Looking at the shabby storefront in one of the many run-down strip malls littering Marks Avenue, Paul began to have second thoughts. Truth be told, he didn’t recall there ever being a board game shop in this particular plaza. But obviously, this store was not a new establishment. The sticky note with the address scrawled hastily across it crinkled as he dug it out of his pocket, and he inspected the note again.
Curious Curios, 241 Marks Ave. 7:45, bring your own supplies.
The red-headed girl at the coffee shop who had invited Paul had been clear he should dress for “an adventure into the vampire lord’s crypt” or something equally cool and nerdy. Normally, he wouldn’t put himself out there like this and just join some social outing where he knew absolutely no one. But it had been a really long time since he’d gotten out of the apartment, and the girl —Victoria, or Veronica maybe her name was — had been very cute. So here Paul stood, at 7:48 in the evening, holding a bag of chips and a lemonade. Dressed as his best attempt at a sword-wielding warrior. Which really was just a collection of items he’d picked up from a Party City on the way over. Taking a deep breath, he shoved the post-it note back into his pocket and headed inside Curious Curios.
A handful of dusty shelving racks littered the poorly lit shop, and not a single person was visible, even behind the counter. An old-school entry system tinkled a physical bell as Paul closed the glass door behind him, but no one appeared from the back rooms to answer it. I must have read the time wrong. Or they’ve started without me and I’ve missed it. He thought frantically as he scrambled to retrieve the crumpled paper from his pocket. Just as he was breathing a sigh of regret mixed with relief and resigning himself to watching something on Netflix alone in his apartment, the girl from the coffee shop popped around the corner.
“Oh you made it! I wasn’t sure you’d come. We’re back here, just getting ready to begin. Come on!” She motioned cheerily and led Paul down a short hallway to one of the back rooms. Her costume was immaculate, some sort of mage or enchantress outfit with bits of blue embroidery in a vine-like pattern. She opened the door for him and motioned him inside, the bustle of activity and conversation suddenly booming from the room.
As Paul sheepishly stepped into the room, he suddenly realized he had underdressed for the event. He had guessed his $13 outfit would be a bit out of place, but he began to think this was one of those professional LARPing groups. Everyone else looked like they’d been lifted straight out of a Hollywood set, with intricately detailed hats, shoulder pauldrons, coats, and more. The sets of armor and faux weapons glistened and clinked with total realism. If he didn’t know better, he’d think these costumes were all the real deal.
“Paul, this is the crew. Everyone, this is Paul!” Victoria or Veronica (Paul wished he was better with names) cheered as she shut the door behind them. The small room roared with a chorus of greetings as a dozen people tried to introduce themselves at once. Not only were the costumes pro-level, but the make-up, hair, and even commitment to the accents and mannerisms were all top-notch. Wizards and bards and warriors ranging from human to elven to some halflings and even a bird-like creature, these people were not just playing around, they really committed to this stuff.
Paul blushed bright red as he spoke up, “So sorry everyone, I didn’t realize how legit this group would be, my costume is really pretty terrible.”
“No worries Paul,” encouraged a man with the most convincing forest elf makeup Paul had ever seen, “Verity, why didn’t you get him some gear? Can’t be having new recruits going to strike at the heart of darkness in a bit of cardboard and string.”
Verity, the red-haired girl from the coffee shop, replied, “Sorry, I just got busy with my own prep for tonight I guess.” She apologized profusely to Paul and the group quickly procured some extra armor and equipment for him. As Paul began to strap on the bits of costumes, he commented on how authentic it all felt, thanking everyone for including him in such a professional LARP.
“LARP?” Verity looked at him quizically as she began to swirl her hands in a rhythmic pattern, “Didn’t you hear me at the coffee place? We’re going monster-hunting tonight in the realm of the Shadow King Mardu.”
Paul chuckled a bit until blue light started to pulse and glow in the center of the pattern she was making. As if on cue, everyone in the room picked up shields, swords, staves, and the like as the blue light grew and swirled around the room. The laughter in Paul’s throat suddenly dried up as a man in the bird make-up thrust a sword into Paul’s hands.
“You’re going to need this,” the bird-man crooned in an impossibly avian voice.
“TRANVIO!” Verity yelled, clapping her hands together over her head.
Blue light flashed brilliantly, blinding Paul momentarily. When his vision returned, they were all standing in the middle of a dark forest, the full moon beaming into the clearing where they stood. The blue light still rippled out faintly from them in all directions. In the distance, a haunting howl started up, quickly answered by others.
“Werewolves,” Verity grumbled, “Paul, stay with me if you want to live. And for God’s sake don’t drop that sword, it’s silver.”
The cool night air seemed to pierce to Paul’s bones, the sudden change from the small, air-conditioned room to a dark, mysterious forest shocking his entire body. His eyes had not yet adjusted to the abrupt change in light either, so all he could see well was Verity, still bathed lightly in blue light. Panic setting in, he swiveled his head, trying to take in whatever had just happened to him. Too many new and impossible sounds came from all around, and he struggled to make sense of anything. Grass rustling, boots stomping, swords being unsheathed, and the people all around him barking orders in hushed voices.
Nothing made sense. A few moments prior, Paul had been in a back room of a run-down game shop eight blocks from his apartment. He looked down at the weight in his hands and remembered the sword someone had thrust into his arms. This is a real sword! Who are these people? Paul dropped the sword as he scrambled to understand. Feeling the entire world spin around him, Paul sank to his knees in the grass as his legs gave out underneath him. A babble of incoherent denials streamed out of his mouth as he stared blankly at the grass that should have been an aging tile floor.
A hand gently touched Paul’s shoulder, causing him to lose what little balance he had and topple to his side on the damp ground. Verity crouched beside him and held the short sword up between them.
“Paul, I believe I was quite clear that you must hold onto this sword. There are werewolves out tonight, and this sword is made of silver.” Verity smoothly reminded him.
Clumsily picking himself up off the forest floor, Paul managed real words finally, “What does that mean? Who are you people? What am I doing here?”
Verity sighed, placing the sword back into Paul’s outstretched and pleading hands, “Surely even in your world there are legends of werewolves and the power of silver to slay them, are there not? Stay with me, we must move before they descend upon us.” She began to perform a pattern with her hands again, this time forming a ball of light in one hand, and a scimitar made of light in the other. She moved away from Paul without another word, but he thought he heard her faintly whisper, “I hope I’ve not made a mistake.”
The rest of what Paul had moments ago thought was a LARP party began to follow Verity’s lead as she moved to the edge of the clearing. Remembering what she had said about staying near her, Paul trotted to keep up. As he took a place near her in the march through the forest, he saw her smile thinly seeing him. All around him, spread out strategically through the trees, the others they had come here with kept pace with Verity as well, their heads darting back and forth, looking for the sources of those ghoulish howls. Paul saw the grey-feathered birdman who had handed him the silver sword nearby and tried to catch his attention.
“Hi, um, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name before. Can you tell me what exactly is going on?” Paul tried to shout in a whisper where Verity wouldn’t hear.
Again an unusual and bird-like voice cooed from the beak of the parrot-like individual, “Name’s Lariat. It’s your first time, don’t worry. We all felt like that the first time we crossed over too. You’ll get your footing soon, just don’t drop your weapon.”
Paul blinked at his answer, “Wait, so is this all really happening?”
Lariat cackled joyfully, “Well of course this is real, what did you expect—”
The rest of what Lariat was going to say was cut off as a monstrous figure lept from the deep shadows of the forest, pinning the avian companion to the ground. A shaggy, muscular arm raised, showing jagged claws. Paul was frozen to the spot, horror replacing confusion. His throat tried to scream, but it was suddenly dry as a bone, and no sound came. He felt himself being pushed to the side as other adventurers rushed forward to help their friend. Verity was suddenly at his side, shouting orders to form a perimeter and watch the trees. Floating balls of light lifted overhead from several of the other mages — or whatever they really are, Paul thought.
A gleaming blade struck up through the back werewolf that had pounced on Lariat, and the feathery man scrambled out from underneath the dead hulk. Paul noticed several gashes along the front of Lariat’s leather armor, but otherwise, he seemed to be unharmed. There was little time to celebrate though, as more of the beasts leaped from the shadows around them. Paul could smell their stench now, and if his entire throat hadn’t already closed up in fear, he likely would have thrown up on the spot.
“Paul, sword up!” Verity shouted at him, “Raise your sword!”
Paul thought he felt himself raise the sword in front of him, but he was barely registering any of the commotion around him. It had all blurred into a continuous hum of chaos and violence. Hairy, snarling shadows swung razor-sharp claws and dashed around their group, and swords, flails, and spells were whipped around in response. Verity twirled around him like a dancer, flinging beams of light out of her left hand while cutting patterns of blood-red carnage with the light-sword in her right. At one point, Paul felt himself swinging wildly at the 10-foot-tall monstrosities, although he had no idea if he even made contact with anything other than air. He thought he saw many of the werewolves fall to the adventurers’ attacks, but he was also vaguely aware that at least one had escaped into the night.
Finally, after what could have been either hours or minutes, the werewolves were all either dead or gone. Paul’s hands began to tremble as he felt the adrenaline rush fade, and for the first time, he felt the physical weight of both the glittering sword and the heavy armor he had donned. He felt his knees try to give way, but Verity steadied him and gave him a reassuring grin. Grime and blood clung to her braided hair, but her smile radiated and warmed him in spite of the terror he felt reaching for him.
The relative silence was broken as Lariat approached Verity and shook his head grimly, “One got away, and it took Tomas.”
“The hunt continues,” Verity spoke solemnly, “And it seems as if the Shadow King now draws us to himself.”
Verity began helping her companions up, and the march through the forest took on an urgent pace.
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On the Hunt. Paul’s only way out of a waking nightmare is through it.