Snippet from Something I'm Working On

I looked around myself, staring into one pair of wide eyes after another. On each face I read expectation. The tension and excitement were palpable. I leaned forward, resting my weight on the table then frowned.

I turned away and made a point of rolling several dice, not allowing the other occupants of the table see what I was doing. It was for show.

“What’s happening?” demanded Forsariel, the elven warrior. She made a dramatic gesture, ending with her right hand lifted high in the air. “I draw my mighty sword, Sniplaridan, and gird my loins for battle!”

I was pretty sure she had no clue what “gird my loins” meant, but nevertheless, I smiled. It was my slow, “something big is about to happen” smile. “And the rest of you?” I asked leadingly.

“I nock an arrow,” said Chalsarda Naelynn, the other elf in the party of five. “And make sure I’m ready for anything.”

“All right,” I said. I made a note. That was for show, too.

“I step into shadows,” said Podedlam, our gnome rogue.

“She’s always stepping into shadows,” commented Ismenia Maalot, Podedlam’s older sister. Ismenia was our human healer. “I stay out of the way of Chalsarda’s arrows and prepare to heal Forsariel.”

“Podedlam,” I said. “Make a dexterity roll.” Podedlam nodded and picked up a D20 from a set her cousin had given her at Christmas last year. She rolled a natural fourteen. “Very good,” I said. “You slip away and go unnoticed.” Then I leaned towards her and lowered my voice. “For now,” I added, as ominously as I could.

And with that, every pair of eyes turned to Tobye Odo, the only male in the room, and the youngest as well. “What are you going to do, Tobye?” asked Forsariel.

“I have Fireball ready,” he said.

“Be careful,” Forsariel said. “You remember what happened last week.”

“You be careful,” Tobye said. He mimicked Forsariel’s motion from earlier. “We don’t even see anyone, but you’re waving your sword around, looking to poke someone’s eye out or something.”

“I’m not going to poke any eyes out.” But then she turned to me. “Unless there are orcs. You know how I feel about orcs.”

“Disgusting creatures,” declared Chalsarda. “Please, don’t make it be orcs.”

I smiled again. I did that a lot. I practiced different smiles. This one was supposed to be enigmatic. Then I said nothing.

“Well?” Forsariel finally asked.

“Well, what?” I asked.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“Well, you’re still in what appears to be the ballroom.”

“Of a creepy haunted mansion,” Ismenia said.

“Yes. The ballroom of a creepy, presumably haunted mansion,” I agreed. “Forsariel is ready to spring to the fore. Chalsarda is ready to let fly her arrows. No one is quite sure where Podedlam is.”

“No one ever is,” Ismenia commented. That was quite often true.

“Just so,” I agreed. “Ismenia is, as always, ready to serve as the healer for the group. And Tobye has his fireball ready.” Tobye had better spells, but he surely loved his fireball spell. It might be because I made really good “whoosh” fireball noises whenever he got to use it.

Then I waited. “And?” Forsariel finally demanded. “I can’t spring to the fore if there’s no fore to spring to.”

“And thus you see your dilemma.” I paused. “Podedlam, make a check against surprise.”

“What?” she asked.

“Check failed,” I said.

“You can’t do that!” she complained.

I didn’t encourage arguing with me. “Podedlam gives out a little scream and jumps away from the wall. Tobye nearly casts his fireball, but he remembers what happened last week and waits until he sees the red of their eyes.”

“Darned right he does,” Forsariel muttered. “What is it?”

“Tell me it’s not orcs!” Chalsarda demanded.

“It’s not,” I said. I leaned forward again and lowered my voice. “It’s… a rat!”

“Blast it!” Tobye yells.

“Very well,” I said. “Podedlam, agility check minus three.”


“Minus four.” I really didn’t encourage arguing with me.

She hastily rolled her die and scored a natural twenty. “Yes!” she said, pumping her fist.

“Podedlam dives out of the way of Tobye’s fireball,” I explained. “It lands where, only milliseconds before, she was standing.”

“Tobye!” Podedlam protested.

“Tobye, roll for damage.”

The boy gathered several dice, rolled them out onto the table, and quickly added them, sparing little more than a glance. “Only twenty-one,” he said.

“More than enough,” I declared. “The fireball impacts the rat, incinerating it into little more than a grease stain on the floor.”

“Yes!” Tobye declared. “I killed a giant rat.”

“Nuh-uh,” said Ismenia. “She didn’t say a giant rat. She said it was just a rat.”

“Ismenia is correct,” I said. “Although everything happened so quickly you can’t be sure whether it was a normal adult rat or an infant giant rat. There isn’t enough lingering evidence to be sure.”

“You should thank me, Podedlam,” Tobye said. “It might have had rabies.”

“Or plague,” Chalsarda said. “Rats are almost as disgusting as orcs.”

“I guess we’ll never know whether it had either,” I announced, “As Tobye’s fireball also destroyed any fleas the rat was carrying. Hmm.” Then I rolled several dice, saying nothing. Let them wonder.

“Should I cure disease on her just to be sure?” Ismenia offered. “I’m not sure I want our thief to turn rabid.” She said that word with her usual disdain. Ismenia and Forsariel far more than the others had certain ideas as to which classes the kids should have picked.

“I’m fine,” Podedlam said. “Aren’t I?” she added to me.

I rolled the dice and said nothing.

“If you aren’t showing signs, we can wait,” Chalsarda said. “I’m just glad it wasn’t orcs. There’s nothing here. Maybe we should find the dungeon or something.”

“It’s a haunted house,” Forsariel pointed out. “Not a castle. I bet there’s not even a dungeon.”

“I bet the good loot is upstairs somewhere,” Podedlam pointed out.

“Just to be sure,” Tobye said, “I’m getting another fireball ready.”

“If you singe me again,” Podedlam said, “and…” She smiled sweetly. “I’ll tell Vickie Givens you have a crush on her.”

“Gross!” Tobye declared. He had a few years to go before he’d have a different attitude about girls. Or possibly boys. And it wasn’t Tobye that had the crush on the very cute Vickie Givens, but I didn’t think Podedlam realized it for herself yet. “I didn’t singe you. I saved you from the rat.” He stuck his tongue out, but it was in fun.

“Well,” I said.

“We should find out where the rat came from,” Forsariel said. She tossed a glance at Chalsarda. “Sometimes orcs like to keep pet rats.”

I barely suppressed my laugh.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Chalsarda agreed.

“Sure,” Podedlam said. “I poke around, looking for signs of rat tracks.”

“Seriously?” Ismenia said. “You’re looking for what?”

“Whatever Aunt Kinsey decides I find,” Podedlam said.

“Podedlam investigates the grease stain,” I declare. “And then, while muttering to herself, she begins wandering towards the opening at the far end of the room.”

“Follow her, I guess,” Forsariel said. But she lifted her hand, letting me know she still had her sword ready.

* * * *

They wandered the house for another half hour. In the process, they found some of the loot I’d prepared for them, but none of the really good stuff yet. But they’d been avoiding the creepier places, and if they didn’t head for the attic or basement soon, I’d have to do something about it.

Podedlam was having the most fun. She was the one finding most of the loot, and she’d had fun opening the treasure chest. For that, I’d given her a real puzzle box, and she had to open it before they gained access to the treasure it contained, including one magical brooch. They hadn’t figured out it was magic yet.

They would. Podedlam was quite diligent in getting Tobye to cast Detect Magic on everything they found before they fenced it. I had a real brooch to give to Chalsarda; it was her birthday next week. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to make it to her party. I’d already apologized to her and her mother, my sister-in-law, Cindy. I had both a matinee and evening performance, and there wasn’t time in between to run out and get back in any shape for the evening performance. I felt bad about it, but what could I do?

Performance? I’ll come back to that. Patience.

Finally Tobye put his hand on his waist. “Where’s the good stuff?” It was a gesture he’d learned from his mother, the aforementioned Cindy.

“And the orcs?” Ismenia asked.

“There aren’t any orcs,” Chalsarda declared. “But it’s supposed to be a haunted house. Where are the ghosts?”

“Maybe they’re all around,” I said. “Maybe you just can’t see them. Because, you know. They’re ghosts.”

“Cute,” Chalsarda said.

Podedlam got it, though. “What time is it?”

I couldn’t help it. I glanced at the clock. I was going to have to hurry this up. “You’ve spent the day searching most of the house.”

“Most of the house,” she echoed. “Where haven’t we searched?”

“You checked every wall for hidden passages,” Forsariel pointed out.

“And I found one, too!”

“Between two rooms we’d already found,” she countered. “We haven’t been in the dungeon.”

“Or the attic,” Tobye said. “I bet the good stuff is in the attic.”

“Or in the basement,” I wanted to say.

“We didn’t spend the entire day finding almost nothing,” Chalsarda said. Almost nothing except her birthday present. “I say we give a peek in the attic, and if there isn’t anything there, we head for the basement.”

“Maybe there’s a crypt,” Forsariel suggested. I’d had to teach them that word, oh, five or six sessions ago. “Ismenia can lay the ghosts to rest.”

“Yeah,” Ismenia said. “I can do that, right?”

“Perhaps,” I suggested.

“Attic it is,” Forsariel said. “Upward!”

“Not so fast,” Podedlam said. “It’s daytime.” She turned back to me. “How soon does the sun set?”

“Oh, another two hours or so,” I said.

“I think we should stay here overnight,” she said.

“Gross!” Chalsarda said. “It’s a haunted house!”

“Presumably haunted,” Podedlam said, echoing my word. “I bet the reason we haven’t found any haunts is because it’s daytime. I bet if we’re here after dark, we can see the ghosts.”

“Fine. We’ll search the attic and basement,” Forsariel decided. “Then find a place to bed down. But you get the middle watch.”

“Sure,” she said. “Middle watch.”

“And no skulking about!” Ismenia said. “You almost got killed last time you skulked without us.”

“Maybe, but I didn’t get singed,” she said, tossing Tobye a grin. The boy didn’t rise to the bait.

With a plan made, Forsariel led the way, but it was Podedlam who directed their path, then grinned when I declared the door was locked. Forsariel was ready to bash it open, especially after Podedlam blew her pick locks roll three times.

“Was there a key in that chest we looted earlier?” Ismenia asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “You dumped everything in a sack.”

“Who has the sack?” Ismenia asked.

“You do,” Forsariel answered.

“Oh. Right. I drop my backpack and dig through the sack. Do I find any keys?”

“Seven,” I said, making that answer up on the spot.

“Get out of the way, thief,” Ismenia said. “I try the keys, one at a time.”

I rolled dice for show. “The first two don’t even fit. The third fits, but it just spins in the lock.” I rolled another die. “Ah, but the fourth is different. It goes in, turns partway, and then gets stuck.”

“What?” she asked.

“Do you force it?” I asked.

“No!” Podedlam said. “She doesn’t force it. Allow me, Ismenia.” I waited until the girl nodded.

“Ismenia steps aside. Podedlam moves forward and… what?”

“I jiggle it.”

“Podedlam jiggles the key. Everyone roll a saving throw.”

“Now you did it!” Forsariel declared, but she was the first to roll a die. The rest followed. “Seven. I rolled a stupid seven.”

“Beats my three,” Chalsarda said with a sigh. “What happens to me?”

I rolled several dice then smiled. “What did the rest of you roll?” They told me. “Well. Podedlam hears a click, and when she pushes on the door, it opens with a long, slow, creak.” I drew the word out. “Forsariel and Chalsarda drop to the floor. The rest of you feel a wave of dizziness, but you fight it off.”

“I rush to Chalsarda first,” Ismenia said.

“She seems to be asleep,” I said. “And you can’t get her to wake up.”

“Elves don’t sleep,” Chalsarda complained.

“And yet, you seem to be asleep,” I replied.

“Then I check on Forsariel,” Ismenia said.

“Also asleep. Roll a saving throw to see if you trip over her fallen sword.”

“I better not have tripped over her sword,” Ismenia muttered, rolling the die. “Eleven.”

“Good enough,” I said. “Barely.”

“Someone put that somewhere safe,” Ismenia said.

“I step into the attic,” Podedlam declared. She rolled a die. “And step into shadows. Fourteen.”

“All right,” I said.

I described the contents of the attic. I was halfway through when Forsariel said, “Jackpot!”

“I thought she was unconscious,” Tobye said.

“Fine. I mutter ‘jackpot’ in my sleep,” Forsariel said. “Dork.”

“No name calling,” I said automatically.

“It’s okay,” said Tobye. “Did we find the good treasure? Maybe there’s a book of magic spells.”

There was, actually, a gift for Tobye. I didn’t know if he’d appreciate it, but it was a copy of The Hobbit. He might be a little young, but he loved to read, and was reading well past his grade level due at least in part to all the books I enjoyed giving him. I’d done the same with all of them, of course, and our weekly gaming sessions sparked all their imaginations besides.

“Well, your fighter isn’t waking up,” I pointed out. “What are you going to do?”

“Let’s drag them into the attic,” Podedlam said. “It’s more defensible than the hallway.”

I let them do that, and even prompted them to make their party members comfortable. With Ismenia keeping watch, Podedlam and Tobye search the attic, which was four distinct areas. They didn’t find any living creatures; that would be later. But they found a pile of interesting things to go through, including a bookcase of dusty books. It was Podedlam who found it, but Tobye heard that and rushed over to look through the books.

“They’re all very old,” I explained. “They might be valuable.”

“I look more carefully. Do any feel like magic?”

I paused. “There might be one,” I said. And then they all sat up straighter as I turned to the side table. I opened the drawer. It was where I kept Important Things. There were two boxes this week, one larger than the other. I pulled out the somewhat larger and set it on the table. All five pair of eyes focused on the merrily-wrapped box.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, not by far. They all knew I was about to give one of them a gift, and the party a gift at the same time. Then, slowly, I pushed it towards Tobye. He grew visibly excited as soon as it was obvious I was giving it to him, but he waited until I lifted my hands before he grabbed it.

“For me?” he verified.

“Of course it’s for you,” Podedlam said. “Open it! What is it?”

He looked at me for permission. I nodded, and he went to work on the paper. Forsariel offered the trash bin, and he set the paper into it, then eyed the box.

“Should I check it for traps?” Podedlam asked with a grin.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I said. “You already checked for traps.”

“You should have done that before you jiggled the key!” Forsariel complained. Podedlam just grinned. She loved when I caught someone in a trap she should have detected, although I knew she’d have felt better if she’d thought to check for traps. Normally she would have, but it had been a long session, and it was nearly time to drive the kids home.

No sleepover this week.

Tobye opened the box, setting the lid aside. I’d trained the kids. I always included a note of some sort, and they were always to read the note first. This time, it was a single folded sheet of paper. On the outside, I had written, “Magical Tome.”

“Yes!” Tobye exclaimed. But he picked up the note and read it. I told him that I loved him very much, and then told him I was about his age when I’d first read this particular book.

He picked the book up and read the cover. “The Hobbit,” he said.

“I love that book!” Forsariel declared. “I think I’ve read mine seven times. You’re going to love it, Jake.”

“Tobye,” he said automatically. But he slipped from his chair and ran around the table to hug me. “Thank you, Aunt Kinsey!”

“You’re welcome, Jake,” I said. “And I think Tobye will enjoy learning about the tome. But there’s no time for that. If this goes on much longer tonight, the trolls and ogres will come looking, and I’ll be the one facing them.”

The kids laughed. I was youngest of three children, and smallest besides. They knew I was referring to my older brother and sister, or perhaps their spouses.

Tobye returned to his chair, and they all looked at me expectantly. “Well,” I said. “The elves aren’t waking up.”

“We can’t carry them,” Ismenia said. “What are we going to do?” None of them made any suggestions, so they turned to me.

“Maybe you should get ready to spend the night.”

“In the attic?”

“You can drag them down the stairs,” I said.

“You aren’t dragging my body down the stairs!” Chalsarda complained.

“Hush. You’re asleep,” Ismenia said. Then she sighed. “We’ll have to make a defensible position here.”

I let them plan for a minute or two but then said, “You get all settled in. The house is quiet. Maybe now is a good time to look at what else you got.”

They’d all been watching me, but their focus became far more intent. I’d just given them a really big clue they Had Something they hadn’t identified yet.

“Maybe it is,” Podedlam agreed. “I lay out everything we’ve found and ask Tobye to detect magic on all of it.”

“There’s a lot,” I said. “Do you care to prioritize?”

“Don’t bother with the coins,” she directed. “What do we have?” I had a list ready, and I ran through it. “Do the jewelry first.”

“The other books first,” Tobye said.

“And don’t skip the clothing,” Chalsarda said.

“You’re asleep!” Tobye, Ismenia, and Podedlam said together.

“Tobye starts with the books,” I said. “Start rolling dice. I’ll tell you when to stop.” He began rolling, slowly, letting me see the rolls. “Tobye finishes with the books and doesn’t find any magical ones beyond the one he already found.”

“Jewelry next,” Podedlam said. “Keep rolling, Tobye.”

The boy did. I let him roll three times before everyone froze as I turned to the side table. “Yes!” Podedlam said when I opened the drawer.

I smiled. “What was that last roll, Tobye?”

“A four.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“Keep rolling!” Podedlam said. “Come on, Tobye!”

The boy rolled again. “Seventeen.”

“Well, what do you know?” I said. “The rather colorful brooch tingles in your fingers.” And I pulled out the box and set it on the table, but I didn’t slide it to the intended recipient. Her character was, after all, sleeping.

They all stared at the box. It was Ismenia who asked, “What is it?”

I didn’t answer, but turned to look pointedly at Tobye. He’d been through this before. “I really concentrate on the jewelry.”

“It’s a brooch,” I said. “That’s like a pin you might wear here.” I gestured. “For a moment, you are lost to a vision. You see an arrow, and it’s gleaming.”

“My birthday present!” Chalsarda declared.

At that, I slid the present across the table to her. “Tobye realizes there is only one member of the party who will benefit from the magic, and he kneels beside Chalsarda and pins it to her tunic.”

“Do I have to wait to open it?” Chalsarda asked.

“No, Honey,” I said. “Open it now.”

She tore into it. Forsariel collected the paper. Chalsarda read the note then looked up at me. “I love you, too, Aunt Kinsey,” she declared. Then she opened the inner box and stared. “It’s beautiful.”

The gems were glass; it would be another two or three years before I would begin giving her or Forsariel real gems. But it was well-crafted and lovely.

“Put it on,” Forsariel said. “Let us see it.”

Chalsarda did just that, taking only a moment to figure out the clasp. Then she stared down at it for a minute before running around to hug me. “Thank you,” she whispered.

* * * *

The party settled in. It was exactly midnight – in game time, not by my clock – when the ghosts arrived. They were harmless, but the kids weren’t sure. Ismenia was ready to act, but she was always careful, and she held her magic in check.

“The ghosts wander, seemingly aimlessly,” I said. “You can barely see them, especially as they stray further from your lanterns.”

I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “But then one slips through the door, and this one is glowing.”

“I’m ready!” Ismenia declared.

“She appears to be the ghost of a woman,” I said. “As best you can tell, she was lovely, in life. The other ghosts all turn to watch her as she floats about the room, finally coming towards your party. She stops, looking at you. There’s something about her appearance that makes you feel she is very sad.”

“I bet she died horribly,” Forsariel said. No one reminded her she was asleep.

“Perhaps she did,” I said. “She paused for a minute then notices two of you are sleeping. She moves closer, crouching down.” I pause, but they were all enrapt. “She hovers over Forsariel for a moment, then reaches out with a ghostly hand to caress one pointy ear.” Forsariel lifted her hand to her own not-so-pointy ear. I managed not to smile.

“Then the ghost turns to Chalsarda, examining her carefully. She notices the brooch pinned in place and stops. That is when Podedlam realizes the ghost appears to be wearing the same pin.”

“Oh, oh,” Ismenia said. “Now we’ve made her mad!”

“She doesn’t appear mad,” I said. “Just… sad. She reaches for the brooch. Her hand passes through it. Then she turns her attention to Chalsarda’s face. She caresses the ear, just like she had for Forsariel. Then she leans closer, her mouth near Chalsarda’s ear.”

And with that, I slipped a note to Chalsarda.

The ghost whispers: you must find our bodies and free us from this torment. In daylight! It is not safe at night.

I waited for her to read the note and then said, “Chalsarda’s eyes open. She pauses a moment then turns her head to look at the ghost. You don’t feel any fear, only sadness.”

“What happened to them?” she asked.

I slip her another note.

Please help us. We implore you.

I don’t wait. “The ghost lifts away. She gestures, and all the other ghosts turn. She leads them to the doorway, and they pass through the closed door.” I smiled. “I’ll put everything away. Go use the bathroom and wash up so I can drive you home.”

“Not now!” Chalsarda declared. “We have to help the ghosts!”

“Next time,” I said.

“Next time,” Forsariel agreed. “Am I ever going to wake up?”

I smile. “Perhaps by morning.”