Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 69
Stories
To Know and Be Known
by Aimee Ogden
The Chaos Crushers' Day Off
by Alethea Kontis
Long Hair
by Stefan Slater
IGMS Audio
Long Hair
Read by Kaitlin Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
Crowdfinding
by Eric James Stone
Bonus Material
The Story Behind the Stories
by Jared Oliver Adams

The Chaos Crushers' Day Off
    by Alethea Kontis

The Chaos Crushers' Day Off
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

"Where is that blight-brained halfling?" Hands on hips, Persimmon Petalwhisper stomped a foot in exasperation. A burst of glitterspark and forget-me-nots sprang up beneath her expensive heel and fell blessedly short of her couture mini dress. Persi enjoyed looking her best whenever the guild wasn't adventuring hither and yon. But she couldn't afford to singe another hem with her temper.

Her guild uniform consisted of a dull but useful conglomeration of rags that concealed a variety of supplies for mischief-making, and no shoes whatsoever. But as a result of the sleeping sickness that still held High Wizard Vasim in its thrall, all their daily wear was receiving a much-needed cleaning. The Chaos Crushers had suddenly found themselves with some time off.

Which meant that today was game day. The guild gathered around the table in their usual abandoned barrow. Most of them, anyway.

"Yenry's always late." Kian tied his shining locks of black hair back into a queue, revealing the dusky pointed ears he normally kept hidden. "Mithrax knows why we put up with him."

"Because, even late, he always shows up." Azorius slid his shield beneath the stone bench. "And he's usually very amusing."

"Unlike Bob." Nex crossed her very long legs. The curl of her blood red lip revealed a pointed tooth.

"He said he might show," said the paladin. "But you know Bob. They're a private person."

"Bob's probably a double agent," said the dark elf.

"Bob's not a double agent," said the dragon-shifter. "Bob's a jerk."

"It's tough being a gelatinous sphere," said Azorius.

"Try being a dragon stuck in a human-sized body needing to depend on that gelatinous sphere for backup. Why is he part of this guild again?"

"He can kill anything," said the dark elf.

"Bob prefers 'they,' not 'he,'" said the paladin. "Be sensitive."

Nex's nostrils flared and smoked. In a gracefully sinuous move, she tossed the violet waves of her hair over one turquoise shoulder. "Our guild is the Chaos CRUSHERS, not the Chaos SLIMERS."

"We can play without Bob," said Persi. "But if that half-witted halfling doesn't bring us the game soon, I'm going to kick him so hard he'll poop flowers for a fortnight."

Nex raised an eyebrow. "Your date didn't go well then?"

"Our date didn't happen at all! The numbskull 'lost track of time while acquiring a shining treasure.' Shocker, right?" Persi crossed her arms. "I knew it was a bad idea. I never should have said yes to him in the first place."

"But we've been dancing around this for years," said Azorius. "You two are perfect for each other. Give him a chance."

"Nah." Nex snorted. "Cut his heart out and eat it instead."

"What she said," Kian chimed in. "I've got a blade or twelve you're welcome to borrow."

Persi smiled. Not one for the front lines of battle, she was more suited to the role of spy, thief, healer, or good luck charm. But that never stopped her guild mates from suggesting that there might be a bloodthirsty soul deep down inside her. It made Persi feel powerful. And that was why she loved them. Well . . . all except Yenry.

As if summoned by thought, the halfling tumbled through the opening of the barrow in a cloud of dust. He jumped quickly to his feet, spread his arms and cried, "TA-DA!"

"Are you being chased?" asked Azorius.

Yenry tousled his wild hair and brushed off his shirt and trousers. "Not anymore."

"Did you get the game, half-bite?" Nex asked with a toothy yawn.

The rucksack of holding hung flat against Yenry's back, but that didn't mean anything. He could hide a horse in there without causing so much as a bulge. And had, on occasion.

Yenry unbuckled the leather straps and extracted a box from the sack. He got down on one knee and presented it to Persi as if she were Queen of All. The title inscribed on the lid read The Princess Trial: A Fairy Tale Adventure.

Any other day, Persi might have squealed in delight. This was exactly her sort of game, not something the others would have chosen. Ever. Not even Bob. Instead, she looked down her nose at Yenry and in a very Nex-like tone sneered, "You're late."

"I lost track of time while acquiring this shining treasure."

"Ooh," Azorius whispered. "He does say that, doesn't he?"

"You only just noticed?" Nex asked the paladin.

"If Persi doesn't hurt him, I might," Kian muttered.

Persi scowled at Yenry. "You are such a . . . hobgoblin."

Yenry rose back to his full height, only half a head taller than she. "Watch your mouth, little lady."

"Little?" Persi couldn't stop herself. "Bite me, shortbread."

His green eyes flashed. "Sure thing, wingless."

Sparks flew from Persi's fingers. She didn't punch him in the face, but her fistful of glitter did. The small barrow instantly filled with the scent of jasmine. Azorius sneezed.

Yenry bent and put a hand over one cheek. He coughed and scraped what he could from his lashes. When he looked back at her with one bloodshot, shimmering eye, he didn't yell. He just grinned.

Enraged, Persi's arm pulled back for another volley.

"As amusing as this is," said Nex, "can we just play the game already?"

"Pity," muttered Kian. "I was about to put money on the pixie."

"I don't believe anyone would have taken that bet," said Azorius.

Persi smiled broadly and sat next to the elf. Yenry took the only bench left, on the opposite side. He slid the box onto the table with a glittery finger.

Nex read the title. "The Princess Trial." She stared at Yenry with fire in her eyes. "Seriously?"

"Looks can be deceiving," said the halfling. The dust still graying his boar-brown hair made him seem a decade older, lending a certain gravity to his words. Granted, the glitter caking the left side of his face took much of that away. "Surely any game from Vasim's shelves is a game worth playing."

They all drew in breath at this pronouncement. None of them--not even Nex--would have dared pilfer an item from the personal store of the High Wizard himself. Especially for something as trivial as game day.

But this was exactly the kind of thing that set Yenry apart. The halfling seemed to have been born with skills that other Master Thieves might never acquire . . . and the arrogance to go with them. Persi was a decent-enough burglar--quiet, light of foot, and great at squeezing into tight places--but Yenry put the artist in con artist. He could stumble naked into a kingdom overrun by orcs and leave fed and cleaned and fully dressed, with a handful of freed prisoners and the queen's best horse.

The Chaos Crushers had formed that day, though they hadn't made it official until the High Wizard hired them for their first quest a week later.

"Then by all means, let us play," Nex said in a reverent tone. "I shall take the role of the princess."

Persi bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood. If she so much as snickered at the mental image of Nex as a princess, she could kiss this dress--plus her hair, her eyebrows, and probably three layers of skin--goodbye.

"No, no, that's not how this works." Yenry opened the box and lifted up a faceted stone the color of Nex's skin. "We roll. The die chooses which part we play."

Nex snatched the die out of Yenry's hand and examined it. "How many sides does this thing have?"

"Twenty."

"And what number are we trying to get?"

Yenry lifted a parchment from inside the box. "It says here that whosoever rolls the lowest number shall be the Game Master. The other parts are assigned in ascending order--there's a list here."

But the dragon-shifter had already rolled. "Five," she said proudly. "Beat that."

Kian did almost immediately. "Two."

Yenry shook a finger at Persi. "Your turn. Go on."

Persi grimaced. She really didn't see the point. She was fine with Kian being the Game Master and Nex playing the Princess, though Persi secretly wanted to be the princess herself. Dutifully, she lifted the die. It was cool to the touch. She casually tossed it back onto the tabletop. It clattered to a stop in front of Azorius.

The paladin bent over the die. "One!" he bellowed.

"What?" Persi could hardly contain her shock.

Kian patted her on the back. "Well done, Game Master."

Azorius got an eight. Yenry got a seven.

"So the roles are as follows," Yenry announced. "Lokian, Prince of Seven Enemies, will be the Princess Brittany."

Kian tilted his head gracefully. Well, he certainly had the hair for it.

"Nex, you will play Prince Quincy."

Nex's smile would have frightened an orc. "I'll take it."

"I shall take on the role of the princess's most trusted companion. A"--Yenry's finger slid along the parchment--"skunk frog."

Laughter echoed off the barrow walls. "What will I call you, o trusted companion?" Kian asked him.

"Booty," Yenry said without pause. "After my two favorite things."

"And who shall I be?" Azorius asked.

"You will be . . . the princess's horse."

"An honorable steed," Azorius said with great confidence.

"Sure," said Yenry. "Here are the character cards for each of us--they list how many damage points we have left until we die, and what sort of items and weapons we have on our persons. Now, hand this booklet to our Game Master and let's start setting up the field of play."

Persi accepted the Game Master's guide from Azorius. It wasn't terribly thick--perhaps this would be a nice, short game. The yellowing pages seemed soft, but sturdy. Persi opened the cover. The words scrawled across the first page made her eyes widen.

I BELIEVE IN YOU.

Thank you, book, thought Persi. I believe in you, too.

Persi turned to the next page. It was blank. And then it wasn't. Words wrote themselves onto the parchment right before her eyes.

Your job as Game Master is to control how the story unfolds. Read each section as it reveals itself, and communicate the situation to the players. Remember, above all else, that you have ultimate control over this game. YOU.

The words faded as she read them, all but that last, emphatic YOU.

All right then, book, thought Persi. Mission accepted. Let's do this thing.

"Let's do this thing."

Persi's head flew up from the booklet at the words Nex had spoken. There was obviously some serious magic afoot. It didn't seem that any of the others had picked up on it yet, but they probably would as the story unfolded.

On the table, the guild had arranged nine plain, flat grid squares into one larger square. Randomly scattered across the squares were silver figurines of their characters, rendered in perfect miniature.

Yenry picked up Princess Brittany for closer examination. "You know, Kian, she looks a little bit like you."

"Yours looks like you too," the dark elf responded, referring to Yenry's skunk frog.

"Once upon a time," Persi began.

"Yes," Azorius said of his figurine. "A very honorable steed."

"SHUT UP, MEAT STICKS. PERSI IS TRYING TO START THE GAME."

The barrow fell silent.

"Thank you, Nex," said Persi, and she began to read from the booklet again. "Once upon a time, a beautiful young princess lived in a shining castle."

Kian rested his chin in his hands and batted his eyelashes at the company.

"Princess Brittany was kind and generous, but her mother was far more"--the word took a moment to appear--"complicated."

The company grunted as one at that assessment. Even Persi sympathized. If any of them had had perfect families, most likely none of them would be here now.

"On the eve of Princess Brittany's thirteenth birthday, the mad queen sent her best huntsman into the woods with the princess."

At this, the squares on the table sprang to life. A miniature forest grew before their eyes and soon towered over the figured of the princess, the horse, and the skunk frog. The prince figurine disappeared from the board and reappeared in front of Nex.

"I take it I'm not in this scene," said Nex. "Pity." She sounded more bored than sad.

When the magical wood had settled, Persi went on. "The huntsman's orders were to kill the princess and return to the queen with her heart and liver as proof."

"Wow," said Azorius.

"Yummy," said Nex.

"I kill the huntsman instead," said Kian.

"Can he do that?" Azorius asked Persi.

"I don't know. Can he do that?" Persi asked the booklet.

All players must state their desired actions, said the book. Persi conveyed this answer to the table.

"Attack the huntsman with my..." Kian consulted his character card. Unimpressed with whatever he found there, he tossed the card back onto the table. "A really sharp rock."

Azorius checked his own card. "Attack the huntsman with my iron-clad hooves."

Yenry did not look at his card. He looked at Persi. "Search for treasure," he said. The twinkle in his eye was not from the glitter on his face. Persi scowled back at him. When the rest of his party glared too, Yenry pointed to his figurine on the leaf-strewn path in the miniature wood. "Skunk frog, remember? What sort of damage could I possibly do to a highly-skilled huntsman?"

Roll for damage, said the book.

"Really?" Persi said. "You guys are just going to attack? You're not going to try to talk to the man? Find out why he's doing this? Try to convince him to be on your side?"

Her guild members had no response. ROLL FOR DAMAGE, said the book.

Persi shrugged. "Roll for damage, then."

Each player rolled the twenty-sided die, and then Persi rolled on behalf of the huntsman. The fight took several rounds--in small part because the princess and her horse could only inflict so much damage on the huntsman; in large part because Persi's rolls for the huntsman all turned out impressively low numbers. The trio finally did manage to defeat the huntsman, but not without great cost to their damage points.

"Let's move on," said Kian.

"Wait," said Azorius. "I only have one damage point left."

"I have three gold coins and a griddlecake," Yenry said proudly. Even Persi had been shocked that the huntsman had so much in his pockets.

"That's not helpful unless you're going to pay for a healer," said Azorius. "Do we know a healer?"

"Nope," Persi said proudly. Perhaps they'd respect her potions a little more after the Chaos Crushers' next skirmish.

"Perhaps I have a healing potion in my saddle bags." Azorius studied his card. "Nothing. You?"

Yenry held his card close to his chest, so that Azorius could not see its contents. "Nope."

Kian did the same. "Not a thing. What do we do now?"

Choose a direction and roll to walk, said the book.

"I walk east," Kian said as he rolled.

"I walk east." Azorius rolled and passed the die to Yenry.

"I kick the horse," Yenry said. Nex laughed. Yenry rolled before the rest of his companions could respond.

The princess's noble steed perishes in the dark wood, Persi read from the book.

"Why would you do that?" Azorius bristled. "I only had one damage point left!"

"Because if you die, you'll have to choose a new character card now," Yenry explained. "I'd rather go into the next fight with someone at the top of their game instead of a horse that's going to bite it in the first round and leave the rest of us hanging."

Nex nodded. "It's the smart move."

"Aw . . ." Azorius hung his head. "I didn't even have a chance to name him."

The horse figurine toppled to one side. The other figurines gathered around him, as if mourning. Then the horse shimmered and disappeared.

"My card went blank," said Azorius.

Persi read the details of what had transpired. "Ha!"

"It's bad enough that I can't play yet," said Nex. "No fair skipping ahead."

Persi looked up from the booklet. Instead of continuing to parrot everything word for word, she decided to paraphrase. "The sun is beginning to set. The trees cast long shadows over the path. There is a slight chill in the air."

The game board animated to reflect Persi's story as it unfolded. Shadows twisted this way and that around the figurines left on the board. Even the barrow felt dimmer. The sound of frogs and crickets emanated from the darkness.

Persi smiled. She decided to exercise her ultimate control as Game Master.

"The wind whistles through the trees," said Persi, her voice low and ominous. A slight breeze kicked up in the barrow, and the smell of dried leaves and loam rose up from the game board. "The howl of it sounds like a mournful cry." A keening tone echoed from somewhere; instinct caused everyone in the guild to glance around for the source.

Everyone except Persi.

"There is a rustle in the bushes--" A rustle came from behind Kian's chair. The dark elf snapped his head around, hidden blade already to hand.

When he realized what he'd done, he shook his head. "You're getting good at this, Petalwhisper."

Persi took the compliment and continued. "The noise scared Princess Brittany, but there was no need to worry. From the brush emerged a very nice-looking donkey."

"That's me!" Azorius said brightly. He showed off his card, refilled with information on this new character. The figurine of a donkey now stood on the board with the others.

"From whence have you come, good Sir Ass?" asked Yenry.

"From whence have I come?" Azorius whispered to Persi.

"The donkey came from the North," Persi read. "Where he was employed by a brotherhood of dwarfs."

Nex chuckled. The rest of them groaned.

"I guess we go see these dwarfs then," Kian said reluctantly.

The trio continued to roll and walk their way through the woods. Since Booty the skunk frog rode in the Princess's pocket, Yenry used every one of his turns to search for treasure. By the time they arrived at the dwarfs' well, he had acquired a penknife, a vial labeled "Powder of Life," a handful of berries, seven mushrooms, three acorns, a canary feather, and a withering look from Nex.

"You are trying my patience, halfling."

"You never know when any of this stuff will come in handy," said Yenry. "Now hush and play the game."

"I'm not even in the stupid game yet!"

At the well, the princess and her friends meet Prince Quincy, said the book.

"It's about time!" said Nex. "Now let's kill these rock-sniffing dwarfs!"

The men cried their agreement and they all scrambled for the die.

Percy opened her mouth and closed it again. Had they read any books at all? Listened to any stories? Didn't they know that these dwarfs were the sort to harbor and care for princesses, not the grumpy, smelly, foul-mouthed weapons dealers they'd encountered in real life? She might have had ultimate control over the game, but she had no control over how ridiculous her guild mates could be.

Fine. If they wanted to ruin the storyline for themselves, she'd help them along . . . as painfully as possible.

Princess Brittany and her headstrong party had a sword, a dagger, a penknife, and a donkey. Persi's seven dwarfs were armed to the teeth, and then some.

Persi assumed the dwarfs had pickaxes, because she knew pickaxes were essential to mining, so she started the attacks with those. When the book hinted at the existence of a brass lamp, she had the brilliant idea to douse someone in the oil and set them on fire.

That someone ended up being Azorius's donkey. He hadn't made it.

From then on, the book followed Persi's lead. She would suggest a weapon and, if it was appropriate, the book would put it into play. The game board--now the dwarfs' house--was covered in blood and broken bodies. Every plate and piece of furniture was smashed, and almost every window was broken.

Nex's prince fought valiantly. He disarmed all of the dwarfs at least twice, but Persi kept finding new objects for them. A rock hammer. A chair. The broken handle of a broom. But Prince Quincy, so far the strongest character in the group, killed them all. He chased the last dwarf out to the barn and cornered him between two bales of hay.

"I have you now," Nex said through her teeth.

"The dwarf reaches into one of the hay bales and pulls out . . . a stick of dynamite!" Can I do that? Persi thought.

Roll to light the dynamite, said the book.

Grinning, Persi rolled. The dynamite fuse ignited. The figurines scattered. The barn burst into a giant ball of light and heat. Even Nex looked mildly impressed, and that was saying something.

"What's your move now?" Persi asked calmly, as if the game board hadn't just violently exploded between them.

"Drink one of my healing potions," said Kian.

"Ditto," said Yenry.

Azorius pointed at them. "You said you didn't have healing potions!"

"What did it matter?" Kian said. "You were dead then."

"And you're dead now," added Yenry.

"Let's take shelter in the house if it's still intact," said Nex. "Perhaps we can shore up here for a few rounds and nurse our wounds while we decide what to do."

The rest of the party agreed. No surprise. They usually did everything Nex suggested in the real world, too.

But Persi thought she recognized this fairy tale. If she was right, she knew what was in store for them. And she wasn't about to spoil the fun.

After the first round of resting and healing, Azorius asked, "Can I come back as another character?"

Persi started at the book, but the page remained empty. She looked at the game board, still littered with bodies. "I'm not sure how. You all killed everyone that lived here."

"I know!" Yenry ran his finger down his character card. "There. I carve a face in that broken handle of a broom with my penknife and sprinkle it with Power of Life."

"That's not going to work," said Nex.

"It worked!" Azorius cried as his character card refilled again with script. His bushy brows furrowed as he read. "But my only attack seems to be . . . a saving throw from Booty the skunk frog." Slowly, his pursed lips spread into a wide smile. "I'm alive! I'll take it! Thanks, Yenry!"

"Don't mention it, Stick."

On the next round, there was a knock at the door of the dwarfs' cottage.

"I'll get that," Kian said in a ridiculous falsetto. "Who is it?"

Persi bent her head over the booklet so the others could not see her smile as she read the scene she knew she'd find there. At the door is an old woman. She has a basket of beautiful, fresh apples. And you are all very hungry.

"I take an apple," said Kian.

The apples cost one gold coin each, read Persi.

"That's ridiculous!" said Nex. "Who in their right mind would charge that much for an apple?"

"I don't have any gold," Kian said, checking his character card.

"Booty the skunk frog does," said Azorius.

"Rat," said Yenry.

"Stick," corrected Azorius.

"Give her the gold, Yenry," ordered Nex.

"The name is Booty," said Yenry. "And no."

"Come on," said Kian. "There are three of us and you have three gold coins."

"No way," said Yenry. "Find your own apples."

Nex snarled. "I pick up the skunk frog and shake him until the coins fall out."

Persi raised an eyebrow. "That's your move?"

"Yes," said Nex.

Prince Quincy gains three gold coins, said the book.

"Bully." Yenry crossed his arms. "I hope you choke."

Persi coughed to cover what was almost a laugh at Yenry's comment. Her throat was very dry from all that reading. She wished one of them had thought to bring snacks.

"I buy the apple from the old woman and eat it," said Kian. "Or does that count as two moves?"

Apparently, it did not.

Princess Brittany dies from eating the poisoned apple, said the book.

"What?" Kian yelled.

"You cannot speak," said Persi. "You're dead. Sorry."

"That woman is a witch!" cried Azorius.

"Wait a minute." Kian's head perked up. "That old woman is--"

"Shhh!" Persi hissed at the dark elf.

"But all I need is--"

"YOU ARE DEAD, BRITTANY." Persi raised her voice enough to drown out the rest of Kian's sentence. The dark elf gave up and slumped back in his chair to watch the carnage unfold.

"Attack her!" Azorius bellowed.

"But should we?" Nex hedged. "I mean, witches can be useful under the right circumstances . . ."

"Attack the witch!" Yenry cried, rolling the die.

"And throw Stick!" Azorius added.

"Fine. Attack I guess," said Nex.

Booty the skunk frog scored a nasty bite on the witch's ankle. Stick gave her a splinter. Once again, Prince Quincy was left with the dragon's share of the fighting. Which gave Persi a fabulous idea.

"Roll to turn the witch into a dragon," Persi said on the next round.

The old woman turns into a dragon, said the book. Lightning flashed over the game board. Somewhere far away, thunder rolled. From magically conjured clouds, a shadowy dragon rose to loom over the figurines. There was a hint of sulphur in the air.

"Oh, huh-uh." Yenry held up a hand. "Stick and I are running away from that nonsense. Good luck, Prince Quincy!"

Nex leaned in closer. "Attack the dragon. Aim for the soft area at her throat." And then she rolled the die.

Five.

The sword glances off the dragon's scales, leaving barely a scrape, said the book. The shadow dragon roared and belched flame.

Persi took the die in hand. She leaned in, too. "Bite off the prince's sword arm."

Yenry hooted and slapped the table with both hands. Twice. Azorius gasped. Kian chuckled.

"That's a harder move than you think," said Nex, who would know.

Persi took a deep breath and rolled.

Twenty.

Persi blinked in astonishment. The shadow dragon on the board bent and tore into the prince figurine. There was a flash of red. Persi half expected to see blood splattered on Nex's face. There might as well have been. Both of the dragon-shifter's eyebrows were raised. An astonished Nex was such a rare sight that the countenance looked strange. The whole situation felt strange.

And Persi gaining the upper hand? Unheard of. Part of her almost wanted to apologize. The other part knew that if she did, she'd lose the smattering of Nex's respect that she had earned in this moment.

The dragon lost a few more damage points. The damage points on Prince Quincy's card, however, fell precipitously. They continued to slowly diminish as the prince's figure continued to bleed.

"We have lost," Nex said quietly.

Yenry stood up."Not yet, we haven't! Stick, let's come out of hiding and take one last shot at this dragon. What do you say?"

Azorius stood as well. "I am with you, brother!"

Yenry rolled the die. Twelve.

The skunk frog bites the dragon on the ankle. The dragon loses three drops of blood. The skunk frog loses a tooth.

"Your valiant effort is appreciated," Nex said without energy, as if she were the one bleeding out on the table.

Azorius snapped up the die. "Saving throw!" he cried as he tossed it in the air. Yenry bellowed and clapped as well, cheering him on. The die clattered to a stop in the middle of the bloody battle.

This time, they all leaned in to see what the die read.

Twenty.

Azorius and Yenry let out deafening whoops of triumph. Percy sat back and read from the booklet.

In his saving throw, Booty tosses Stick into the air . . . and straight down the gullet of the dragon.

Azorius's character card went blank once more. The shadow dragon on the table writhed, choked and finally fell on the table, dead.

You have defeated the dragon, said the booklet.

Yenry and Azorius exchanged high-fives, but Nex remained despondent. "We beat the dragon, yes, but we did not truly win the game. Look at this." She waved a turquoise hand over the mess they had made. "None of us survived."

"Speak for yourself," said Yenry. He raised his chin and puffed out his chest like a peacock. "I may be toothless, but I'm not dead. And if I'm not dead, then that means the game's not finished."

"What else could there possibly be left to do?" asked Kian.

Yenry pointed at the figurine of the prince. "I take a cup of the dragon's saliva and pour it over Quincy's arm to staunch the wound." He pointed to the dragon. "Then, I take the prince's sword and cut through the soft part of the dragon's neck to retrieve Stick. Finally, I kiss the princess and wake her up."

Azorius's character card refilled once more. Prince Quincy's dangerously low damage count stopped shrinking. But Princess Brittany's figurine stayed dead. Kian's card remained blank.

"It didn't work," said Kian.

Nex shook her head slowly. "It's me," she said to the table. "I should have been the one to kiss the princess." Her opaline eyes met Persi's. "You knew that all along, didn't you?"

Persi merely smiled a little and shrugged. Nex knew she'd been defeated. There was no need to rub her nose in it. Any of the others might have, but that wasn't Persi's style.

"Prince Quincy kisses Princess Brittany," said Nex.

There was no need to roll for this action. The one-armed figurine of the prince rose from the table and limped over to the prone force of the princess. Gently, he bent over her and gave her a kiss.

Nothing happened.

"Make sure the poison apple's not still in her mouth," Yenry offered.

At that, the figure of the princess turned to the side and coughed up the piece of poison apple.

Kian's character card filled once more. "I'm back!"

The figurines on the table gathered together in a group hug. Above them, the guild members clapped each other on the backs.

Nex extended a turquoise hand across the table to Persi. "Well played, Game Master." The pixie clasped it warmly as they shook. "I look forward to our next adventure."

The scene on the table vanished. It was replaced by a large castle. On a high balcony stood the princess, her one-armed prince, and their companions.

Persi looked down at the booklet once more. "And they lived happily ever after," she read to the table.

As she spoke the words, bright balls of color exploded in the sky above the castle in celebration. The guild members watched in awe and wonder. And then the castle vanished.

It was replaced by the image of the High Wizard Vasim.

"Congratulations, Chaos Crushers," said the wizard. "I hope this adventure has been illuminating. Just as I hope this game is soon returned to the very spot from whence it came." Vasim's image looked directly at Yenry . . . and then it, too, vanished.

Azorius whistled. "Somebody's in trouble."

The comment caused another round of laughter.

"I think we should leave the pilferer to clean up," said Nex.

"Agreed," said Kian. "I don't know about all of you, but I need to stretch my legs."

"Let's walk down to the inn," said Nex.

Azorius picked up his shield. "First round's on me!"

"Thanks, Stick. You coming, Persi?" Nex called over her shoulder.

"In a second," she said to her guild mates. "I'll be right there." She turned back to where Yenry was putting each square of the game board carefully back in the box. "So how did you do it?"

Yenry put on his most innocent face. "Do what?"

"How did you win the game?"

"Give me another chance at our date, and I'll tell you."

Persi put her hands on her hips. "Tell me, and I'll think about it."

He gave her a crooked grin. "How about this." He picked up the twenty-sided die and bobbled it in one hand. "Pick a number. Any number. If I roll that number, you give me a second chance."

"Fine," said Persi. "One."

During the entire game, the number one had only come up at the very beginning, when she'd become the Game Master. She figured the odds of him rolling that particular number were slim to none.

Yenry stepped close, close enough to gently tap her on the nose with his finger. "Coming right up." He tossed the die on the table. Persi held her breath until it came to a stop on . . .

One.

Persi gasped.

And then she narrowed her eyes at Yenry.

"What did you . . ."

And then she gasped again. Because she knew exactly what he'd done.

Persi picked the die up in one hand. On the other hand she raised three fingers. Then, she rolled the die.

Three.

She vaguely recalled Yenry pointing at her right before she'd been assigned Game Master. One. She remembered him slapping the table with both hands before her dragon removed one of Prince Quincy's limbs. Twenty. How many other times had he pulled this stunt without anyone noticing? All of them?

Persi felt a little sick to her stomach. "Did you run the whole game?"

"No," he said gently. "Only the parts that mattered. That whole saving throw at the end, that was all Azorius. I was as shocked as anyone. I assumed we were all going to die."

"But why?" she whispered.

"Because as much as Nex and the others tease you and treat you like one of the team, they don't truly value you and your contributions for what they're worth. It drives me crazy. So I chose a game you would not only like, but one that you would also be good at. And you were. Incredibly good." He placed the figurines inside the box and secured the lid. "Taking Nex down a peg was just a bonus."

Persi couldn't believe her ears. "So you stood me up because . . . ?"

"Because I had to make two separate acquisitions: the game, and the die." He tossed the tiny turquoise bauble up in the air and caught it again. "Pretty sure it's made of dragon scales, but Nex didn't say anything, so I didn't ask."

"And you did this all for me?"

"Yes," he said. "Did it work?"

Persi let her smile answer for her. She lifted a hand and brushed some of the glitter off Yenry's cheek with her fingertips. "Sorry about earlier."

"Don't apologize," he said, taking her hand in his. "You making me shine is not a bad thing."

Game Master Persi, still flush with power, was suddenly seized by a wicked desire to see just how much more of Yenry she could sparkle. But there was a noise in the doorway, and the two of them leapt apart.

Inch by slow inch, a thick green ooze slid into the barrow.

"Hey there, guild mates!" Bob lifted up a large bag. "I brought snacks!"


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