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“Can you believe it?” Elena’s eyes flashed with glee. “It’s happening! It’s really happening!”
I smiled, trying to jump on the coattails of her enthusiasm, but I lost my footing and landed squarely on my skeptical ass. I shook my head. “This is absurd.”
“It’s only absurd if you don’t believe.” Matthew chimed, as patronizing as ever.
Matthew was the DM, or he was supposed to be. Somehow he’d transformed his role from benign dungeon dictator to a kind of messiah figure. Just-this-side-of-crazy, up to now, but he’d just stepped over that line.
I couldn’t give a shit about whether Matthew dove head-first into the deep end of an empty pool, I just didn’t want Elena–or any of us–to follow him over the edge. In contrast with my constipation over our nutso DM, I had full-on diarrhea around how much I cared about Elena, and not just metaphorically.
“He’s not a sorcerer,” I exhorted the small circle. Bryce, Edward, and Elena looked back at me with exasperation. “I showed you the sleight of hand. French Drop? Han Ping Chien? JW Grip? It’s easy to make things disappear!”
I’d actually spent hours in front of the mirror vainly attempting to duplicate the tiny miracles that Matthew executed without apparent effort. I practiced till my fingers ached. I learned enough to convince myself that Matthew’s magic was parlor trickery, but failed to persuade the others.
Matthew laid out assorted baubles in a semicircle: five small goblets, our painted pewter miniatures, a hardwood wand, and a weird little skull–probably from roadkill rather than some ritual sacrifice. He poured red syrup into the cups.
“I think your kool-aid needs more water.” I quipped.
“D-20.” Matthew pronounced, ignoring me. He held up an ebony die and handed it to Bryce.
“20!” Bryce squealed, he bounced in criss-cross-applesauce like a kindergartener waiting for permission to pee.
Matthew smiled. Edward rolled.
“20.” Edward looked stunned.
Elena picked up the die, shook her hand, and let it fly. The dark multifaceted ball tumbled in a circle, took a tiny hop, and landed directly in front of her, 20-up. She wrinkled her nose, scooting her glasses fractionally upwards.
“It’s weighted!” I asserted, snatching the die and tossing it down. It was the most beautiful random number generator I’d ever thrown, heavy and smooth and cold, with the numbers carved into the facets, not painted.
I rolled a 3.
I glared at Matthew who returned only the slightest twitch of an eyebrow before continuing with his ersatz ritual.
“Do not take this lightly. When we drink, we leave here. We will reincarnate in Dthelwyndale, never to return, to Earth or even this plane of existence.”
“Oh come on!”
“You’re either in,” Matthew stated cooly, bordering on chilling. “Or out.”
I eyed the usurper, a clean-cut, square-jawed, jock-bodied new-kid-in-town who’d sidled up to our dark corner of our dark little bar six weeks before and asked if we wanted to play some D&D. Of course we did. The geekiest of geeks, we’d never forsworn the paper game for the allure of 3D realism and ergonomic controllers. No randomizing algorithm could replicate the visceral anticipation of watching a handful of dice scatter across the table–any of us would demonstrate that distinction if you were willing to sit at our table.
“This is creepy,” I said. “Like the Jonestown suicide thing but tiny. It won’t even make the news. Five computer programmers poison themselves around a game board?” I looked around. They’d given up listening. Elena’s eyes were closed, Bryce and Edward just stared calmly at Matthew. “Okay, it might make the news,” I amended, “but we’re not even a cult, just five pitiful nerds geeking-out–way too far!”
“Have faith.” Matthew preached. “You need to manifest your reality, you have the power. I can guide you to Dthelwyndale, but only if you’re willing to follow.” He turned to me, looking more sincere than I had ever seen. Certainly more than I could accept. “If you can’t believe, then leave.”
“Come on!” Elena reached for my hand and squeezed. I didn’t understand how she could be taken in by this claptrap.
“I’m not going anywhere.” I pushed my words through gritted teeth.
“As you wish.” Matthew handed the goblets out. “Let’s not belabor the ritual.” He lifted his cup. “Cheers!”
All four of them downed the syrup in a gulp. I only sniffed at mine, it smelled vaguely of bile, or maybe tequila. I put my goblet down and looked at Elena, shrugging with my eyebrows.
“Believe.” Matthew whispered.
I didn’t look away from Elena, locking her eyes. A wisp of doubt flashed across her face. Maybe I’d gotten through to her!
Then the hum began. My jaw dropped as Bryce and Edward fuzzed away in a haze. Star Trek transporter, The Original Series. Elena’s eyes went wide and I followed her gaze.
Matthew glowed, burning from the inside. His eyes shone red. I heard him–not a voice but a thought resounding in my head.
“I told you to leave.”
Then, like Bryce and Edward, he dissolved.
I don’t know if I noticed the choking sounds before or after they stopped, but Elena was blue when I started slapping her face. I remembered my CPR training, but I wasn’t prepared for the sound of her ribs cracking or the feel of her torso collapsing under my weight as I frantically tried to revive her. Her glasses broke under my hand as I squeezed her nose, hoping somehow that if I held tighter this next breath might give her life back.
The training hadn’t prepared me for the guilt and desperation that accompanied the fruitless battering of a beloved corpse.
I can’t tell you for sure what happened to Bryce, Edward, and Matthew. And I can’t know why Elena didn’t go with them. All I can do is roll this goddamned die until it comes up 20, then tip back this goblet, and believe that I’ll catch up to Matthew in Dthelwyndale.