Re-edited. It's just a little different.


1: RPG

Earlier; a problem and a challenge-

Finally, he'd gotten everyone together, or nearly so; Gordon was still on his way from Spain, but with hours of trans-oceanic flying to do, the swimmer had no quarrel with a little role-playing. Fermat, of course, was always willing, and John punctual, if unenthused. On the bright side, at least he was home from space, and 'Male Elf' could be written back into the story. Which was... y'know... kinda critical.

Alan started his game downstairs in one of Brains' less-gloomy assembly labs. The sunroom or library would have done as well and been easier to reach, but John didn't want to risk questions from Scott, Virgil or (worse yet) dad. John liked to role play. Alan knew he did because they'd bumped into each other online before in Halo 4-D and Final Fantasy XXV, where John's character usually said 'hello' by slaughtering Alan's poor, helpless, n00b. The heck with prisoners; take no family.

But, whatever his gaming philosophy, John didn't care to risk being laughed at, so Alan kept things quiet and under wraps. Anyways, they (mostly) got together in lab 4-B, at a work bench in mid-chamber. The floor and walls were reinforced concrete, the door was locked and most of the cameras were off, but Alan had hooked up a laptop for its comm feature. Fermat was seated across from him, leaning eagerly forward and practicing rolls with his lucky blue 12-sided dice. He loved this stuff, and was loading up on soda and chips for the strength to play hard.

Gordon was in the cockpit of his yellow turbo-prop airplane, listening in and sometimes commenting, though Alan had to roll for him. John was slouched at the table's far end, with his long legs straight out and crossed at the ankle, arms folded on his chest. He'd brought no dice of his own, intending (as usual) to borrow someone else's. You could hardly ever tell what John was thinking, which was probably a good thing.

"Let's make this quick," he said suddenly, glancing at Alan and then at the clock. "Grandma wants to go to confession tomorrow, and she's decided I'm piloting."

Alan snorted rudely.

"Okay, like… why bother?" he asked. "I mean, what's the point of going into a closet and telling some dude in a dress all your issues? Why not just save yourself the gas money and talk to your dog?"

John shrugged. Looking away again, he repeated…

"Grandma wants to go."

…but you never could get much out of him.

"Suit yourself," Alan quipped.

His stuff… the maps and special dice, the story sheets… were all laid out.

"We'll play short tonight, and then, if nothing comes up, meet again when you get back from 'confusion' tomorrow."

"I'm r- ready!" Fermat cut in, bouncing a little in his chair. "It's b- been… forever s- since we've played."

He was the youngest guy in the room, but very smart; mondo talented, and junk. Throw John into the mix and the brain trust was, like, overwhelming. Luckily, Gordon was around to feel superior to, rebalancing things in Alan's favor. Over the comm, Gordon said,

"I'm takin' it that I've recovered from my little set-to with th' trolls, then? And that Male Elf's finally dried out?"

John actually smiled at that, looking over at his brother's image on the laptop screen.

"Not if I've still got money," he said, pushing some of the blond hair from his face.

Getting drunk was Male Elf's goal; staying that way, his life's ambition. Giving him crap about it was everyone else's. But, hey… what could you expect from a partly reformed dark elf?

"Okay," Alan announced, sitting up in his chair and ready to play. "Here's the scenario: Sir Gawain…" (That was Gordon) "…you're returning victorious from your battle with the rock trolls, when you stop for the night under an elm tree and…"

"Lit a camp fire, have I?" Gordon cut in, being anxious about defense in dodgy territory.

"Uh… let me roll for it," Alan responded, giving the red die a toss. Eleven.

"Yeah. You remembered. Plus, you've got enough firewood, and you picketed your horse for the night."

"Set up the odd ward, or two?"

Another quick roll.

"Yeah… but they're sorta weak. You were tired, or something."

Not far from the mark, as it happened. It had been a long month for everyone.

"I'll gulp water by the tonne and sleep lightly," the red-head decided, keeping a weather eye on his flight instruments. "Between th' magical wards and St. George…" (His warhorse) "…I'll not be caught unawares."

His character was Sir Gawain, a young and impoverished knight. Seventh son of a seventh son, he owned little besides a good name, a fine horse, armor, a magical sword and the cherished favor of Lady Anelle. Like Gordon Tracy, the character had red hair and an imposingly muscular build. Unlike Gordon, he'd grown a long, drooping moustache.

"Yeah… so, you're sacked out under the elm tree with your shield for a pillow, dreaming of Lady Anelle, when, um…" (Dice roll and swift consult) "…an air sprite pops clean through those weak-butt wards and breathes in your face. You have… drum roll, please… a vision."

"Here we go again," John muttered, settling lower into his chair. "Bar the doors and windows, stock up on canned goods and potions."

"A vision," Alan interrupted loudly, "of this really sad fairy child. She's holding some gems… like diamonds, or something… and she whispers to you: 'Forge anew, good Sir Knight, for crown and kingdom, alike.' Then, she up and vanishes, and you wake."

"Thinkin' dinner was a bit off," said Gordon, throttling up to crest a cloud bank.

"Nuh-uh. You're smarter than that, see, and you remember that the land of Alasia…"

"H- How come all of… your l- lands and kingdoms always b- begin with the syllable 'Al'?" Fermat demanded, squinting at Alan through his glasses.

"'Cause I'm the dang dungeon master, that's why!" Alan told him.

There was no room in role-playing for dissent, okay?

"Anyways, Sir Gawain remembers that the kingdom of Alasia used to have contact with the Fairy Realm. But 99 years ago, demonic treachery led to the death of the Fairy king, Oberon. What's even worse is, see, his wife died in childbirth the day before, plus the baby disappeared and the Fairy crown was stolen."

Here, Alan paused for effect, staring around at his audience. Fermat had totally bought in to the story and Gordon was interested, but John stared at the tabletop, frowning slightly.

"Pretty unreasonable run of bad luck, isn't it?" he commented.

"Dude… my game, my rules. Put up, or shut up."

Shrugging, John shut up, but not without getting in a last word.

"Whatever. Continue."

"Okay… so, like I was saying, the true heir is missing and the crown that proves his or her right to the throne is lost. 99 years have gone by, and in one more, it'll be 100. Alasia's link to the Fairy Realm will be lost, and the demons will rush up from their dark mirror kingdom, below. Chaos, death, destruction, no more peanut butter, the whole doomsday package, know what I'm saying?"

"Fire an' brimstone, got it," Gordon replied, while partly turned away. There was another craft about 5,000 feet below him and moving fast.

"So what does this ruddy amazin' spectre prompt me t' do?"

Alan grinned.

"You're going to wake up, all inspired and junk, then use the shattered crystal to call up Frodle, Allat and Male Elf for a trip north past the Ice Wall into troll and giant territory."

"And why would I do a daft thing like that? Skewerin' wild monsters pays not at all!"

"Ah-hah! But you realize that somewhere under the ice is the crater left behind when that chunk of sky-metal fell to Midworld. That's the metal that the Fairies forged their crown from in the first place! So, if you head up there with a party, dodge the monsters, avoid starvation and freezing cold and find the crater, you could, like, make a new crown for the Fairy Realm, help them proclaim an heir and save the world. Well…? Huh…?"

John shook his head.

"I'm busy," he said. "The odds stink, so if it's all the same to everyone else, I'll go on painting the town and enjoying my dissolute life-style."

But, Alan was prepared for that. Rolling both dice at once, he peered down at the resulting numbers like a fortune-teller and then said,

"Sorry, man. You're broke."

John's customary non-expression shifted to 'mildly perturbed', and he sat up, saying,

"How? I had 75,000 gold sovereigns after that business with the Shadow Tower."

Alan sighed in mock sympathy.

"Wine, women and song, dude. They'll break you in no time flat. In fact, you can't even pay your bar tab!"

"Can't I just deepen my friendship with the tavern wench, again? Work off what I owe?"

Another sad head shake.

"Her husband's getting suspicious. He's wondering where all the mead's gone, and why Claire keeps smiling."

John muttered something under his breath, slumping again.

"Fine," he said at last. "I answer the damn call."

Fermat, his expression and tone deeply reproving, said,

"Well, I'll c- come… along, just b- because it's the r- right thing to d- do. Sir Gawain c- can count on… me!"

His current character was a young Halfling scholar named Frodle; a deeply studious reader of scrolls and brewer of potions who also sidelined in ancient runes. Very handy.

"W- What about you… Alan?"

The blonde boy/ ninja-thief could scarcely contain himself.

"Are you kidding?" he demanded. "It's gonna be great!"

…Until the alarm went off, choked suddenly silent and then blared again, shrill and disturbing.