By Dr. Bender
Some challenges are greater than others, though this may be lost on most of our intrepid, oblivious, adventurers. For James, however, the challenge of not breaking his hand on foolish heads will be great indeed...
Beyond the Screen
By Dr. Bender
I was a woman. The words bombarded my brain, ricocheting off the inner walls of my skull, repeating themselves over and over as if to test their sanity and validity. That alone might have pushed the limits of my sanity but, looking down at myself, there was much more to say. I was a HOT woman. A Kendrick male of the Lensman series would have called me a ten system call-out (a measure of the number of planetary systems worth of males would chase after me with their tongues hanging out, though I can say in all honesty that I could have depopulated whole constellations in this manner).
Beyond my petite hands and pleasantly rounded, though not enormous, breasts, I was a sleek beauty with a waistline I would have called impossible without PhotoShop if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes. Enhanced by a lovely teardrop ass, round hips and long, shapely, legs encased in skin tight laced leather pants with my feet in gorgeous dark red boots that had a heel just high enough to show them off without feeling uncomfortable. Later, I would surmise that their comfort was part of their magic.
My torso was held tightly by a leather corset worn over a blouse the same colour as my boots with a sleeveless crop top leather jacket that only came down to my ribs, leaving my shapely curves exposed. The sleeves of the blouse were bound at the forearm with a pair of magical bracers, leaving the material to puff out a little over my upper arms. I also wore a ring on each hand and a choker around my neck, all magical as well. Long, straight, light blonde hair fell over my shoulders mixed with several platted bangs. Reaching back I retrieved a small hand mirror from a pouch on the side of my backpack to check my face. What I found was shocking — shockingly gorgeous.
Smooth featured with great skin, a tiny chin, high cheekbones and gorgeous almond eyes, I had the kind of face that could melt a man’s knees from across the room with a glance and a smile. Stroking my hair behind my ear, I confirmed my new race with the reveal of a short, graceful, pointed tip. I was a half-elf, my mother had been a sorceress from the far away land of Zin-Kuei, my father a wandering High Elf.
At the same time, I was assailed by the memories of my childhood on the road; loved by my parents, scorned by society. Eighty years of memories and yet I looked like a girl of 19, marriageable age in most civilized lands. I was going to have to beat away humanoid males with a stick.
Although, I fondly remembered one night of romance with a young Elven boy culminating in a tender kiss under the stars that led to…
I shoved the memory into the back of my mind, locked it in a mental box and sat a boulder of rejection on top of it. I did NOT want to remember that, nor did I want to deal with the tingling sensation the memory was provoking over my skin. Fortunately, I was heavily armed, which meant I could defend my chastity if the need arose. And yes, I was actually thinking like that. Believe me, having two sets of memories and instinctive behaviours can be confusing.
“Um,” Jason interrupted my visual exploration, “James? Is that you?”
James, he called me, a name that no longer fit. I was Al’ressia Quilvue’ran Na Korechillic, or Ressia in the human tongue. I was a bard, a famed performer who could command the applause of princes. I slipped into the role naturally, as if I were shedding an old skin that had become worn and tattered. I came out of my reverie to find my companions looking worried, even Jason had forgotten why he was angry.
“I’m fine,” I lied, my hand coming up to my lips. My voice was high and melodious, even when I was speaking normally. “I… I’m Ressia, Half-Elven Bard. Formerly James… I… I think you better call me Ressia from now on.”
For a few minutes I didn’t know which of us was more shocked. The four of them did their best guppy impressions, eyes bugged out and mouths wide open. I might have found it comical if I’d been in my right mind. As it was, my every thought was drowned out by inner screams of panic.
It was Ryan who snapped out of it first, removing his cloak and wrapping it around my shoulders. “Enough gawping, guys,” he scolded, “can’t you see she’s in shock?”
Jason perked up. “I volunteer to do CPR!”
My body reacted by reflex, slamming my fist right between his eyes with enough force to knock him on his ass. “You don’t treat shock with CPR!” I growled through clenched teeth, shaking with rage.
“But it seems you can cure it by being a lecherous smart-ass,” Ryan noted under his breath, retrieving his cloak from the ground where I’d discarded it in haste.
“And you two,” I snarled, whirling on Daniel and Thomas, “eyes off the merchandise!”
At least they had the decency to be embarrassed. “Hey, what’s the big idea?” Jason whined, rubbing his cheek. Ryan slapped him on the back of the head before helping him up. “The lady punched you because you deserved it,” Ryan informed him, “and I hate to say it but we’ve got bigger fish to fry than our friend’s sudden gender change. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of the wilderness.”
Jason, Daniel and Thomas glanced around, only now realizing where they were. The forest around us wasn’t like the woods of Earth, except maybe the wildest regions of the jungle. Even then, I doubt four foot tall toadstools are part of the ecology. We were standing in a small clearing bordered by standing stones, each with a rune carved on the inner face. Beyond those stones, however, was a wild, untamed, tangle of gnarled trees, twisted vines and a canopy so thick that it was hard to see more than twenty feet beyond the treeline.
It wasn’t Kansas that was for damn sure.
“I know we’ve all got new names and personalities now but I don’t think I have to remind anyone here that there’s such a thing as a Wandering Monster Table,” Ryan reminded us anyway. “And the chances increase after dark. We need to find shelter.”
Desperate for a distraction, I latched on to the job like a drowning man to a passing raft. Information rose to the fore of my brain, a wealth of knowledge as broad and deep as an ocean. I must have zoned out for a while because when I came back to myself I found the boys arguing over a map. They had it unfolded with a brass compass holding it down.
“You can see the mountains to the west,” Thomas pointed to where the peaks showed in the distance. “The coast is to the east. We should head in that direction and find a fishing village where we can get directions.”
“I know where we are,” I said, walking up to where they sat in a small circle on the grass.
“Are you kidding?” Jason argued, apparently not hearing me in the slightest. “There’s snow on that mountaintop, this continent’s tropical. I still say we’re over here, we need to head south to this road. We can follow that east to Hallowfel. I know some people who know some people, you know?”
“Uh, guys,” I said, raising my voice to get attention, “I said I know where we are.”
“We shouldn’t do things by half measures,” Daniel countered, still clueless to my presence, “there’s a chapterhouse of the Order a short way west on that road, we could get to Hollowfel much faster on horseback.”
I felt the veins in my temples throb. Were they deliberately ignoring me?
Ryan looked like a child caught between two arguing parents. “Come on, you guys, we have to make a decision!”
I’d never felt so angry before in my life. Before I really knew what I was doing, I whacked the top of Daniel’s helmet down so that it covered his eyes and stuck there. I then used the distraction to snatch the map moments before the paladin managed to reef the helm off his head. “What the fuck?!?” He swore, glaring at me, red-faced. I slammed the map back down in front of them. “We are here,” I informed, pointing at our exact location, “these are the Standing Stones of Caer Dur, the highest peak of the region that you can see there.” I brought my pointing finger up to draw their attention to an oddly shaped peak. “Caer Dur is a dwarven stronghold. A dragon once blasted the peak with magic attempting to invade the city below backed by an army of trolls. If we travel directly east, we can take this trade road south toward the down of Venifar, from which we have more options. Before that, though, we can take shelter in one of the forts along the trade road, they’re spaced evenly along the route to keep the ore flowing from Caer Dur. It’s patrolled but this is wild country, there are bandits, orcs and worse in these woods.”
They stared at me for a while, to a point where I thought I was going to have to teach someone a lesson again, until Thomas coughed. “Not that we’re not happy to have you back with us, princess,” he said, earning a warning growl from me, “but I have studied the arcane lore of these lands and I’ve never heard of these standing stones. How do you know they’re there if they’re not marked on the map?”
“Thomas… Vanad,” I said, knowing his new name without needing an introduction, “you’re what, in your thirties?”
He scowled. “I’m twenty eight… Vanad is, anyway.”
“Right, Ressia is eighty seven,” I explained patiently, “still a child by the standards of the elves but I’ve been travelling this world for most of my life. I’m a bard, dumbass, and if I remember my class table correctly, I’m about 10th level according to my spells. About the only people who might know more than me are specialist sages in their fields and I’m betting they don’t have my breadth of knowledge… or, of course, higher level bards.”
“What, we’re going to trust the chick’s sense of direction now?” Jason griped rhetorically.
It took a lot of willpower not to bust him in the chops again. “You know what? Fine. You boys sit around and circle jerk each other until dark, I am going east. If you’d like to be sleeping in a warm bed tonight I’ll let you tag along.” With that, I stood up from where I knelt, dusted off my knees and turned on my heels to begin the long walk east. Absently, I wondered why I’d been a girl for less than half an hour yet referred to the others as ‘you boys’.
“Is that an offer?” Jason called after me. I gave him the finger without turning around or even so much as breaking stride.
“Shit, dude,” Ryan scolded, “that was uncalled for. I don’t know about you guys but she seems to know what she’s talking about. I’m going with her.”
“Fuck, man, it’s not like she’ll give you any,” Jason retorted.
I’d made it clear soon after I’d met Jason that I didn’t appreciate his ‘jokes’ and if he mistreated any woman in front of me we were going to have words. It seemed that now that I was a woman, he’d completely forgotten my feelings on the matter. As I entered the forest with Ryan close on my heels and the sound of bickering far behind us, I found myself wondering if I should go back, cut his hamstrings and leave him for the crows. A half hour as a woman and I was already contemplating the murder of a chauvinist pig, though honestly I’d felt the same way as a man.
“They’re following us,” Ryan informed me as he caught up, though I was aware of Daniel and Vanad’s bumbling as they clumsily picked their path. Jason was faster on his feet, being both an elf and a rogue, but his angry muttering gave him away. I took some delight in picking my way through the uneven forest floor with ease, partly thanks to my low-light vision, a gift from my elven heritage. “Look, about Zenis… I mean, Jason,” Ryan continued, “you’re best ignoring him. I know this change is hard on you but in a weird way we’re all dealing with it. You gave us a scare going all blank like that, we thought you’d snapped. Jason’s dealing with it by being an asshole but he’ll get over it.”
“Ryan,” I sighed, glancing over my shoulder at him and noting that the others were about twenty feet behind us, “you’re a nice guy but you’ve seriously got to work on your judgement. Last year I came within a hair’s breadth of kicking Jason’s ass for harassing a girl gamer at an event. Since then he’s reigned in his impulses… but he’s in engineering. I think they test for a poor attitude towards females as a requirement for acceptance. It’s not just a coping mechanism, he really is an asshole.”
Ryan mulled that one over as we walked and I was glad for the eventual quiet as we fell into routine. I was also happy to be going first because it meant I could concentrate on keeping a lookout and not on the way the protuberances on my chest would bounce as I walked. My mind also strayed to the million gold piece question: why had I been turned into a girl?
I ran over what I’d done during the test to try and figure out if anything I’d done seemed to warrant an F next to gender on my character sheet but for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything. By talking to the goblin I’d solved the situation with social skill; by picking the book, I’d chosen knowledge over magic or fighting prowess and by organizing the others by pushing them into following their strengths and helping out rather than taking on a job alone I’d shown some classic qualities of the bard class. The others were obvious, except for Thomas who seemed to have fallen into his role rather than earned it. Wizards are among the worst hand to hand combatants, compounded by having every reason to dump their Strength score, and he’d taken up the ring due more to the fact that it had been the only item left. We had a Cleric, a Fighter and a Rogue, a balanced party needed a Wizard to round things out only I’d shown social aptitude where he hadn’t.
None of which indicated that I needed a change of gender, though I worried that my addiction to TG fiction had something to do with it. Before you jump to conclusions, allow me to explain. I wasn’t transgendered. What I enjoyed about TG fiction was the transformative aspect, a person changing their physical form into something else. I enjoyed a lot of fiction from that perspective like furry, superhero and otherkin stuff (otherkin are a group of people who believe they’re the incarnations of mythical creatures… considering what I now know, I’m no longer willing to rule out that they might be right). But I was not transgendered… or at least that’s what I kept telling myself at the time (but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves).
I was keeping my eyes out for trouble, however, as we clambered through the ancient forest and the work succeeded in keeping me distracted and focussed. Nothing like the threat of death around every corner to remind you how good it is just to be alive. If anything, the woods got thicker and we were often forced to clamber over moss-slick boulders to make progress. Even the flatter ground was broken by tangles of roots that forced you to pick each step carefully, slowing our pace to the point where I wondered if we’d make the road by nightfall much less a nice, cosy, inn.
We were working our way around a tall hill when I noticed something amiss, thanking whatever part of my brain had nagged me to look up every so often. I made Ryan stop with a quick hand signal and waited while the rest caught up, holding my finger over my lips to indicate that they should be quiet. Then I pointed up at IT.
On earth there are bird-eating spiders the size of dinner plates that eat birds, snakes and rodents. Nothing quite awakens your childhood fear of spiders quite like a three foot long spider hanging on a web made of quarter-inch thick strands. I had caught sight of it because a stray beam of light glistened off its chitineous black carapace, otherwise I might have walked underneath it blissfully unaware; or straight into its web. In the game, giant spiders aren’t a big deal, at least ones this size weren’t. There’s a big difference between statistics on a page and the real deal in your face, however. I’m happy to say I wasn’t the only one whos heart was racing.
“What do we do?” Daniel asked in a whisper. “Go around? Will there be more of them?”
“Grown spiders are solitary hunters,” I whispered back, “though the anthropology we’re used to goes out the window in this world. I know an old school trick, though, giant spider webs are flammable. Torch the web and the spider gets tangled up in its own web and burns to death.”
“Good luck with that,” Jason whispered, “I’m not taking that thing on.”
“Actually, I was thinking Daniel…”
“Sir Altek,” Daniel corrected, looking a little offended.
“I was thinking Sir Altek should burn the web. Paladins have better fortitude saves.”
“Celton,” Sir Altek raised his voice slightly to call Ryan’s attention, “you got a Neutralize Poison memorized?”
Celton, the former Ryan, nodded.
“I’ll do it. Zenis, string your bow. If you get a shot, take it; just make sure I’m clear first.”
Zenis nodded. I strung my own bow without being asked while Altek moved forward, pulling a torch from his pack along with flint and tinder. Zenis glanced at me as I stepped up beside him and sneered. “Maybe you should stay back with Alton, sweetcheeks,” he said, sotto voice, “I wouldn’t want you to shoot me by accident.”
“True, it’s hard to tell one vermin from another,” I retorted, keeping my voice as low as possible, “but don’t worry, if I shoot you it’ll be on purpose.”
His scowl deepened as we pulled back out bows and took aim when Altek finally got the torch lit. The spider twitched, probably feeling the light and heat rather than seeing it. The thing was still twenty feet in the air, after all, and preferred hunting prey that had already been ensnared. Vermin aren’t the smartest creatures in the manual, by the time it moved it was too late, the webs were burning.
Giant spider webs are indeed extremely flammable; it was like watching someone throw a match into petrol. The spider actually screeched as it fell, wiggling all its legs and twitching, wrapped in fire. Altek backed off to give us a clear view and we didn’t disappoint, putting two arrows each into its soft underbelly. Finally, it curled up into a ball and ceased all lay still. The paladin prodded it a few times with his sword to confirm the kill before kicking it out of the way, the fire slowly dying out. The forest was moist, so there weren’t any secondary fires, if I’d thought that likely I wouldn’t have suggested it and Altek put the torch out by shoving the head into a patch of bare soil.
Slightly shaken, all of us reminded of the dangers we now faced, we continued on in silence, each of us glancing nervously about for signs of danger.
I can tell you one thing, since that day I ALWAYS look up.
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