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

  1. #31
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    Zula had barely stepped out of the hallway, had barely realized that Froste was up and awake, before they were talking at her. Worse still, they’d asked a question that would actually require intelligent thought to answer. That wasn’t something Zula really felt capable of this early in the morning, even after her shower. She floundered in silence for a moment, her mouth practically hanging open while her tired mind refused to cooperate. It took her a good couple of seconds to find her voice, necessity and sheer willpower finally dragging the rusted gears of her brain into reluctant motion.

    “You’re disgustingly cheerful for this time of morning” Zula observed dryly, once she finally felt capable of speech. She brought a hand up to rub at one of her eyes for a moment, while an absurdly large yawn forced its way past her lips. “Uh, probably, yeah. I just. Need a minute before we start talking about anything important. Coffee first, then details.” With that settled, and a new objective in mind, Zula strode towards the kitchen. She twisted at the waist as she stepped around the edge of the counter, and still just barely managed to avoid smacking her hip into the edge of it.

    Despite her exhaustion, it didn’t take Zula long to fill up the electric kettle, or set it to boiling. While waiting for it to heat up, she produced two ceramic mugs from one of the cupboards, set them down on the counter, and put a teaspoon in each. She’d clearly assumed that Froste wanted coffee too – partially because she was still half asleep, and partially because she couldn’t fathom the possibility of anyone willingly going without. Next came the coffee itself. Zula spent a moment pulling two sachets of shitty instant from the pantry, before she ripped them open and dumped the contents into their respective mugs. After that, it was just a matter of time.

    Once the hot water had been poured, Zula slid one of the mugs across the counter, towards Froste. Regardless of whether they accepted it or not, she’d cup both of her hands around her own mug for a moment, silently enjoying the warmth it exuded. Then, at long last, she finally lifted the coffee to her lips. Only after her first sip, and the sigh of blessed relief that accompanied it, did she finally turn her attention to the matter at hand. It was a little too soon for the caffeine to start kicking in just yet, but the placebo effect was strong enough that she was willing to try.

    First, there was the matter of her unique circumstances to consider. Zula wasn’t entirely certain that she worked magic the same way ‘normal’ people did, and trying to explain the process with words seemed irritatingly difficult. She didn’t have the patience necessary to be a good teacher, and their respective abilities were about as close to polar opposites as possible, too. That said, it was Froste’s magical knowledge that she wanted. Magic could very well be the key to unlocking those specific memories, if this dream was any sort of indication. And all other details aside, she wasn’t in the habit of backing down from challenges.

    “I can teach you” Zula answered plainly, the words imbued with more confidence than was probably realistic. There was a brief pause as she helped herself to another sip from her mug, and this time, she didn’t bother setting it back down again. “There’s no way in hell that we’re doing it here, though. If the iceberg was anything to judge by, then you’re carrying a damn big stick, and I don’t want you accidentally turning my home into a freezer.”

    Zula’s fire would probably protect her from any sort of fallout, and under ideal circumstances, she’d be able to use it to thaw everything else out too. These weren’t ideal circumstances, though. A lot of her shit probably wouldn’t survive being flash-frozen, the neighbors would definitely notice, and – most importantly – she didn’t have that much juice left in the tank. The fire mage definitely didn’t want to spend that much of her remaining power if she could help it. Not when doing so would so effectively shorten the little time she had left.

    “Lucky for you, I know a place. It’s quiet, and spacious, and there won’t be too much collateral damage if your power runs wild. I’ll have to introduce you to at least one of the local mages, but I assume that won’t be too much of a problem.” Zula sounded a little less drowsy now, with the caffeine in her system finally starting to do its job. “We can go as soon as we’re done with breakfast, if you like.”

  2. #32
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    It was rude to ask such a vague and personal question so early in the morning, and Zula’s response to their strange request was confirmation of that. But Froste couldn’t take the words back now, and besides, it wasn’t like she’d denied them outright. They were more than willing to wait until she woke up a bit more if it meant they could reconnect with the person they used to be—the person in their dreams, maybe—with magic. So Froste sat at the table, trying to distract themselves from the strange dream they’d had and the feeling that that woman had been them, but they were not having success. For whatever reason, their brain wanted them to believe they were someone different. A woman? Were they a woman? Once again, Froste found themselves overwhelmed by the concept of gender, and they pushed it from their mind. Relearning their magic was a bigger priority now. So, once Zula had agreed to help them after coffee, Froste directed their thoughts back to what they knew of magic.

    They watched her move around the kitchen, setting a kettle to boil and taking a couple of mugs out of the cabinet, as well as thin packs of…something. Was that what she meant by coffee? Froste smiled. They hadn’t even asked her for a helping, and they were warmed that she would silently include them in her morning beverage. Froste didn’t even like coffee, or…did they? They thought they remembered disliking it, but then again, they also remembered being a bald white woman, so who was to say which of their memories could be trusted? While the water heated, they let their thoughts wander until the kettle sang. They thought to help, but Zula was so quick to pour and mix both drinks that they stayed put and thanked her when handed a mug. Zula liked her coffee black, apparently, so they drank theirs like that too. It instantly burned their lips, though, and they considered, too late, that perhaps drinking something at the same temperature as a literal fire mage was not good for them.

    They quickly forgot about their new burn when Zula said she could help them. Froste hadn’t even considered that they could lose control of their magic, and they admired Zula’s wisdom in practicing somewhere else. Froste looked down at their hands again, now wrapped around their mug of coffee, and wondered just what they were capable of. Zula had mentioned finding them encased in ice, but… Had they really been the one to do that? Why?

    Despite the new questions swimming in their mind, Froste was happy to feel like they were getting somewhere. Zula was going to teach them, and they were going to meet another mage, and go to a new place. It would be another eventful day, and they were looking forward to it. They could hardly wait for breakfast to be over, so they wondered why Zula hadn’t started preparing anything. Then, realization dawned on them, and they looked at the two mugs between them. “Is this…breakfast?” Maybe, they considered, Zula wouldn’t be quite so on the verge of dying if she fed herself more substantial things than coffee, but… Froste kept their mouth shut, not wanting to ruin Zula’s mood, especially not after she’d promised them a favor.

    After waiting a couple minutes, they put the mug to their lips again and took a sip. It was still far too hot. They didn’t like coffee, at least not without anything in it, but they downed it all too quickly and got up from the table. They even washed out their mug in the sink before starting for Zula’s room, their purchases from yesterday in hand. “If I’m going to be meeting one of your friends,” they explained, “I’d like to look less like a bum. Be right back.”

    Froste felt a lot better in their new clothes. It was refreshing to wear a shirt that didn’t feel so constricting, and in their new jeans, they could move around comfortably. Satisfied with how they felt, they went to the mirror to check for any out-of-place hairs or tags sticking out. They flinched at the person in the mirror, still not recognizing their own reflection. They ignored their conflicting feelings about that and ran their fingers through their hair, smoothing out the knots and awkward curls. By the time they were finished, they looked like…a person. A well-adjusted member of society, even. Not like someone who’d been asleep for nearly an entire generation. Walking back to the kitchen, they felt just a bit more confident that they could fit in this world after all.

    “Alright,” they announced to Zula, “I’m ready to meet your friend.” They tossed their hair over their shoulder in a dramatic gesture. “Assuming I look presentable enough? Oh, if we have the chance, I’d appreciate a comb. It’s hard to get hair like this with just fingers.” They were grinning, showing her they weren’t serious about their conceit. They remembered what Zula had said, though, about their cheerfulness at the early hour, and they reconsidered it for only a second before deciding some cheer to start the day would be good for her. Froste walked up to the table and glanced at Zula’s cup. She was done with her breakfast, then, which meant it was time for them to go.

    While Zula tidied the table, Froste had to keep themselves from bouncing on their heels. The thought of learning new things was too exciting for them to sit still. “Where are we going?” they asked. “Will the other mage be able to teach me magic too?” Their smile faded, and they grew still. “Will we tell them how we met? Might be better to be vague about that sort of thing, at least until we know what I was doing in that cave, or how we can sort out your…issue.” Their eyes flickered to her sleeves, and they instantly regretted that. They tried looking anywhere else, pretending that the edge of her table was an absolutely fascinating piece of work. “But if you think context would help,” they added, conceding that Zula probably knew the situation better than they could.
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  3. #33
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    Froste’s next question was a lot simpler than their request to relearn magic, but it still caught Zula by surprise. “I suppose it is” she conceded after a moment, sounding much less confident than she had earlier. Discovering Froste’s frozen body had banished all thoughts of grocery shopping from her mind for days, and now her fridge was too empty for anything more substantial. That was to say nothing of her bank account, which had been depressingly empty before she’d started buying clothes for her guest. Not that it mattered, really. This wouldn’t be the first time that she’d substituted coffee for actual food, though it wasn’t normally a deliberate choice. Maybe she’d introduce Froste to the wonders of breakfast pastries while they were out, if necessary.

    When Froste announced that they were going to change, Zula responded with an absentminded nod. She was perfectly content to stand here and enjoy the temporary peace and quiet their absence would bring. If that choice also afforded her guest a modicum of extra privacy, all the better. Maybe, if she was lucky, she’d feel a little more like herself by the time they were done. With that in mind, she just whittled away the minutes, nursing her coffee in silence until Froste’s inevitable return.

    Zula was feeling much more awake by the time Froste reappeared, dressed in their new clothes. The way they strutted back into the room, and the exaggerated hair flip that followed, both had a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Coming from anyone else, Zula likely would’ve thought the gesture pretentious. Their grin was enough to let her in on the joke, though, and their good mood was proving infectious again. There was no denying that the outfit suited Froste, either. They wore it well, somehow, despite her initial skepticism.

    “Not bad” Zula offered casually, her approval coloring her tone. She tilted her head back and drained the rest of her coffee in one go, before setting her empty mug down next to Froste’s abandoned one. “There should be a comb in one of the bathroom drawers…probably. That, or it’ll be in my room somewhere.” Her brows furrowed as she wracked her brain for a moment, trying to remember where she’d last seen it. After a couple of seconds, though, Zula abandoned the obviously pointless endeavor. No big deal. She could help them look for it after she was done cleaning up here, if necessary. She’d been meaning to tidy up around the place for months now anyway – a goal that she felt a little more inclined to follow through on now that she had a guest.

    Cleaning up was quick when you cared as little as Zula did. All she really had to do was empty Froste’s coffee into the sink – an action that pained her deeply – before stacking both empty mugs with the rest of her dirty dishes. Another chore that she hadn’t had time for recently, thanks to her ongoing search. She had more trouble dealing with the barrage of questions that Froste sent her way, and the timely reminder of her condition that accompanied them.

    This mention of Zula’s ‘issue’ made her glance down at her necrotic flesh, lips pursed. She’d gotten so used to covering up around other people that walking around in a tank top felt like a luxury she could only indulge in alone. And yet, she’d done so in front of Froste without a second thought. It was…refreshing, having at least one person that she didn’t need to hide her condition from. Having one person she could relax around, or discuss it freely with, without being treated like a leper. Still, she’d need to remember to grab a jacket while getting ready to leave.

    “There’s a library that’s run by our kind. The normies use it too sometimes, but the staff are all mages, and there’s an entire hidden section dedicated to magic that they aren’t allowed to see.” One of the staff members there had helped Zula comb through their collection for information on her condition, back when it had first started. They were also the person she’d texted about Froste. Not that they knew that, of course. Zula had no idea if they’d be working today, but she hoped they were. “Only one of them knows about my condition, but most of them know me. We’ll ask for permission to use one of their spare rooms, and there’ll be plenty of reading material if we need it.”

    With all relevant cleaning done, and most of Froste’s questions answered, Zula brushed past them, heading for the hallway. “Go look for that comb if you want. I need to finish getting ready, and then I’ll meet you outside.” Zula slipped into her room, then, though she didn’t bother closing the door. After she’d put on deodorant and a pair of shoes, Zula spent a brief moment rummaging through her dumpster of a wardrobe, until she found a suitable jacket. She threw it on, but left the buttons at the front undone, so it hung open – she was interested in the long sleeves, not the warmth. Once that was done, she slipped out into the hallway, and began stuffing her pockets with all the essentials from the stand. Then, if Froste still wasn’t ready, she’d settle down to wait.

  4. #34
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    Zula’s talk about this magical library run by mages further piqued their curiosity, and Froste was ready with another slew of questions for her about how it all worked. But those questions would have to wait, because as soon as they opened their mouth to ask the first one, Zula started moving past them and off towards her room. She still needed to get ready to go there—obviously. Froste had been rude in not giving her a chance, and they awkwardly nodded as they moved out of her way. They would have their answers soon enough, so even if their curiosity brimmed, they would find a way to be patient.

    While they waited, Froste decided to heed Zula’s suggestion and ventured back to the bathroom to find a comb. When they did, they cringed at the multicolored hairs caught in its teeth. Froste took their time removing the tangled strands before finally deeming the comb safe enough to use in their own hair. It was surprisingly easy to comb through until they got to their ends, where knots fought them. Once they’d removed the last one, though, they set the comb down, satisfied, and looked at their reflection. Their efforts to make themselves more presentable had not come without consequences: their ends were drier now, soft curls having been pulled apart by their tugging. Froste took a part of their hair in their hands and pouted at the dead ends. They’d need a haircut, then, but they didn’t know how people tended to style their hair anymore. For some reason, they didn’t think asking Zula for tips about that would be such a great idea.

    They returned to an empty living room, which meant Zula wasn’t finished getting ready. Froste glanced towards her room, but when they saw that her door was open, they quickly looked away. They didn’t know how they would continue to live with someone with so little regard for her own privacy, but Froste shook their head. This was her space, and she could do whatever she wanted in it. Besides, she had told them to wait outside anyway. Froste made sure they were ready—which only included checking that their clothes weren’t suddenly wrinkled and that their hair was still tucked behind their ear—and they opened the front door.

    It was a nice day, though the dark clouds in the distance suggested rain later. If they were lucky, Froste and Zula would make it to the library before the first drops fell. Froste’s thoughts drifted to the library while they waited, and to the mages who managed it. Were places like that common? Maybe they had had their own library once upon a time, where they had researched whatever magic they’d been studying before everything fell apart. And, they hoped, this library would also have information about that magic, and even just seeing it written in a book would jog their memory. Then, they would be able to repay Zula for her kindness by giving her the information she needed to save her life, and—what? Would they go their separate ways then? The thought made them sad. There was little use in considering it now, though, when so much of their memory was blank. For all they knew, as soon as they remembered who they were, they could return to their old life with a house and a family and a purpose, and they’d be the one to leave Zula first.

    Froste looked up when they heard Zula coming down the stairs. They greeted her with a smile and looked her over. By getting ready, she’d apparently meant just putting a jacket on. Froste had noticed she hadn’t exactly kept her apartment tidy either, and they wondered if her apathy about appearances was because she truly didn’t care of if she didn’t have the energy to waste on such trivial matters. Froste could help her with that, at least. They could start with the dishes in the sink, and maybe make Zula a breakfast that was more than just coffee tomorrow. Even if such small acts didn’t save her life, it would give Froste an opportunity to make some kind of difference while they waited for their memories to return.

    But all of that would have to wait. They had a library to visit today, a storm to race against, and Froste had loads of things to remember. They motioned towards the streets before them. “Lead the way,” they invited. “I can’t wait to see this place.”
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  5. #35
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    When Zula finally caught up with Froste, she couldn’t help but admire their freshly combed hair a little. It didn’t make a huge difference on its own, but together with the new outfit, they almost looked…well, normal. Just like any other stranger she might pass on the street. Zula had just opened her mouth to say as much when Froste, her disgustingly polite guest, interrupted to express their impatience. Apparently they were even more enthusiastic than she had thought. Mildly amused by this revelation, Zula was quick to oblige, leading them out the doors and through the streets beyond.

    This walk was longer than the one that they’d taken yesterday, but Zula tried her hardest to cover ground faster, determined to get there before the clouds started pissing on them. When they arrived, they were greeted by a giant slab of bland, beige concrete. Only the giant, rusted letters set above the glass doors betrayed its purpose. A faded plaque set into one of the walls declared the historic building a prime example of ‘early brutalist architecture’, but Zula had always thought it more likely that those behind its construction simply hadn’t given a fuck. Hell, the most notable thing about the place was its wheelchair ramp, which Zula had always found telling.

    “Looks like shit, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t be surprised if they kept it that way on purpose to try and discourage normal people from coming here” Zula offered indelicately, throwing a sideways glance at Froste while she spoke, before turning her attention back to the building in front of them. “The interior is a little better, at least. Not that it’s got a very high bar to clear. And our section is actually kinda nice…but I guess you’ll see for yourself. Come on.” Zula marched up the stairs and pushed one of the glass doors open, before holding it just long enough for Froste to follow her inside.

    Just as Zula had promised, this version of the library’s interior was better, if only a little. The carpet was faded and threadbare, but relatively clean for its apparent age. The yellow daisy wallpaper had probably gone out of style before Froste’s time, but looked mostly intact. Even the shelves, which were bowing under the weight of the books they held, were dust-free and clearly labelled. Someone had even set up a stand near the door, advertising a collection of ‘banned’ books that the creator had thought everyone should read. All of it spoke to a collection of staff that truly loved this place, despite its shortfalls, and did their best with what little they had.

    The nicest part was the front desk. The giant piece of rich mahogany was almost taller than Zula herself, and only bore a small handful of chips and scrapes. It looked way too fancy for a place like this, and the effect was only slightly ruined by the semi-ancient computer monitor that could just be seen poking over the lip. Zula beelined towards it, regardless of what Froste chose to do, while silently hoping that Sam was the one sitting on the other side.

    As Zula got closer, a birds’ nest of messy black hair slowly came into view, followed by a pair of glasses perched on a slim nose. These were followed by a poorly groomed beard, and a white knitwear jumper. Zula relaxed a little at the sight. She folded her arms on the lip of the desk, before resting her head on them idly. For several seconds, the only sound was the gentle clacking of Sam’s keyboard as he worked, before Zula finally lost her patience and cleared her throat. “Long time no see, Sam” she offered, her tone friendly despite the delay.

    At long last, Sam finally took note of her presence and looked up from the screen. Zula watched surprise flicker across his face, followed by realization. “Oh, Zula! I wasn’t expecting to see you here today. I’ve been meaning to call you, actually. Got some work for you, if you’re interested. The unexpected offer made Zula pause for a second as she weighed up her options. She’d been neglecting work while researching her ailment and now she desperately needed the money, even before she considered all the things she’d need to buy for Froste in the near future. At the same time, she hadn’t told them what she did for work yet, and doubted they would approve.

    “Text me the details” she said after a moment, prompting Sam to reach for his phone. Determined to make that the end of the conversation for now, Zula was quick to push ahead. “We’re here because my friend needs access to the library” she offered, gesturing vaguely in Froste’s direction. To any bystanders, it probably sounded like she meant the regular collection, but they both knew better. There were safeguards in place to make sure that no regular human stumbled into the magical section, and it was one of Sam’s duties to make sure that only the right people got access.

    “Hm? Oh, of course. Just let me…” Sam tucked his phone away again, spent a moment messing around with the computer, before rising so hastily that he almost knocked his chair over in the process. He stood a good head and shoulders taller than Zula, and now that he could see over the lip of the desk, his attention immediately settled on Froste. “Oh! Is this them? I saw your text, but I didn’t think we’d be meeting quite so soon.”

    Zula couldn’t help but roll her eyes at that, but she promptly turned towards Froste. If they’d wandered off to explore instead of following her over towards the desk, she’d waste no time in calling them over, calling out their name. Apparently she had no issues with breaking the universal rules about noise in a library. Either way, she’d be quick to make introductions. “Froste, this is Sam, one of the librarians here. When I first found out about my condition, he was the one who helped me dig through the library looking for information. Without him, I never would’ve found you. You can talk freely around him.” Provided that there was nobody else around, anyway.

    She watched on as Sam leaned across the desk to extend a hand towards Froste in greeting, annoyance flickering through her chest. Sam was the only other person who knew about her affliction, and didn’t seem to care enough to ask how she was going, even after she’d explicitly mentioned it. Perhaps that wasn’t a huge surprise, though. He had a vested interest in all things magical, and Froste was definitely something of an anomaly. Perhaps Zula should’ve expected as much, knowing Sam as well as she did.

  6. #36
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    Even if Zula was vocal about her distaste for the look of the place, Froste took an interest in the library. It felt…familiar, somehow, as if they had been here or somewhere that looked like it before. Though they supposed that didn’t mean much with such a plain-looking building. Their memory wasn’t sharp enough to see through the fog to pick out any defining details of the place they had once known. Except…

    Maybe their home had been like this building? Not exactly like it, of course, but similar in design, the same drab beiges and greys standing tall in their memory. Froste could remember a lack of color, a depressingly sanitized place void of any emotions, where they had spent a lot of their time. While Zula walked inside, they hesitated in front of the doors, trying to concentrate. When Zula glanced at them to see what the holdup was, though, they sighed. It wasn’t worth wasting time remembering details that could belong to almost any building.

    The library’s interior was quaint and welcoming, and Froste could easily see themselves spending a whole afternoon here lost in a book. They wondered if they had been a big reader before, or what genres they’d preferred, but they didn’t settle long on those blank thoughts before their attention caught on something else. Their gaze fell on a stand recommending banned books, and before Froste could realize they were doing it, they wandered towards that and away from Zula. “Banned books,” they muttered softly. “I’d have hoped that trend would have died back in my time.” They picked a book from the shelf and wondered what raunchy or graphic material its pages contained, but when they skimmed the blurb on the back, they couldn’t figure it out. It was a historical fiction novel, a recollection of a significant point in history told from the perspective of a fictitious child. Froste didn’t know enough about this to get angry—but then could feel irritation clawing at their arms, because who would ban a book, really?—so they set the book in its place and returned to Zula’s side.

    She was speaking with someone at the front desk, a friendly-looking man who must have been a librarian. Froste walked up to the two of them and offered the stranger a bow of their head in acknowledgment. It was easier to let Zula do the talking; she knew this place, and this person, and besides, Froste barely knew how to talk to people. What if they made a fool of themselves by saying something outdated, and then they never got access to the information they sought? Froste shook their head, scolding themselves. This person looked far from the type to turn them away for such a silly reason. They tried on a new smile for him, hoping it looked normal.

    Zula introduced him as Sam, an old friend already familiar with the situation. Froste wondered if he was one of the mage friends Zula had mentioned earlier, or if he was normal, as Zula had called non-magical people when they’d first arrived. Froste quickly looked Sam over, as if his magical affinity or lack thereof would be visible in his expression. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” they said, and almost immediately regretted the formality. They debated offering a hand to shake, but that, too, was likely too pretentious or old-timey for the occasion. “Hi,” they croaked out instead, a dumb attempt to make things less awkward but just made them seem weird.

    Froste looked between Zula and Sam, hoping one of them would save them from how weird they were making things. They tried to direct their thoughts back to why they had come here, and they turned back to Sam. “Zula told us this was the place to learn about magic.” It was only after they’d spoken that they realized they had chosen a strange pronoun, and they hesitated, biting their tongue. They only hoped neither Sam nor Zula noticed the plurality of it. They cleared their throat. “I used to be a mage,” they continued, putting more emphasis than they meant to on I. “I’m hopeful looking through resources on the subject would jog some memories. Zula also said this was a good place to practice.” They looked between the two again before adding, “If that’s…okay.”
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  7. #37
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    Sam was already watching his newest acquaintance with open curiosity, so if Froste’s strange choice of pronouns piqued his interest, there was no change to show it. And when they began to explain their need, the reason they were here, his expression turned contemplative. “Well, we’ve got plenty of books that should suffice. Enough to make choosing difficult, really. If you can give me any more information, that might help me narrow things down, but I’m sure I can find something to help you regardless. Practice is a different matter, though. I’d really rather not risk you destroying anything in our collection.” Sam punctuated his words with a mildly irritated glance, directed back at Zula, as if he wanted to scold her for daring to suggest such a thing.

    Inwardly, Zula sighed. Trying to disguise a living fossil as a modern human was already proving difficult enough. Why had she thought she could handle a nerd with more technical knowledge than common sense at the same time? “Not in the actual library, Sam” she started, in the tone of a long-suffering parent explaining basic concepts to a child. “I was hoping that you’d let us use one of the warded storage rooms. I’d consider it a personal favor.” Not words that Zula ever said lightly – a fact that Sam was perfectly aware of.

    “Oh. Right. Of course.” Sam seemed to settle a little at that, his irritation fading just as quickly as it had appeared. “Just empty it out first, and put everything back when you’re done. You know where they are, right? I’d love to give Froste the tour, but I really need to finish this first.” He motioned towards his computer monitor, the gesture partially obscured behind his behemoth of a desk. Turned his attention back to the screen and resumed typing, as if the conversation were over.

    Hadn’t he just offered to help Froste find some books that would serve as a good starting point? Regardless, Zula stood there for a moment longer, before rolling her eyes. “Sam, Froste has never been here before. I need you to admit them.” This time, her tone was closer to that of an exhausted teacher, reminding a problem child that they weren’t supposed to eat the glue for the seventh time in a single day.

    The librarian looked up again, uncomprehending, before recognition finally danced through his eyes. “Shit. Right. Of course.” He took a moment to lock his computer, grabbed a ring of keys from one of his desk drawers, and finally rose. Stepped out from behind the giant piece of mahogany and set off, gesturing for the both of them to follow. Within moments, he was ushering them through a plain door labelled ‘employees only’, before leading them down the hallway beyond.

    A few minutes later, they were all crammed into a painfully bland break room, complete with dented fridge and rusty microwave. The linoleum flooring and flaking chipboard looked about as old as everything else in this place, but had received none of the care. Zula quickly made herself comfortable leaning against the far wall while Sam rushed for one of the cabinets, distinguished only by its lock. He flipped his way through his collection of keys, talking while he worked.

    “The entrance to our section of the library is enchanted in dozens of different ways. There are spells to hide it from view, spells to distract anyone who accidentally gets too close, spells to repel intruders, spells to…well, you get the idea. Powerful magic, designed to keep unwanted guests out” Sam explained as he finally slid the correct key into the lock, and pulled the cupboard open. After a few moments spent rummaging through the contents, he emerged with a sealed thermos and a stained mug. When he poured, the liquid that flowed into the cup was a deep blue, close to black, flecked with tiny specks of silver. Once he’d closed the thermos again, he held the mug out to Froste in offering. “Drink this, and the magic protecting the library will recognize that you’re one of us, and let you enter.”

    Zula watched most of their exchange passively, but a hint of disgust flickered across her features as Sam poured. When Froste reached out and accepted their drink, she’d finally break her silence. “I’d suggest holding your nose” she offered, sounding just a touch sympathetic. She’d wait patiently as Froste choked down the foul but necessary concoction, and even give them a few moments to recover afterwards before she inevitably spoke up again.

    “Shall we?” She punctuated her words with a small flick of her head, directed towards the open doorway next to her, and the downward steps just beyond the threshold. Not the door they’d entered through, but an entirely new doorway. One that hadn’t been there just a few moments ago…or so it would seem to Froste, anyway. To Zula and Sam, who both had library access already, it had been visible the entire time.

  8. #38
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    The exasperated interaction between Zula and Sam should have been frustrating, but Froste was amused by how endearing it was instead. It was clear these two knew each other well, and while that familiarity brought a smile to Froste’s face, a frown tugged at the edges of their mouth. They felt alone, then, missing their own close companion. Had they had friends like Sam back in their old life? Had anyone missed them, or was missing them still? Until they remembered who they were, such ponderings were pointless. They had a new life now, at least for the time being, and they did not intend to waste it missing things they couldn’t even remember.

    Froste followed their guides away from the lobby and into a restricted area, taking in the new sights as they went. Away from the rooms most visitors saw, the library was a mess of worn architecture, dust, and cobwebs, and dully, Froste wondered how much work it would take to make the place look like new again. Though the people who went back here probably liked it this way, they figured, since it gave the library a comforting, lived-in feel. They developed a new appreciation for the wear as they made their way to a break room. They cast a cursory glance around the place before returning their attention to Sam and Zula.

    Sam was knowledgeable about the spells at work in his library, and Froste listened with brimming curiosity as he told them about how they protected magic from those who did not need to see it. Froste wondered if they had known any protection spells once. Was that what had kept them alive these past twenty years? They made a note to ask Sam about a book on those later as they nodded along to his explanations.

    While Sam left to go find something in a cupboard, Froste turned to Zula. In her usual fashion, she seemed irritated, perhaps bored, though her expression changed to disgust a few moments later. Froste followed her gaze to Sam, who was returning to them holding something he wanted Froste to drink. “Oh,” they said warily, taking the offered mug and staring down at the dark liquid. “Thank you.”

    They did not want to drink it. Froste did not believe that Zula would take them somewhere just to endanger them, and they trusted Sam because she did, but the drink in their hands just didn’t look healthy. Its night-sky color and murky texture automatically gave them pause, but the swirling glimpses of silver bobbing in the liquid reminded them of an art project, not something they should put into their body. They wanted to experience the magic this library held, but Zula’s warning made them cringe. Just what were they giving them? But the longer they hesitated, the more awkward they felt. Not wanting Zula and Sam to think they didn’t trust them, Froste braced themselves and tossed the liquid down their throat.

    It was acid. That was the only explanation they could give for the gross burn that now coated their throat. Froste swore they could feel the liquid’s path all the way to their stomach, and they coughed violently, trying to relieve themselves of this poison. They tried to reassure themselves that this was fine, that the knowledge of magic would be worth it, and that they were not dying, but their body threw itself into the throes of panic. This drink was… No, not this drink. They’d had a drink like this before, a vibrant green, a deathly smell, and someone holding their mouth open with a cold metal contraption. They remembered choking, on the drink and then their own vomit, as their body convulsed in agonized bursts. Images flashed through their mind: a man in a lab coat, face grey with age; a needle filled with a pale liquid, to control the seizures they’d overheard; a light so blinding, it could have only meant the end of all things.

    They started shaking, and unconscious tears trickled from their eyes. It took Froste several minutes to remember where they were, and once they did, they saw Zula and Sam as if for the first time. They were both staring at them as if they were mad. Maybe they were mad; what other explanation made sense for what they just saw? Had that been a memory? It had felt real, but how could they remember their own death when they were still here?

    A wave of dizziness came over them, and they reached for the nearest counter to steady themselves. They then noticed the mug they’d been given on the ground, shattered. They hadn’t even noticed it fall from their hands. “I…” They tried to say, but they could offer no explanation for what had just happened. I remembered something would only give Zula false hope, and they weren’t even sure that what they’d remembered had been real.

    It had been an experiment. A controlled experiment, without the consent of its victim, that had resulted in someone dying. Froste had figured they had been researching something when they’d had to freeze themselves, but if this memory were true… They hadn’t been the one in that chair. Had they been doing the experimenting? What kind of person could they have been, to force-feed someone a seizure-causing concoction? Had they killed someone? What the hell had they been researching?

    They felt sick, and it had nothing to do with what they’d just drank. They didn’t trust themselves to speak about their newest revelation, so Froste forced their thoughts elsewhere, to the reason they were here. The potion, the spells protecting the library’s magic, the new doorway that they had not seen when they’d first entered this break room. Froste squinted at that. They wiped their eyes with shaky hands and choked out a chuckle. “I must be allergic,” they said, hoping that was explanation enough for their reaction to the drink. Eager to divert attention away from themselves and their shaking body, they motioned towards the new door and asked, “So, where are we going?”
    Thanks to Craze for the beautiful Bravely set!

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  9. #39
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    When Froste blatantly ignored her well-intentioned advice, and poured the foul concoction down their throat, Zula grimaced. Maybe the dismissal should’ve annoyed her, but in that moment, she felt nothing but sympathy. Her first trip to the library had been years ago, but it wasn’t the sort of experience one forgot. Even now, she could recall the noxious taste with nauseating clarity, and watching Froste drink was enough to make bile rise in her throat. Besides, they’d regret their choice pretty quickly, and that was karma enough for her.

    The coughing and spluttering that followed was expected, so Zula didn’t realize anything was wrong until the mug slipped from Froste’s hand, and shattered against the floor. A jolt of surprise rushed through her, before quickly curdling into alarm. It was supposed to be bad, sure, but it shouldn’t have been quite this bad. Something was wrong. Were they just choking, or was their body incapable of handling something like this after all the time they’d spent frozen? Had the potion expired? Were they even capable of that, or was this something more sinister?

    Zula pushed away from the wall and took a single step towards Froste before her mind finally caught up with her body, and she froze. She still had no idea what was wrong with them. Had no idea how she was supposed to help, no matter how badly she wanted to. Zula threw a glance towards Sam, hoping that he’d have some idea, only to find that the librarian looked just as shocked and confused as she felt. She could only watch on, completely impotent, as her only chance at a cure slipped away right in front of her. Frustration and anger curled Zula’s hands into fists, so tight that her knuckles turned white, and she spat out several creative curses in quick succession.

    And then it was over. Froste was breathing again, and wiping the tears from their eyes, and even laughing at the whole ordeal. The sound was so absurd that it blew all other thoughts from Zula’s mind, and filled her with the overwhelming urge to hit them. She probably would have, if not for her newfound concerns about their health. Zula couldn’t even bring herself to laugh at their terrible attempt to cover up the incident with humor. She just watched them, her eyes narrow and her lips pursed, as she tried to decide whether it was worth pushing the issue.

    “Down the stairs.” Zula’s answer was slow in coming, and her tone made her opinion of their obvious deflection clear. After a moment, though, Zula decided that she was being a little too harsh on Froste. If their roles were reversed, she probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it either. While Sam tried to sweep up the broken porcelain before anyone got hurt, Zula made herself get them some fresh water, as a silent apology. And when she finally felt confident that Froste wasn’t going to suddenly collapse or die on her, she finally turned her attention back to the reason they were here. The reason that she’d put them through that ordeal in the first place.

    After a few quick words and a small gesture, Zula led her guest through the magically concealed doorway, and down the stone steps beyond. The staircase curved slightly, and it wasn’t long before the light from the break room gave way to another source. Interwoven strings of magical energy pulsed through the stone on either side of them, bathing them in an ethereal, almost otherworldly glow, just barely bright enough to see by. Zula had never figured out if they were part of the library’s defensive enchantments, or just a clever lighting display. Either way, they were certainly pretty to look at, and made the trip down the stairs feel like a stroll into one of the fantasy stories contained in the novels stored above.

    It took them a couple of minutes to reach the bottom of the stairwell. Then Zula led her guest through an open archway, and into the spacious room beyond.

    The magical section of the library was both lavish and strange. Treated wooden bookshelves held rows of thick, leatherbound tomes, some of which were chained in place. Ancient knives and carved bones and a variety of other strange objects were displayed in ornate glass cases, each one clearly labeled, and humming with magic’s subtle touch. There were velvet armchairs and fur carpets and hidden reading nooks that were almost invisible unless you already knew where to look. Such opulence was a far cry from worn rooms above, as if the library had suddenly conjured up a surplus of cash and goods using…well, magic.

    When Zula had first realized what was happening to her, she’d spent a great deal of time here, trying and failing to research her condition. Now, the familiar view brought some mixed feelings with it. Any comfort she felt at returning was soured by the knowledge that all the information here was useless to her, in the only way that mattered. Hopefully Froste would have better luck.

    Zula gave her companion a moment to take it all in. Spent it wondering just how well they were really holding up. Then, after a couple of seconds, she spoke. “Do you want to look around a little, or should we start searching for grimories straight away?” She tried to keep her tone casual, told herself that she didn’t mind either way, despite being acutely aware that she was living on borrowed time. If nothing else, then maybe some direction would help ground Froste a little, if they were feeling overwhelmed.

  10. #40
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    It was clear from Zula’s hardened tone that she did not find their joke funny. She was pissed, and Froste wondered what they could do to alleviate the irritation they had caused her. It wasn’t as if they could explain why they were so off—they couldn’t even explain to themselves what had happened—but settling in this tense silence was making them feel worse. Ultimately, though, they decided not to press it, and they were relieved when Zula answered their question. Maybe later they would be able to find the words to explain why they were so rattled, but now, they needed to focus on why they were actually here. If they let their mind wander, they were terrified of what other things they would learn about the person they used to be.

    The stairwell to the magic part of the library was its own kind of fantasy. It wasn’t difficult to focus on the beautiful glow of it rather than the erratic beating of Froste’s heart. They wondered if there were lights here they couldn’t see, or if these colors were magical energy. Froste thought to reach out and touch them, but they didn’t want to slow down and make Zula wait for them, so they followed her all the way to a new room at the bottom of the stairs.

    The magic room was a strange, old-looking place that seemed to radiate wisdom. Froste took in the fancy décor. The armchairs reminded them of what a posh wizard might have in their own study, and they smiled at the image. Their gaze was drawn to too many things at once: the bookshelves were filled with tomes that seemed to call to them; the glass cases held all kinds of mysterious secrets; even the empty spaces of the room seemed to hold more than the eye could see. Froste wandered to one of the bookshelves and ran their fingers through a chain connecting one book to its shelf. Was the magic in this so dangerous it had to be bound like this? Could Froste really learn something so important?

    They went to the glass cases next, and they were surprised to find weapons lying in velveteen places. There was more than that, bones and gems and a strange-shaped plant-thing, maybe, but Froste wondered about the knives. What sort of magic required weapons like these to work? Maybe they all did, and Froste just didn’t remember. Or maybe these items were reserved only for the darkest magics. The type of magic that they had researched, once. The type of magic whose tantalizing power had driven them to murder.

    Froste stumbled away from the cases. Did this place have information on magic capable of hurting people? Did they really want to find that? Maybe it was better to not remember. Maybe, if their flashback held any truth, it was best if they abandoned the person they used to be.

    They wanted to get out of here. Being surrounded by so much magic was making them nauseous, and they didn’t want to think about any of it. They turned to Zula, trying to decide on the best way to word get me out of here when their expression fell. Zula was absently looking at something across the room. She probably didn’t even notice she was rubbing at her sleeve. The only reason she had brought Froste here—the only reason she had rescued them at all, and had made sure they were okay back upstairs—was because she needed them. She needed their forgotten knowledge or she would die.

    They closed their eyes and pressed against the headache forming at their temple. Froste had to remember. Even if they were right, and they had killed someone, they needed to face that. Maybe Zula was their way to make things right. They would never forgive themselves for such an unforgivable crime, but if they could heal Zula, then maybe that was a start.

    When Zula posed her question, Froste opened their eyes with a start. They looked around the room again. They were afraid of what they would find here, of what they would remember, by aimlessly looking around, so they silently thanked Zula for giving them a place to start. “Maybe seeing the magic spelt out in a grimoire would jog my memories,” they thought aloud. They approached the bookshelves again and tried to skim the spines, but the titles blurred together in a colorful, nauseating array. Were these written in a different language, or was Froste taking this murder thing much worse than they let themselves realize? They shook their head and picked a book at random. It was a dark blue tome with a title about elements and a strange glyph on its cover. It looked like a grimoire, not that they knew what they were looking for. As they flipped through the pages, however, Froste found it difficult to focus on any of them.

    They had killed someone. They had force-fed acid down someone’s throat. How could anyone focus after learning something like that? And now Zula was relying on them without knowing the horrors they had committed. Froste felt trapped. They wanted to leave their past behind them, but they didn’t want Zula to die. They felt dizzy, and sick, and after asking Zula where the bathrooms were, they promised her they’d be back soon and got out of that suffocating room.

    The bathrooms were gendered for some reason. Froste didn’t know which to choose, or why it mattered, but they went into the men’s room in the hopes that Zula wouldn’t follow. Just as soon as they locked the stall behind them the potion Sam had given them was coming back up their throat. Froste cringed. It tasted a lot worse than the first time. They wiped at their mouth with toilet paper and tried to even their breaths. “You need to get a grip,” they scolded themselves. “She’s dying and you’re worrying about a version of you that doesn’t exist anymore.”

    A few minutes later, Froste met up with Zula again. “I’m sorry,” they mumbled, “this is a lot.” They hoped that Zula would assume they meant the magic and not question them. They looked around the room again. “Did you have a grimoire in mind?” they asked. “Since you found me in ice, I must have an affinity for that. Are there any books for beginner ice mages?” Did that question sound as ridiculous as it felt, they wondered. They continued. “We should start small. I don’t know the effects of cryogenics on magic ability, but I doubt I’d be able to do anything too impressive just yet.” Hopefully they could ignore the rumbling panic in their body long enough to make an icicle, at least.
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