Are You Real?
With a huff, Maia tossed her book bag under the table like a bowling ball.
Keano wiggled the shiny ridge of where his eyebrows should have been. “Fashionably late again, I see.”
“Is that a dig at my clothes?”
Keano waved his webbed hands. “Oh, no, no! I meant-”
“I'm pulling your leg.” Maia snorted. “That's what you get for using the same opener twice.”
“Noted,” Keano said, clearing his throat with a cough. “But I would be remiss if I didn't ask what was on your mind.”
“Just a little mix-up between me and some people I knew from school.” She dropped into her seat. “Nothing I can't handle, but thanks.”
Wang twiddled his hooves. “When I feel sad sometimes, I like to eat sweets to get the bitter taste out of my mouth.”
Cricket-Rick let out a chirp and rubbed his tarsal claws together. “Speaking of which…”
“About that.” Maia’s eyes shot to the floor. “The oven at my house broke down again…”
“So you're telling me,” Cricket-Rick buried his bug-eyed bug face in his claws “that I'm not getting my fix this time?”
Zahra gave him a reassuring shrug. “We could just go back to the cafe's pastries.”
Cricket-Rick's claw hand hit the table with a clack. “Ow! It's just not the same…”
Klara gave the insectoid boy a reassuring headpat.
Keano glanced at Maia, who was sitting at the corner of the table. To the rest of the table, she might have just looked like she was staring blankly into the game board, but Keano had learned to know better. The bulbous angler on his head lit up as he put on his narrator’s voice:
“That just means the wares next week will be twice as valuable!” He smiled at her.
“Yeah.” She let out a chuckle in response. “For sure.”
As the players settled into the table, the fog of war descended over the battlefield.
A marsh created out of the spleen of a dead god on the fairgrounds of an underwater castle, the Alabaster Swamp was not a place for the faint of heart. It was, consequently, the perfect place for a group of daring adventurers whose deathwish was matched only by their greed. A desire for fame, a thirst for coin, even a dream of a heroic death. All of those could be found on the other end of the great, white doors sunk halfway into the white lilied muck.
After painstaking preparation and furious negotiation for the map that led here, the party entered into the dark dimension where they would face the Spasilisk at long last. All of its previous forms had been illusions—chickens disguised as Griffins, tree trunks puppeteered to cast vile spells. But now, amid the bleeding, obsidian stones floating torpidly in the air, the true foul shape of the beast came into view. The enraged head of a dragon, its pallid eyes having been gouged out by the last millennium's heroes’ attempt on its life. The body of a serpent, flanked by a centipede's worth of wriggling, arm-sized appendages.
The bout began in short order, each hero lining up to make the first move against the ancient evil of the UnderWaters. Wong the Paladin laid down a defensive Holy Ward as Cricket-Rick soaked his arrows in Devil's Blood. Leaping past the both of them, Zahra planted a line of Spirit Seedlings with a furious sequence on her Druid’s Flute. Klara readied herself behind her team's defenses, stroking their snarling Hellhound behind the ears as she invoked her highest level spell slot.
The Spasilisk reared its towering form and let loose a piercing screech. The heroes were ready. The heroes were fierce. And most of all, the heroes were…
… definitely not staring off into space like Kiro the Rogue.
“What are you doing?!” yelled Cricket-Rick, the Ranger.
Kiro snapped into action, but it was too late. Without a distraction, Zahra fell mere moments short of her holy grove rising to provide adequate cover for her team. Cricket-Rick tried to compensate for the defense with a barrage of toxic bolts, but they ricocheted off the creature's armored hide to no avail. In one swing of its spiked tail, the Spasilisk dealt a critical blow to both the Ranger and the Mage. With her last words, Klara blessed Paladin Wong with the strength to land the ultimate holy blow.
But this blow did little to cover up for the lack of damage coming out of the party otherwise, forcing the Hellhound to jump forth.
“You better not mess this up,” growled the dog, against all common sense.
Stunned at the sudden act of sentient speech, the Paladin and Rogue watched the party’s pet explode in a brilliant ball of flames, dealing critical damage to the beast’s underhide. With a couple of seconds to spare, the Paladin pulled the party’s Rogue aside.
“We have one chance!” Wang yelled. “I’m going to use everything I’ve got. All you have to do is strike on my mark!”
“R- right!” Kiro replied, readying his short sword.
With that, the Paladin took off for the Spasilisk with a monk’s chanting warcry. The plan was flawless, save for the part where the Rogue was staring at the wall when they were discussing Plan B. Consequently, when Wang leapt into the air and paralyzed the beast with a searing flash of holy light, Kiro could give little but his best guess. The Rogue shook himself awake again and charged straight towards the Spasilisk’s wide open underbelly. His blade glowing as he approached, everything was going according to plan.
Until, the Spasilisk sent the Rogue flying with a squelching strike of its hind claws.
The Paladin watched in horror as their party’s last hope failed his death save. Mercifully, the suffering would not last long, as he was promptly fetched in mid-air by the monster like a dog catching a frisbee. And so, the brave party’s adventure came to an end, their lifeless bodies undoubtedly making a fine mulch for the lichen of the realm of nightmares.
The table let out a collective groan. Except for Maia, who couldn't stop laughing. Eventually, the snarky chuckle caught on, much to Kiro’s relief. The relief was short lived though, as Maia gave him a devious flick to the temple.
“Sorry guys,” Kiro rubbed the side of his head. “I got a little distracted.”
Cricket-Rick let out an indignant chirp. “Yeah, well your distraction cost us the campaign.”
“It is not a matter of great worry.” Keano replied. “Perhaps this whole debacle was just a collective premonition that the Fates provided to warn you of future follies. That being said, Kiro. Is there something on your mind?”
“Yeah, sorry. Just uh… weird week.”
“Spill the beans.” Maia said, poorly disguising her eagerness to not be the one in the hot seat.
“It’s just…” Kiro twiddled his figurine around. “Things have been a bit awkward between me and Ai this week.”
“You two are finally a thing now?” Maia asked.
“Well, we have been for…” He counts on his fingers. “Four weeks now?”
Keano readjusted his glasses. “Is there anything we can divine from the winds of change?”
“I guess if we’re talking about things that changed…” Kiro scratched his head. “Your ‘protection spell’ definitely came in handy.”
The table looked at Kiro with their heads at confused slants. Keano’s eyes went wider than he’d ever seen them. The bulb on his head flashed once before sputtering out.
“Oh.” Keano’s voice dropped any pretense of narration. “Huh. That's… unexpected.”
Maia’s head darted between the two of them. “What are you two goin’ on about?”
Kiro and Keano stared at Maia as their respective faces grew flushed. Kiro could see Maia’s eyes flashing back through their encounters. Eventually, the rolodex in her brain struck the time she saw him at the convenience store and what he bought.
“Heh. Didn’t think you had it in you.” Her face twisted in devious grimace. “Grats, I guess?”
Klara and Zahra’s faces lit up in realization. After a few seconds, even Wang got the memo, leaving Cricket-Rick desperately looking around to try and catch up.
“So…” Keano couldn’t hide the curiosity in his eyes. “What was it like?”
“It was… nice. Not like what I imagined, but it was magical I guess?” Kiro stopped nodding to himself. “But, it also felt a little bit weird. When we were together like that, it felt like I was holding a… glass flower. Almost like if I let go of her, she’d fall and shatter into pieces.”
When Kiro looked back up, he realized everyone had their full attention on him. His face couldn’t help but turn a slight shade of pink.
“WAIT!” Cricket-Rick slammed his claws on the table and shot up from his seat. “You’re… you’re a man now?!”
“Now you got it…?” Wang trailed off.
Kiro slightly sank into his collar from Cricket-Rick’s volume. “I… guess?”
“Fourth base in four weeks!” He raised a tarsus. “My man!”
Everyone, alongside patrons from other tables, stared at him.
“Sorry,” he added before slowly sitting down. “Guess that would be a home run.”
Klara punched him in the arm, but this time, he was wise enough not to yelp too loudly.
“Kiro.” Keano paused before finally pushing the question out his mind. “Don’t you think things are moving too fast?”
“What do you mean?” Kiro replied. “Rick and Klara were also only like, a month in when… it happened.”
“Ah, yes.” Cricket-Rick pulled at his imaginary chin-hair. “It was a warm, midsummer night-”
Klara shut Rick up with another punch. “True. But I knew this idiot for like, two years before that.”
“Yeah,” Zahra said with a clack of their pedipalps. “Two weeks ago, it felt like the only thing you knew about her was that she liked cats.”
“The point is,” Keano quickly added, “is that it’s less about the specific time frame and more about how it feels like there's been a… jump, if that makes sense?”
Kiro frowned. “No? Not really?”
Keano gritted his teeth. After a short pause, he sighed. “You know what I mean, dude. The way you described it… doesn’t it sound a bit scary?”
“Keano.” Kiro let out a sharp exhale. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look. You don’t have to take it from me.” Keano gestured his webbed hands towards the others. “But I can’t be the only one that feels this way.”
Kiro looked around at the faces at the table. A menagerie of tongues were being bit to suppress their bubbling thoughts.
“What?” Kiro asked, his voice cracking. “If you guys have something to say, just say it.”
“I’ll be honest, dude.” Maia laid a paw on his shoulder. “Keano’s got a point.”
Kiro shifted in his seat. “Huh?”
“Listen,” she replied, rubbing the bridge of her muzzle. “Remember when I told you she ran away from me when I was trying to talk to her? With… Birch and Sally?”
“Well, of course she did!” Kiro’s voice slightly rose. “She must’ve been terrified!”
“That’s just it. We didn’t do anything to her, but she was completely terrified of us. Like, even before we ran into her, she already looked like she was ready to just drop.”
“What do you guys know about Ai?” Kiro’s forehead started to redden. “I-it’s none of your business anyways.”
“Okay, yall,” Zahra said, “I don’t think its gonna do us any good to mull over it too much. We’ve got about 45 minutes left before the cafe’s loitering policy kicks in, so what do you say we take another shot at the hands of Fate and make sure we avoid that bad premonition we all just had?”
“Yeah,” Klara piped up in a cutesy tone. “Arguing between the party members is a big no-no-”
“Unless there’s coin involved!” Cricket-Rick interrupted.
Keano gave Maia a nod of acknowledgement. “It’s never a good thing to leave things on a bitter note between friends.”
Neither Maia nor Kiro said a word. And with the timely debut of Cricket-Rick’s rumbling stomach, they didn’t need to.
“Sorry,” Cricket-Rick said, preemptively recoiling in anticipation of Klara’s elbow.
But nothing came of Klara, other than a laugh that spread across the table.
“Alas!” Keano proclaimed. “The hands of time are not kind to those who lack initiative. Are you ready, noble Kironius?!”
Kiro stared at the table before raising his head. For a brief moment, his eyes bore a grim seriousness within them, one that diminished in a flash as he shook his head free of thought. He slapped both his cheeks.
At long last, the Spasilisk let out an ear-splitting death knell and collapsed into the boiling abyss. All two members of the party that were left standing, that being Kironius the Rogue and Maia the Hellhound, quickly ran to tend to their wounded comrades. As the massive beast’s body sank into the bog of nightmares, the seemingly infinite expanse of the Nightmare Realm bled away like rain running down a window. In place of the howling cliffs of jagged, bleeding black, there was now a beautiful underwater meadow. A rainbow of corals and kelps stretched placidly into the distance, and in that moment, everything became clear:
Peace had been restored to the sleep of all those beneath the waves.
Spurred on by the tired scowl of the Kraken waitress, the gaggle of teenage heroes attempted a valiant last stand before closing time. Eventually though, they decided that the wisest course of action was to “cheese it!” On Keano’s mark, the group dashed out into the periwinkle urban evening. After the last afterconvos fizzled out, they began to split up, leaving Kiro and Maia to walk to their shared bus stop.
With her hands in her pockets, and her button nose nonchalantly in the air, she was the first to speak.
“What’s up?” Kiro asked, shrinking into his shoulders.
Maia stopped walking.
“There’s something I wanna ask you.”