[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.