Little Toy Soldier

A group of young adults ran forward into the woods, along a dirt road. It was a dark blue, starry night, and a full moon loomed overhead. They panted and laughed, the lights they carried bobbed up and down, which gave the dark wood an inconsistent light. They gathered at a clearing. A large wooden house loomed tall on the other side, with a concrete paved bridge over a creek in front of it. The house was new, but dark from abandonment. One had ventured further than the rest, and came to the bridge first.

Yolanda, a college undergraduate, stomped her orange boot down onto the raised concrete guard‐rail of the bridge, as she stood like a captain against the bow of a ship. Her hair was long, and bright orange in contrast to her purple fur, all the clothes under the coat were bright orange as well. She lifted up a magnetic tape recorder, and clicked the record button. She smiled wide as she spoke, in a mock‐serious tone.

Good evening everyone, and welcome. she inhaled and pulled out a laminated sheet from out of her father’s oversized black trenchcoat, We now open this meeting… of the Paranormal Club. she read off the sheet, Lucid dreams, tulpas, ghouls, super powers, and psychic phenomena. Things the wider world of Neopia dismisses as fantasy. But we know better, that these things are real, ordinary, even. This is where us students of Brightvale University of Magic come to talk, learn, and experiment with the unknown. The date is the 2nd of Eating. We’re at the recently abandoned Wernicke house, on the lookout for… she lowered her head, and her voice, paranormal activity. Ooh hoo‐hooo.

More club members had caught up to her by the time she’d finished her introduction, seven in total. A Lupe with magenta fur, blue hair and dress, with a Brightvale college branded scarf around her neck. A Kacheek and a Lutari, both with green fur, who held hands as they walked. A white Shoyru with black hair, who wore a yellow and green dress, alongside a yellow Uni, with pink hair and a gaudy red dress & jacket. Two more students lagged behind all of them. Two girls, the first was a tall, grey Kyrii, with a clean black jacket, white undershirt, white face paint, and a groomed pompadour. The second was a muscled grey lupe with magenta eyes, long white hair, and a maroon suit jacket.

Hey, Yolanda gestured at the Shoyru, could you come over with that light?
She nodded and moved forward, as she held up the front of her dress with her other hand. The yellow Uni with pink hair walked forward as well.
The Xweetok turned to her then, Hey, Nora. You sure you wanna go in there?
The Uni, Nora, shrugged, I dunno. Got nuthin better to do tonight.

The green Kacheek stopped, then leaned over to catch her breath, and the green Lutari turned to look behind him. He walked over, and whispered something to her. She nodded, then pulled herself back up. They both smiled. The Uni had turned around to watch this. She scrunched up her brow and frowned, but moved her face away from them before they could see her expression.

Alright, Yolanda looked back at everyone, Everybody’s read…y…?

Her voice trailed off as she noticed a car’s headlights, up the drive they’d just run down moments before. It grew bright, as the car pulled up slow to the bridge. A black Romeo 2500. It crept up to the edge of the bridge, slowed to a stop behind the grey Lupe & the Kyrii, and its engine cut out. The headlights went out too, as the door opened.

A silver‐colored Kacheek stepped out, with long hair and dress of the same color. They slammed the door shut, huffed, and crossed their arms as they walked forward to the rest of the group. Their shoes made a metallic sound as they walked over the concrete.

Yolanda blinked and shook her head in disbelief, S— Susanna??
Yeah? the Kacheek raised an eyebrow, What?
I didn’t know you had a car!
They squinted at her, Why wouldn’t I?
I’ve never seen you drive!
So? I use it when I need to. You have any idea how much gas this thing eats up?
Yolanda shook her head, You mean to tell me, that we’ve been walking everywhere, when you had a car this whole time?
What, my car is now the whole club’s transportation all of a sudden?

The rest of the group looked at each other, then walked past them to the front of the house.

You are the vice president.
That doesn’t change anything! It’s my car! You want a car for the club, then you get your dad to buy you one.
You don’t think he’s got enough dirty police money for it?
Uhhhhg. Yolanda rolled her eyes, Why’d you even drive out here anyways?
For all you know? There’s somebody hiding in there, in that house, waiting to stab you. I don’t wanna have to run someone to the hospital on foot, this far away from the college.
Pffft. No one’s gonna stab us.
Mmm. Whatever. Susanna side‐eyed her as they walked past, towards the house.

Right! Yolanda turned to the rest of the group, Sorry about the uh, interruption, from Ms. Lloyd.
Susanna rolled their eyes, hard enough to make their head go in a circle, then turned away.
I guess y’all’re ready to go in?
Yeah! the green Kacheek & Lutari smiled and said together, while the rest nodded.

The heavy wooden door took a good shove to open. Moonlight came in through it, as Susanna stepped in first. They stared into the dark, pulled out a silver flashlight from under their jacket, and switched it on.

The whole house was made of dark varnished wood, polished brass, and dirty fabric. The darkness inside absorbed the light, like water that disappeared into parched soil, and the flashlight struggled to reveal anything more than three meters ahead of them. Susanna stepped forward, and the wood creaked under them. The white Shoyru followed, and held the lamp up high. The magical light helped, but only a little: the varnish of the wood and the shine of the brass was muted by a layer of dust, though at least the edges of the room were now visible. It was a large symmetrical room, a main hall which connected to several other rooms through halls, closed doors, and an ornate stairway to the second story in the center of the room.

With the source of light now inside, all the students came in from the night. Suzanna turned back, and switched their flashlight off. They looked over all of them, then cleared their throat.
Alright, you little gremlins. We go in, look around, and we get out. This happens in less than five minutes.
Yolanda raised her voice, What?? It’s gonna take way longer than that!
You heard me. And everyone stays together, unless I say otherwise. If somebody wants to split up, I’ll kick your ass personally, you understand?
The students nodded, but there were a couple giggles from them. Good. Good enough. they massaged their temples with one hand.

Yolanda rolled her eyes now, Anyway. then smiled at the rest of the club, Everybody try and get as much data as you can! The police have already been through here, so the only evidence left is gonna be paranormal.
Sure. Susanna said in a flat tone, Everybody know their roles? they pointed at the Lupe & Kyrii, Anna, Sam, you’ve got your thaumaturgy stuff?
The Lupe nodded without a word, turned around, and pointed to her back. There was a short purple‐stained wooden staff strapped to her back, in a leather holster. The Kyrii turned around too, but instead of a magical item, she’d strapped a baseball bat with nails driven through it.
That’s… Samantha that is not thaumaturgical equipment.
She smirked, but also said nothing.
Whatever. Nora, Christabel, you two have lighting taken care of?
The yellow Uni with pink hair silently stared at her, with crossed arms. The white Shoyru smiled, held the magical lantern higher, and nodded. Nora only stopped staring at Susanna to glance into the kitchen, and sniffed at something.
Good. they turned to the magenta colored Lupe with blue hair, Rose, camera?
Yep! she snapped a picture at her, and the flash made everyone wince.
Ow. God, warn me next time you point that thing at me, alright?
S— sorry. she lowered the camera.
You two. they rubbed their eyes, and turned to the Kacheek & the Lutari, Olivia? Rowan?
The two of them —who had been whispering something at each other— stopped and looked at her like they’d done something wrong.
You got the wards?
The Lutari looked behind him, then back to her, The what?
The salt? Sage? Chalk?
Oh! Yeah! Sorry, we do. they both nodded, as Olivia, the green Kacheek, held up and pointed at a metal Judge Hog lunchbox.
It’s all in there?

Yolanda frowned, What about me??
What about you?
Our club audio diary!
I’m recording to pick up EMF signals!
Those aren’t paranormal. Besides, that microphone can’t even pick that up anyway.
Yeah‐huh! I get some spirit voices on tape, and you’ll change your mind.
Sure. Good luck with that.

All of them busied themselves with the search. They looked under rugs, waved wands over the drapes, and inspected the statuettes and busts against the walls. Samantha made a mock gesture of swinging the baseball bat into one of the busts, and Anastasia giggled.

The only ones who hadn’t joined the search were Olivia and Rowan, who instead whispered and hugged each other in the corner. Nora stared at them with a frown, and looked away whenever she thought they would look at her. The Uni looked over to her sister.

Hey. Chrissy. I’ll uh… I’ll be back.
Nora she furrowed her brow, her whisper filled with worry, she said not to split up.
Don’t worry about it, I can take care of myself. It’s just an empty house.
Where are you going anyway?
The kitchen. I’m gonna see if they left any snacks or something.
You’re just gonna take their stuff?
They’re dead, what do they care? It’s not like they can eat it.
Mmmm. Be careful, then.
Yeah, I will. she nodded.

Nora walked, unhurried and casual as to not draw attention to herself. She turned a corner, and found herself in the kitchen. It was lit only by moonlight from the window to the outside, a cool bluish light covered the cramped room. The kitchen was long, more like a hallway than a room, with large bulky appliances from before the second war. Nora found a pair of flimsy wood pantry doors, and opened them up. There were nothing but canned goods.

Damn. she muttered. She picked up a can, looked it over, then turned around to face the window. Just green beans. The paper label crumbled with her touch, as though it’d been there for years. She brushed the paper and dust off her hand, and looked at the can again.

There was an orange light in the reflective metal. She blinked. It was the wrong color, and came from the wrong direction to have been from the magical lamp the group had. She turned around. There was a wooden door next to the pantry she hadn’t noticed before, unnaturally thin, and ajar. Orange light came from it. She narrowed her eyes, and walked forward. As she pulled it open, she could see that it was a door to the basement. An orange glow pulsed down below, and wooden stairs led down into it.

She went in, looked back, then closed the door behind her.

A white‐painted door pushed open, which made the rubber threshold seal creak. Rose walked through. She wore her heavy dark blue coat & carried a long, wide, & short paper box with one arm, and a burlap sack full of books in the other. It was sunset outside, and the near‐horizontal sunlight streamed in as she turned to close the door behind her.

Aah! Hey Rose! Yolanda waved over to her. She was dressed in casual clothes, the kinds of deep purples and bright oranges she always wore, with her jacket draped over the chair behind her. They all were in a large open‐plan living room, the only dividers being heavy furniture and a large weight‐bearing pillar in the center of the room.
Heyyy, sorry I’m late. Rose nodded, Had to talk to the workers at the amphitheatre.
Oh yeah? How’s that goin?
Not very well, to be honest. They’re taking their sweet time to fix up the place.
Mmh. Sorry. Wish I could’ve helped more in the investigation.
Oh, no no, don’t worry yourself about it. she smiled and shook her head, Although I do need your help with something.
Yes, my hands are a bit full, at the moment.
Oh! she got up from the stool, and the small dining table she leaned on, You should’ve said something sooner! Want me to grab the box?
Yes please, either‐or. Just uh, on the table there.
Mm. she nodded.

Rose sniffed the air as she closed the door behind her with her now free hand. She looked over at Christabel, who stirred a pot of something over the stove. Her once black hair greyed at the roots, her reading glasses fogged from the steam. Rose smiled and waved, but the Shoyru was too concentrated on the food.

What’re we cookin? she spoke to get her attention, and waved again after Christabel looked up.
The Shoyru grinned, We makin’ sketti.
Rose smiled wider, looked down to the floor, and chuckled with a shake of her head.
Yolanda set the box down on the table, and turned back towards her, What’d you bring?
Rose worked her coat off one arm, Oh, the box? It's baklava!
Ooh, fancy. Where’d you get that?
She’d taken her jacket off all the way, and hung it over her other arm as she slid her boots off, From the cafe in the historic district.
Which one?
Oh, I don’t remember what they’re called. Something‐or‐other’s. Kinda far away from the school, next to that fancy clothing store.

The crunchy sound of gravel under tires and the quiet squeak of worn brakes came from outside. Rose turned to look through the window inset in the door. Rowan’s dark green station wagon had pulled up, and he’d already gotten out by the time she’d turned around.

Rowan’s here. she turned and announced, then opened the door.
Ahh, lovely! Yolanda nodded, That’s everybody!

By the time Rose had stepped out onto the porch, Rowan had already opened up the back hatch of his car and pulled out a crock pot. It was wrapped closed with a bungee cord, with its electrical cord wrapped loose around it. As he raised one arm to close the back hatch, he stopped to wave at her, and she waved back.

Whatcha got there?
He smiled, as he walked up the single step from the gravel drive to the porch, Grape jelly cocktail meatballs.
Hmm. Sounds delicious! Rose pretended to find the description appetizing.
He saw through her act and laughed, Hey, come on now, don’t knock it ‘till you try it. This is my old man’s party standby.
Whatever you say.
Not kidding!
Alright! she chuckled, I’ll try one if it makes you happy.
It would. he grinned at her, as he walked past her into the house.

In the short span of time between her arrival, and his, the sun had already gone down past the buildings in the distance: modern Brightvale. Though she didn’t take a direct look at it, half of the sun was blocked by a skyscraper. The towers of Brightvale castle —and the university that surrounded it— were also visible from the high vantage point of Christabel’s front porch, though they looked tiny in comparison to the modern city.
Rose turned to go back inside.

As she stepped in, Yolanda had pulled out a clipboard, and started reading off of it: We now open… this meeting of the Alumni Potluck Club. Dig in, everybody.

Rose sat in one half of the large leather sofa against the wall, next to Christabel. In front of her on a low wooden table was a paper plate full of spaghetti, a paper bowl that contained a single meatball, and a plastic cup full of what used to be Achyfi on ice, now just extra diluted Achyfi. Yolanda leaned forward in one of Christabel’s chairs, over several sheets of paper, her own food, and folders full of notes. Rowan sat on one half of a two‐seater sofa as well, one that divided the living room and kitchen. The other half of the sofa was empty. In the center of all of them, on the same low table, was a large mat, detailed with a grid, little toy soldiers, and paper cut‐outs of buildings. The game designers had decided to mark the cardinal directions with four colors: black, white, red, and yellow. In front of Rose, was her character sheet.

There was a box, titled End of Magic and in smaller text below it, A post‐magic war strategy rpg. On the box was an illustration of a thief, caught in an attempt to steal a jewel from the eye of a large statue. Below the image, was the text, In association with the Augur Collective, and Products of the future, today written below that.

Yolanda spoke, her eyes shifted between them, as she raised & lowered her eyebrows with every word she put emphasis on: You all enter… the Den of the Depraved. Around you are the patrons of this promiscuous place. They eye you all suspiciously, as you walk in. It has yet to be determined if the rumours about this place are true.

Rose imagined what the place might look like in her mind’s eye. Judging from the paper cut‐out, it was five meters square. She thought of a dark, red‐tinged wooden room, filled with smoke, the people inside with beady eyes.

Yolanda continued, As you take in the atmosphere, the barkeep —a red kyrii with an eyepatch— leans over the counter. He raises the eyebrow over his good eye, and he says, suspiciously, Y’all need help with somethin?

Rowan spoke up, Wait, I’m sorry, out of character, he says y’all?
Uh. I guess uh. Whatever equivalent middle english has to y’all. Yolanda looked to Christabel, Does it have a word for y’all?
She nodded. Yeah, we did actually. We used ye to say that. Like uh, come back here ye bastards, she chuckled and raised her fist in mock anger, things like that.
Ahh, neat! Okay.
Rowan made an impressed face, shrugged, and nodded.
Alright. What do you do?

Rose cleared her throat, I would like for my character to address the owner of this establishment.
Alright, Yolanda nodded, Go ahead, roll for me.

Rose picked up a 20 sided die, and rolled it. After it made a satisfying noise from its roll on the table, it landed on a 15. She glanced down at her character sheet. Parnassus the Great, a white Lupe warrior‐poet from ancient Altador, had their highest stat in Charisma, second in Strength. The fact that Strength was listed before Charisma on the sheet, both out of alphabetical order and her own personal opinion of the attributes, annoyed her. Rose looked back up to Yolanda.

What am I rolling for? Deception? Intimidation? Perception? Detection? Is that a thing?
No no, none of that, just tell me what you rolled.
Oh. Uh, 15.
I see. Alright.

You see the barkeep nod his head, a little bit, as you approach. Because of your roll, you can tell that whatever you say next will go over well, unless, she held her finger up, it is a threat of violence. she put her hand back down, What does your character say to the barkeep?
I say… she thinks for a moment, Parnassus the Great says to the barkeep, I am Parnassus the Great: myself, and my fellow adventurers, are here to find the Dimensional Keystone, defeat the shapeshifter who seeks it as well, and claim the prize underneath the accursed castle.

Yolanda rolled her own dice behind a folder. Mm. I see. The barkeep knows about the castle you speak of, but does not know about the shapeshifter, or the keystone.
In a quick and abrupt motion, Christabel raised her hand.
Yolanda pointed at her with a pen, Yes?
Can I roll to see if he’s lying?
You can try, sure.

She rolled the instant Yolanda said can, and it came up as a 9. She looked up for confirmation, as she pointed at the die.
You are not able to discern any more information from his statement.
Can I roll to see if he’s the shapeshifter?
No, he’s not.
Well, my character doesn’t know that!
Alright, roll then.

She rolled again, this time a 19.
Yolanda saw the number from across the table. You are able to tell that his features, despite being unusual, are stable. He’s just a regular non‐shapeshifter person.
Christabel nodded, satisfied.

Alright…. she had to think for a moment, to remember what the situation was, Oh! Right. she turned to Rose, The barkeep says to you, Aye, I know of the accursed fortress you speak of, the old castle on the hill about a day’s ride from here. It’s said that a treasure hoard lies deep within its undercroft, alongside a magic box said to open upon completion of its riddle… or blood sacrifice. Whichever comes first. he laughs menacingly, It’s said that the castle is abandoned because someone managed to open the box… with dire consequences.

Rowan raised a claw, Ooh. That must be the keystone.
Rose nodded.
Rowan continued, I— my uh, Grognak the Indomitable says, he put on a deeper voice, like a cartoon character, Hrm, must be keystone! to Pornasus the Great—
Parnassus the Great. Rose frowned.
That’s what I said.
No, you s—
Christabel held her head in her hands, Do y’all have to say your character’s whole name and title every time they say anything?
Rose rolled her eyes, We’re being in‐character, it’s a performance. she said, then ate a plastic fork‐full of room temperature spaghetti.
Rowan cleared his throat, My character tells Rose’s character that they think it’s the keystone.
Alright, Yolanda said, You uh, do that. The barkeep directs you to a map, on the wall, by pointing at it, with a sharp claw. He says, This is a map, to the cursed castle. You may not take the map, but you can copy it down.
Christabel raised her hand again, What should we roll for that?
No, you— you just have it.
Oh, okay. she put her hand down.

Grognak, a yellow muscular Bori that stood 2⁠1⁄2 meters tall walked along a forest path, as Parnassus followed. Minedhel, a short green Mynci who wore goggles also followed. Every few steps, he would turn around to walk backwards, then turn around again. He held his black sword out in front of him, unsheathed, at all times. The sun shone high in the sky, which cast dark shadows in the trees around them.

Yolanda rolled a die, looked into the heavy book behind the divider between player and game master, and consulted a table. Sssshhhit. she whispered under her breath. Rose squinted as she saw this, but said nothing.

The trio of adventurers came within sight of the cursed castle as they walked over the crest of a hill. While Grognak looked up at the derelict structure, and Minedhel looked behind them, Parnassus watched the dirt path. A hooded figure stood in the road ahead of them.

Hark, friends, Parnassus pointed forward, I see a mysterious figure upon the road.

Christabel raised her eyebrows, My character whips around to look at the fiend.
We don’t know who they are yet, Rowan chuckled, it’s probably just a highway robber.

Minedhel whips around, and leans forward as he walks. He squints to get a closer look.

Uhhh thirteen. Christabel looked up from her die.
Mm. Sorry, not high enough. Yolanda shook her head, You aren’t able to see underneath the cloak.

Minedhel frowns and brings his sword closer to his chest. They all draw closer, and stop. Parnassus raises their hand, and their voice: Hail fellow traveler.
The cloaked figure only bows their head, but does not move aside.
Do you have business with us?
The figure nodded, as Yolanda flipped around the pages in the large book behind the divider.

How big are they? Christabel asked.
Oh, uh… about… medium sized, I suppose. she said as she flipped further towards the back of the book. Ahh. There is it. Yolanda read the description for a moment, then nodded to herself. Fuckin hell…. Alright. The hooded figure speaks: their voice is soft, almost a whisper, but of greater volume than would be expected of someone their size. What do you seek? is all they ask.

The three all looked at each other.
Whaddo we say? Rowan whispered at Rose.
She shrugged, Uhh… we should… probably choose our words carefully.
Alright. I guess that means you, then.
Rose nodded.

Good day to you. I am Parnassus the Great. We seek…

Roll please.
Oh! Yes, of course. Rose rolled one of her blue & magenta colored dice. It came up 17.
Your next sentence will not likely provoke violence, even if you threaten it yourself.
Hmm. I see.

Good day to you, I’m Parnassus the Great, and these are my companions. We seek to… Rose thought for a moment, We seek to end the misuse of a… certain magical artifact.

Yolanda cleared her throat: They say: You wish to use the Dimensional Keystone?
No, no, Parnassus shook their head, we wish to hide it away, before a foul shapeshifter can use it.
I too, seek the ghoul you speak of. But none of you are worthy of the Keystone.

Christabel picks up her dice in anticipation, as Minedhel tenses up, his drawn sword even closer to his body.
Parnassus ignores this, Are you a keeper of the Keystone?
It is my duty to do this, what all of you have set out to accomplish. You should leave this place; allow me and my kin to stop the shifter ourselves. You are not prepared to face them, for they have stolen powerful thaumaturgy, and the magic of this world is dead.

Rowan leaned over, Hey, does that imply that they have magic?
Rose glanced over Who?
The one in the cloak.
Oh. That’s a good point.

Does this mean that you have thaumaturgy to fight them with? Parnassus asked.
It is none of your concern. Turn back now, adventurers, or else, I will be forced to test your might.

I knew it! Christabel whispered and smiled wide.

Only once you have proven yourself worthy, that you can withstand this power, will I allow you to join our chase, to bury the keystone.

I draw my weapon! Christabel leaned forward.
Your character has been holding it out in front of them for the past hour or so. Yolanda chided her.
Well, then I ready my weapon.
We’re not in combat yet, hold on.
Okay I run up and stab ‘em!
Wh— a— are you serious?
Absolutely! I wanna see what they do! It’s a test, right?

Yolanda massaged her brow and inhaled deep. Sure. Okay. You charge at the Cen— the, the hooded figure she corrected herself mid‐sentence. She picked up a die, then cleared her throat. Alright. Everyone, roll for turn order.

The figure could have moved first, but did nothing. Minedhel dashed forward. He thrust his sword ahead of him, and into the cloak of the hooded figure. His blade went deep into the center of the robe, but it felt like he’d stabbed water, something liquid or insubstantial. The figure stepped aside, and the cloth of the robe flowed over and around the blade. There was nothing on it but a faint green residue.

Both Parnassus and Grognak braced themselves for a counter‐attack. A bright green hand lifted out from the robe, the first time any of them had seen the figure’s body. It was transparent and reflective, like some kind of gem. Their fingers splayed out, and pointed towards Minedhel. There was a red flash, as a fancy purple pillow materialized from a hole in space, and flung itself toward the Mynci at high speed. He recoiled from surprise, but wasn’t fast enough, and it hit his face, stuck to it. He fell over, asleep.

That’s what the spell does.
I don’t even get a roll for it??
You roll to dodge the spell, but if it hits you, you just fall asleep, sorry.
That’s bullshit.
That’s what it says in the book.
Alright, whatever. Christabel rolled her eyes.

Parnassus and Grognak both leapt forward. Grognak raised his warhammer, and slung it back down and to the side, diagonally through the shoulders and chest. He’d gotten there before Parnassus, and they watched as the hammer crushed the figure without resistance. Green slime spilled out, as the robe was torn aside. By the time that Grognak had steadied himself, and Parnassus had caught up to him, the formerly robed one before them had begun to reform. They were a bright green Kacheek, or at least shaped like one. Instead of flesh and bone, they were made from some other material, and otherwise naked. Both of them were stunned by this, and were unable to react as the figure reformed. They lifted their hand again, and a spectral cuff on a chain appeared once again faster than could be dodged. It clamped down on Grognak, then Parnassus moments later, and both were pushed down onto the ground.

The fight ended, as the figure retrieved their cloak. The pillow on Minedhel’s face evaporated, as they woke up enchained as well.

Uhh…. Christabel looked up from the paper plate of baklava she’d gotten for herself, Are we… dead now?
No. Yolanda shook her head. Just incapacitated.

What are you waiting for…. Minedhel struggled against the chains, heavier than any metal from the physical plane, You could kill us, but do not?
The figure put their robe back on, but left their face uncovered. Their expression was severe and humorless as they spoke again in their whispered voice: It was only a test, I hope you recall. A test, it seems, you all have failed.
Minedhel interrupted, Because magic is bullshit.
Of course. Your enemy will not fight fair, nor fight with any honor. You must be prepared for trickery.
Parnassus cleared their throat, then spoke too, Who are you, then? And secondly, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you?

The figure turned to answer, but paused a moment, to measure what they should tell them.

Yolanda cursed as she flipped through the manual, as she’d forgotten to write down their name. She let out a small sigh as she found the NPC’s page again.

I am Karsandvtar. For now, I am your ally. To you, I am an emissary —and demon servant— of The Hunger, the Sylph of Void.
That… does not sound like someone who would be our ally.
And yet, we are.
The Lupe paused, as they thought of another question, What are you made out of?
A material fit for service to The Hunger. they raised their hand in front of them, Currently— green apple jelly.
That…. Parnassus chuckled and shook their head, Where are you from, some kind of jelly world? That is impossible.
The rules that govern your world have no sway in the outer planes, where the world can be whatever our masters decide it to be. And that is also why I cannot stay here for much longer.
The shackles that held them all down dematerialized. Minedhel was the first to stand up, and they drew their sword.

I stab them again! Christabel grinned from across the room, as she served herself another helping of spaghetti.
No!! Rose exclaimed, That would be funny, but no. It took us all out, we want it— we want to be on it’s good side.
It’s a demon, Rose.
And we’re still alive.
Rowan shrugged, Maybe it’s a good demon?
I’ve yet to meet one. Christabel chuckled.

Anyway. Karsandvtar cleared their artificial throat, I cannot remain here much longer. You are free to do as you wish, but know that you are not yet ready to face the ghoul, as you are now. Return here, but with greater strength, and greater knowledge.

I lick my sword.
Rose pulled her head back in surprise, What??
Christabelle explained, I wanna know if they were telling the truth or not!
Yolanda’s face scrunched up, Th— they’re telling the truth. You don’t have to… don’t, she shook her head, …don’t lick the sword.
Fine, fine.
She flipped her manual closed, And with that, Car‧sand‧vuh‧tar suddenly disappears, in a flash of orange light!
Christabel snorted, I could’ve taken ‘em.
Well, you were asleep, so don’t worry about it.
Whew, can’t believe we’re done.
Rowan looked up from his character sheet, Hm? Wait, what? We are? Completely?
For the day, yeah. I’m exhausted, and I had to try… really hard… to find some spells, that it knew, that wouldn’t uh, kill all of you instantly. I don’t think you even wanna know what the hit dice on that thing was.
Sure, but exhausted? It’s only like, what, eight?
It’s past 23.
Oh. he smiled and looked around at the lack of windows, Heh. Shit.
Yeah. Yolanda smiled too, and let her brow rest on her right hand. We got kinda carried away. I hope you guys had fun!
We did!
Rose nodded, as she folded her things into a binder labeled for this particular game, Indeed! If not for the hour, and your patience, I would continue.
Yolanda chuckled, Good, that’s good to know. Glad you all had a good time.
Not enough stabbing. Christabel said through a mouthful of spaghetti.

Rose stood outside. She looked out to the west, in the same direction she’d done before hours earlier, at the city of Brightvale. The lights of the dark towers might have blended together with the stars in the sky, she imagined, if the glow of the inner city didn’t make those stars so hard to see. The moon too, a waning crescent, also made the stars less visible with it's soft glow.

Rowan, pot in tow, walked up behind her from inside the house. He stood next to her on the porch, with the stairs down to the driveway between them.
Whatcha lookin at?
Nothing, really. I’m beginning to feel tired, now that I’ve fully internalized how late it actually is.
Heh. Yeah. he set the container of meatballs onto the wood rail.
Don’t particularly feel like driving at midnight, but it is what it is.
Same here. Last time I drove around this late, I swear, I see weird shit in the woods.
Oh? she turned to him, Do you?
Well. I don’t wanna to sound like a wacko or anything.
Don’t worry. I don’t believe in that sort of thing anymore. But it’ll keep me awake until I get home.
Heh. It’s definitely like, some kind of… sleep‐hallucination or something to that effect. But I swear, I think I see some… he tried to gesture with his hands, and held the pot with his elbows, spindly, horned thing on the sides of the road, sometimes. Like the trees, tree branches, makin’ weird shapes, or somethin’.
Mm. Something I wouldn’t want to think about at this hour.
Yeah. Love spooky stuff, but like, not when it’s happening to me. Oh, also, unrelated… you thought I wouldn’t notice the meatball?
You threw away the meatball!
Oh! Oh. she chuckled, and turned away to smile, I was hoping you wouldn’t.
Well, it was probably cold at that point, anyway. I wouldn’t’ve wanted you to eat it like that.
She nodded.
Which is why… he smiled and lifted the lid off the pot, I want you to try one of ‘em now.
Oh, no, please. she chortled and shook her head, I couldn’t possibly.
I insist! Like, just once, you know. If you hate it, I promise, I won’t make you eat anything I ever cook ever again.
Alright, alright, good lord. she laughed, I’ll eat one.

He lifted a single meatball out, with a plastic serving spoon that was also contained inside the pot. It was too dark to make out any detail on the meatball, except that it was glossy from the sauce, and still warm enough to steam in the midnight air. Rose took it off the serving spoon between her thumb and one finger, held sufficient distance from her fur with her claws, and her pinky finger pointed out from habit. She winced as she popped it into her mouth.

Oh. she chewed on it for a few seconds, Holy shit.
Rowan gave her an expectant look, and raised his eyebrows.
This is really good.
Ha!! Rowan laughed, I knew you would like it!
Mm. Rose put the claws that touched the meatball into her mouth one at a time to get the sauce off, before she could touch anything else with them, Like… from your description… these have no right to taste good, at all.
Hey, what can I say. It’s from my old man, it works.
She chuckled, I feel bad now, honestly. then smiled wider, I’m sorry I doubted the meatballs.
Yeah! It’s okay! Don’t worry about it, I can make more.

They both stood in silence for a moment, before Rowan glanced over at her: So… the uh, like, demon that we fought, right?
The uh… apple jelly person?
What about them?
That was kinda… that was kinda weird, right?
Rose snorted and grinned.
Like, I’m not the only one, right? Naked and with like, chains and stuff?
Yeah, that was uh… pretty out there, now that I think about it. she looked out from the porch, Hadn’t really thought about it while were getting attacked.
Like, I mean, if that’s the direction Yolanda wants to take the story in, that’s fine with me, but uh.
Well, Rose turned to him again, she was clearly reading it out of the book, this wasn’t some weird thing she decided to do.
True, but… still.
I suppose the blame rests on whoever designed the campaign, or the monsters. Or both.
Rowan chuckled, Somebody havin’ a bit too much fun at the Augy Collection or whoever those guys are called.
Well, maybe next time we run into it, you can give it some pants to put on.
Heh. he grinned, Nah.

He sniffed, then looked out at the city, where her gaze had been. Well. I gotta go.
Right, right. As do I.
I’ll see you again next time!
Of course! I don’t know what I’ll bring, but I’ll think of something. Just some old fashioned custard, maybe.
Tomorrow night, right? Or would that be tonight?
Yes, uh, one of those. I dunno how to feel about that, honestly, I think I might just pass out. If I had work, I wouldn’t even consider it.
Yeah. Are we skipping next Sunday then?
Oh, damn. When she said we’d make up for lost time, she was serious wasn’t she?
Yep. Here, too.
Here? Oh, not at Yolanda’s?
Nah, Christabel volunteered for both.
I see. Goodness. he picked up his pot of meatballs, Well. I can’t stand around all night. I gotta get this in the car or I’ll start eating what’s left of them right here.
She chuckled, then nodded, Have a safe trip.
You too! he waved, as he walked down the stairs.

The sun was high in the cloudless cyan sky, in contrast to the brown and red textured brick around her. Rose passed a tailor’s, as she walked down the road. The newer buildings she walked alongside had a red and brown color scheme, different from the older structures in Historic Brightvale, which were pastel shades of green and brown painted brick. One could see, down the road, where the border was between Historic and modern, as metal and concrete took over from brick, wood, and stone. Flowers and vines in pots hung from the windows and awnings of businesses, passersby and the wind made them sway back and forth. The sidewalk was very crowded; there was no road for vehicular travel here, so the shops and other businesses were much closer together on both sides of the road.

Rose’s eyes were unfocused, as she looked ahead through the crowd of people. Someone in particular caught her eyes, though, and she began to pay attention again. They were a Uni: from what she could see from behind, they had long white hair with pink highlights, yellow fur of a strange texture, and wore red & gold, with a fluffy white vest over everything else. Something about them seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

The Uni turned their head, to look to the side. Rose blinked. Their face reminded her of someone, but it couldn’t have been who she thought it was. The Uni looked to the right, now. They acted as if they were being watched, or followed, which Rose found very disconcerting. The Uni turned around then, her face in view. Rose recognized it, and shook her head in surprise.

N… Nora??

The yellow Uni stopped in her tracks and turned her eyes to look at Rose, wide with fear. Oh no. Oh god. Oh fuck. she mumbled.
Ohh my god! Is that… is that really you?? Rose walked towards her, a bounce in her step that was absent before. The other people who walked parted to go around them.
I. Uhm. Well—
You’re alive! her arms rose to hug her, but hesitated after seeing the fear in her eyes, You… are you alright?
Yeah! Nora said louder than she meant to, Yes. then cleared her throat, Yeah, I’m uh. Fine.
You… don’t look fine. I… we… where have you been?
Uhm. she looked around, to the side and on the ground, as if the answer would appear written on a dropped business card or discarded shopping list, Out… of… state. Out of state. Somewhere else.
Hey, hey, don’t worry. she put a hand on her shoulder. There was more give to her, less substantial than she remembered, If you don’t wanna talk about it, right now, then you don’t have to.
Nora relaxed a little bit, and her shoulders moved down from their tense position, Thank god… look, listen, I uh. I need to get out of here.
…What’s wrong? Are you… in danger?
N— no! she raised her eyebrows, Uh, no. Just uhm… can we go to, like, a… mm. Private place?
Sure…? Yeah, there’s a uh, a cafe just a couple blocks from here that I was going to. It’s pretty quiet. Do you wanna talk in there? Rose gestured with her snout, to the other side of the street and farther along.
Right. she glanced in that direction, Sure.

They both sat down at a small wooden table, with two glasses of ice water. The inside of the cafe was dark, despite the light that came in from the windows. Dark polished wood of both floors and furniture absorbed most of the light that hit them, and the orange walls were draped with ornamental carpets and paintings from Altador and Qasala. Nora looked cold & uneasy, and this made Rose uneasy too.

Did you want anything from here?
What do they have?
Mostly bread and sweets.
Mm. No. I don’t even wanna think about sweets right now. Unless they have custard. Thank you for asking though.

Rose paused, and looked around, back to the door, and then to the Uni again.
So… are you… okay?
Huh? Oh, uh. Yeah.
Do you need help with anything? You look terrified.
Oh. she gave Rose a side‐eye glance, Is it that obvious?
Unfortunately, yes. You look like someone was chasing you.
She sighed, and closed her eyes.
Like I said, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to but….
Good. Sorry, I gotta… keep that private.
Right, understandable…. Just wanna make sure you’re alright.
This is the first time I’ve seen you in… gods, years!
She chuckled through her nose, Hmh. Yeah.
So out of state? Where did you go, to Meridell with your parents?
Isn’t that where they live?
Oh. No, they uh… they lived here, in Brightvale, with their new kid they had, Sextant or something, whatever the hell his name was. At least as far as I know. I dunno, they may have moved, or died, or something.
I’ve been gone a long time.
I know, but you didn’t keep in touch?

Nora took a long sip of the ice water, and looked to the side.

Well. Rose tried to ignore how suspicious Nora acted, and changed the subject: I’m glad you’re alright! Everybody thought you’d gotten hurt, or drug off or something! We’ve gotta get ahold of your sister!
W— wait… what does Chrissy… Nora grabbed Rose’s arm, What does she… think of me?
What are you talking about? she tilted her head, She… we all had no idea you were alive! She’ll be ecstatic!
None of you… hate me?
What?? No! Why would we?
Nora blinked. I… I see. That’s… good. So… she thinks I’m a good person?
Of course!
Then… then uh. I dunno. Maybe I’ll talk to her later. Not right now.

Nora looked away, and Rose frowned. Something’s very wrong. she couldn’t help but think to herself, Why is she acting like this?

Rose put her smile back on as Nora turned her head back.
So, uh… the Uni’s eyes looked down into her ice water, What’s… goin’ on with you? What’s your life like now?
Ah! I’m an actor now. Theatre.
What happened to being a photographer? I thought that was like, your dream, or something.
It… it’s still a… thing. she lied, Just more of a… hobby, now.
Right… So how’s everyone else been?
Like, who, your parents?
Mm. More like… you know. The squad. she chuckled as she smiled for the first time since Rose saw her, All the old members of the club.
Ohh. N… not all that intact, honestly. It broke up after, Olivia, well… and then you went missing, and it was just kind of a mess.
We… have an alumni potluck club, now! Though a lot of the old members… they’re not around anymore.
That’s a shame.
Yeah. Yolanda, the president, she’s a cop now.
Heh. Should’ve known. Nora grinned.
Well, I should say a detective. She doesn’t get along with a lot of the people on the force, though she hasn’t told me much about it. Something about… most of them being a bunch of violent weirdos.
That sounds about right.
Rose chuckled, Susanna, the old vice president, she kind of uhm… disappeared, off the face of the planet. Nobody knows where she is now, kinda like you, until just now. Anastasia, she uh, got hired by… I think the government? Or Neopia Central, or some agency, or something. Doesn’t have time to say hello, generally, although I’ve seen her around. Samantha, Anna’s girlfriend, she uh… died. In a motorcycle accident.
Oh. Nora raised her eyebrows, Damn.
Yeah. Anna was… messed up about it for a long time. She was there when it happened, apparently. About a month after the Paranormal Club broke up. Both Sammy and her brother Paul, died at the same time.
Paul, the uh… the quiet kid? The skinny Gelert with the jacket?
Damn…. That’s brutal. I’m so sorry.
Mmh. And, well, I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened to Olivia.

Nora didn’t move, but there was a panicked look in her eyes. Rose pretended she didn’t notice that, and continued, Were you around for that? I don’t remember when you left.
Yeah, I uh… heard about that. I really don’t wanna think about it.
Ahh. Sorry, I can imagine. I still don’t know if Rowan is completely over it.
Oh? How’s he been doin?
Good! Good. He’s the head Yooyuball coach for Brightvale University now.
Wow, really? she raised her eyebrows.
And a good cook, apparently! Hahaha.
Mm. That’s good to know.

Nora looked like she’d begun to relax, but Rose couldn’t do the same. Nora’s fur looked more wrong the longer she looked at it. It was too smooth, artificial, and shiny. Nora looked up from her ice water and Rose put on an unassuming expression.

You can’t tell anyone I’ve come back.
No? Are you… planning on making it a surprise?
No… not really. I didn’t even plan on running into you. No offense.
None taken.
I didn’t realize everyone would still be in Brightvale.
This… may sound a bit extreme but… have you thought about moving recently?
Rose blinked, N… no? No, I haven’t, why?
I just uh… I’ve got uh… a bad feeling. Something bad is about to happen soon. Though I can’t really explain why. If you wanted to leave Brightvale for a while. If uh… all of you guys were planning on moving, at some point… I think now would be a good time.

Rose wasn’t sure what to say to that, and she stared at her. The other stared back.

Okay… look. Rose shook her head, I’ve been trying not to pry… too deeply—
I know. Nora scrunched up her face.
—but I can tell something is wrong. Very wrong. I know you may not want my help, but I can’t do anything unless—
Fine, fine.

Nora put her hand to her head, and drug it down. There was an unusual amount of give to her face, Rose noticed, like her skin wasn’t entirely attached to her skull. Rose pretended not to notice this, also.

There are people after me.
What?? she lowered her voice to a whisper.
Not just one or two people, like, several groups of people. At least three.
W— why??
I can’t…. she sighed and looked down, I can’t tell you. Or else you’d be in danger, too. They all want me for different reasons. I’ve just got this… spectacular ability to piss people off, apparently.
D— do you need somewhere to stay?
Well. Maybe. But like, not at your house or anything. I don’t want you getting… all mixed up in this shit or whatever.
No no, I insist! If you have nowhere to go, I can let you stay there, if you need it

Nora looked down. Ashamed, or perhaps guilty, Rose thought. She laid her hand down on Nora’s arm, and she looked back up.
Don’t worry. Rose smiled, Whatever is going on… I’ll try to help you. It’s gonna be okay.
Nora stared back with a blank expression, Thank you. I’m sorry.

A light‐colored wooden door unlocked. It opened up, and Rose walked in from the now cloudy afternoon outside. Nora followed with caution, and looked around the hall. The foyer was cramped: it contained a long coat‐rack by the entrance, a painted metal door to the garage on the immediate right. Then doorways to the left & right into the kitchen and living room, a stairway up to the second floor, then continued on to two more left & right doorways, and finally a door to the back porch of the house. The only decorations in the foyer were several framed pictures, most of them either famous locations, blue roses, or æsthetically pleasing shots of the sky. They both stepped over a half‐circle doormat, and Nora closed the door behind them, as Rose put away her blue jacket on the rack.

Well… she turned around, straightened her turtleneck sweater, then made a sweeping gesture with her hands, welcome my humble abode.
Mm. This is nice. I guess being a professor pays well enough?
Uh, well. Not exactly. she chuckled, But I manage. she turned to her left, Nora’s right, and into the kitchen, Do you want me to make you anything?
Only if you want to. Nora followed, and stood in the threshold between the foyer & kitchen, I’m not that hungry.
Alright. Rose walked to the island counter, a light‐colored wooden structure topped with black granite, I’m making custard for the potluck, if you’re in the mood for some of that.

Nora narrowed her eyes. Making it out of what?
Rose saw the strange look Nora gave her when she mentioned custard, and paused, Uh… milk? Sugar? Eggs? Why?
Oh. Good. she relaxed a bit, That’s… alright. Thank you. I think I’ll uh… just go straight to bed.
A— alright. Are you sure? she leaned against the refrigerator, The sun is still up.
I’ve had a uh… long day. Long few weeks, honestly. I hope I’m not a bother.
No, don’t worry. The uh, guest bedroom is at the end of the hall, just take a right, then a left.
Mm. Nora nodded, Thanks.

She excused herself, and disappeared past the doorway. Rose followed the sound of her steps with her head, then turned away to look into the black granite of the countertop. I know something’s wrong, but she hasn’t done anything wrong yet…. Am I just being paranoid? She sighed to herself, then turned to open the refrigerator.

Rose huffed, as she carried a heavy pot of custard with one arm, and opened the door with the other. Yolanda looked up from the table, her notes, and smiled.

Hi, Rose panted, How are ya?
I’m good! You need help with that?
If you would be so kind, oof.

Yolanda pulled herself up, and fast‐walked over to her, and took the large pot from her arm.
Thank you.
No problem!
Sorry I’m late, that took so much longer to make than I expected it to.
What is it?
Oh, custard, just plain vanilla.
Ooh, sounds nice.
Rose looked around, as she took her jacket off. Hey… where is everyone?
Oh, in the back. Rowan is grilling some burger patties before it rains on us.
Ah, heheh, I see. I was wondering what that lovely smell was. she chuckled.

Yolanda went to set the custard down on the kitchen table, and go join them in the back. Rose quickened her pace.
Hey, wait.
Hm? the Xweetok turned, Yeah?
I… I know this is… kind of a strange thing to ask of you….
She tilted her head, Oh? What is it?
I… wanted to ask something related to your job, since you are… you know, adjacent, to the police force.
Heheh, something like that. Sure! Ask away.
Well… Rose looked to the side, Have you ever… gotten the chance to look at the files for uhm… Olivia?

Yolanda blinked. Olivia…. Wait… Olivia Gardner? The girl from our old club?
Mmhm. Rose nodded.
I… no, I uh, haven’t. I hadn’t really thought to.
Yeah. I… haven’t thought about that mess in years. Really haven’t wanted to, honestly
Same here, until recently.

Yolanda put her hands on her hips, Why do you ask?
Well… I’ve got… a hunch. An obvious answer, staring at me in the face, but… she sighed, I don’t wanna to believe it. Or at least, I don’t wanna jump to conclusions.
That’s… not something I expected to hear. But alright. What exactly do you need to know?
I’m not sure yet. I’ve never… done anything like what you do, before.
Could you look into it for me? If you have the time?
Yolanda made a tch sound with her cheek, Mmm, I dunno about that.
Rose looked disappointed, Oh… why not?
Time, that’s the issue. Everybody on the force is trying to track down the Ophiuchus Killer, when they’re not doing their rounds. Me included. If not for my days off, I wouldn’t even be running this game.
Sorry to disappoint. I would consider letting you look at it, were that not extremely illegal.
Rose let out a light chuckle, and looked to the side, Right.
But yeah. I’ll see if I can look over it, sometime. You’ve got me a little curious now. What was that lead you had?
Oh, I uhm. she put her hands behind her, Like I said, I… don’t want to jump to conclusions. It’s just a silly thing, really.
Mm. Well, if I find anything that sticks out to me, I’ll give you a holler.
Oh you would??
Yolanda nodded.
Oh thank you, you’re a saint.
Ahhh it’s nuthin’. Assuming I can find the time away from my boss. You’ll have to excuse me, though. I’m starving, and there’s a burger waiting for me.
Rose nodded, smiled, and followed her to the back porch.

The game had begun. They all had their character sheets, dice, plates of food, and drink. The sun had gone down, and the smell of the grill had faded away in the wind. The walls were thick enough to muffle the chatter from the inside, and the sound of Rose’s car door open and close from the outside.

Nora stood outside, invisible in the dark. She took a long look at Christabel through the window, and sighed. She turned her gaze to Rowan. He smiled and laughed, at something she couldn’t hear. She glanced at the empty seat next to him, then back to his face.

She continued to stand there, as rain began to pour down.