d20 by James Vachowski

From behind the secrecy of his cardboard screen, the Dungeon Master shuffled intentionally through his notes. “Okay, so you’ve managed to escape the Keep after a particularly long and dangerous day of exploration. Outside, the air smells sweet and fresh. The bright sun is shining down on what looks to be a beautiful spring day. Your companions have all bid their farewells and departed, with promises to rejoin you in Karameikos after a fortnight.”

Brian folded his arms across his chest in a show of smug satisfaction. “Another successful adventure, eh? Lost dungeons are all in a day’s work for Bertrand Forewinds, wizard most powerful! Fear me, creatures of darkness!”

The DM continued reading. “Suddenly, a dark shadow grows large behind you. You can feel the creature’s hot breath on your shoulder as it growls menacingly. ‘Almost made it, twerp.’ Roll for initiative!”

“Shit shit shit! Damn it, man, my hit points are down to like single digits right now. All right, here we go…” Brian gave his wrist a shake before allowing the polyhedral die to spill out onto the tabletop. “Seven.”

“Okay, so the ogre attacks first. He swings a wild fist and…” Another set of dice clattered unseen, their results concealed by the DM’s screen. “…he strikes a glancing blow off your shoulder, so minus two HP. Your move.”

Brian scribbled a hasty note on his character sheet to mark the damage. “Uh… let’s see. Crap, I’m almost out of spells. I guess I’ll cast Charm Person, then maybe I can try to talk some sense into him.”

Another dice roll.

“Unsuccessful, the humanoid beast is simply too large to be controlled by a mere Level 1 spell. The charm has no effect, save for the small flashes of light which flicker harmlessly past his giant head. The visuals seem to anger the ogre, and he takes another swing…”

The dice rattled once more.

“A near miss! His fist flies past your face and pounds against the brick wall, creating a thick cloud of rubble and dust.”

“Jesus! Uh, let’s see here… I know, Levitate! I’ll cast Levitate on myself, then float up and out of his reach!”

The DM nodded as he penned a quick notation. “Okay, that’s fine. You rise quickly but gently, coming to a smooth stop exactly twenty feet above ground level. The ogre looks up, scratching his head in confusion. He begins to pace about, puzzled, before inspiration strikes and he bends over to grab one of the bricks that was knocked loose. He flings it up at you and…”

Brian held his head in his hands. His heart filled with despair at the familiar sound of the dice. The roll of the d20, in particular, always seemed to be a form of torture most foul.

“…it catches you in the ankle!” The DM shook his wrist once more, spilling out a d4 and two d6s behind his screen. “You only suffer one HP damage from the brick itself, but the impact is enough to break your concentration. The spell dissipates and you fall to the ground, losing another three HP on impact.”

Brian brought his feet up onto the chair, wrapping his arms around his knees in genuine fear. His character was down to his last few hit points now, and the scenario seemed to have no chance of escape. Here, after countless treacherous hours spent down in the dungeons, it appeared as if his fate hinged entirely on this one last encounter. Bertrand Forewinds was in mortal danger, clutching at the fading threads of his last hope.

The DM leaned down low over his screen, growling in his best ogre impersonation. “Your move, wimp.”

Brian took a deep breath and drew his body up straight. His hands shook with fear as he struggled to maintain his composure in the face of certain death. Fidgeting in the chair, his leg bumped hard against the table. The act shook the playing surface violently, toppling the DM’s cardboard screen. With the mystical barrier gone, Brian’s perspective shifted as well. Instantly, the encounter assumed an entirely different form.

The ogre had vanished. In front of Brian, where the beast had stood just moments before, a huge tenth-grader had taken his place. The brute was clad in a black leather jacket, and his face was covered with a thick layer of stubble. He crouched over at the waist, a mocking sneer growing wide across his cruel face. “Well?” he taunted, fists clenched. “What are you gonna do, punk?”

In a panic, Brian craned his neck about to survey the new environment. The table and chairs had disappeared along with the entire basement, and he was now surrounded by another familiar setting: the ballfields of Riverdale Junior High. His hands scrabbled against the infield’s loose dirt, each fine grain serving as corporeal proof that the mighty Bertrand Forewinds must have somehow shunted his player sideways through the infinite, ethereal planes of the multiverse.

The bully stepped forward to taunt his prey. His voice had morphed into an eerie polyphony, a unique blend that was half-ogre and half-teen. “So?” he asked. “Are you just going to lay there, or what?”

Brian whispered a silent prayer while Bertrand lay still. Supine and defenseless, he ran his fingers helplessly over the silty layers of dirt. Finally, as a desperate saving throw, the wizard decided to cast his one remaining incantation. There was no need for Brian to consult his spell sheet, as Bertrand Forewinds had always held this particular conjuration back as a last reserve.

Magic Missile!

The sticky, humid air was filled by massive claps of thunder as dark clouds rolled in from above. To Brian’s ears, at least, the reverberations bore a striking resemblance to those of a pyramid-shaped d4 rolling across a formica tabletop.

“Aargh! Did you seriously just throw dirt at me?? You little bitch! Who actually does that??”

Brian scrambled to his feet as the bully staggered about the pitcher’s mound, temporarily blinded by the dirt in his eyes. Seizing the initiative, Bertrand Forewinds lashed out with a vicious strike of his quarterstaff. The attack was decidedly non-magical, but notwithstanding its lack of grace the blunt instrument seemed to do the job.

“Damn it, my nuts!” The ogrish bully crumpled to the ground, doubled over in pain. His voice came out as a gasping, high-pitched wheeze. “I swear to God, Brian, I’m going to take that baseball bat and…”

The rest of the threat went unheard, as the mighty Bertrand Forewinds had prudently taken flight. His oaken staff lay on the ground, abandoned, both hands fully consumed by a massive sack of loot. The Bag of Holding rattled as he ran, countless gold pieces within scraping against a number of precious gems and mysterious artifacts. Several rounds later, he was finally able to pause and catch his breath. The silence of the ancient forest signaled that he had at last escaped, since the ferocious ogre of Riverdale Keep had apparently chosen not to pursue in his crippled state. The two were certainly destined to meet again, but Bertrand Forewinds was not worried in the least. Whenever that fateful day arrived he would be fully rested and refreshed, a wizard of much greater power with any number of new spells at his disposal.

Hefting the sack, Bertrand/Brian set off once more, moving at a casual walk now. He plotted a homeward course towards his own tower, eagerly looking forward to a long afternoon of uninterrupted study. The great wizard smiled as he went along on his way, actually savoring the thought of future adventures…

+450 XP. 300gp, 725 sp. 1 Potion of Healing, 1 Scroll of Detect Magic.

 

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Some of James Vachowski’s other short stories have appeared in the following magazines: Everyday Weirdness, Golden Visions, Wanderings, Bewildering Stories, The Evertalis, Larks Fiction, Bent Masses, Pressboard Press, Fiction365, Cast of Wonders, Fine Lines Literary Journal, Shelf Life, Dew on the Kudzu, The Oddville Press, and 7×20.