Chapter 1: Let the Games Begin 1 LET THE GAMES BEGIN FRANK
I STUMBLED BACKWARD, MY GRIP ON the sword tightening as I parried the blow from the attacker’s blade. I tried to block out the sounds of martial combat raging around us and brace myself for her next attack. The leather armor I was wearing wasn’t going to do much good if the curved blade of her saber penetrated my defenses. I’d already been wounded once in the battle. One more strike, and my quest was over for good.
“Drop your cutlass and surrender, peasant,” Xephyr spat, her eyes smoldering beneath her black cowl. “Or your life will be mine along with the treasure.”
“Never!” I sneered, trying to sound more intimidating than I felt. “You and your henchmen will never get your hands on the queen’s jewels!”
This wasn’t the first time I’d handled a sword, but my opponent fought with the skill of a fencing champion. Which was exactly what Xephyr (with an X) was.
They say the best defense is a good offense. I didn’t know if that was true, but an attack of my own might catch her off guard and give me a desperately needed advantage. As I went to lunge, the sun glinted off the metal-spiked cuffs on Xephyr’s arms, temporarily blinding me. I hesitated. Xephyr didn’t. Her blade found its mark. The sword fell from my hands and I collapsed to my knees.
“Noooo!” Joe yelled, sprinting across the field to avenge my death.
I dusted myself off and walked across the Bayport Memorial Park baseball diamond to the dugout bench, where the rest of the deceased were sitting.
“I bet I’m the first reporter to cover a magical medieval battle on a baseball field,” Charlene Vale said from a crouch as she snapped photos of the action with her DSLR camera. “These LARPing pics are going to look great on the front page of the Bayport High News website.”
“Some of us do a better job of putting the ‘live’ in live-action role-play than others,” I joked, sliding my realistically painted foam sword into the dugout’s bat rack.
“Nice quote, Hardy,” Charlene said, putting down her camera and picking up the little notebook she carried around everywhere.
I hoped she couldn’t see me blush. My last girlfriend, Jones, had left Bayport after her mom got a job out of town, and Charlene had been the first new girl to catch my eye. Or, maybe I should say “re-catch.” She was our school’s top student journalist, and I’d kinda had a crush on her for a while, so I was secretly super excited that she wanted to feature me in her article on Bayport’s fantasy-role-playing culture.
“You did better than me,” my friend Murph said, his rubber elf ears wiggling. “Robert stabbed me twice before I got to cast a single fireball spell.”
Two total hits from either a foam weapon or a beanbag “spell” and you were “dead.” Normally, a teammate could tap you to bring you back to life after a few minutes, but this was the final sudden-death match before Sir Robert’s Comic Kingdom opened and we took the role-playing inside, swapping our swords for dice.
Eponymous comic shop owner Robert McGalliard was the only adult member of the Bayport Adventurers Guild LARP club. Inside his shop, he was just a big, lumbering middle-aged man with a bald noggin and a passion for comics. Out here with a sword in his hand, he danced across the battlefield with the grace of a deadly ballerina. Only instead of a tutu, he wore a traditional Scottish kilt that he claimed had been passed down from an ancestor who fought in the First War of Scottish Independence—although it was always a bit hard to tell what was and wasn’t true when it came to Robert’s boasts.
Robert and Xephyr fought toward each other, dropping their opponents like flies. Dennis “DM Dennis” Dovan was the last of Xephyr’s henchmen to fall. Joe followed, another victim of Xephyr’s sword. Soon Robert and Xephyr were the only two warriors standing.
“No offense, but you guys really stink at this compared to them,” Charlene said, snapping away with her camera from the dugout.
“No offense taken,” Dennis said cheerily, good-natured as always.
“Yeah,” I mumbled under my breath. I was going to have to find another way to dazzle Charlene besides LARPing prowess. She could be pretty intense, especially when it came to reporting a story, and we’d been classmates long enough that I knew impressing her wasn’t easy.
I didn’t take the barb personally, though. This really was about as epic as a foam weapon battle could get. With both Robert and Xephyr in costume, you almost forgot it was make-believe.
Robert finally pierced Xephyr’s defenses, tapping her on the heart with the tip of his foam sword. Xephyr didn’t break character for a second. She let out a gut-wrenching scream and clutched the end of the sword to her chest as if it were embedded there for real.
“Curse you, Sir Robert,” she muttered before collapsing to the ground. “Revenge… shall… be…”
Her body shuddered and went still.
“Sir Robert the Exaltedly Wonderful is victorious yet again!” Robert raised his sword over his head and shouted in his distinctive Scottish brogue. “Now to the shop!”
“Huzzah!” nearly everyone yelled in unison, raising their weapons in the air and following Robert in a magical medieval procession across the park toward the comic shop. The only ones who didn’t “huzzah!” with rest of us were Charlene and Joe.
“How come you’re not in costume?” Charlene asked my brother.
“I’m here for the live-action part,” he said, twirling his foam sword. “I’m too cool for the role-playing.”
“Ha!” I laughed. “Too closed-minded is more like it.”
“I think a detective like you would really dig the tabletop role-playing games we play at the shop if you gave them a chance, Joe,” DM Dennis said, referring to Joe’s and my reputations as Bayport’s foremost teenage private investigators. “You have to use all kinds of investigative problem-solving skills in RPGs like Sabers and Serpents.”
“Yeah, and the action kicks butt!” Xephyr added, thumping the hilt of her sword against her breastplate and walking ahead of us to the front of the procession. “I’m gonna go show Robert pics of my costume from last night’s LARP camping trip.”
Xephyr had made the realistic faux saber herself, along with most of the other foam weapons we’d used for the LARP. They were so impressive, Robert even sold them at the comic shop. She made costume armor too, and the outfits for her LARP characters were always great.
“You guys sure do take your role-playing seriously,” Charlene commented, watching Xephyr strut off. “These are all characters from the Sabers and Serpents games you play at Comic Kingdom?”
“Yup! Games like S and S let you create a fantasy character with their own personality, skills, weaknesses, and special powers and then think your way through situations like they would,” Dennis explained enthusiastically.
“You can be a whole other person. Or even another creature!” I said, giving one of Murph’s elf ears a friendly flick.
“In tabletop games, dice play a critical role too,” DM Dennis chimed back in with a wink, pulling a gleaming silver polyhedral twenty-sided die from his pocket. “For every major choice a character makes, whether it’s sweet-talking an ornery wizard or firing an arrow at an orc, you have to roll one or more dice to see what the outcome is.”
Dennis held up the number 20, known in the gaming world as a critical hit. “We call this die the D20, and the die don’t lie. Roll high enough and you can succeed spectacularly. Roll too low”—he turned the die to the digit 1, the dreaded critical fail—“and it could mean your life.”
“The DM in ‘DM Dennis’ stands for dungeon master,” I informed Charlene. “He runs all the games we play.”
“The term ‘dungeon master’ comes from Dungeons and Dragons, but I’m the game master for other classic RPGs like Sabers and Serpents as well,” Dennis said.
“We’d call him GM Dennis, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it,” Murph pointed out.
“LARPing in our S and S characters followed by a tabletop campaign has been our new Sunday morning tradition since Rob moved to Bayport and opened the shop a few months ago,” I said as the shiny new sign for Sir Robert’s Comic Kingdom came into view down the street.
“I did some digging after Robert contacted me to pitch the article on the Adventurers Guild and Sabers and Serpents,” Charlene said. “It doesn’t seem like many people except vintage collectors knew about the game until he opened shop and started reviving it.”
“Not even many people in Bayport knew about it, and it was created right here!” Murph asserted.
“You’re interviewing the right guy, Charlene,” I said, patting Murph on the shoulder. “We don’t call him Murph ‘the Collector’ Murphy for nothing.”
“S and S has always been legendary in collecting circles for its artwork and how rare the material is, so naturally I knew all about it,” Murph said proudly. “The game was an early competitor to Dungeons and Dragons way back in the 1970s, but a warehouse fire put them out of business before it really took off. Kids today wouldn’t be playing it at all if Robert hadn’t uploaded the old rules manual to the Comic Kingdom website.”
“It’s the local-interest angle my readers really want to know about. Rob’s uncle Angus was one of the creators, but I couldn’t find a single interview with him anywhere,” Charlene said.
“I thought Robert just moved here from Scotland,” Joe interjected.
“He did, but his uncle emigrated years ago,” Murph said. “A huge part of the game is based on their family’s ancestral castle on the outskirts of town.”
“Wait, Robert’s uncle is Old Man McG?!” Joe asked incredulously.
“The one and only,” I confirmed. Joe usually only came by on Sundays for the fighting and hadn’t paid much attention to the shop until now.
Old Man McGalliard was a notorious curmudgeonly hermit who was rumored to throw rotten apples at any kids—and shoot at any adults—who crossed Castle McGalliard’s moat. And, yes, it had a moat! A crumbling, very-badly-in-need-of-repair moat, but still, how many small American towns have a real eighteenth-century castle? It was an exact replica of a medieval Scottish castle, and according to Robert, the walls were still decorated with the same ancient weapons the original owner, a McGalliard ancestor who had left Scotland for the American colonies, had put up over two hundred years ago. From what I knew of local history, no one had lived there or bothered to take care of it for generations until Robert’s uncle moved back to claim it.
Castle McGalliard’s heir apparent paused in front of the comic shop, turning to face everyone before unlocking the door.
“Hurry up, you dawdlers, and gather round,” Robert called. “As I promised our young reporter friend, I have a special announcement to make before commencing the day’s indoor adventures.” He paused so the rest of us could catch up before continuing. “As most of you are aware, I am the proud owner of one of the world’s rarest comic books.”
“Yeah, we’re aware, you only brag about it about twenty-five times a day,” Xephyr quipped.
“As would you, my fearsome lass,” Robert replied, grinning. “The pristine copy of Sabers and Serpents #1 hanging in the impregnable, bulletproof glass case behind my counter is one of only three copies in existence. And the only one that’s completely intact.”
He took a deep breath and a dramatic pause, as he liked to do when telling his favorite story.
“Many people today think of Sabers and Serpents as just a role-playing game. Which it was at first, and thanks to its revival here at Sir Robert’s Comic Kingdom, it still is,” Robert continued. “But my uncle and his partner, Filmore, had also been preparing to launch a comic book tie-in to promote the game in 1976.”
“You know that fire we talked about?” Murph asked Charlene. “Well, there was never an issue number two, because Filmore Johnson burned down the printer’s warehouse with everything in it right before number one was released. No one ever found out why.”
Charlene’s eyes lit up. “Readers love a good local scandal.”
“It’s not just local,” Murph said. “Filmore was a super-popular comic book artist nationwide before he helped start Sabers and Serpents, and he vanished without a trace right after the fire.”
“It wasn’t just Filmore that disappeared either,” Robert said. “The only other copies of the comic to surface after the fire inexplicably have the same exact page ripped out. Rumors about its contents have swirled for decades.”
“The whole incident is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in comics and gaming history,” Murph said reverently. “That’s part of why the comic is so valuable.”
“Indeed,” Robert said. “And of the three copies left in existence, mine is the only copy containing the legendary missing page.”
“Not that you’ve ever shown it to us,” Murph complained. He’d been trying to get Rob to open the case ever since the shop opened.
“And for good reason, my lad,” he replied. “As everyone can tell by the cover, it’s in unprecedented fine condition. A mere fingerprint, or heaven forbid, a tear, could reduce the comic’s value by thousands.”
“He’s got a point, Murph,” Dennis said.
“Until now, my crabby old uncle Angus, Filmore Johnson, and I have been the only souls to ever know what that page contains. Filmore hasn’t been heard from, and Uncle Angus hasn’t left the castle or given an interview since Sabers and Serpents went belly-up in a ball of flames over forty years ago.”
“So if I got your uncle to talk on the record, it would be a worldwide exclusive?” Charlene asked seriously.
“Ha! You’re about as likely to get an interview with Nessie the Loch Ness Monster,” Robert scoffed. “I can barely get the old codger to say hello to me when I come in the castle door, and that’s after I’ve bribed him with a bar of chocolate.”
“Collectors and gamers have been trying for years,” Murph concurred sadly.
“But our family’s silence over the missing page is about to come to an end,” Rob declared, pausing to look down at his watch. “Five days from now, at midnight on All Hallows’ Eve, when I reveal it to the world in a livestream from the castle during the grandest Halloween masquerade party this town has ever seen.”
Just about everyone erupted at once.
“Yes!” Murph shouted.
“No way!” exclaimed Dennis.
“Sweet!” Xephyr cheered.
“Woo-hoo!” I joined in.
“I’ve got the perfect costume!” Joe declared.
“Robert’s about to unveil one of the collecting world’s holy grails and you’re thinking about your Halloween costume?” Murph asked in disbelief.
“How often do you get to dress up for a Halloween party at an actual castle?” replied Joe.
“Invitations with the news are scheduled to go out to the world right”—Robert paused as a handful of phones buzzed and beeped with a new alert—“now.”
“What prompted you to disclose the missing page at this time?” Charlene questioned Robert, pen at the ready.
“There will be a special guest in attendance at my costume soiree,” he answered. “Wendell Leadbetter, a top appraiser from none other than Butterby Auctioneers, called me asking to examine Sabers and Serpents #1. He will be present at the soiree to confirm the authenticity of the comic and appraise its undoubtedly spectacular value.”
“Butterby’s is one of the premier auction houses in the world,” Murph informed us. “They sold the last copy of the S and S comic for more than fifty thousand dollars, even with the most important page missing. The comic and gaming worlds have been waiting forty years to see what’s on that page. If the copy is in the excellent condition Robert claims it is, then it would be worth a fortune.”
“Ye have little faith, my young friend,” Robert said. “All shall be revealed in a few days’ time. Now let’s enter the kingdom and gaze upon the glory that is Sabers and Serpents #1.”
With a comic of that value on the wall behind the shop’s counter, Robert didn’t seem to take any chances with security. Anybody who spent much time around the shop heard him brag about how expensive his security system was. Not only did the front door have a giant dead bolt, he had to enter a keypad code and press his thumb to a fancy, state-of-the-art biometric fingerprint reader to deactivate the alarm system. You could see the security camera—one of many he had set up around the shop—blinking from behind the glass above us as the door clicked open.
Robert pushed his way confidently through the comic shop door, flicked on the lights, and instantly froze in his tracks.
“NOOOOOO!” he and Murph both screamed at the same time.
The impregnable glass case that protected Sabers & Serpents #1 was gone.