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Playing the Roll – Part 3

Written by HikerAngel :: [Saturday, 16 January 2021 19:05] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 16 January 2021 20:04]

PART 3: MAGE HUNTING

by HikerAngel

The necromancer, finished with her spell, glanced with gleaming eyes at the bracelet she had lost. As she lunged toward it, I knew it had to be not just valuable, but helpful in a fight. Why else would she not wait until the end of the battle to retrieve it? The magic artifact lay halfway between Michelle and me, making my decision on who to heal suddenly easy.

I leapt into a sprint, pressing my speed with every ounce of my will to ensure that I reached the bracer first. Dropping my hand until my fingertips skimmed the ground, I swept the artifact into my hand just before the enemy mage reached it. Not breaking stride, I lowered my shoulder, knocking the relatively slim woman to the ground. Staggering momentarily, I regained my balance, then continued to run in Michelle’s direction. I didn’t slow until I was nearly to her.

I slid to the ground on my knees as I reached her, tossing the bracelet to the grass and taking Michelle’s dark hand in mine. I called forth my healing power, feeling a cool energy flow through my arms to my fingers, then into her body. I watched in wonder as the red gash in her stomach shrank, then disappeared.

Magic was so fucking cool.

Michelle’s red eyes fluttered open, filling with gratitude as they found mine. Smiling, I searched the ground nearby for the bracer, found it, then slipped it over her wrist. Michelle’s eyes went wide, and I saw a ripple of energy roll through her body, expanding her muscles slightly, but mostly just increasing their already amazing level of definition.

She looked amazingly strong, in spite of her slender, sexy elfin build.

 “What the heck was that!” asked Michelle. “It feels like you just gave me an IV of Rockstar or something!?”

Grinning at her, I answered quickly, concerned that the enemy mage would be back on her feet and casting another spell any moment. “Something that mage bitch was after. Figured it might help you out.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the approaching mage, then at the small army of skeletons, now fully risen and turning their hollow gazes toward Beth and Ron.

“Think you can take magic bitch while I go after the bags of bones over there?”

Michelle smiled, flexing her more powerful muscles as she rose to her feet. “Bring her the fuck on!”

Still breathless from my last sprint, I rose from my crouch to hustle toward the skeletons. Breathing would simply have to wait until my friends were safe. I heard Michelle’s enraged cry behind me. Damn! She had decided to use her rage ability too, huh? I supposed I didn’t blame her. The mage had run her through, after all. I’d be pretty pissed too!

Turning my attention to the task at hand, I drew back my sword and lunged at the bleached, bony bastards before they reached my injured comrades. Swinging wildly, I caught two of them before they could raise their weapons in defense.

I managed to take down another one on my backswing. But there were so many! A half dozen skeletons clicked and clattered as they moved to surround me.

Not wishing to wait for them to attack, I pressed my momentary advantage. Slamming my shield into another of their number, I knocked it to the ground with a rattle of hollow bones. Two others had reached me by then, however, and they swung their weapons at me. I dodged one, but felt the other’s attack crunch into my armor. With a grunt of pain, I staggered backward, struggling to raise my shield to thwart another attack from the first one.

Thankfully, a burst of fire incinerated the attacking skeleton before it could finish its swing. I glanced at the source of the magical blast, seeing Beth still on the ground but having rolled onto her side, her arm outstretched. The right half of her face appeared badly burnt, the eye on that side nothing but black.

Beth cast one more spell, taking out another of the four remaining skeletons around me before the last of her strength gave out and she collapsed to the ground.

The remaining three enemies took turns bashing my shield and defensively positioned sword with blow after blow. I couldn’t seem to find an opportunity to attack with all three enemies attacking me as one. As I began to tire, however, I realized that I needed to generate some kind of offense. If I didn’t, my arms would give out soon, and I’d be doomed.

Breathing heavily, willing strength into my tiring arms, I picked my moment. Raising my shield to my left, repositioning my sword into an attacking position to my right, I lunged forward to  skewer one of the trio of skeletons. It flew backward, to collapse on the ground, its spine severed. 

Unfortunately, the maneuver had left my guard open. I felt the sting of severe pain as a sword pierced the thinner armor under my arm.

A mace slammed into my thigh, making my leg go numb. Unable to stand on my weight-bearing foot and still off balance from my desperate lunge, I dropped to one knee. As blows began to rain down on my back, I fell forward, slamming my face into the muddy ground. I turned my face to see if I could locate Michelle, feeling the cool slime of mud coating my face as I did. Michelle was delivering powerful strikes to the necromancer, her strong body poised for another deadly blow.

My drow friend looked leonine, her muscles supple and strong, as she swung her huge sword with skillful strokes. I hoped she could win this fight and heal the rest of us.

If she didn’t, I thought as my vision faded, I had no idea what would come of us.

***

I woke up on the beach, beside the campfire. The others were rousing as well. Blinking, I looked around. It was early morning. Birds were chirping with cheerful glee as they welcomed the sun.

I rose to my feet, growing dizzy as my knees straightened. I didn’t feel so good. My side hurt. My back too. It was almost as if I could feel the injuries I had sustained from the fight. When I checked, however, my body appeared to be fine.

“What. The fuck,” came Ron’s voice from across the campfire.

“Yeah,” replied Michelle. “I had the craziest dream!”

“That we were in some kind of fantasy game world?” asked Beth shakily as she rose slowly to her feet.

“As our characters?” I said, giving her a surprised look.

“So you had the dream too?” Michelle asked, blinking.

“I’m not sure it was a dream,” I said, my eyes dropping to see another effervescent flash of green upon the surface of the game box. “I mean, if we all experienced the same thing…”

“It wasn’t a dream,” said Beth flatly, her voice certain. “It was real.”

“Real?” Ron snorted. “Really fucking awesome, you mean!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “It was kind of incredible, huh! Too bad about that last battle, though. Do you think it kicked us out of the game because we died? I was actually pretty worried about what might happen!”

“We didn’t die,” said Michelle, smirking. “Someone managed to save our asses.”

She extended both hands, pointing each index finger back at herself with a smug smile.

“You really took down that necromancer?” Beth asked, eyes wide.

“Well, I would have if she hadn’t teleported away,” Michelle said, frowning. “Just when I was about to slice the bitch in half too! I did manage to take out the skeletons that did Jimmie in, though.”

“Well, I would have handled her if I hadn’t been poisoned!” Ron huffed. “The deadliness of my sweet assassiny moves is only exceeded by my handsome, roguish charm…”

“Says the guy who died first…” laughed Michelle.

“He didn’t die,” I said. “He just lost consciousness. After being paralyzed. By Beth’s familiar.”

As I spoke, I noticed Beth rubbing her right eye. Remembering her injury, I wondered if she were feeling the lingering effects of the in-game injuries as I was. “Eye bothering you?”

“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “My vision seems to be a little blurry in my right eye, and it stings a little.”

I gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m feeling the same sort of thing where I was stabbed and bashed. I’m sure it will fade away now that we’re back in the real world.”

Then I thought about the certainty in Beth’s voice when she had said the game was real. “Beth, how were you so sure that the game was—?”

“Fuck! We’ve got to get ready!” Ron interrupted, looking at his phone. “The camp staff meeting is supposed to start in a few minutes!”

We scrambled to get ready, my question forgotten in the frenzied flurry of activity.

***

“Ron, got a sec?” I asked, entering Ron’s cabin to find him lying on his bunk.

He turned stiffly on the mattress to face me. “Sure!”

“You okay?” I eyed him. 

“Yeah,” he grinned. “Just feeling a little worn out.”

“Me too,” I admitted.

“It’s probably all the girl action you’ve been getting…” Ron mused, raising his eyebrow suggestively.

“Pfft,” I retorted glumly. “I think I blew it with Beth.”

Ron laughed. “Hardly, dude. She’s totally into you.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Seriously, don’t you see it? She’s totally coming around. Ever since you kissed her, she’s been sneaking glances at you!”

“Yeah, disgusted glances wondering if I’m going to fucking harass her again.” I felt my cheeks flush. “I don’t know what came over me!”

“You’re a nineteen-year-old dude! And you’ve been pining over Beth for like years! It’s okay, man! You took your shot and it worked!”

Could Ron be right? Had it worked? I didn’t think so. In fact, I was pretty sure Ron was delusional.

Ron watched me as I attempted to ponder his words, then spoke again. “Or are you having second thoughts? Looking for a little Michelle action? She is super hot as a super fit, super sexy Drow, isn’t she?”

He winked at me. “Personally, I’m kinda fond of that necromancer babe…”

“The one who tried to kill us?”

“Hell yeah, man! You know bad girls are my thing.”

I laughed. “Geez, Ron, get a freaking grip!”

“That’s exactly what I had in mind!” He made an obscene grabbing outward gesture.

“Ron,” I said, stunned at his lewd boldness. “You are completely shameless.”

“I know,” he replied with a grin. “Isn’t it great?”

***

“This camp counsellor stuff is hard work!” said Beth that evening, squinting her right eye as she sat down at the table with a tray of food. “Cleaning that huge bathroom took me all afternoon!”

“Here’s a tip: management only ever inspects the first stall in the bathroom, so that’s the only one I clean!” Ron replied, his reddish face leaning in conspiratorially.

“Ew!” said Michelle as she joined us for dinner, catching Ron’s comment as she sat down. Her skin looked darker than normal and her hair lighter. She looked great too! Maybe it was just the lighting in the mess hall. Whatever it was, it suited her. It was the prettiest I’d ever seen her.

Ron merely grinned. “Campers are dirty little fuckers anyway. They won’t even know the difference.”

“Eye still sore?” I asked Beth, noticing her apparent difficulty seeing as she blinked and squinted.

“Yeah,” she confessed. “It seems to be getting worse instead of better as the day’s gone on.”

I touched my side and winced. “Mine too.”

I pulled up my shirt to examine the painful spot and saw a red welt and bruising where my in-game wound had been. Neither had been there this morning.

Beth gasped as she surveyed my injury with her good eye. “Do you think the game injuries are somehow bleeding over into this reality?”

“I don’t know,” I said, queasy at the thought. “I certainly hope not.”

Ron looked concerned as well. “I have been feeling a little stiff. You don’t think…”

“That you’re going to be paralyzed?” Michelle laughed. “It would serve you right for riling up Beth’s little pet. But I haven’t felt bad at all. In fact, I’ve been feeling great today. All kinds of energy.”

I looked at my friend more closely. She seemed more slender and her muscles more toned. She looked more vibrant somehow, stronger and more confident.

Michelle’s eyes narrowed as she looked at Ron. “Ron, did you get a sunburn?”

“I don’t think so. Why?” Ron asked, turning his hand over to examine it.

“You just look redder than normal.”

It was true. He did!

“Not used to being outside all the time, huh?” I teased.

“Outside? I friggin’ napped on my bunk while the rest of you suckers were cleaning! I was barely outside at all!” he said.

“Weird,” Beth said with a furrowing brow.

“You know, Michelle, your skin looks darker than normal,” I told her, studying her appearance “And you seem fitter. Your hair’s lighter too!”

We all fell silent for a moment, lost in thought.

Beth paled, dropping her fork . “You know what this means…?” she breathed.

“That we’re becoming our characters from the game. Injuries and all!” I finished her thought loudly, pounding my hand on the table.

“Shhh! Someone’s going to overhear us and think we’re crazy!” said Michelle, glancing around furtively.

“This is insane!” Beth whispered, her voice awed, running her hands through her silky raven locks. Her good eye darted around as she considered the ramifications of our predicament.

“Wait! We should try our abilities! If our appearances are beginning to show through, maybe our skills will too!” Ron said.

“Good idea! Let me find a sword and swing it at you. If I slice you in half, I’ll prove you right!” Michelle replied with a nefarious smile.

“Ha. Ha,” said Ron before turning his attention to Beth. “I had something else in mind.”

Ron placed his hands on Beth’s. “Tell me to get you something!”

“What?!” Beth replied, surprised and confused.

“Just tell me! As persuasively as you can, Miss Charisma...” he repeated.

“Okaaaay…” Beth replied, humoring him. She pulled her slender fingers from under his hand and drifted her index finger over the flesh on the back of his hand, making eye contact with a suddenly smoldering gaze. “Ron, would you please get me some dessert?”

Her voice was velvet, smooth and silky, compelling even to me. And I wasn’t even the object of her persuasion!

Ron shivered, spellbound for a moment. After a few seconds, however, he shook himself free of her influence. “Damn.” His voice was low. “That was… intense.”

“I think your charisma is definitely making its presence known on this side of reality,” he said, still gazing at her adoringly. “It’s, like, all I can do to keep from fetching you some ice cream right now.”

I punched him in the arm.

“Ow!” he cried, his eyes hurt as they looked at me questioningly. “What was that for?”

I shrugged nonchalantly. “Just trying to help you overcome Beth’s, um, influence.”

“Beat me to it for once,” Michelle told me with a wink.

Ron’s head swiveled to gape at her. “I don’t think I want to feel how hard you can punch now, Michelle. Those arms of yours are looking pretty insanely defined.”

Michelle looked startled, then looked down at her arm. She flexed it to see a series of small but steely ridges and swells tighten under her darker skin. 

“I wonder…” said Beth thoughtfully. She closed her eyes, then moved her hands under the table, making a fluid motion with her hands and whispering a strange phrase.

To my amazement, Draggleton appeared on the floor under the table.

“Holy fuck!” cried Ron. Shocked, he jumped back, only to fall backward over the bench to sprawl on the floor.

“You can do magic?!” Michelle’s voice was incredulous as she looked at Beth enviously.

“I guess I can!” said Beth, a small smile growing over her full lips. Beth’s brows furrowed in concentration as she eyed the small creature carefully.

“Are you communicating with it?” I asked, my voice hushed, remembering how she had been able to speak to it with her mind in the mage’s tower.

She nodded but said nothing, apparently concentrating on her telepathy. I turned my gaze toward the miniature dragon under the table, watching in awe as he suddenly shimmered and became a cat.

“What the…?” I breathed, giving Beth a questioning look.

“Draggleton can disguise his appearance,” said Beth, reaching down to pick up the cat. She clutched him to her chest, then began stroking his head.

Strange, I didn’t remember pseudo dragons having that ability, though I did remember something about an ability to self camouflage. Maybe that’s how it manifested in the real world?

I looked around, sure that someone had seen Draggleton after the commotion that Ron had caused, but no one seemed particularly shocked. There were a few points, smiles, and hushed voices, but as far as I could tell, they were all directed at Ron, who rose stiffly to his feet and began to brush himself off with jerky motions.

“Come on, guys. Let’s get out of here. We need to figure out what to do,” I proposed. The others quickly agreed.

As we left the dinner hall, Ron lagged behind. Turning to urge him onward, I noticed that his movements were becoming even stiffer as he lurched forward on straight legs.

“Ron?!” I asked in concern. “You okay?”

His expression was pained, causing searing pain to radiate from my back and side, reminding me of my own worsening injuries.

“I’m blind in my right eye!” Beth shrieked in alarm. “I can’t see at all now!”

My head swiveled to see her holding a hand slightly to her right side, her left eye closed as she stared blankly past it. Then I heard a plop and a rustle of leaves. Ron had gone down, fully paralyzed now.

I walked over to him, waves of debilitating pain washing through me. As I knelt beside him, I heard a quiet moan and a second rustle of leaves. Glancing toward the girls, I saw Beth on the ground, clutching the right side of her face. Michelle looked stunned, but shook it off, quickly dropping to her knees to tend to Beth as I was with Ron.

Not that I had time to do any good.

Another withering gout of pain fired through me, and before I knew what had happened, I was on the ground as well, reaching behind me in an attempt to do something about the growing agony radiating from my back.

“Michelle!” I called out, my voice straining. “See if you can get us back into the game. Find a way to heal us there! It’s the only…”

I trailed off as my back erupted in another spasm of absolute agony, making speech impossible. 

A moment later, I blacked out.

***

I awoke inside a stone building. Raising my groggy head and looking around, I recognized it immediately. It was the interior of the mage tower!

Michelle must have done it! We were back inside the game!

Rising unsteadily to my feet, I looked around to find a smiling Michelle leaning against the wall. She looked completely amazing, gorgeous and incredibly strong. Ron had been right, she really was a sight to behold in-game. Her arms weren’t bulky but looked as if they had been carved from steel. Her legs looked much the same, tight cables of hard sinew popping into full relief as she pushed herself away from the wall and began to walk toward me. Chiseled abs rippled under her strappy armor, visible in the few places it didn’t cover.

As my eyes found hers, her smile widened. “22 strength looks good on me, huh?”

She twirled, twisting her supple hips to show off her lushly muscled backside. As a dark elf, she was still slender, but every muscle in her body was distinct, dense, and deliciously developed. She seemed a bit taller, and that regal, high-cheekboned elfin face of hers...

I swallowed hard, drawing a twinkle from Michelle’s sparkling eyes. “Y-yeah,” I managed.

After taking a moment to regain my composure, I managed to do the mental math. “You leveled up, didn’t you?”

She nodded, her eyes never leaving mine. “Level 4, baby.”

“Level 4?!” came a voice from behind me, instantly recognizable as Ron’s. “How the fuck did you manage that?”

“Easy,” Michelle replied, shifting her attention to Ron and crossing her arms. “I beat the shit out of a lot of bad guys to save your ass.”

“I still can’t see out of my right eye!” I turned to find Beth, Draggleton beside her, touching the healed flesh around her right eye gingerly.

Her sudden pronouncement reminded me of my own injuries. Reaching to my side, I touched the spot where I’d been stabbed. It didn’t hurt.

Michelle, watching my reaction, explained. “I found some healing potions in the tower here and used them on you guys. No need to thank me.”

She polished her knuckles on her armor, then grinned again. “All in a day’s work.”

“I feel fine too!” said Ron.

We all turned to face Beth. She hadn’t fared as well as the rest of us. Her right eye was charred around the edges and closed, and she reached hesitantly to touch it. She reached to feel it, frowning.

“Then why didn’t my eye heal?”

Michelle shrugged.

“It must be a lingering injury,” I said, walking to her to check her eye.

“Well, can’t you use another healing potion on me and fix it?” Beth’s voice held an edge of panic.

“It’s not that simple. Lower level healing spells and potions only heal damage. They don’t restore things like eyes. To fix that eye, we’d have to find some sort of magical replacement or something. Then, we’d need to find a healer capable of replacing it,” I said as consolingly as possible.

Beth’s good eye went glassy as tears began to well. Her lips trembling, she stared at me wide-eyed. “I don’t want to be a one-eyed freak. I mean, this carries over to the real world, right?”

I felt terrible as a tear rolled down her cheek, placing a tremulous hand on her shoulder in an awkward attempt to comfort her. I really wasn’t good at this kind of thing!

“That sucks, Beth,” said Michelle, not looking particularly concerned. “But I’m sure you’ll get used to it. Just look at the bright side. You still have one good eye.”

I shot Michelle a hard glare before Ron chimed in. “Maybe we should give her the bracelet? To like compensate for her eyelessness and all?”

Michelle took a step back, her left hand flashing to cover the metal bracer on her right protectively. “What?!”

“Well, Beth’s taking a hit to her perception rolls, so I figured maybe we should give her the artifact we found as a sort of compensation?” Ron clarified. “Kinda like worker’s comp!”

“Worker’s comp?” I asked Ron, my voice rising as I grew angry at my friends’ callousness. “Geez, Ron! This isn’t a back injury on an assembly line. She just lost her fucking eye! I don’t think giving her some bracelet ‘makes up’ for that. Show at least a tiny bit of friggin’ empathy, dude!”

Ron looked baffled. “Isn’t that exactly what I was doing?”

I turned my attention to Beth, who actually did seem more hopeful at the suggestion.

“It doesn’t make sense to give her my bracelet anyway,” said Michelle warily. “I’m a barbarian. Strength helps me the most.”

I looked at Michelle consideringly before responding. “Yeah, you’re right.”

When I returned my attention toward Beth, her gaze was imploring. And hurt. Shit. Why had I fucking sided with Michelle just then? Logically, she had been correct. But this hadn’t been the time to crush Beth’s hopes. Maybe Ron had been right for once.

“We just need to find a replacement eye for Beth, that’s all. Some way to repair her vision, mostly in the real world. Now where do we find something like that. Ideas, anyone?”

Suddenly, Beth seemed to remember something, her hurt expression brightening. “Wait! I found this upstairs, in the mage’s bedroom!”

She pulled out a small, round orb and held it before me. Using her other hand to wipe the tears from her cheek, she spoke in a quiet voice. “That’s some kind of eye, isn’t it? Is it magic? Could it work?”

I took it from her tight grip with a bit of difficulty, as if she hadn’t wanted to give it up. As soon as I did, I could sense the power within it. I had a detect magic spell—too bad I didn’t have it prepared at the moment.

Ron perked up, clearly interested in the artifact. “Give it here!” he said, his eyes flashing with greed.

Reluctantly, I acquiesced. He fingered the object under Beth’s intense single-eyed gaze, studying it. “Definitely magical. Powerful, too.”

He looked up. “Where’d you find this?”

Beth looked suddenly sheepish. “It was locked away in the mage’s quarters.”

“Why didn’t you tell the rest of us about it?” Michelle demanded suspiciously.

“I...” Beth’s voice was initially defiant before she glanced at the eye once more and let her shoulders sag. “I don’t know.”

“Think it’ll work?” I asked Ron.

“Sure!” He grinned before tossing it back to Beth with a flip of his wrist.

Beth’s eye widened, and she caught it, carefully cradling it to her chest before shooting an icy glare in Ron’s direction for risking her best chance at a return to normalcy.

“Well, okay then,” I said, willing hopefulness into my voice. “Now we just need to head to town and find a healer capable of doing the surgery.”

“Surgery?” Beth asked, fear flashing across her beautiful features.

“Well, yeah,” I said lamely, unsure what else to say. 

Feeling my way through a more thorough explanation to set her mind at ease, I continued. “I mean, how else are we going to insert the eye? We care about you, and as we’ve seen, losing it could have consequences in the real world too. So we want to get someone who actually knows what they’re doing to implant it. Maybe it will even give you some kind of abilities. It is magical after all.”

Beth opened her hands to look at the eye once more. Steeling herself with a deep breath, she nodded. “Okay. Surgery, it is then.”

We packed up and headed to town, the journey, for once, proceeding uneventfully.

Once in town, we asked around until we were directed toward the most skilled healer in the region. Entering the shop, I approached the old woman at the counter. I decided on directness. I really wanted to get this done for Beth.

“We’re looking for someone capable of performing eye surgery.”

“An eye surgery, eh?” replied the old woman, the corners of her mouth crinkling as she spoke. Her joints seemed to creak as she shifted in her seat. “Such things aren’t commonly done, for to do it, ye would need an orb o’ magic as replacement.”

Ushering Beth to stand beside me, I whispered for her to show the old woman the eye she had found. Reluctantly, Beth drew it forth, eliciting a curious gleam from the wispy-haired woman’s  cataract-laden eyes. 

“Now where did you find this, dearie?”

Beth glowered at the woman. “None of your business.”

I rested my hand on her shoulder, attempting to indicate that she should back off, again wondering at her recent tendency toward secrecy, at least where the eye was concerned. We needed this lady to do this for us. From what we’d gathered from the townsfolk, there was no one else within a hundred miles capable of successfully implanting an eye.

The woman gave a slow, half-hoarse cackle in reply. “Fair enough, lassie.”

She examined the eye, turning it over in her fingers as she made a strange humming sound under her breath. I glanced at the others, only to find Ron miming an elderly cane-bearing walk, clearly making fun of the old crone. I made a slashing gesture across my throat to tell him to cut it out, but he persisted.

I rolled my eyes, then cast Michelle an imploring glance. The last thing we needed was Ron offending her and ruining our chances of helping Beth. Thankfully, Michelle nodded, then swung a powerful arm in a well-aimed arc to knock Ron off his feet.

“Fuck! Ow! That hurt!” Ron cried from the floor, looking up at the smirking drow barbarian towering above him. “Why is everyone always smacking me these days?”

She merely shrugged as he pushed himself back to his feet. “Hmmm, maybe because you deserve it!”

Ignoring Ron and Michelle’s continued bickering, I turned my attention back to the old woman. She didn’t seem to pay them any heed, too transfixed by her examination of the eye. Good. “So can you do it?”

“Aye, I can,” she replied, still staring at the magic object. “Fer a price, lad. Fer a price.”

“What price?” I asked warily.

“I seek a potion,” she replied in a tinny voice, her eyes becoming distant as she recalled the memory. “‘Tis an elixir of magic beyond my ken, with a power for which I have use, ‘fore many more fortnights I see.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” asked Ron, raising an eyebrow. Turning to Michelle, he asked, “Is that even English?”

Michelle raised a hand as if to deliver another backhand to send him to the floor. I was fairly certain it was an idle threat. It turned out, she didn’t even need to do anything, however. Ron stumbled backward to avoid the blow, bumping into a table and falling heavily atop its hard surface.

Michelle giggled at Ron’s latest antics. “Yes, dumbass. Of course, it’s English. She just wants us to get her some potion that she doesn’t know how to make herself before she gets any older. Didn’t you ever read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Shakespeare or anything like that in school?”

“Read? In school? Fuck, no!” said Ron, again returning to his feet, watching Michelle’s hand with a wary eye.

Michelle shook her head. “You never cease to amaze me, Ronnie. How you ever graduated, I’ll never know…”

“Takes mad skillz to get through high school without ever once cracking a book, I tell you, little grasshopper.” Ron grinned broadly, his pattern of speech going from gamer geek to wizened kung fu master within the span of a single sentence. 

Michelle snorted. “You sure are a master of new English.”

Ron grinned at the compliment.

I tried my best to ignore both of them. “Okay, so we get you this potion and you’ll do the surgery?”

“Aye,” the woman said, staring at me with strange intensity.

“Okay then,” I said, puffing up my chest despite being somewhat weirded out by the old woman’s behavior. “It’s settled. A potion for an eye.”

I stuck out my hand, and she shook it.

“So where can we find this potion?” I asked her. An odd smile turned upward the weathered corners of her wrinkled cheeks.

***

“This sucks,” said Ron, sticking his tongue out and spitting as he danced about, struggling to pluck the stringy cobwebs from his face. 

“It’s a fucking dungeon, Ron. What the hell did you expect?” replied Michelle, finally growing annoyed at his nonstop antics.

“Expect?” he shot back. “I expected a bunch of monsters and action and treasure chests and loot and babes and shit!”

“Babes?” said Beth incredulously. “In a dungeon?”

“Well, actually that’s the one thing that’s actually as it should be…” he said, a grin growing across his face as his eyes dropped to the swells of Beth’s breasts beneath her revealing robes.

This time, Beth was the one to smack him.

“Shit!” said Ron, too slow to dodge away. Then he considered her action. “I probably deserved that.”

Beth swatted him again.

“What was that one for?” he asked, astonished.

“Good measure,” Beth grumbled. She hadn’t been in the best of moods since losing her eye, and she had clearly lost patience with Ron just as Michelle and I had.

Chastened, Ron trudged forward, attempting in vain to shake away the last of the cobwebs to inadvertently step on a metal plate in the center of the hallway.

“Look out!” I cried as I saw a hole opening under his feet.

Acting instinctively, I leapt forward, diving over the widening chasm to tackle Ron to the ground at the far side. Moving quickly, Michelle charged ahead as well, jumping over the chasm with a massive thrust of her powerful legs.

I rolled off of Ron and got back to my feet, only to look back at Beth on the far side, separated from the rest of us by a 10-foot hole.

“Aren’t you supposed to be the one finding the traps, not setting them off?” Michelle asked Ron, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Well, if people would stop hitting me, maybe I could actually do my freaking job!” Ron shot back.

Michelle whacked him in the arm, sending him careening to the wall.

He sneered back at her rubbing his arm. “Very funny.”

“I thought so,” Michelle quipped.

“Don’t you think that’s getting a little old?”

“Nope,” Michelle replied, crossing her arms stubbornly.

“Guys!” I said to both of them. “NOT helping! Now we need to get Beth over to this side! Ideas?”

Ron looked at the beautiful one-eyed girl and shrugged. Michelle did the same.

“Great,” I muttered, straining my brain to think of an idea.

“You don’t have any levitation spells, do you?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“Teleportation?” I suggested next.

Another shake of her head.

I put my finger to my lips and thought for a moment, my gaze falling to the small dragon at her feet. “Can Draggleton do anything to help?”

Conferring with him mentally, Beth gave me another curt shake of her head, her long dark hair shimmering with the motion.

“Fuck,” I said under my breath.

“I think a little barbarian power can get us through this one,” said Michelle, backing away from the edge of the newly formed cliff.

“How is barbarian power supposed to help Beth—”

Before Ron could finish, Michelle sprinted toward the chasm and leapt over it again, clearing the full ten feet with room to spare. She turned and wrapped her hands around Beth’s slender waist.

Beth looked at her in surprise. “What are you…?”

Michelle swung her back, sending Beth’s dark hair flying backward, then let out a loud roar of rage as the powerful Drow flung the slender brunette across the pit with every ounce of her impressive strength.

Beth landed at the far side, her upper half on the ground, legs dangling over the edge. I reached down and took her hand, hauling her over the edge and back to her feet.

Smiling, Michelle backed up again on the other side, and leapt over the chasm once more, ignoring the dark, disapproving glare from Beth as she landed.

“There,” Michelle said, brushing off her hands with a satisfied smirk. “Problem solved.”

I had to hand it to her—she had solved the problem. And in very direct, very barbarian fashion, just as she’d said. Unable to help smiling, I looked at Beth. She just glared back at me as well.

As we continued into the dark halls of the dungeon, I began to hear a strange scratching noise coming from around the corner.

“I think something’s coming…” Ron warned.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Michelle replied, readying her massive sword with both hands.

A moment later, a dozen small, reptilian creatures scrambled into view.

“Kobolds!” I screamed, readying my own weapons.

Michelle let out another angry roar and charged into their midst. Swinging her sword to each side, she cut down half of their number before they could manage to scurry out of her way.

One of them drew back a bowstring, but Beth alertly flashed a hand out, sending a gout of flame into its center, incinerating it instantly.

Another flung an axe at Michelle, but she dodged deftly to the side, then reached out and snagged it from the air by the handle. In one graceful motion, she spun and fired the axe back at the beast, slicing it—and the one behind it—in half with the throw. Grinning, Michelle kicked a third, sliced into a fourth, then drew and whipped a dagger from her belt into the fifth. The creature downed by her kick struggled to its feet and ran away, clutching its side.

I exchanged an amazed look with Ron. Before either of us had even entered the fray, the two women had taken down a dozen foes, Michelle downing all but one on her own.

“Damn, girl,” Ron said in an awed voice. “You’ve been working out!”

Michelle harrumphed at his remark, but she was clearly pleased at the very Ronnish compliment.

“Yeah, Michelle. That was pretty seriously impressive,” I agreed.

Now Michelle practically glowed with pride, wiping off her blade on a dead kobold.

“I killed one too,” Beth interjected, looking at me angrily.

“Oh, yeah! Of course! Nice work, Beth,” I said, knowing before I said the words that it was too little, too late. Why did I keep managing to screw up when it came to Beth lately?

Beth marched by me coldly, not even glancing in my direction.

Shit.

I really wasn’t doing so well with the whole comforting-Beth-in-her-eyeless-period-of-distress, was I? I was pretty sure Ron had been way off in his assessment of her feelings toward me.

Letting my gaze drop to the floor, I followed sheepishly behind the others until we reached a huge, cavernous room at the end of the hallway.

“This must be it!” I said, my voice echoing through the chamber. “The place the old woman was telling us about!”

Beth surveyed the room with her good eye until she spied a smooth black stone mounted on the wall behind some sort of altar at the far side of the room. She pointed at its polished surface. It was engraved with the symbol of a skull, exactly the marker the old woman had told us to look for.

“There,” she said simply, grunting out the word in true barbarian fashion.

Nodding my agreement, I stepped forward, eager to get this potion and get out of this dark, dank dungeon. The moment I made the move, however, four cloaked figures seemed to emerge from the rippling stone walls on either side of the room. Their hooded robes were emblazoned with the same symbol of the skull as the stone slab that Beth had spotted.

“Cultists!” yelled Ron, unslinging his bow and nocking an arrow.

“How the hell do you know they’re cultists?” asked Michelle as she drew her sword.

Ron shrugged. “Robes. Symbols. What else would they be? Does it matter? They’re wearing black robes. They’re clearly bad guys.”

Michelle thought for a moment as the two pairs of robed figures approached ominously from either side, then nodded, conceding his point. She stepped to my side, holding her sword once more at the ready. I pulled out my own, much smaller, sword, tightening my grip on the handle of my shield as well.

“Here they come,” said Beth, her voice shaking slightly. The last time we had battled enemy mages, she’d lost an eye. Clearly, the less-than-pleasant outcome of our last difficult battle was having an impact on her confidence.

But this wasn’t the time for reassurance. It was the time for action. I moved to the right, Michelle to the left, finally positioning ourselves into a semblance of a more strategic formation. This time, I knew we needed to protect the more vulnerable members of our party—Ron and Beth—and I was determined to do it.

Michelle whirled her huge weapon like a baton. Her strength truly had become impressive. I doubted I could manage more than a slow, telegraphed swing with her huge blade, but she was now swinging it around as if it were weightless.

Hearing one of the cultists beginning a strange chant, however, I turned my thoughts away from Michelle and toward my opponents. He was beginning some sort of spell, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want him to finish it.

“Beth?” I called back to our beautiful mage. “Wanna take out Mr. Mumbles?”

“Absolutely,” she said with a wicked smile. Winding up like a baseball pitcher, Beth whipped a ball of fire at the strange man. Rather than incinerating him, however, it washed over him harmlessly, revealing a hazy sphere of blue light surrounding him.

“Um, guys?” I said uncertainly. “I think they’ve got some kind of magical shields.”

A moment later, Michelle reached the closest one, bringing her sword down in a terrifying, lethal arc. It glanced off the transluscent shield, sparking as it sent her sword rebounding hard, flying from her grip.

Fuck. This was not going to be easy. Why couldn’t it have just been more kobolds?

From there, all hell broke loose.

The nearest cultist to me began moving his hands in a rolling motion reminiscent of that the necromancer had used in our last fight. Shit! Was he about to raise an army of freaking skeletons as she had? If his skull symbol were any indication, that was a definite possibility.

Nearing the casting cultist, I gave him an experimental shove with my shield. It crackled against his magical defenses, not touching him. It did seem to distract him, however, and the magical energy that had accumulated around his hands dissipated. Frowning, he began another spell.

These blasted shields! We really needed to find a way to deal with these guys. And fast!

I glanced toward Michelle, seeing that she had retrieved her blade just in time to be blasted with a splash of acid from one of the two cultists she was facing down. It sizzled against her armor, eliciting a surprised yelp from the beautiful barbarian.

“Beth?” I called back, not taking my eyes off our enemies. “Can you cast something that will take down these magical shields of theirs?”

“I… don’t think so,” she replied, her voice sounding uncertain.

Frustrated, I cast about for a solution to the dilemma, dodging a ball of magical ice that materialized before one of the cultists, hurling toward me the instant it appeared.

Then my eyes seized upon something. On the altar. Glowing. It appeared to be a glowing weapon of some sort. I broke into a run, weaving between the two robed enemies to reach the altar, glancing over my shoulder repeatedly to dodge incoming magical projectiles several times.

When I reached it, I grabbed the long handle of what turned out to be a huge, double-bladed, glowing axe, again wishing I had a Detect Magic spell prepared to learn its capabilities.

Hefting it off the table, I found that I could barely lift the heavy weapon. Giving it a test swing, the motion was as slow as if I were moving it underwater. Far too slow for it to be of any use to me. Michelle, on the other hand, probably was strong enough to wield this thing properly.

Training my attention on her, I watched as she was struck by a fireball, a glowing -24 appearing for a brief moment over her head before evaporating into mist.

Shit! She was already looking worse for wear, unable to return the cultists’ attacks, simply taking damage. I needed to hurry.

While I was distracted, one of the cultists nailed me with a magic arrow, shaving off seven health points. Fucking mages! Why were we constantly being confronted with magic-wielding enemies! Why not some bugbears or dire wolves or something? I was really beginning to hate this particular brand of enemy.

Grumbling, I ran awkwardly toward Michelle, balancing the heavy axe as best I could until I reached her. As I did, I felt another painful blast of magic rippled over my back.

I ignored it, thrusting out the handle of the axe toward Michelle. She paused mid-strike to give me a confused look.

“Take it!” I said, my voice strained and urgent.

Thankfully, eyes roaming along the red glow along the weapon’s edge, she didn’t question me. She dropped her sword and took the massive axe from my hands. As she gave it a quick test swing, she grinned.

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!” she screamed, raging as she swung the axe from overhead at the closest cultist.

The magic weapon cleaved right through the man’s shield and split him in twain, a red, floating “-32” appearing in the air over his dead body as he keeled over.

“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” she cried. “Finally!”

The other cultist within her range took a step back in fear. I didn’t blame him. Her eyes wild and manic, her tightly sculpted physique bulged as Michelle wielded her massive weapon. She looked intimidating as hell!

Leaving Michelle to finish off her other mage, I turned my attention to my two opponents, eager for some retribution after their ranged attacks. My only problem? I, unlike Michelle, still couldn’t get past their blasted shields!

Deciding that I would just pound on their shields until they broke if I had to, I marched forward, dodging another magical attack as I made my way toward them once again.

As I did, I suddenly realized something. These guys hadn’t been moving. They stood as if pinned in place the entire time! Maybe it had something to do with the defensive magic they were using. Perhaps their shield bubbles didn’t allow them to move?

I grinned as an idea came to mind. “Beth, you can cast Sleep, right?”

“Yes, but the last time I tried it, it didn’t work!”

“That was with skeletons. These are people. And they can’t move out of the area of effect. Try it! Now!”

I glanced at Beth, watching her arms fly out, a sphere of purple, shimmering magic forming instantly around the two cultists. I watched the two men collapse to the ground, beginning to snore as they lay prone.

Letting out a sigh of relief, I shot Beth a joyful smile. She returned a dazzling one of her own.

Whirling, I turned to Michelle just in time to see her delivering a death blow to the final cultist. Her well-developed shoulders tensed with her grip on her weapon as she looked around for any more enemies to kill.

Seeing none left standing, she finally relaxed.

“This way!” I called out to the others, jogging to the altar once more to fiddle with the wall-mounted stone plate that the old woman had said would contain her potion.

I ran my fingers along its edges but could find no way of opening it to reveal the elixir we’d been sent to find. Frustrated once more, I turned to the others.

“Any ideas?”

Michelle frowned. Beth looked thoughtful. Ron stepped forward.

“Let me try,” Ron said, shoving me out of the way.

“Geez, dude,” I told him, annoyed. “Rude, much?”

He ignored me, intent upon solving the mystery of the skull-emblazoned stone. Growling to release a bit of my annoyance, I watched the rogue work.

He searched around the surface of the smooth stone as I had, but unlike me, he discovered something. His eyes lit up when his probing fingers reached the center of the tablet’s base. Ron slipped off his pack and dug around until he produced a small pick. Moving the tool upward, he dragged it along the underside of the tablet until it slid upward into some kind of small, nearly invisible nook.

“I doubt it’s going to—” I started, but quickly stopped as I heard a click.

The stone slid down to reveal a small cubic opening the size of a fire safe.

“How did you do that?” I breathed, eying the stoppered flask of iridescent blue liquid.

“A master never reveals his tricks…” Ron replied cryptically, reaching out to grab the flask by the neck and shove it into his pack. “...now let’s get out of here!”

Nodding my agreement along with the others, we made our way out before the remaining cultists awoke.

***

When we entered the healer’s shop once more, I slumped into a chair at the table, exhausted. Beth did the same. Only Michelle seemed to still have energy.

“So…?” queried the old woman, eying us questioningly and rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

“Give her the potion, Ron,” I told him.

“Are you sure? Maybe we should negotiate. Try to sweeten the deal?” he replied.

I simply glared at him in response.

“Fucking paladins,” he grumbled. Moving slowly, he finally complied with my request, removing his backpack and pulling out the flask to hand it over.

Hands trembling, her eyes gleaming greedily, she reached out to snatch it from him. Unstoppering the cork, she raised the flask to her lips and drank its contents in a single swig.

“Geez, lady!” said Ron, watching her eager downing of the strange blue liquid with amusement.

Then, she began to transform.

Her hair lengthened and color flowed down its previously white strands, bringing with it a vibrant, healthy sheen. It was almost as if color were being painted over it, as if she were a drawing in a coloring book with crayons applying a mixture of gold and silver colors to her growing tresses.

The woman’s wrinkled face smoothed and tightened, pulling across regal cheekbones even as her skin’s hue grew healthier. Her faded eyes grew brighter, her pursed lips plumping and reddening. Her breasts seemed to rise and grow firmer beneath her threadbare cloak, proudly distending the material over their full swells. The skin over her bony hands grew thicker and sleeker, until her fingers looked youthful and nimble.

“Holy fuck!” Ron gasped. “You’re hot!”

The now youthful woman smiled, fluttering open long eyelashes, her eyes having closed during the transformation. When she spoke, her voice seemed to have lost its ragged rasp, becoming smooth as velvet.

Ron blinked twice more, then rubbed his eyes. His expression shifted from one of amazement to one of lust. “So, um, you single?”

The woman laughed, the sound like the warm August tinkle of a wind chime. She ignored Ron, gracefully sweeping from behind the counter to take Beth’s hand. Beth rose and followed her into the back of her shop.

“Sure. Play hard to get!” Ron called out after her as she disappeared with Beth into the back. “I know you want me! Deep down inside! That’s right!”

Michelle picked up a small stone from the floor and threw it at Ron, pelting him in the head. “Bloody hell, ‘Chelle! Why do you keep doing stuff like that?”

“Because you totally deserve it!” she shot back with a faux innocent smile and a quick bat of her elven eyes.

“She’s right,” I said with a smirk. “You did. Pretty much always do.”

Ron grumbled, then sulked to the corner, where he crossed his arms and frowned to wait as far from the two of us as possible.

***

An hour or so later, the pair of gorgeous women emerged from the back of the woman’s shop. Beth’s eye had been replaced, but it didn’t match the other. In place of her dark chocolate iris was a softly glowing green eye with a pupil that looked akin to that of a cat—a thin, vertical slit. It was a bit odd, but the effect of its presence somehow added, rather than detracted, to the appeal of her modelesque face. It gave her a darker, more mysterious sort of beauty.

Beth smiled darkly, and I could sense that something about her had changed. A difference in her posture. And her expression. She seemed more confident. I supposed that was probably a result of having her eye back, but m,aybe the magical artifact could even give her some additional abilities as well. After all, the mage must have kept it safely hidden in his bedchambers for a reason.

I’d been impressed with how well Beth had handled the whole eye situation, actually. I don’t know if I would have dealt with the loss of an eye as well, especially with its consequences in the real world! Thankfully, she no longer had to worry about any of that.

“Damn! That eye looks a little freaky,” Ron blurted out. “It’s kinda sexy, though.”

Leave it to Ron to express my exact sentiments in the crudest possible way. Beth gave him a strangely intense glare, however, quieting him instantly. It was an impressive feat. I wished I had that ability.

“Well, I think it looks great,” I said, in a conciliatory tone before quickly changing the subject. “Now we just need to figure out where to go next. Where do you think the mage from the tower might have gone?”

“The mage from the tower?” the beautiful shopkeeper asked, looking intrigued.

“Yes!” I replied. “Do you know where he is?”

She smiled, her expression revealing that she knew exactly where to find him. “Try the Underdark.”

“The Underdark?!” Ron and I repeated in unison, looking fearful.

The woman nodded, then disappeared into the back room once more. I wanted to ask her more, but decided against bothering her further. She’d already had to deal with Ron’s inappropriate comments. She was probably off to enjoy her newfound youth or something.

Beth looked at the rest of us, with an unconcerned raise of her eyebrow. “I take it, the Underdark is creepy or something?”

“I’ll say!” said Ron.

I nodded my agreement.

“Wimps!” Michelle chimed in, rising to her feet. “I’m looking forward to a little Underdark action.”

“‘Cause you’re a freaking Drow!” huffed Ron. “It’s pretty much your natural habitat!”

She merely smiled as she opened the door, ushering the rest of the party outside.

As Beth brushed past me, I felt a strange sensation. Some sort of prickling of my skin. What on earth was that all about? I wondered. It was as if the lovely brunette had some strange aura of power about her. Was that an effect of her new eye?

“How about resting up at an inn. We’ve had quite a day!” I suggested.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Michelle.

As we made our way to the nearest inn, Ron giggled.

“What are you up to now, Ronnie?” asked Michelle, casting a stern glance in his direction.

“I may have pilfered a little something from the old woman’s shop,” he grinned. “Serves her right for acting indifferent toward my sexy self.”

“Let me see that,” said Beth. Her hand flashed out to take away the necklace.

Who should receive the necklace?
What does the Necklace do?

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