I’m picking her up because I have her car.” That much was true; Tink let him use her car while she was away. Which was nice because it was a sweet flying former cop car.
“Cool.” replied Meghan. “I’ll see you both when you get back I guess.”
That she and Tink got along so well made things worse somehow. Somehow meaning that his brain presented both really, really bad results of that friendship and really, really…. interesting ones—neither of which he thought healthy or really moral.
“Yep. See you then.”
A half hour later, Warrick nudged the door to the third floor study room open with his shoulder. “We have finally arrived!” He declared, lugging not only JC’s gaming supplies in the big, plastic bin there were stored in, but his own Imago messenger bag.
“And we brought food!” Tink called over his shoulder. She was holding a cardboard box with Chinese takeout cartons in it.
Inside the room, JC was sitting at the head of the table that dominated the room, typing furiously on his laptop. “Sweet. I just got all the software set up. You did bring the thing, right?”
While Tink started passing Meghan, Ron and Jamie their individual orders, Warrick set the bin down on the table and popped open the top. “Like I was going to forget the pinnacle in gaming technology.”
“Ooo,” Jaime said, accepting her pork dumplings from Tink with a grateful nod, “We finally get to see the super-special ‘we need to start a whole new campaign from scratch’, high-tech battle-mat?”
Ron, who was sitting next to her, snorted. “I know you liked your dad’s birthday present for you, JC, but nothing is going to be that exciting.”
“Blasphemy.” JC got up to look into the bin and came out with what appeared to be two long, thin aluminum bars joined together lengthwise. “But you will be unbelievers no longer once you behold the wonder of the Tabletop Science Infini-Mat Holographic Battle-mat and GM Tool Suite.”
He pressed a button on one of the bars, then placed them on the table. Taking one in each hand, spread them apart along the length of the table. A grid of red lines, similar to a laser security grid in a movie spanned the space between them. When he was done, the grid covered four square feet of the table.
While he was hurrying back to the laptop to synch it with the Infini-Mat, Meghan looked over her Triple Delight dish to Tink. “So how’s Cambridge?”
“Hectic, but rewarding.” said Tink honestly. “My adviser is really pushing me to try and sign on to a student research group even though that’s not normally something a first year is allowed to do. How about you? Still a Comp Sci major or did you switch the Biomechanics?”
Warrick didn’t hear the rest of the exchange because he’d just turned away from putting the gaming bin under the table to find that everyone else was seated… leaving one space on the long, green couch for him. Said space was between Tink and Meghan.
“Good one.” he whispered to the universe at large.
“Hey,” Jamie said, looking about the room. “I just realized: for the first time, we’re completely even: three guys and three girls.”
JC shook his head. “Nope. I am the GM and thus above your puny mortal boy-girl-boy-girl arrangements. So technically Warrick and Ron are outnumbered.”
“I can live with that.” Jamie grinned. “Glad to have you aboard… uh… Meghan, right?”
“Glad to be here?” said Meghan with a steady smile. “Thanks for inviting me guys.”
Warrick tried to act casual while taking his seat between the two women. “Actually, it was Tink’s idea.”
That was true. After running into Meghan a couple of times after the last Halloween party, the two girls had started talking and hit it off. When JC announced he’d be running a new campaign, one name came up immediately and there was nothing Warrick could say about it.
“I figured you would be a good player.” said Tink. “Now we’ll get a chance to see if I was right.”
With a few more commands, JC made the laser grid turn green, then green rectangles appeared on the table to either side of the Infini-mat.
“And we are go.” announced JC. “Those green boxes are your dice-rolling areas. If you roll your dice there, the map can auto-record and add your bonuses based on your character sheets and the in-game context. If everyone can put their mini in a square on the map, I can register them and we can get started.”
Where else would an epic Fantasy adventure start but a dusty little tavern on the borders of civilization?
As many millions of predecessors before them, the party arrived in ones and twos to sit and wait for their benefactor at a semi-private table in the back of the taproom.
Ghoja Herkuel, a mountainous example of the race of Man sat with one big boot on the table with his chair leaned back until it rested against the wall. His mighty hammer, the Heavy Hand, sat beside him, its iron head covered in the leather bag he kept over it whenever it wasn’t being employed to smash the skulls of evil.
Beside him, sitting as primly as the hammerman was casually, as Litec Agesbor. Her entire body was swathed in faded silks of blue and red and white now turned gray. Over that, she wore a thick, leather cloak with a pattern that evoked a flowing river embroidered into it. A dingy, white silk scarf and wide-brimmed leather hat conspired to conceal her features, save for two eyes that glowed a sickly blue-white, and a spray of hair that wasn’t so much white as transparent. She had been born human, but hadn’t been for decades.
On the other side of Ghoja sat another woman, a stark contrast from Litec. She wore only a simple pair of hakama pants, a sarashi bound across her thin chest, and tape on her fists and forearms. Her head was clean shaven and tattooed with spiraling purple patterns. Vedan of the Ivy Temple sipped water from a wine glass and calmly waited for something to bring the full weight of two hundred years of monastic combat training down upon.
On the other side of the table was Father Trephan. A dwarf by birth, but raised in the Church of Oles, he was beardless and clothed in the white and blue vestments of his order. While the other ate and drank, he chose to meditate and commune with his Goddess with the free time he was afforded.
Last but not least was Eva Croix. The half-elf was fully decked out in shining watersteel full-plate with her serrated bastard sword known as Kaze no Ken at her side. She was taking full advantage of the group’s would-be employer’s generosity to eat what promised to be her last big meal in a long while.
All five heads looked up as the door to the tavern opened and an old man in traveler’s clothes and the wild look of a hunted man clamored in. He spotted them immediately and hastened toward the table.
“Thank goodness you all received my summons.” He said in a reedy voice. “We have little time—the fate of the Realm teeters on Fate’s knife. You must help me.”
And around a very similar table in another world, five friends smiled and readied character sheets and dice. There was no better way to spend a Friday night, was there?”
“An… Improv?” Kareem asked a beaming Juniper.
“You know, improvisational theater?” Juniper asked, “It’s where the performers don’t have a scripts, they make up everything they do, usually with audience suggestions.”
Malcolm’s smile almost matched Juniper’s. “Mayfield’s actually got a pretty good scene for it too. When I first moved her, I was worried that all Machine City had to offer would be science expos.”
Kareem stroked his chin and briefly wondered if he needed to shave before it started looking ridiculous. “That sounds like fun. What do you think, Desiree?”
The gray-skinned girl shrugged. “Sounds like something I can give a try. Sure.”
“Oh,” Juniper added, “And also tonight they’re going to be picking people to go onstage and do some of the games—that’s going to be really fun!”
Kareem swallowed and fought to keep his expression from changing. “On… stage, you say?”
To Be Continued…