Beyond the Screen Chapter 2

Beyond the Screen Chapter 2
By Dr. Bender

Before our intrepid adventurers enter the DnD world, they must face a test of might and mettle without a rulebook to guide them.

Beyond the Screen
By Dr. Bender

Chapter 2

The next thing we knew, we were falling. My feet hit the ground after only a few feet but, being unprepared for the impact, I face faulted into the hard, cold, dusty, stone floor. We coughed, hacked, writhed and groaned on the floor amidst billowing clouds of dust for a few minutes as our brains adjusted to the teleportation induced vertigo. The first to recover, I hauled myself onto my knees, checking out the room as I did.

We were lying in a dungeon room; that much was obvious. Brickwork reminiscent of medieval castles decorated the walls, floor and ceiling, vaulted to prevent the roof from caving in on us. It was a circular room with a single exit, the centre dominated by a wide pedestal atop which rested a variety of unusual objects the precise nature of which I couldn’t account for from my position on the floor. The pedestal, however, was decorated with embossed silver dragons and engraved Celtic knotwork. Curious, I picked myself up and took a few trembling steps forward.

Atop the pedestal sat a silver bowl engraved with a pentagram, the tips of which touched the rim. Sitting inside were five translucent crystal balls, each occupying one of the triangular points of the star. Beside the bowl sat an honest-to-gods scroll, yellowed and brittle with extreme age.

“Hey,” Ryan croaked at me, “a little help here?”

Nodding, I gave him a hand up and a pat on his shoulder, noticing that Daniel was doing the same for the others. Jason was immediately drawn to one of the iron lanterns that hung from a hook on the wall, literally oooh-ing and aaah-ing as he stared into the light from different angles. “It’s a Continual Light spell on a stone,” he informed us, “this is so fucking awesome!”

“All right, Elminster,” Thomas quipped, rubbing his head where he’d hit it on the floor, “care to inspect the pedestal for traps while you’re at it?”

Rolling my eyes, I circumvented the next few hours of possible indecision by picking up the scroll, causing a chorus of shocked shouts and gasps. “Dude!” Daniel admonished me, pale as a sheet. “You don’t just grab shit like that!”

“Anyone here have any ranks in Disable Device?” I asked, looking at all of them. My group shared a confused glance at each other in reply, giving me nothing more than a noncommittal shrug. “I didn’t think so,” I confirmed, opening the scroll as I spoke, “but look. The walls aren’t crushing us, there’s no pit traps and I haven’t keeled over from contact poison. I just saved us several eons of agonized indecision.”

Ryan chuckled, wiping his sweaty brow. “I see what you mean, was he really this bad at GenCon?”

“No,” Thomas muttered so that he thought I couldn’t hear, “that was nothing compared to GenCon.”

“Welcome to the DnD world,” I read from the scroll, partly to conceal the evil smile of satisfaction that was threatening to betray my joy at their despair, “in this bowl, thou shalt find the crucible of your transmogrification. Before you may leave the Tower of Testing, you must carry these crystal balls through three trials. How you act, approach, solve, succeed or fail these trials will determine who you will become before you face the wider world. Your new history will be written, along with new memories, skills, abilities and even bodies; though you will always remember your true origin. Take up yon crystals and bring the fight to the myriad forces of evil. Yours sincerely, Xagyg. Well, that explains things a little.”

I mused on the name written at the bottom of the page. Xagyg was one of the many alter-egos of one of the creators of DnD, a legend amongst gamers in his own time, the man who created an industry. By the lore, an eccentric mage powerful enough to build an artefact that could steal Godhood. Comparably, pulling a group of players into the fictional world of the game was child’s play.

Jason picked up one of the crystal balls and started waving it around. “Transform! By the Power of Greyskull! Pikachu, I choose you!”

“Gotta do the trials first, dumbass,” Daniel muttered as he took up his own crystal.

“I dunno about this,” Ryan admitted as he looked at the room with his crystal in front of one eye, the other squeezed shut, “the magic items the party got in the cartoon show were cooler.”

“Kid,” Thomas groaned as he picked up his crystal, “Tiamat’s probably still passing those through her digestive system. I don’t care so much as long as I don’t get the power of Heart. Seriously, what sort of lame ass power is Heart?”

Rolling my eyes, I picked up the crystal without a word and, since nobody seemed interested in the scroll, I tucked it under my arm as well. “So, I got the scroll, who’s trying the door?”

“No guts, no glory,” Daniel sighed, stepping up, “I’ll do it. Ryan, behind me, we’ll go through first; then Jason and Daniel on the other side and James behind them.”

I raised one eyebrow. “Why am I taking up the rear?”

“Age before beauty,” Daniel said with a wink.

Parties often adopt a standard operating procedure for opening doors during dungeon runs. You can never be too sure whether the next room is empty or if you’re about to run into the jaws of a Red Dragon, so it pays to have a plan. Daniel listened at the door for a moment before turning the handle and opening it as quietly as possible. Fortunately, it wasn’t locked and the hinges were oiled and quiet. “Clear hallway, another door at the end of the hall about ten feet along,” Daniel reported with some relief after taking a peek, “I’m moving to the next door, same party order, keep the noise down.”

We moved lightly, still dressed in sneakers, dirty t-shirts and trousers. My mind wandered, thanking whoever had built the place that it was warm enough that we didn’t need jackets. I’d just fallen into place behind Daniel when the door behind us slammed shut.

“Oh…” I only got half the oath out before the wrenching feeling of teleportation vertigo hit me like a sledgehammer.

#

Daniel emerged from a glowing silver portal as if a bouncer had shoved him roughly out of a nightclub, stumbling a few feet before he regained his balance. He couldn’t tell how big the room he found himself in was, a thick mist obscuring everything around him. Shadowy pillars loomed on all sides, the diffuse light not strong enough to properly illuminate anything but the fog that surrounded him. Aware that he was all alone, he stopped for a moment and listened, trying to make out any clue of where he should go next.

That was when he heard the feint cry of a child pleading for help.

Always a man of action, Daniel was running forward before his brain caught up with the idea that the noise might be bait for a trap. Pushing the doubt out of his mind, however, he surged ahead. The mists parted suddenly, revealing a short, green-skinned, humanoid that Daniel immediately recognized as a Goblin from the pictures in the Monster Manuel. It was standing over a blonde-haired human boy in a peasant’s smock, kicking him in the ribs repeatedly.

Enraged, Daniel screamed as he charged, seeing red for the first time in his life. The goblin turned, startled at the sound but screamed back in defiance, pulling a dagger from its belt. Daniel didn’t bother with niceties, skipping a step to kick the foul critter in the head, sending it reeling to the floor. Dazed, it didn’t see Daniel’s boot coming down on its face until the last moment, one last cry of fear reduced to a gurgling death rattle.

Making sure the thing was dead; Daniel knelt by the kid on the floor. “Are you ok?”

The kid sat up and nodded, cradling his ribs. “I think so. Thanks, mister.”

Daniel blinked as the innocent smiling face before him started to fade out of existence, dissolving into a bright golden radiance. The light swirled into a sparkling cloud that was quickly sucked into the crystal ball in his hand.

#

Jason rolled with the fall through the silver portal, landing in a crouch. Taking in the mist and the pillars with a glance, he moved in a half-crouch to take cover behind one of the pillars just in case someone was drawing a bead on him. No arrows, knives or bolts of lighting shot his way, however, so he continued moving from pillar to pillar after allowing himself a short breath of relief.

It wasn’t long before he heard the sound of a scuffle and the cries of a child. Peeking around one pillar, he saw the same situation as Daniel (though he didn’t know it at the time), a goblin kicking a human boy who was on the ground sobbing. Hefting the crystal ball in his hand, Jason decided that it was both heavy and solid enough to use as an effective bludgeon and crept out from behind the pillar while the goblin’s back was turned. The first blow caved its skull in, staining the crystal with blood, brain and bits of skull.

“You ok, kid?” He asked as he started going through the goblin’s pockets. Worried when he received no answer, he looked over his shoulder to find that the boy had disappeared. He gasped when the goblin’s body dissolved into red light that was quickly absorbed by the crystal in his hand, the blood on it evaporating as it began to glow.

#

Never the most co-ordinated of people, Thomas slipped as he came through the silver portal, falling heavily on his bony ass. Groaning, he picked himself up and stumbled forward, wincing as he rubbed the sore spot. He was totally oblivious to the sounds of scuffling and crying until the mists parted and he found himself staring at a goblin who was staring back as it stood over a whimpering human boy.

Thomas froze, not knowing what to do. The goblin wasn’t so indecisive. Its scream startled Thomas before it charged, pulling a dagger from the sheathe at it’s belt. The first blow was a headbutt into the man’s groin that doubled him over, the second saw the hilt of the dagger being rammed into his forehead, toppling him. Dazed, clutching the bleeding wound on his forehead, Thomas couldn’t do anything but groan as the goblin spat on him and scampered away.

The boy managed to get to his feet and limp over to Thomas, giving him a weak smile. “Thanks for trying to help, sir,” he said, before dissolving into a weird grey radiance that turned his crystal ball milky white.

#

Unbeknownst to him, Ryan discovered one of the tricks of overcoming teleportation vertigo by accident. He his gut reaction to the wrenching sensation caused him to blink, avoiding the usual embarrassment of stumbling or falling as he emerged from the portal. He also heard the scuffle and cries almost immediately upon arrival and moved cautiously forward, keeping an eye on his flanks as he moved ahead at a brisk walk. When the mist parted, he took in the situation and put on his best scowl.

“BEGONE WITH YOU, VERMIN!” He bellowed at the goblin, marching forward with purpose and hoping that the weird light and the mist would obscure the fact that he wasn’t armed with anything more than a glass ball.

The goblin bought it, scampering off into the mist without another word. Ryan knelt beside the boy, his first aid training kicking in. “Are you hurt kid? Let me see.” The boy looked up and smiled at him before dissolving into sky-blue vapours that slid peacefully into the ball.

#

I barely stopped myself from losing the contents of my stomach, feeling quite dizzy after emerging from the silver portal. Pushing the feeling away with sheer willpower, I took stock of the misty room and looming shadowy pillars and quickly but quietly moved behind one before proceeding forward from pillar to pillar. It wasn’t long before I heard the scuffling and the crying but I determined not to rush into anything until I knew more.

Peeking around one pillar, I saw the little pre-programmed tableau of the goblin and blonde-haired boy. I also took in the dagger that sat sheathed in the goblin’s belt, which started to ring alarm bells in my head. Goblins being evil humanoids, why would it kick the boy when it could just as easily slit his throat? Determined to find out more, I snuck around the pillar and up behind the goblin while it was preoccupied and deftly pulled the dagger from its belt before grabbing it by the back of the tunic and hauling him into the air.

The goblin did a lot of kicking and squealing but I held it at arm’s length until he got tired. “Are we done now?” I inquired as his legs slowed. “I just want to ask you a few questions.” Looking panicked all of a sudden, the human boy tried to scramble to his feet and run. I took the initiative and kicked his legs out from under him. “And you, stay down there until we get to the bottom of this.”

The kid whimpered and cried some crocodile tears, clutching his shin where I’d kicked him but I blew it off, turning back to the goblin. “Well? Why torment this boy?”

The goblin spat at the floor and answered in a voice that was half growl and half high pitched squeak, almost as if a small dog had gained the ability to speak. “That little pukata stole my coinssss! Give them back, thieving runt!”

I mentally filed the word ‘pukata’ away as an insult in Goblinoid languages. Looking down at the boy, I glared. “Is this true?”

He flinched and didn’t meet my gaze. “Of course not…”

I dropped the goblin and grabbed the kid, quickly searching his pockets. I found a few loose coins that I tossed to the goblin, which hugged them to his chest.

“Hey!” The kid protested. “Mom says stealing from goblins is ok because they’re all Evil!”

Sighing, I showed him the goblin’s dagger. “Kid, you’re lucky all he gave you was a thrashing. Now show me how you got in here in the first place...”

I blinked in surprise as the kid’s tunic slid out from between my fingers, turning along with his flesh and the nearby goblin into a pulsing purple light that poured itself into my crystal ball. I barely had time to retrieve Xagig’s scroll before I felt the wrench of another teleport and suddenly I was stumbling out of another portal in a circular room with more portals affixed to the wall.

“Yo, James!” Daniel said, hopping over and patting me on the shoulder. “A bit tense there for a moment, almost thought we’d lost you.”

I scanned the room, finding the other four, each with their crystal balls filled with a different coloured glow. Thomas had a bandage on his head made from Ryan’s shirt sleeve but everyone else looked fine.

“Let me guess,” Jason said to me, “Kobald kicking a boy? You did something and your ball got filled with this weird magic mist?”

I nodded.

“I kicked its ass,” Daniel skited, “Jason here snuck up and brained it. Ryan scared it off.”

I looked at Thomas. “Got your ass kicked, huh?”

Thomas had the good grace to blush. “It got the drop on me. What about you?”

“I disarmed it,” I shrugged, “found out the kid had stolen some copper pieces from its pocket and gave them back.”

Daniel looked at me like I’d grown a third head. “Dude… goblins are always Chaotic Evil.”

“Usually Chaotic Evil,” I countered, quoting the goblin entry in the Monster Manual from memory, “goblin could have stabbed the little bastard to death just as easily.”

“Meh,” Jason interrupted, “I should have searched the kid. You got here late, so everyone called dibs on the items already.”

I blinked. “What items?”

The guys led be over to another pedestal, beyond which stood an iron door. It was larger than the first one, probably in order to fit the five items that sat atop it. The first was a Longsword of fine make, engraved with dragons and rubies at the hilt. Next was a dagger, a dull blade with an edge honed to razor sharpness and a hilt bound with scaly black hide. Third was a silver amulet with an engraved rune that I didn’t recognize inside a perfect circle. Fourth was a ring inset with a diamond. Last was a large tome.

“Sword’s mine,” Daniel informed a little too possessively, “Ryan’s taking the amulet and Thomas bagsed the ring, of course.”

I looked at Jason. “Not the book?”

Jason shook his head. “It’s not a spellbook, I checked, just a bunch of maps and some bullshit history lessons.”

My interest piqued, I opened the book and scanned the contents. “Actually, this is just fine. We’ll need to know this sort of thing once we get out of here. So, when we pick these up, will the door open or will we get teleported again? Any bets?”

“Only one way to find out,” Daniel said, grabbing the sword. Since I was right there, I scooped up the book. It wasn’t until Thomas, the slowest of us, had pocketed the ring that the door swung open of its own accord, revealing a larger room beyond.

“Not going to put it on?” Ryan asked Thomas as he slipped the amulet over his head.

“Nah, don’t want to risk that it’s cursed,” Thomas said. Ryan grabbed the amulet as if it were about to burn him but nothing happened. Thomas smirked. “Don’t worry, I’m paranoid.”

Daniel and Jason brandished their weapons, obviously braver now that they were armed, and made their way into the next room. I followed with the other two taking up the rear. The room beyond was also circular and we found ourselves facing another pedestal. This one, however, had glowing blue magical runes hovering in the air above it. There were no other exits apart from where we’d come from. The floor was bare and dusty like the rest of this place, with a few bits of rubble on the floor from stones that had fallen loose from the ceiling. Jason, Thomas and I stepped up to the pedestal while Jason and Daniel did a lot of posing with their weapons on the pretence of searching the room thoroughly. Ryan simply wandered about, kicking pebbles.

“What do we think, guys,” I said to Jason and Thomas as we stared at the glowing blue runes, “solve the riddle, open the secret door?”

“No, look at this,” Thomas stepped up, pointing out various symbols. “See? They’re the same four symbols repeated randomly. Four by Four square, four of each symbol, sixteen in total. I’m betting it’s a simple sequence puzzle; we’ve just got to work out what the right order is.”

“Shit,” Jason muttered, “I never was any good at this.”

“You need to play more video games,” I said, never believing as I wiped the dust off of the pedestal that I’d be right. The same runes that were floating in the air were engraved there, concealed by the dust. A four by four square arranged in a progressive sequence with one rune shifted to the right and the end rune retuning to the beginning of each successive line. Curiously, the square was surrounded by two concentric circles of more runes, though these were different to the ones in the centre. “Guys, get ready,” I informed the other three as Thomas began arranging the runes in the right order, though we all seemed clueless as to what we should actually do.

“There,” Thomas said, placing the last rune with a flourish.

Several things happened in quick succession. The runes turned red and took their place at the centre of the pedestal, inserting themselves into the engravings. There was a grinding noise for a moment as the two outer circles of runes began to spin, the glowing blue runes emerging from the stone to float listlessly in the air. We all looked upward as the ceiling began to descend in classic DnD style, earth raining down on us from between the brickwork. One of us muttered an oath but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you which one of us it was as the words ‘we’re screwed’ were running through my head at the time. I wasn’t aware that my thoughts were prophetic until a spark of white light leapt from the pedestal and exploded in the middle of the room into a weird quadruped form. The creature was an insane amalgam with the head, talons and wings of a bird of prey before the body, hind legs and tail of a lion. It was also the size of a horse.

“GRIFFON!” I shouted, identifying the monster immediately. Unfortunately, it was faster than any of us, its raptor eyes fixing on Ryan who stared like a stunned mullet. The griffon leapt without pause, pouncing like a cat with talons and beak outstretched with a single beat of its wings.

Ryan screamed and threw his hands over his head, expecting to be eviscerated. I don’t really blame him for losing continence; I doubt I’d have had as much dignity as he did. I think he was more shocked than the rest of us when the griffon bounced as if an invisible shield had been placed between them.

Daniel recovered first, charging at the monster, yelling at the top of his lungs. He put on a good show of it as well, slicing the beast’s neck with the tip of his sword and distracting it from Ryan. Fortunately, it looked just as unsure as to how to attack Daniel as Daniel did holding the blade. Jason was about to join the fray with his dagger but I grabbed his elbow. “Jason,” I shouted over the clamour, noticing that Thomas was slipping the ring onto his finger, “engineer, slow the ceiling down!”

Realization dawning, Jason nodded and handed me his dagger while he ran off, grabbing a brick before attempting to scale the wall. Great, I thought to myself, looking at the dagger in my hand, I just volunteered. Grabbing Thomas’ shoulder, I turned him around to face the pedestal. “Solve this!” I shouted. He nodded, letting me know he understood.

By the time I was able to turn my attention to the battle, things were looking bad. The beast had Daniel backed against the wall and was testing his defences with short snips of its beak and swipes with its talons. Ryan, however, was distracting it with small success by throwing bricks at it. Taking a deep breath, I dropped the book and scroll, tucked my crystal ball into my pocket, took the hilt of the dagger in both hands and charged. I wasn’t stupid about it. I timed my charge between Ryan’s throws and targeted the area between the thing’s shoulder blade and neck. I felt a measure of triumph as the blade sank into flesh like a hot knife through butter.

My victory was fleeting. Screeching in pain, it glared one eye at me to let me know that it was pissed off before slamming its head into my chest, sending me hurtling into the wall and knocking the breath out of my lungs, leaving the dagger still in the wound. Daniel took advantage of the distraction to dart past it, giving it a swipe with the sword that cleaved its left wing from its shoulder. To add insult to injury, Ryan scored a good shot, bouncing a brick off the griffon’s head as it whirled around to face Daniel again.

We all shuddered when the squeal of gears announced that Jason had figured out how to jam the ceiling. What we weren’t expecting was the engineer student’s leap from his perch on the wall and on top of the griffon, retrieving his dagger and depositing it back in the creature’s eye. Daniel joined in, lunging to bury his sword up to the hilt between the creature’s ribs, searching for the heart. Leaving that fight to them, I hauled my shaky self to my feat and leaned against the pedestal.

“Jason’s bought us some time,” I told Thomas as he busily played with the runes in the air.

“I can’t get these things in order,” Thomas said through clenched teeth, scowling in frustration. “They keep floating away! There’s too many!”

Considering the runes floating in the air, I reached out and grabbed one of the weightless slivers of light, noticing that I could hold it perfectly well, even if I couldn’t feel it. Looking down at the rotating circles, I picked out the same rune and placed the glowing one into the engraving. The rune immediately burst into red radiance. “There, rune for rune,” I pointed out. Thomas nodded and got to work.

I copped my scroll and book back up, checking on the other three. Jason and Daniel were finishing off the griffon still, who hardly had any fight left in him and was just barely keeping the two at bay. Ryan was puffing on the floor, red in the face and sweating bullets. I decided he needed a distraction. “Ryan, Thomas and I need your help.”

It took a few seconds but Ryan seemed grateful for my intervention and we quickly got the runes inserted. We felt another wrench as the last rune was slammed home, propelled through space and time once again.

You’ll forgive a storyteller; I’m sure, for presenting what happened next in an order that enhances the drama of the event. I assure you that I tell my story this way only so that you, dear reader, may feel the full gravitas of the situation. In truth, however, I wasn’t in any fit state to remember much except for the broad strokes, though I can infer much and doll it up with a little poetic licence.

Daniel landed with a clatter on the tall grass, surrounded by woodland under a clear sky. A bracing breeze brought with it the scent of pines and he allowed himself a few moments to breathe the fresh air and feel it on his face, laughing to himself. The clatter came from the plate armour that had appeared on his newly fit and muscular body, a body that was used to battle drill and hard travel. He was also now handsome, tanned and lantern-jawed beneath his helm, with a sword belted at his hip.

He leapt to his feet, shouting and laughing in incoherent joy, his voice much deeper and more masculine. “Woah! Woah! You guys feel that? Hey, I’ve got armour now… and lookit these GUNS!” He said, posing to show off the thickness of his arms, which was impressive even encased in steel (or perhaps more so).

He grabbed Ryan around the shoulders as the new cleric stared, too enraptured to notice. Ryan was dressed in red and white robes over a thin suit of chainmail, a holy symbol of a design that I didn’t recognize around his neck. A mace hung from his belt, perfect for beating in people’s heads, though he looked like a more handsome version of himself compared to Daniel’s gross physical changes.

Daniel’s smile fell away when he noticed Jason staring daggers at Thomas, instinctively knowing who was who. I mention that, indeed, we did instinctively know which of us occupied which body despite radical changes in features of mannerisms. We just knew each other and that was that. It was therefore obvious why Jason was so upset and how Daniel managed to restrain Jason before he did something he might regret.

Jason was a Grey Elf, shorter and slighter than Daniel’s new body by a good margin. He was even shorter and thinner than Ryan now. He was wearing black leather armour festooned with straps and assorted daggers and blades, most of which could be covered by his dark grey hooded cloak. His features were now angular and sharp, even more than his lven heritage should dictate, with large dark eyes that were at once soulful, mischievous and dangerous. At that point, however, mostly dangerous.

Thomas, on the other hand, was still human. Dressed in a grey robe with embroidered silver trim, he looked a bit older and more gaunt, his dark hair worn to the shoulderblades bound in a series of ponytails. He also carried an ornate black staff tipped with a roaring dragon’s head, rubies inset in the eyes.

Jason screamed expletives as Daniel picked the little man bodily off the ground in a bear hug, preventing the elf from running over and clawing out his eyeballs, though he kicked and screamed in Daniel’s grip. “YOU SON OF A MOTHERLESS WHORE! YOU STOLE MY MAGIC! I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL YOU!”

For his part, Thomas backed away slowly, looking like he was ready to bolt (whether this meant running or casting lightning, I could have probably gone either way).

“Jason!” Ryan snapped, his grave tone serious enough to cut through the rogue’s ranting and command attention. It wasn’t until they noticed that Ryan wasn’t staring at them or himself that they followed his gaze, turning their heads in unison to where I stood.

I was standing, in shock, knees shaking, staring at petite hands that grasped firm, dumpling-shaped, protrusions on my chest.

My hands.

My chest.

My breasts.

I was a woman.



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