“Greetings, weary traveler, and be ye welcome to this house of rest and healing.” Kenric Partways, last high priest of the Devoted of Her Glimmering Radiance, intoned these words as he stood in the doorway, the silvery sleeves on his robes rustling as he opened his arms in the traditional greeting.
“Jeez, this is going to be a thing with you, isn’t it,” Jeff Troy of the Las Vegas Aces groaned back from the other side of the entry, case of beer slung under one arm as he slouched in basketball shorts and a sweat-soaked undershirt.
“Shut up and get in here, loser,” Kent grinned from under his hood, stepping back into his house to let Jeff in. “The guys are already downstairs, we were just waiting for you.”
“Do you know how hard it is to find quality beer this late on the Fourth of July weekend?” Jeff complained as he followed Kent towards the stairs. “And how the hell can you wear that thing, I’m sweltering just looking at you.”
“I’m committed to my character,” Kent said haughtily as they reached the main staircase.
After a couple years of living tenuously in an apartment, like he was expecting to get traded any day, Kent had finally said screw it and jumped into the Vegas life with both feet. His place, which Jeff had helped him pick out, was an outrageously pricey mansion in the hills looking over the strip. It was ridiculous with its massive pool, columns, and purple neon lights to showcase the stark white exterior. The realtor called it an oasis. Everyone else called it ludicrous. Kent called it home, and he loved every tacky inch of it with a sincerity that was a little unnerving.
Jeff had watched his new captain turn his new home into an escape for the team, a little getaway within eyesight of the town. Everyone and their family loved to visit for cookouts, movie nights, team potlucks, and swimming year-round. But in the heat of the summer, with the sun blasting the desert with light and heat for fifteen plus hours a day, what Jeff really appreciated about it was the basement.
A glass spiral staircase led the way down, chandelier lights in the shape of stars twinkling at eye level as they descended. The same blue-purple-pink neon lights that lit the outside of the house provided their otherworldly glow here, in the cool underground. Jeff didn’t know what the previous owner—no, scratch that, he knew exactly what the guy was thinking: casino. It looked like the entrance to a casino, complete with bar and lounge.
Kent had left the basement entrance the way he found it, but the room he lead Jeff to now had clearly gone through some major renovations. Pushing open the heavy wooden door revealed wood-paneled walls, thick rugs, and an imposing stone fireplace. Swords and axes were displayed on the walls, interspersed with the odd bookshelf, medieval-style tapestry, and what appeared to be stained glass windows. A wagon wheel chandelier hung over a large table carved from a section of tree trunk, looking more like a slab of wood dragged in from a forest than the multi-thousand dollar investment it likely was.
Seated around the table were four cloaked and hooded figures, who turned as one to where they stood in the doorway.
“Come, Jeff. Be one of us,” they chanted in perfect unison.
“Nope, I’m out,” Jeff said, already halfway back to the staircase.
The room dissolved into laughter behind him, even Kent hiding a chuckle in his chiding, “C’mon guys, it’s his first time.”
Jeff sighed but let Kent drag him back to the table. “Everybody, this is my coworker Jeff. Jeff, this is Lizzy, her sister Jane, Jane’s husband John, and that’s Jamal.”
“We’re not going to go easy on you,” Jamal said. Everyone but him had pushed their hoods back. Jeff already had a sense that he was a competitor to watch out for, with his stack of papers and neat rows of color-coded dice in front of him. The light from the fireplace reflected off his glasses, creating an odd contrast to the shadows of the hood.
“We’ll go a little easy on you,” Lizzy said, “but only because you’re Kent’s friend and I don’t want him to get offended and stop hosting.” Lizzy and Jane were both pulling papers out of folders, though Lizzy’s was prettily decorated and held only a few sheets whereas Jane’s was stuffed full and falling apart. Lizzy had pink and gold dice, Jane’s were uniform dark blue.
“Like Kent would ever give up the opportunity to show off his game room,” John scoffed. He had removed his cloak entirely, and Jeff could see that his Captain America t-shirt matched his red, white, and blue dice. He had a binder in front of him and Jeff could see another two leaning against the leg of his chair.
“I’ve known Kent for three years and I had no idea this room existed,” Jeff said honestly as he took a seat next to Lizzy. Kent had taken the spot at the head of the table, a little distant from the rest of the group, and was fiddling with a remote control. Soft music started playing, reminiscent of the few medieval-themed movies Jeff had seen. Coupled with the flickering fireplace, the whole space had a very nerdy Renaissance Fair vibe, and Kent sat comfortably in the thick of it.
“Okay, Jeff brought beer, Jamal has his hummus and chips, Jane made my birthday cupcakes, thank you Jane, and John’s got some steaks we can cook up when we get hungry. In the meantime, help yourself to the snack bar, I got the usual plus some extra barbecue chips.”
John was already working on a plate, Jane sneaking grapes off to nibble on when he was distracted asking for a beer. Jeff, with the appetite of a pro hockey player off his meal plan for the holiday weekend, immediately got up to peruse the options and started filling his own plate. Behind him the group fell into quiet conversations.
“Jane, John, Jamal, and now Jeff. Are you starting a collection? You should just change your name to Jent.”
“Only if you change yours to Jiz—Jelizabeth,” Kent tried to shoot back, but the slip-up had everyone bursting out in laughter.
Jeff felt safe chuckling as he slipped back into his seat. It felt weirdly comfortable here, in the dim dungeon room. The chirping was familiar and nobody was jumping down Kent’s throat for making a borderline sexual comment at a girl. Everybody seemed pretty chill so far, and even if Jeff was still the clear outsider, at least there was food. And blackmail material for a lifetime. Jeff settled more comfortably into his chair and watched as the group got situated.
Kent pulled out a folding board and put it between him and the rest of the table, opening binders and pulling up a rattling box that resembled a treasure chest. He selected a velvety bag from inside and passed it over to Jeff. Black and silver dice were inside, and Jeff let the unfamiliar shapes roll in his fingers before setting them on the table. The biggest one bounced close to Lizzy, and she set it back in his space, deliberately placing it so the 20 was on top. Jeff knew enough about pre-game superstitions not to comment. It was weirdly familiar watching everyone around him prep for a game that wasn’t hockey, and he found himself arranging his dice to keep his hands busy.
“Okay, Jeff’s kind of going to be a NPC while he gets his feet wet, but if things go smoothly he can jump in with the group for today’s adventure?” Kent asked the group.
“It’s just a side quest, right?” Jamal asked. “We’re not going back to the Aviary with a newbie.”
“No, we still need to heal up and restock everything,” Jane confirmed, shuffling her papers and pulling up one of the binders John had by his chair. “And you mentioned something about an enchanted forest, which is good because I need potion ingredients and the prices in town are outrageous.”
“I still want some armor upgrades while we’re in town,” John interjected, passing some folded papers to Jane. They were weirdly in synch, but that was married couples for you, Jeff supposed.
“I want some new armor too, I almost got roasted last time,” Lizzy added.
“I told you the chain mail bikini was stupid,” Jane muttered at her.
“It felt right to my character,” Lizzy shot back.
“Well I hope the bikini shaped burn scars feel right, because they’re not going away until I get some rest and refill my spell slots.”
“Jeff, what race do you want to be?” Kent asked distractedly, making notes and rolling dice behind his little wall.
“Uh…” Jeff felt like this was a trick question. “…White?”
The group broke into giggles, even Jamal snorting out a laugh. Kent looked up from his papers with a faint wince.
“Uh no, dude, like…” He popped up from his seat and darted over to a bookshelf, pulling one of the thinner books down and flipping through the well-worn pages. He dropped it in front of Jeff, open to a glossy picture of a man in a silvery robe much like Kent’s. Upon closer inspection Jeff could see pointed ears. The title text of the page read Half-Elf. “Like that. Elves and dwarves and shit, y’know? You get to pick. Race, class, status, gender, clothes, that kind of stuff.”
“Oh, okay. So like, I wouldn’t be human?” Jeff asked, flipping a few pages back and forth. The text was dense but there were cool illustrations on every page, and what little he skimmed didn’t seem as impenetrable as it first appeared.
“You can be, if you want,” Kent reassured him. “Humans are really common around these parts of the continent, so it would fit.”
“Uh-huh. What do you think would fit best with me?”
“Probably a human, since it’s your first time. Or hey, go a couple forward? Two more. A half-orc. Perfect for a hockey player, you get to be huge and intimidating and slam people around.”
Jeff pondered the muscle-bound figure on the page, tattered clothes and tusks, jacked-up arms holding a massive hammer like they were about to smite someone. He slowly shook his head and flipped back through the pages. Something about the offer was grating. We’ll go a little easy on you. He was the one supposed to be humoring Kent here, doing something nice for him for his birthday. C’mon guys, it’s his first time.
“Dude. An orc? I’m not gonna be that predictable.” Jeff flipped back through the book, ignoring the multiple voices murmuring half-orc. “If you’re gonna make me a Lord of the Rings…race… at least make me a cool one. Like-” Unpredictable, unpredictable, “-a halfling.”
“A halfling?” Kent sputtered around a laugh.
“Yeah, man, these tiny fuckers are always running off on crackhead adventures.”
“Well yeah in the movies, but the whole point of that was that it was unexpected! Hobbits and halflings don’t normally do adventures like that. They’re typically farmers and stuff. Maybe travelling caravans of merchants. Not action heroes.”
“Well, maybe mine’s a little weird, okay.” The slow, considering nods from around the table spurred him on, Kent’s disbelieving eyebrow adding fuel to his fire, making his reckless. “Like, he’s—she’s hiring these adventurers right? So there’s something there. And, maybe she’s like Frodo or somebody. Like she had a crazy uncle go running off on adventures and she grew up hearing his stories. And now like, it’s her turn? She got some magic ring or, or no, she doesn’t, because she needs these people to help her get something, yeah?”
The nods were bigger now, the group vibing with him. Kent was full-on grinning at him, glowing and pleased, and Jeff felt a wave of fondness for the unbelievable dork. Sometimes he really thought he would die for this guy, he really did. It was weird feeling it off the ice, away from the roar of crowds and actual opponents, but the building anticipation was the same, he discovered. He just had to keep the words coming.
“So like, she’s got this crazy uncle and he’s left her this weird—book, journal thing, full of stories, but maybe there are, like, clues? And she’s put together enough that she knows there’s something, you said there was a forest right? Something in the forest, like buried treasure from his adventures, but she’s a hobbit—a halfling, like a farmer’s daughter or something, and she’s only read about the adventure stuff, she can’t just walk into the woods and start stabbing things on her own. Trolls and shit. She needs these guys. And they need her.” Jeff finishes in a rush, grinning delightedly around the table, a little thrilled to see everyone beaming back. And the Aces said he sucked at speeches. Look at this team-building motivational shit coming out of his mouth, he’s totally got a handle on this.
“Okay!” Kent was grinning as hard as everyone else, though he had to keep ducking his head to speedily scribble things down. “So you’re a female halfling, a farmer’s daughter but with an adventurer uncle, and you need to hire the party to retrieve some family heirloom from the forest, with only a journal to guide them, and you want to go along and maybe become an adventurer yourself.”
“Yep, that sounds right.”
“Okay, let’s roll up your stats while these guys do their shopping and we can arrange a chance meeting at the local tavern.”
“Sounds good. Oh and hey, Lizzy?”
He made his face as innocent as possible. “I think since it’s…Bilba’s first time away from the farm, having a big adventure like she’s been wanting forever… Well she’d probably go really over the top getting ready for it, right?”
“What are you getting at?” Lizzy’s eyes were narrowed but her lips kept twitching into the tiniest smile, like she could see what he was getting at from a mile away.
“Well… It feels right for my character to spring for a chain-mail bikini. Do you know where she can get one?”
Kent was the first to crack, though Lizzy was a fraction of a second behind. They howled with laughter as Jeff sat back and grinned, the rest of the table starting to chant.
“One of us! One of us! One of us!”