Ryan had been a nerd through most of high school. Comic books, collectible card games, video games – if it was about something that fell into the broad category of “geek culture,” Ryan was into it. Sometimes he wondered if being followed by a figure no one else could see had lent him a predisposition to the hobbies of the socially awkward, or if had just been his father reading him the Hobbit almost every night before bed.
Either way, he had found himself in the nerd clique at his school, and around Sophomore year they had roped him into the penultimate of nerd hobbies, tabletop gaming. (Eugene, the dungeon master, had explained that it was penultimate because LARP existed, and that “LARP is to tabletop gaming what tabletop gaming is to watching Footballers score home runs.” Ryan had tried to explain how football actually worked, and Eugene had threatened to remove XP if he didn’t stop.)
An important element of tabletop games, at least the ones they played, was the day and night cycle. Spells, hit points, and many special abilities recharged overnight, so groups frequently found themselves having to sleep in dangerous areas for extended periods of time. Because they were camping in the middle of a dungeon full of monsters or cultists or demons or horrible things called Mind Flayers or Beholders, someone had to keep watch. Eugene had always had them roll spot checks whenever they kept watch to see if they saw anything, and he would roll on a chart to see if something horrible attacked them.
Each watch was two-four hours in universe depending on how big the party was. In the real world, however, for the people that were playing the game, it was usually about a minute: they rolled a die, Eugene rolled a die, Eugene confirmed they saw nothing for those two hours, and it was the next person’s turn. One time it had been Jacquelin’s turn to run, and she had made them also make will saves to stay awake. When they’d challenged her on that, claiming that Eugene never did, she’d mollified them with a tiny bit of bonus XP if they failed the roll since, “it’s just more realistic, honestly.”
Now that Ryan was really keeping watch after being battered into exhaustion by a full day of fighting, having just gotten barely enough sleep and food and water to fill his Hungers – after a day where he had actually commanded the elements like his old level 16 Druid, Charibmor – Ryan realized how absolutely correct Jacquelin had been.
Moloch and his army were camped. The Olympians were holed up behind their barriers. Ryan’s motley group was asleep behind him. Tartarus didn’t even have any native wildlife to keep him engaged. Reshaph was watching the drones, but they were needed to cover angles Ryan couldn’t see – including the passage back to the Labyrinth, since the Medusa was still at large. He found himself wishing he had brought a book, or his phone, or pretty much anything to keep him distracted.
All he was certain of was, once this was all over, if the world was intact enough for tabletop gaming to still be a thing, he’d make sure to give Charibmor a hobby to do on watch. Wood carving, or, giving that at sixteen Ryan had though a Neutral Evil druid was the most clever and subversively edgy thing ever, maybe bone carving would be more appropriate.
He pursed his lips as he looked at Molochs motley mob of monsters. Maybe not Neutral Evil. Maybe I should retire that character and play something on the Good spectrum. Evil’s kinda lost its appeal.
He was drawn out of his reflection by approaching footsteps and glanced over his shoulder. Athena was walking up, and gave him one of her ghost smiles that Ryan couldn’t help but like. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.
“No, just had slept enough.” She sat down on the battlement of the lavaforged castle next to him, folding up her legs to rest her hands on her knees. “Anything interesting happen?”
“I had some deep reflections about my misspent youth fighting Kobolds in the forest of Dragonfall. Other than that, nothing interesting.”
Athena raised an eyebrow at him. “You fought Kobolds before you found your nanoverse? That is something I thought you would have brought up before…” She noticed how hard Ryan was trying to hold back his laughter and frowned. “I’m missing a joke, aren’t I?”
Ryan nodded, having to wipe away tears of suppressed laughter. “It was a game. If I had actually tried to fight Kobolds, I would have been dead long before you met me.”
“That, I can’t argue.” Athena grinned to take the sting out of the barb, then cast her gaze over to the Elysian Rest at the other end of the battlefield. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Ryan didn’t take his eyes off of her. “Yeah, beautiful,” he said softly. Athen glanced over at him and rolled her eyes, though Ryan detected a hint of a blush in her cheeks.
“Very funny.” She turned her gaze back to the massive structure, one of intricately woven columns and gleaming domes. “Hephaestus’ work, the designs. He’s remembered for his skill at the forge, but he was always a talented builder of almost anything. I went into his nanoverse once. Seeing what he could build without constraints was something magnificent.”
Ryan actually followed her gaze this time, nodding. “I can only imagine, just based on that.” He glanced sideways at Athena. “You’re worried about them, aren’t you?”
Athena nodded. “They were never cowards. I can’t figure out why they’re not fighting back! Everything hinges on us being able to pin Moloch between us and them.”
“They’ll come out,” Ryan said, his voice firm. Athena looked at him, her eyebrow once again raising. “It’s the only way we win, right? So it’ll happen. Somehow, something will change. We’ll get them to come out, we’ll save them and my sister, and we’ll kick Moloch’s crusty old ass halfway to Mars and back.”
“That’s not how the world works,” Athena said, and then she chuckled to herself.
“What’s so funny?” Ryan asked.
“Just remembering the last time we sat on a battlement before a huge battle. On Graham Island. I was reassuring you that everything would go alright.” She gave him a half-smile. “Now here we are, in another fortress, overlooking another battle, and you’re telling me it’s going to be okay.”
“We’ve almost come full circle,” Ryan said, feeling his heart begin to speed up.
“Almost?” Athena asked, and her smile took on a playful note.
“Yeah.” Ryan leaned forward and kissed her. She laughed slightly into the kiss, reaching up and putting her hand on the back of his head and holding him into the kiss to prolong it. They spent a little bit of time sitting there, side by side, kissing in the sourceless light of the Elysian Rest.
Athena gently broke the kiss, leaning her forehead against Ryan’s. “What was that about?” she asked, her voice husky, sparkling with a smile that Ryan could hear even though he couldn’t see.
Ryan caught the echo his words from that first kiss on Graham island, and decided to return her words as well. “Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Maybe it’s just another reason to survive tomorrow.”
She laughed and leaned back a bit, breaking the moment. “Is that the case? Or just repeating my words to complete the cycle?”
Ryan chuckled. “Just repeating your words. In reality? It’s…it’s something. It’s definitely a reason to survive tomorrow.”
Athena gave him the same half-smile she’d given him on Graham Island after that first kiss, the one that set his heart pounding. She reached over and put a hand on his. “Then let’s survive tomorrow. After that? I think we should find out what that something is, don’t you? No excuses this time.”
“Absolutely,” Ryan said, feeling his smile turn into a bigger grin.
“In the meantime,” Athena said, “I think it’s my turn to take over the watch.” She leaned in, putting her hand behind Ryan’s head. He thought she was going in for another kiss, but instead she leaned in to his ear. “After that,” she whispered, “I still have a Hunger to take care of.”
Ryan had to lick his lips, his throat suddenly dry. “Yeah, me too.”
“Then get some sleep. I’ll be by after my watch.” She leaned back just enough to give him another kiss, and broke it before it could go on too long.
Ryan got up and smiled at her one more time. “I’ll look forward to it.” With that, Ryan headed back to bed, trying to get more sleep.
Unsurprisingly, it eluded him, which meant he was still wide awake an hour earlier when Athena raised the alarm.