The first night his boyfriend didn’t come back to the dorm, Other Red (Red had already been the name of a student when Other Red was a freshman, and changing your nickname too much wasn’t the best idea) didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t unheard of for one or the other of them to spend a night with friends. But when he wasn’t there the next morning, or in their one shared class that day, Other Red started to worry. As spacey as Frankie Lee could be, he was an avid student. Frankie Lee wasn’t his real name, of course. It wasn’t a surprise to those who knew him that his taken name was musically inspired. He wasn’t answering his phone, either. When there was still no sign of him on the third day, Other Red started asking around. He found what he needed to know pretty soon.
“Yeah, the last time I saw him was a couple days ago.”
“Where was he?”
“Over by the track, by that little wooded area. He had his guitar.”
“He was going towards the trees? Sounds like he was looking for a quiet place to write songs.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“So he went, alone, into the forest, to play music?”
Other Red didn’t waste much time. He packed what he needed, knocked on his RA’s door so someone would know where he was going (and so they’d be better prepared to notice if it wasn’t him that came back), and headed for the woods. All this wasn’t strictly necessary, since the RAs would go retrieve Frankie Lee at the end of the semester, but he might be… different by then, and Other Red didn’t want to wait that long to see him again anyway. He walked right into the shade of the trees, and kept going until he couldn’t see the edge of the woods behind him, though the forest he’d walked into was maybe forty feet across. Nowhere on the Elsewhere University campus was a surefire route to danger, if you knew what you were doing, just as nowhere was 100 percent safe if you were reckless enough, but going under the trees to play music? Other Red had to admit that had been stupid. He loved Frankie Lee, but he could be lacking in common sense.
As he went, Other Red reminded himself of a story. There was a smith, so the story goes, who made a deal. Who or what he made the deal with changes from telling to telling, but a popular version calls it the Devil. Other Red didn’t know about devils, but any Elsewhere U student knew there were other things you could make deals with. The smith gave up his soul in exchange for supernatural skill at metal work - the ability to weld anything to anything. When the Devil came to collect, though, the smith welded him to a tree and left him there. It’s an old story, one of the oldest, in fact. It’s been told for six thousand years. The story told Other Red a couple of things. One, that metalwork has always been a little bit Else, and two, that it was one way, maybe the first way we ever found, to get a bit of power over the Gentry. At least enough power to get him out of this.
He hoped it was enough to get him out of this.
After a while, he could hear music softly through the trees. He walked closer until he could make out the words:
“Then the loud sound did seem to fa-a-ade
Came back like a slow voice on a wave of pha-a-ase
That weren’t no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds…”
Other Red could practically see Frankie Lee, eyes closed and head nodding the way he did when he got into his music. He’d smile, and, if he wasn’t playing too, wave his hands slowly like the music was the only thing in the world. Then Other Red reached the clearing where the music was coming from, and he did see Frankie Lee, sitting and playing at the feet of the member of the Court that had taken him.
Less Starman, Other Red thought, and more Thin White Duke. Thin he certainly was, or maybe a better word was long, half again Other Red’s height with his legs - how many knees was that? - stretched out from his seat, which was carved from an enormous tree stump into intricate, disturbing patterns. He was pale, with a human face but a goat’s disdainful eyes, and he wore leather armor with what looked like a bronze sword on his belt. Other Red stepped into the clearing.
The Gentleman held up a hand, and Frankie Lee stopped playing, though his eyes had been closed. When he saw Other Red, he perked up and made eye contact with him, but didn’t speak.
“What brings you here?” asked the Fair One with disinterest.
Other Red indicated Frankie Lee. “I’d like him back.”
“And what will you give me not to simply keep you here as well?”
“I have nothing to give you, but I bring the tokens of my craft.” From his bag, he pulled a welding mask and a handful of nails. “I’m a shop student. If you don’t let me leave, there will be repercussions.” He tried to keep his voice as confident as he could.
The Shining One stared at him for a long moment, then sat back. “You may leave whenever you please, smith, but you cannot command me to give up my musician.”
Other Red had been expecting that. “A game, then?”
“A game. Very well.” said the Good Neighbor instinctively, and then, coming to himself, “What game do you choose?”
Other Red pulled out the other thing he had packed, and tossed it towards the Blessed One. “Fifth Edition, no expansions. One session, seventh-level characters, fight to the character death. I’ll see you a week from today at eight.” He bent down to quickly kiss Frankie Lee, then turned and left.
He’d afforded a week because, as much as he wanted Frankie Lee back right now, he needed time to find a DM who was willing to run this fight. Eventually, a girl named Tyto agreed to do it, for approximately a shitton of carefully-specified snacks. This wasn’t the first time someone had played D&D with one of the Gentry. Sometimes, as now, students figured it was the best chance they had of getting something out of them. Other Red’s challenge was a little unusual in that regard - most such games were essentially attempts to impress the Shining Ones with your storytelling talent. They had great respect for storytellers, and a skilled DM could easily get into their good books. Sometimes, They took a liking to the game, and played just for the sake of playing. Other Red had heard of a campaign that met once a month, on the new moon, where students regularly played alongside their Neighbors. Other Red wasn’t making this a storytelling competition, though. He wasn’t a DM, and he wanted a contest he could win.
On the appointed night, they set up in the game room and waited. Other Red wasn’t using his regular character, Ambrose the halfling rogue, for this. It was stupid, but he didn’t want to to let Them know even that fictional real name. Plus, he felt that if he did lose the fight, Ambrose might somehow be dead for good. He’d rolled up a human bard just for the occasion. It seemed appropriate.
At exactly eight, the Duke walked in. He looked more human here, though he was still morning-frost sharp and pale. He was wearing a black suit, and had his hair in a long braid. Tyto shifted in her chair as he walked past her. Other Red offered him a bag of Doritos. Ritual was important, after all. “Given without obligation,” he added.
“Most kind,” said the Visitor, as he took the bag and produced his character sheet. Other Red looked over it briefly. Tiefling druid. Made sense.
“Well then,” said Tyto. “Let’s get started. You’re standing in the street of a small town. You’ve just gotten into a confrontation in a tavern and decided to take it outside. Roll for initiative.”
The fight started out slow and cautious. Both characters had swords, and their initial actions were simple. Attack, roll for damage. Attack, roll for damage. Attack, miss. Attack… As they played, they drew an audience. Not students. Any student who knew what was happening tonight had made plans far, far away. There was a man with hair the color of the sea. Two identical-looking girls, neither of their hands quite right. When they walked in, they were followed by a fox that sat quietly and comfortably on a chair. They all watched in silence as the players spoke their battle into being.
Eventually, Other Red’s opponent seemed to get tired of this pattern. “I cast Flame Blade,” he said, “and attack with it.”
Now they were playing with magic. Other Red surrounded the druid with a cloud of daggers. The druid turned into an eagle and dive-bombed the bard. The audience began to stir. This was almost as exciting as the real thing. A few of them could remember when Gwion and Ceridwen tried the same routine. The bard cast a spell of fear to send the eagle flying away, and another spell to deal it damage. The eagle became a boar and charged the bard.
That was two. He was out of transformations. This was what Other Red had been waiting for. “I cast Dimension Door,” he announced, “on both of us.”
“O… K,” said Tyto. “You both move to..?”
“500 feet directly above us. And as we start to fall, I cast Feather Fall on myself only.”
Tyto and the Fair One both stopped as they realized what he’d done. “So,” Tyto said to the Gentleman, “You’re falling 500 feet. Do you have anything that might help with that?”
“I do not.”
“Then if you’re alright with it, I don’t think we need to roll to know that you’re pretty dead.”
“No.” He stood up and offered Other Red his hand. “How inventive. The musician is yours.” He left the room without another word, and the audience followed behind. After a moment, the door opened again and Frankie Lee stumbled in. He was shivering, with snow melting on his shoulders and water droplets clinging to his tightly curled hair. It was sixty degrees outside.
Other Red almost knocked his chair back standing up. He held Frankie Lee tightly for a long time, and then pulled away a little.
“What were you thinking?”
“I know, I know. How long was I gone?”
“About a week and a half. How long did you…?”
“Damn. I was only there for a couple of hours. I was starting to run out of Bowie. I tell you what, though, I think I finished that song I was working on.”
“If you finished it while you were There, you should maybe never play that part.”