Rei thought she heard someone shout for her.
It wasn’t very loud and it was only for a moment, but she knew she heard it, the disembodied whisper over her shoulder forming the shape of her name. She turned to seek it out, her ruby hair tumbling over her layered necklaces, tipped each with indiscriminate stones; an old pewter pentacle positioned in the middle.
“What’s up?” Jack asked, a well-dressed young man with a square trimmed beard.
“Nothing,” Rei confirmed as she reached over to refill the bowl of chips, the greedy hands of four men and one other woman scrambling for the fried pieces of flat corn before they were all gone; the queso nearly needing another refill as well.
“Dude,” Drew asked, gazing at the chip he had snatched unsatisfied. “Do you have any guac?”
Rei looked down, mouth shifted at an angle. “Um…I completely forgot to get avocados. Sorry.”
The short man turned his gaze to his patch filled vest for adjustments as he broke the chip into his mouth, the tasteless crunch pervading the air. “Whatever,” he grumbled under his breath.
Rei’s hands, always in motion, picked at the loose threads of her shorts as her mouth twisted ruefully, quickly replacing it with a smile and another apology before anyone noticed. She turned, and took her place at the head of her tan wooden table. “Has everyone figured out how they want to divide up the loot?”
Rules lawyer Avery adjusted his glasses, eyes turning downward to his players manual and bardic character sheet. “Gold evenly, of course. I will be taking the bag of tricks, TwoDee will need the opals, Jesse the war mask, Jack the potion, and Drew the flaming sword.”
“Or we could divide it up by who did the most work,” Jack intoned with a pursed flat smile. The table fell mostly silent. “What? Y’all barely did anything that whole combat. At least let me have the sword.”
TwoDee, sitting the chair opposite Rei, placed a delicate, lady-like hand on her druidic character sheet, prepared to make a note of the gems added to her inventory. “Come on, Jack. You already have really good equipment. Drew would benefit way more from the sword.”
Perking up at the sound of his name, Drew cleared his throat. “Yeah, um…is my stuff really that bad?” He asked to TwoDee, the more experienced player of the two.
“Compared to his, yeah.”
“Ah shit,” he affirmed, looking over his barbaric sheet. “Let me have this one, Dude. Then I can do more during the combat and whatever.”
“Jack, the potion is really useful,” Rei said reasonably, “You’ll get advantage by drinking it, so for around five minutes you’ll get two roles for everything.”
Jack blinked as he was momentarily assaulted on all sides, listening to the exasperated sighs Avery was making at his left. “Fine,” he finally consented, penciling in the potion to his inventory. “Let’s just move on.”
“Alright,” Rei began, with a little clap. “The wizards apprentice and her goblin army are dead, that’s everything the king warned you about. The pathway to the wizard’s tower lays before you, and you see a worn path in the mountainside that seems to lead to the top.” The five at her table listened intently, eyes scanning over their numbers and remaining spells. “As you ascend you come to a rope bridge across a waterfall.
“So you begin to cross. The bridge is old and frail, creaking in the wind. A few boards are missing and others are littered with holes, and of course the wood and rope have expanded somewhat from the splashing of the waterfall. Everyone will have to tread carefully. However, over the crashing of the waterfall you almost hear something, perhaps a whispering voice? Everyone give me a Perception check.”
All five cast their brightly colored twenty-sided die across the table, some colliding with the rolls of others, or various mugs of coffee, while a few nearly fell off to the floor. Jack held his solid black dice for the longest, rolling it between his fingers. Assured of himself he let it fall from his hand, landing on a weak four. He scoffed at the sight.
Pressing herself for the possibility of frustration, Rei slowed her voice and let the pitch smooth over. “Jack, you demand everyone be still and silent, for you are almost certain you can hear the voice of your beloved wife you long thought to have been killed by the wizard. You can clearly hear the sweet chime of her voice lovingly whispering your name. You move as close to the waterfall as the rope bridge will allow, and for just a moment, you think you can see a pair of eyes inside. You realize it is the wizards secret experiment Jesse learned about in the archives, an Aboleth, and it reaches out attempting to control your mind. Give me a wisdom check.”
A slight frown passed over Jack’s face. He contemplated switching his twenty-sided dice for another that might roll better, but resigned himself to the one he usually found lucky. He let it fall into the dice pit and bounced back off the sides. It landed on one.
“Wait! Wait!” He bellowed, hands before his face in pacifism. “I drank that potion, remember? I drank it because I didn’t want to have to carry it around?”
Rei knew Jack had never taken the potion, and by the roll of her friend’s eyes, they knew this as well, but still she nodded gently and gave a warm smile. “Go ahead and roll again. You need better than a seven.”
In his eyes Rei saw Avery’s protest, his words written across his tongue and she silently heard them, but she put her hand up and shook her head, asking for his silence this one time. He turned away with an unhidden sigh.
Holding out on the roll for a long time, Jack finally tossed it, praying and hoping for what would be a far more favorable outcome. He placed his luck in the same black dice again, watching it roll till it landed.
It was a five.
Jack stared at it, dismayed.
After a moment he stood, tossing his paladin sheet a distance from him.
“Stupid game,” he growled allowed. “Fuck this.”
The dashed from the room, crossed to the hall, where he opened and slammed the door behind him.
The table was silent.
Rei stood, reaching for the top of her dungeon master centerfold and laid it flat on the table in defeat. “I’m sorry guys. Maybe we should call it a night.”
Shuffling the table away to make room for their departure, Drew rose to his feet, fingering the pocket of his denim vest for a nearly empty pack. “I’ll calm him down. He’ll feel better after a cigarette. Come on, TwoDee.”
The short blue haired girl, always at his side, sidled her way out from behind the table to catch up and hopefully alleviate some of the temper in the air.
“I’m sorry about him, Man,” Jesse shook his head as he placed his ranger sheet inside his player’s manual. “I know you planned this for a long time.”
“It’s fine,” she gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Next time.”
“Right on,” he avowed, passing over Avery waiting for the ride home the other would surely provide.
“What about the experience we –”
Avery took the hint in her dry tone and did not linger, merely reaching for his keys and stuffing his dice set away. He and Jesse left together, but as they passed over the threshold the door remained open longer than Rei thought it should have.
Jerking her head around, Rei turned abruptly with her heart in her throat. “Shit, TwoDee, you scared the crap out of me!”
The punk rock girl, though shorter but only one year younger than Rei’s 25, smiled. “I just wanted to tell you goodnight,” she said in her kindly way. “From me, Drew, and Jack.”
Rei opened her arms to receive the hug TwoDee offered, working around the patches and dull spikes along her denim jacket.
“We could try again next week?” she asked.
“Sounds great!” TwoDee said. “Could we make stir fry for it?”
“I don’t see why not. But you have to help me with it this time!”
TwoDee’s shoulders fell and her lower lip pouted. “But I’m lazy!”
Rei made her best comically determined expression. “Then no food for you!”
The two ladies began to laugh, and even though TwoDee’s embrace was warm and comforting, Rei still felt the disappointment of the night pull on her heart, and the dismay of what could have been in her mind.
With kind words, Rei walked with TwoDee to the front door and waved her on, watched her move away from the yellow porchlight to the darkness of the street. The house was once again silent.
In the darkness of the night, Rei’s eyes shot out the large sliding glass door she never used. The black and white drapes had been parted earlier as the side effect of the beautiful day, now letting the full moon come through the room, completely sunken behind the shadow of the sun.
Rei stepped out her back door gazing into the magical, darkening moon. All around her was the soft brushing of the wind as it whispered through the buds and leaves of her flower garden, and the autumn air smelled like burning wood and ground nutmeg. The breeze was somewhat chilled against her back and guiding her red hair across her shoulder, but she relished in the coming winter. In the distance, shadows shifted and moved with the swaying of branches in the wind, and above her the darkness of the moon sighed without breath.
Rei stared into it, waiting.
After a while, she sighed her own wordless sigh.
“Damnit Jack,” she muttered. “I missed the eclipse for this fucking campaign.”
The moon said nothing, just hovered there in the sky with its gaping mouth, chastising her silently.
Rei passed her hand across her furrowed brow, silently willing the pounding in her temples to go away. She couldn’t count how many times she had prepared spells under the full moon, but she probably didn’t have enough fingers or toes. The memories were so vivid, too. The sensation of being lighter than air yet with a fire rushing through her limbs, the tickling in her stomach, the connection she felt to everything around her was so familiar and welcoming to her that even now, years away from the Colorado mountains where her first and only spell had actually worked, she could still summon the feeling of jubilation that accompanied her when she had reached out and made real magic happen. Desperately, she wanted to feel those things right now, but she knew better. Her secret attempts after it was all over never failed to end in disappointment and emptiness.
Last time she’d tried she’d gone out on a deserted piece of rode in the middle of nowhere and ended up in the back seat of a police care. They imagined she was sacrificing a chicken, or some such nonsense, and had dragged her home with a slap on the wrist so she would feel oh so badly about what she had done. She didn’t. It was then she had known she was never going to recapture what she had seen that night on the mountains, when things had unfolded before her just as magic, and nothing she could do would bring it back. But still, in her heart, there was a small wriggling hope, irrational and seductive, always telling her that maybe this time, it would work. This time…
Rei suddenly caught ear of a conversation beyond her back yard. “This is stupid!” the stray voice cried, and Rei quickly realized it was Jack. “Just stupid! I’m not going back in there to apologize. It’s just a game. No one cares.”
“Jack,” came a second voice, Avery’s, “Does it take Four Loco’s to make a retard?” he said in chastisement, and Rei couldn’t help but cover her mouth and laugh.
“Fuck you, Dude,” came Jack’s curt response, still a slur, “Just take me home.”
Rei sighed again when she heard no more, returning inside to begin the process of cleaning the tables and the living room, lazily singling out what had to be happen now, and what chore she could leave till morning. In the corner of her eye, Rei spied an offending item, a coat draped over one of her chairs that did not belong.
Damnit, Jack, she thought to herself, you always forget something. She turned to jog out the door; they had only just been there, if she were quick enough she might catch them in time –
The crisp night air greeted her again, and down at the end of her driveway a black sedan was flipping around the cul-de-sac and beginning to leave. Picking her feet, Rei dashed toward the street, her runner’s pace hopefully enough to reach them in time. As she came to the edge, she had to stop herself short before she slammed into the trunk, and the car was gone.
“Damnit!” Rei cried, waving the jacket in frustration. She fingered the worn brown leather, wondering if he would even bother picking up the phone if she called him –
“Excuse me,” came another voice, this one distinctly feminine and accompanied by the most illustrious British accent. For a moment Rei couldn’t identify the voice’s origin, but finally her eyes fell on it, the paling moon illuminating a small round little face, wide dark eyes, and hair of some shade of blonde.
“I’m terribly sorry to bother you,” the voice came again, “but do you happen to have a light?”
Rei frowned. “Sorry, but I don’t.”
“That’s perfectly alright, you don’t need to apologize,” the woman countered. “It’s my fault for not thinking to bring another.” She seemed to rummage through her purse, though without much success, as more of the moon began to cast light anew. On the wet ground she sat cross legged before a little black tablecloth, two wood carved statues of a man and a woman, framed by a brass incense burner and silver chalice, placed before an old silver pentacle and a similarly old dagger. Rei’s eyes widened at the recognition.
A look of relief bloomed over the woman’s face. “Oh, are you Wiccan as well?” she beamed as her hands tapped the place on her chest where Rei’s pentacle was placed.
Rei blinked as her hands fluttered to the delicate unraveling operation of pulling at the threads of her shorts. “Yes, I am.”
“Then, would you like to help?” the woman breathed quietly. Carefully, with a delicate hand and polished nails, she lifted one of the crystal candlesticks so the wick of the nearly melted white candle was flush to her full pale lips. “It never hurts to have a friend in times like this.” So softly the wind escaped her lips, air that pressed against the candle wick till it seemed to catch, till the wick grabbed for it and held it there, till it began to glow with a forgotten flame and burst into light over the pale lovely face.
Rei didn’t even have the presence of mind to react to what she had just seen. Another second later and the woman had blown on the wicks of the other two candles to light them just the same. There was no other way to describe it, no other way to make sense of what had happened before her eyes.
“Would you like to do some magic with me?”
It was hard to speak around the lump in her throat. “Yes.”
“Then please sit.”
And she did.
Cross legged across from the British woman, Rei settled in a soft patch, avoiding the burning candle residue. Finding the woman reaching out her hands, Rei found that before she had wanted to, she took them in her own.
“Why don’t we begin with your meditation chant?” the woman said freely.
“Don’t you want to call the quarters or anything?” Rei asked swiftly.
But the woman waved it off with the toss of her smooth hair the color of honey and snow. “I would but we don’t have much time left before the eclipse ends. I thought we might just skip ahead somewhat.”
Though finding it odd, Rei let it slide, she didn’t want to risk ruining whatever this might be, whatever this might turn into. “Then, I usually say, ‘Now is the time, now is the hour. Mine is the magic, mine is the power.”
“Lovely,” she said before straightening up. “Now is the time, now is the hour. Mine is the magic, mine is the power.”
“Now is the time, now is the hour. Mine is the magic, mine is the power.”
“Now is the time, now is the hour. Mine is the magic, mine is the power.”
“Now is the time, now is the hour. Mine is the magic, mine is the power.”
The words came from them in unison, hypnotic and intoxicating, leaving the impression in Rei that this was what she had been missing all her fruitless attempts alone. A lightness filled her body and heart. She was drunk on a powerful sensation coursing through her veins, a feeling of impossibility and sincerity; a growth she didn’t understand but didn’t shy away from. Maybe she would never let it go. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to.
The silvery light of the sky danced liquid down on the earth below. As the moon came ever more into view, the portion that was still obscured reviled itself ever so slightly as a faint rusty red. It was coming faster now, the contrast of the blood moon and the pale light created an uneasy feeling in Rei’s stomach.
And then she noticed something very strange. The blood moon was growing more…bloody. The rusty red it featured now seemed evermore rich.
Is it supposed to do that?
A stiff breeze passed by, silencing what remained of the swarms of autumn crickets. All was darkness now save for the light of the sky, the whole street completely pitch.
“Thank you,” the sugary voice came in the quiet of the night, nearly forgotten. “for coming to me willingly.”
Rei turned to look at the pale haired beauty. “What?”
The woman looked joyed, as though she were coming to some grand conclusion, or perhaps a magnificent beginning. “You must first agree; it would have been quite a bit of trouble if you hadn’t.”
Rei waited. “Huh?” she finally said.
The blood of the moon seemed to grow ever brighter till it overpowered its pale light. Dark and menacing as it was, the red shone down over her head, crawling over her skin till it tingled. It washed over her, bathed her down, there was no inch that wasn’t covered in the crimson light. It illuminated her every feature, her every imperfection, nothing was hidden or ignored.
And she felt nauseous. Dreadfully nauseous. Like plummeting down a steep slope at high speeds. She could feel her stomach rising up her neck –
“I look forward to seeing what magic we will do together,” the woman sang.
It felt like the moon was getting closer now, a translucent humming echoed in her ears. From beneath she became aware of something rising up to claim her. Screams tore at her throat but she couldn’t hear them. Not over the pounding of her own heart as a colossal hand of black ebony reached up for her. Not over the sudden awareness of her pulse as it grabbed hold of her. Not over the immediate deafness of her ears as it somehow screamed at her.
“Let me in.”
Her drunken mind slowly caught up with her and she was vaguely aware she was falling. The wind ran under her arms and legs and she remained silent through most of the pain. Till she found she was screaming so loud her throat tore and bled as she felt the ending rising up to claim her.
* * *
By midnight the eclipse had ended. The full pale moon shone down brilliantly in the otherwise empty night sky. The white light trickled through the cascading leaves, like morning dew on a small local park at the head of a cul-de-sac of duplexes. Slightly toward the right stood an elaborate picnic of ritual items, statues, bowls, incense burners. In the middle of the laid out black cloth was an unattended half melted candle, the wick still trailing smoke in the shape of crescent moons.