Love, Dungeons, Magic, Dragons or Some Combination Thereof Will Save This Marriage

By Marvin Shackelford

Featured Image: Power Shots by Sam Warren

My finest moment, the occasion that defines me as a person. Okay. You have to imagine the cliffs. Sheer and bleached in the light of a moon or two and rising from the foam of a screaming ocean. The sky is bleeding down in a magical haze, and a horde of monstrous creatures roars nearer. That happens all the time. This isn’t metaphor. They’re armed and armored and charging from the landward side, and the petulant face of a dead god breaks open out over the waters. His teeth drip with death and his eyes are storms, literal lightning and thunder and hailstones, bearing down on where I stand at the edge of the world. He’s starting to take physical form. He’s getting real. I’m the focal point of the material plane for once in my miserable life, and I thrust the crystal, that plain-looking clear-color gemstone pulled unwittingly from a dragon’s trove, I drive it straight into my heart. Breastplate undone and hair flinging in the wind and my lover wailing as I drop into his arms. Our enemy screams and begins to fade. I’ve saved the world.

“Me, me, me,” Preston inevitably says. “For the gods’ sake, Rachel. You are not your characters.”

He swivels at the table we’ve constructed in the living room, a sheet of plywood draped in white cloth and clamped to sawhorses. It’s too big for any game we’ve had for a long time, but it’s the centerpiece of our home. We watch TV in the bedroom and host guests in the kitchen. We can comfortably seat twelve players should the occasion arise, unfurl the largest maps, and pile on all manner of D&D books, folders, character sheets, dice, dice towers, miniatures, drinks, snacks, phones, laptops, or novelties and junk totally unrelated to the game.

But he’s right about the characters, my identification with them and choice of pronouns. They’re numbers on paper, roles in a play. Cassa gave her life on distant shores to save the known realms. I followed the story there, a game years ago in high school, and helped make it happen, but it’s only so much mine. Only vaguely real. I’m filling out job applications and working through the idiotic questions beyond name, employment history, references: Where do you see yourself, What experiences have prepared you, If you see another employee stealing. Who in the Hells are you? I was born in August, and I married in April. Couldn’t have kids but rocked the step-mom gig. Graduated high school, bailed on college, and worked in one restaurant, two department stores, a factory that made rubber gaskets, and I’ve been a receptionist for two dentists and a pediatrician. At this point Preston would tell me I’m not my job, either, and I suppose he’s right again, but I have to answer something.

Once in high school we skipped class and stole my brother’s car to drive into Odessa for a book signing by someone who, I think, had penciled for Stan Lee. I didn’t even like comics, and this was long before I met Preston, but everyone else thought it sounded fun. We found the store in an empty, beat-up shopping center, and I felt sorry for the guy. He was fat and slouchy and greasy in that way people expect nerds to be. Everybody got their books signed, and we poked around the shop’s four cramped aisles of comics and memorabilia.

On the way out of a Whataburger parking lot heading home everybody screamed for me to hit the gas before Ricky could get back in the car. I put us in gear and made him hop alongside the backdoor to try and dive into the seat. He didn’t make it the first try. He went to his knee on the pavement the second time, and I had a vision of him rolling under the tire. I hit the brake, let him climb in puffing and cussing with his fast-food sack dangling from one fist and his sloshed-around soda in the other. We laughed and ate and didn’t think much about it, and I don’t know what made me remember it now, but that’s probably the kind of person I am, might well be my big defining moment on this earth. I made him try to jump into a moving car, but only twice.

*          *          *

We came to Borger at the end of summer, loading and unloading a yellow moving truck in the long heat. A small wind-energy company offered Preston a job, big pay raise, and we just sort of shrugged. I hadn’t realized how little we were speaking already. We left behind a yard burnt crisp and half graveled, and the new place isn’t much better. Preston thought we could save it, but it lay brown into winter. By spring I’m thinking about trying. I buy hoses and a couple of three-pronged spinning heads to hook on their ends, but I leave them coiled below the spigots even as the neighbors’ yards start greening. The houses in our neighborhood mingle neat and unkept along the streets with no sense of direction or class, so we don’t stand out.

Preston works in a cozy, air-conditioned office downtown, but I sometimes imagine him high up on the turbines his employers are lining along the gusty edges of the caprock. When he leaves in the morning I drink coffee at our big table and think about housework or finding a job or how the Phillips plant makes it smell of burning oil all the time here and what that must do to people’s lungs over time. The town is quiet and mostly clean, lot of money around if you work in oil, but everything goes dark early. You either know everyone or no one.

After lunch I work on my Dungeons & Dragons game. I’m running my first campaign, at Preston’s insistence. He didn’t want to run, wanted a chance to really get involved playing, though I can’t remember him DMing for ages. Our last Dungeon Master was a 15-year-old named Donnie whose mother dropped him off and picked him up at our old house. I miss Donnie, he was sweet and energetic, but Preston complains he was all action and no substance, battles and traps and never the grit of living characters. Preston says he’s never really felt fulfilled, and he wants that. I want it too.

We had the usual trouble finding players. We posted to Facebook groups and sorted through the weirdos and kids looking for adults to buy beer. We pinned up a flier at the local gaming store and were ignored by the Magic-playing teenagers and small groups playing 5e D&D. Fifth edition of the game rules, new and fresh and well-received, but Preston insists we’re a 2nd Edition household. The best, he says, no need to change. Never mind the three updated systems and nearly 20 years come since. We have a brick-and-board shelf full of rulebooks and modules, box sets and appendices, and we’re sticking with them.

“It’s all marketing,” he says. “They have to sell books.”

We’re up to a group of four, counting me. Tommy works with Preston. He’s our age and kind of funny, likes rolling the dice. He drinks beer and goofs around while we play, voices his dwarf character with a bad Scottish accent and likes smashing bad guys with his hammer. Or good guys, if they’re in his way. Winter saw our flyer and called. She’s maybe 30 and tall, skinny and almost pretty if she’d clean up. She’s a lesbian but likes to say there are no good girls, it isn’t worth the effort, and she jokes about switching back to men again. She’s great at the table, very into the story. I had illusions of a friendship between us, some small platonic attraction, but she’s taken up with Preston to the point I’m almost jealous. He’s running a female human priestess with a dark and bloody destiny we haven’t completely penciled out yet, and she flirts with Winter’s half-elf warrior ceaselessly. They caress and giggle, chase after each other through battles and barrooms, and sometimes I glance up from my notes expecting to see their players necking gently, my husband and the lesbian, lustfully entwined.

But it’s fun. I arrange encounters and am piecing together bigger plot points and a wider world of dungeons and temples, woodlands and back alleys. Shadowy, leather-winged figures have begun circling Preston’s priestess in her dreams, and one night the group finally spots a pair in person. The two watch from a distance, cloaked and careful, and quickly duck from sight when noticed. The party chases but finds only an empty cobblestone street and questions. Preston eyes me, brows lifted in surprise. I haven’t told him everything, have guarded the details, and I’m excited to get him his big moment, the two of us together.

*          *          *

Something over wintertime pulls me from the house. I think about how much I sit waiting for something to do, something that never manifests, and I get out walking around the neighborhood. I circle our long, quiet block a while, start turning up and down the streets to either side of ours, and soon I’m jogging a mile and then two every day. I get to know the tiny yards and patient houses, the kids out playing. There’s an old woman on a cul-de-sac who comes out to wave each day and a fat man in a wifebeater, however cool the weather, smoking cigarettes when I pass his duplex. He doesn’t wave. By April and May I’m running five miles and it’s getting warm. I go out in the dark before workers start rolling out to the plant and children to school. The streets are quiet and mine, and something lifts in me.

I start cooking, get us eating closer to right, but Preston doesn’t notice. Around the house he wears t-shirts that pull tight across his gut and gym shorts that don’t reach his knees. He orders pizza on Friday nights, most Saturdays, and I can’t help eating a slice or two. Still, when I pinch at the fat along my hips I come back with less and less. The simple chemistry of my body shocks me, but the cashiers at the grocery notice, and Tommy says something one night before we play. I get into some shirts I’d stopped wearing without quite realizing, buy some running gear to keep me motivated. I think of it as tending body and mind, my morning runs and afternoon planning. I pretend or maybe even almost believe I’m improving myself, my whole life, one turn of the horizon at the time.

I keep sending applications out and probably get to feeling too good. Hiring seems to be slow, and when I finally get an interview I decide to have fun. The only dentist in town brings me in for a part-time position. When I sit down with the office manager and she asks what experiences I’ve had that will help me interact with coworkers and patients, I tell her roleplaying games have made me ready for all manner of problems and encounters.

“Roleplay?” she asks.

Dungeons & Dragons mostly,” I say. “I’ve been playing over twenty years. It’s interactive and cooperative, and there’s a lot of problem-solving involved.”

“Oh, God, okay,” she says. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I thought you meant, you know.” She laughs into her hand and blushes. “Sex.”

“Nothing that exciting,” I admit.

She hunches over her clipboard and scribbles a note. I wonder if sex would have been a better answer. After a few more questions she escorts me out, thanks me, says she’ll be in touch. She won’t call, I won’t get the job, but I’m already rehearsing the story. I’ll describe the dank office, her cluttered desk like a treasure pile in a cavern’s deepest recess. Her embarrassment and fluster, imagine her prim and proper at a ladies’ church group wondering how such sex-crazed monsters freely roam the streets. Preston and the group will get a kick out of it, D&D and sex like they’re mistakeable for one another, and that’s better than nothing.

*          *          *

Or maybe it’s not so funny, I decide. We meet on a Thursday evening, and my players explore the granite ruins of a decrepit temple dedicated to the dark goddess of dragons. Carvings of large snakes and wyrms adorn the chambers, the pillars of the sacrifice hall. They face down giant spiders nested in a webby corridor—Tommy loves this, takes their fangs as trophies and tries to harvest their venom sacs—and a half-dragon cleric nearly curses and cudgels them into oblivion. They battle him to a draw, and when the villain flees with cryptic warnings of the mother’s approach, dark skies and doom, they discover in a chest near the altar a series of engraved plates. What prophecy or portent they hold the characters cannot say, the script is unknown, but on one sheet is a finely etched and unmistakable likeness of each of them.

It’s after the session things get weird. They roll the dice and play along, pass notes back and forth at the table, but Preston and Winter carry it further with a between-games written RP. He starts a Facebook group and invites us all, says it’s a good way to take things to that next level. Tommy ignores it, but Preston and Winter go deep. Their silly flirtiness turns into a torrid affair as they write. They explore shady slumtown dens together, hunt in the nearby forests, trade for exotic items in the marketplaces, and at night their characters meet in passionate embraces and tender conversation. They write of the longsuffering and loss that brought them together, their newfound joy, and the fear that dark destiny will snatch them apart. They write, in careful third-person, of their secret passions and “elicit love.” It’s sappy and bad and a little creepy, but they’re telling their story, don’t need a narrator, and I can’t stop the warning bells. This should be our story, Preston and I should be making it together, but I can’t find my way in.

I wrangle him into some time alone out of the house, date night. We drive to Amarillo, see a movie at the IMAX and go for Chinese. I splurge on fried chicken and wontons and sugary sweet sauces and try to talk to my husband about work, our home, the diet I want to steer us toward, tonight notwithstanding. He wants to talk the game, always the game—he has ideas. He’s imagining a battle with a great red dragon, a portal to Hell, and finally a quiet wedding in the elven forests below a snowy summit. Peace at last and boundless future ahead.

“What about Winter?” I ask, and he glances up from his potstickers.

“She’s cool with it.”

“You two sure are getting along.”

“Oh, she’s great,” he says, and then something works over his face, he smiles or frowns—I can’t tell which. “You know she’s gay, right?”

I know, but I don’t know. Preston sighs and explains a game is just a game. There’s no need to confuse the two, it’s like writing a book, or a movie. It’s acting. It’s a speech he’d give a child, simple and slow. He moves back into his advice for me, the story we’re building, and it’s all him, his ideas, the enemies he expects to face and obstacles he’ll overcome. What waits on the horizon.

“Don’t worry about Winter,” he says. “That’s nothing.”

“I’m not,” I say, an it’s not Winter, or the game, not exactly. It’s every story he’s making, how they repeat and wind together and I’m so little present. He’s barely there, it’s empty of us. I want to tell him but can’t explain. We finish eating and drive home, turn on the TV and lie quietly in our bed. Nothing happens, and I let it.

*          *          *

Winter and Tommy cancel for a session, and we eat a quiet supper of asparagus and chicken breasts, a freshly sliced tomato. I’m always surprised how much I enjoy asparagus. Preston doesn’t say anything, but I have a feeling he’ll run out for a burger later. We sit around the house until I just can’t anymore, and I dress and tell Preston I’ll be back. I drive across town, sit in the Wal*Mart lot and then cross the street to the grocery. There’s nowhere to go. I drive downtown, its brick streets and carefully concrete-boxed trees, swing by Preston’s empty office and the small theater, the bar across the street. Both their lots are full. I wind around until I pass the shopping center where the gaming store sits, and I jam on the brake.

The store is a little rough. It’s a hull with three or four shelves of board games and novelties but a long, immaculate glass counter holding Magic: The Gathering cards, two rows of tables for players. It’s fairly crowded, teenagers laying cards out against each other and sitting around talking. There’s a guy with a stack of new D&D books sitting on the table. But mostly it’s Magic, a couple younger kids playing Pokémon. Preston dislikes card games, says there’s no imagination to them, so we never got involved. It occurs to me we miss a lot that way.

I check out the Magic cards. They have foil-wrapped packs and neat square boxes and singles sleeved in plastic, priced from a dollar to north of a hundred. They’re familiar but different, the fantasy artwork exciting and reassuring but the numbers and rules on their faces foreign. Lands, discards, tapping and untapping. I like their sleekness, though. I like the faeries and skeletons, dragons and soldiers, the broad and scattered possibility. The feeling of something big but easily grasped, close. When the man behind the counter sidles down to ask if he can help me find anything I straighten up, look back up the length of the store at the kids playing and talking and having fun. I tap on the glass, pointing to nothing in particular but ready, sure now.

“I want to learn to play,” I say.

“All right,” he says. He rubs his hands together and smiles. He’s excited for me, just like that.

*          *          *

The city bans fireworks because of the drought, cancels the display at the park, and then at the beginning of July the weather turns loose. We have three or four days of drizzle and mist, occasional thunderstorms. I skip running for the first time in months, put off by the wet, and it carries into the days after that. The muscles tighten up the back of my legs, expectant. I sit at the window and watch. Our yard shows a little green. I focus on the game more. We’re nearing a head, a desperate battle to keep sealed the gates of the Nine Hells. My players seem to expect challenge but victory, a hard-fought battle and just reward. Preston wants the glory and happy ending for his priestess, his big gay marriage to Winter’s warrior. He doesn’t understand that it can’t come easy. There’s always sacrifice, always loss.

We get together all day on the Fourth. Preston grills, Tommy shows up with a cooler of beer and already half in the bag, and just before we eat I find myself alone with Winter, slicing tomatoes and onions and watching the men out the window over the kitchen sink. I look down her long arms to her red hands, how she gingerly holds an onion and saws through its layers. We’re never alone, never really talk, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve failed somehow. We should be friends, this is all a misunderstanding, a bad joke. I clear my throat, and she doesn’t look up. I can’t say what I really want anyway.

“Are you having fun?” I ask. “The game, I mean.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” she says, and she sets the onion on a plate and smiles. She shows too much gum, has a starry spray of acne across her right temple, but she’s pretty, too. Pretty and young. “This has been a great campaign. You’ve really killed it.”

“Anything you’d like to change? Last-minute ideas?”

“I don’t guess.”

“You and Preston really have it going,” I say. “You’re sure he’s not swallowing you up?”

“Oh, no.” Winter leans against the counter, clasps her hands and rocks. “I love how our story’s come together. Preston’s so good. I’ve never played in a game like this, to be honest.

“Is it always like this?” she asks, and I shake my head.

“This is a first,” I say, and that’s true enough.

We eat and settle at the table. The action’s lulled—the party has arrived at the encampment of a barbarian tribe, and they seek information from a shaman that will lead them toward our final conflict. They spend the afternoon talking with nonplayer characters and trading for small magical goods. Tommy’s dwarf gambles with the tribe’s young warriors, and I have him roll two ten-sided dice to simulate a game of chance. When he rolls a 10 or 90 he doubles his bet. Tommy’s working steadily through his beer and locks in on the game within the game. Winter starts bumming beers from him, and Preston has one, and I dig out a bottle of wine. I pour a deep glass, and it gets me warm and giggly. We feel almost loose and familial, don’t make much headway in the game, but we’re having fun.

But they’re keeping up their antics. The priestess and warrior slip away to make love beneath the wide-open prairie sky, and even though they fade to black and I know it’s just a game I feel uneasy. They talk and laugh and drink, and Preston sits up very straight and tells a story about gnomes, special oils and greases concocted for their steam-driven machines and why you just can’t trust them. He speaks in a high, lilting chipmunk voice, imitating one of the spindly tinkerers, and Winter leans back, brays a laugh and reaches a hand out to grip my husband’s forearm. It’s only a moment, and I know, I know, but something hot and wavery slices up the center of me. I stumble to the bathroom and stand at the mirror splashing water in my face. When I walk back out everything seems so normal. They’re talking about Marvel movies, and I can’t be sure what worked me up, where it’s gone, what’s changed. We peter out to drinking and watching videos on Preston’s laptop. When Tommy leaves we tell him not to drive, Preston offers to give him a lift, but he waves us off.

“Eye of the tiger,” he says, and I have no idea if he means the song or a game item or spell that escapes my memory or something else altogether. He loads his cooler in his pickup and lights out up the street without a second thought. Winter gathers her books and dice and starts to follow but stops at the door a moment. She looks outside and then back at us. She dangles her keys from her fingers and sways and gives a giggle.

“Shit,” she says. Preston’s up and out the door before I quite catch her meaning. He says he’ll be right back, and he loads her into his car and eases away into the sunset.

He’s gone fifteen minutes and then twenty-five. Winter lives not at all far from our home. It shouldn’t take my husband long to deliver her safely and return. It isn’t math, takes no charts and tables or arcane rules to follow the narrow thread that snaps loose in me. I push out the door and run up the street. I sprint up the gentle hill from our house, running at the edge of the pavement into the not-quite dark and praying against whatever drunks might drive past, swerve too close. The rain has broken a while, sunset slicing the horizon into thin layers of yellow and orange and red cloud, but the air hangs heavy, humid. I soak through in half a mile, sweating out wine and anger and inactivity. But I push and pant past all the streets I usually turn down, I run by the elementary school and the churches flanking its either side. I cross the quiet four-lane without stopping, out of our neighborhood and further than I’ve ever run. I cross the railroad tracks and run up the cracked and knobby sidewalks of an older, more uniform part of town to the broad, two-story bank of apartments where Winter lives.

I puke in the manicured strip of lawn beside their lot, hang my head between my knees and feel something that’s not quite relief. I haven’t come so far as much as I’ve gone a strange direction. I catch my breath and look along the cars for Preston’s, can’t find it but don’t know if that means anything. I search the apartments, know Winter’s is upstairs but not which. Light flashes from a window, erratic blues and shadow of television, and I climb the steps to its door. Their television’s cranked loud but impossible to understand. I think it’s Spanish. I knock, and when no one answers I rush back down the steps and away, walk up the street and across the tracks and highway the way I came. I’m careful not to look back over my shoulder, don’t want to see if someone’s answered my knocking or has started chasing after me.

The house waits, driveway empty and front door standing open. Our maps and dice, books and papers are strewn across the table, and I leave it all laying. I shut myself in and turn off the lights, crawl in bed and close my eyes against a throbbing that’s beneath the lids. My heart races. It’s a while before Preston returns. He walks in whistling, shuffles around turning lights back on and settles in the living room. He’s on his computer, I hear the click of the keys, and every so often he chuckles. He doesn’t pop in to check on me, see where I’m at, and I go to sleep without asking where he’s been, what’s happening, where’s next.

*          *          *

I get a call from an irrigation company, the people who install sprinkler systems for farmers, and they want to interview me for their receptionist position. The owner’s name is Richard, and I meet him at the suite of offices built into the front of their long warehouse filled with metal piping and wire and wheels tall as I am. He offers coffee, and we sit in a drafty conference room that reminds me of a high-school office. Desks against the walls piled with papers, everything grimy. He runs down my résumé and hits the basics. How do I like Borger, where I worked before, responsibilities and duties, pay. I’m prepared for the rough stuff, have my story straight now: It’s all about family. That’s what I loved about my old job, and I want a work family I can grow with. I googled around and found this answer in an advice column. Avoid the personal, tell them what they want to hear.

But Richard doesn’t bother with important moments, career highlights. He asks if I’m good on the phone, can handle messages and scheduling. They’ll get me trained up on the lingo and the business. It’s easy, he says—pipes and water, a little electricity. I tell him sure, absolutely. He shakes my hand, and that’s it. We’re done.

Preston’s pleased enough by my news. We’ve moved silent around the house with each other, chilly even as the rainy days pass and summer tilts headlong onto us. I think it’s more on my part than his, but it seems to suit him fine. Still I’m disappointed when there’s no celebration, no small fête to recognize my success. I sort through the closet and plan lunches and throw myself headlong into my first week. I run early and sit behind a desk all day, answering the phone and making copies and getting to know my coworkers. They come and go from the field, a little rough but pleasant enough. It’s work, and it’s normal.

Our campaign stalls, with my daytimes occupied. We get in a session or two, stand right on the brink of their final showdown to save the world. Preston and Winter continue their side roleplay, they kid and flirt and carry on at the table, but if anything new and different happens between us, if anything ever has, I can’t tell it. I steer us on toward the end, but it doesn’t feel like my story anymore.

I go back to the gaming store, too, bring my Magic deck and play on quiet weeknights. They’re friendly, teenagers and kids just out of high school mostly, and I have fun. They’re weird, too—there’s a couple of guys obsessed with My Little Pony and an anime geek who always speaks with a fake Japanese accent—but they’re nice. I start talking with the Thursday-night D&D players, and they tell me to come, come on, roll up a character and jump in. I buy the 5e handbook, finger the glossy cover and flip through the fresh art and rules. Familiar but distant. I stand in the living room the evening of my first session, tell Preston what I’m doing, and he seems unsurprised, neither pleased nor displeased.

“Have fun, I guess,” he says. I ask him to come, and he only shakes his head, looks back to his laptop and says, “Not for me.”

“I really think you should come with me,” I say again, and he doesn’t answer. I leave him there.

I roll up a half-orc barbarian—Teska, a big, fierce warrior with a vague background of escaping her tribe under duress. I feel silly introducing myself to the group, introducing my character, but they smile, nod, purse their lips and listen. They’re so young, I’m old enough to be their mother, and I wonder what in the world I’m doing. But they don’t mind when I speak in first person, put on a little bit of her voice. Gruff. Determined. They introduce themselves, and we roll our dice and battle through a crypt infested with zombies, bats, a few clattering skeletons. I play wild and loose, throw myself at enemies and don’t worry about damage, dying. We start joking about Teska the pincushion, and I like it. I laugh and drive her headlong toward disaster, all the world is open to me, and we go.

*          *          *

The party gathers before the defiled grove enshrouding the ancient portal, where the draconic clerics chant and murmur their spell to set it open. Their goddess waits beyond, ready to step through and claim this world by way of fire, destruction, death. She is the end of all things, and only this small band of adventurers blocks her path. They creep stealthily through the trees, kill the sentries and take position around the high priest and his lieutenants. A flurry of arrows and spells, and then they charge. Tommy’s dwarf smashes and swings about, crushing skulls and ribcages. Winter’s half-elf dances through, sword flashing lithely. Preston’s priestess looses spells, heals her comrades, and whirls her mace. They push toward the high priest, felling his acolytes, hoping to interrupt his magical efforts. Tommy reaches him first, then Winter and Preston, and they hack and slash and crash into him at the closing of his ritual.

The characters stand over his crumpled body in a sudden and eerie silence, and the players celebrate around the table, high-fiving and shouting. This is the endgame they’ve expected, that Preston’s worked to engineer. They revel in their victory, ready to move on to their epilogue and happily ever-after and then on to starting again. The three of them have already discussed new characters, a new setting, another campaign. Tommy has a cousin who wants to play and Winter a coworker who’s interested, we can grow the group, and everybody, even Preston, seems to assume I’ll just keep rolling things along, do the work and make the frame for their enjoyment. He isn’t worrying what I want, building the story of my life, our life, but that’s okay.

“You’re too late,” the high priest croaks. They look at me like they hadn’t known I was there. I stand and lean down on the table and give them my carefully crafted spiel.

“The draconic priest rattles a final breath. The air grows heavy, tightens. The runes of the portal’s stone frame begin to glow from within as though heated, but it’s cold, you can see your breath, and icy fog obscures the world beyond the surrounding trees. Arcs of lightning-like energy crackle across the portal ring, the air rips in pure light and sound, and from beyond steps the dark goddess in all her wrath and glory. You shake and shiver before the wave of her power and are filled with the urge to escape. She is come, and she is death.”

I describe the horror of her, the mass of scales and tentacles and rotten flesh, not just the overgrown, angry dragon you always expect. She enters their world and it’s only begun. They could run right now, flee, and live to fight another day. I have a vague outline of how it would go—another mountaintop, communing with gods, a new magic and different battle. But they confer only a moment before attacking, and that settles us. They flail about the monstrous, mythic entity to no avail, but when I strike back I show no mercy. I drop Tommy with a single hit, and after another exchange of attacks I rip Winter’s warrior asunder right before her priestess lover’s eyes. It feels good. Tommy opens another beer, and Winter looks shocked, pained. I still don’t know if something’s gone on between her and my husband or if the problem’s all mine and his, and it probably is just ours, but she hasn’t helped anything, either.

“For shit’s sake, Rachel,” Preston says. He complains about rulebooks and fairness, spirit of the game, but he’s been at this long enough to know sometimes you just have to retreat. He dips and dodges his priestess about, casts some spells and lashes at the dark goddess, and I stalk him patiently. Preston asks just what I think I’m doing, what’s the point of all this, but I don’t answer. He finally looks me in the eye. He still hasn’t figured out this is my world, my game. I’m going to take him apart a piece at the time, and then he’ll see. It’s my vengeance and my time, it’s my story, and I’m only inviting myself back into it.

Marvin Shackelford is the author of Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (Alternating Current, March ’22), Endless Building, and Field Guide to Lonely Birds (Red Bird Chapbooks, forthcoming). His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Reckon Review, Threadcount and elsewhere. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee

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