After two years of producing content with Carter, sitting down with her best friend to record an episode of their show had become an enjoyable routine for Becky and talking with him all day long about games felt natural. Recently though, within the last month or so, something had changed with their chemistry, and that toxicity was getting harder to ignore. The specific cause of the friction was a mystery as Carter refused to talk about it directly, though Becky had her hunches. After she saved the last game from certain disaster due to data loss, the three-game veteran programmer had been tapped to be the Production Manager for the studio's next game which was already ramping up pre-production. Before that, she had started dating someone, Brianna, who was one of the voice actresses from the last game.
Most of her social circle was understanding about her having less time, the aging professional nerds each had their own things as well after all. Yet, something about those developments really seemed to upset Carter, and his escalating angst was growing poisonous. Becky felt that with particular keenness after she had taken time off to be at the Dungeon Crawl Lock-In last weekend and he had been a dick to both her and Brianna pretty much the whole time.
When the conversation about when to meet up arose during that session, Becky considered telling Carter to go fuck off. Then, she remembered how much he had trashed (De)Void, the game she wanted to talk about. Annoyed and spoiling for a fight, Becky told him to be at her place at the usual time. So when the phone rang as she was putting dishes away, she went to let her one-time best friend in for what likely going to be their last episode if things kept going the way they had been.
Standing in the hallway outside her apartment, Carter was as casual as ever. Clad in his Pathfinder polo, a pair of Hilfiger cargo shorts, and novelty Chucks, the programmer in his thirties looked much the same as he had in college down to the smarmy smile peering out of his bushy reddish-brown beard. Not that she had really changed all that much from those days either, Becky reflected. Well, okay, she had finished her sleeves and gotten both her septum and nipples gauged up but, really, those were just putting points into traits she already had. Her mane of curls had been anything but a natural color for the better part of her life now. Presently, they were Mandarin orange but, she was toying with going pastel pink again.
"It's still so weird to see you dressed business casual," Carter stated after looking her up and down.
It was true, she had changed her style. The one-time pro gamer had traded in her fishnets, leather, and vinyl for khakis, cotton, and plaid but, that had been more than a year ago now. It was not like the paisley broom skirt, and pink polo combo she had worn to work was some new thing. "What'd you expect? That I'd record the episode in costume or something because we're doing a fantasy game?"
"No—I mean... Sort of? It's..." He dropped into one of the many identical gaming chairs he had owned with a sigh. Each of them, with their sculpted plastic and vibrant fabric, resembled one of the thrones attached to racing games in the arcade. This one, being the oldest, had been easy to leave behind for the studio when he moved out. It was one of the few things he had left in what had been their apartment after moving out. "I dunno, it's just weird, okay? I never pictured looking like anything besides—"
"—a Suicide Girl?" She said, interrupting him. She flicked a baleful glare his way—which he brushed off with a confident guffaw.
"Hey, you said it, not me."
She grit her teeth to keep from yelling and whirled around to pull on a pink and black hoodie over her shirt. The pullover was embellished with the Toreador logo embroidered on the back in red, and it was so long that the hem came to her thighs. She felt a little less exposed wearing it.
"Oh, don't be like that, Beck," he said with condescending placation as his gaze wandered once more. "You're the one who used to be a porn star and pro gamer, not me."
"For like, the millionth time—I don't 'do porn'—I do pin-up photography!" Her nails bit into her palms as she tensed up.
"It certainly feels like porn," he said in an offhand manner while turning his focus to getting set up. "Especially now, since you're, well, doing it with—"
"What Brianna and I do is not really your business—"
He chuckled. "Just calling it like I see it, Beck. 'sides you post all those photos and your handle on Twitter is still @HeadshotOrgasm. What's a guy to think but—?"
"How about maybe not fixating on a woman you work with? Just... throwing that out there."
"Where's the fun in that?" He said, shooting her a look she had seen him direct at other women before. "I mean, can you blame me for being fixated? We used to be a thing, and now, you're dating that THOT—"
Becky heard nothing else he was saying as the thought of thumping him good crossed her mind. She even took a step towards him, her fingers starting to itch before she took a centering breath. She knew hitting him would only escalate things. Still, it was super aggravating. How could he laugh like nothing was wrong with what he was saying?
"Look, Carter, if you're going to sit here and tell me how much you fantasize about me and how much you want to bang my girlfriend, then you can get the fuck out!"
Carter rolled his eyes as he looked up from the laptop which was attached to the camera on the far end of the octagonal table. "God, Becky, when'd you turn into such a stick in the mud? We used to talk about sharing girls all the time."
"Well, sometimes things are different," she replied, still in disbelief that was what he thought about the situation. "Sometimes things changes. Also, people grow up—"
"Hah, that's rich!" Carter rocked back in his chair laughing. "You work in video games, Beck! You've done, like, the opposite of growing up." He laughed further, and it just made her see red.
"You know what?" She snapped as she walked towards him. "I knew this was a bad idea after last weekend. You've become such a fuckb—"
"—Whoa whoa whoa! No need to get nasty now," he said, scooting his seat back with his hands up. When Becky refrained from continuing to close the distance, he let out a sigh as he ran his fingers through his beard. "Look, Beck, for what it's worth... I’m sorry for being—"
"Carter, just... drop it, okay? I told you Saturday I was giving you this last chance to show me you're still worth my time, and frankly? You're not doing a great job."
"Oh," he said, shrinking a little in the chair.
Filled with mixed feelings, Becky dropped weak-kneed into her high-backed executive chair. Unlike Carter’s hard plastic, her seat was top-to-bottom leather over comfy and plush cushions. Trying to keep from blowing up, she focused on brushing cat hair off her hoodie as she spun in place until it was time to record.
"Um... you ready?" he asked after a few minutes, turning on the camera and adjusting levels on the boom mic suspended over the table.
Becky huffed, blowing a stray lock of orange hair out of her face. "Sure, let's get this over with."
"Okay, then," he held up five fingers and began to count back. "In five, four, three, two—" The one was silent, and then, he launched into character. "Hey everyone, welcome back to the Drow's Nest, your guide to the high seas of tabletop gaming. I'm Carter—"
"—and I'm Becky," she added, returning his serve. For a moment, everything felt normal again. They went back and forth, talking about their weeks, what they were looking forward to, and so on. The mood was starting to thaw, and then, they got to the feature portion of the show.
"Speaking of new starts, on the Dice Deck this week we've got a game from tabletop newcomer Seven-Point Studios. This was one I picked out because—"
"—Because I was totally unimpressed," Carter sneered. "Titled (De)Void, the game's premise is equally uninspired-sounding and, if I'm honest, it reads pretty much like a knock-off Cards Against Humanity plus a magic 8-ball—"
She hit the remote on the camera to pause the recording. "Are you done?"
"I'm not wrong though, this is one of those 'match the cards to—'"
"Are. You. Done? Because I am if you are. So far as I'm concerned that can be the last episode."
"Oh... right,” he muttered, his face getting red. “Sorry…"
“Apology accepted but, this is it.” With that, Becky turned the camera back on as she picked the box up off the floor. Its wrapping was red and blue fog over a black field that seemed to sparkle like the night sky
"Here," she said, fishing an index card out of the box which done up to look like a spell book. "There's the quick start guide for the first playthrough, why don't you read that to the viewers while I set up?"
"Welcome to (De)Void," Carter began, "the party game for Fair Folk and their guests. Amaze your friends, dazzle your rivals, and either be the last one standing at the end of the night or stand together to face The Scrying Glass's challenges. How you play is almost entirely up to you, the power of spellcraft is yours alone to wield. There are only three rules to which you must adhere..."
"Sounding more interesting now, right?" Becky pressed as she set aside four wrapped stacks of cards that were smaller versions of the one Carter was holding. "I bet these are the spells it's talking about. What're those rules?"
"Rule Number One: In the Court of Moonfall, words are the greatest power one can wield. What you see while scrying or what you say casting spells is the final word on how things happen," he paused, looking up at her. "So that means what, exactly? Where is this Scrying Glass it keeps talking about?"
“Not sure but, this is probably what they mean by The Scrying Glass,” Becky said as she hefted a heavy cylindrical object up a what looked like a domed porthole window with black glass. The cylinder was squat, only a few inches thick in comparison to its circumference being about as big around as a dinner plate. The metal casing was finished like the box, the red and blue streaks of it's brushed aluminum finish seeming to swirl as she rocked the game piece back and forth for the camera. To Becky's surprise, the base twisted off, revealing a small machine and another cellophane-wrapped pack of cards.
"It looks like the contraption draws cards and puts them up against the glass to enlarge them," she said putting both halves down such that their interiors were visible to the camera.
"Yeah, like I said earlier," Carter said picking up the shell and turning it over in his hands. "It's sort of a magic eight ball."
As he spoke, Becky broke the seal on the cards and flipped through them. Unlike the other cards, these had words on both sides. Many of them seemed to be premises for genre fiction movies or fairy tales, which made sense when considering the Fair Folk theme the game was presenting.
"These all seem rather focused on being scenarios," she mused. Glancing up at the camera, she added, "I'll have them all listed on the site by the time this goes live—if you're curious about what they say. Anyway, what's rule number two Carter?"
"Rule number two: Keep an open mind. Who knows what you'll see in The Scrying Glass, which means an open mind is paramount to keeping up, as who knows what challenges each round will bring? Further, who knows what is real and what is an illusion?"
As he said it, Becky put the scenarios back in the Scrying Glass and put it back together. At once, it felt like the room was shifting. The metal of the game's core piece felt warm against her fingers in a way it had not just seconds ago. Black lights flickered to life within, and a card rose into view. She read it aloud. "For all that separates, there is just as much which joins. Everything distant is also within you."
"Rule three,” Carter said, reading the last paragraph of text. “The game has already begun. You've been playing it your whole lives. So don't be surprised if something unexpected hap—what the hell are these rules? How do you even play?"
Becky picked up one of the packs and blinked. Now there was a small note on each which said 'Use Me.' She broke the wrapping on one and felt a rush as the finished cardstock touched her skin. She began to shuffle, cycling the sixty-odd cards until it felt ‘right,’ though she felt like the game was not yet ready to be played. “I think you need to pick a pack of cards.”
He looked at the remaining three. Only the bottom card was visible, and they all said the same thing: ‘Abra Kadabra.’ “This really is an awful game,” he muttered as he undid one of the packs. “Just what is the point of it—?”
The Scrying Glass lit brighter, and there was soft hum before another card rose into view. Carter pulled the device to him and read the text. “Welcome, players, let’s start with an easy one! A tiny faerie dragon needs your help, what do you do with the first three spells you draw?”
“Of all the—” Carter began but, Becky was already putting cards into her hand. Each one was beautifully illustrated to showcase its effect, which was helpful since the names seemed to be in all kinds of languages and not just English. The long-time gamer evaluated her options. The spells she had were Wildeshapen, Feurburs, and M. Path-E. Her first spell was obviously something lycanthropy related and the second one, with its giant ball of fire, was the ever-iconic fireball. M. Path-E, however, confused her. The image was of two people talking surrounded by a softly glowing light. Perhaps it was something which would allow her to interact with the dragon. When she looked up to see how Carter was doing, a gasp escaped her lips. Floating above The Scrying Glass was the very realistic image of a diminutive dragon with four iridescent wings. It had cute little horns and rounded spines down its neck. Carter was concentrating on his hand and seemingly had not yet noticed their guest.
“Psst. Carter, look!”
Carter glanced up and shrugged, before going back to his cards—only for his gaze to snap back up in an instant. “What the—”
The dragon waved. “Hallo!” it said with a squeak. “Art thou those who will help me with my request?”
“Uh, sure,” Becky said with a nervous laugh. “This game is something else, the scenario’s projection looks really life-like—”
Just then, the little dragon settled to the table, its claws scratching the finish. “This one apologizes for that,” it said, its wings drooping in embarrassment. “I’m just… so tired. Crossing the barrier between worlds is a lot of work. Whew!”
“Beck, I think that’s an actual dragon.”
“That’s… Pray tell, friend,” she said, addressing the dragon with the same formal speech. “What might your request be?”
“I need thou to dost me a favor, Spellcasters,” it began, sitting back on its hind haunches. In that position, the light purple scales on its belly bulged out, giving it a rotund paunch. “I needst thou to—" Its eyes lit up as it paused. "—kill someone for me. Canst thou dost that for me, mortals?”
They both sat in stunned silence until the dragon laughed. “Sorry! Sorry, truly, I just... I couldn’ resist,” it said in a much more playful voice. “The opportunity was too good to pass up. I'm sure you both understand."
Becky was still too shocked to speak.
"Anyway," the dragon continued. "My real problem is… is, um…” In a comical imitation of similarly shaped stuffed bear, the dragon began tapping its forehead.
“Okay, that’s fucking enough for me,” Carter snapped. “I’m out. This game is getting weird.” He dropped his cards on the table and one, Swapmund, landed face up. The Scrying Glass lit up, and the card vanished in a rush of purple fire. Carter’s eyes and those of the dragon both turned glassy for a moment, and then, the dragon began swearing like Carter was prone to.
“Well, that’s one way to solve my problem.” It was Carter's body which spoke. However, it was not his voice but the dragon's issuing from his lips.
“The fuck is this?!” The dragon which was now Carter squeaked.
Feeling mischief creeping up, Becky placed Wildeshapen on the table. Dragon-Carter and The Scrying Glass glowed. The card vanished in a flash of green. Seconds later, Dragon-Carter yelped as his little dragon body began to change. At first, he just grew larger, the dragon's teacup poodle-sized body swelling until it was more like a full-sized one. Then, there was a flash of light. The dragon's body twisted, morphing and shifting until a slight, but still very much reptilian-looking, humanoid was sitting on the table instead. The crystal pulsed once more and another wave of light washed over Dragon-Carter. Its snout shrank down, its spines stretched out and softened into what became a full head of dark hair with a purple sheen. The texture of the scales faded, leaving the figure with soft, indigo-hued flesh instead. All of a sudden, it was not a halfway between creature kneeling on the table, but a slender woman with an Elvish beauty and grace to her slight features. Her body was mostly obscured by her long, flowing hair but, pointed ears rose from her raven tresses and the two pairs of gossamer wings still remained to confirm the figure was still very much not of this world.
"It would seem out guest was a girl dragon," Becky said, trying to stifle her laughter. This was not how she expected the evening to go but, was pretty okay with the whole affair. Maybe being a woman for a bit would give Carter some much-needed perspective.
“Oh, yeah. This is very funny, Beck," Carter snapped in a husky, sultry voice. He gasped and clapped his new body's long fingers over his mouth in surprise.
“Hey," Becky replied, aping his tone earlier. "I got you changed back into a vaguely human shape, right" 'sides, you’re, like, supermodel hot now.”
"Okay," he replied with a whine that made Becky's breath catch. "You're right, mostly-human is better than being a handbasket dragon."
“Oh! I remember what I needed help with,” the dragon's cute, squeaky voice said from Carter's body. “I wanted a date for a royal engagement at court. Might I ask either of you?”
“Can someone there swap us back?” Carter asked, the sensual, feminine voice of his current body conveying a surprising amount of enthusiasm. Despite everything, Becky felt an inkling of attraction towards the fairy elf princess.
“Well," the dragon said, dragging out the 'll's while rubbing the back of Carter’s neck in a perfect imitation of the person who usually inhabited that body. "This is all Fae Magic, so, probably?”
"Fantastic! Count me in." Carter climbed down off the table and jumped when his dainty, bare feet touched down on the thick carpet in the studio. He opened his mouth to speak once more and happened to catch Becky's eyes. She must have been more open about her appreciation of his new body that she realized, because Dragon-Carter began to blush, a deeper purple rising in his cheeks. "Um, when do we leave? I need to, um, figure out what to wear to such an event--not to mention right now.”
"I'll grab you a long shirt and some shorts," Becky volunteered. As much fun as it could be torturing him, she was feeling amicable all of a sudden.
“Oh, it’s not until tomorrow,” she heard the dragon reply. “So, uh, do you mind if I stay? I’ve meant to play this and who knows? Maybe The Scrying Glass will turn you back..."
To be continued...