Immediately upon entering the tomb, all three of them saw something lurking in the corner. Something so big it made the entirety of the confining room feel suffocatingly smaller. The hairy, seven-foot-tall creature was grunting and digging through the inventory packs of a pair of dead and unlucky adventurers. Still far more unlucky than dead.
They could smell it too; its stench was overwhelming. “What is it?” Steven’s warrior asked.
“Though its back is turned, and it is caked in dried mud from the hips down, you know, unmistakably, that this is a bugbear.”
Steven’s eyebrows jumped. “A bugbear?” In all their adventures thus far — through all the realms their party had journeyed, and all of the monsters they’d vanquished — they had yet to actually see a bugbear. It was Steven’s white whale.
Meggan knew it, too. She had been running the campaign from its inception, so she was well aware of every time Steven’s character had ever hopefully asked, “Is it a bugbear?” But for some reason, it was never a bugbear. Meggan, Steven, Nick, and Jasper had been playing the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign for eight months now. Every Sunday night for eight months — after Nick got his kids to bed, after Jasper finished his security shift at the mall, after Steven wrapped up his afternoon campaign with his other gaming group, and once Meggan was free with whatever it was that kept her busy until eight o’clock on Sundays — the group had been exploring caves just like this one, as well as countless spooky mansions, haunted islands, and faraway lands, all in the comfort of Nick’s own cave, the modest basement in his four-bedroom house.
From behind the DM screen, and rolling a handful of many-sided dice around in her palm, in an attempt to calm the group’s nerves, Meggan tells them, “The tomb is already lit by the bugbear’s own torch, so your presence is not immediately sensed. It won’t be long, however, as bugbears are known to have an incredibly sharp olfactory system.”
Hirreluge the Doubter — duly named for Jasper’s own nature to be skeptic about absolutely everything — asked, “Why would he need a torch? Bugbears can see in the dark! Probably even better than they can in daylight.”
After a brief pause where the players considered exactly what the limits of a bugbear might be, Meggan said: “Hirreluge, the reasons for why or how anything should see or can see are forever a mystery. It’s the way it works in this world. In every world. And in everyone.” Meggan looked at the three guys oddly, like she was reminding them of something they didn’t know.
Nick asked, “What’s the bugbear doing now?”
“Still scavenging the bodies of these poor, dead adventurers. You know you don’t have much time to act. Hirreluge?”
“Are we sure they’re definitely dead?” Jasper asked. “Maybe we can still help them?”
“The bugbear has severed both of their heads, which are currently across the room, beneath a rusted hanging cage, and upon a pile of molten, metal remnants. Zemorin?”
Nick’s thunder wizard pondered which spells he might be able to cast, but he was unsure if bugbears typically had magical buffers or not. He did not have an immediate answer for the Dungeon Master, prompting Jasper to turn to Steven.
Steven’s character, Ren the Warrior, had nothing to contribute. For Steven himself was caught in a memory from months before.
~ ~ ~
“What’s the matter, Steve?”
“It’s a comfort thing, guys. I’m just not comfortable with playing in a campaign run by someone I don’t know.” The mall was starting to empty, shoppers exiting out every door to the parking lots and bus stops.
“Because she’s a girl?” Jasper was quick to ask.
“Certainly not. Because I’m not ready to be vulnerable. Around new people.”
“Around women, you mean?”
Emily had left Steven a few months before. No one ever goes into explicit detail about just what a divorce costs; financially, emotionally, and the bitter punch to one’s heart. For Steven, it continued to take everything he had to not fall apart on a daily basis. Meeting new people was the hardest; promoting the Escape Room he managed to garner new clients was difficult, too.
“It’s not just women,” Steven answered. “I’ve lost some confidence in myself, is all.”
Nick said, “What you need is a good release to help boost your confidence. Play this campaign, be a deposed barbarian king or something, maybe a warrior. It’s role-playing, right?”
Emily never knew much about role-playing, or just why Steven would take such games so seriously. Often, she would accuse him of taking the hobby too seriously, like these characters he became were only confusing who he really was, and what was really important to him. And to them.
After Emily left, Steven retreated; disappearing into whatever worlds he could find that were more distracting than the real one. The Escape Room. The video games. The overly-complicated board games. Ever more role-playing campaigns. And it was only then, that Steven realized Emily was right: he was confusing who he really was. Too often, Steven felt like he was still a kid. Being an adult was turning into what felt like role-playing, too. For him, and maybe for everyone. He wondered if everyone was simply faking it. Identities were complicated, difficult things. Oftentimes, new people in his life would only complicate things; they made him extremely uncomfortable. On the flip side, he found that — though he was missing Emily everyday — he was actually happier.
But like a blade of earth green grass will grow taller and taller, eventually it will turn brown and wilt. And a bit more every day, Steven was losing what it was that made him strong. He was losing more and more of his identity.
“Be whatever you want to be,” Nick said. “Don’t worry about the things you don’t want to be. Forget about those for a little while.” Come join this new campaign, he was saying.
“We’ll see about it,” Steven said. “Give me some time to figure out what I should do.”
~ ~ ~
“You’ve run out of time, Ren. The bugbear is looking right at you,” Meggan said. Zemorin and Hirreluge are already unconscious in the corner. The bugbear has tossed them both, adding to the pile of downed adventurers. The heat in the cave seemed to intensify, as though a molten river flowed just beyond the slimy wall. “The greeny-yellowy and reds of its eyes are scanning you, challenging you to make a move.”
“I withdraw my broadsword.”
“It backs away from you, bracing a crooked hand on the sticky wall.”
The thing Steven loved about escape rooms — the reason he opened one of his own; a dungeon-themed one, to be exact — was the required amount of problem-solving. There was rarely more than one way to escape, and it was never through brute force.
“He looks scared?” Steven asked.
“Has he got any visible weapons?”
“Aside from blood-stained claws, it seems to only have a belt around its waist. There are some pouches, and a couple of flasks dangle loosely from the belt.”
“I sheathe my sword.”
“The bugbear loosens its posture a little. Muscles beneath its course, red brick hair relax.”
~ ~ ~
“You’re too relaxed, Steve. That’s your problem.”
“You’re saying it’s better to be on edge all the time?”
Nick shook his head softly. “I just mean there’s a need to keep your guard up at times. You don’t notice everything when your head’s in the clouds.”
What was there to notice? That Emily was gone? That was obvious by now. Steven had a job, he had hobbies, he enjoyed books and cried at movies. There wasn’t really much else worth noticing, was there?
“Meggan likes you,” Nick repeated. Though it was the first time Steven heard it.
While Steven processed this information, Jasper had been the one to answer. “She does?”
It was obvious, really. How the creatures that warrior Ren defeated would always be worth more experience points. How they always seemed to have an extra bag of gold coins on them. The magical items he collected were consistently just a little bit more magical.
Obvious, to anyone who wasn’t so relaxed.
But Steven doubted Nick’s prognosis, becoming more Hirreluge the Doubter than even Jasper could do. If he were being perfectly honest, Steven likely would admit to feeling Meggan didn’t even like him all that much.
“Listen,” Nick suggested. “Maybe next week during the campaign, we — Jasper and I — get our characters out of the picture somehow. Then Meggan will have nothing to do but put all of her focus on you. She might even let her guard down.”
“And then what? What do I do then?”
“You run with it, Steven. Let Ren do the talking for you. I mean, we’re all just role-playing, really.”
~ ~ ~
The bugbear opened its palm, curling clawed fingertips inward, beckoning the brave warrior to move deeper into the temperate cave. Ren glanced once more at his comrades, alive but unconscious on the craggy floor.
Obfuscated by the cave’s darkened corner, the bugbear pulled a burlap curtain aside, revealing another room. If Zemorin were still conscious, the thunder wizard’s drift globe could have spotted the makeshift door easily. Ren followed the creature carefully, though still with weapons sheathed and his hands empty but for the sweat. The bugbear continued to grunt, but it seemed to be doing so out of discomfort, more than beastial asperity. Like it was fighting something inside of it.
Upon entering, the bugbear lit an oil lamp hanging from the wall. The hidden room was certainly more den than tomb — exclusion of bones and rot will do that — and there was a pile of leaves forming a bed and pillow in the middle of the room.
Jasper interjected, “Bugbears wouldn’t use pillows! They’re far too feral.”
“But you’ve never seen a bugbear before,” Meggan said. “What do you truly know about them? Plus, Hirreluge is not in this room, nor is he conscious right now, so please allow Ren his own moment to evaluate the details.”
Sitting back in his folding chair, Jasper took another handful of potato chips from the bowl.
Steven looked over his character sheet, as though there was an answer there; some clue that might point him toward the singular way out of this scenario. But he couldn’t find anything that jumped out, and looked up at Meggan, hoping for a hint.
“Make a Wisdom check,” she nudged him.
Steven tossed a jeweled twenty-sided die onto the felt tabletop. He leaned over to check the result. “With my Plus-Three modifier, that’s an eighteen.”
“The bugbear sits down on the leaves, and looks at you carefully. Its eyes tell you it is more scared than you are.”
“Does he say anything to me?”
“She,” Meggan stated bluntly. “The bugbear is a she, not a he. Your Wisdom check told you as much.”
Steven paused. “I ask her, What do you want from me?”
There’s some hesitation, and a glimmer in the reds of the bugbear’s uncertain eyes. She says, “I sense you have seen through my wretched facade.” Her voice is a chaotic mixture of grunts, wheezing, and fluid language.
“My village was attacked. Those savages, I don’t know why, but they placed a curse upon me. I remember every detail of my body transforming into this…thing. All the terrible pain. Bones breaking and reconstructing themselves. This hair, it was all over me. When I finally gathered myself and realized what was happening, I was already being pelted with stones. My own village had turned on me. They chased me with torches; even my own family. My husband.”
“Your own husband attacked you?”
“I don’t know if he was fearful of what I’d become, or if he presumed I was actually the creature who had come to the village to eat his wife. I’ll never know. Because I can never go back there. Not like this.”
Again, Steven went silent. This was the most unusual of scenarios, and he wasn’t certain if he was regretting his friends’ decision to remove themselves from the encounter. The bugbear had nothing more to say though.
“Do you wish to make a Perception check?” Meggan asked.
Steven reached for the sparkling dice, but stopped himself. He folded the corner of his character sheet back and forth and said, “Emily turned her back on me, too. I don’t know what I did. Maybe nothing. But I feel like I’ve had a spell cast on me ever since she left. I miss her and it hurts constantly. It’s like she threw stones at me; like she came at me with a torch and an angry mob. It hurts so much. So I know how you feel.”
Meggan shook her head and asked, “Is this what Ren says to the bugbear? Or—?”
“Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry, Meggan. I’m sorry.”
“Make a Luck roll.”
Steven looked over his collection of dice, and picked his luckiest one.
~ ~ ~
The change of seasons was palpable that night. Winter becoming Spring is not always so obvious, but there was a warmth seeping through just-blooming tree branches that was not there earlier.
The friends cut the campaign a bit short, and spent the rest of the evening just chatting. Much to Eric and Jasper’s chagrin, warrior Ren and the monstrous, cursed villager sat for a while, sharing wine from a flask she carried on her belt. They spoke about relationships, fantasies, life goals, and the disappointments that come with all of them. The lines between the discussion of what was actual reality and what was campaign world imaginings were blurred from the start, though they didn’t seem too concerned.
When Jasper received a message about some incident at the mall, he was the first one to leave. He was also Meggan’s ride home, so Steven happily offered instead.
It had occurred to him that the anticipated, though unexpected encounter with the bugbear may not have actually counted in the end. It was merely a role someone else was playing. So the creature remained a white whale to keep chasing. But Steven didn’t mind so much.