Friday, April 23, 2021

Roll for Initiative

I finally had the time to upload another Neopets fic!

There's a bit of a story behind this one. In Worth Searching For, when Hyren and Blynn are in Brightvale, I inserted what was at the time supposed to be a throwaway joke about how Brightvalians are nerds who play Neoquest, which I portray in my body of work as a tabletop roleplaying game akin to Dungeons & Dragons.

However, when I was brainstorming things for Blynn and Hyren to do in Brightvale, I thought it would be great fun - and in-character - if Blynn actually started playing Neoquest.

Then, as I was writing the very emotionally exhausting final chapters of WSF, partway through I decided I just needed a brief change of pace, and I jotted down a cute, fun little story about Blynn starting to Quest Master her own campaigns at home after the events of WSF. It was the perfect breather before I dove back in to the epic climax of WSF. In some ways, this story also serves as an epilogue of sorts in a "what are they doing now" kind of way.

The first version of this story - which got published in the Neopian Times - reads somewhat differently. That version still had Isengrim with what I'll call his "beta personality", and the main gist of the plotline was him and Hyren just barely getting along while Blynn is trying to start a Neoquest campaign.

However, several years later I decided to revise it, and most importantly give Isengrim his current personality. Doing that, I knew the original conflict was no longer workable because he and Hyren now had a very different relationship dynamic by the point the story takes place, and in fact I ended up removing almost all conflict from the story, mostly making it about how everybody enjoys each other's company, and Isengrim and Hyren barely sorta argue about Isengrim wanting to create his Neoquest character his way.

When I took another look at the story in preparation for putting it on this blog--it just sort of fell flat. The depictions of happy fun times playing Neoquest were cozy and all, but it felt like there was no real cadence to the plotline, no sense of rise and fall, conflict and resolution. Obviously that's not something all short stories need, but with my now-vague hints of Isengrim and Hyren disagreeing, I felt like the second version was missing out on a great opportunity for character development and a good Life Lesson.

So I decided to fix this, and I ended up expanding the story a bit and giving Hyren a solid and prominent character arc, and now I think the story reads much more satisfactorily. Now it's about Hyren learning that just because he's the type of person who always wants things done a certain way to his exact specifications, doesn't mean everybody else will want those specifications--but that's okay, and a lot of the time it's more important to just let people enjoy something in the way that brings them happiness and fulfillment, even if it seems nonsensical or inefficient.

It was raining.

It was a crisp Storing evening in Altador, and it was raining, and Hyren was doing his best not to catch a cold.

The blue Grundo hated rain. But he found it easier to tolerate curled up on a plush couch in his family’s library, wrapped in a down comforter, enjoying the blazing heat of the fireplace, and sipping a mug of steaming borovan while reading the Neopian Times.

The rain could patter on the tile roof of their villa and stream down the tall windows as much as it liked, but it could never get to Hyren in here, and that made him feel superior and snug.

“Oh Peadackles, where’s my dice?” his sister Blynn asked as she scrambled around the nearby study table. Her disco Zafara tail waved in the air as she lifted up papers and binders that lay strewn on the oaken surface, and then ducked beneath it to search the floor. She poked her head above the table and giggled. “Wait, never mind, they’re on my chair.”

Their owner, Terra, walked in with a bowl of popcorn and set it down on the table. “I just put the garlic toast in the oven,” the human woman said, flipping her long copper braid back over her shoulder. “Remind me to check on it in about ten minutes.” The sleeves of her plaid flannel shirt were rolled up, a sure sign that she’d been hard at work in the kitchen.

“You should use the hourglass,” Hyren said, not looking up from the paper. “Then you won’t have to ask us to remind you.” The savoury aroma of buttered popcorn made his mouth water.

The blue-eyed young woman chuckled and pushed her glasses up her nose. “Yeah, but the act of me telling you to remind me helps me to remember.” She glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Okay, so if it’s 6:02 now, check it at 6:12…” 

Blynn plopped the bag of dice on the table and sat herself down. “Thanks for making the snacks for our session, Terra!” Lacking Hyren’s self-discipline, she plunged a paw into the popcorn and stuffed a pawful into her mouth. “Thith ith gonna be greah!”

Terra grinned as she leaned over the table and scanned the papers. “Yeah, I’m excited! What’s this campaign going to be about?”

“Spoilers!” the Zafara replied as she reached for the popcorn again. “What else are you making for us?”

Terra’s eyes narrowed mischievously. “Spoilers.”

Blynn’s face fell. “You’re not making shrimp cupcakes, are you?!”

The human laughed, although it came out as more of a maniacal cackle. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” she said in a sing-song tone.

“Terra!” Blynn cried, throwing a kernel of popcorn at her. 

It bounced off of Terra’s face and onto the table, and Terra popped it in her mouth with a grin. “Nah, I’m not that cruel. C’mon, I’m eating this stuff, too.” She eyed the table again. “Actually, if you want a teaser, I got us some gummy dice salad. Y’know, ‘cause it fits the theme.”

“Awesome!” Blynn said. “What a great idea!”

“Clever,” Hyren said, taking another sip of borovan.

“Thanks,” Terra said over her shoulder as she turned to leave. “Be back.”

Blynn had been introduced to Neoquest during a stay in Brightvale earlier that year, and took to it like a Mallard to water. She’d found a Neoquest group here in Altador, and after a few months of playing and learning the ropes, she began to Quest Master her own campaigns.

Hyren was looking forward to tonight. He wasn’t a sociable sort, but he had more than enough camaraderie with his sister and owner to make playing Neoquest with them an enjoyable experience, instead of an exercise in patience and stress management. 

Terra came back in with a tall pitcher of chokatoade and a stack of glasses. “I hope this is okay for a beverage. I’d make some borovan or cocoa, but I don’t want it to get cold by the time we start. I figure I can make that on demand.”

“Sounds good,” Blynn said, pouring herself a glass.

Terra frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Taste-testing,” Blynn said with a roguish grin. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

“Fair enough,” Terra said with a snort.

“Yep, this passes the grade,” Blynn said.

A bell on the wall jingled, signaling someone at the front door—it and other bells throughout the villa were enchanted to ring whenever the main doorbell was struck. “Oh—“ Terra said, but then her eyes caught the clock. “Ah! I forgot about the garlic toast! Could somebody else get that?” she asked as she rushed back to the kitchen.

“I got it,” Hyren said. He put down the paper and his mug, and pushed himself off the couch. 

“You sure, chief?” Blynn asked before taking another swig of chokatoade.

“We’re starting soon anyway, right?” Hyren asked. “Can’t relax on that couch all night, as much as I’d like to.” He moved to the hallway, already missing the fire’s warmth. 

Granted, it never got very cold in Altador compared to places like Terror Mountain or even Neopia Central—snow was a rare occurrence here. But winters did have the propensity to be chilly and rainy, and something about wet cold just froze Hyren to the bone and made him miserable.

Pawsteps sounded on the marble behind him. “Wait up!” Blynn said, scampering to his side. “That might be the last person for our campaign.”

Hyren’s antennae perked. “What? Someone else is playing? It’s not that super annoying Kacheek with the laugh like a Snorkle’s, is it?”

Blynn laughed. “No way! She was driving me mad too, and she always argued with me when she got bad dice rolls. From now on, it’s just family and friends in these campaigns.”

They crossed the long hallway and descended the stairs into the main entry hall. The floor was decorated with a mosaic depicting Minitheuses and Garfirs cavorting in a pastoral landscape, and the ceiling was supported with pillars. Doors at one end of the hall led to a courtyard that overlooked the sea. The wild Altalaphuses that often visited the villa gardens were probably splashing about in the reflecting pool as it swelled with rainwater.

It wasn’t that Hyren’s family tried to be affluent. They’d simply accrued enough through their adventures over the years to be able to live comfortably in a pleasant and classy setting. Hyren vastly preferred to this to the somewhat shabby bamboo Neohome where they’d lived on Mystery Island when Terra was a teenager. As an adult, she’d finally decided to make her dream home a reality, and now here they were in Altador.

The bell rang again. “Coming, hold on!” Blynn shouted.

“Okay, you’ve stumped me,” Hyren said as they approached the large double front doors. “I have no idea who this could be. It’s not like we have a whole lot of friends—“

Blynn pulled the door open. Hyren’s heart skipped a beat as he found himself looking up – way up – at a familiar pair of crimson eyes, and gleaming fangs that caught the glow of the home’s Faerie-dust-powered lighting.

“Surprise,” said the sopping-wet Werelupe King.

Hyren staggered back in shock. “What—“

“Apologies for my tardiness,” Isengrim said as he sauntered inside. “It is sometimes difficult to find punctual transportation from the Werelupe Woods.”

“Did you get a ride from pirates?” Blynn asked as she shut the door behind him.

“Aye—gave the poor cabin boy quite a scare,” the hulking Werelupe said with a chuckle. He dropped to all fours and shook himself.

Water flew everywhere, including all over Hyren, and the Grundo’s antennae flattened against his head. Isengrim winced. “Ah—sorry,” the Werelupe King said, trying to wipe off Hyren’s head with one large furry paw.

“Thanks,” Hyren said. He and the Werelupe King had a bit of a history. It was long and complicated, but suffice to say they weren’t trying to kill each other anymore. Also now they were brothers.

“Isengrim!” Terra said. She stood at the door to the kitchen, an oven mitt still on one hand and a huge grin on her face. “I’m so glad you made it okay!” She ran to the three.

Isengrim caught her up in a tight hug. “Ah, I missed you so much!” he said. “It is good to see you well!” He looked at the other two. “The same goes for you both.”

“Likewise,” Blynn said.

“Yeah,” Hyren said with a smile.

Isengrim had changed a lot since Hyren first met him under quite unfavorable circumstances. Hyren couldn’t stay angry with him after everything Isengrim had done to save the Meridell region and their family. And Hyren found he believed a great deal in forgiveness, especially since he had been on the receiving end of it himself many years ago. At any rate, Isengrim was also the best sparring partner Hyren had found yet.

The Werelupe kept an arm around Terra as he looked around the hall. “You did not tell me you lived in such a palace!” he said. “It rivals even the Burrows!”

“It’s not nearly so big,” Terra chuckled. “Will the pack be okay while you’re away?”

“Suhel is taking care of them,” Isengrim said. “She does an excellent job in my absence.”

“How long are you staying?” Hyren asked.

“A fortnight,” Isengrim said.

“Oh, yay!” Blynn said, clapping her paws together. “We’re gonna have so much fun! I think we can get in some good campaigning in that time!”

Isengrim glanced around the entry hall. “Where is Pharazon?” 

“He’s in town with Celice,” Blynn said. 

“She just got here this morning,” Terra said as she led them to the kitchen. “Apparently there’s a new exhibit in the Altadorian Archives on the history of perfectly flat rocks, and they just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out.”

The kitchen was spacious and homey, with dried herbs hanging from the rafters and cruses of olive oil on the counters. A large, open brick oven sat in one wall, flames dancing inside as fire motes rolled around the confines. 

Isengrim leaned over his owner’s shoulder and sniffed the air, and his pink tongue lolled out between his fangs. “What is that delicious smell?” he asked.

“Garlic toast,” Terra said with a proud smile. Sure enough, on a cooling rack sat thick slices of garlic toast topped with bubbling cheese.

“Ah, you spoil me!” Isengrim said, his tail wagging.

“I try,” Terra said. “Do you guys think you could help me bring up the rest of the snacks?”

“We’re on it!” Blynn said.

“What a feast you have prepared!” Isengrim said as Terra handed him a bowl of almonds and a platter of chocolate-frosted Faerie cakes.

The owner picked up a plate of cinnamon and sugar scones. “Gotta have game food.”

Isengrim’s smile fell a bit as he looked around the kitchen. “Ah... my apologies, but you would not happen to have any meat, would you?” 

Terra grimaced. “Oops, I’m sorry. I forgot. I should have picked some up for you at the marketplace earlier.”

He held out a paw. “No, do not worry about it. I can go for a hunt later to supplement.”

An awkward silence followed, and Hyren knew none of them liked the idea of Isengrim prowling around the Altadorian hills.

Isengrim grinned self-consciously. “Or not. I will be fine, really.”

“I’ll pick up some meat for you at market tomorrow,” Terra said as she led them to the spiral staircase in the corner. “I know you need a lot of protein.”

“Thank you,” Isengrim said. “Only if it is not too much of an inconvenience.”

She smiled at him and said, “You’re never an inconvenience.”

Hyren liked that about their owner.

The stairs led to the second-storey hallway, which made it much more convenient to reach the kitchen from upstairs. That was especially important for Terra, who liked to read while she ate, so the library often served as her meal room.

As they ascended, Isengrim’s ears pricked and his attention snapped to the corner of the stairwell. “What is that?” he asked.

Hyren watched a little dust ball roll across the wall and slip into a crack in the plaster. “That was a dust mote,” the Grundo said. “We have a population living here.”

“They just move around and eat dust all day,” Blynn said as she stepped into the second-storey hallway. “Really makes cleaning house a lot easier.”

“We certainly do not have that in the Burrows,” Isengrim said. “Staying in a building should be an interesting experience.”

“I hope you enjoy it,” Terra said, setting her plates down in the library. “I’d really love for you to come visit more often.”

“I am enjoying it very much already, thank you,” Isengrim said. “You and your family will have to stay in the Burrows again sometime. Suhel misses you all as well.”

“Maybe for Giving Day!” Terra said. “That would be fun! I really like Giving Day in Meridell, there’s something rather nostalgic about it.” 

Isengrim smiled. “Giving Day it is, then.” 

They took their seats at the table and Isengrim grabbed a piece of garlic toast. “I am most curious about how this Neoquest thing works,” he said. “Terra and Blynn tell me it is like storytelling.”

Terra handed him a set of dice. “Right,” she said. “But there’s also an element of chance involved, which is where the dice rolls come in. It helps add randomness and makes the story more interesting.”

“I see, I see,” the Werelupe King said. “Fascinating.” Taking a bite of the toast, he closed his eyes and smiled, and his tail wagged so much it looked like someone was shaking a feather duster. “Terra, this is amazing! Will you make garlic toast every day, please?”

She laughed. “Of course!”

Blynn straightened the papers in front of her and opened up the thick, hardbound books lying beside them. “Okay, character creation time,” she said. “This campaign is going to take place during the War of the Circle of Twelve. You’re going to be adventurers from the Kal Panning area, so keep that in mind.”

“Gotcha,” Terra said, studying her blank character sheet.

Isengrim poked his sheet with a claw. “What does all of this mean?” 

His owner leaned over to him and said, “Here, I’ll help you.”

While she explained the items on the sheet, Hyren glanced down at his own character sheet. “Blynn, you gave me a blank one,” he said. “Where’s Alucor Darksbane?”

“Three hundred years in the future,” Blynn said. “You can’t use him this time round.”

“But he’s level thirteen!” Hyren said. “Can’t we say he was transported back to the War by a temporal mage or a dimensional rift?”

“Nope,” Blynn said. “Everybody’s starting with new characters this time. Makes things more fun!”

“Fine,” Hyren said with a sigh. Starting from scratch was one of his least favorite parts of new campaigns. How could he keep his party members safe if he was just as weak as they were? But what the QM said, went.

“Okay, I’m going to be a Jubjub,” Terra said.

“Oh?” Blynn asked.

“I get bonus skill points for lack of arms, right?” Terra asked. “I want to make her a mage, so she won’t need much in the physical department anyway. I could use the extra skill points to give her a power boost.”

As Blynn began to thumb through one of the books, Hyren looked over at their owner and asked, “You’re min-maxing?”

“Hey, it’s a legitimate character generation strategy!” Terra said. “Besides, nobody ever plays as a Jubjub. I wanted to give it a spin.”

Blynn gave Terra the open book and said, “Here’s all the Jubjub stats.” As Terra began to write down the relevant information, the Zafara asked, “What kind of mage are you going to be?”

“Life,” Terra said with a smile.

“Well, at least that hasn’t changed,” Hyren said with a chuckle. “You’re always either a life mage or a paladin.”

“That’s not true!” Terra said. “Last campaign I was a cleric.”

“Yes, which has essentially the same skill set as a life mage,” Hyren said.

“But clerics use staves and can mesmerize,” Terra said.

Isengrim looked up from his paper and said, “I want to be a Werelupe.”

Hyren gave him a dubious look. “No offense,” the Grundo said, “but you’re already a Werelupe. Part of the point of Neoquest is to get the chance to be something you’re not.”

Isengrim frowned, trying hard not to look too put-out. “But I like being a Werelupe,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be.”

“Don’t you think it would be boring to essentially play as yourself?” Hyren asked. 

“Hyren,” Terra said, glancing up from her character sheet. “The point is to do what’s fun for you. Everybody’s got their own way to play Neoquest, and some people enjoy creating characters similar to themselves.” She grinned. “I may like to experiment with playing as different Neopet species, but personality-wise I’m super bad at pretending to be something I’m not.”

“Which is why you’re always a life mage or a paladin,” Blynn said. 

“Sorry,” Hyren muttered. His cheeks turned a deep shade of purple, which was what it looked like when blue Grundos blushed. “It’s just—he’s new to this, he doesn’t quite understand the whole point of the game yet. I’m just trying to help him have a good time by following proper protocol.”

“Are you making up protocol again?” Blynn asked. “There’s nothing in the rules that says you have to play as a different species from yourself.”

“Blynn has a point, Hyren,” Terra said. “I know you’re trying to be helpful, but, well, there just isn’t anything wrong with Isengrim wanting to make a Werelupe character. It’s okay that not everybody likes to create characters the same way as you and me.” She reached over and patted her Grundo’s shoulder. “We’ll just let everybody enjoy the game their own way. Then we’ll all have a good time. That’s the most important thing, that we’re all having fun.”

“Yeah—sorry,” Hyren said again, still feeling rather embarrassed. Having a new player join the party was turning out to be more complicated than he’d expected. He hoped in the midst of trying to help Isengrim have fun, Hyren himself could still manage to have fun too.

“Although,” Blynn said, “Isengrim might just have to settle for being a regular Lupe. I don’t have the Haunted Woods Quest Guide—that’s the one that includes stats for Werelupes as playable characters.”

Isengrim ducked his head. “Oh—I understand.”

Terra looked over at Blynn and said, “Let’s just improvise Werelupe stats for him! I mean, there’s nothing that says we can’t.”

“Improvise stats?!” Hyren blurted. “You’re going to just let him play as a type of character for which we don’t have the proper data?!”

Blynn rubbed her furry chin. “Oh, I dunno,” she said. “I don’t like ignoring the actual stats and stuff that are in the Quest Guide. Kinda defeats the purpose of the game if you’re just gonna ignore rules.” At the defeated look on Isengrim’s face, she smiled. “Buuuut I’ll order the Haunted Woods expansion ASAP, and until then, Isengrim can use some improvised stats. I’m pretty sure I can easily figure out reasonable Werelupe stats working from regular Lupe stats,” Blynn said. “Gimme the Quest Guide?” Terra handed her the book back, and the Zafara flipped through the pages. 

“But it’s going to mess up the whole game!” Hyren said, tugging on his antennae in frustration. “Who knows how much you’ll throw the rest of the character stats out of balance by just—making stuff up? What if it comes back to bite us during a boss battle?!”

The hopeful look on Isengrim’s face died and he cringed, his ears turning back. “My apologies,” he muttered.

Terra put a hand on his arm and glowered at Hyren. “No, you’re fine,” she said to the Werelupe. “Hyren, seriously, it’s going to be okay. Blynn knows this game like the back of her paw. She won’t give him unbalanced stats that will throw off the rest of the campaign. I know you like to do things by the book, and that really comes in handy sometimes. But I don’t think you should stop somebody from doing something their own way just because you’re mentally jumping to a worse-case scenario.”

“I guess so,” Hyren said. He liked rules, he liked order, he liked stability. He couldn’t help but feel like Isengrim had – once again – shown up and thrown a wrench into the works.

“Okay… use most of the stats for normal Lupes here,” Blynn said to Isengrim, “but go ahead and give yourself a… let’s say, plus three to Strength and Stamina.” Isengrim nodded, and Terra helped him pencil in his stats while showing him the different job classes available.

Hyren reached for a handful of almonds, trying to convince himself to be okay with all of this. Outside, the rain still fell steadily, making the room feel all the more cozy. Hyren wondered if the cypresses and olive trees outside were enjoying the extra water. It certainly made up for how hot and sunny that summer had been.

“I’m going to be a warrior,” Isengrim decided.

Hyren frowned in the middle of biting into his Faerie cake. “But I was going to be a warrior.”

“What’s wrong with the both of you being warriors?” Terra asked.
“It would mess up the party dynamic!” Hyren said. “We’ll be unbalanced! I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to respect what Isengrim wants, but I refuse to fail this campaign because of someone else’s poor character generation choices!”

Isengrim looked crestfallen, and then his hackles rose. Fire swirled in his crimson eyes, and he clamped his jaw tightly as though he had to use every ounce of willpower to hold back his anger. Hyren didn’t care—this travesty of character generation had gotten downright ridiculous and someone had to stop it.

“Hey, whoa,” Terra said, standing up. “Time out. Hyren, that was uncalled for.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have come,” Isengrim choked. “I did not realise I was going to be such a—a burden while you were trying to have fun.” He pushed out his chair and stood up as well.

Terra caught his arm to prevent him from leaving. “You are not a burden,” she said. “Hyren, why are you acting like this? Why is this such a big deal?”

Hyren looked at them, and knew he was being difficult, but he had to speak his mind. “I like well-organized, efficient fun,” he said. “You’ve been going on about how it’s important to let Isengrim enjoy playing his way, but for me, this won’t be fun if we fail in our quest because we weren’t adequately prepared.”

Terra took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “I see your point. And I think we can find a solution. Isengrim’s new to the group, he has his own ideas for how he wants to enjoy the game, and I want to make this work for everybody. Any thoughts on how we can accommodate him while making sure you feel like we’re a well-balanced party?” She paused. “You know we would make the same accommodations for you if you were new to Neoquest.”

Hyren sat back and thought for a moment. She was right. He’d hate to have his thoughts and opinions dismissed if he were the newcomer and told he had to play a game a certain way to fit someone else’s expectations. But he was doing exactly that to Isengrim. That wasn’t fair. Isengrim’s first experience with Neoquest should have been a positive one, but instead Hyren was making a fuss and causing drama. And he hated drama.

Hyren looked up at his family, swallowed his pride, and said, “I’ll choose a different class. If Isengrim’s idea of fun is to play a warrior, and my idea of fun is to make sure our party machine runs smoothly, let’s reconcile those two.”

Isengrim smiled. “Thank you. I promise I won’t let our party down.” He sat in his chair again and Terra hugged him.

“I know you won’t,” Hyren said, smiling back. He tapped his pencil on his character sheet. This would require a slight change of plans. “I’m going to use some of my skill points to make my character Tyrannian.”

“Ooh, interesting choice,” Terra said. She gave him the Quest Guide and squeezed his shoulder. “Thanks, buddy. I knew you could do it.” 

“Thought I’d mix it up a little,” Hyren said as he flipped to the chapter on painted pets. “I like to think I know how to be flexible, even if that’s a little far from the truth most of the time,” he added under his breath.

“Which species?” Terra asked.

Hissi,” Hyren said. “They have good Acuity and Mobility, right? I’m going to need that to be a ranger.”

Blynn looked up from her notes. “A ranger? That’s new territory for you.”

“It seems like the next best thing after a warrior,” Hyren said. “I guess I could expand my horizons a little and see what else I like. Might be useful to cross-class one of these days.” He scanned the page, which described the various bonuses and disadvantages for the different types of non-basic-painted pets, and mentally patted himself on the back for having a good attitude. “Whoa, a Defence bonus for Tyrannians? Sweet.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you got that cool armoured skin,” Blynn said, pouring herself more chokatoade.

“But I get a minus to Intellect… meh, not necessary,” Hyren said. He figured Terra’s life mage would have more than enough Intellect to go around. Doing something a little differently was proving easier than he feared. And most importantly, Isengrim looked like he was truly enjoying himself.

Once they had gotten their characters figured out and organised, and Terra had made them all hot cocoa, Blynn drew herself up with the air of a storyteller. Her natural propensity for theatrics always made her enjoyable to watch. 

“These are dark days for Neopia,” she said. “The Circle of Twelve has gone mad, and nations have begun to fall under their conquest. The great city of Kal Panning seems poised to be the last bastion of the light, but storm clouds gather on the horizon…”

Thunder rumbled nearby, and everyone jumped a little. 

Terra laughed. “Nice timing.”

Hyren looked over his shoulder out the window. The rain streamed down in heavy sheets that lashed against the house. “Sure glad we’re inside with a fireplace.”

Isengrim tapped the floor with his hind paw. “It is good that you live in a house of sturdy stone. I would worry about you, otherwise.”

Blynn scanned over the notes she had written for the campaign. “The three of you are not unaware of the trouble brewing to the west. Already, strange monsters and dark forces have begun to pop up in the woods, and you have a sinking feeling it is only a matter of time before something even more sinister comes out of the Two Rings Valley.” 

She reached for her dice rather ominously. “We begin in an innocent-seeming meadow outside of Kal Panning, on a beautiful sunny day. Your characters have stumbled upon each other by chance. Terra is looking for materials to craft her first wand. Hyren has been scouting these woods to learn all he can about the growing darkness. Isengrim is out on a hunt.”

Terra nibbled on a scone as she leaned over the table, drawn into the story. When Blynn said nothing more, the human turned to Isengrim and said, “Okay, here’s the part where we act out our characters a little.” She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Oh! A Werelupe! I, uh, wasn’t expecting to see one of those here…” She was a terrible actor and was obviously embarrassed to be doing it, but trying to be a good sport.

Isengrim smiled and said, “And I was not expecting to see a little fuzzball.” He reached over and patted her head, and she chuckled.

“I slither out of the trees,” Hyren said, “and say, ‘Be on your guard! A shadow walks these woods today!’”

“But you gotta say it like a Hissi,” Blynn said. Hyren narrowed his eyes at her. “Pleeeeeease?” she asked.

“I’m not going to say all of my in-character dialogue like a real Hissi,” Hyren said. “That would get super annoying.”

“Just this once?” Blynn asked.

“Okay, okay,” Hyren said. He took a deep breath. “’Be on your guard, a ssshadow walksss thessse woodsss today.’ Happy?”

Blynn clapped her paws. “Yes.” She looked back to her notes and her eyes lit up. Hyren knew that look. He didn’t like that look. “Buuuut you were too loud!” she said. “Suddenly, three Plains Lupes burst out of the trees, and they look hungry!”

“What’s a Plains Lupe?” Isengrim asked.

“They’re like Lupes, but, uh…” Blynn tapped her chin. “Bigger… and… strong… er…” She trailed off as she looked up at the bigger, stronger Lupe sitting at the table.

“Like Werelupes?” Isengrim asked. “And they are enemies?” His ears turned back. “Typical.”

Terra patted his arm and grabbed the Quest Guide, showing him the illustration. “They’re not Werelupes,” she said. “These things walk on four legs and don’t talk. And aren’t nearly as cool as you.”

“Oh,” Isengrim said, studying the illustration. “I see. My apologies… I dislike when my kind are villainised.”

“Me too,” Terra said. “But Blynn would never make Werelupes the villains in a campaign. We know better than that.”

“That’s right,” Blynn said with a nod. “So, encounter time! Roll for initiative!”

Three dice clacked on the wood. “I got a 20,” Isengrim said. “Is that good?”

“Added to your speed rating…” Terra said, looking over his character sheet. “Nice one! Looks like you’re going first, unless any of those Plains Lupes got higher.”

Blynn finished rolling for their enemies. “Nope, he’s going first!” she said.

Isengrim’s tail wagged. “Excellent. I am enjoying this immensely!”

Hyren was going second, and he grinned and said, “Me too.” And he meant it. All of the little quibbles he’d had earlier seemed so petty now. More than anything, he wanted Isengrim to feel like a part of their group – their family – and feel like he would always be welcome to join them in a game of Neoquest.

Thunder boomed near the house again, and Hyren glared out the window smugly. The storm could rage all it wanted, but it would never reach him in here. He was going to spend his evening ignoring the rain and enjoying the company of his eclectic, wonderful little family.

The End

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