Val looked over her shoulder at the door for the fifth time and growled. "Where is he? We've got goblins to kill!"
"He'll be along," Stephen said. He hadn't really been paying attention to the time. Half his mind had been busying itself with setting up the battle map, and the other half was still mulling over his dream from the night before. Oddly, he kept glancing over at Val. Something about her reminded him of the dream, as if she'd been there. He didn't recall seeing her with the cloaked man, though.
Val huffed. "He'd better be. I brought snacks and everything." Val shoved a bag of popcorn aside and began idly rolling her dice. "I've been thinking about this battle all day. Valora can't let the fight end without proving herself. And you'd better not get in the way!" she added, throwing Stephen a sharp glare.
He couldn't help smiling. "Don't worry," he said, "I know better than that." Indeed, both the character and his player had a healthy respect for their companions. Valora was clearly a potent force, and Val was certainly anything but the shy, meek girl that most people saw. She only seemed to let her assertive side out at club meetings, though. Maybe it was because she knew that her friends were on her side, so any confrontation was harmless. If Val ever truly hated someone, Stephen wouldn't want to be in their shoes.
There was the smallest of sounds as Gregory entered the room. Despite his size, he always tried to move quietly. "Finally!" Val said. "I thought we'd never get started."
"Rough day?" Stephen asked as Gregory took his seat. The larger boy raised his hand and gave a minute flick of his fingers. Stephen nodded. "Ah, okay."
"What?" Val asked.
"He doesn't want to talk about it."
The tiny girl snorted. "What else is new?" The look Gregory gave her was pained, and it took her aback. Val reached over and gave her friend's arm a pat. "Sorry," she said. It took a moment, but eventually Gregory gave her his usual smile.
Seeing the exchange, Stephen nodded to himself. That was why they were here, after all: here they were safe. "Well then," he said, drawing his voice up into more official tones, "this meeting of the Otherworld Club may now come to order. When we left off, Valora, Groth, and Stephen were exploring the second level of the so-called Haunted Mine, which so far has been haunted mainly by goblins. Thanks to Stephen's blundering, the party found themselves surrounded by a whole crowd of the local denizens, though some quick sword work and a few hasty spells has thinned the mob considerably. Now only four remain. Stephen's magic has managed to blind one and pin another to the floor, but the other two have closed in on him. Valora, it's your turn."
"Yes!" Val shouted, and reached for the bottle cap that stood in for her character on the map. "I hope these goblins enjoyed this day, because they'll never see another! Valora's going to charge one of the creeps attacking Stephen." She slid the cap into position and snatched up one of her dice. "Come on," she said to the die. "Reclaim your honor!" The die spun from her hand and rolled to a stop. "Fourteen!" Val called. "With the charge and my attack bonus, that's a twenty three."
Stephen kept his face neutral, though Val's animated play style always tempted him to smile. "That easily hits," he said aloud. "Roll damage."
Another die hit the table with a clatter. "Fifteen!"
"Valora brushes past the spell-blind goblin, aiming her sword at the larger of the two able warriors." The scene played itself out in Stephen's mind. He narrated the vision aloud, trying to capture the weight of each motion. "The creature hauls its shield up, hoping to deflect the blow, but Valora leaps, crashing blade-down into her surprised enemy. He hits the floor with a short shriek, then falls still."
Val slapped the table in triumph. "Ha!" She gave Gregory a satisfied look. "See? Valora can take care of herself."
Gregory smiled his acceptance, then glanced at Stephen. "Yes, it's your turn," the smaller boy said. Gregory's approach to the game was much more subdued than Val's shouting and bluster. He pointed once at the chess pawn next to his own figure (the plastic cube his dice had come in), then formed a loose fist. His fingers closed in, but not fully. Stephen nodded. "Roll it." The die came up with a 12, though the giant Groth added quite a bit to this sort of maneuver. More than enough.
"What'd he do?" Val asked, peering at the battle map.
Stephen lifted the chess pawn from the board. "As the remaining goblin recoils from Valora's blade, Groth's hand descends and snatches him up. The tiny creature struggles in your grip." The narration paused a moment while Stephen rolled a die: two. "Unfortunately for him, his arms are pinned to his sides. Groth continues to squeeze, and before long the goblin goes limp." A smile and a nod were Gregory's only celebration. He silently placed his figure in between the disabled goblins and his friends, just in case, then looked at Stephen.
"My turn," Stephen said. "Though I think we can drop out of combat now, since the goblins are pretty much helpless. I assume we're going to restrain these two?"
Val shrugged. "Might as well. There's no honor in slaying a powerless foe." Gregory nodded his agreement. "Though I'll want to interrogate one of them," Val continued. "They might know something about the rooms ahead."
"Go right ahead," Stephen replied. "Intimidation is Valora's department."
"All right," she said, rubbing her hands together. "I make for the one on the floor. The blinded one can't see what he should be afraid of." Val drew herself up in her chair, and her expression turned imperious. "Goblin!" she said, her voice full of command. "Tell me what lies ahead, and I may decide to spare your life."
For his own part, Stephen drew into himself, seeming to shrink within his cloak. He widened his eyes and pitched his voice higher, trembling with uncertainty. "Me knows nothing!" he declared in the goblin's voice. "Nothing is past door!"
Very slowly, Val stood up and leaned across the table. She held a fixed smile, but it had too many teeth. "I don't know what you're protecting, what you're afraid of," she said. "But whatever it is, believe this: I am far, far worse."
For a moment they stared at one another. Once again, Stephen was struck by how powerful Val was when she was at ease, in contrast to the shy face she wore outside this room. If she ever stared down a bully like that, no one would ever trouble her again. Stephen himself was a little unnerved. As for the goblin in his imagination, staring up at the smiling warrior was like looking into the grinning skull of Death itself. Stephen pulled back a little further in his chair, and squeaked, "The shades! The shades are below! They touch, and we die!"
Val held her stare a moment more. "Thank you," she said. She glanced up at Gregory, then resumed her normal expression. "I'll club it with the pommel of my sword."
"It slumps to the floor, unconscious," Stephen said in his normal voice. "Stephen does the same with his staff to the other survivor. A quick search of the room yields little of value: seven silver pieces from the goblins' pockets, plus a crude copper trinket in the corner."
"Two silver each, then," Val said. "Groth can have the extra." When Gregory raised his eyebrows, she smiled. "Thanks for the assist." The large boy grinned.
While everyone took a moment to write the meager treasure down, Stephen took himself out of the game for a moment. One part of his mind was preparing to describe the stairway beyond the door, leading down into the catacombs below. Another part was still grinding away at the dream. Gregory, too, seemed to be a part of it. Following the feeling, Stephen gradually realized that it wasn't the image of his friends that had been present in his dream; rather, it was their essences, the feelings they provoked in him. Gregory was solid, heavy, sturdy; Val was smaller and brighter. As he cast his mind back, Stephen recalled tiny details that had escaped his notice before. Beside the dark tinkerer had been two bits of clockwork, tiny pieces amid the jumble, that reminded him of his friends. In the language of the dream, they were also tools of the cloaked man. It was a relief to puzzle out what had been nagging at him, even if the revelation was more than a little disturbing.
"All right," Val said, breaking into his thoughts. "What next?"
Stephen pushed his musings into the background of his mind. "The door is the next logical step," he said. "With what the goblin told us, your faithful mage thinks there's likely to be undead monsters ahead."
The girl frowned. "Great. How am I supposed to kill them, if they're dead already?"
"You've always managed before," Stephen said. "I'll check out the door, see if there's any magical trap we'll have to worry about." As he spoke, an odd feeling crept across his awareness. Stephen's head snapped up. "Listen!"
"What?" Val said. "I ready my sword! Did we miss one?"
Stephen stood, shaking his head. "Not in the game." He pointed at the door to the hallway.
Instantly, the courage drained from Val's face. Both she and Gregory turned to look at the door, uneasy. The thought of someone intruding on their sanctuary clearly put them on edge. Stephen had to admit that he wasn't crazy about the notion, himself. He stood and crossed to the door, trying to pinpoint the stimulus that had alerted him. A sound? A change in the air? Or perhaps just a presence. Every mind leaves a mark on the world. You were examining your friends' a moment ago. Stephen shrugged the thought aside. Fixing a calm expression on his face, he slowly opened the door and poked his head into the hallway. There was no one; the blank faces of locker doors marched off in either direction.
"Well?" Val whispered from back in the room. "Who's there?"
"No one," Stephen replied, but he wasn't convinced that was true. Something had been there, though it was anyone's guess how he knew that. It was just a feeling, a familiarity, like the nagging reminder of the dream that he saw in his friends. He felt almost as if absence itself was the defining attribute of whoever had been spying on them, like the familiar gap of a missing tooth. Closing the door, Stephen returned to the game, doing his best to put his friends at ease. Once again they sent their characters forth into dangerous territory, to face murderous creatures in pursuit of gold and glory. In the depths of his mind, though, the memory of the dream kept returning, pushing at him, demanding attention. And always the voice watched and listened, and laughed at his distress.