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Thread: [M|IC] The Price of Life (Ashen and Naming)

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    Default [M|IC] The Price of Life (Ashen and Naming)

    [The following roleplay is rated mature for reasons that may include, but are not limited to, violence, blood, coarse language, sensual situations and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.]

    “Are you fucking kidding me?”

    Zula vaguely remembered hearing an old adage about how a forest was the best place to hide a tree. As she stared out the windscreen of her old ford, she couldn’t help but wonder if the person she’d come to visit had ever heard it. From the looks of things, they had, and they’d decided to take that advice way too literally. After all, back where Zula came from, mages never disguised their workshops as new-age magic stores. The very concept was so absurd that Zula wasn’t sure if it was closer to madness, or genius.

    As she stared up at the ‘Karmic Healing Emporium’ Zula couldn’t help but note how terrible the place looked. Between the cracks in the window and the peeling paint, it certainly didn’t look like the sort of place run by any self-respecting mage. Maybe she’d gotten the address wrong. Maybe the person who ran the store wasn’t actually one of them, and had just fooled everyone into thinking they were. Hell, maybe they were a mage, but believed crystals and dream catchers and shit actually worked too. Truth be told, Zula wasn’t sure which option would be worse. She sat there in silence for a long moment, before a defeated sigh slipped from her lips.

    “Alright, you know what? Fine. Fuck it.”

    Once she’d shaken off her disbelief, Zula slammed the gear-stick into park with more force than was strictly necessary and killed the engine. She hadn’t driven for three hours, all the way out to the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, just to give up without going inside. Against her own better judgement, she opened her car door, climbed out into the wind, and started across the carpark before she could change her mind.

    The door’s hinges groaned in protest as Zula pushed it open, trying their hardest to eclipse the ringing of the small bell that announced her arrival. She’d barely stepped over the threshold when the smell of lavender hit her like a brick wall. It was so overpowering that Zula started to cough, eyes watering from the stench. She waved a hand in front of her face, trying to clear the air a little, but to no avail. By the time her body adjusted, Zula had realised that there was a thin haze hanging in the air, too. The smoke wasn’t thick enough to obscure anything, but she could feel it fucking with her vision. The store’s owner was burning incense, apparently. A lot of it. The knowledge didn’t fill her with much confidence.

    Zula peered at the shelves nearest the door, and was totally unsurprised by what she found. The first thing her eyes settled on was a row of woven dream catchers, hanging alongside a selection of ugly bead necklaces. They looked like the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a toddler’s arts and crafts class, or a twitter rant about cultural appropriation. She turned down the first aisle, and found herself confronted by shelves packed with a variety of different crystals. There were no diamonds or emeralds here, of course. Just opals and quartz and other, cheaper types. Each tray was accompanied by a little handmade note that listed the name and supposed benefits of each. These were followed by Tarot cards and healing oils and dozens of other flavours of bullshit. Zula brushed past them all, ignoring them in her search for the store’s owner.

    It took Zula a few moments to realise, but there was definitely magic here, despite her earlier apprehension. She could feel it. It was a subtle tingling in her fingers, a prickling sensation in the back of her brain, an electric taste on her tongue. The incense was working as a mask of sorts, making it incredibly difficult to detect, but it was definitely there. Zula doubted that any normal mage would’ve been able to sense it, even if they’d known what to look for. The mage that owned this store was either incredibly weak, or knew how to mask their presence. Both possibilities made Zula apprehensive, for entirely different reasons.

    When she finally reached the back of the store, Zula was rewarded with her first look at the store’s owner. The pudgy woman wore a horrendous green cardigan and one of her own tacky bead necklaces, and her blonde hair was cut in a short bob that just screamed ‘Karen’. The lines around her mouth and eyes suggested that she was getting on in years, but you couldn’t make those sorts of assumptions around mages. Zula herself was a living testament to that fact. She stood behind a hardwood counter that held an incense burner, and a cash register that was probably older than Zula herself. The woman greeted her only customer with a smile that looked so forced, it would've seemed at home on the face of an Apple store greeter, or a flight attendant.

    “Welcome to my store, ma’am. My name is Emma. How can I heal you today?” The woman’s polite tone sounded every bit as forced as her smile, and she spoke the words like she was reading them from a script. All of it made Zula want to retch. She was almost glad that she was on a time limit, because it gave her another excuse to skip the formalities. Zula strode up to the counter, and met the woman’s gaze.

    “I need to ask you about something magical in nature, Emma.” Zula’s tone was curt by comparison, but if the other woman minded, she didn’t show it.

    “Well, you’re certainly in the right place, then. Magic is my specialty. What do you need, exactly? We have plenty of home remedies-“

    Zula sighed softly, her annoyance palpable. Of course Emma wasn’t going to make it easy for her. “Real magic, Emma. The shit that actually works. Not this new-age witchy crap.”

    “I assure you that everything we sell works just fine. The effects can be subtle, but if you pay close enough attention, you’ll definitely notice a difference.”

    Zula’s temper flared. Anger and annoyance made for a potent mix, and they demanded an outlet. She probably could’ve gotten her message across with words, Zula knew, but she had neither the time or patience for the sort of pointless, meandering conversation it would require. Instead, she opted for the direct option. Before she could think better of it, Zula pulled a hand from her pocket, slammed it down in the middle of the wooden counter, and reached for her power. The woman standing opposite started, opened her mouth to protest, but Zula didn’t feel particularly inclined to wait for her.

    “Since you’re clearly incapable of taking a hint, let me give you a demonstration.” Before Zula had finished speaking, her meaning had already began to make itself clear. The wood around her hand began to blacken and char, twisting and bubbling as if being devoured by flame. The air directly above her hand seemed to shimmer with heat, as if a bonfire raged just beneath. A few faint wisps of smoke rose from the wood, mingling with the haze above, tainting the lavender incense with a faint burning smell. Zula felt no pain, despite the apparent heat. To her, it felt like she were warming her hands above a bonfire, and nothing more. The sensation was pleasant, honestly.

    Once she’d gotten over her apparent shock, Emma darted forward and seized Zula’s wrist, pulling it away from the wooden counter. Her grip was like iron, very much at odds with her apparent age. “Are you insane?” The shopkeeper practically hissed the words, her formerly friendly visage twisted into a hideous scowl. The shift in expression was so sudden, so dramatic that Zula had difficulty believing this was the same face that had been smiling at her just a few moments ago. The change seemed more pronounced than the wrinkles around Emma’s mouth and eyes could realistically explain. Zula couldn’t help but wonder if the shopkeeper’s own magic had been involved. If she had accidentally dropped her disguise in the heat of the moment, or if she were intentionally trying to make herself look scarier.

    “Alright, you’ve made your fucking point. You’re a mage. Congratulations. Why the hell would I help you now, you stupid bitch?” Zula grinned, despite the venom in the woman’s tone. Now they were getting somewhere. She wrenched her hand back, and Emma released her.

    “Because if you don’t, I’ll burn a lot more than just your stupid counter. Or you can answer my questions, and then you never have to see me again.”

    Emma glared at her across the counter, her scrutiny so powerful it like a physical force. Zula knew from experience that the woman was sizing her up, trying to judge how powerful she was. Given her small stature, the next words out of the shopkeeper’s mouth were no surprise.

    “What’s to stop me from just throwing your scrawny ass out of here?”

    “You’re welcome to try. See what happens.” Zula tried to keep her tone casual, but there was no hiding the hint of excitement that crept into it. She punctuated her words with raised eyebrows and a small, cocksure smile. She wouldn’t have escalated things so drastically if she hadn’t been confident she’d win any sort of confrontation. Zula doubted that Emma saw any real trouble out here, in the middle of nowhere. Conversely, she’d had plenty of practice recently. She wasn’t in the habit of handing out ass-kickings for free, but after the way Emma had annoyed her, Zula was happy to do this one for the sheer fun of it.

    The tension seemed to build as the seconds ticked by, until Emma let out a soft sigh. Apparently she’d reached a similar conclusion, judging by the way her shoulders slumped. “Alright, fine. What do you want to know?”

    “I hear there was some sort of magical disturbance in these parts, around two decades ago. Were you around back then?” As soon as the words left her mouth, all the hostility seemed to drain out of Emma. The irritation on her face was replaced by a look of sheer, unabashed amazement.

    That’s the reason you felt the need to storm in here and start burning up my shit? How could that possibly matter now, to someone like you?” Zula said nothing. She just held Emma’s gaze expectantly, until the woman brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose.

    “I swear to god, you city mages are all the same. Shit like this is exactly why I moved out here in the first place.” Emma muttered softly to herself at first, before she looked up and met Zula’s eye again. “Some sort of company moved into town way back when. They set up some sort of research facility, up in the mountains. They were around for years, before there was some sort of magical pulse up there. It was so powerful that anyone with the slightest hint of magical awareness could’ve felt ten miles away. Then they closed up shop and left, all at once. Place has been abandoned ever since.”

    Zula considered that for a moment. There was a good chance Emma was exaggerating, or that her memory had been tainted by age. If she was telling it true, though, then whatever had happened up there had been big. Like, ‘fuck up the fabric of reality’ sort of big. “Any idea what they were working on?”

    Her gracious host snorted indignantly. “Do you really think I was part of their inner circle? There were plenty of rumors floating around, but nothing concrete.”

    That was fair. “Any idea where the entrance was?”

    “Not for sure. Best guess? They probably set up shop in the abandoned mine up there. That way, they’d still be able to use all the old roads.”

    That was all the important shit covered. To be frank, it was more than Zula had expected from a second-hand source. She mustered up a smile just as overwhelmingly fake as the one she’d been greeted with, and spoke with an equal amount of fake cheer. “Pleasure doing business with you, Emma.”

    “Oh, yes. It’s been such a joy.” Emma’s upper lip curled back in a sneer, every word dripping with sarcasm. “Now get the fuck out of my shop.”

    Zula was more than happy to oblige her.

    ~~~

    Finding the cave proved surprisingly easy. It’s location was listed online, despite its supposed abandonment, and the GPS on Zula’s phone led her straight to the entrance. Her ford struggled with some of the steeper roads, but with a little coaxing, it wasn’t long before she was puttering into a small carpark right near the entrance. The cave’s mouth was huge - a gaping maw that looked like it led directly into the bowels of the earth. Zula parked as close to it as she could, and approached it with much less apprehension than she had the witch’s shop.

    Her way was barred by several warning signs, but Zula brushed past them without a second thought, and strolled into the cave proper. There was enough ambient light here to make exploring the large, open antechamber easy, though the far end was quickly consumed by impenetrable shadows. The floor had been worn smooth by the passage of time, with no major bumps or dips. There were no stalactites or stalagmites either, though Zula thought she could hear water dripping from somewhere deeper in. Shewas quick to note the presence of some scuff marks along the stone, but it was impossible to tell if they’d been made by the scientists she was trying to track down, or the miners who had preceded them.

    It didn’t take Zula very long to find what she was looking for. She’d barely begun to explore when she stumbled across an old security door. It was set in one of the cave’s walls, right out in the open. The tarnished metal didn’t reflect the sunlight, but it was so at odds with all the stone that it stood out regardless. A part of Zula had been wondering if Emma had lied, either out of spite or just to get rid of her, but apparently her concerns were baseless. She was more surprised that it’d been so easy to find. Zula had expected a secret research facility to be a little more…well, secret. Either the scientists hadn’t wanted to travel any further than necessary, or they’d been relying on more traditional measures to keep things quiet. Guards who had disappeared along with the rest of the facility’s staff, maybe.

    After she’d burned her way through the lock, Zula tried to push the door open, but to no avail. The bitch was heavy, and the rusted hinges certainly didn’t help. She had to throw her entire weight against it, feet scrambling for purchase on the stone floor, before it began to yield. The door swung open at a snail’s pace, and the metal groaned and screeched the entire way. It echoed through the entire cave, loud enough to drown out the sounds of Zula’s swearing. It took Zula several moments of concentrated effort to create a gap just wide enough for her scrawny frame to slip through, and the effort was enough to leave her chest heaving.

    The space beyond was much darker than the antechamber had been, so Zula quickly reached for her smartphone. Even on the lowest brightness setting, the screen felt blinding against the all-encompassing darkness of the cave. She couldn’t help but notice that she had no reception in here. Not entirely surprising, but knowing that she wouldn’t be able to call for help if something went wrong was little comfort. She activated the torch, and was immediately disappointed by how little the thin beam of light helped. Still, there was nothing for it. Zula took a deep breath, set the door at her back, and began to walk.

    It didn’t take her long to realise that this place wasn’t a natural formation, but a room. It had been cut from the stone with smooth, level floors and walls. She edged forward slowly, until the meager light of her torch revealed the edge of an old conveyor belt, then an X-ray machine, and a metal detector. They were arranged side by side, configured the same way they would be in an airport. Zula half expected the machine to spring to life and start beeping its warning when she stepped through, but it remained inert. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she pressed onward. Through the double doors at the far end of the room, and deeper into the facility.

    Zula wasn’t sure what to make of the place beyond. Hallways branched out in patterns that made no sense to her, feeding into abandoned rooms with unclear purposes. Some of them were as large as classrooms, while others looked more like cells. More than once, she came across a desk littered with notes, only to find that they’d been rendered illegible by time and moisture and mold. The only sounds were the echoing of her own footsteps, and the occasional crunch of broken glass under her shoes. Zula wasn’t claustrophobic, or easily frightened, but it wasn’t long before the oppressive atmosphere and sheer emptiness of the place began to unnerve her.

    As she explored, two things became apparent. The first was that it was incredibly cold, surrounded by all this rock. It wasn’t long before Zula was shivering, despite her long sleeves. Her breath had even began to mist in front of her, as if it were early on a winter morning. She hadn’t anticipated such low temperatures, but it made a measure of sense. More importantly, there was definitely magic here. Zula could feel it, just as she had back at the witch’s store, but the sensation was much stronger. For there to be this much residual magic in the air, twenty years after the original event…apparently Emma hadn’t been exaggerating. More importantly, it gave Zula a sense of direction. Up until now, she’d been exploring blindly, not entirely sure what she was looking for. Her innate ability to sense magic now gave her a sense of direction, albeit an imprecise one.

    Zula gave up on exploring any more rooms after that. She stuck to the hallways, backtracking whenever her makeshift magical compass told her she was going in the wrong direction. It wasn’t long until she found herself standing in front of an old door, indistinguishable from any of the others she’d passed in most regards, except for one. The tingling sensation had grown so strong now that Zula’s head was pounding, even from the other side of the door. She reached for the handle, only to gasp and pull her hand back as soon as it made contact. The metal was cold enough to burn. That was strange – the other doors had been cold, but not quite to this extent. She hadn’t considered it earlier, but maybe the cold and the magic were linked. After tucking her hand into her sleeve, she tried again.

    The door swung open, revealing a room roughly the same size as the others she’d inspected. That was where the similarities ended, though. Every surface in the room was coated with a thick layer of frost, and the far half was encased in a solid block of crystal blue ice. It looked like the sort of thing you’d see in a nature documentary; a natural wonder hidden away from all but the few who would brave the arctic wastes. It’s uneven surface glimmered in the dim light coming from Zula’s phone, and mist, cold, and magic rolled off it in waves. She could see something dark encased within, and it took her stunned mind a few seconds to realise that the figure was humanoid. The thick ice distorted specific features and details, but there was no doubt about it. She wasn’t sure how, or why, but there was a person trapped in there.

    “What the fuck?” Zula muttered the words softly, as if she were afraid the silhouette within the ice might hear her, and awaken. Whatever she had expected to find here, this hadn’t been it. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how someone would do something like this, or the circumstances that had led to its creation. Both the technical skill and raw power such a display would’ve required were beyond her. Was this block of ice the reason this facility had been created, or had it appeared after? Based on what Emma had told her, the latter option seemed more likely.

    Unsettled, Zula took a brief moment to gather her thoughts, and go over her options. There was a slim chance that the person inside the ice was alive, perfectly preserved, the way people were in movies. There was an even slimmer chance that she’d be able to thaw them out and revive them. Even trying would be a herculean effort – there was a decent chance she’d have to unpick whatever magic was preserving the ice at the same time she was melting it. She’d have to use more energy than she was comfortable with, and odds were that it would still result in failure. And yet, her only other choice was to walk away. She’d be able to save her strength, but it would mean leaving empty-handed. That this entire trip had been a waste. She was quickly running out of leads to pursue, and didn’t have the time to dig up new ones.

    Unable to help herself, Zula let out a soft sigh. She’d never been comfortable with inaction, even when it seemed like the wisest choice. With that in mind, she held up her hands, and called upon her power yet again. The magic flowed through her veins like honey, and she sent it flowing down her arms and into her palms, where it blossomed into flame. Unlike last time, Zula didn’t content herself with enough heat to devour wood, or distort metal. She coaxed the fire to greater and greater intensities, feeding as much of herself to it as she dared. It wasn’t long before the chill had vanished from her limbs, and the air itself seemed to shimmer with heat, despite the frost all around. When she deemed herself ready, Zula stepped forward, pressed her hands to the ice, and began her work in earnest.

    ~~~

    Zula leaned against the wall of her own bedroom, staring down at the stranger who was sleeping in her bed. She stood with her lips pursed and her arms folded across her chest, and contemplated their prone form in silence. Her attention wandered over their features freely, without any fear of discovery. She noted the way their dark skin clashed with the cream sheets, and the artful way their long hair curled about their fine features. No matter how long she waited, they never tossed or turned. Never snored, or murmured, or sighed. The only sign of life was the steady rise and fall of their chest. They looked…peaceful, despite her lingering presence, and the unfamiliar surroundings.

    Three days. It’d been three days since she’d pulled the stranger from that block of ice, and they still hadn’t woken up. Hauling the stranger out of the cave and back to her car had been an incredible pain in the ass, and that had paled in comparison to the effort needed to get him up the stairs to her apartment. Zula’s twiggy limbs and knobby joints, which made her look borderline malnourished, simply hadn’t been enough for her to carry the stranger’s bulky form for more than a few steps at once. At the time, Zula had suspected that if all that jostling and noise hadn’t woken them, then nothing would. Now, it looked like her suspicions had been well founded.

    She had an idea, of sorts. A way that she might be able to wake them up now. However, it was dangerous, for both of them. It would use a decent chunk of the power she had left, and if she messed up, she’d probably kill them. Even if she didn't, there was no guarantee that it would work. Under different circumstances, she would’ve forced herself to wait. Listened to the rational part of her brain, and given the stranger as much time as he needed to recover naturally. Unfortunately, Zula didn’t have that sort of time. She simply couldn’t afford to wait for something that might never happen...and if she was going to do it, then better to try now.

    Decision made, Zula spent a few moments mustering up her willpower, before she straightened up and pushed away from the door. The crossed the bedroom in a few steps, before helping herself to a seat on the edge of the bed. She reached out and pulled the bedsheets back slowly, until the stranger’s chest was exposed. She took a deep breath, then reached out and laid a hand against his chest. Her fingertips barely brushed against his skin, her touch feather-light. Then Zula closed her eyes, and summoned up her magic again.

    This wasn’t like the time she’d thawed him out of the glacier, or had burned that stupid shopkeeper’s counter. If those instances had been displays of power, then this was a test of precision. Instead of stoking her magical flames into an inferno, Zula focused on maintaining a small, constant stream of heat. She did her best to warm their blood gradually, whilst also pushing some raw magic into their chest. With any luck, she’d be able to banish the ice’s chill. And with it, any lingering magic that might be holding the stranger in sleep’s embrace. Zula’s awareness of the outside world faded away as she worked, her focus so intense that there was only this.

    Zula kept it up for as long as she could. Until she could feel her strength beginning to fade, and her focus beginning to slip. Then she withdrew, cutting off the flow of magic and withdrawing her hand. She had no idea how long she'd been working, only that she felt much wearier than she had before. Her eyes fluttered open, and settled on the stranger’s face again. Judging by the fact they were still breathing, she hadn’t managed to kill them outright. That was something. Now, the only thing left was to wait, and see if her efforts had made any difference whatsoever.

    While the minutes ticked by, Zula found her mind wandering. What would the stranger make of her, if they did wake up and she was the first thing they saw? How would they react to the presence of a total stranger by their bed? To her small frame, or her brown eyes? Her freckle-dusted skin, pierced eyebrow, or dyed hair? What about the small room, barely bigger than a closet? Filled with mismatched furniture, but neatly kept, it was a far cry from the cave they probably remembered. They both seemed like good questions, but there was really only one way Zula would ever find out.
    Last edited by Namingtoohard; 09-23-2022 at 09:25 AM.

  2. #2
    The Ashen One
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    Broken memories flitted about a fractured mind, fragile and faraway: the laboratory, their home, the underground hub of research and exploration that never since they’d known it had seen a dull moment. There were other places, too, glimpses of locations they had found in travel brochures or magazines or emails, places they couldn’t have gone to personally. The lab was their place, their home, that they had shared with others. They could recall the faces of those who had been with them, their family, people dressed in coats and goggles and latex gloves. Their family members had been so careful with them, only poking with the most precise of touches, and every painful prod, every agonizing zap, was how their family had shown them love.

    But now, their family was gone.

    The perpetually whirring machines’ blinking screens were now shut off, silent, and the people who had agonized over the numbers shown across it were missing. In fact, all of the machines in the room had been turned off, a sight they had never before encountered. The machines had to be on. That was what kept them monitored. The machines were the only way to prove to their family that they were still healthy. Still how they needed them to be.

    They tried to step forward, but they were pulled back by the metal bands around their wrists. Thick iron chains tied them to the wall, and their bracelets were scarred but durable. Yes, they remembered now; one of their parents had strapped these onto their wrists as punishment for their disobedience. They knew the importance of the testing, of course, but it wasn’t easy to quell the urges to fight back. They had all but ripped the face off of the one who had stabbed them, and after that, they’d been put to sleep. Now, they were stuck here until their family came back for them.

    If their family came back for them.

    Suddenly, the ground shook beneath their feet, and their eyes widened in fear. Their chains rattled noisily against the wall, and the force of the quake made them lose their balance. They slumped forward and strained against the restraints that would not let them fall. Scrambling to get their footing, they looked around and tried to figure out what was going on.

    A few minutes ticked by before the next earthquake came, shattering the screen of one of the machines. Glass flew through the air to nick their cheeks and arms. They struggled against their chains, desperate to get away from this destruction. Something bad was happening. Their lab—their whole world was collapsing. If their family didn’t save them, then they had to save themselves. But how?

    An explosion erupted from somewhere down the hall, and flames billowed into the room to race towards them. The fire licked at their hands, their face, heat sending them gasping. Had their family escaped with their lives? Why had they forgotten about them? Was it possible this abandonment was further punishment for what they had done?

    Tears sprang to their eyes, but now wasn’t the time to wonder about their family. They needed to get out of here before they went down with their home. Their mind rang with panic, with dozens of ideas that would never work, as they strained and struggled to get free.

    Another explosion roared, this one from the opposite end of the room, and the impact sent them flying against the wall. The edges of their gown were singed, and they were struggling to breathe now. They pulled harder against their chains, ignoring the blood that dripped from the wounds they were ripping into their wrists. The chains rattled and clinked against their strength, but they did not give.

    Another memory like a flood swept through their mind. They saw their hands, calloused, the same warm shade of dry earth that they were shoveling into. Icy spikes rose from where they touched like some kind of magic. That was right—they did know how to control magic, and if they could just remember how to use it, they could get out of here and escape their premature death.

    They pinched their eyes shut and focused all of their attention on their hands. If they could freeze the chains, make them a bit more brittle, then maybe they’d be strong enough to break free. As much as they could focus with the blasts sounding down the hall, nothing happened, and a new panic soared through their trembling body.

    The next explosion went off at their feet, sending shards of glass and metal shrapnel slamming against their body in a mess of bloody new wounds. The force sent them slamming against the wall, and they roared in pain. They jerked their body desperately, knowing they were out of time.

    Defeated, they screwed their eyes shut and tensed their shoulders. They had seen their family members pray before, and now, out of options, they spoke to any god that would listen, begging for something that would save them now. Out of ideas, they were as good as dead.

    But magic shot out of their hands and numbed their fingers. They opened their eyes, and they saw another explosion, and another, their home crumbling all around them. But they were protected by a shield of thick ice, a defense of their own making. Their broken body shivered against the new cold, and they tried to squirm, but they were frozen in place. All they could do was watch as their lab came apart with each horrible explosion, destroying anything they had ever known.

    Finally, when they had nothing left to lose, they closed their eyes and succumbed to the cold.

    ~~~

    The fire started in their chest, hotter than the flames that had threatened their life. It cradled their frozen heart before moving like liquid through their veins, burning them from the inside out. They wanted to scream, but they didn’t remember how. For all their efforts, they had failed after all.

    The magic called to them, a voice like white light. It reached into the depths of their soul to remove the threat, and once the fire had died, they were left numb and pleasantly warm. The magic did not go away; it flowed through them, dull, tired, familiar. There was another presence, too, another magic, the one that had tried to kill them, or—no, the one that had saved them.

    Light poured into the room from the overhead lamp, blindingly bright and hard to see through. They opened their eyes slowly and winced at the bright colors. They were in a room, a bedroom, like the ones they had seen in furniture store ads, though this one was much less put together. They couldn’t remember ever seeing this room, nor the stranger in it. She was staring at them expectantly, as if waiting for them to do a trick. They looked around the room again, trying to figure out why they were or how they had gotten there, or what this stranger might have wanted, but they couldn’t remember a thing.

    Who even were they? Their dark gaze dropped to their hands, and they struggled to remember anything about themselves. There were scars all over their palms, and deep ones around their wrists, as if they had been restrained. Instinctively, they rubbed at their wrists, even if the pain was long gone now. They must have been important, once, to require such hostility, but they couldn’t remember what had caused someone to want to hurt them. How could they forget something like that?

    Maybe, they hoped, this stranger would help them. They had never seen her before—or, they didn’t remember her. If this was her bedroom, then they must have been close if she’d brought them here. Maybe she was a close friend, or a sister, or even a lover. She had to have answers about them, like who they were, or what they were doing in this tiny room, or why they were so cold.

    They felt too frozen to produce sound, and when they tried to speak, they stumbled over their half-formed words with a huff. They cleared their throat and shook their head, and this time, when they tried to speak, it came out in a sing-song, voice delicate and soft. “Um,” they started, their gaze flicking between the woman in the room and the walls surrounding them. “I don’t remember who you are.”

    They could feel her answering, even though her mouth did not move. It took them a moment to realize she wasn’t the one who had answered them, but her magic. It called out to them, to the magic within them, bringing back that warmth they had felt before. She must have been a mage, then—and they must have been, too. They struggled to remember any details about magic, about the different types or what they had studied, if they had studied. When they closed their eyes and reached within themselves, they only came up empty, leaving themselves wondering if they were actually capable of magic at all.

    They opened their eyes to look at their stranger again. They could sense a fire within her, loud and fierce but dying, and though they didn’t know what any of that meant, they were drawn to her. If nothing else, they hoped she could heat the frost from their bones, or at least find a thicker blanket to do the job.
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  3. #3
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    Zula was looking directly at her guest when they finally opened their eyes, and began to take in their unfamiliar surroundings. She watched on as they rubbed at their wrists, examining them as if they belonged to someone else. The mage’s tired brain took way too long to comprehend what it was seeing, and realise what it meant. Apparently her terrible, half-baked plan had actually worked. When it finally sank in, Zula’s eyes widened in shock, and she found herself flooded with a strange mixture of hope and relief. It was a little too early to pretend that her gamble had paid off, that all the effort and magic that she’d invested over the past week had been worthwhile, but this was certainly a step in the right direction.

    The raspy gibberish that came out of the stranger’s mouth the first time they tried to speak was no real surprise. They’d been asleep for at least three days straight, and frozen for a hell of a lot longer. Either their vocal chords were wasting away from lack of use, or they were dehydrated as fuck. Probably both, Zula reckoned. She was surprised that they managed so many coherent words on their second attempt, so soon after the first. Their dainty voice felt very much at odds with the hulking body that she’d dragged up way too many flights of stairs, too. Still, that was far from the oddest thing about this situation, she supposed.

    The mage blinked rapidly for a moment, even as she kept her gaze fixed on the stranger. She brought a hand up and ran it through her hair, subconsciously brushing back a few lose strands that had fallen over her face. “Holy shit. It actually worked. I don’t believe it. Holy shit.” A soft laugh slipped from her throat, hollow and incredulous. It took the mage a few moments to realise that she hadn’t actually answered her guest in any meaningful way yet. They probably thought her insane, talking and laughing to herself like this. Given the circumstances, though, Zula found it difficult to care. Even so, as soon as she’d gotten over her surprise, and regained some of her composure, the mage was quick to try and fix that.

    “Um, right. I’d be surprised if you did. Maybe a little creeped out, too, since we’ve never actually met before. Not officially, anyway.” As soon as the words had left Zula’s mouth, she couldn’t help but wonder if she would’ve been better off withholding this information. Maybe the stranger would feel a little more inclined to open up if they thought she was an old friend. Someone they could trust. It didn’t take her long to dismiss the idea. Maintaining that sort of ruse felt like too much effort, and when she inevitably slipped up, it would ruin her chances of ever finding out more. Besides, while Zula was many things, she’d never been that sort of manipulative.

    Still…the stranger’s confession raised an interesting question. If they thought they’d forgotten her, did that mean there were other things they were struggling to remember?

    “I’m Zula. I found your ass frozen inside a giant block of ice, hidden away inside an abandoned cave, and dragged you back here. That was three days ago. To be totally honest, I was starting to think that you weren’t ever going to wake up.” Her tone was very matter-of-fact at first, but Zula’s own words quickly reminded her that her guest had probably been through quite an ordeal. Her expression softened a little, then, and her voice was gentler next time she spoke. The entire time, she seemed unaware of the intense magical scrutiny she’d just been under.

    “I’d love to hear how you ended up stuck like that, but there’ll be plenty of time for that later, right? You must be starving. Give me a second.” Zula would rise from her perch and slip from the room before her mysterious guest had a chance to respond. The sounds of purposeful rummaging, quiet swearing, running water and the hum of a microwave would drift in through the open doorway, audible even from within her guest’s room. A few minutes later, Zula would reappear with a glass of water in one hand, and a plate of reheated pizza in the other. Pepperoni, of course. She hadn’t brought the blankets that her guest had been hoping for, just because she hadn't realised the cold was still an issue, now that they'd woken.

    She crossed the room in a few quick strides, before holding out both objects towards her guest in offering. “Do you think you can manage these yourself?” She’d be quick to pass both plate and glass to her guest if they felt up to it. If not…well, Zula wasn’t in the habit of babying people, but perhaps she’d make an exception, just this once. The stranger probably needed the help, and maybe it’d earn her some brownie points that’d lead to her getting the information she wanted in the long run.

  4. #4
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    There was something incredibly off-putting about the stranger in the room. She seemed to be in her own world, and the lost mage wondered if she had heard them, or if they had spoken at all. They wanted to ask about what she was blabbering—what had worked, and why was she so happy about it?—but they weren’t sure they’d get a direct answer. While she excitedly talked to herself, they looked around the room again. This place felt different. They couldn’t remember the last time they had sat in a bed like this, or any bed at all, and that realization baffled them. They must have had a bed, surely. Their teeth sank into their bottom lip as frustration pricked at their skin. How could they have just forgotten?

    Their attention was pulled back to their host—to Zula—when she seemed to remember they were there. Her words didn’t make much sense, and they wondered if she was out of her mind. Were they in danger? If they had never met this woman before, what were they doing in her room—in her bed? Why was she watching them like some kind of lab experiment? What were they supposed to do now? Their fingers laced together as they shifted uncomfortably, suddenly very self-conscious.

    Zula’s next words didn’t make the situation easier to digest. They had no idea what she was talking about: an abandoned cave? A block of ice? Three days? She was speaking as if she were saying normal things, but they didn’t know where to begin in trying to understand her. She couldn’t have been telling the truth, but then, what was she getting at by lying to them? The uncertainty of the situation sent panic rushing through their body. Maybe they were in danger. Their breaths hastened and their hands got clammy, and they didn’t know how to calm themselves down. What if Zula had kidnapped them, and made them forget their memories, and was now using them for…for what? They couldn’t guess at why someone would be interested in them, and the not knowing made their throat close up. Before they could ask her about any of it, find some answers and calm the too-quick ticking of their own heart, she was starting out of the room, leaving them alone and terrified.

    Grounding yourself was a good way to help with panic. They didn’t know why they knew that, or if it was even true, but they tried to focus on facts. The bed they were in was soft, and colorful, and they were alive, and breathing. They were human, probably, and they had a name. Or, they must have had a name, at some point, but now, too many monikers flashed through their mind, unending. None of them felt familiar, but they all made the pressure in their chest worse. “How do you forget your own name?” they hissed. They shook their head and tried to focus their breaths to keep themselves from getting overwhelmed, but they weren’t doing a very good job of that.

    Their arms were muscular, and the scars around their wrists pulled their attention. They tugged at their blanket and examined the rest of their body. The gown they were wearing made them think they’d come from a hospital, and when they undid the strings and pulled it down, they found a scarred mess of skin across their stomach and chest. Even this body felt foreign, and they tried to picture it getting those scars, or earning those muscles, but everything was blank. When they heard Zula coming back, they retied their gown back over their body, frustrated but slightly calmer.

    She had brought food, and the smell of it turned their stomach. If she was right, and they had been unconscious for three days at least, something so unhealthy was probably not a good idea. They took the water instead with a gracious bow of their head and took a long gulp before setting the glass on the nightstand.

    Once again, it was them and her. They were more confused now than when they’d first woken up, and they didn’t even know if Zula could be trusted. Right now, though, she was their only hope at jogging their memories, so they had to try.

    She seemed so unbothered by the insanity she’d spoken earlier that they wondered if they were the weird one. “You’ve said…many confusing things,” they started. They rested their hands on their lap and held her gaze, perhaps for too long. “You’re claiming you found someone in ice—in an abandoned cave—and you…you took them and brought them to your home?” They motioned around the room and challenged her with a raised brow. “What were you doing there, and why did you bring us here?”

    …Us? The pronoun had rolled off their tongue, more natural than most things they’d experienced so far, but as soon as they’d said it, they knew something was weird. Normal people didn’t speak in plurals. They didn’t even know why they’d said it, just that it felt right. They only hoped Zula hadn’t noticed. Among everything else, that was something they were going to need to unpack later.

    They cleared their throat and brought their gaze back to Zula. “I don’t know if you’ve considered how this all looks, but don’t you find that…suspicious? W—I deserve some answers, perhaps?”
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  5. #5
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    While the stranger didn’t answer her question directly, so to speak, their actions led Zula to assume they’d be fine handling things on their own. As they guzzled down the water, she found herself wondering just how long it had been since their last drink. The information Zula had was enough to make an educated guess, but the answer seemed so absurd she still had trouble believing it. While she thought it over, the fire mage stepped forward and set the plate of reheated pizza down on the bedside table, where it would be within easy reach when her guest wanted it.

    With her immediate goal accomplished, Zula was quick to make herself comfortable. She decided to ignore the chair tucked beneath the desk, instead opting to lean against the edge of the desk itself, so her waist was resting against its curved edge. The mage watched her guest openly as they set down the glass of water, and tried to gather their thoughts. She made no effort to hide her scrutiny, staring at them like the oddity they were, even when they met her gaze.

    Their first question presented her with a dilemma of sorts. Zula had already decided on honesty, of course. She had nothing to hide, and telling her guest everything they wanted to know seemed like a good first step towards earning their trust. The real question was how much she was willing to share about her…affliction. Their situation was already surrounded by so much absurdity. The last thing they needed was for her to muddy things further…or was she just making excuses for herself? The mage chewed on her lip idly as she pondered the situation.

    Such heavy thoughts didn’t stop her from chuckling at the way the stranger phrased their last question. They had only just woken up, hadn’t even proved they could stand yet, and they were trying to demand things from her? And with such polite and formal wording, too. Positively adorable. Zula felt like she’d given this stranger enough, and she wasn’t in the habit of doing as people asked. To be frank, she often did the opposite out of pure, wilful spite. That said, it was difficult to blame her guest for being confused, considering…well, everything. Perhaps she could throw them a bone, just this once.

    “You don’t need to be quite so wary. If I wanted to hurt you, I would’ve done it by now. I don’t make a habit of feeding my enemies before I collect their kneecaps.” Zula’s tone was incredibly light and airy, considering the subject matter. “Hell, I could’ve just left you out there to begin with. Even if your brain is still half frozen, I’m sure you can put that much together yourself. I won’t deny that I have an ulterior motive in bringing you back here, but it’s nothing quite that underhanded.” While Zula spoke, she shifted on her perch a little, before folding both of her arms across her chest. A small smile graced her features, as if she’d just made some sort of joke, but it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.

    “I can give you the long version if you really want, but I’m telling you now, it won’t make much more sense. I’m searching for information. Ancient magical knowledge that can’t be found anywhere in this fucking city. I know, because I’ve checked.” A note of irritation crept into Zula’s voice then, before she quickly suppressed it. The mage spent a moment tugging at the sleeves of her jumper before she continued. “During my search, I learned that there was some sort of big, magical incident out in the middle of nowhere, some twenty odd years ago. An incident that nobody ever found the cause of. I hauled my ass all the way out there, hoping that I’d find some of the answers I need. Instead, I found you.” She shot her guest a pointed look.

    “My search led me to some sort of abandoned research facility, hidden inside an old mine. In one of the rooms, I found a whole-ass glacier, with a person frozen inside. I thought that you might know something about what happened back then, so I went through the effort of burning you out and dragging you back here, just in case. That shit wasn’t easy, either. I had to undo the magic preserving the ice while I was melting it, and you were fucking heavy.” Zula’s brow creased then, the corners of her mouth tilting down into a small scowl as realisation struck. “Actually…if all of this is so confusing to you, then you probably don’t know how you got stuck there to begin with. Which means you probably don’t have the information I need after all.”

  6. #6
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    While she wasn’t at all graceful about how she’d said it, Zula did have a point: if she was going through the trouble of feeding and watering her guest, and making sure they had a comfortable place to rest, then she probably wasn’t trying to hurt them, at least not for now. Still, there was something about her that made the amnesiac not want to trust her. Maybe it was the plain way she said things, or maybe it was her carefree demeanor when they felt that their world was being turned upside down. It irritated them, her muted response to all of this insanity, but it was safer to keep their mouth shut for now. Whether they liked it or not, Zula was their only clue to understanding…anything, and they didn’t want to ruin that quite yet.

    With how overwhelmed they already were, they were inclined to agree that hearing all of what she had to tell them probably wasn’t the best idea right now. They listened to her shortened version, raising a brow at the strange details. Magic and secret information and a mysterious incident that no one had answers about. The more she spoke, the more her story seemed like some silly fantasy, until—

    The incident. Was that what had happened? They could remember it, the shaking, the lab instruments being destroyed, everything coming down around them. They had lived in that research facility, even if they had never called it that. To them, it was home; they’d never needed another label. Had it really been a cave? If they concentrated, they could see the stalactites at the edges of their memories, the natural formations that no one had deemed important enough to sand down. They could remember the building, the tall ceilings, the incessant beeping of the machines. And their family, the ones who had lived there with them, their features blurred by the thick fog trapping their memories.

    Why had they been at a research facility in the first place? Had they been researching something? Is that what Zula was after?

    They looked at their hands, the raw scars around their wrists. Had they gotten these scars while working at a research facility? How dangerous had their research been? No, they couldn’t imagine themselves doing something like that, something so careless. It wasn’t making sense; they were still missing too many pieces. But this was good; remembering was good. Zula wasn’t lying about the research facility because they could see it in their mind, remember being there. With so few of their memories intact, they took solace in this one, in the victory of reclaiming something that was theirs. If Zula wanted information that they had forgotten, then they would just have to hang tight until they remembered that, too—

    “Did you say twenty years?” Their eyes widened as they replayed Zula’s words in their head. Maybe they’d misheard her. She couldn’t have been correct about that. If they had been frozen in ice for three days, that was one thing, and that was hard enough to believe, but… No, it just wasn’t possible. They could remember the facility collapsing, could remember the tremors, the flying shrapnel that had assaulted them—was that how they’d gotten so many of their scars? But they remembered it all as if it had happened yesterday, last week at most. Twenty…years?

    Panic washed over their face anew. Denial was stubborn, and they clung to the belief that Zula was wrong, that they hadn’t forgotten two whole decades of their life. But—wait, they couldn’t have been that old. They didn’t remember how old they were, or how old they had been, but they hadn’t been a child when the facility collapsed. If that was the case, they should have been middle-aged now, and their hands looked too smooth for that. Desperate to confirm their suspicions, they kicked out of Zula’s bed, tripping on the blankets that had tangled around their leg, and stumbled towards the vanity in the room.

    The person looking back at them wasn’t the least bit familiar, and for a moment, they wondered if this wasn’t a mirror at all. Had they always had just bright brown eyes? Such warm skin? Their hair had a natural elegance to its waves; they certainly couldn’t remember the last time they’d used a brush. And their nose was bigger than they remembered, and shaped much differently. So taken aback by this stranger in the mirror, they forgot to look for the signs of aging they’d come here to find, the wrinkles or the sun spots that would confirm Zula’s nonsense. There were none of those; they looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. That didn’t match up at all with Zula’s timeline.

    Their nerves were getting to them, and they collapsed onto their knees, grasping at the mirror. They had been blond before, hadn’t they? Or, no, their hair had been red. And they distinctly remembered a paler face, and much more masculine features, or—were they a woman? Or a man? Both? Something else? Were they anything? No matter how much they thought about it, they couldn’t come up with a clear sense of their identity. Everything was an annoying mystery, and they would laugh at the barbarity of it when they stopped freaking out.

    Remembering that Zula was there, they turned to her, wondering what she made of their outburst. “That’s not true,” they said quietly, as if speaking any louder might actually break them. “Twenty years… No, I saw it happen. I saw them destroy my home. It wasn’t—it couldn’t have been twenty years ago. You’re wrong.” They turned away from her, and that was when their eye caught on Zula’s desk. Curious, they picked themselves up and approached it, and they saw a sleek metal thing lying in the center. It looked like a computer, though it was far too thin, too sleek, too pretty. They looked around the room again, searching for proof of advanced technology, their mind whirring.

    “What year is it?” they croaked, not wanting the answer, not really, but needing to know.
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  7. #7
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    While the stranger in Zula’s bed was busy reliving old memories and examining old scars, her mind was further afield. This entire time, she’d been trying to keep her displeasure under lock and key, restrained by assurances that it was too early for her to start jumping to conclusions. Now it threatened to batter down the gates, determined to make itself known. Her small frown had grown into a full-blown scowl, and was accompanied by a furrowing of brows. As she mulled over the facts, Zula found that she wanted nothing more than to sweep the table clean, just so that she could listen to the glass shatter. Instead, she forced herself to take a deep breath, and try to reassess the situation.

    If her guest didn’t remember anything from before they’d been trapped in the ice, then they probably didn’t have the information she needed. The fire mage had always known that bringing them back here was a long shot, but she couldn’t help but feel annoyed at how much time she’d wasted. Both in taking her trip, and in all the magic she’d used. As much as it sucked, though, there was nothing she could do about it now. She couldn’t afford to waste even more of it on a temper tantrum. While Zula didn’t have any other leads right now, she wasn’t dead yet, which meant she still had a chance. If she was still breathing, then she could keep trying. There had to be another angle, another idea – all she needed to do was find it.

    That left Zula with the immediate problem of the stranger. They were no use to her, so she couldn’t afford to waste any more time babysitting them. That said, she wasn’t cold-hearted enough to just kick them out onto the street while they were still recovering, and didn’t have anywhere else to go. Sure, she could be a bitch, but she wasn’t totally-

    Zula’s train of thought was interrupted when the stranger spoke up again, voice tinged with overwhelming panic. The next thing she knew, they’d practically thrown themselves from her bed, tripping over the blankets in their rush to stand. Zula couldn’t’ help but jump a little at the unexpected flurry of movement. She hadn’t thought her guest capable of walking yet, let alone all this. Before she’d recovered, they had already freed themselves, and made it to the mirror. When the stranger collapsed to their knees, she took a small step towards them, one hand raised, as if she were planning on intervening, or trying to comfort them. After a moment, though, Zula thought better of it. They were strangers, and she had no idea what they’d gone through. Hell, she wasn’t good at emotions to begin with.What could she really say or do?

    Zula settled back into her chosen place then, watching on awkwardly as her guest went through the motions. When they spoke, the fire mage found herself feeling conflicted. If they remembered now, then maybe there was hope for her yet, but it was hard to revel in the face of such suffering. She dared not refute the stranger, not now, and instead let them continue on unimpeded.

    When they asked after the date, Zula paused briefly. Now that the stranger mentioned it, that seemed like an easy way to back up her story. It was so obvious, she couldn’t help but wonder how she hadn’t thought of it earlier. “Give me a second.” She straightened up and pushed away from the desk, before reaching a hand into her pocket. After a few seconds, Zula withdrew her smartphone. It was clad in a lime green case, the colour eerily similar to the dye in her hair. A small tassel hung from a notch in the lower half, with a small, silver skull charm hanging from the end. A large crack split the touchscreen into two uneven halves; a testament to both the phone’s apparent age, and Zula’s busy lifestyle.

    Zula cradled the phone in her left hand idly, her thumb tapping away at the screen rhythmically as she unlocked it and opened the app she wanted. Once the calendar was displayed, she stepped towards her guest and held the phone out towards them, turning her wrist so that the screen was pointed their way. The app showed the exact date, month, and year, succinctly answering the stranger’s question…or so Zula thought. In all her infinite wisdom, the fire mage had failed to consider that her guest had probably never seen a phone like this before, and wouldn’t know exactly what they were looking at. She was giving them a glimpse of the ‘advanced’ technology they were so interested in finding, without realising she was doing it.

    “It’s currently March of 2022. What year do you…?” She fixed the stranger with a curious look, even as she trailed off, and the question hung in the air between them.

  8. #8
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    Zula pulled something out of her pocket and showed it to them, but all they could do was blankly stare at it and wonder how it answered the question they had asked. They looked between the thing and Zula before taking a closer look at the screen. It was a PDA, maybe, though it seemed thinner, and still fully functional despite the crack splitting its screen. It was opened to a calendar, and the date it showed was not at all possible.

    Maybe it had been set wrong. That was the most logical answer to all this nonsense they were having such a hard time swallowing. If they could convince themselves Zula was toying with them, then they could calm the furious drumming of their heartbeat. They counts off years on their fingers. They had been born—when, exactly? What music had been on the radio then, and what shows on TV? What celebrities had been popular, and what political news was dominating the papers then? No matter how hard they tried to focus, they could remember none of the details. This was hopeless, and until they had a better grasp of what was reality, their only choice was to trust Zula, insane as she seemed to be.

    So they had been unconscious for twenty years. Even if they had kept their memories, they wouldn’t have known anything about this world anyway. Just how much could change in two decades? How would they ever learn what they didn’t know? It was so overwhelming that they could feel their throat closing in. They focused instead on their surroundings. Zula was still watching them. She had been kind enough to free them from their icy prison and bring them into her home, where she’d offered them a bed and food and an explanation, shoddy as it had been. They would spare her their emotional breakdown, at least until they couldn’t.

    “That must have been quite the nap!” they announced, voice too loud and smile too wide. In their effort to not freak out, they overcompensated with humor, but their frazzled nerves were clear in their forced presentation. The laughter that followed was hollow, even to their own ears. They turned back to Zula with an apology somewhere in their eyes. They looked insane, and who wouldn’t, in their shoes? They felt like a stranger in their own body thrust into the future with no explanations or guidance, and now, they had to make the most of it.

    Slowly, they made their way across the room and back to Zula’s bed. Now that the adrenaline of their latest revelation was wearing away, they felt lightheaded, and they didn’t trust themselves on their feet. They took a seat on the edge of the bed and spent several more moments in silence, trying to think. Zula was waiting for them, and they were aware of the pressure to say or do something that didn’t seem crazy, but they were at a loss.

    “Talking might bring my memories back.” Their voice was oddly level, despite their confusion and panic, and they were thankful for that. They sat up and tried to think through the things Zula had told them. “You went to our research facility in search of secret magic knowledge,” they recounted. “Do you know what we were studying there? It must have been magical, if you were after it, and…” Their fingers traced around their wrists absently as an idea formed. “I think it was dangerous,” they continued in a hushed tone, as if someone might have been listening. “This might just be a hunch, but I think I was hurt while I was there. Badly. Enough to have scars all over my body. What could have…”

    Their voice trailed as they tried to sort through the fog of their memories, but they couldn’t glean any new information. Though their conclusion had brought them to another question, and they brought their gaze back to their host’s eyes, a challenge. “What do you want with such dangerous magic?” Maybe now was a good time for the long version after all.
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  9. #9
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    Trapped within the confines of Zula’s room, the stranger’s attempt at humour failed to find a sympathetic audience. Between their forced cheer and hollow laughter, it couldn’t have been more obvious that they were starting to freak out. Still, given the size of the revelation that she had just forced upon her guest, Zula felt inclined to cut them a little slack. Fully aware that any sort of response would probably just provoke more unnecessary hysterics, she made the rare choice to exercise some discretion, and kept her mouth shut. The only reaction that suggested she’d heard them at all was a slight furrowing of her brows, and nothing more.

    While her guest seated themselves on the edge of the bed, Zula decided to make use of this brief pause, and busied herself with her phone. With the screen facing away from the stranger again, she quickly flicked across to her messaging app, and selected one of her contacts. The clacking of artificial keys filled the air as her fingers danced across the screen, typing out a quick status update to an interested party. After she’d sent it, Zula quickly slipped the phone back into her pocket again. She then settled back into the same position she’d chosen earlier, and turned her attention towards her guest once more.

    Once the stranger had asked their first question, Zula opened her mouth to reply, only to pause when she realised that they weren’t done. She listened in as they followed the train of thought to its conclusion, drawing attention back to the multitude of scars that blanketed their body. Her eyes raked over their form, not for the first time, but now their existence held new meaning. She’d spent plenty of time wondering what the scientists had been doing in that facility. Its remote, secret nature suggested that it was nothing good. Zula had known that from the outset. If things were as bad as those marks suggested, though, then perhaps her guest was better off without those memories after all. She certainly had a few scars that she wouldn’t mind forgetting the origins of.

    Then the stranger looked at her again, another question slipping from their lips. Their eyes met, and suddenly the room felt tense for a very different reason. Zula knew a challenge when she heard one, and found herself rallying against her guest’s audacity. It took her a moment to realise that her body had tensed up on reflex, anticipating some sort of violence. That she was gripping the edge of the desk tightly enough for her knuckles to turn white, even though they hadn’t actually threatened her, physically or magically. Before things could escalate any further, she took a deep breath, and tried to force herself to calm. Their question was a fair one, given the circumstances, and jumping to those sorts of conclusions felt…counterproductive.

    “I don’t know what they were studying there. Not for sure, anyway. I’ve heard a couple of rumours, but nothing of substance.” Zula answered, speaking in a measured tone that made it clear she was choosing her words carefully. Not because she was hiding anything, but because she was still fighting hard to keep herself in check. Then came the issue of the second question. Zula hated the idea of revealing her situation, her weakness, to a stranger she barely knew. The fire mage had always known that she’d have to share that information sooner or later, if she wanted their help, but she certainly hadn’t expected it to be so soon. Still, there was nothing for it. They’d made it clear that they wouldn’t be dissuaded, and she wasn’t willing to give up a potential lead just to save herself a little discomfort.

    “As for the why, it’ll be a little easier for me to show you.” Zula forcibly uncurled her fingers from the edge of the desk, and took a step towards the bed. Before she could reconsider, she held her right arm out towards her guest, and pushed up the sleeve with her left hand, revealing the skin beneath. A large swathe of skin on her forearm had turned a sickly, fetid grey color. It almost looked like she were rotting alive, in the most literal sense. The malaise was less pronounced the further it moved up her arm, but black veins were still visible beneath the skin, giving the impression that this affliction was spreading. The way she’d been toying with her sleeves before hadn’t been an idle gesture, but a considered move to try and keep this concealed from unwanted eyes until she was ready.

    Zula gave her companion a chance to observe the rot in silence for a moment, before she continued. “I was stillborn. My parents weren’t willing to let me go, so they took me to an old shaman, and begged him for help. He used some sort of ancient magic to make me a new body, and bound my soul to it, so that I could live something resembling a normal life. But after so many years, whatever magic he used is fading. Now my body is unraveling. Coming apart at the seams, somehow. I need to renew it, but the old fucker died without passing on what he knew, which leaves me with a problem.”

    There was a little more to the story than that, but Zula didn’t really want to say any more. The stranger seemed intelligent enough, given the information they’d gleamed from their own scars, and the connections they’d made. She trusted that they knew where she was going with this, would understand how it related to her search. It wasn’t exactly a big leap to make, after all.

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