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Chapter 4

        The morning was crawling into afternoon. The students in Mrs. Downing's history class were allegedly learning about President Harding and the scandals that marred his administration, but often their heads would turn to the windows, or dip unobtrusively to the phones that had not yet been confiscated. Only a few serious faces watched their teacher as she spoke, or jotted down notes about Teapot Dome. Val also had her head bent to her notebook, but her mind was far from land leases and bribery. She was thinking about Valora. As her everyday life seemed more and more dull, Val turned inward to the other life she led, the secret one. She hunched over her notebook, shielding the page with her arm so that no one could see the doodles that were slowly filling the empty space. Most were simple stick figures, like a triumphant Valora standing on a pile of dead goblins. Every once in a while Val tried to draw something more detailed, but usually met with frustration. Anything she put on paper always seemed flawed, a poor imitation of the image in her mind. The real world never did seem to measure up to her expectations. Then again, Val herself didn't, either.

        It was so easy in the game. There, in a world filled with adventure, she could settle into the role of a courageous warrior without a second thought. When a dragon swooped down on innocent farmers, you were supposed to charge forward and defend them; everyone knew that. But none of the stories Val had read told her how to deal with the bullies, or with teachers, or with her parents. A defiant battle cry didn't really make up for a 78% on her science quiz. Actually, all of the warrior instincts could only complicate Val's real life. That didn't stop her dreaming, though. Val often lost herself thinking about how Valora would send the bullies scattering before her, laughing at their cowardice. They were only dreams, but somehow they helped. The weight of actually living her life didn't seem quite so burdensome ever since Val discovered the game. Of course, it helped to finally have some friends.

        Their meeting had been an accident. It had been one of the late days, when Val had been forced to stay after school to talk about some recent academic failure. She couldn't remember which class it had been; at the time, she had been failing several. It wasn't because the subjects were hard, but rather because Val was exhausted from loneliness. Every day she was surrounded by tormentors, and then she would go home to an empty house. There was no one to help her with homework, or even to care that she wasn't doing well in school. She found it hard to resist that kind of universal apathy: none of it seemed to matter to anyone else, so why should she care? And so she was trudging down the empty hallway after school hours, lugging her duffel bag beside her, when she heard a voice. It was muffled behind the door of a storage room, but the few words she heard caught her attention. Curious, she moved closer.

        "The ogre strains, trying to throw you back against the wall. Give me another check." There was the sound of clattering dice. "The behemoth almost succeeds, but at the last second you force the club down again, pinning it to the floor. Its struggles grow feeble, and eventually it collapses into unconsciousness. What do you do next?" It was like hearing someone read a book aloud, but there were strange pauses, as if the narrator expected a response. After a moment the voice came again; it sounded like a boy around Val's own age, though he spoke with a quiet confidence that didn't remind her of anyone she knew. "There isn't much of value here," the boy continued. "There is a large door standing at the back of the room, though." This pause was also broken by the sound of dice. "That easily does it. The door pops from its hinges, revealing the cluttered storeroom beyond."

        Standing there in the hall, Val was at war with herself. Whatever was going on in the room wasn't any of her business, not to mention the fact that talking with her peers never seemed to work out in her favor. But her curiosity thrummed. She had to know what this strange story was. Before she could lose her nerve she reached out and opened the door. Inside, two boys were sitting at a table, surrounded by stored chairs and other miscellany. The one nearest to the door was enormous, nearly twice Val's size, with dark hair and dark eyes. He was staring down at her with a look of pure panic. Val almost laughed; nobody had ever been scared of her before. The other boy was slender and wearing a cloak that somehow didn't look out of place. His expression was serene. "Hello," he said. "Valerie, isn't it?"

        Val blinked. "You know me?" she asked.

        "I heard your name once. I don't forget." His eyes never wavered, even as the big one glanced back and forth between them. "My name is Stephen," the smaller boy continued. He nodded to his friend. "This is Gregory." The other one said nothing, but continued to watch her with a silent wariness.

        "Hi." Val's brain was struggling to keep up. She was talking to other kids, and no one had made fun of her yet. Something wasn't right. "I was walking by, and I heard you talking," she said, trying to hold onto polite conversation with both hands. "What are you guys doing?"

        "Playing a game. Have a seat; I'll show you." The one called Stephen stood, ignoring Gregory's look of disbelief. Val entered slowly, closing the door behind her. She drew an extra chair over to the table, noting the strange collection of objects laid out. "This is a roleplaying game," Stephen said. "It's like telling a story, except we tell it together. I'm running the game, so I provide the setting and plot, as well as all the supporting cast. Gregory controls the main character, a giant named Groth." He pointed out a crude map lying under some scattered, strangely shaped dice. "Right now Groth is exploring the caves of an ogre clan, trying to find something they've stolen. Whenever he tries to do something that might not work, we roll the dice to see if he succeeds. There's lots of rules, but that's the gist of it."

        Val nodded. "I see," she said. It wasn't like anything she'd ever heard of, but the story sounded a lot like the kinds of books she already read. She looked up at Gregory, who was still eying her as if she were a snake. "Why's your friend so nervous?" she asked.

        Stephen smiled. "He's not comfortable around strangers. Lots of people make fun of him for his size, or the fact that he doesn't talk. He's worried you're going to tell people about the game, and ruin our hiding place."

        "How do you know that, if he doesn't talk?"

        "The same why I know that you won't tell anyone," Stephen said. He cocked his head to one side. "You realize that, don't you?"

        His stare was unsettling, but he was right. "I suppose not." All the rejection she felt was boiling inside her, thoughts of leering faces and horrible words. "I couldn't take that away from anyone," she finished.

        Stephen's smile widened. He glanced at Gregory. "See? Nothing to worry about." He turned back to Val and gestured at the disorderly papers before them. "Well, I suppose we should make you a character, then. Welcome to the club."

        The sound of scraping chairs dragged Val out of her memory. Everyone was packing up and leaving; the class was over. Val hastened to pack away her things, hoping nobody had noticed her daydreaming. Fortunately, they were all too anxious to leave to pay her any attention. Even Mrs. Downing left the room, following in the wake of laughing friends into a noisy hallway. In moments, Val was alone. She threw the last textbook into her duffel and hauled the bag onto her shoulder. Slowly she followed her classmates out of the room, hoping nobody would notice her, and thinking about the game, where she was brave.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5