- Published: 30 August 2022
- ISBN: 9780143777397
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $19.99
Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell
I’m in love with MagePants69. Which is a huge problem. For so many reasons, including (but definitely not limited to) the following:
1. I’ve never met him.
2. I have no idea what his real name is or what he looks like.
3. He’s possibly a serial killer who uses online gaming platforms (exactly like the one I’m on right now) to groom desperate teenagers (exactly like me), before luring them into the bush and cutting them up into tiny pieces and feeding them to his Persian cat (exactly like Mr Nibbles, who’s currently curled up on my bed, purring like an angel).
But still, despite all of this . . . I’m in love.
It’s irrational. It’s irresponsible. But it’s irrevocable.
A new message pops up in the in-game chat window at the top right of my interface.
I point my cursor at the bottom of the screen and double-click my mouse. My Human avatar leaps through the reeds towards the dirty little swamp goblins and sends five of them flying with a single swing of his axe.
His avi – a female Half-Elf Bard with a fiery-red plait hanging almost all the way down to the ground – twirls on the spot, finishing in an elaborate curtsy. I type out the command for and my hulking, white-haired Warrior – whose arms are as thick as my torso – sinks into a gracious bow, boots deep in the murky waters of the Southern Quagmire.
This is what we call flirting, Lažov’s Keep II: Spire of Dusk style. Of all the skills in the game, MagePants69 and I are particularly proficient in this one.
We’re still in the early days of our quest. We’ve been
playing together for over a year, but we only started Spire of Dusk a few weeks ago. It’s one of those slightly obscure but absurdly well-designed RPGs – Role Playing Games, for the noobs – where the tiniest decision you make at the very start of the campaign can cause an absolute shitstorm of pain later on, when it really counts.
The guys I used to game with think Spire of Dusk is too slow and too ‘early 2010s’, but I much prefer it to the shit they’re playing these days. All those first-person MMO shooters that make you fork out actual, real-life money to learn completely unnecessary dance moves that somehow end up all over social media a month later.
Spire of Dusk has class. MagePants69 gets it, even if no one else does.
‘Noah?’ Mum calls out from somewhere in the house. Instead of systematically checking the kitchen, the bathroom, and my bedroom – the only three places I’m ever found – Mum prefers to wander around our massive two-storey house, singing my name like it’s a lyric from some Broadway show tune. Like that one she’s always humming about the girl called Sophia. No, Lucia. Marina? It doesn’t matter.
I ignore her and keep playing.
MagePants69 casts a low-level Bard spell that sends a spray of coloured orbs hurtling towards another gang of swamp goblins, stunning them where they stand. Bards are a cross between mages, thieves, and balladeers. Which means they’re spell-casters, pickpockets, and can play a mean tune on the lyre (which is much more useful than it sounds).
With a couple of clicks, my Warrior hurls himself at the little imps and shatters them in a flurry of steel.
MagePants69 <. . . makes the dream work>
I set my avi lumbering north along the path to the town ahead, where we’ll be able to regroup, get healing at the temple, and visit the local Tavern for a proper chat.
Every multiplayer game ever created has an in-game chat function, and Spire of Dusk obviously has one too, but a visit to the Tav is something else entirely. A visit to the Tav is almost like a real conversation. Your avatars sit opposite each other and say whatever you type out loud. It’s kind of like Siri meets FaceTime meets Game of Thrones, and I swear it almost feels like you’re actually conversing.
Point being, the Tav is where I get to talk to MagePants69. Where we spend quality time together. Well, as ‘quality’ as we can get without sharing a single identifying detail about ourselves, as stipulated by his mum’s Cardinal Rules of Online Gaming. Which means no physical descriptions, no school names, no friends’ names (easy for me), no social handles, no extracurriculars, et cetera, et cetera. The things we do know about each other include: we both live in Ballarat (which, given the town has a population of just over one hundred thousand, we figured wouldn’t affect our anonymity too much); we’re both seventeen; we’re both gay (score!); and we both think that viral cat videos are the only good things to ever come from social media.
You know, the important stuff.
After dispersing a few more bands of swamp goblins, we finally make it out of the Southern Quagmire. When the next town materialises on my screen, I sit back in my Ergolove Destroyer (yes, I know it sounds like some sort of sex fetish thing, but it’s just a fancy gaming chair) and let out a silent woah. The town is called Pilar’s Crest, and it’s this sprawling, feudal village set at the base of a jagged mountain range, stabbing through the earth like a row of shark’s teeth.
RcticF0x I key in the command for and my Warrior lifts his arm to point directly at MagePants69’s lithe, flame-haired Bard.
In unison, we both type:
Being the responsible ‘gaymers’ we are, we repair all our items at the blacksmith before heading into the centre of town to the Tavern. Once we’re inside, MagePants69 orders us a couple of flagons of ale from the Non-Player Character at the bar and we sit our avatars down at a table by the virtual fire. As soon as they take their seats, the camera angle shifts from bird’s-eye view to an over-the-shoulder shot, like in a film. I’m now looking at the back of my Warrior’s white-blond head as he stares into the piercing green eyes of MagePants69’s beautiful Bard. (For the record, I’m not into girls – at all – but knowing it’s him almost makes me question that for a second.)
‘Noahhhh,’ Mum sings again. Closer this time. Upstairs.
‘Well,’ MagePants69 says, the honeyed tone of his Bard’s computerised voice ringing clear in my headphones. ‘Pretty sure we nailed that quagmire.’
‘That sounds dirty.’ My Warrior’s voice is gruff and sexy, the complete opposite of mine.
‘It was dirty,’ MagePants69 replies. ‘It was a swamp.’
I type the command, but in real life, I laugh out loud. MagePants69 has the perfect sense of humour, somewhere between dad joke and deadpan.
‘Noah?’ Mum says from right behind me and I almost jump out of my chair. ‘I’ve been calling out for hours.’
(Rose Mitchell is a serial exaggerator.)
I slip off my headphones and type a message in the chat window.
‘Sorry,’ I say to Mum, spinning around in my chair. ‘What do you want?’
‘Darling, we can talk for a sec?’
I’m pretty sure I asked her to stop calling me ‘darling’ approximately three years ago, but . . . ‘Sure. Quickly.’
‘Can you turn your thingy off?’ She flicks her wrists at the widescreen gaming monitor on my desk.
I glance back to MagePants69’s Bard, now idly fiddling with her long plait, and type another message.
I switch the screen off and turn back to Mum, who’s now perched on the corner of my bed, legs and arms crossed.
‘So . . .’ I say.
She brushes a bleached-blonde curl from her face. ‘Darling, I was thinking . . .’
I resist the urge to say, That’s new, and say, ‘And?’
‘And . . . you know how I’ve just started re–’
‘Rehearsing for the role of Velma Kelly in the Ballarat Musical Theatre Society production of Chicago? No, I must’ve missed that memo somehow, even though it’s been the only topic of conversation in the house for the last two weeks.’
Mum lets out a Shakespearean sigh. ‘Darling, do you have to be so sarcastic all the time? It’s no wonder . . .’
‘No wonder what?’ I ask, when she doesn’t go on.
‘Nothing.’ She shakes her head. ‘Anyway, as you obviously know, I’ve just started rehearsing for a wonderful production of the Broadway classic Chicago, and David mentioned yesterday at rehearsal –’
‘Our director. David Dawes.’
‘You say that like I should know who he is.’
‘He’s a highly respected – look, it doesn’t matter. The point is, we’re short a couple of men in the show, and it’s vital to have even numbers in the ensemble for all the partner choreography, so . . . I said I’d ask at home.’
I can’t help but scoff. ‘Mum, come on. You really think Dad’s gonna do an amateur musical with you? He still hasn’t forgiven you for making him watch that live musical thing on TV about the girl dancing with the deodorant or whatever when I was in Year Eight.’
She pouts her lips and stares back at me, and I’m sure if she hadn’t just had a fresh dose of botox, her eyebrows would be climbing all the way up her forehead right now.
‘What?’ I frown, making full use of my own facial muscles.
‘I’m not asking your father to join the cast . . .’ She tilts her head to one side, blinks a few times, and . . .
‘Oh, you mean –’ I stifle a laugh. ‘You want me to do the musical with you?’
‘You did have dance lessons when you were younger, darling, so you’re –’
‘I had exactly two dance lessons, Mum. When I was four. And I cried so much they asked you not to bring me back. Ever.’
She clicks her tongue. ‘Well, it’s two more dance lessons than the rest of the men in this town have had, believe me. And I just thought –’
‘No, no, no,’ I interrupt. ‘Mum, you know that’s not my scene. It couldn’t be farther from my scene if it tried. It’s literally on another planet to my scene. My scene is –’ I swivel in my chair and gesture to my computer ‘– this, and only this.’
‘That’s the point, darling,’ she replies. ‘You’re always in here on that computer. By yourself. All the time.’
Okay, so here’s some vital information about me: I’m not popular. And by ‘not popular’ I mean I currently have a grand total of zero friends. (In the real world, that is.) Unless you count my sister, which, for the sake of the argument, let’s not, because that makes me sound even more pathetic. I did have friends, once upon a time. But . . . well, let’s just say that friends are complicated, and I’d rather spend every second of my spare time killing swamp goblins with the love of my life, than dealing with . . . all that.
‘I’m not by myself,’ I say, turning back to Mum. ‘I’m playing with other people.’
‘Why do you suddenly care who I play with?’
‘I don’t, darling, but they’re not real people.’
‘They are real people.’
‘Have you ever met them?’
I cross my arms, feeling my defences rising. ‘No. So?’
‘So,’ she says, ‘if you died tomorrow, would they come to your funeral?’
‘If I died?’ I reply, searching Mum’s face for any remaining signs of rationality. ‘Mum, what are you talking about?’
‘I just mean,’ she says, uncrossing her arms and letting them flop onto her lap, ‘that they’re not real friends, Noah. A real friend would be sitting here in the room with you.’
My mind flicks to MagePants69’s Bard, sitting at our table by the fire in the Tav, waiting for me to return.
‘Darling,’ she continues, in a particularly patronising tone that she’s honed to perfection over the years, ‘I know how hard it’s been since you and Tan –’
‘Can we not bring Tan into this?’ I snap. ‘And, no, you don’t know. For the record.’
Mum bites her lip and gazes around my room. ‘You took all the photos down.’
‘Um, yeah, like, three years ago. Thanks for noticing.’
‘Darling –’ she shakes her head and turns back to me ‘– I don’t want you to go through Year Twelve alone.’ (Translation: I don’t want to be the mother of the weird loner kid.) ‘You should be going to parties. Hanging out. Having fun. Do you remember how to do that?’
It’s moments like this when I realise just how little Mum understands me.
‘And you think,’ I reply, trying to keep my cool, ‘that if I come and play around on stage with you –’
‘It’s not playing around,’ she cuts in. ‘I’ll have you know that David Dawes is an award-winning actor and director. He even did a season of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on the West End. This is serious theatre.
A lot of people think David’s amateur productions down in Melbourne are equally as impressive as the big pro shows, if not more.’
I can’t help but roll my eyes. ‘Who thinks that?’
‘Plenty of people think that,’ she replies. ‘Darling, all I’m saying is that I want you to put yourself out there. You’re going to be heading off to uni soon and I don’t want you to fall apart when you do.’
‘Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Mum.’
‘Even Charly struggled when she first moved to Sydney, and you know how popular she was at high school.’
‘Awesome.’ I nod. ‘Because kids just love being compared to their perfect, older siblings, Mum.’
‘Noah,’ she groans. ‘I’m serious. This show is very important to me. It’s my chance to finally show these people what I can do. I need you to do this for me.’
And there it is. This isn’t about me. At all. It’s about her.
‘Mum,’ I say, staring back at her. At her impossibly smooth skin. At the hint of grey peeking through at the roots of her golden-blonde hair. At her periwinkle blue eyes that look exactly like mine, despite the fact that we are completely different in every other way possible. ‘I genuinely appreciate your concern, but I will not – I repeat, will not – be joining the cast of Chicago. In this lifetime or the next. Or the next.’
‘I just thought it might be . . .’ She searches my face, as if the right word might be tattooed there somewhere, staring back at her. ‘You know . . .?’
‘Mum,’ I reply, my eyes flicking over to my desk, ‘I’m kind of in the middle of something here.’
Her shoulders slump and she lets out a long sigh. ‘Fine. You can’t say I didn’t try.’ She stands up and pats me once on the arm (we’re not huggers – well, she is, I’m decidedly not) and walks over to the door.
She stops at the threshold and turns back to me with one hand on the brass doorknob. ‘Mmm?’
‘Please stop calling me “darling”.’
She opens her mouth to speak, but lets out another little sigh instead. She glances over at my bare white walls, shakes away a thought, and says, ‘I’m going to bed. Don’t stay up too late. It’s a school night.’
She flicks off the light and Mr Nibbles darts off my bed into the hallway. The door closes behind her and I just sit here in the dark, feeling suddenly and emphatically alone.
I run a hand through my blond curls, picturing my hypothetical funeral with zero hypothetical guests, then swivel back to my computer. When I switch the monitor back on, the Half-Elf Bard is still at our table in the Tav. There’s a new message blinking in the chat window, from four minutes ago.
A goofy grin spreads across my face as I type my reply.
‘Me?’ my Warrior says. ‘Desert the fairest Bard in the Three Kingdoms? You think so little of me, m’lady.’
The Half-Elf winks. ‘You should consider yourself lucky that I think of you at all.’
‘Shall we continue our quest?’
‘Continue, we shall, m’lord.’
And just like that . . . I don’t feel so alone anymore.
I don’t feel alone at all.
It’s All Hallows’ Eve in London, and the street that stretches before her is empty, quiet except for the soft thud of her boots on the sidewalk and the rustle of autumn leaves plucked by the wind.
Tell me again about the first time the two of you played chess in the park.” Jameson’s face was candlelit, but even in the scant light, I could see the gleam in his dark green eyes.
Before I say anything, I’d just like to make one thing perfectly clear: I didn’t stab anyone.
The first time the scion of House Dragon painted the eyeless girl, he was only six years old.
Halt and Will had been trailing the Wargals for three days. The four heavy-bodied, brutish creatures, foot soldiers of the rebel warlord Morgarath, had been sighted passing through Redmont Fief, heading north.
My name is May Wong. I am ten years old (nearly eleven), and I have become a spy in order to save the world.
After the Hands on a Van contest, Rodrick and his bandmates realized they weren't gonna be playing shows any time soon. So they've been brainstorming OTHER ways to get their music out there.