Opening Up

The world of Merva was conceived as the bastard offspring of pulp adventure, my postdoc research, and late-night caffeine binges. It was a group of free states on the continent of Aquilia, before a natural disaster swept a corrupt government into power. The industrial capital of Dawson City was a polluted urban hellscape resembling New Jersey. The Mervan Republic was centered around the city, with satellite towns and villages radiating outwards like a growing tumor. Refugees from around the world desperately clug to the underbelly of the Republic, despite prejudice and abuse. The Mervans were bound in by geography on all sides, with a bayou full of monsters to the south, a barren and frigid north, an impassable ocean to the east, and a wall of mountains to the west. I designed the setting as a thought experiment during my doctoral research, and it languished in my notes for over a year.

I found it as I went through my old notebook after moving into my cousins' house. I was looking for some way to procrastinate with the rest of my unpacking, and began thumbing through it. The room I had was the old master bedroom, now a guest room with musty sheets and faded colors. The drab surroundings drove me to read on further. It all came rushing back to me, just as I heard footsteps outside my room.

"Hello?" I asked.

The door opened, and I saw my cousin Jim Archer. He was a tall, muscular man with a military style buzz cut and harsh stare that made him look like he'd stepped out of a warzone rather than a patrol car. While he wasn't a campus policeman, I'm sure he'd arrested his share of drunken frat boys from the nearby Gallagher University. I was glad he was my cousin, rather than some unlucky drunk driver he'd pulled over. He wore a gray tee shirt and shorts, always looking like he had come back from the gym. The look on his face indicated he wasn't happy. He stared at me for a split second, making me quickly recall any actions of mine that might have angered my host.

"Have you seen Phil?" he asked. His face looked stoic, but the rest of his body seethed with invisible rage and tension.

"No, I haven't," I replied. "He's working now, I believe."

"I need to talk with him," he pulled out a plastic bag of buds and stems. "I found this while cleaning."

"I'll let him know if I see him," I said.

"He's working late at the hospital tonight and spending the night at his friend's house," I winced inside, feeling sorry for whoever Jim was marching on the warpath down. "Nate'll be visiting and might be bringing company, so we'll be in the dining room."

"He's a good kid," Jim sighed. "I just wish Phil and Julie were more like him sometimes."

"You don't have to be their keeper, Jim," I patted him on the back. "You're not Cain."

"I know," his body turned towards the door. "But I've got to pay the bills here."

His parents, my Aunt Liz and Uncle Matt, had retreated to a retirement home in Florida and left their eldest son their old house. Every corner of the place pulsed with memories, with simmering tensions and stewing animosities that still lingered since their childhood. Rarely a year went by without at least one of the Archer siblings getting yelled at during family gatherings. This house was like a septic tank of negativity.

Jim slinked down the hallway, stewing in his own stress from work. I heard his door slam, and the lock slide into place. I went back to my notebook and pulled out my notes for my roleplaying campaign. Several minutes later, another figure strolled by my door. She was a head shorter than me, and dressed in a black and blue dress topped with badly highlighted hair.

"Hey," I said. Predictably, Julie didn't even acknowledge my existence as she walked by, but some hip-hop music blared on her MP3 player. She vanished from my sight as quickly as she appeared, and her footfalls increasing in pace as she neared the front door. Her subconscious mind betrayed her overwhelming desire to leave. The front door slammed behind her, and her car's engine rumbled to life like a dormant beast. I doubted I would see her again until early this morning, if she was still sober. Today was one of the better days in the house. If the Archer siblings were a solar system, they'd be three rogue planets spinning off into opposite directions in space. I returned to my reading, and went back to preparing for my friend's visit. Rediscovering Merva made my work easier, but there were still matters to deal with.

The glaring vacancy in the game became that much more apparent once Nate arrived. The sun was setting behind the trees that lined the edge of my street, and a large black man in a tan jumpsuit and hard hat stepped out of a Japanese car and climbed up my front steps. He looked more like a construction worker than a municipal engineer.

"Konichiwa," he greeted me. "Good to have you back here."

"Luckily, this house is in walking distance to campus," I replied. "Anyway, no one interested in our campaign?"

"No fresh souls to offer the GM tonight," Nate said. "All my coworkers prefer fantasy football."

Fantasy football had some delightful irony to it, a roleplaying game for the jocks who used to beat up the nerds that played tabletop RPGs. They fantasized about player line-ups, while we fantasized about wizards and dragons. At least our escapist fantasies were more creative, with lost lands and high adventure instead of wet-dream team line-ups.

"The college roleplaying club doesn't meet for another week," I added. "But I was hoping for a least two players tonight."

"Going solo gets old fast, eh?" Nate grinned. "That's why we need more company than the voices in our heads."

"Found something interesting in my old notes," I handed a printout to Nate, summarizing the setting. As he took his time reading, I came up with an idea of my own. I charged up the stairs, and knocked on Jim's door. A few seconds later, the door unlatched and a mostly undressed man stood at me. Behind him, I saw the flickering image of an old spaghetti western on his laptop screen and stack of horror DVDs next to it. Even Jim Archer needed time to unwind.

"Something wrong, Mark?" he inquired.

"We need another player for our game," I went with the direct approach. "We wanted to invite you."

For a moment, I expected outright refusal to follow his blank stare. His eyes wandered for a split second before making contact with mine again. "Sure," he turned back at his movie. "But only if you show me the rules."

"No problem, Jim," I said. My inner game master protested any sign of weakness towards the players, but today, my inner GM was held in check. I handed him a printout of the basic setting and character sheet. Jim closed his laptop, stepped outside his room, and followed me downstairs. I had gotten his interest, and it was my responsibility as a GM to keep it.

Night had fallen outside, the only light was from the flickering bulb above the dining room table. The dark titled floor reflected the light around the table, setting the ambient mood for the campaign. I had set up my notebook and grid battle map on the wooden kitchen table. Plastic bottle caps with initials denoted characters by player names, and I had boxes of dice nearby. Mark handed me his own character sheet.

"Glad that the honorable Sergeant Archer could join us," Nate said. "If Mark kills us off, could you please arrest him?"

"Sorry, but murder of player characters is outside my jurisdiction," the policeman said. "And if I set any precedents, they'll bite me in the ass if I ever ran a session."

"Darn," Nate said. "Mark's a serial killer, you know? He kills too many of my characters."

"It's not like your hands are clean either, Nate," I reminded him. "Who ran Tomb of Horrors?"

"Point taken," he slinked back into his chair. "So, shall we begin?"

Jim nodded in agreement, and our session began.

Professor Justin Sharpe would never know that his creator and player served as the basis for his physical appearance. He was tall and lanky, with a hawk nose, green eyes, and blond hair. He wore a gray long coat with a matching tricorn hat and narrow tinted spectacles. An enchanted dueling saber hung from his belt, ominously glowing a soft green. The blade was a relic from the Old Republican era, found during Sharpe's independent investigations into pre-Deluge ruins. He looked out before him at an old warehouse, half sunken into the swamp. In the decades since that fateful flood, old coastal towns had been abandoned to the Bayou rather than rebuilt.

Beside him was a dark-skinned man clad in the black robes of a ninja. He was shorter, wiry, and restlessly scanned anything to cross his vision. His paranoia was a logical outcome of his upbringing scavenging from ruins and fighting gangs in the slums of Dawson City. With bandoleers of blades and gadgets, Yasuke Ueshiba's arsenal seemed ready to meet almost any threat. He pranced skittishly, like a cat sneaking up on unseen prey. He perched on the edge of a moldering pier, looking out at the old structure before him.

"Did we really have to bring him with us, Sensei?" the infiltrator complained. "He is loud enough to wake up every zombie from here to Dawson City."

"Now, now, Yasuke," Sharpe wagged his finger. "Did I not give you a chance when I caught you trying to steal from my collection?"

"Very well, Sensei," he bowed. "He approaches."

Jon Durston of the Free Marshals strolled down the pier with a confident spring in his step. He was large and broad enough fit as the blue-lined leather cavalry duster and rimmed hat he wore. Unlike his brethren in the saddle, he wore no spurs on his steel-toed leather trail boots. As one of the few honest groups of law enforcement left in the Republic, Durston proudly wore his silver star badge over his breast pocket. Like the other Marshals, he was sworn to defend anyone who requested it, regardless of wealth or heritage. Sharpe had convinced him to tag along after sighting skeletons near the edge of the town. Rogue necromancers, in particular, often preferred working in Deluge ruins due to the ease of finding bodies and isolation. Even without them, the Bayou was home to beasts, smugglers, and outlaws of all sorts.

"Heard you got undead 'round these parts, partner," the Marshal cocked the hammer of his weapon. "We find any necromancers hurtin' people, we'll put 'em in irons or in the ground."

"Hopefully, that will not be necessary," Professor Sharpe approached the door. "But one cannot be too careful with these old structures. Would one of you mind opening the door?"

A thick padlock bolted the side entrance to the warehouse closed, but muddy footprints indicated recent activities. Jim Durston loaded a special alchemical breeching slug into his blunderbuss, while Yasuke readied a set of lock-picks.

"Stand clear, partner," he leveled the weapon at the door.

"Do you wish to alert every person and creature within?" Yasuke hissed. "I can infiltrate as silently as a ghost."

"Now, friends, there is no need to quarrel," Sharpe pointed to a nearby window. "Marshal, why not listen to him?"

"Speak your piece, partner," Jon Durston moved his hands to his hips. "A Marshal'll always hear ya out."

"I could infiltrate the adjacent window, while you and Sensei storm the front door," Yasuke said.

"Sounds okay, partner," he readied his blunderbuss.

"Yasuke, let us know when to attack," Sharpe said. He turned his head away for a moment, distracted by something on his peripheral vision.

"It shall be done, Sensei," Yasuke bowed and vanished into the shadows. Like a spider, he climbed the splintering wooden wall by the vines creeping up the side. The window creaked open, and the ninja gave a quick wave to the others.

"Open the door, Marshal Durston," Sharpe withdrew his sword. "We can expect company as soon as it opens."

The Marshal fired his blunderbuss, and the ancient door flew inwards. Sharpe's sword flashed to life as a soft green aura enveloped it, and the Professor charged into the front door. Two skeletal swordsmen lunged out to meet him, their rattling bones sounding like rain pounding on a metal roof. The academic's blade flashed a sickly green as it made contact with one of them, dissolving the neck vertebrate and sending the skull tumbling backwards. A gunshot nearly deafened Sharpe as Durston transitioned to a black powder pistol. The second skeleton fell down motionlessly, an eerie silence filling the corridor. The Marshal reloaded his weapons as crimson orbs flashed in distant shadows.

"Stay close, Marshal," the Professor conjured a bright light in his free hand, driving the darkness back. "I fear we may encounter things worse than skeletons."

Soft moaning echoed from around a corridor. Sharpe stood with his sword ready, but nothing emerged. He cautiously advanced forwards, taking the moldy air into his lungs. Around him, rotting crates and boxes were rearranged into narrow passageways. Off in a distant corner of the building, flickering lanterns dangled above an opening in the floor. The Professor heard water lapping against the warehouse's supports through the floor, and his arcane light showed murky shapes in the stygian depths below.

"Ya really think there's anything worth studying here, Professor?" Durston asked. "This town's been flooded since the Deluge. Scavengers probably picked it cleaner than bleached bones in the desert."

"I sensed a significant arcane power source here," Sharpe whispered. "I am uncertain whether it was here before the necromancer."

"I'll keep my shooting irons ready," the Marshal replied, bringing his blunderbuss to bear. "Where's that sneaky fellah?"

"I am here, Sensei," Yasuke stood up on a nearby crate. "Something stirs in the shadows ahead."

The red eyes appeared from darkness again, drawing the Professor's attention. He stepped forwards with his sword ready, only for the floor to collapse under him. The anomalous eyes vanished, subsumed back into the shadows of the darkened warehouse. Sharpe struggled to tread water as something large brushed against his leg. It was cold and tough.

"Help me!" he shouted. "I believe the crocodiles wish to snack on me!"

"They ain't gonna eat you on my watch," Durston tossed a rope into the hole, holding onto the other end.

The mage grasped it as tight as he could, trying to pull himself to safety. Behind him, a leather torpedo of jagged teeth snapped at him. Agony wracked Sharpe's body, almost causing him to loosen his group. The giant crocodile tore a chunk of his thigh before one of Yasuke's throwing knives drove it back underwater. A crimson channel flowed from the researcher's leg to the floor. Durston ran a gloved hand over the wound, causing Sharpe to wince in agony. He began to chant softly, and theurgic sigils on his gloves glowed blue. He set the wound with a bandage, and the torn tissue began to mend. Sharpe stumbled to his feet, his wound fully healed. He struggled to regain his balance as his body adjusted to the rapid healing. Scars from the spell still covered his leg.

"Don't move too fast, partner," the Marshal said. "I'll need more time to fully heal ya, but it's the best I can do for now."

"Thank you, Marshal," Sharpe bowed. "And, Yasuke, thank you for saving me from that hungry reptile."

"It is my honor, Sensei," the ninja bowed, and pointed at saw dust and notches on the wood. "But we must tread carefully. Someone has deliberately weakened the floorboards."

"Find a safe path, then," Sharpe ordered. "Durston, stay close, and keep that gun ready. I fear danger is still close."

"Ain't gotta tell me, partner," Durston replied as he readied his blunderbuss. "I lost a whole heap o' folks in the Bayou."

"Here is safe, Sensei," the ninja pointed to a narrow opening between two crates. Sharpe was able to squeeze through, although Durston needed to be help. Ahead, Yasuke examined the ground and stopped. He slashed a tripwire with his wakizashi and leapt back as a pair of darts embedded themselves where he had been standing. "It is safe, Sensei."

Yasuke waited at the edge of the crates while Durston and Sharpe followed behind him. Directly ahead of them was the well-lit corner of the warehouse. Lanterns swayed gently from the rafters above them, while candles were laid out in a magic circle with a notebook in the center. Human skeletons and body parts were strewn haphazardly across the ritual area, as if something had disturbed delicate preparations. A bedroll nearby indicated someone had recently occupied the structure. A small combination safe was set up behind it, likely for holding the person's valuables. The directly adjacent corner of the warehouse was where the floorboards had collapsed into the drink, leaving a ramp leading downwards into the water.

"Let us see what this fellow has been up to," Sharpe picked up the notebook and thumbed through it. "Hmm, interesting."

"Looks like a necromancer, I reckon," Durston noted. "Ain't a rich one for sure. Maybe just some resurrection man."

"Intriguing," Sharpe skimmed a page. "This necromancer was trying to make skeletons from several individuals' remains. He murdered lonely travelers for their bodies, and fed leftovers to the crocodiles."

"My stomach churns at such depravity, Sensei," Yasuke's dark face went pale for a moment. "Sensei? What is that behind you?"

Sharpe turned to protest the interruption. "Not now, I am read-"

Durston's blunderbuss erupted into a torrent of smoke and fire as acrid stench of powder filled the room. Sharpe turned to see a crocodile clambering up the ramp, still with Yasuke's shuriken still protruding from its snout. The Professor chanted to himself, forming a tiny distortion in the air that shimmered around his fingertips. The unseen projectile sizzled as it slammed into the crocodile. The crocodile continued its charge, snapping at Durston as he reached for his pistol.

"This beast shall be a line of purses when I am finished with it," Yasuke leapt from above with his blades out, jamming his short swords into the back of the hungry reptile. The croc thrashed and whipped his tail, knocking him against the wall.

Seizing the opportunity, Durston aimed his pistol and pulled the trigger. The hammer ignited a spark, but the bullet failed to fire. He cursed and sprung to his feet as the man-eater charged at him. Sharpe drew his saber, turned the blade a sizzling green, and chopped the monster's head off in one clean stroke. Blood flowed from the stump where its head used to be as Durston and Yasuke sighed in relief.

"We shall get ahead of any foe!" Sharpe joked. "Now, come, let us see what this necromancer has left!"

Yasuke knelt in front of the safe, and followed a wire to a nearby dart launcher and trap door. "Sensei, there is a problem. If I am to open or try to move this safe, I will be at risk from one or more traps."

"Stand back, partner," Durston loaded another breaching round into his blunderbuss. "Let's do this my way for once."

Yasuke moved backwards, and the door to the combination safe flew opened. Within was a bag of coins, an enchanted ritual dagger, gold bullion, a spell book covered in geometric runes, and a strange pistol. Yasuke reached for the dagger, Sharpe reached for the tome, and Durston reached for the pistol. Durston divided the gold equally between them.

"Ah, it appears our necromancer preferred to be well armed," Sharpe explained. "Those new pepperbox pistols are not cheap."

"When ya deal with angry critters, more shots keeps ya living longer," Durston slid the pistol into his coat. "I think I'll be keeping this."

"Why, this is a pre-Deluge edition of the Tome of the Final Aeon!" the academic looked at the book. "This is most certainly the arcane power I detected here!"

"Let's take what we can, and mosey on out of here," Durston gestured towards the front door. "I'm gonna round up a posse to look for that necromancer. He might've slipped away, but he ain't coming back here."

"Or he ended up in the croc's belly," Yasuke pointed. "Oh, what a karmic punishment that would be."

Sharpe felt something cold that made the hairs on the back of his hands stand up. He saw two red eyes staring at him from the door of the warehouse. When he looked again, they were gone. "Yes, it is prudent to leave this place," he gathered his things and his spoils. "Let us leave."

"Hai, Sensei," Yasuke bowed. "Marshall, could you help me with the crocodile's body?"

"Why?" Durston asked.

"The leather we can make from it will sell for a high price," Yasuke noted.

"Very well," Durston sighed.

Sharpe left the warehouse lost in thought. Behind him, the others dragged the crocodile carcass. Off in the distance, a pair of ruby-red orbs saw observed them from the shadows of the swamp.

"And so, that's it for tonight," I said to Jim and Nate. "What did you think?"

"Needs more zombies," Nate remarked. "I was hoping for a crocodile zombie, and all we get is just a regular one."

"Interesting," Jim said. "What was with those red eyes?"

"Play again next week and find out," I grinned. "Actually, Jim, that was decent roleplaying."

He shrugged. "I'm just glad I can be a sheriff," he said. "Or something close to one."

"A fantasy detective game would actually be pretty cool," Nate remarked. "Jim, you should try running a campaign. You're the cop, after all."

"I don't have the experience you guys do," Jim said. "And we'd have to roll up new character sheets and all."

"Everyone's first time is awkward," Nate cracked. "That's why you practice, so people pay you for it."

"How about this?" Jim asked. "At work, we sometimes rotate patrols if someone can't make it. What if we take turns running the campaign?"

"That's a good idea, Jim," I complemented. "We can use our same characters until they killed off, we get tired of them, or both."

"T-thanks," Jim stuttered. "But I'm not confident to go next week."

"Then I'll go," Nate's face lit up, his smile turning into an evil grin.

"Then it's settled," I said. "Same time next week, and Nate will be running it."

"That's good for me," Jim added, checking his watch. "I'm going to get ready to head to bed now."

"I've got to head home, too," Nate remarked. "Need to make sure the evil computer doesn't eat my report again."

Nate gathered his things, and waved. "Sayonara!" he said. "Glad you've moved back in town, Mark."

I waved goodbye to Nate, and saw him head out the front door. Jim stood up, and prepared to head upstairs.

"Oh, and Jim," I said. "Thanks for playing. It was fun."

"Yes, it was," he nodded and headed back up the stairs.

They had granted me a good session set in Merva. Part of me was curious to see how Nate would handle my campaign setting next week, given the plot threads I left open. One of my favorite parts of roleplaying was to see how others interacted with my character and setting ideas. Memories of previous campaigns flooded my mind as I cleaned up after the game and prepared to go to bed myself. There would be time for gaming later, but I had other things to worry about. The problems in my fantasy world had little to do with my current life. Little did I know the two would be not so different after all.