“I was a huge nerd back in the day,” Ryan started with a grin. “I didn’t quite fit in with most people because I was constantly looking over my shoulder at Nabu, which got me a reputation for being just a little bit of a weirdo.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Dianmu said dryly.
“Right? So I made friends with some of the other outcasts. I’d say remind me to tell you about my goth phase, but we don’t ever talk about my goth phase. Eventually I settled in with the nerds. They thought I was a bit weird too, but they were proud of being weird so it was a natural fit. This was the early 2000’s, so there wasn’t the stereotypical 80’s bullying, but it also wasn’t at the widespread nerd culture adoption we have now.” Ryan paused. “I just realized, I’m never sure how much into popular culture you all are, and most of my reference frame is pretty American. Am I making sense so far?”
“Yes,” Dianmu said. “I’m a bit out of touch, but not completely ignorant of trends in popular culture.”
“Okay, good. Stop me if I start talking about things that don’t make sense.”
“Like, for example, a demonic creature called a Fangliang you’d clearly never heard of before I told the story?” Dianmu asked.
“Yes, exactly like that.” Ryan laughed. “Okay, point taken. So being in with the nerds means I got roped into the Alphabet Soup of hobbies – MTG, DnD, PnP RPGs, MMORPGs, the works.”
Dianmu rolled her eyes. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you?”
“Guilty,” Ryan said.
“Well, I know what some of those acronyms mean,” Dianmu said. “DnD is Dungeons and Dragons, yes? And MMORPG is some kind of video game.”
“Yup. Dungeons and Dragons is the one that really matters here. Are you familiar with it?”
“Not particularly. It never really caught on in China – at least, not among the people I lived among in Guangzhou. From what I’ve gathered, it’s some kind of satanic game for virgins?”
Ryan nearly doubled over from laughter. “No,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s…wow. I can see why you’d think that, but no. It’s a game where you roll dice to pretend to be elves and dwarves and wizards and such. It got a reputation for the satanic part back during the Satanic Panic in the 80’s, and the virgin thing is because of stereotypes about nerds.”
“I see. So you weren’t a satanic virgin?” Dianmu’s eyes glistened with amusement.
“I never worshipped the devil,” Ryan said primly.
Dianmu laughed, then looked at Ryan. “Wait, you’re serious?”
Ryan nodded. “Having a guy in a suit watching you twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is kind of a mood killer. I had girlfriends, but once it got to that point…I’d always wig out.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Dianmu said after a moment’s thought.
“I thought it did.” Ryan shrugged. “Anyway, so it’s a game and it’s also a cooperative storytelling thing. It was a ton of fun. Jacqueline was our Dungeon Master, the person who oversees the game, and we played once a week at her house, every Friday after school.” He smiled at the memory. “I was a playing a Bard at the time. Merrick, the Mastiful Musical Magician. I had this whole speech that allterated off of M I’d do before performances.”
Dianmu’s forehead was furrowed. “I think I understand, although I’ll admit that I don’t see the appeal.”
“You know how fun it is to sit around sharing stories?” Ryan asked.
“You mean like we’re doing now?”
“Yeah, exactly. Now imagine that instead of one person was telling a story, everyone was telling the same story, and no one knew exactly how it would end because everyone was working together to get there.”
“It sounds chaotic,” Dianmu said.
“It is, but the rules and the dice help provide an order for the chaos, and the Dungeon Master tries to keep things structured.”
Dianmu nodded. “I suppose that makes some sense. So you almost died playing Dungeons and Dragons?”
“Not exactly,” Ryan said, leaning back into his chair. “We were over there one night in winter. It started snowing while we were playing. The other players – Mike, Bethany, Andre – they all went home early because the were worried about the weather. It was fine for the game because I’d wandered off from the group anyway, so Jacqueline and I decided to wrap up my solo adventure. I’ll admit I also stayed because I had a huge crush on her.”
“What happened to her?” Dianmu asked, noting the frown forming on Ryan’s face.
“We ended up dating the summer before college, and made it for a couple years before we broke up. The fact that I kept…well. It would have been fine, I think, if I’d said I wanted to wait until marriage or something. But since I didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to, but I kept backing off, and then refused to get help for what seemed like some kind of phobia eventually magnified the other flaws in our relationship until it broke us up.”
“You still miss her.”
“I was over it, over her. Honestly I was. Then in Cypher Nullity I stuck my head in the Reliquary and saw what would have happened if I’d told her. We would have been fine, apparently.”
Dianmu made a sympathetic sound. “Crystal took me there once. I put my head in too. I think the curiosity was too much to bear.”
“What’d you see?”
“What would have happened if I’d acted on my love for Leigong.”
Ryan blinked. “Wasn’t he your husband?”
Dianmu nodded. “What I saw there gave me the push to act upon that love.”
“Damn,” Ryan said. “Was kind of hoping to hear the Reliquary wasn’t always right about that kind of thing.”
“I asked Crystal about that later. She said it wasn’t – that the Reliquary always shows you the best case scenario. It’s a punishment, after all, or it’s meant to be. Think of it this way – had you stayed with Jacqueline, do you think you would have found your nanoverse?”
Ryan shook his head.
“Then it’s likely some other person would have your duty right now. But by the same token…well, actually, that’s another conversation.” Dianmu smiled. “I want to hear the rest of your story.”
“Fair enough,” Ryan said. “Although I’m going to ask you to circle back to that later.” Dianmu nodded in agreement, and Ryan continued. “So where was I? Oh yeah. I stayed late to finish my solo adventure. Had a great time. Almost worked up the nerves to ask Jacqueline out, but chickened out at the last second. Still, I was in a pretty good mood when I got in the car. I was even chatting at Nabu, for what ended up being the last time in years.”
Ryan took a deep breath. “I lost control of the car. Skidded off the road. I remember I came to, and I remember begging Nabu for help and him just standing there, taking notes like he didn’t give two shits about it.” He felt his fist begin to clench, and forced them relax. “Some random person saw the crash, pulled over, called nine one one. I’d been cut pretty bad. Lost so much blood that they almost didn’t try a transfusion. If it hadn’t been for that out of town doctor…”
Dianmu cocked her head. “What out of town doctor?”
“Some visiting physician who was at the hospital for a conference. Doctor Arturo Cuban. He insisted they attempt it anyway. I was legally dead for minutes. According to the Doctors, I should have stayed dead. It was a medical miracle I’d come back. Apparently, after you’ve lost forty percent of your blood, death is pretty much guaranteed even with a transfusion. I’d lost closer to forty-five.” Ryan shuddered. “I was still in a coma for a couple days. Never got to thank the Doctor who saved my life. Just woke up to Nabu still standing there, taking notes. My parents came in later, but that stuck with me – if not for sheer luck the last thing I ever saw was Nabu standing there, taking notes. Maybe that’s why he feels guilty enough to help me now.” Ryan shrugged.
“Perhaps,” Dianmu said.
“Bit less interesting than your story,” Ryan said with a grin.
“More interesting than any story I have from before I found my nanoverse,” Dianmu countered. “I certainly never died before I became a goddess.”
“Well, thank you for that.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“So…what was it you wanted to ask me?” Ryan said after a momentary lull in the conversation.
“Oh. Well, quite simply-” At that moment, Ryan’s console gave a quick beep letting them know they’d arrived. Dianmu laughed. “It’s something that will have to wait till later.”
Ryan sighed. “Apparently. Alright. You ready to tangle with the Curator’s red tape?”
“As ready as anyone can be.”
With that, they headed to the door, ready to argue with the universe’s oldest bureaucracy.