A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"The dice felt sticky in his hands. He got a plastic cup out of the cupboard. A glass fell and broke. He put the dice in the cup, shook it. Cold hollow rattle. Casey stretched. The sun beat down, or maybe it was just the lamp – anyway it threw a withering glare off the papers on the table, made Henry squint his eyes, and he felt somehow he was up to something sinister. That's it, he chided himself, pile it on, you'll feel like a fool when nothing- he listened to the rattle, to the roar, held his breath, pitched the dice down on the table. He knew even before he looked: 1-1-1."
-Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
Ted Markovitch undid two magic spells and recruited me to help stop an assassination, all in the first hour after he walked into my store and back into my life. He'd always been smug about his flair for the dramatic, but I have experience handling Ted Markovitch and I knew that if I fed his ego I'd risk being devoured by it. So I smiled and nodded and acted like this was all in a day's work for the typical secondhand bookshop owner turned occasional amateur detective, even if that detective work was limited to the shared dreamscape of fiction and roleplaying games.
The assassination plot, it turned out, involved Ted's Dungeons & Dragons character. The magic spells, on the other hand, those were as real as such things get. People who deal in technicalities would probably have referred to the carving on the underside of my desk as "magik" to distinguish it from the card tricks that Ted used to entertain my group of friend with back at Worcester North High School. Or to distinguish it from the list of "magic" spells available to the 8th level illusionist that I'd played in my last D&D game.
But Ted wasn't one for formalities, and he'd never been all that consistent on spelling to begin with. He knew the words and the symbols to remove a spell, but when it came to the spelling of words he was better off leaving that to a bookworm like me.
"So how about it, Nancy? Once for old time's sake."
"I have to work tomorrow, Ted. And besides, nostalgia isn't much of a motivator for me here. 'We'll always have Paris' I can deal with; 'we'll always have The Death Pits of Killeane Tor'? Considerably less romantic."
He raised a pierced eyebrow, a bit of silver jewelry catching the light of sunset in a perfect sparkle that defied my effort to avoid those bright eyes.
"You're still upset about me fireballing that ogre-mage, aren't you?"
That got me mad enough to turn away.
"Don't be ridiculous." I walked over to the front door and locked up, looking left and right at the empty street as I flipped the sign to "closed". It was damp and windy outside, the kind of raw late March day that keeps people indoors, indignant at the lack of springtime warmth in the air. Business had been torturously slow at Gaslight Books all day, and around lunchtime I'd posted a blog entry five words long:
"Bored. Wish something would happen."
I should have known better. I'm a gamer. "Wish" is a four-letter word.
It was Friday afternoon, and a couple of miles up the Mass Pike in a Best Western Hotel in Marlborough, the MassCon gaming convention had just opened registration. Ted Markovitch had stopped in to see me on his way to the con, with news that persons unknown had put a hit out on Cyrador Nightshade, and Ted was looking for someone who'd have his back. That someone was me, or rather, Luciana Lightstep, Lady of Riddles, a half-elven illusionist who was quite a bit like me, only considerably skinnier. In the past I might have also suggested that Luciana led a more interesting life than that of her player, but recent events had me seriously reconsidering that assessment.
I'd had enough time to formulate my objections, and we entered into a sort of rapid-fire duel.
"I wouldn't be any help, Ted. I haven't played in years."
"It's like riding a bike or…"
"They're using a completely different edition of the rules."
"I'm not looking for a rules lawyer, Nancy. I know plenty of those."
"I've gotta mind the store tomorrow."
"Game's not until eight at night. Plenty of time."
"The last few times I gamed I didn't even have fun."
"You weren't playing with me."
"You're a smug son of a bitch, you know that?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
I threw up my hands. "All right. I'm in. Now tell me how you found out someone is trying to kill Cyrador?"
Ted Markovitch moved to Worcester halfway through my junior year in high school. The first time I saw him, he walked into Mr. Delaney's English Lit class ten minutes late carrying a yellow legal pad and a beat-up copy of Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association. The fact that he had the book was not particularly surprising. That was the assigned book we'd been reading for the last two weeks. What was surprising was that he'd read it, pretty much unheard of for a new student transferring in. After all, most teachers will cut you some slack, maybe not require you to read a whole book if the class was finishing up with it. Mr. Delaney cast a suspicious glance at Ted's late pass and, unable to find anything amiss with it, started to make the expected gesture of exempting the new student from the daily reading quiz. Ted just shook his head and said, "I can take the quiz, sir. I'm prepared for it." He aced it too. That got him some attention, and not of the good kind.
The whole geek image has gone through a kind of cultural makeover, but this was '89, and public high school was still a place where the nerd was the bottom of the food chain, without the credibility that would come with the rise of the internet, and without the hard, scary edge that people began to see or imagine under the surface of the quiet types in the years that followed the Columbine shootings.
But then, Ted Markovitch wasn't really the quiet type at all. On that first day, as we discussed Robert Coover's tale of one man's obsession with the fictitious world he has created around a baseball boardgame played with pencil and paper and dice, and its metaphorical reflection of the role of fate or God, Ted Markovitch raised his hand with an observation that should have sealed his social fate at Worcester North once and for all.
"This book was written in 1968, and Coover writes about baseball, but if it had been written in 1978, it would have been about Dungeons & Dragons. It's all about the conflict between what is fair, as in the roll of the dice, and what makes a good story. And every dungeon master finds out that sometimes you need to cheat a bit on the dice to tell the story."
Mr. Delaney looked perplexed, but we didn't get to hear whatever response he was formulating because the jock sitting in the back row made a crack about "Just what North needs: Another faggot." Loud enough that his cronies broke into laughter and Delaney had to threaten a detention. I sank a bit lower in my chair, imagining the hell this new kid was gonna go through in the coming weeks. But back then, I didn't know Ted Markovitch.
By the end of the school year, Ted was going out with that jock's now-former girlfriend. The irony would have been delicious if it hadn't been for the fact that he'd dumped me to do it.
Ted took me out for Thai after I finished the store's paperwork for the day and then he drove me up to Marlborough in a pickup truck with a "Cthulhu For President" bumper sticker ("Why settle for the lesser evil?"). The truck itself had Georgia plates and it had seen better days. The last time I'd seen Ted was at his wedding, more than ten years ago, and we hadn't had much time to talk then. We tried catching up on old times, but I ended up having to break the news about Emily and Carl. Ted took it stone-faced. One friend dead and one who might be better off that way, and it was just another case of how real life sucks.
Ted changed the subject a little too quickly, though. The façade was for his own benefit, not mine. I'd always been able to see through it.
The conversation returned to the matter at hand. The details, as it turned out, were scant.
"There was a series of anonymous notes posted on the campaign message boards, basically saying I'd better not show up at MassCon, and offering a bunch of prize items for anyone who would take me out. Decent stuff too."
"I still don't get how people get all bent out of shape about these so-called prizes."
Ever since people had been getting together to play roleplaying games, there had been a need to find some way to make the game into a competition. It was an odd need, since roleplaying was a new kind of game, one where there were not really any clear winners or losers, at least not the way there were in chess or Monopoly. But some of the earliest modules contained tournament scoring systems, and roleplaying tournaments were a fairly big deal at the gaming conventions when I was going to college. At first it was a team competition. You got a group together, and you were scored as a team on the basis of meeting the objectives of the scenario. Some of the earliest D&D modules contained team scoring systems. The problem was that it had nothing to do with actually roleplaying, and the nature of the game was changing, getting away from combat and dungeon crawls to focus more on storytelling and acting.
So then they came up with systems to rate players individually, and the events turned into popularity contests or competitions to see whose character was more loud and obnoxious. Sometime a little after I graduated from college, when I was still going to a lot of cons, someone came up with a new spin on the idea: An ongoing campaign where you brought the same character from game to game. And suddenly it wasn't about competing to see who was the best player. It was about getting stuff for your character. Sponsoring organizations came out with stamped certificates to represent treasures and items, and it wasn't long before the rarest and most useful of these started to acquire cash value. For a while, you could trade the things at cons or sell them on Ebay.
Like all fads, these campaigns began to run out of steam after a few years as players moved on to LARPs and MMORPGs and CCGs. Except for a few die-hards, of course.
"So basically, what you're saying is that you've managed to piss off everyone in the campaign, so they're all suspects." We pulled into the parking lot of the Best Western as Ted nodded and smiled. He'd basically spent his entire career in this campaign, not only making his character the biggest pain in the ass in existence, but going out of his way to point out things like bias and favoritism in the way the games were being run. He also refused to join in the ongoing internet discussions and flamewars that the players engaged in between conventions. For all his geekiness, Ted had never been much of a techie. He'd lurk on the forums, but when he had something to say, he'd say it in person. Then he'd ride off into the sunset. Typical Ted.
We walked in the side door of the hotel past a group of goth kids dressed to the nines for their LARP and passed a small meeting room where some teenagers were watching anime. A waif of a girl with pink hair giggled in the doorway, her arm around the waist of another young woman who was wearing a black shirt that proclaimed "Legolas Is My House Elf".
"I feel old," I complained.
Ted smirked, his voice shifting to a poor imitation of Grandpa Simpson, "Kids these days with their fancy anime manga pokemon thingees! When I was a kid if you wanted manga you had to fight your way into a bunker on Okinawa to find it!"
We reached the hotel lobby and I spotted Jeremy Tasch sitting at the registration table.
"Nancy! Great to see you! I figured you'd be too busy with the store to be here."
He made his way around the table and grabbed me in a bear hug. Jeremy is one of the few guys I know who has the effect of making me feel small. He's also been a regular customer, stopping by the store at least once a week when he visits his dad in Worcester. I kissed him on the cheek, and he moved on to hug Ted just as fiercely.
We got our registration taken care of and Ted led me over to an open gaming table. He pulled a deck of regular playing cards out of his bag and started shuffling. We used to play canasta when we were dating in high school, epic best-of-seven series that attracted a small crowd of geeky spectators to our lunch table. I hadn't thought about the game in years, but it came back to me as Ted dealt the cards.
"Let's go over our list of suspects." Ted was having no trouble playing and talking.
"Well, you haven't named any names yet, Ted." I lowered my voice as a couple of teenaged boys glanced over to see what we were playing. They walked away. Not the card game you are looking for. Move along.
"Well, we just saw suspect number one."
"Jeremy? Oh, come on Ted. The guy's your friend."
"Yeah. And Brutus was Caesar's. Your point?"
"My point is that Jeremy is a harmless teddy bear. He doesn't hold grudges."
Ted considered his hand of cards before answering. "Grudges, no, not Jeremy's thing. But insecurities? The guy is desperate to be accepted by the 'cool kids', even within our little subculture of uncool kids. I'm not saying he's calling the shots, but he could be involved. He's preregistered for the game tomorrow night."
"Yeah, I saw the list. I took the last slot. That makes you, me, Jeremy, Beth O'Connor, and two names I didn't recognize."
"I know one of them. Joey Waid. Punk. Sore loser. Definitely a suspect."
I nodded. "What about people not signed up for that game?"
"Well, that event is the only shot they get at Cyrador. Rest of the con for me is all boardgames, all the time."
"Wow, I didn't know you were into that."
"Less likely to be spoiled by a bad gamemaster."
"That reminds me, Ted. Who's the DM for tomorrow night? Whoever it is could be part of your conspiracy. Which would suck, by the way. Not much you can do if the DM is out to kill you off."
"I haven't seen the list of names of who's gamemastering yet. Besides, they sold out multiple tables on this module, so they'll assign the DM when they marshal."
"Great. Anyone you've pissed off lately who might be involved?"
Ted rattled off names, "Lucy Atwood, Freddy from Rhode Island, Big Mike Wallace, that guy who always wears the wizard hat, Chess Hall…"
I put down my cards. "Wait. Back up. Chester Hall?"
"Yeah, Chess Hall from New Hampshire. I used to play with him at the Con-Man event up in Manchester every year. You know him?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I know him. Is he here?"
Ted shook his head. "I don't think so. I was just going through names of people I'd pissed off. We got into this argument over a limited edition treasure once, some kind of thing that was a one-shot deal that did massive damage. We couldn't agree over who should get it and we ended up tossing dice to settle it. I won."
"Did you cheat or something? Chess can be competitive, but he's cool if things are fair and square."
Ted laughed. "Oh, he wasn't mad that I won the thing. He was mad that I used it on a kobold in the next encounter. I don't think any kobold has ever been more dead that that!"
"That's pretty obnoxious."
"So is obsessing over a piece of paper with a description of a pretend item on it. That was my point. So, how do you know Chess, Nancy?"
"Ran into him at a rare book show once. And dealt with him once on business." I was watching Ted's reaction. I'm a pretty good liar, but Ted has excellent BS-sense. This time, though, if he was unsatisfied with the answer I gave, he didn't show it.
"It's too bad Chess Hall isn't gonna be here," I observed. "He's a private investigator. We could use someone like that right about now."
Ted Markovitch never referred to himself as Roma, but he'd drop little hints here and there that he was at least familiar with the culture. He fit the stereotype, anyway. And there was the time I'd been the target of a gypsy curse. Ted had handled that like an expert, or at least he'd handled it with the confidence of an expert. I don't really know if there had been an actual curse involved.
An old homeless guy came up to me on the subway looking for a handout. I'll help a guy out some of the time, but he was rude and forceful about it, and he stank of cigarettes and gin and I just wanted to get away from him. He started yelling at me in another language, Romani maybe, gesturing, probably just giving me his country's version of the middle-finger salute. But it had creeped me out, and I showed up on Ted's doorstep.
This when I was living in Cambridge after I graduated college, and Ted was in Boston for the summer working on an internship with a political campaign. I laughed it off. "Hey, Ted. Guess what. I got the gypsy curse put on me today."
But Ted took it seriously. And he took care of it. The ritual involved a strand of my hair and a lit match. Ted burned through the hair, symbolically severing whatever connection had been made by the curse, if there even was one. I never knew for sure. The worst thing that happened that summer was that Ted moved back down south at the beginning of September.
When Ted arrived on Friday afternoon I told him the story of the break-in at the store the night after my grand opening, and I showed him the symbol that the burglar (intruder? visitor?) had carved in the underside of my desk. I half expected Ted to laugh the whole thing off, but as with the gypsy curse all those years back, Ted took it very seriously. The ritual involved fire again, a lighter this time. Ted blackened the marking, and then burned a small piece of paper near the wall where the symbols had been drawn with the laser pointer. He collected the ashes of the paper in a coffee mug and scattered them into the wind outside the front door, but when I asked him if my store was free of whatever had been placed on it, he just told me he'd done what he could.
Saturday was another slow day at the store. I tried going online to look at the threats against Cyrador in the campaign messageboards, but the offending posts had apparently been deleted by the moderators.
I spent much of the afternoon wondering about how we'd gotten so obsessive that we were scheming and plotting over the lives of imaginary characters and the paper certificates that represented their imaginary possessions. I understood why people played games. That was easy. All my life I've taken comfort in the worlds of the imagination, and sitting around the table for a good game of D&D takes the experience of curling up with a book, and makes it social, shared.
But all this politicking? I suspected that for Ted it was the challenge. It was never about Cyrador. It was about somebody putting Ted's reputation on the line. The insatiable ego again.
Ted picked me up right after closing and we stopped for burgers on the way over to the con because we wanted to be there in plenty of time. I'd nearly had to empty out my file drawers trying to find the character folder for Luciana, but when I finally did, I spent almost an hour poring over every little detail. I guess I hadn't realized how much I missed her.
Luciana was known as the Lady of Riddles. She was bookish and studious, woefully unsuited for a life of adventure, really, although she had gained the skill to work some fairly potent illusion magic. She was cheerful and optimistic, but suffered from an unusual affliction of my own devising. Normally, you weren't able to do much with characters outside of the regular framework of the rules in this ongoing campaign, but there were a few things that were allowed. One was that you could invent a quirk or drawback for a character and submit it for approval, and it then became an official part of your character. Luciana's was fever dreams. She dreamt of alien times and places, and would sometimes awaken delirious or disoriented from her dreams. The fever dreams were something I invented to explain how Luciana could sometimes come up with weird facts and bits of knowledge outside the scope of her own experience, and the idea grew from my frustration with puzzles that would be encountered where it was the knowledge of the players being tested, and not the knowledge of their characters.
Ted would just refuse to answer that sort of thing, which would invariably lead to him bragging about how he knew the answer all along once the game was over and we were no longer in character. But somehow, people expected me, the bookish girl playing the bookish girl, to be all-knowing. So I invented a character who could be.
"The problem," Ted was pointing out as we sat at our table in the open gaming room waiting for our event to start, "Is that even though we know that someone is gunning for Cyrador, he doesn't know it in the game. And the bad guys have no qualms about using out-of-game knowledge against us."
"Fight fire with fire, then." I said.
"Can't. At the heart of why I get people so pissed off at me is that I stand up for not doing that kind of thing. I insist that the game be played right and I stomp on a few egos while I'm at it."
I couldn't resist. "Really? I thought it was just because you act like a pompous ass."
"Well, that too."
"Wait a minute, Ted. Which forum did you find these postings in?"
"All of them. They spammed the whole board."
I smiled. "That includes the Street Rumors forum. Ted, that one is in-character. Which means that we can legitimately assume that Cyrador and Luciana know someone wants them dead. And we can plan accordingly."
Ted was smiling now too. "So, how are we gonna work this?"
The gamemaster was Will Somers. Decent guy, fair and consistent, and he knew the rules. He was a lousy improviser, which meant he'd butted heads a lot with Ted, because you could pretty much count on Ted trying to get the adventure totally off its planned path at least once per session. All of that made Will Somers a suspect.
I was sitting to Will's right with Ted beside me. In the game, I was Luciana Lightstep, the half-elven illusionist, and Ted was playing Cyrador Nightshade, reformed assassin and almost certainly the most powerful character at the table. Luciana was probably the weakest.
To Ted's right, seated behind a two-liter of Mountain Dew, was Jeremy, playing a gnomish alchemist, a character almost equally loved and hated by players in the campaign for his unrelenting Monty Python level silliness.
Beth O'Connor sat beside Jeremy. Beth was a round woman in a Renaissance dress, who worked on a cross-stitch while she played the role of a seven-foot male orcish barbarian whose job in the adventuring party would be to soak up damage and hit bad guys with heavy objects.
Joey Waid was a skinny college age kid, and the remaining player was a friend of his from UMass. They were playing new characters, a cleric and a sorcerer.
Will was just finishing up the introductory infodump when I passed him my hidden information envelope. This was one of a series of gimmicks in the campaign. You could win dice bumps in certain events, which you could trade in to change the roll of a die. You could also win an official hidden information envelope, which could be used to note special preparations by your character. Even the GM wasn't allowed to open it until the player informed him that circumstances had arisen to make the information known. These envelopes came with their own set of logistical problems, and they weren't handed out much in the campaign any more, but I had one left over from years ago when I used to go to more cons.
Will grumbled about it, but I was more interested in seeing the reactions of the other players. Some people just couldn't keep a poker face.
The game itself was a pretty straightforward problem-solving dungeon crawl with the occasional monster encounter to give folks a chance to roll some dice. I was having Luciana hang back a lot, and Ted was playing noticeably cautiously. He was usually a risk-taker, and I was keeping an eye on reactions to that too.
Neither of us was really playing our best because we kept looking for meaning every time another player passed Will a note, or took him aside for a quick private conversation. Still, about two hours into it we started to find that vibe of flirty friendship and rivalry that Luciana and Cyrador always had together, and it almost felt like old times.
We hit trouble with about half an hour left in the time limit. Faced with a magical portal that asked riddles with lethal results for anyone trying to pass without correctly answering. Jeremy's character avoided the thing with a magic-immunity potion, and he had enough of the stuff to spare that we'd be able to get the barbarian through. Joey's character got fried for failing to make the connection that something "Unchanged but ever changing eternally" referred to the moon. Joey laughed it off. It was a new character. Easy come, easy go. His friend decided to have his character hang back, which cleared the way for the heavy hitters in the riddle game. Now to see if Ted and I could live up to our reputations.
Will rolled a die and consulted a chart, or perhaps just pretended to. No, the riddle had to be randomly determined. He looked visibly disappointed in the result.
"What has four legs at dawn, two legs at…"
"Man." I interrupted. "Do I need to give the explanation?"
Will shook his head. "Sorry that wasn't a worthy challenge, Lady of Riddles. You are free to pass. Who's next?"
Ted nodded and Will rolled the twenty-sider.
"A man leaves home and makes three left turns. When he returns home, he sees two men wearing masks. Who are they?"
What the hell? I almost said it out loud, but I bit my tongue at least for the moment. It wasn't that this was too hard, although it was a tricky one. The problem was that even if Ted knew the answer, there was no way Cyrador would know it. And anyone who really knew Ted, or anyone who really wanted to set him up, would know how much of a stickler he was about compromising on out-of-game knowledge.
I looked over at Ted, but he shook his head.
"It's okay, Luciana. I got this one."
Ted turned to his attention back to Will. "The catcher and the umpire."
Will had a look like a kid who's broken his favorite toy, but he went ahead and read the setup for the final encounter.
Cyrador strode through the portal triumphantly to join the rest of us on the other side, and that was when Jeremy's character buried a poisoned dagger in Cyrador's back.
There was a lot of yelling and finger-pointing, and then Will restored order and the resulting actions got played out with rolls of the dice, and everything ended up with the party cornering Jeremy's gnome, who stood over Cyrador's dead body.
That was when I requested Will open that secret information envelope I'd handed him.
Will read it once, then read it again, hesitated, and then finally described the scene.
"With a shimmer of waning magic, Cyrador's body morphs into the form of Luciana Lightstep, the Lady of Riddles, who lies before you mortally poisoned. The illusion that had disguised the real Cyrador as Luciana also fades."
Jeremy looked at me, horrified.
"Luciana's fever dreams were of spring fever. Just in time for opening day at Fenway," I said to Will, handing him my character folder so that he could register my death.
"Nancy, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
"It's okay, Jeremy. I barely play this game anymore. Now Luciana goes out with a decent story."
He started talking with Will and I think he might have been trying to find out if he could use an antidote his character carried to save Luciana, but Ted and I didn't stick around. It would have been anticlimactic.
I found Jeremy a little bit after midnight in a room party. He was pretty drunk, and I made it clear there were no hard feelings while I got him even more drunk and did the one piece of real detective work that I did all weekend. I snuck his cell phone out of his bag while he was refilling his glass and got a look at his incoming calls.
I spent the night in Ted's hotel room, camped out on a chair until he finally came in from partying and insisted on taking the chair for himself and giving me the bed.
Sunday morning we drove out to the Auburn Mall to say our goodbyes. He'd offered to drop me off at home, but this was easier for him. He had a long drive ahead and I could get home on the bus.
We sat in the car, and I asked him straight up if the whole thing had been a hoax.
"You didn't post those threats yourself? The truth, Ted."
"No way. I'm serious. This wasn't some stunt I thought up."
I nodded. "Then I've got some bad news for you, old friend. You just got spoused. Jeremy was getting his marching orders from your home phone number. Maybe Caitlin's pissed at you taking off for one too many of these events? That's what you get for marrying a woman who's not a gamer, Ted."
He shook his head. "It isn't Caitlin. It's Nick."
"Your kid? Ted, he's like eight."
"He's twelve, Nancy. Time flies. And he's on the internet more than I am. I wonder what he was thinking. Is this some attention thing? I try to be there for them, Nancy, but you know me. Sometimes I just gotta get away, get out on the road."
I kissed him on the cheek. "And this is one of those times, Ted. Hit the road. Your family's waiting for you, and you've got a great story to tell them about Cyrador's narrow escape and Luciana's sacrifice."
I sat on the bus stop bench watching the cars go by on the overpass. Ted probably had a lot of other things he needed to say to his wife and son. And he had plenty of miles to think of them.
Story and Image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007