Chapter 9:

Undersea Thunder

Are You Real?


Kiro scanned the dense buildings all around him. Somehow, amid his wanderings, the boy had found himself in a cross-shaped plaza. Without car traffic or the accompanying noise pollution, the perpetual crowds and the rainbow of storefronts of the shopping district always made Kiro feel like he was exploring a dreamscape. Lampposts, product displays, and trash cans alike were plastered in feathered rows of posters and decorations.

New and old, crisp and faded. An ephemeral carnival of red, yellow, and blue canvassed every narrow street within this sprawling hub. There was the smell of something fried coming from the right, then of something deep and meaty from the left. In the same breath, it was hot from the steam of a passing food cart and cold from a gelato-peddler. It was strange.

He liked the city’s depths more than anywhere else. Not in spite of the crowds, but in part because of them. One monster was unrelatable, a stranger. But all of them, of every kind and in the same place?

The world always felt easier to accept that way: as a great, quaking mass of all the things and people he could ever come to love or hate.

His body was wracked with a powerful vibration. It was her:

“I think I’m good for three tomorrow. How does that sound?”

“I’m so screwed!” Kiro cried, slapping himself in the forehead.

He had planned on finding a suitable venue before she had a chance to message back. But now, he couldn’t think of anything to say. Or rather, he didn’t want to admit that the two of them were dorks. His thumbs hung over the text notification.

How am I supposed to bring it up?

Part of him was too afraid to ask. For all the “activity” planning they’d engaged in, neither of them had brought it up…

Where?

Kiro’s eyes narrowed. His pupils bounced diagonally around between his lids like tennis balls. But there was too much to focus on in the plaza, too many ways for his eyes to get lost amid the sights. He jogged off down the nearest street without a second thought.

As he ran, he looked for something that caught his eye. A funny restaurant name, or maybe a quirky cafe awning. The streets grew less populated as he went. It’s not like he was on a time limit. After all, it’s not like he left the girl he might be going out with on read.

Kiro checked the time on his phone without stopping. But in the jostle and hustle of his jog, his finger slipped. The little gray read receipt next to her message turned blue.

Now I’m on a timer.

Red, blue, yellow. Red, blue, yellow. The world began to spin. Color drained from his vision by the second.

Kiro slowed to a stop before he could fall over. Breath by breath, the world returned to normal, and he found himself face to face with a wall of aquamarine and brown.

The Undersea.

The cafe’s name was painted in yellow along a series of interlinked planks set above a rich, mahogany entrance arch. Through the transparent doors and sea-green windows, Kiro could make out what looked like the inside of an old ship cabin. Instead of gruff, battle-scarred sailors, though, this particular vessel was populated with well-dressed young monsterfolk that seemed to be perpetually posing for selfies with mounted fish heads and wax sea sirens.

The timer in his head was mere moments from expiring.

It’s the best I’ve got.

Repeating it in his head, Kiro threw himself through the doors of the Undersea cafe.

Instantly, the blue-lit shade of the street was lost in a homely, orange glow. Classically-styled electric candelabras swung with the rhythm of an invisible ship as hidden speakers murmured the subtle, quiet sounds of the deep. In contrast to the moment before, the air was now the perfect balance of cool and cozy. It was scented with sweet, hearty notes of coral air freshener and underscored by a dozen photogenic meals in progress.

Kiro had been to plenty of cafes, but few sucked him into the moment like this. He was only snapped out of it when a maroon Kraken with a bright green pixie cut sidled up.

“May I ask how many?”

Kiro shook his head. “Oh, uh. One, I suppose.”

The waitress glanced around with her bulging, cephalopod eyes. Then, her beak sunk into her face diagonally in a frown.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have any seats available for one. Would you be against sharing a table?”

Kiro hadn’t expected to eat. But now, with a staff member apologetically staring him down, he couldn’t summon the strength to explain that he was merely passing by.

“Oh, of course not, haha! Sorry for the trouble.” Kiro replied, rubbing the back of his reddening neck.

With a flick of her hand sucker, he started following the waitress. The inside of this restaurant’s proverbial ship cabin was much vaster than he had ever imagined from the outside. For how empty the street outside was, Kiro would have never presumed it was because the crowds had packed into the two dozen tables inside this quaint eatery. Finally reaching the back, Kiro found himself before half a dozen booth tables, each both sized and themed like lifeboats.

The waitress approached the nearest one to ask the patrons about a potential surprise guest. But Kiro did not see or hear her. Instead, he stared blankly with recognition. At the table diagonally to his left was a soft, yellow glow. Below it, basking in that glow, was that unforgettable face.

“Kiro?” asked the boy.

His head was a round, aquamarine egg, flanked by large, venous flaps where his ears would have been. A pair of eyes and a mouth no more than sharp, yellow slits did little to distract from his most obvious feature. Dangling right above his sharp, short nose was an angler’s stalky bulb that shone bright with recognition in the moment. Neither of them had seen each other since the second year of middle school. Since then, both of them had transformed across several features and no less than a handful of inches in height.

“K-Keano.” Kiro replied, his eyes lighting up. “It’s been so long!”

Satisfied with the happy accident of reunion, the Kraken waitress melted away into the crowded tables behind Kiro. Keano motioned to his party of five, and the two across the table scooched over to make room for the new addition.

“Can’t believe I’d run into you here,” Kiro said, taking a seat beside a cheery, pudgy-cheeked Ox-Boy. “What’ve you been up to?”

Keano pushed up his glinting, round glasses with a needle-toothed grin. Then, speaking in a slithering, earthy accent, he motioned to the tabletop. “As you can see, I’ve been weaving a world of adventure.”

Kiro had hardly noticed it in his state of shock, but almost the entire table was taken up by a dizzyingly-large, gridded board. Weighed down on each end by coasters bearing bubble teas, it bore a detailed, graphic floorplan of an underwater cavern that unfurled from a bird’s-eye view. Clumped up in the largest “chamber” of the cave system were a dozen plastic figures. Half of them were flavors of heroic, humanoid, and poorly painted, while the other half was entirely monstrous and store-bought.

“Currently,” Keano continued, his face giddy at Kiro’s wonder, “I’m testing my players in deadly combat.”

Keano motioned to the others at the table in order as he introduced them. The Ox-Boy was Wang, the group paladin. Across from him was the acne’d Kitsune-Girl Klara, the group’s mage. Leaning on her head with both his chin and pedipalps was Cricket-Rick the ranger, and opposite of him Zahra, the Ambiguous-Beetle Druid.

“And where you’re sitting,” Wang said, “Should’ve been Darren. But he never shows up.”

Keano nodded. Then, he stared Kiro down and spoke in a solemn, dramatic tone. “Alas, the hero party’s fifth is of the transient temperament. But where, oh where, may we find a replacement?”

Kiro blushed. “B-but I’ve never played Dangers and Depths before!”

“Don’t worry,” Klara replied with a cheeky, nasally yip. “You can play the party’s familiar.”

“The hellhound?” Cricket-Rick let out a chirping laugh.

Zahra rolled their beady eyes. “Don’t be mean. He’ll play Darren’s rogue.”

“It’ll be easy, dude,” Keano added, beaming. “Trust me, there’s nothing like D&D on a Friday evening with the pals.”

Kiro was paralyzed with indecision. On one hand, he burned to catch up with one of the few friends he had back from that era of his life. And on the other, his body was wracked with a powerful vibration.

“Are you okay? You never got back to me…”

Kiro’s entire body shivered as his mental timer shattered into pieces.

“I really appreciate it…” Kiro trailed off.

With five hopeful eyes boring into him, he was burning in the hot seat. Then, an idea struck him, born out of wedlock between desperation and indecision.

Rubbing the back of his head, Kiro asked, “Say, this is really embarrassing, but… You wouldn’t happen to know any good date spots around here, would you?”

The table of players craned their necks and adjusted their glasses in unison. Then, they burst out with a storm of overlapping suggestions. After five solid seconds of commotion, Keano quieted the party with his narratory voice. His hands swam in the air, concocting an invisible aura of ominous, thundering clouds in the imaginations of those around.

“What breed of environ would your maiden or prince prefer? This one knows these parts better than any other scallywag worth their pinch of salt.”

Kiro gulped. “Uh, I think she’d like somewhere quiet. And maybe cute.”

“Yes, yes,” Keano continued, his fingers twirling in the clouds to draw out lightning. “As the specificity increases, so does the potency of my oracle spell.”

“Hmm,” Kiro put his hand to his chin.

“What is she like?” Zahra egged on.

“She’s…” Kiro went for the first thought at the top of his head. “A person.”

Cricket-Rick slowly nodded. “That… narrows it down.”

“Wait, no! She’s…”

In a panic, Kiro flipped through his memories of Ai.

What is she like? What does she like?

He remembered the cat she held in the alley. Her cat-shaped headphones. Her cat-like reflexes.

Of course!

“C-cats!” Kiro answered. “She loves cats!”

“Oh-oh-oh!” Keano replied, briefly breaking his act.

The Anglerfish-Boy cleared his throat. His hands resumed their twirling, and the imaginary clouds returned. Lightning rose up amidst their fuming rings, and the party oooed. His glowing angler bulb dipped into the center of the vortex, drawing a pulsating orb out from its depths. Keano laid his hands on it, molding it into a clean image of the destination with a chant:

“I see a place, in pink and white.

It glows with warmth in darkest night.

Its atmosphere, sweet and sublime.

Its tenants all fuzzy, feline.

One can drink fine tea and stroke their fur,

Whilst chatting beneath the pleasant purr.

Its name, I see, the Chat Soiree,

Is sure to make your maiden’s day.”

The storm clouds subsided as the words of power faded into the air. The surrounding tables stared in bemusement as the party of heroes clapped and cheered.

Kiro’s eyes widened as he processed the significance of the “spell”.

“Dude!” Kiro’s hands shot to his temples in disbelief. “That’s genius!”

The boy’s fingers were imbued with the sacred lightning of prophecy as he replied to Ai:

“Sorry, sorry. My dad asked me to pick up some toilet paper. Big, big roach. Long story. Anyways, for the place I had in mind, I’ll send you the address :)”

Kiro sighed in relief, imagining the ghost of his mutilated mental timer floating somewhere above. Nodding with satisfaction, the device passed into the great beyond. Before Kiro could utter a word of thanks, his eyes were drawn to a sudden glint.

Keano adjusted his shining glasses and gave his old acquaintance a goofy, needle-toothed grin. “Sorry, I got carried away. You were saying something about appreciation?”

Kiro rubbed his neck. “Oh, that? Nah, my bad. I just had to get back to my dad about something.”

The entire table before him watched Kiro with baited breath. He had no choice but to clear his throat.

“Do you guys still want a fifth?”

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