The Tar Pits of Maulwroth

Porter’s face gained a cold seriousness as he sucked in a long breath. “Ok, the newbie, teenaged, last-string goblin archer of the Haetheron Army gets past your defensive roll of ONE— can I just point out, of one, with his blunt but fiery arrow and you are now dead. But I, I’m a very judicious and fair Dungeon Master…”

“Lies from the Tar Pits of Mullwrath!” said Ram.

“Maulwroth,” said Maggie, enunciating the vowels in just the way she hoped would get under Ram’s skin, at least a little bit.

“In my native tongue we do not pronounce ‘oth’ sounds, tis a disgraceful thing,” Ram said. He could tease, too.

Maggie threatened a pinch of his side.

“Goddammit. Let me finish. I’m a fair Dungeon Master, and this game has been going for seven months and you’re all very attached to your characters, I mean each other,” said Porter. He was leaning into the light that hung over the kitchen table, the smudges on his glasses clearly visible.

“Not I! I roam freely across the countryside! I have no need for friends and no use for—” said Manny, gesticulating wildly.

“Shutup Ram! I mean, Manny. It’s my turn!” Maggie said.

“And now you come upon—” Porter said.

“Hell yes I come upon,” said Manny, twirling a short pencil between his fingers and nodding his head.

“AHAHAH shutup. Everyone. God. Ok, so at the last second, you come upon a Time Ring, and it’s only good for one use. It sits before you in the dirt. It glistens and you realize that this is just what you need. It’s a Dwarven-type magic ring, the kind you heard about in the old bard’s song back at Red’s Tavern from so long ago. The ring that slows time for half a moment, allowing you to think quickly while the arrow hangs in the air.”

“How the hell am I supposed to put the ring on or catch the arrow. My fingers were blown off by that asshole grenade marauder. We’re all still gonna die because I’m the cleric and the only one keeping people alive,” said Maggie.

“Shit, I forgot. It’s a toe ring. You realize you have but one choice— to catch the arrow with your bare Elfin teeth. Only then may you live to fight another day,” said Porter, back in control of the game.

“We ALL shoulda leveled up in the hidden forest path like I said a week ago. You wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Manny, really not helping, this time.

“Come on, this was like a seven month campaign. I’m practically maxed out as it is,” she said and crossed her arms.

“For these reasons, the Dungeon Master has decided a trial is most appropriate.” Porter had an evil smile.

“Dude, no. Dude. No. I puked so much last time you guys made me drink all the potions”,” said Maggie.

“We’ll keep it super simple. I’m going to toss, underhanded, the D20. Just catch it in your mouth. That’s it.”

“She’s gonna choke,” said Ram.

“I’m not gonna choke.”

Manny robbed Ram’s chewed-up pencil out of his mouth and started a drumroll on the guidebook.

Porter said, “Ready? Seven months of gaming on the line here.”

“I slip the magic Dwarf ring on my pinky toe and prepare to stop the fiery arrow with my teeth.”

He lobbed the die in her direction. Maggie opened her mouth. The glittery plastic D20 rotated along its arc, then struck the edge of her top teeth, ricocheted inside her mouth, and lodged in her throat. She grabbed at her neck, eyes wide as moons.

“So… I guess that’s a lose,” said Manny.

“Oh, come on. Stop playing, Maggie. Out with it,” said Porter.

She started banging on the table with her hands, so hard that their miniatures toppled.

“Shit!” Porter leapt out of his chair, knocking it to the ground, and wrapped his arms around her.

“Should we call…?” asked Ram.

“It’s been like over a minute. You die after a minute without air!” Manny started to get up out of his chair.

“Just call. Just fucking call and ambulance, now! She’s not joking around!”

+++++

“It’s freezing,” Maggie managed through chattering teeth. She was laying under a thin blanket in a bright room on some sort of body-length heating pad.

“Fetch her some warm socks,” said a woman in a white lab coat to an orderly, without moving her gaze from Maggie’s face.

“Do you remember your name?”

“Mag-Maggie…”

“Our records say Margaret, but that is good enough for a first try,” she smiled. “Please don’t try to sit up yet, the process will take a few more minutes. You’re being resuscitated from cryosleep.”

“What in the actual…”

“I’m required by law to tell the absolute truth, so please trust me when I explain things. You were put into cryosleep shortly after the time of your death. We imagine, in the hopes that you might wake up at a time in the future when we could revive the damage done to your brain by your mortal injury. The downside is that the freezing technology wasn’t so developed back then. You’re only going to be able to sustain yourself for the next five or six minutes.”

The orderly brought in a thicker blanket and helped Maggie into a sitting position. “Out of socks not my fault,” he whispered to his boss in one quick breath.

“Excuse me, doctor? If I’m gonna die again in the next few minutes, I’m super confused— you brought me back from the dead just so I could die again?”

“Not if we can work fast. She placed what looked like a swimmer’s cap onto Maggie’s head. I’m going to ask you some simple questions about yourself, to recharge your neural network. Every time you use your brain we’ll get a stronger read on the device about who you are, and then we can start with the transfer. Before your body withers permanently, I mean.”

“Transfer?”

“Yes, to our eternal servers. All your thought processes will be translated and sent into our extremely high-security, long-lasting servers, allowing you to live in a virtual world essentially forever,” she said. The orderly handed the scientist an electronic pad. “Oh! Please sign here.”

“Ok. Wow, wow, wow. Ok!” Maggie signed the screen with a shaky, nervous fingertip, each movement painful.

“Not trying to be pushy. We really don’t have much time to lose.”

“I understand,” said Maggie. “I mean, as much as I can be expected to understand.”

“So it says here you died at 11:53 the morning of Sunday, May 12 in the year two zero one eight?”

“Uhm… yes. Yes, that is probably right, now that I think about it.”

“We can start probing your memories there. Can you remember what you doing when you passed?”

“Let’s see,” Maggie’s pupils tried to naturally shoot up and to the left, what they always did when she was remembering anything, but her eye muscles were too sore. “Well, I had a few of my friends over. We were playing a game.”

“A sports game? Did you drown while swimming? Your brain has all the hallmarks of oxygen deprivation.”

“No, no. Just a tabletop game— Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, you wouldn’t know it because my body is pretty atrophied but yeah, I was NOT a workout type of gal. Am not.” She chuckled a little and then coughed hard.

The scientist leaned back. “Oh, I see. Important details. This is a very useful memory. I see on my screen your neurosignal is strengthening.”

“Yes, we actually had a tradition going for over a year, by then,” she wistfully smiled and felt the skin of her lips crack.

“I see, most of the people we get back from your time period are usually in church at that time on Sundays.”

“Oh, not me. Definitely not a Christian believer like my parents. At least ever since I got through high school. My buddy Ram, the elf bard, in the game, he was Muslim. Went to a service with him once. Is that what they’re called— services? But that wasn’t my thing either. Just not a spiritual person, I guess. Shit. They must’ve all died by now, huh? Will I get to see them again?” And she realized how much she missed Ram.

“Well, for sure Ram. We don’t have the records right here on hand though about who your other friends were…”

“Oh, man, I remember the food at his mosque that one time. Please tell me that’s in your eternal computer thing!”

“This is all great information you’re giving us. The neural map is lighting up strongly and well ahead of time. Please take this sedative and lay back down and we’ll commence the transfer.”

Maggie swallowed a small white pill and finally was beginning to feel warm again.

+++++

The orderly sat in front of the biotranslator and stuck his hands inside the machine. His fingers hovered over the edges of a fine dial. “She seemed nice. I can see why her friends all pitched in and bought the cryosleep for her. Can’t be that bad of a person if so many are willing to chip in to keep you alive. Setting it to 999 years,” he said through his thick moustache.

“No, not 999 years— infinity. I feel like we have to go over this every week or so. Do you think Satan didn’t seem like a friend to that woman, Eve?”

“I know, but— “

“Must I remind you that you are not God and also what the punishment is for attempting to change doctrine?”

“No. No, ma’am. Final judgement, coming right up. One more eternity in Hell.” He clicked the dial to the maximum setting. He held in the urge to release a defeated sigh. Maggie’s breathing stopped and her body went cold once again.

+++++

Maggie opened dry eyes to the blistering heat of Hell. The landscape before her was gnarled and twisted, with burnt organic forms beaten down near the ground, offering a bleak line of sight into a dark red haze. She was naked.

Her skin burned deeply, and she realized she was crying, though the tears evaporated instantly. She should have died of heat exhaustion by now, but she hadn’t. It was virtual reality just like that doctor had explained. She had expected to get dropped into some utopia or even a simulation of her old life. But these assholes had put her in Hell. Unbelievable! She was better off dead!

“Hello?! Somebody get me the fuck out of here, now!” She cupped her hands around her mouth to make a microphone and shouted straight up “Uh… escape? Quit program! Hello?!”

In the distance, a creature, all on its legs, shifted in shadows, seeking cover behind this boulder or that crumbled wall. Maggie regretted speaking at all. It picked up its pace, heading straight for her and before she could move away in a panicked escape, it unfurled to a standing position.

“Ram!?” Maggie squealed.

“MAGGIE!”

“What the fuck? Is it really you? I must be dreaming!”

“Holy shit, Maggie! Not a dream, no sirree. Dude, you’re totally naked! Must’ve just arrived, huh? Happens to everyone. Clothes burn off and shit. Don’t worry, you get used to the heat. Took you long enough to get here!”

“Yeah, I guess I’m a little late to the party. Where are… what in the blazes— are those horns on your head? ”

“Hey. Hey. Look at me. Look at me. There’s no time to talk, we need to catch up with the others, just past that giant dragon skull see it— in the distance?” He pointed back in the direction he came from. “We’ve got a goblin commander on the run. I just spotted a discarded flame shield near a big rock that’s on the way over there that you can pick up. You can have my extra dagger I found inside the belly of a winged troll carcass. Low attack points but it’s quite durable. Team Mullwrath! Let’s GO!”