“I'm kind of surprised you went for Burger Bazzar,” Jaune said, handing Pyrrha a slightly translucent paper bag from the back of his car before extracting his own Styrofoam containers. “Compared to my sushi, I think this might be the first time since you used to scam me into trading my Oreos for your carrot sticks that I'm actually eating healthier than you.”
Pyrrha gladly took her bag as well as the backpack full of her gaming supplies. “I know I should still be keeping in shape in the off season but... all day game day only comes a few times a year and a little indulgence won't hurt.” She bumped him a little with her hip while he was still shoulders deep in the car, “But I am proud of you for going back to sushi after what happened last summer.”
From the depths of the car, Jaune paused to sigh. “Ah, Discount Don's Sushi Symposium. Turns out three California rolls for ten dollars really is a a deal I can—and should have—turned down.”
Finishing gathering his own stuff, Jaune shouldered the car door closed. Then he sidled up to her and after a few false starts (mostly because his backpack straps were slipping rather than nerves), put an arm around her shoulder. “You are not wrong about the all day game day though: Especially with this campaign. This session's gonna be so awesome—Ruby's been working so hard on it I hardly saw her at school this week. Just the emails she sent me mostly.”
That comment made Pyrrha pause in thought. “Come to think of it, I haven't seen her at all this week. Which is odd, because she's usually very loud and excited when a break is coming up.”
It was the first Sunday after the start of Christmas break, and Ruby had spent the week before running short sessions by email for all her players about what they did on the airship on the way to the next town with an eye toward hitting the ground running for the big day. She'd done such a good job communicating in fact that...
Jaune blinked. “Oh. Oh man. Now that I think about it, I haven't seen Rubes in person since Tuesday.”
“Oh good, it wasn't just us!” Having known her for years, Jaune and Pyrrha barely even started at Nora seeming to suddenly appearing behind them with Ren in tow. She was loaded down with three sizable bakery boxes and beaming as usual. “Wonder what she's up to disappearing like that. Oh my gosh, if we've only been talking to her through email and chat the past week how can we be sure it's really her we've been talking to?”
“So... someone ran four separate mini-adventures to keep up a charade of being Ruby because...” Jaune was the only one of the four who still hadn't learned their lesson about being sarcastic with Nora.
Nora zipped over to his side opposite Pyrrha and stage whispered, “So they can take over the game! Think about it: this has been our most fun game ever so far—probably the most fun game going on in the city right now! Have you heard the rumors about the League of Evil DMs that hang out in the minis room of the Wizard's tower sometime? I'm pretty sure Blake is one and there's others! Probably that Cinder chick and Miss Goodwitch. I bet they're plotting to steal the game from Ruby!”
Both Jaune and Pyrrha looked back at Ren for his usual commentary only to find the young man shrugging. “I honestly have nothing to add to that. Game thieves. Evil DMs. What can I even say at this point?”
That got him Nora's undivided (for however brief) attention. She lagged behind to stare him down. “Don't think I'm not on to you, Renny. You're part of the suspects list too. I remember when you DM'd and how do we know you're not secretly evil?”
Shifting the bags he was carrying to one hand, Ren put a hand on top of her head affectionately. “Nora?”
“I'm not evil.”
“Are you sure?” She asked sweetly.
He gave her head a rub. “Yeah, pretty sure.”
Somehow, she managed to wrestle the three huge boxes into one arm and gave him a huge side hug. “Okay. You're not evil then. And you're still gonna be my favorite DM ever.”
The game group had been around in some form long before Ruby joined, and even almost a full year before Jaune and Pyrrha met them. Ren and Nora met at their grief counseling group shortly after losing their parents and Nora had glommed onto quiet, bookish Ren, eventually convincing him to learn and run Dungeons and Dragons for her because she thought the books looked cool. Until Ruby came along, Ren had been DM if only because he was the only one who knew how barring a couple of Jaune-initiated disasters and an impressive cake-walk of a oneshot GURPS game run by Pyrrha.
Nora had never run a game and luckily for the others, she didn't seem to want to, being content to run roughshod over everyone else's.
All the same, Ren returned the side hug as the four friends headed up the walk to the Xiao-Long house. “In any event, no one is going to take Ruby's game, Nora. I'm sure she's been scarce all week because she was spending every spare moment of time working on today's game.”
“Nuh-uh!” Nora argued. “I bet you anything! I bet... if you win, I'll drive you anywhere you want for a week—just like Jaune does for Pyrrha!”
“Yeah, I kind do.” Jaune shrugged. “It's not like you ask for rides to places I wasn't going anyway. Except like the sporting goods store, or the health food market. But then, you end up helping carry the weekly half ton of groceries Mom sends me out to get, so it's not like you're not pulling your weight.”
By the time Jaune stopped rambling, Ren had had time to think things through and make up his mind. “Alright, Nora, and if you win, next time your aunt had a bowling night, I'll come over and cook you whatever you want for dinner.”
Turquoise eyes flashed with covetous glee. “Really? Even if I want pancakes?”
“If you want, I'll make you a full course breakfast with all the trimmings for dinner.”
“Okay, but how about each course is pancakes and all the trimmings? Also pancakes. Oh, and some bacon.”
“Pigs on an endless raft, got it.” Ren said with a small smirk. “But that's not going to happen because no one is...”
While they'd been talking, Pyrrha had rang the doorbell, and at that moment, the door opened to reveal not Ruby or Yang, but Blake, holding Ruby's copy of the game book. “Morning.” she said in her mildly bored way, waving slightly with the book. “Come on in; we just finished getting the table set up.”
“I knew it! Pancakes for me!” Nora crowed.
Ren remained skeptical, however. “Hold on. Just because Blake's here doesn't mean she's taking over Ruby's game.” He trailed behind the others as they trooped into the house.
The table had indeed been set up with a hex map rolled out. Instead of Ruby's transparencies, however, the hexes were covered with meticulously placed terrain tiles and Taiyang's big screen TV had been brought up from his basement man cave to take pride of place at one side of the table. Also, inexplicably, a cellphone was hanging by a wire from the ceiling fan.
The usual folding table that served was a sideboard was also standing ready with several two liters of soda, a a bottle of orange juice and a couple of store-bought fruit trays and a cheese platter.
“I'm just hear to guest star because Yang's not going to be able to play,” Blake said dryly. “I'm not going to take over the game from Ruby.”
Ren didn't quite puff out his chest with pride over solving the mystery. But he certainly felt like doing so.
For about five seconds before Ruby's best friend Penny appeared from the kitchen carrying a stack of plastic cups. She smiled widely—a little too widely to be a comforting expression—and said, “Salutations friends of Ruby! And by extension second-degree friends of mine! I'll be taking over the game from Ruby today!”
“Yes! Pancake time!” Nora pumped her fist.
Jaune most certainly did not hide behind Pyrrha even if he felt it would be totally justified after the time Penny ran Paranoia for them. Now, he was... just standing behind his girlfriend. In support. While crouching slightly. An steering her by the shoulders to keep her between him and Penny.
Pyrrha in turn but on her best polite smile to hide her worry, remembering the same game.
The biggest victim of Penny's rendition of Friend Computer, Ren, froze stock still. “Y-you're running the game? Should I start generating a new character right now?”
Still smiling, Penny put her hand on the side of her head in a way she much had seen anime characters do when they're feeling embarrassed and apologetic. “No. Ruby says that you all aren't accustomed to the style of play my friends online prefer, so I've been prohibited from actively trying to kill your characters—though the dice will fall where they may—but luckily, I've been granted free reign to emotionally torment them with their dark secrets. So this should be a fun game!”
The others stood frozen for a long moment, absorbing the idea that Penny had just been unleashed upon their poor characters. Surprisingly it was Jaune (totally not finding courage from having Pyrrha in the interceding space between himself and Penny) who asked the question they were all thinking.
“Um... so you're pinch DMing for Ruby in her own house... why?”
Penny looked actually embarrassed this time. “Oh! I almost forgot!” She started to point at the TV, thought better of it, and grabbed the remote off the table and turned the big screen on. It showed an overhead view of the hex grid, no doubt delivered from the phone.
Then Penny managed to bring up the picture-in-picture to reveal Ruby, apparently in her pajamas and in bed with a bed tray over her lap. “Yay! The light's finally on!” Ruby cheered, then started coughing.
As if summoned, Yang, wearing a mask over her face appeared on screen with a glass of water and a box of tissues. “Hey, I let you do this because you promised you wouldn't strain yourself. No lay back—hold on, let me fluff your pillow.”
While Yang was trying to forcibly her her comfortable, Ruby just ignored her. “Hi guys! So as you probably guessed, I'm sick. But I totally didn't want to cancel all-day game day, so Penny's up to bat for me, okay? And I get to watch!”
Yang leaned back into frame ahead of Ruby. “And I have to keep her from making herself worse, so sorry Nora, can't play today. Luckily, I was able to get a substitute Yang too. I've instructed Blake on how to act just like me so it'll be like I was right there.”
“So now you'll know why when I belch and scratch myself,” Blake quipped, taking the food bags from the others to put in the fridge.
“Hey!” Yang barked, “I'm paying you good money to deliver a premium Yang experience and I expect you to deliver!”
Blake raised an eyebrow at the TV. “You aren't paying me anything. I'm here because it sounds like fun.” A small smile quirked her lips. “Also the character Ruby wants me to play is amazing. I think I'm going to like this whole 'playing against type' thing.”
Somehow, Nora had set down her boxes and appeared at her side in the time it took her to blink. “Ooo. What're you playing?”
“Gunslinger halfling who is also something of a mad scientist. Ruby's nothing if not creative.”
Nora's eyes shimmered with unshed tears of joy. “So. Awesome.”
After a bit more small talk, the group took their seats around the table, more than ready to get down to some serious gaming. Penny sat at the head of the table while Ruby looked on from the big screen as her friend started recapping the week's mini adventures.
“Alright gang,” Penny said with the cadence of an old fashioned radio announcer. “When last we left our intrepid band, they had defeated another of the Queen of Thorns' lackeys. Darian, the ever-charismatic lasconti bard used that charisma to convince the Queen's engineers who were trying to repair the ship to side with the party and finish the repairs over the course of a night, allowing the ship to continue on its way to the nearest town.
“Meanwhile, the dark sorceress Seriphied interrogated one of the surviving bandits mostly to find out what you already know: the Queen of Thorns is a bandit leader with a plan to hijack as many airships as possible to turn them into an air pirate fleet with herself as the Pirate Queen. You don't know where her main base is, but you now know that the airships are being refitted for war at a place call Eiridia Valley, though you have no idea where that is.
“Gao on the other hand got a vision in his sleep of his entire family caught up in a giant web of rose vines that was also choking out a beautiful jungle land. He communed with Pandemos and got a sign of a golden duck and a coin on its edge. He then started questioning Darian's new former bandit followers about his family to find that they are major financial backers of the Queen of Thorns, running operations from the City of Frizae in the Taunaunan state of Cado.
“And finally, Lynn got bored waiting for the ship to be fixed, and unable to find Gao, decided to leave the ship and go hunting. While checking for loot in the hole the bandits dumped their trash down, she discovered it was actually the collapsed stair of a small tomb complex that was home to a nest skitter-lurks, bug monsters who dropped on her from the ceiling. After a fierce battle, she discovered a sarcophagus of a dead tribal leader and his Mastercraft Razor Edge hand ax as well as a stone tablet describing his pilgrimage to a place where he earned a blessing of strength.
“We now return to the adventure with the airship limping to the safety of a large town on the Taunaun/Novrom Border called Arnham's Dell. The captain, though perturbed by the delay is thankful for the repairs and protection and gives each of you twenty gold as you leave. You are now at the bottom of the airship docking tower facing the main street of Arnham's Dell. What do you do?”
Pyrrha immediately spoke up. “Well I'm glad that's over. Now that we're rid of the bandits, we can go our separate ways and never see each other again. Let's go, Darian.”
The others blinked. Nora looked horrified and betrayed. “Pyrrha! You know you never split the party—you'll die! And why would you want to? We're awesome.”
Smiling a bit at how everyone just seemed to take whatever she said as sincere, she shook her head. “I'm just playing Seripheid. She still doesn't trust the rest of you and is trying to get out of working as a team any longer than she thinks she has to.”
It took slightly longer than it should have for that to sink on before Nora nodded knowingly. “Gotcha. In that case I grab your sleeve before you can turn around. “Hey, you can't leave yet, we haven't defeated all the bandits yet?”
Pyrrha shrugged. “So what? They aren't our problem anymore. We—and anyone else with some sense—can just leave the region. Let the ones who choose to stay to deal with it.”
“It's not a distant problem for everyone,” Ren spoke up. “I have reason to believe that my family is largely implicated in this 'Queen of Thorns's' rise to power—if she isn't a member of the family in the first place. I'm not going to let my blood ruin this part of the world, so I'm going to do whatever I can to stop this.”
“And I'm going to help him!” Nora nodded emphatically.
Pyrrha managed to keep her face as emotionless as Blake's usually was. “Well good for you. We'll be sure to visit your graves if we ever come back this way. Come on Darian.”
“You know what I'm going to say, right?” Jaune asked, trying to hide a smirk.
“That I'm absolutely right and you want to live?”
Jaune snorted at her absolutely deadpan response, taking a moment to collect himself. “A lot of people on the airship would have died without us. If we just leave, a lot more people are going to die. You know I can't just stand by while that happens, and I know you've been through a lot... but the Seri I grew up with would agree.” He turned fully to face Pyrrha and gave her a serious, soulful look that made her swallow hard. “Is there any of that girl left?”
After a few seconds of them holding one another's gaze, Ruby interrupted. “Ew! You guys aren't gonna start kissing at the table again, are you? Don't make me set a new table rule!”
Going stark red, Pyrrha ducked her head. “That was just really deep immersion roleplaying!” Then she cleared her throat. “Um, Seripheid looks away, scowling and doesn't answer for a second.”
“Oh come on, Seri!” Nora said, bouncing in her seat. “Even you don't care about the random folks, what about your friends? You wouldn't leave Darian to die, now would you?”
Now it was Pyrrha trying to keep a straight face. “Okay, so Seri looks from you to Darian and thinks for way too long for anyone with a healthy mind. She looks actually bothered by the question until she finally says, 'Until last night? I probably would have. I enjoyed his company—more than I have anyone in a long time, but if my surviving meant abandoning him, I wouldn't have hesitated.”
“But now...” Jaune said, trying to sound as nervous as Darian would be.
“Please don't make me say. You saved my life yesterday at great personal risk and extraordinary selflessness.” she was blushing in real life as surely as she imagined her character was. “Can we just say I owe you and not analyze it?”
“I can say that, but I won't believe it,” Jaune said, but Nora—as Lynn—wasn't about to let go.
“Hey, it's not like we haven't saved you too. Remember how I opened that guy's jugular all over you when he was going to stab you?”
Pyrrha couldn't hold back a laugh. “Yes, but I could have handled him myself.”
Nora shook her head. “You're not getting out of this that easily. The point is, whether you want us to not, we're your friends and we should stick together! Also, think of all the loots we can get from taking down a giant organization of bandits! Oh, and if we go to the place I learned about, I bet you can get some terrifying eldritch lore or phenomenal cosmic power.”
“I do like phenomenal cosmic power,” Pyrrha said, stroking her chin as if she had a sinister goatee.
“Just remember the itty, bitty living space.” Jaune quipped.
“All the better to keep her itsy, bitsy spider!” Yang said from the television. Everyone had to laugh at that.
Eventually, they all calmed down and Pyrrha nodded. “Alright, I suppose there would be some benefit to helping deal with these bandits.”
At this point, Penny nodded to Blake, who shocked everyone by affecting a gravely voice. “So you're the one who save the airship from the Queen's bandits, eh?” She also dropped her usual impassive mask that grin at the reaction as Penny started narrating.
“You all turn to see a halfling woman who, despite halflings not normally showing their age until they're near the end of their natural lifespan, has been exposed to so many chemicals, plus weeks on end in the sun with no protection looks like her skin is made of pale leather. She is wearing a smoked monocle over one eye, a knee-length brown leather coat, canvas trousers, a cotton shirt, a holster holding two big revolvers, and a bandoleer holding tubes of colorful liquid.”
Then Blake took over. “She's in the middle of lighting a pipe with a wooden match, taking a moment to blow it out. “No one's going after the Queen without me. But I'm willing to partner up s' long as you can hold your own and stay out of my way when I go for the kill shot.”
“And who are you to just insert yourself into our conversation?” Pyrrha demanded. “Seri starts to conjure the subtle knife.”
“Quick drawing one of my revolvers and aiming at her,” Blake informed Penny. “I'm sure you're proud of your tricks and all, mage, but let me tell you something about the Vengeful Twins here—my guns. I don't deal in normal rounds. Make m' own. What's pointing at your gut right now? It won't just make a hole, it's made to stop inside your gut, count to ten—then explode in a fire hot enough to forge a knife over what's left of your ribs. So how about you just settle down and mind your elders?”
Nora leaned over to Ren and whispered conspiratorially, “I like her!”
“This if going to get bad super-quick, isn't it?” Jaune asked. “Okay, Darian is going to get between these two. Hold on there. We're totally willing to hear you out. What've you got against the bandits?”
“That's private.” Blake did a worthy job trying to squint like Clint Eastwood. “What matters is what I can do to help in the hunt. “I know where her big camps are, her tactics, the structure of her gang. With me on your side, you can bring it all crashing down on her and reap the rewards from her corpse.”
Ren raised an eyebrow. “Out of character: you're a former general of the Queen aren't you?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“I mean it's so obvious. Who else would know the inner workings of the gang?”
Before Blake could protest, Ruby gave a weary sigh. “Don't even bother, Blake. It's so hard to keep a secret with Ren in the group.” Then she did her best to fix Ren with a glare—though she was glaring at, presumably his image on her laptop and not the camera, so she ended up glaring off to the side of everyone. “But remember: No metagaming. Gao doesn't know what you know.”
“Message received,” Ren said, holding up his hands. “In any effect, stranger, how about a name if we're going to be working together?”
Still giving her squint, Blake nodded. “Sounds like we have an accord. The name's Ambewyse Everlee. You can call me Everlee. Come on: the Queen's got ears in the towns up and down the main road in these parts. I've got a room at the Duck of Luck Inn. Let's head there so we can compare notes and plan.”
“Duck of Luck?” Ren asked.
Penny nodded. “Oh yes. As Everlee brings leads you to the next street over, you see a sign on the inn with a duck in a bathtub taking a bath in gold coins. And just before you go inside, Pyrrha? You see through the window a woman who looks very familiar mostly because she looks very much like you: long red hair, fair complexion, about the same facial and nose shape. Her eyes are slightly less round than your own, and she's at least four inches shorter, but you could see being confused for her... because you've already been confused for Seripheid Donnar before, now haven't you?”