Short Story: Diplomacy Check

Arthur did one final check through his supplies. Potions, throwing axes, spell scrolls, the amulet his father gave him as a boy. Everything a warrior needed. He glanced around at the rest of his party. Dreyfus, his childhood friend from their time in Brandwell, read through his spellbook just to make sure he wouldn’t forget anything at his disposal. Unlikely, considering he had been planning this attack for months and knew it backwards and forwards. Ameria, more commonly called Amy, swept her hair behind pointed ears as she sharpened the dagger she had stolen from the orc warchief of Carmarthen. If you listened closely, you could still hear the screams of the souls trapped inside.

The three of them had been through countless adventures together. They had made their way through the Dread Marshes by sheer force of will, the spirits inhabiting that forbidden place hindering their every step. They had trekked deep into The Expanse and been taken captive by sand raiders all to retrieve a ring sealed with the royal family’s crest. They had led the charge against the dark elf king of Nair, who had made a pact with the orcs in the north and planned to take the kingdom of Listeria for himself. The trio had many fond memories of past adventures, each more daring than the last.

But this one was different. Amy rubbed her finger against the blade of her dagger to check its sharpness, then glanced around at her two companions. She asked, “Where is that little halfling nuisance?”

The doorbell rang. Right on cue. Mason looked up from behind his dungeon master’s screen at Arty. “Jason?” he asked.

Arty smiled. “Jason.” Mason grinned and shook his head, then returned to the notes he had written up for the battle at hand. Arty pushed his chair back from the card table, leaving Richard to flip through his Player’s Handbook to find all of the effects of Dreyfus’s spells. Amy pulled out the first compendium of The Walking Dead comic. She’d been using every spare moment she had to get through that book, and she was getting really close to the end.

Arty made his way up the stairs to the main floor of his house, ribbons and medals from spelling bees, science fairs, and math competitions hanging on the wall of the stairwell. He never particularly cared about them, but even less so nowadays than he had before. He made his way through the foyer with its high ceilings to the front door. “Hey, buddy,” Jason shouted as Arty opened the door. Jason practically burst through the entrance as soon as it was open a crack, wearing all black as he usually did. “Hey, Jason.”

“So I’ve been listening to Metallica’s new album. It’s been pretty true to form, all things considered, but luckily Hetfield is getting his voice back after all these years.”

Arty nodded and gave his typical responses. “Oh yeah? Sweet. Dude, that’s awesome.” He didn’t think about music very much. He liked music, and he liked listening to music, but thinking about music too much reminded him of multiple piano recitals with an empty chair next to his mother. They made their way down the stairs while Jason continued to ramble on about Metallica, finally concluding with a “Hey, guys” once they reached the basement. Everyone greeted him back. Amy rolled her eyes. Arty and Jason situated themselves around the table. “What did I miss?” Jason asked.

Dreyfus looked up from his spellbook to where Clovis, a halfling bard, had suddenly appeared sitting on a rock not ten feet from him. “What did you miss?” Ameria asked. “Where have you been? And how did you get here?”

Clovis laughed as he tuned his lyre string. “A bard arrives precisely when he means to.”

“That’s wizards, stupid.”

“What?” Jason wrapped up the headphones of his iPhone.

Amy sighed from across the table, obviously annoyed. “That’s a quote from Gandalf the Gray. ‘A wizard arrives precisely when he means to.’ Have you even seen The Lord of the Rings?”

Mason cleared his throat and peered at Amy from behind his screen. “Y’know, I’d say he’s playing his character pretty well.”

“Yeah, Amy! I’m role-playing!”

“Can we get back to the game, please?” Richard didn’t talk out of character too often, but whenever he did it was to get these two to shut up. Arty sat back and watched this all unfold. He always found it interesting how closely his friends’ characters matched their own personalities. Mason interjected, “Thank you, Richard. Anyway…”

Dreyfus stepped between Clovis and Ameria. “Can we get back to the issue at hand, please?” Ameria stomped off with a huff as Clovis waved her off with a sly grin. Arthur thought back on the past few days. They had met Clovis less than a week prior when he was performing in the town square of Caerleon, telling tales of fortune long lost from a deceased dwarven race. Rumors of hundreds of years’ worth of treasure is enough to lure in any adventurer. Clovis just needed other people to do the heavy lifting for him.

So here they were. Arthur breathed deeply. He knew the plan. They all knew the plan. But he was still nervous. Death is always possible when facing a dragon. He looked to Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus tucked his spellbook under his arm and turned to Arthur with a grin. “Always.”

The four of them gathered their belongings and set forth into the cave on the side of the volcano. Nothing particularly eventful happened as they walked in silence from the mouth of the cave to the expanse further in. The only sounds were the echoes of their own footsteps and the quiet plucking of lyre strings as Clovis warmed up his fingers.

Each of them was preoccupied with their own thoughts of what could be lying beyond in the darkness, and of what they would do with the treasure once they found it. Arthur would buy a house near the ocean for his wife and daughter, who he had left behind in Brandwell. The other three would likely go their separate ways, pursuing their own lives of luxury and ease. That is, if they survived.

The air grew warmer with each step they took deeper into the volcano, and the cave lit up with flashes of fire coming from further within. Arthur moved to the front of the group with Ameria – bow drawn – close behind, while Dreyfus and Clovis fell a bit further back. As the opening to the dragon’s lair drew closer, Clovis played a quick tune for all of them, filling them with strength and courage. After what seemed like hours, Arthur finally set foot into the dragon’s quarters. He scanned the darkness of the massive cave, looking for where it could be.

Suddenly Ameria shouted, “Look out,” firing an arrow into the black. A spout of flame shot out from the darkness, burning over Arthur’s head. Dreyfus muttered a quick arcane word and light filled the cave. A massive red dragon lurched toward them from the other end of the massive cavern. “Here we go.” Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the door opened at the top of the stairs.

Arty turned from the table to look back at the stairs to the main floor and saw his father’s shoes coming down the stairs. The game froze as Mason stopped narrating the events of combat. Amy pulled out her cell phone and pretended to start texting. She wouldn’t be able to read during this. Richard cleaned his glasses on his robotics team t-shirt and started reading over his spells again. Jason put in his headphones and started blasting Metallica again. They all knew what was coming. They couldn’t roll initiative for this encounter. Arty would have to go this one alone.

Mr. Williams came down the stairs and looked over the table in disappointment. “Again?”

“Mom said they could come here tonight, sir,” Arty said, staring at the floor.

Mr. Williams, arms crossed, looked around at Arty’s friends. “Do you have all your homework done?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What time are they going home?” Mr. Williams glared at Mason. Mason stared right back.

“We’ll be done by 10, sir.”

“Make it 9:30.”

“But, Dad–” Arty tried to protest, but Mr. Williams just pointed at him with that look in his eyes: That look of disappointment mixed with frustration that parents give when a video game’s next save point is the priority over homework. Arty muttered a “Yes, sir,” as Mr. Williams climbed back up the stairs, leaving the door open a crack.

Jason whispered, “Dude, screw that guy.” Amy kicked him under the table.

Arty slumped in his chair. He looked down at his character sheet. Arthur Stormbearer. He’d come up with the name himself. Same with his backstory. Stormbearer wasn’t his given name, but it was the name the people of Brandwell had come to call him after he and Dreyfus managed to drive back an air elemental and water elemental that had been terrorizing their small town with their fighting. The elementals’ combat caused a storm around the town, and the two of them drove the elementals away and brought safety back to their village; thus, he was given the name “Stormbearer.”

Arty looked through the other pages of his character and found the portrait he had drawn of Arthur. A warrior with clearly defined muscles, a chiseled jaw, and eyes that pierced through any evil that was unfortunate enough to step in his path. He’d put so much time into this drawing. More than he put into most of his drawings. He remembered his favorite drawing. He had drawn a picture of a dragon in art class that he brought home to his mother. She loved it. She put it up on the refrigerator, where all masterpieces go, for the world to see. But it wasn’t long after Mr. Williams got home from work that it was torn off the fridge and ripped to shreds. Arty was sent to his room amidst shouts about “encouraging worthless pursuits” and something about “stems.” He shut himself in his room that night with his sketchbook as his parents’ voices echoed off the high ceilings of the foyer. His portrait that night, of a man setting foot on a foreign planet for the first time, was still stuffed in a shoebox tucked underneath his bed all these years later. Every now and then he would pull it out and take it all in again.

That fight was his favorite drawing.

“You okay, Arty?” Mason asked. He hated seeing Arty like this. Like the first day he’d met him, sitting alone at a table at lunch. “What are you drawing?” he’d asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Arty said while frantically stuffing his sketchbook in his backpack.

“Really? It looked pretty cool. Looked like a knight.”

“I mean, it isn’t anything special, really.”

“I don’t know, man, I can’t draw to save my life, so anything is better than what I can do. Can I take a look?” Arty looked around at the rest of the cafeteria before slowly retrieving his sketchbook from his backpack and sliding it across the table. “Dang, man. This is pretty good. Where’d you get the inspiration for this?”

“Well…” Arty talked for the next eight and a half minutes about this knight he’d been drawing. He went into detail on this knight’s past, his home, his family, his relationship with the king. The kid sitting across the table from him in that moment was a completely different person from the kid he’d approached a few minutes earlier. That was the Arty Williams that Mason knew.

Arty shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. We have a dragon to slay.” Mason forced a smile and rolled a 20-sided die.

Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the dragon swept its claws at him. He cleaved its hand out of the way as a magic missile shot past him and hit the dragon square in the face. Clovis, still near the entrance to the cave played his lyre furiously, imbuing them all with strength as Ameria slashed the dragon from the sides.

Like clockwork, the four of them tore the dragon apart piece-by-piece, each person knowing exactly their role. Arthur, the barbarian, took much of the brunt force of the dragon as Amy, the assassin, carved her way through the beast’s scales from the sides. Meanwhile Dreyfus, calling out strategies for the rest of his team, did what he could to chip away at the dragon’s defenses from a distance while occasionally healing his comrades. And Clovis, singing songs of heroes of old, smiled as he thought of the places he’d be able to perform after telling this story.

This continued for several minutes. Dice were rolled, potions were used, and the four friends discussed and strategized, gradually bringing down the dragon’s health. Between dice rolls Mason looked at the door at the top of the stairs.

The dragon weakened. Dreyfus shouted from behind, “Arthur, now’s your chance! Go for the killing blow!” Arthur, battered and bruised, swept in once more and swung his mighty axe at the dragon’s head with all of his strength.

Mason rolled a d20. Everyone held their breath. Mason smiled.

The dragon’s head landed on the cave floor, its body lying ten feet away. Arthur, Ameria, Dreyfus, and Clovis, took a moment to catch their breath. Arty, Amy, Richard, and Jason celebrated with high fives and shouts of joy. A foot stomped on the floor upstairs and the four of them sat down again, still quietly celebrating their victory.

After healing themselves, the four adventurers made their way to the back of the cave where two massive doors awaited them. Arthur placed a hand on one, marveling at the architecture. Dwarven make, nearly as high as a giant, with the complete family tree of a race of dwarves long dead. He looked at Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus grinned. “Always.” The two of them pushed open the doors. What they saw was beyond what they could have imagined. Mountains of gold in all shapes and sizes: Coins, jewelry, statues, goblets. Weapons and armor of the highest quality, though much of it wouldn’t fit them due to its size. Each piece an artifact of the finest dwarven craftsmanship. The four of them would be able to have whatever they desired with this wealth. But in this moment, they didn’t even notice the gold, the weapons, the armor. The four of them stopped still as they looked at the back of the hall where a man, in all black, sat on a solid gold throne.

Mason stopped talking. Silence filled the room. Several seconds went past. Amy couldn’t take it any more. “Who is it?” Mason looked down at the table for a moment. Then he looked at the door at the top of the stairs. Then he looked directly at Arty across the table from him.

“My son,” the old man said.

Amy, Richard, and Jason, all turned their attention from Mason to Arty. Arty sat in silence for a moment.

Arthur, the barbarian, uncharacteristically hesitant, took a step forward. “Father?”

“Yes, my son,” the old man said. “I knew that one day you would come for me.” Arthur walked toward the throne as his father continued. “All those years, I prepared you. Prepared you to be a warrior as well as a scholar. Prepared you to be a king. I came and prepared this wealth for you.”

Arthur stood directly in front of the throne. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But this was most definitely his father. Hands, formerly prepared for battle, now weathered from a lack of use. Eyes, once filled with a passion and desire for power and riches, now sunken back and empty. Lifeless. The crown on his head, the crown of former King Lysandre, who was murdered by his father decades ago.

He recognized the man who had worked him nearly to death every day when he was just a boy. The man who kept him up late at night studying just to wake him up early the next morning to train again. The sword in the morning, the pen at night, until one day he suddenly disappeared, leaving his family and becoming king of Listeria overnight through betrayal.

“Now look at you. A barbarian, associating yourselves with thieves and wizards. Disgusting.” Arthur’s father spat on the floor. “But there is hope for you yet,” he said with an outstretched hand. “Take my throne. Become what you’re meant to be, my son.”

Memories flashed through Arthur’s mind. Cold water dumped on him to wake him up. Late nights spent writing when he could barely keep his eyes open. Crayon drawings torn off the fridge and thrown in the trash.

Richard, Amy, and Jason watched as Arty closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Father,” Arthur said, “Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to go on adventures. I’ve wanted to see the world. And now I have.” He glanced back toward his friends, standing in silence at the main door to the hall. “And I’ve made some incredible friends along the way.”

He looked back to his father: old, dying, trapped. “Can’t you see what’s happened? Can’t you see the curse this treasure’s laid on you?” Arthur yanked his father’s amulet from around his neck. He ran his fingers over the engraving, For you, my son, and tossed it in his father’s lap. “I don’t want it. Any of it.” Several gold coins clattered on the ground as Ameria slapped them out of Clovis’s thieving hands. Arthur didn’t even notice the sound. “I refuse to follow in your footsteps if this is what is waiting for me.” He turned and made his way towards the doors where his friends waited for him. Clovis snuck a gold necklace, lined with rubies, into his pocket. No one noticed. They walked through the giant stone doors. Arthur turned back one more time. “Good-bye, Father.” And he sealed the king with his riches in his chambers, the doors never to be opened again.

Arty exhaled as Richard clapped him on the shoulder with a smile.

Jason laughed. “You guys are idiots. At least I still got something out of this.” Amy kicked him.

Mason looked knowingly toward the main floor as Mr. Williams, sitting at the top of the stairs, removed his glasses to wipe his eyes.

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