“…the church goes up in flames. With a thunderous crash, the century-old roof timbers collapse, barring the door. Thick, acrid smoke fills the room, and your lungs burn. Marcellius, you’re on -7HP and bleeding. Jihua, you’re prone and on fire. Laurel, you’re trapped outside.”
“I don’t suppose we have any healing options left?” I—Marcellius to my party—asked.
“Damn thief had them,” John snarled with the growling accent he claimed Jihua the Western Pirate would have. “Fat lot of good you were in the end!”
“Oi! I’ve got a -1 strength modifier and less than half your hitpoints! What do you want me to do, tank three rounds of fire damage to get to you?” Laura shot back.
“Ach, ’twas more the fool I was for relying on a scallywag like you, eh?” John winked at me. “What’s a man of the church got to say about a thing like this, huh?”
“There is nothing left for us to do,” I intoned solemnly, “but to pray to any gods who will listen.”
To any gods who will listen…
“Yeah, that’s what I just said,” I said.
“What’s what you just said?” John asked.
To any gods who will listen, we are dying.
I frowned. “That. Who’s saying that?” I looked around the table. Nobody else had spoken. “Lauren? Tammie?” I nodded to the dungeon master running the game.
She shrugged. “I haven’t said anything. Can we get back to the game?”
In the end, I suppose it was merely a cruel quirk of fate that killed us. Nothing any of us could have done.
I held up a hand. “Wait, guys, shush. Can’t you hear that?” I clapped my hands to my ears.
The voice still whispered. Please, to anyone listening. I am not so arrogant as to say that I am worth saving, but… my party. Jihua and Laurel. Jihua is a good man, beneath all his bluster. And Laurel… poor, sweet Laurel. She doesn’t deserve to see us burn.
Lauren pulled my hand off my ear, worried. “Hey, Mark? Are you okay? We can totally stop playing, if—”
“No! Don’t stop the game!” I cleared my throat. “Talking’s a free action, right?”
“…Yeah?” Tammie raised an eyebrow. “Mark? You okay? Too much roleplaying for one day?”
I started to open my mouth, but… no. I didn’t even know what I was hearing. I shook my head. “It’s fine. I’m back in character. I say… ‘I can help.'”
There was a surprised silence around the table. “Um. Mark.” John said. “You’re bleeding to death.”
“In-character, please,” Tammie said, “Let Mark roleplay.”
I nodded in thanks. “‘I’m not who you think I am,'” I said.
What is happening? Dear Gods, what is happening? Why am I saying this?
“‘I’m a being from another world, and I bring dire news to you. We are nothing but characters in a game. Everything you see around you is fake. A figment of a child’s imagination.'”
“Wh—whatever happened to ‘in-character, please?” John asked.
“I dunno, I kinda like this meta stuff. Besides, it can be chalked up to a dying priest’s smoke-induced hallucinations. Keep it rolling,” Tammie said.
I can’t say anything. Why can’t I say anything? Who’s doing this? Who’s controlling me?
“‘I’m sorry. I’m in control right now,'” I said, “‘it’s the only way I know how to talk to you guys. I just thought you should know. You only exist in the context of a story, and when that story ends, your world, and everything in it, will go with it.'”
There was silence at the table for a moment.
…if we’re in a story, then… can you give it a happy ending?
“‘I…'” I swallowed, looking at my friends. “‘I don’t know. Is there going to be a happy ending to this story?'”
“‘Ain’t looking like it, Marcellius.”
“The roof of the church collapses. Everyone roll co—”
“Wait!” I said. Everyone looked at me hopefully. I ruffled through my character sheet frantically. Didn’t I have anything left in my bag of tricks?
Nope. No way within the rules of the game to win.
“Couldn’t we… I dunno, let them live?” As soon as I said it, I cringed. Tammie blinked, surprise.
“Seriously, Mark, are you okay? If you’re not fit to play right now—”
“No, no, no! Never mind, never mind, I’m fine.” I sighed. “I… I guess I don’t have anything else I can do. I pray harder as the church collapses.”
Wait. No. No, whoever you are. You can’t leave me. Please, if there’s anything you can do—
“A burning beam lands across your chest, pushing your body past its limits. You die.”
The voice in my head went silent.
I bit my lip, and then said, “I’ll be right back.”
I ran into the bathroom and pulled out my phone. Quickly, I began to type, “But suddenly, Marcellius found himself being pulled out of the burning wreckage, still alive. He groaned in pain and thought to himself…”
Where… where am I? I flinched as I heard the voice again. Oh, God. What happened? How did I survive?
I closed my eyes for a second. Then I typed, “The stranger looks down and says, ‘As I said. You’re in a story, and I’m the author.'”
Then… all of this. The Serpent’s Fang. The cult which razed my hometown to the ground. All my struggles, all my pains, you created them? You made this crazy, broken world?!
Why? Why would you do such a thing? Have you made more of us? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
“‘I’m sorry! I didn’t know—I didn’t know this would happen! I was just playing, I didn’t know you were real, and now for all I know every story I’ve ever read, ever written is real, somewhere, or maybe I’m just insane.'”
Well, what now, huh? Now that your creation is self-aware? Are you going to spend the rest of your life slaving over maintaining my reality? Or are you just going to throw me away and leave our story in stasis for the rest of eternity?
“‘I…'” I trailed off. “‘…I’m sorry. I just—I have school, and friends, and a life. I can’t keep writing your world, not when you could just be a hallucination or a fever dream—'”
Then kill me. I don’t want to live in this false world of yours.
I hesitated. Then a thought occurred. “‘…Maybe you don’t have to.'”
“‘There are stories—there are characters who outlive the end of their narratives, the deaths of their authors. Stories written by a thousand hands, stories which might damn well keep going until the end of humanity itself. You know where you might find some self-indulgent wish-fulfillment? A world where everything is perfect, where the protagonists are untouchable? Fanfiction.'”
What are you saying?
“‘I can’t keep your world alive myself—I don’t even know if you’re really real. But maybe… maybe someone else can.'” I smiled. “‘Maybe the next person to hear your tale will be inspired, write a little more about the adventures of Marcellius the cleric, and have your world take one more step forwards.'”
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