• H.C. Mills

Chapter 112: Absolution

I follow Kaitlynn to the Hydrum’s edge, sit down next to her, and speak for a long time. It’s awkward at the start, but it gets easier as I continue to talk, telling Kaitlynn all about the bullying I endured, and the soul-searching it led me to.

She starts to cry silently and looks at me with such sympathy that I have to look away. From how she’s holding herself, I can tell she’s itching to hug me. Part of me is grateful that’s she’s giving me the space I need to continue my tale, another part wants nothing more than to be in her arms.

Don’t be weak, Emma. Keep it together.

I explain about the peace I found about my sexuality, and how oblivious it made me to the butterflies I had begun to experience around her, and how it all came to a head when we first kissed. I lay out what Suri told me after that about sexuality in this Realm, and how everything had suddenly made sense. Finally, embarrassed, I tell her how the old demons I thought I had defeated came crawling out of the woodworks at the idea of the others knowing.

Kaitlynn wipes a tear off her left cheek and opens her mouth for the first time since I’ve started talking, her voice hoarse with grief. “Knowing what, Emma?”

I glance up at her. “Kait...”

She shakes her head firmly at my plea. “No. I need you to say it.”

I close my eyes and take a deep, shuddering breath.

“Emma, please.”

Swallowing, I nod. “That I’m... that I have feelings for a girl.”

Her soft gasp burns my ears. “You do?”

I can feel my cheeks turn a deeper shade of purple. I can’t look at her, so I just nod.

“Anyway, too much about me,” I joke in an awkward attempt to break the tension. “I know you said some things about your, ehm, feelings for me back in Hub Two, but I don’t recall you ever mentioning you liked girls before. Is this... new to you?”

“I never said I didn’t, either,” Kaitlynn says with a small smile, and a twinkle in her eye that I didn’t know I’d missed. “I’ve known for a while now that I’m bisexual. Or at least, that I was, back on Earth. Guess I’m a Yin-sexual now? That’s still hard to wrap my head around.”

“Tell me about it.”

She snorts, and lightly punches my shoulder. “Anyway, I figured it out in the worst and most cliché way possible: I fell in love with my best friend.”

“Ouch.”

She sighs. “It was horrible. Whenever I was with her, I was riding high, but then after we separated the fear would hit me that she’d never feel the same or worse, that she’d hate me if she found out. Followed by the guilt that I was desecrating our friendship with lust. The constant yoyoing of my mood was driving me nuts.”

“Sounds rough. Did you ever confess?”

Kaitlynn gives a very small nod. “Yeah. It didn’t go over well. We were actually going to go to the Con together, but, well... she needed some space, after all that. I’m glad for it now, that she didn’t come.”

A spike of irrational jealousy surges up in me as I realise just how recent this crush of Kaitlynn’s was.

It must show on my face or in my body-language somehow, because all of a sudden, Kaitlynn lifts my chin with gentle fingers until I meet her gaze. “I’m over her now, you know? At least, I’m pretty sure I am. I know it hasn’t technically been that long, but it feels like a lifetime ago.”

I nod minutely, caught in the attractive force of her storm-grey eye.

“More importantly,” she continues softly, “I like someone else now.”

I swallow heavily. “Yeah?”

“Mm-hmm. As you might understand, I was kind of afraid to tell her, after how disastrous my last confession went. I was terrified to lose another friend. But now that everything’s out in the open, and I know that she likes me too, I was thinking... maybe we can be together for real, now?”

The hope in her voice nearly breaks me. I have to tell her now. Or I never will. I’ve been working up to this all week, making myself promise over and over that I would do it. That I would cut her loose.

“Kaitlynn... I don’t think we should.”

She’d started moving towards me, but halts at my words. “Why?”

I take a deep breath and force out the words I’ve been preparing. “Because we want to get back. We have to get back, to our families, our friends. To them we’re missing, which is actually worse than if we had just died because there’s no closure from missing. There’s always hope, which keeps the pain fresh. If we survive this death-trap, we owe it to them to try and get back.”

I finally look up and can practically see the gears in her mind turning. “And that means we can’t be together, because...?” she asks slowly.

“Because on Earth I was straight,” I forge on, fighting to keep my voice neutral. “And if we manage to make it back there, and successfully acclimatize to the Entropic Realm again, we will no longer be Yin or Yang, and I’ll go back to being straight.”

Her mouth opens and closes again.

I sigh. “We’d probably try to hang on to what we’d have, to our relationship, for a while. However, you’d still want to be... intimate, and I wouldn’t. I might go along with it a few times, for old times’ sake, but ultimately, I would start to rebuff your advances. You’d be hurt, but understanding. At some point, it would get to be too much, and we would agree to split up, so we could each pursue new romantic interests. We’d promise to stay friends. The best of friends.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Kaitlynn interjects, smiling weakly.

I shake my head, press the palms of my hands against my eye and eye-crystal, and push on. “Except our new lovers wouldn’t like how close we are with our exes. That might sabotage some relationships at first, until we allowed ourselves to be weaned from each other and make a serious attempt at something steady. Things would grow awkward between us, then. Gradually, we’d become more standoffish, see and speak to each other less and less, until, finally, we’re reduced to a card at birthdays, and maybe Christmas.”

I look up and finally allow my tears to spill and my voice to break. “And I would hate that, Kaitlynn. Because I really like you. You’re one of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I haven’t had that many.”

Naturally, she starts crying again too, but her voice is subdued. “Been thinking about this a lot, huh?”

I snort. “What gave it away?”

She smiles wanly. “You paint a very bleak picture of our successful return. But Emma... do you honestly believe we’ll get back? Don’t you think it’s better to be happy now, while we still can? While we have the chance?”

I shake my head. “I can’t think like that, Kaitlynn. If there’s one thing I’ve come to believe since coming here, it’s that there’s always a way forward if you want it enough, and push yourself enough. If I give up on the both of us making it back to Earth alive, if I allow myself to even entertain that thought, then I’ll slip up, on some crucial juncture. I’ll take the easy path instead of the hard one, and we won’t make it.”

Her lower lip trembles, but she still looks determined. “But Emma, you can’t control what will happen; any day could be our last, any mistake could be fatal!”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes that should’ve been fatal already,” I say, quiet but firm. “I didn’t survive them by giving up.”

She stares at me defiantly for a long moment, I force my eye to remain steady, to not glance down towards her lips. Finally, she deflates. “I get it. I do. I hate it, but I get it. You’re a stronger person than I am.”

I chuckle bitterly. “Not strong enough. Otherwise, we would have had this conversation much sooner, and you wouldn’t have felt half as shitty as you do now.”

She shrugs and gives me look that’s pensive and resigned. “I don’t know if I would have preferred that. Maybe. So... friends?”

I nod wordlessly.

“Can friends hug?” she asks, her voice breaking.

I wrap her up in my arms. “Anytime.”

Over her shoulder, I stare bleakly at the window that popped up somewhere along the way.

That night, Dave, Jacob, Loudmouth, and I wait around the campfire for Alec and Kaitlynn to return, successfully levelled.

We greet them with loud cheers upon their arrival.

My eye immediately rakes over Kaitlynn’s form. As expected, her horns have grown as well. However, where mine curl to the side and back to hover over my ears, hers go straight up in front of her vibrant blue hair. Her skin is now pale as moonlight, though it quickly turns pink under my attention.

I clear my throat and glance at Alec as well. The blue hue of his skin has deepened, making him look kind of alien. The single nub on his forehead has extended into a sharp point straight ahead, and I can already feel the unicorn jokes bubbling up.

We celebrate with zirot wine. For the first time in a while, Kaitlynn and I manage to relax around each other and even have a civil chat. However, at the end of the night, we still head for separate huts.

We greet each other with smiles in the morning and pretend they don’t look strained. Still, at least she’s stopped avoiding me.

Jacob and Dave watch our interactions with relief, and even Alec seems to pick up on the fact that the tension between us has decreased. Though I’m pretty sure he thinks it was just a fight between besties or something.

Kaitlynn resumes coming along on hunts, which is nice, because things are getting rowdier in Hub Three.

Raids become more frequent, though we manage to avoid getting caught up in any thanks to our speed and Samuel’s warnings.

The creatures we hunt are getting antsier as well. They move around more and act more aggressive. Dave hypothesises it may be due to the increasing polarity of the Hydrum’s temperature we’ve noticed inside the Hub.

All in all, we conclude that it’s a method to increase the pressure on us and force us to hurry and leave the Hub. The prior—unspoken—agreement between Kaitlynn and I that we’d leave the Hub together hangs heavily in the Aether between us. I’m hesitant to bring it up, afraid she’ll reject the notion as a bad idea.

And maybe it is. Perhaps I’m a masochist for wanting it regardless, but I do. I would be far too worried about her if I couldn’t personally see and make sure she was all right.

I just need to find the right time, the right way to ask her.

Anyway, since the tempering in the Yang shell is the limiting factor for when we all level, Kaitlynn graciously agrees to cease tempering now that she’s levelled, so that Dave and Jacob can temper once every two night instead of every three.

Alec and I continue taking turns as usual, since it would be a waste not to. Since we can’t break 50% Tolerance on another type of energy, I alternate between tempering Cold and Electric Energy. Meanwhile, he tempers Cold and Toxic Energy, and hates both with a passion.

Hunting the halid for Minor Cold Crystals again is a good opportunity to practise using my spear and Positive Inertial Energy to smash the shells the way Calyx did, but I find it to be harder than it looked.

The problem is that my Inertia Manipulation Skill is still level 1. To reach level 2, I need to be able to project both Positive and Negative Inertial Energy spirals away from myself in a chosen direction. When I use Positive Inertial Energy right now it affects my entire surroundings, so I get stuck in whatever trajectory I’m moving in.

And I haven’t forgotten about the incident where I turned Kaitlynn into a model rocket either.

Despite making this one of my main training goals, progress is slow. I do improve my conversion rate from Qi to Positive Inertial Energy, so that’s something.

Regarding my other Skills, there are few I can currently progress in.

I now have the Toughness of 15 required for the third level of Boost Physical, but I can’t currently take a Skilldream for it. With Lavi Font level 2 and Breath Control level 3 I run into the same problem: I can’t compress my Lavi far enough. I’m getting closer to the level of compression required, but it feels like I’m still missing some piece of the puzzle.

Distort Space level 3 is also proving elusive. I have trouble splitting my attention three-way, so whenever I try to add a third dimension, I end up letting another one slip and creating a new state with two dimensions expanded.

However, there’s two Skills where I do manage to make some progress. The first is Infuse, where after some painful experimentation, I manage to add the Acid Purpose to my repertoire.

The second comes when Alec finally finishes his masterpiece.

Predictably, he makes a big deal of unveiling it. He brings us all to a large outcrop of rock on our island, close to the cave entrance. There’s a large, makeshift tarp made of vines and leafy twigs covering what seems to be a large, relatively flat wall of rock.

Loudmouth is hopping excitedly on the rock above it, holding a rope.

“Now?” he croaks at his usual volume.

“No!” Alec shouts back with a frown, waving his arms. “What did I tell you?”

Loudmouth blinks.

“You have to wait for my signal!” Alec adds exasperatedly.

I cover my smile with a hand and my traitorous eye seeks out Kaitlynn. She laughs uninhibitedly at their antics, and my heart clenches at the sight of her scrunched-up nose and the dimples in her cheeks.

It’ll get easier. Someday.

I turn back to Alec, who’s standing tall in front of his still covered creation. His amethyst eye-crystal glints in the light of the Twinstar, the empty hole of his other socket covered by his eyepatch made of blue leather. “Welcome, my fellow dragons,” he says, spreading out his arms to indicate all of us, “to the unveiling of my Magnum Opus.”

I raise a brow at him and fold my arms over my chest. After all this grandstanding, he’d better deliver.

“I give you...” Alec pauses and makes a flourish with his hands towards the covered wall. “The Tale of the Hydra.”

Nothing happens for a moment. Then Alec whispers, “Loudmouth!”

“Yes, friend Alec?”

“That was the signal!”

“Ah!” Loudmouth exclaims, before pulling the rope.

The tarp drops. It’s quickly followed by my jaw.

I’m not sure what I expected; maybe an instructional comic or something like that. Definitely not what I’m looking at, however.

Alec painted an epic, wall-covering mural. More than that, he painted a story.

The mural has three distinct stages—three chapters, from left to right—and yet it’s One.

The first part depicts a five-headed, blue-scaled dragon—no, a hydra—that roars in defiance when one of its heads is cut off. Looking at it is like being punched in the stomach. It screams of a wrongness, an incompleteness, and at the same time, the hydra’s roar is a rallying cry that inspires action.

The second part depicts a network of green energy pathways inside of the hydra, in which green streams of energy march like soldiers, searching for a breach in the defences to reinforce. It makes me tingle all over, like the very Lavi in my body is moving about.

The third part sees the hydra sprouting two heads where one was cut off, and it gives off a sensation of completeness, followed by a signal for retreat. The tingling stops when I study it, and I feel at peace.

Only after working through the whole piece, do I manage to shake myself out of the daze I entered.

It’s dead quiet. The rest are still staring.

Alec wrings his hands together and clears his throat. “So, ehm, what do you guys think?”

Dave wakes up and shakes his head. “Dude... This is incredible.”

Jacob steps forward and envelops Alec in a surprisingly fierce hug.

I blink. Then I glance at the mural again, and the penny drops.

Of course. Alec didn’t just draw Regeneration, he drew us. Losing Jacob, getting him back, and finding a sixth to round out our numbers. A happy ending. In fact, now that I’m no longer overwhelmed by the Skill instructions, I can faintly detect the underlying emotions woven into the tableau.

I sigh. “Alec, this is several kinds of amazing. You get an A-plus.”

Jacob steps back and just nods, seemingly lost for words. Kaitlynn is crying a little.

Alec, flush from our praise, kind of shuffles in place. “I thought it’d be nice to leave something behind, you know? A piece of our story. I don’t know if it’ll be removed after we leave the Hub, but I hope not. Maybe some other group of participants will stumble upon this, someday... maybe it’ll help them too.”

I swallow against the lump in my throat. Right, there will be other groups of participants—no, prisoners—passing through here someday... may Goddess have mercy on their souls.

Author's note:

The first episode of Rules as Fun, which streamed last Sunday, can now be found here!

If you're interested, please give it a watch ^^

And if you like it, do join us this Sunday on Twitch :D

(For the exact time in your area, you can now simply check the Twitch channel's planning ^^)

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©2018 by H.C. Mills