• hcmills

Chapter 128: Goodbye until tomorrow [End of book 3]

The doors are—as always—rectangular slabs of smooth grey stone, each featuring a unique carving of a hideous, abstract humanoid, contorted into the shape of a number.


For a brief moment, they’re the most welcome sight I’ve ever seen.


Then I glance at the familiar faces beside me that I won’t be seeing for a long time, if ever again, and the exits lose much of their appeal.


The twelve doors are spaced relatively close to each other, up on a narrow beach at the centre of this section of wall.


Which is good, ’cause otherwise we would’ve needed to head into the Toxic Energy corner for door number one.


Anyway, I keep an eye on the sky as we unpack Elizabeth and quickly place all we own on the beach near door number one. As the Wicked Bitch of the West continues to not show up, the tension gradually leaves my shoulders.


The door rumbles open whenever two of us come close enough. Just out of interest, I get Mark to walk up to door number two with me, but it stays closed. Looks like they open in order, as expected.


When we’re done unloading, we naturally gravitate into a cluster on the beach.


I look around the small group of people I’ve been sharing my survival with over the past weeks, and suppress a sigh.


We’re as well-prepared as can be reasonably expected. Better even, I’d wager. They’ll make it through.


My eye lingers on Kaitlynn for a moment.


Dave clears his throat. “I think we’ve got time for some final goodbyes.”


There are some muttered sounds of agreement, but with all of us standing in a circle like this, it’s a little awkward to start, so it remains silent for a long moment.


Alec pipes up. “Ooh, I saw this thing on a talk show once, ehm, we could take turns picking someone—that hasn’t been picked yet—to say something nice about, like what you like about them and what you’ll miss. I mean, it looked really nice on tv...” he trails off sheepishly.


“No, I mean, yeah, that sounds good,” I say. “Ehm, Mark, sweetie, could you...”


“Hmm? Oh! Yeah, I’ll give you guys some space. I guess I could go... keep watch for Dominique,” he offers. He hesitates for a moment, then gives a slight wave, and walks off to the Hydrum’s edge.


Loudmouth shifts from one webbed foot to another. “Should Loudmouth give Friends some space, too?”


I blink at him. “What? No, don’t be silly! You should be part of this. You earned that much, at least.”


I mean it too. And not just because I honestly can’t wait to hear what he has to croak.


Seeing him light up in response is equal parts heart-warming and breaking, even if it’s still a little hard to read froggo facial expressions. Objective meaning doesn’t do much unless you’re trying to convey meaning, and facial expressions are often unconscious.


Anyway, just his expression would have been worth it, but the smile Kaitlynn sends me says I definitely said the right thing, for once.


“Sweet!” Alec exclaims. “Then, I’ll go first, so whoever’s last will have to, ehm, say stuff about me, or we won’t get everyone.”


He clears his throat, and looks us all over—I think, as he’s still lacking an actual eye to track—until he finally seems to settle on—


“Jacob.”


“Oh boy,” Jacob grumbles, but a corner of his mouth quirks up.


Alec flashes a smile, but then his expression turns uncharacteristically serious. “Jacob, you joined the Blue Dragons relatively late—even though you came up with that name—and I know it hasn’t always been, like, easy. That you haven’t always felt like you were one of us. I hope, by now, you know you are though.”


Jacob nods, and I think I see his eye glisten a little.


“I admire your strength, your perseverance, your courage—no, don’t shake your head, I said courage, not fearlessness. It wouldn’t be courage if you weren’t afraid, and maybe you needed some time and help to find it at first, but you made the decision to follow Loudmouth on his insane mission to rob the central island all on your own.”


Alec takes a break to swallow and lick his lips. Jacob looks like he wants to say something, but Alec holds up a hand.


“I’m going to miss your sarcasm, I’m going to miss our spars, but mostly, I’m going to miss that crazy half-baked Hoig-look you’re sporting, that I still can’t believe they all fell for.”


Jacob snorts. Alec takes two steps towards him and pulls him into a hug. “See you on the other side.”


He lets go and walks back, sporting a satisfied grin.


Jacob shakes his head and takes a deep breath to steady himself. “Thank you, Alec. That was... yeah. Anyway, ehm, my turn now I guess.” He takes a moment, then turns to the only other green-skinned person amongst our party. “Loudmouth, you are one heck of a Hoig. What’s more, you are one heck of a Friend. I know it’s a bit late, but I think now is the perfect time for us to officially name you the sixth member of the Blue Dragons.”


Loudmouth breaks into the widest smile I’ve ever witnessed at those words. “Really? Loudmouth can be part of the hydra?”


“Dude, you learned how to Regenerate,” Jacob says. “I can’t even do that yet. You’re definitely part of the hydra.”


And then we find out that Hoig can, in fact, cry.


Or maybe he’s learned that from us somehow, I don’t know, this Realm is weird.


“It sucks that we have to leave you behind,” Jacob continues. “And I’m definitely going to miss our camaraderie, but I promise we’ll come back someday, and I know you’re going to thrive out here in the meantime. Just remember what we taught you about stats and Skills, and you’re going to be kicking ass and taking names in no time. Just... try and steer clear of other humans.”


Loudmouth nods fervently and leaps forward to hug Jacob, who doesn’t seem to mind the skin contact. He’s already slimy anyway, I guess.


When Loudmouth gets his emotions back under control, it takes a bit of prodding for him to realise it’s his turn and then pick someone, but he eventually gets there.


“Loudmouth want to thank Friend Kaitlynn, for being herself,” he croaks, nervously fidgeting in the sand with one foot. “Other Friends also pretty okay, but Friend Kaitlynn always happy to see Loudmouth, always make him feel... included. Truth is, Loudmouth wasn’t too happy before Loudmouth met Friends. Friend Kaitlynn’s smile like the Twinstar, washes away darkness.”


When it’s apparent he’s finished, Kaitlynn pounces on our surprisingly poetic froggy teammate. I watch her squeeze him fervently, and fight against the lump in my throat, but it’s a losing battle.


Would I really be incapable of loving her back on Earth?


I shake my head. It wouldn’t matter how much I loved her. A relationship without a healthy sex-life, or even just too-unequal in sexual attraction, is like recipe for disaster. Just stop thinking about it.


Kaitlynn is next, she glances at me, and for a moment I tense up when I think she’s going to go for it, but she ultimately turns to Dave.


I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved.


“Dave, you have been my rock, pretty much since the day I met you,” she starts with a bright, dimpled smile. “You are so smart, and so calm under pressure, that it’s almost intimidating. Somehow, you managed to make me feel safe—even if it was just a little—in this crazy Realm, and I am really going to miss our talks. Whether I needed advice, a hug, or even just a listening ear, I knew I could always count on you. You’ve shouldered so much all this time, while you yourself bear the heaviest load.” Her smile turns sad. “I know how much you miss your fiancée, how guilty you feel when you think of her raising your daughter up alone, and my heart aches for you. I can’t promise you we’ll get you home, Dave, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that, as long as there’s even the slimmest chance, we’ll never stop trying.”


They hug. A tear trails down Dave’s cheek, but he’s smiling. This is a rarity, as it usually it takes a few drinks to get him to show any heartfelt emotion.


Next, Dave turns to me, with a gentle smile on his face. “It seems I have the privilege of addressing you, Emma. And I do consider it a privilege. As much responsibility as Kaitlynn claims I’ve borne, I daresay you’ve borne more. You are always the first into the breach, seeming not to care for your own life—to an at times worrying degree.”


I can’t help but snort at that.


“More importantly,” he continues, “you never quit. You never give up on any of us, no matter how bleak things seemed. I know if I asked you about it, you’d shrug and say you have high Willpower, but what you’ve done, what you’ve meant for us, can’t be summed up with just a number. Frankly, even words seem insufficient. All I can say, is thank you.”


Well, now I’m crying. Thanks Dave.


After we’ve hugged it out, I turn to a slightly apprehensive Alec.


I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts, biting my lip. Then I speak. “Alec, you are... phenomenal.”


He blinks, his eyelid moving smoothly over his eye-crystal.


“You really are, and you don’t even seem to realise it. You are a phenomenal cook, a phenomenal craftsman, and a phenomenal artist, but most importantly, you’re a phenomenal friend. I know I’ve been hard on you, Alec, and yes, at times you’re a phenomenal pain in my ass,” I admit, to which he grins, “but I need you to know me riding you has never been because of dislike or contempt. It’s because I care. Because I worry. Truth is, you’re like a little brother to me. I’m not sure how much of that is because we’re both Yin and how much of it is because you remind me of my actual little brother, but it’s there, nonetheless. I’m going to miss our little competitions, our banter. Your terrible jokes. Honestly, I’m just going to miss you.”


I hold my arms out, and wince when he charges me. Unfortunately, this being the last little speech, the others see fit to pile on in a group hug, so I’m stuck there for a while.


Well, with Kaitlynn pressed warmly against my back, I can’t say I mind too much.


However, now that we’re done, it’s actually time to leave.


Dave and Alec go first, heading for the door ‘numbered’ one.


Next to me, Kaitlynn is sobbing quietly.


Alec waves as he steps through.


Dave turns back one last time in the opening. “Remember, this isn’t farewell, it’s till next time.”


Then they’re through, and the door slams shut behind them.


Next are Jacob and Kaitlynn.


My heart starts beating faster as I turn towards her. The bittersweet smile on her face breaks something inside of me.


I can no longer ignore it, now. I can no longer push the thought off. She’s about to head through that door, into unknown danger, and despite all our preparation, I may never see her again.


My mouth feels like a desert, and the lump in my throat prevents me from saying anything as my lip wobbles.


She reaches out and grasps my hands. I stare at her, drinking her in, trying to burn her image into my retina, so I can at least see her negative when I close my eye.


I’ve never doubted my resolve as much as I do now.


Next to us, Jacob lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Good lord, I can’t look at this. Emma, Kaitlynn... why don’t the two of you just go through together?”


Kaitlynn turns to him, wide-eyed. “I... Jacob, I don’t—”


“Life’s too short,” he says with conviction. “Especially out here.”


I blink at him.


Kaitlynn bites her lip. “But, what about Mark? Emma’s Charm and Dreamcloud are bound to wear off...”


Jacob snorts. “Please. I can handle him. I told you, he’s a total pushover. Honestly, he’ll probably be of more use to me than you, if all you’re going to be doing is pining over Emma anyway. Well, that and being jealous and worried that—”


“All right, I get it!” she exclaims, blushing. He winks at me.


I frown. Wait, was he implying...


My thoughts trail off when Kaitlynn turns to shyly look up at me. I can feel my brows rise in surprise.


She’s on board, just like that? Really?


I turn to study Jacob. He looks kind of resigned, but also calm and confident. “You’re sure?”


He nods.


I turn back to Kaitlynn. Her eye sparkles in the starlight, and I’m helpless.


“Hey Mark,” I call out, and he hurries over, smiling at me like a puppy.


“There’s been a slight change of plans,” I say when he’s close. “I need you to head through this door with Jacob for me.”


He blinks. His face falls. “But, I thought—”


“Please?” I say, adding some Charm to my pout and shuddering internally as I bat my eyelashes at him.


Kaitlynn hands—which I’m still holding—tense in mine. Jacob looks away for a moment.


“For me?” I add with a saccharine smile.


He caves like a sandcastle before a wave.


Jacob handily pulls him along through door two. The last I see of them, is Jacob’s smirk and Mark’s unhappy pout, as the door slams shut behind them.


I’m still a little stunned as we walk to door number three.


The skies are still clear, so I go out into the Hydrum to give Elizabeth some final scritchies, and try and instruct her to stick with Loudmouth. I’m still not sure how much of it she understands.


Meanwhile, I can vaguely hear Kaitlynn dutifully quizzing Loudmouth on all of our instructions once more—including the ones about taking care of Elizabeth—making sure he’s actually memorized them.


After one last, slimy hug, we turn to our door. Kaitlynn reaches out her hand to me with a shy smile. Unable to deny her, I let it slot warmly in mine.


With one final wave back at a sobbing Loudmouth, we walk through the door hand in hand.



Author's notes:

Quick announcement: Rules as Fun has started a new campaign! ^^

Due to a variety of reasons, we decided to end the first campaign at a proper stopping point after only eight episodes. Now we're starting again with lessons learned, and a brand-new setting and characters!

I feel like we've really improved a lot, and highly recommend that you check out last Sunday's episode on Twitch if you have any interest in Tabletop RPG's ;) And of course, tune in next Sunday for the second episode!

https://www.twitch.tv/videos/860023698

A little more about the new campaign: It takes place in and around Dreidan, a frontier fortress city constantly under threat by several Orders of monsters of all types and sizes. How is the city going to survive when it’s lord just died and the living dead clamour at the gates?

The Pathfinder system we use is similar to the more familiar Dungeons & Dragons, but offers more interesting choices and more in-depth source material. In addition, we use the amazing Spheres of Power system, which lifts Pathfinder to a whole new level!

So if you’d be interested in following a campaign: • With an awesome system that stimulates player creativity • With a small party of experienced players/friends from amateur theatre (Including yours truly) • That handles Rules in a way that fosters tension, excitement, and above all, Fun Then come find us at https://www.twitch.tv/rulesasfun where we will be live at 6 PM GMT every Sunday!

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