"You know, it sounds kind of stupid," Kevin said as he set his sword onto the floor and dragged himself out of the pool, "but Crissy actually took that better than I expected."
David -- who Kevin noticed was wearing a headband and thin cloth gloves, both a subdued maroon -- hauled himself to dry ground. "Yeah. I don't get it. Something weird must be going on with the pendant. ... Unless it really was you?"
"I don't think so. I mean, I'm still worried about everyone being safe in here, but I know you came back after a whole day alone. So it can't be that deadly, right? I just hope this isn't something I'm doing unconsciously."
"I doubt it," David said, mollified. "If you had that kind of control, I wouldn't have been able to get in either."
Kevin considered that, then changed the subject back. "Actually, when I said she took it well, I meant the Shadowlands in general. Crissy just accepted it all -- even seemed enthusiastic. She never seemed to get into fantasy or gaming with anywhere near that intensity."
"Are you kidding? Have you seen the picture of Gaia she's painting for art class?"
"No!" Kevin said. "Just some of the incredible sketches in her school notebooks. You never even told me she was an artist."
"I thought you knew! Don't you watch her draw during our D&D sessions?"
"No -- we sit across the table from each other, and I always figured she was taking character notes or something."
David unshouldered a brown leather backpack, kneeling to rummage through it. "By the way -- thanks for coming back to the Hall of Heroes with me. That means a lot."
"Hey, not a problem," Kevin said. "I'm really curious about what you found today. What were you saying about the other Dragon Legend character?"
"Yeah! Emile!" David's face lit up. "She says her camp's in the Subterranean Ruins. We can get outside by going down the stairs Quinotauros knocked open and crossing the basement level."
"She?" Kevin asked.
David's face reddened. He dodged the question, pulling some items made of deep red fabric out of his backpack and thrusting them up at Kevin. "Ah ... p-put these on. I made sure to get gear for all three of us."
Kevin took the items -- a headband and pair of gloves, matching the ones David was wearing. "Let me guess," he said, scrutinizing them. "Armor of some sort?"
"Like you're not going to believe." A grin spread back across David's face. "Okay -- seriously, check this out. Stand back and watch."
"What are you --" Kevin broke off as David sauntered toward a group of shadowlings milling around at the base of the ramp. "Hey, hold on!"
"Relax, Kevin," David called over his shoulder. "I'll be okay."
The shadowlings perked up as David approached. Three simultaneous hisses accompanied the ominous shing of claws.
David turned around, spreading his arms out. "Check this out."
The shadowlings leapt at David's back. Kevin choked back a cry. David stood there with a smirk on his face. As one, the shadowlings grabbed for David -- one at his bare arm, one at his leg, one at his side -- and flailed for purchase. There was the sound of ripping cloth, and the one on David's arm left behind a faint line that resembled a cat scratch, but then all three dropped back to the ground, looking a bit disoriented.
"Holy crap," Kevin breathed.
"And the best part?" David said, grin reaching maniacal proportions. "Our magic points automatically regenerate over time. So I can do something like this and it's not even a waste." He stared at his staff for a moment, and the huge ruby burst into brilliance with an inner glow.
David lifted his staff and slammed its end into the ground. "Fire!" he shouted. The gem set itself ablaze in what looked like actual fire, though its extra light didn't cast any shadows.
He lifted his other hand. The blaze at the top of David's staff winked out, and the shadowlings burst into flames.
All three of the small black bodies whirled, thrashed and dropped, burning as though they were pieces of charcoal soaked in lighter fluid. With high-pitched squeals and a surprisingly nonoffensive smell reminiscent of a distant campfire, the shadowlings stopped moving and dissolved. Their forms melted into the ground, leaving behind only three smoking shards of obsidian, which David scooped up and pocketed.
Kevin's jaw was still hanging open when David swaggered back over. "Not bad, huh?"
"How -- wha --"
"Emile taught me."
"Holy shit!" Kevin said. "That was -- did you? ..."
"I'll have to show you too," David said. "You probably have some awesome fighter special move the same way she does."
"Whew!" Kevin said, trying to find a sentence he could complete. "You're right. Trent really does need to see this. Wow."
"We should, er, give him a little while to cool down," David said. "In the meantime, put on your armor."
Kevin looked down at the red cloth in his hands. "Speaking of which. These flimsy things did that?"
"The cloth is imbued with elemental crystals crafted from the shadowlings' shards," David said, as if that explained everything.
"But -- I mean -- they protected parts of your body they don't even cover! Magic or no, how did they keep the shadows from hurting your bare skin?"
David shrugged. "They raise my defense. They give me more hit points. Something like that. It's just how the rules are, Kev."
Kevin inspected the gloves. He tried one on, flexed his hand inside it, and pinched his arm just behind the glove fabric. "That's bizarre. I don't feel any different. It just doesn't seem like it should work. Not that it's not cool, but it's weirding me out."
"I don't know. Maybe they generate some kind of force field?"
"I guess." Kevin chuckled. "I'm beginning to understand where Trent was coming from. This would give him fits."
"Why?" David asked. "He was right. We're in a game. So it's okay to stop thinking about it and chalk it up to game logic."
"No," Kevin protested. "No, it isn't. Rosalind stepped out of -- out of somewhere, probably here -- came to our world and saved my life. She saved my life, David. No game can do that. I have to believe there's something more."
David shrugged. "Maybe there is. But the place we're in plays by role-playing game rules."
"Why? How does that work?" Kevin asked. "And how come our world doesn't work the same way, even though magic works there now? Trent's right. These are big questions."
"Well, while you're waiting to find out," David said, "can you take your own advice and not look a gift horse in the mouth? Put on your armor, and let's get you some special moves."