The low-level ranger padded softly through the woods on mocassin feet carrying a cedar bow hand-carved by his grandfather, the only gift his grandfather had ever given him. He slung a quiver of arrows, with fletching made from hawk feathers, over his left shoulder. Moving quietly through late autumn leaves, he hoped to take the small band traveling through the valley by surprise. They weren't quiet. They argued among themselves as they ambled along the shallow creek. The ranger took cover behind a large oak and slipped an arrow from the quiver. Taking aim just ahead of them, he loosed it, burrowing the arrowhead into a small tree two yards ahead of the three young men and a small girl.
"Holy smokes, Ardor! You could have really hurt one of us, you dillweed!" Steven exclaimed.
"Are we really using our dungeon names today? Ray said, cringing. "I thought we were just goofing around." He shouldered his bow.
"Schultz, I mean Barad-Dur, wants to do this right. We agreed before we left my house," Steven said.
Ray chuckled to himself, bounding down the slope to join them.
"Yeah, I've never been to the river before," Schultz whined. "Arimus said it was too cool; we have to see it. Plus, we've never played in costume before."
"Well, I guess this is kind of perfect," Ray remarked, trying to hide his sarcasm. He smacked Eddie on the back of the head as he stepped alongside showing mild disapproval. "I just thought this was a scouting venture to plan for a longer campaign in the spring. Schultz, did you really bring your dice?"
Schultz patted the velvet Royal Crown whiskey bag tied to the leather belt around his thin midsection. “You know I always have them with me."
Ray rolled his eyes. This was the first time their Dungeon and Dragons cadre decided to be serious about a live adventure. Eddie talked him into this. They had been friends the longest, since fourth grade, and the river had been their playground since they were ten. They didn't really want to share this place with anyone. Even though these were some of his closest friends, it still seemed like encroachment; still, the others begged to go to see what they had described. Local fishermen visited the spot at the old dam and pump station now and then, but it was hard to access because of thick kudzu and steep banks along the river. He and Eddie discovered a shortcut a couple of years ago that was worth the adventure. No one would be fishing there this time of year anyway.
Ray stared at the motley group. Steven (Arimus, a magic-user) introduced them to D&D a couple of years ago. He wore a grey tunic with an oversized green hood his mom had made for him. She volunteered for the school’s theatre program. He had a leather belt with metallic studs and carried a canvas pack. Two small, leather pouches were attached to the belt where he kept his "magic items." A small dagger hung on his left side. To complete his ensemble, Steven carried a staff made from a small tree with thick roots intact at one end where he had lodged a bright, smooth quartz stone.
Eddie (Bloody Arcon of Munga) was the fighter. His dad, a welder, had created a warhammer with a steel shaft in his shop. Eddie wielded it with ease. He donned a cone-shaped helmet with a nose guard his dad had also fashioned. He carried a shield made from a metal trash can lid with edges beaten down around a piece of plywood to make it appear more shield-like. The wood was painted deep red with yellow lightning bolts and a black hammer. He had made a shield boss from a small metal bowl tacked down with small nails.
Since his parents worked weekends, Eddie was forced to bring his little sister, Alicia, who always wanted to be an elven princess (Muriel of the Vale). Her character could speak with animals, use plants for magic, and command weather. She wore a Tinkerbell costume that she had worn for Halloween along with a dingy, pink overcoat and old rubber boots because her mom insisted it was too cold to just wear the costume.
Schultz (Barad-Dur) always stood firm about being Dungeon Master. He dressed in brown robes, and his bright red hair was in a bowl-cut. Since he took martial arts classes, his monk character was a “master” of all oriental arts. He commanded "secret punches" and "killer" finger jabs that were lethal on contact. In addition, he was a self-proclaimed master assassin, dealing in deadly poisons and devious plots to overthrow kingdoms. He wore sandals and thick, woolen socks in case it became too cold. No matter the time of year, he seemed to always have a runny nose.
"I'm bored!" Alicia pouted and stomped the ground.
"Listen, we didn't want you here," Eddie said sharply. "You could’ve stayed at Steven's house with his mom. You didn't have to come."
"Mom said you had to take me! I'm going to tell her what you're doing. You’re not supposed to go to the river."
"You do, and you'll never sit in on another game with us!"
She stomped away.
The boys trekked along the creek. A hesitant Alicia ran to catch up. The creek seemingly terminated under a steep, graveled escarpment with railroad tracks running along top. At the bottom it entered a culvert clogged with brush and debris accumulated during hard September rains.
"I thought you guys uncovered this." Steven was exasperated with thoughts of clearing the entrance.
"We cleared it this summer," Eddie, aggravated, glanced at Ray. "Not our fault it’s rained since then."
"Just help . . . ." Ray started pulling debris. He dreaded entering the tunnel. Appearing outwardly tough, inside, he feared this venture. Danger awaited on the other side if they weren't careful. Each stage—the tunnel, the pump house, and the dam—held its own, unique peril. After thirty minutes they finally made an opening.
Steven grabbed his pack he had set aside and pulled out three homemade torches, distributing them to the other guys. He then produced one of his "magic items" from a leather pouch. "Fulgar ignis spiritus," he repeated three times, louder each time. Flame burst from the object in his hand–a lighter his dad used during the Vietnam War. Touching flame to each torch, they blazed forth; each adventurer entered the passage one-by-one with Alicia and Steven following behind.
The culvert, about four feet square, narrowed into a smaller, arching tunnel after several yards. They bent over until reaching the arching tunnel where they had to duck walk. Even though the creek barely flowed, water pooled in places. The torches flickered and sputtered, going out about halfway to their destination. For some reason, Ray thought about the movie The Goonies that he and Eddie had seen at the drive-in last summer.
"Brother, I'm scared," Alicia whined, huddling against Eddie just ahead of her.
In the lead, Schultz blew on his torch to no avail. "Arimus, maneuver up front."
Steven squeezed around the other group members. Everyone protested as he negotiated his way to the head of the line.
"Don't worry. I've got this." Steven began the previous Latin incantation, and flame sprung from the lighter. "Crap!" He yelped and sat down hard; the lighter dropped into a puddle, plunging them into pitch blackness again.
"What is it?" Schultz sounded nervous.
"A dang bat! It was hanging right there. I don't want to get rabies!" Steven fished around in the water until he found the lighter. "I'm not sure it will work, but it got my dad through Vietnam, it'll get us through this."
"I think I see light ahead." Ray tried to sound confident. "Stay low and lean toward the walls. We’ll feel our way out."
They slowly made their way along the damp walls, luckily avoiding more bats; still, they heard some squeaking in the darkness. Within a few minutes, they saw daylight and heard water flowing in the distance. Finally emerging from the culvert, they had to drop about three feet to the rock-strewn surface between the opening and the river: Steven first, then Schultz, followed by Eddie. Ray helped lower Alicia to her brother. To their right, a stony pathway led to the dam and the burnt-out pump house.
Ray had heard stories all his life about this place: the pump house was haunted; it was destroyed by vandals or by drunken fisherman; the railroad company demolished it for insurance. No matter the reasons, it was a rad place to be for a teenager. Forty years ago, the railroad used the dam to pump water up the steep slope to the long straightaway on the tracks above the river. Steam locomotives stopped to take on water on their way into or out of town. The straightaway extended for more than a mile before it curved toward town just south of the pump station.
"Geez, this is awesome!" Schultz exclaimed, now taking charge and barking orders: "Ardor, draw your bow and lead the way, ranger. Arcon, guard our rear flank. Arimus and Muriel, keep your eyes sharp. Watch for bugbears or kobolds. I'll back you up, Ardor."
"Thanks, Barad-Dur," Ray answered dryly.
This was kind of cool Ray thought to himself. He and Eddie had talked about doing something like this since they started playing D&D. He wished they had special effects rather than just imagination. He watched it play out–a movie in his head. After all, he and Eddie had discussed it many times, here and while hanging out at home. Eddie wanted to make a movie here after discovering it; however, none of them had enough money to afford a video camera. Not many filmmakers came from Southeastern Kentucky.
They cautiously made their way to the pump house which was flanked on three sides by high, concrete retaining walls. The fourth side of the pump house emerged from the pool of water just below the thirty foot high dam that held back Laurel River. As they entered through a large, shattered window of the three-storied building, the crew discovered rubble remaining from the initial destruction: old camp fires, scorched brick walls and rusted pump equipment. The river flooded lower portions nearest the dam.
"Be wary, Ardor. A sea hag may lurk in those fetid waters," Schultz tried his best British accent. "A dragon has been here. Look at the charred walls!"
"I say we advance to the upper levels, cross the dam, and fight the orcs who guard the Dark Gateway of Pelinor on the other side of the river." Eddie suggested.
Ray didn't like this idea. Eddie was too adventurous, but he followed him nevertheless because he didn't want to be seen as a sissy. The upper levels meant climbing onto a weakening roof, which could collapse anytime to drop three stories to where they now stood. However, the roof offered easy access to steps whereby they could scale the side of the dam closest to the pump house. The steps cut into the dam's concrete wall and a flimsy, iron railing would assist them in ascending to the top. Chain link fencing blocked the way onto the dam itself, but it had also been vandalized, making it easier to clamber onto the dam's spillway. Depending on rainfall, water didn't always flow across the spillway. Little rainfall over the last few weeks of late October and early November had slowed flow to a trickle.
"C'mon, guys. Don't be wusses!" Eddie sprinted up the inner rickety stairs and negotiated the tops of the brick walls to the hole in the roof. Schultz and Steven quickly followed. Alicia rushed after them.
"Alicia, no!" Ray scolded her. "You're going to stay here with me. Someone must guard our rear flank. I need your help."
"You're just saying that, sissy, because you're scared. I heard Eddie making fun of you one day because you froze up and couldn't walk across the roof because you're afraid of heights. He also said you couldn't swim. I'd be scared too, sissy!" She stuck her tongue out at him.
"Shut up! Somebody has to babysit you! Eddie didn't even want you here. You should’ve stayed at Steven's and played with dolls."
"Ugh! Stupid boys." She kicked a piece of brick into a watery pit that held one of the flooded pump housings.
Ray began to daydream about making a movie here. Such vast possibilities! He stood by a window facing the dam. After a few minutes, the guys emerged on top of the dam fighting imaginary creatures. He heard their war cries, but couldn't discern specifics. They battled in different places as they edged their way across the dam toward rock shelters hidden among thick mountain laurel on the opposite bank. Bloody Arcon, almost across, led the way with his shield and mighty hammer. Barad-Dur perched at the middle of the dam cautiously punched the air in both directions. Ray imagined the spittle that foamed at the corners of Schultz's mouth when he was in a “battle rage.” Arimus threw “fireballs” and used other spells to ward off creatures attacking from behind.
Suddenly he heard Alicia above him on the roof. Crap! He had forgotten about her, and she had snuck away.
“I’m on my way, Arimus! I’ll call lightning down upon them!” Alicia made her own sound effects as she joined the melee.
Ray rushed up the first flight of flimsy stairs. He froze on the second landing. He couldn't make his legs move. His heart pounded in his ears, mingling with the fight raging outside. He wanted to pursue Alicia to the roof but couldn't. Starting to feel dizzy and nauseous, he sat and scooted back down to the bottom floor. Regaining composure, he hurried from the building, following the path along a retaining wall to the lagoon below the dam.
He arrived about the time Alicia crawled through the chain link fence and lowered herself onto the dam.
“Alicia, go back!” Eddie angrily yelled from the other side of the river. “Dang it, Ray. Can’t you do nothin’? All you had to do was keep her occupied.”
“Don’t fear, Bloody Arcon of Munga. Muriel of the Vale has arrived just in time to save you all. I must tell you that our beloved Ardor is dead. Eaten by a sea hag. I shall now create a waterspout to destroy our enemies!”
She began to spin, pretending to call forth a waterspout from the murky river. Ray saw what was happening, almost as if it happened in slow motion. Alicia slipped on a mossy patch and tumbled down the side of the dam into the slow, churning waters at the base. A sickly brownish foam floated on the surface of the stagnant pool. Her impact created a hole in the foam, and she slipped beneath the surface.
All the boys screamed. They couldn't risk jumping from the dam or they too might drown. Without thinking, Ray threw his bow aside, plunging into the fetid water that smelled of river mud and rotting fish.
He managed to see her pink coat floating near the surface. The down-filled coat acted as a life preserver and probably saved her life. Ray struggled to pull her to the water's edge. A large gash on her head bled badly. Her left leg looked as if it may have been broken. He took deep, ragged breaths and attempted to regain composure. He managed to move her to a sandy patch just downstream from the pool. Soon, the others joined him.
“We’ve got to get home,” Steven panicked. He was crying.
Schultz was also crying. In true fashion, he kept wiping his runny nose on his sleeves.
“Calm down,” Eddie was almost in shock. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell mom and dad! What if I’ve killed her? Oh, my God! What do we do, Ray?”
“It’s my fault. I was supposed to watch her. I’ll carry her. First, we need to stop the bleeding.”
Schultz had a handkerchief. Ray wrapped it around her head, covering the gash. He gently picked her up and carried her through the thickets to the culvert.
“Be careful with her leg,” Eddie whimpered. “We’ve gotta make it home.”
At the entrance they gathered wood to make a splint for her leg using leather shoe laces Steven had in his pack. Eddie and Ray clambered into the tunnel. Schultz and Steven gingerly lifted her up to them. She was still unconscious. Ray and Eddie carried her the best they could through the darkness and the damp. A bat hit Ray on the shoulder and flew toward the river. Schultz squealed. Eddie laughed for a few seconds, then became serious again.
“She’s going to be alright. Right, Ray? Tell me she’ll live.”
“She’ll live, Eddie,” Ray replied. “Bloody Arcon and Ardor of the forested realm shall not allow Muriel of the Vale to perish on this day. Not the day of our greatest triumph.”
Eddie couldn’t see Ray’s face, but heard the resolve in his voice. “Let’s do this.”
Struggling through the entrance on the forest side, they carefully lay her in a small clearing among pines. Out of breath, Schultz and Steven joined them.
Each took turns carrying her through the woods for over a mile to Steven’s house. She regained consciousness upon reaching the house. Steven and Schultz rushed inside. Eddie placed Alicia on the porch and stroked her hair. Her eyes fluttered.
She murmured: “Eddie? We killed the monsters?”
“We got‘em, Honey. We got all of’em.”
“Good.” She closed her eyes.
Steven rushed from the house. “Mom said an ambulance is coming. She also called your parents, Eddie.”
“I’m in deep trouble,” Eddie groaned.
“It’s okay, Eddie. She’s alive. That’s the most important thing.”
“Thanks, Ardor.” He flashed a smile. “You saved her.”
“I guess I did.”