• H.C. Mills

Chapter 110: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

We return with several Minor Heat Crystals and a shit-ton of burns.

Unfortunately, the burns mean I can’t avoid Dave afterwards when he comes find me where I crashed onto the soft sand. As expected, Jacob comes along, and sits down next to me on the other side, closing off one potential escape route.

I avoid their eyes, choosing instead to look at the soothing pink light coming from Dave’s Focus Crystal.

Dave clears his throat. “Look, Emma. Jacob and I had a chat on the way back.”

I sit up slowly. Oh boy, here it comes. At least I had time to think about what I want to say.

“And it helped me gain a little clarity,” he continues stiffly, shifting uncomfortably on the hot sand. “I’m still concerned about your habit of withholding things, but Jacob helped me realise that the sensitive and personal nature of what you kept from us this time could be considered an extenuating circumstance, and that I, therefore... may have overreacted a little.”

I blink and turn to raise a brow at Jacob.

“It was more an argument than a chat,” Jacob admits. “Sexual orientation really is nobody else’s business.”

I smile wryly and turn my eye down to the sand I’m playing with, watching it slide through my fingers. “That’s very sweet of you, Jacob, defending my honour like that. But I do have a bad habit of lying and keeping things back, and Dave’s right that it’s not okay. Not under these circumstances, anyway. We’re fighting for our lives out here, and nothing should be allowed to threaten the harmony of our group, our teamwork. So I, eh, I want to apologize, for that. I can’t promise it’ll be the last time I hold something back, but I’m going to try to be more upfront about things when I can.”

Dave scratches the back of his neck. “I’d like to apologize too. Jacob told me a little about your past and your panic attacks, and I’m sorry for misreading your emotions and causing one. That’s never been a strong suit of mine, reading people’s faces. It probably plays a role in my issues with lies as well. I’m probably also still a little sensitive about how you held the existence of your Charm stat a secret for such a long time, which may have played a role in my overreaction.”

I shrug. “You couldn’t have known. Frankly, your reaction last night was mild compared to mine.”

Jacob snorts.

I narrow my eyes at him. “Careful buddy. I’m not sure how I feel yet about how loose-lipped you’re being with my innermost secrets.”

He smirks at me. “Eh, I think you know it was for your own good, so I’m not too worried.”

Dave clears his throat. “Emma, you should know that Kaitlynn only told me what she did while affected by a large amount of zirot wine. Wine that for a large part, you fed her.”

I’m honestly not sure if hearing that makes me feel better or worse. It takes away some of the righteous anger I was apparently still holding onto, but it also increases my guilt. As usual, I mask my discomfort with humour.

“Ugh, you Yang really can’t hold your liquor.”

Jacob lightly punches my shoulder. “We can’t all be freaks like you who live and breathe Toxic Energy, Emma.”

Dave chuckles. “Anyway, do you think you and Kaitlynn will be able to get past your fight soon?”

I sigh. “I don’t know. I said some pretty horrible shit. It’s going to take some time, at the very least.”

Jacob and Dave exchange a glance. “Not to be insensitive,” Jacob starts cautiously, “but have you considered our course of action for the case that your, ehm, break-up with Kaitlynn turns out to be permanent? I mean, with regards to the doors and such...”

I freeze up when Jacob refers to our spat as a break-up, but force myself to regulate my breathing and relax. “If it comes to that... I want you to go through with her, and I’ll take our sixth.”

Jacob blinks, clearly not having expected this, and opens his mouth.

I hold up a hand. “That’s not up for debate. I’m not trusting Kaitlynn into the hands of some stranger.”

Jacob nods. “Very well. Regardless, we should find ourselves a sixth soon.”

I nod. We definitely should.

In the days that follow, time somehow manages to pass quickly and yet at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Kaitlynn avoids me and I’m too chickenshit to confront her. Wouldn’t know what to say to her anyway.

Okay, that’s a lie. I know I need to just come clean, tell her everything, about my past, about my concerns for our future. I’m just not ready. And neither is she, judging by how diligently she avoids me.

It’s frustrating, so I take up sparring with Jacob to burn off some of my aggression. I spar with Alec sometimes too, but he’s kind of a wuss about it.

It’s just a few cuts and bruises, he’s got Regenerate, right?

Meanwhile, Kaitlynn continues to sit out hunts. Dave’s a little concerned about it at first, but I wave it off. Honestly, with my new and improved body, I feel like I could handle most of the hunting solo if need be. My speed is off the charts under-Hydrum now thanks to my improved Strength, and with how high my Agility is, my spear always finds its target.

Still, hunting solo would be foolhardy, so I generally go out with Dave and Jacob.

Hunting for Yang creatures becomes especially easy when I start using Charm on the suckers to lure them into a false sense of security. They aren’t all equally affected, and the effect pretty much wears off once we attack, but it’s enough to get in a free hit or two most of the time.

On the Yin side, my Energy Tolerances protect me from harm, especially since I’ve started tempering for Electric Energy, and the soft-bodied urudo easily fall under my spear and physical might.

Alec finally picks up Breath Control after a while, but he still needs to practice swimming and has his other project to finish as well, so I continue to do most of my hunting with Dave and Jacob.

From what I understand, Kaitlynn spends a lot of time playing with Loudmouth, collecting cockles and food, and helping Alec cook and stuff. And training, of course. Dave tells me she came to him for help with Meditation level 3, which is good.

One morning—about five days after Kaitlynn and I fought, and on the 14th day since we started tempering—I decide more or less on a whim that it’s been long enough to seem random if I once again Visit the Realm of Imagination. So, when I wake that morning, I keep my eyes closed, and Imagine my connection to a peculiar whistle, hung from the neck of a certain bird-girl.

“Eh-ma! Yay, you’re back!” Raindrop squawks in happy surprise when I appear next to her. However, my imaginary blood freezes in my non-existent veins when I realize exactly where I’ve shown up, as I look up straight into the dark, predatory visage of Goddess.

I suppress the urge to immediately turn and flee, and force myself to bow instead. “Pardon my intrusion, your Highness!”

Her feathery white brows rise slowly. “You are still Visiting?” she wonders aloud, her voice like a choir imitating a bubbling stream. “Curious.”

“Oh!” Raindrop exclaims. “I’ve been searching as you asked Eh-ma, but I haven’t found any other—”

“That’s okay, Raindrop,” I say quickly, cutting her off. “Thanks for the hard work. I can tell you’re busy, right now, so I’ll, uh, catch you later, ‘kay?”

Apprehensively I turn back to Goddess. “Ehm, that is, if your Highness would be so gracious as to grant me permission to leave...”

Her face remains entirely passive as she studies me for a long moment. Finally, she glances at Raindrop, and sighs. “Well, you’ve at least learned manners. Very well. You’re excused.”

I will a tail into existence, and start swim-flying out of the throne room before she changes her mind. I don’t go quite as fast as I could, for fear of seeming disrespectful. I can feel Goddess’ eyes bore into my departing back.

“Aack! But Eh-ma, I hardly get to...”

Raindrop’s voice fades in the distance as I pass through the halls to the outside. The guards seem surprised and confused to see me, but don’t make a move to stop me, probably since I’m trying to leave rather than enter.

Still, I don’t relax until I’m fully outside. Once there, I take stock of my surroundings. Both the palace and Hangspire float around, but since Raindrop is here, the city underneath a cloud should be pretty close.

Ah. There it is.

With a sweep of my tail, I start swim-flying over there without much of a plan in mind. My main goal in coming here was to ask Raindrop if she’d met any Visitors yet, but I wasn’t about to do that anywhere near Goddess. She might just decide it constitutes a security threat, and forbid me from interacting with them at all, or something.

I reach Cloudspire soon enough and end up just kind of drifting around, taking in the sights and the odd beings. I keep an eye out for any Visitors but don’t spot any obvious ones.

After a while, I come across The Timid Trident, which still has a sign outside that forbids questions. I hesitate for a moment, then decide to head in on the odd chance that Sloan returned.

I could use a drink, anyway.

I push open the creaky door and—having reformed my legs—walk in, taking my time to study the décor this time.

It’s a lot nicer than I’d realized.

The place has a kind of underwater theme going. Corals grow out of the walls, interspersed with gently waving anemone-like things and six and seven-legged starfish. The floor is covered in a layer of white sand in a wavy pattern like you’d expect on the bottom of an ocean. Tables and chairs are scattered randomly around the floor, while the bar and stools are on a wooden platform raised slightly above the sand. Wave patterns move over the ceiling, and I hear a faint sound of crashing surf when I look at it.

The only thing that’s missing is an actual trident.

“Welcome to The Timid Trident, please order a—oh, it’s you,” the purple octopus barman says, dropping his dull monotone and putting down the three glasses he was polishing as he notices me.

“I’m not here to ask questions!” I say quickly, raising my hands. “I just—want a drink.”

He narrows his eyes at me for a long moment, then slowly picks up the glasses again to resume polishing. “Very well. You may proceed.”

The question, ‘what do you have?’ rest on the tip of my tongue as I ascend the steps to the wooden platform that holds the bar, but I hold it back. I slowly take a seat, stalling as the barman stares me down.

I narrow my eyes at him. He’s expecting me to fail. Screw this guy, I can totally do this. Fine, no questions. Then, I guess I should just try ordering something, and see what happens.

“I’ll have a White Russian,” I say, before raising a brow at him. “If you can manage that, at least.”

He scoffs. “I can’t make anything if you don’t state what you want clearly enough. Try again.”

I frown. “I want a White Russian.”

“Give it meaning, girl!”

I blink. “Oh. Does this Realm—”

He freezes mid-triple-polish.

“—ehm, I mean, I wasn’t aware this Realm had objective meaning too.”

After a moment his rigid posture relaxes. “Good enough I suppose,” he grumbles. “And there’s no such thing as objective meaning here; this Realm is Imaginary. There’s only intended meaning.”

I nod slowly. Is there really a difference? Objective meaning is also just what you intend something to mean... I suppose the core concept that makes it objective is just that it can’t be misconstrued or misinterpreted. “All right. I want a White Russian.”

Whether it’s the same or not, I seem to have at least pulled it off, because he suddenly bursts into a whir of motion, pulling various bottles, a shaker, and a fancy glass from somewhere beneath the bar without ever even stopping his polishing.

Wait, how many tentacles does this guy have?

However, he makes a weird face while doing so. “Cream made from the breastmilk of a bovine... Yuck. What a strange, perverted drink.”

“It’s a very normal drink on Earth!” I protest, feeling my face flush. Shit, I should’ve just ordered a martini. “And we prefer to call it milk.”

“I wonder what the bovines think of that,” he replies, before sliding the glass over to me. “Drink up.”

I take a sip. “Oh, it’s good!”

The barman nods, like that should be obvious. “Now, tell me a story.”

“Okay, make me a drink that tastes like a memory of a summer fling,” I say thickly, feeling nicely buzzed on the imaginary alcohol.

As the drinks kept flowing, I’ve slowly been escalating my requests. Akir—my favourite octopus and new best friend—just shoots me another haughty look and gets to work, pouring and mixing with his agile tentacles. I’m not sure he really needs to ‘physically’ make it, but I can tell he’s enjoying himself. I think I’m starting to understand what makes him tick. He likes mixing drinks for people, and he particularly enjoys the challenge of creating weird and complex ones. In return, he expects entertainment in the form of stories.

I guess that makes sense. The things living here are functionally immortal after all, and everything’s more or less imaginary, so there’s no real form of currency.

Heh, ‘real.’

I thought the bar was perhaps not very popular, as it was empty both times I entered, but at some point, a large crowd starts trickling in, and Akir gets too busy to listen to long stories. Seems like there’s still a kind of rhythm to life in Hangspire.

My new drink is served in a cocktail glass with a smug look and a straw. It’s pink—because of course it is—and it’s got white frosting on the rim.

The initial flavour is bitter and sweet—kind of obvious, but sure—however, it’s soon followed by the far more complicated taste of nostalgia, which goes straight to my head, and makes me let out a deep, involuntary sigh.

I lose myself in the drink’s subtle textures of sneaking off to taste sunkissed skin, of half-forgotten butterflies, and the rich aftertaste of a desperate, tearful goodbye.

Inevitably, it leads my thoughts around to Kaitlynn, and my stomach twists.

My addled state causes me to lose my grip on the pent-up frustration at our situation, the hopelessness of our predicament, and I let out a deep groan. The only feasible future there seems to be for us would be if we didn’t find a way back home, and were forced to keep living in the Realm of Crystals, and were somehow free to do so. Because I really don’t trust that succeeding to survive the Trials to the end will lead to that, not by a long shot.

Of course, all of that’s moot if I can’t work up the spine to apologize and explain our predicament to her in the first place.

“I liked that concept,” Akir says. “Bet it hits hard.” Despite his busy workload, he’s taking the time to study my reaction to his newest creation with a pleased expression. Well, it looks like he’s got a handle on things anyway—he’s still fixing two drinks simultaneously without even looking.

I sigh. “You don’t know the half of it. Next, I think I’m gonna ask for—pardon me, I mean order—some actual liquid courage.”

Here’s hoping it’ll rub off on me.

Akir snorts and finally moves away to take more orders. He seems in his element, now that it’s busy, and generally just much happier, apart from the occasional outburst of rage when someone dares to ask him a question.

I can feel my eyelids drooping as a wave of fatigue washes over me. As I’m about to rest my head on the bar, something shakes my shoulder.

“That’s it, I’m cutting you off,” Akir says, sounding displeased.

“Wha—no, I’m fine, I can take it,” I whine.

He scoffs, grabs my wrist in one of his tentacles, and waves my mostly transparent hand in front of my face. “You’re Fading, you little shit. I can’t have beings re-joining the cosmos while drunk off my creations; Goddess would revoke my license faster than you can take your weird jello shots.”

A spike of fear immediately kills my buzz.

Oh, crap, I’m almost out of Espir!

I shoot a quick goodbye and thank you at Akir and yank myself out of the Realm of Imagination.

I wake with a splitting headache—courtesy of my far too low Espir—which is quickly exacerbated by Suri yelling at me.

[Emma! Starmother above, you scared me! You were gone for so long, I thought you’d kicked the bucket for sure this time!]

I frown groggily. “I was gone for longer than usual? Huh. Weird.”

[Usual, she says. Unbelievable. There’s nothing ‘usual’ about this, Emma, you—]

I quickly tune her out as she continues blabbering about the risks and how I need to start going to sleep repeating a mantra of some sort, to defend my unconscious mind from forming a Dreamscape.

Whatever, Suri. You’re clearly powerless to stop me, and too invested to rat me out. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t Visit too often.

From what I gather, however, I was in the Realm of Imagination significantly longer this time—almost fifty per cent longer than during my previous Visit. This has interesting implications. The obvious culprit for the replenishment of my Espir seems to be the drinks I consumed. Though clearly, that by itself isn’t enough to sustain my presence there indefinitely. I almost Faded too, so it’s not without risks...

Then again, they don’t necessarily need to be alcoholic. Do they even need to be prepared, or could I just drink whatever? Water from a pond? Or does that carry other risks?

Too many questions and Akir won’t be answering them... Still, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

That’s how I tell myself this is all worth it, as I nurse my headache while Suri nags at me.

Author's note:

Those of you familiar with D&D—which I presume is most of you ;)—will probably know what I mean when I say I've recently gone down the rabbit hole of character creation. ^^'

It's eaten away some of my writing time, but it's for a good cause, because my GM is setting up a new campaign that's to be streamed on Twitch, and I'm going to be playing in it! ^^

The stream will be called Rules as Fun, and we're going to be playing Pathfinder, with a really cool variant magic-system called Spheres of Power.

We'll be streaming on Sunday evenings (Amsterdam time zone, UTC+01:00) but the streams will be archived on Twitch and/or uploaded to YouTube in case people want to watch it again or missed it.

We're not beginning just yet, as like I said, we're still busy with character creation, but we'll be starting very soon. (I'll let you guys know exactly when, of course ;) )

So, if you'd like to watch me get up to shenanigans and roleplay as a Tiefling who's terrified of death because he owes a lot of people in Hell quite a bit of money, make sure to tune in to Rules as Fun! ^^

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