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A note from Alexander Wales

This is part of a seven-chapter release. Read the first one here.

I could turn pain off and on, though it was a bit of a complicated process, and pain had a lot of useful functions that I wasn’t capable of doing a wholesale replacement of. Pain itself was a bit of an odd thing, when you thought about it, because if you were designing a body from scratch, you wouldn’t make it so the mechanism for alerting the brain to a problem to also be incapacitating or a problem in its own right. If you were one of our ancestors on the savannah and got gored by a warthog or something, what did it help for you to have a massive, distracting warning blaring at you? Now, the body did have mechanisms like adrenaline to temporarily dull the pain enough that you could deal with the current crisis, and maybe it was a way of forcing rest or temporary non-use of something that was healing, but overall, what I dubbed the ‘pain system’ seemed really half-baked in some ways and complete overkill in others. Controversially, I had never been a fan of being in pain.

Pain was controlled through the soul, at least in part. I had physical nerves, but those nerves went to the brain, and the brain seemed to work in parallel with the soul and spirit, so pain could be stopped there. I had refined the technique that I’d devised when I was in the Anglecynn blacksite, narrowing down the effects over a rather painful two days of testing with Amaryllis, which amounted to something that was very close to torture. The pain cluster was now readily identifiable, and I kept it at something like 40%, though it was hard to pin a number on.

For acquiring fire magic, I ratcheted it down to more like 1%, and even that seemed a bit high sometimes.

The process of becoming a fire mage was common enough that the field couldn’t really be controlled. All you needed to do was get set on fire and then get lucky. Because people caught on fire often enough just from random accidents, there were a lot of fire mages throughout the world just from happenstance, and though athenaeums had attempted to become centers of learning for fire magic, there was no possibility of control, not like with other magics. It also meant that allowing me to become a fire mage was something that we could do at home, on our own time.

“Anyone want to bet how many times this is going to take?” I asked.

“What would we bet?” asked Grak.

“You’re not betting with my money,” said Amaryllis.

“Well I don’t take a salary,” I said. “And almost everything that was my own personal money got made into gold, which is now stuck on the moon. So we can bet some random humiliation, I guess. A shaved head or something.”

“I can grow the hair back,” said Grak, gesturing to the axe that rarely left his hip.

“Okay,” I said. “Closest without going over, everyone else shaves their head for three days, who’s in?”

“I am,” said Grak. “I will take one hundred.”

“It’s a one in a hundred chance,” I said, frowning at him. “You really think it’s going to take a hundred times?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“We have enough bones to heal you from burning three hundred times,” said Amaryllis. “If need be, we can get more while we’re in the process, without having to stop. I have more on standby.”

“God damn,” I said. “I was thinking more like fifty.”

“It will be more like a hundred,” said Raven. She had taken up position in a chair, and there was a stack of books beside her, as she was evidently in it for the long haul. “I’ll take one hundred and twenty-seven.”

“Well, I’ll take one hundred and one,” I said.

“No,” said Grak. “Then I would only win at a specific number.”

“That’s the point,” I said.

“Then we need to reorganize our betting so that voluntarily going last doesn’t provide a significant advantage,” said Amaryllis. “Thanks for being un-fun, Juniper.”

“Sorry,” I said.

It took some time to come up with a better system for making our wagers, which I was happy for, since it meant that I would be able to put off being on fire for a little bit longer. Obviously we had the resources to do this safely and repeatedly, and it wouldn’t hurt very much at all, but there was still something psychological going on that made me extremely uneasy. I wondered whether stuntmen who set themselves on fire for a living ever lost their fear of it.

The steps were pretty simple: get a coating of accelerant, light myself up, wait a predefined amount of time while on fire, then extinguish and heal. Bodily damage was, unfortunately, a necessity, so I got to watch hair and skin burning away off my arms, sometimes going as deep as the bone. I was mildly worried that I would have some permanent scars, but the last time I’d gotten scars from a burn (dragonfire) they had been healed through a level up. After the first time through, I was less concerned, because it didn’t seem that the controlled burn of my flesh was going down to the level of my soul.

“I’m not sure that I want the goggles,” I said after the twentieth time. “There’s not really a need to watch my body burning up.”

“Just close your eyes then,” said Amaryllis. “You need to protect your eyes in case something goes wrong, and if it does go wrong, you’ll want to be able to see. Or just don’t look at your body, that would work too.”

“Are you just saying that because you went through all the trouble of getting fireproof goggles?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Juniper, if you need a break, just let me know, but we’re potentially going to be doing this for the whole rest of the day.”

“I think you’re being pessimistic,” I said. “But okay.” Amaryllis had taken the unusual bet of ‘higher than the highest amount anyone else will guess’. The next highest had been Raven, with a thousand, and I honestly didn’t think that if we had to do it that many times we would actually keep going.

Not long in, Amaryllis put on a radio play for us to listen to, which helped a bit, because it gave my mind something to do. The radio station at Poran was quite small, run by the tuung, but it had nothing in the way of advertisements, which I appreciated. The radio plays themselves were from a huge selection that had been bought by Amaryllis, all recordings from Anglecynn. It was something, at least, even if I had heard one or two of them before.

The problem with the procedure was that it took too much time. Even relatively streamlined as it was, each attempt took five minutes or so, which included every step of the process. That meant only about twelve attempts in an hour. Once we got into the swing of things, it got a bit faster, but there were hard limits on how fast we could actually go, so long as we were attempting to do things safely, which we were.

“Unicorn bones would speed it up,” said Amaryllis. “Each bone would be worth somewhere between five or ten attempts. Some of the bones are too large to be useful in combat … but you’d said that you were working on portable extradimensional space with a stable boundary?”

“I was,” I said. “But there’s a lot of competition for my time, and I’ve been spending it on star magic as well. It’s not a problem, I can suck it up.”

“You say that,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t want to have to stretch this out another day, or worse, have you bail on it entirely. You need to make sure that you’re balancing your own psychological state.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

Fifty attempts came and went, with no progress to speak of. People came and went, since there wasn’t all that much for anyone to do, and watching me get repeatedly set on fire wasn’t super interesting. Amaryllis stayed the whole time, which I thought was at least partly so that she could provide moral support. Grak came by to check the wards he’d put in place every once in a while, but he seemed put off by the gruesomeness of the burnings.

“I really thought we could do it in under fifty,” I said. “Do you think there are really some dice being rolled behind the scenes, or nah?”

“It is hard to say,” said Grak, who had returned for just a bit. “Why would you think it would be under fifty?”

“Uh, I haven’t done any math,” I said. “And it’s not the kind of math that I can do instantly. But if there’s a one in one hundred chance, I’d expect that most people get it before they’ve gone through a hundred times. Like, if you were trying to roll a 20 on a d20, you’d be mildly surprised to not get a nat 20 in your first nineteen rolls.”

“That should just be nineteen twentieths to the power of nineteen,” said Grak.

“Oh, right,” I said. “Which is thirty-seven point seven percent, repeating, of course.”

“What?” asked Amaryllis. “It’s not repeating.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s a meme.”

“I’m sure it was very droll for you,” she replied, rolling her eyes.

“Point being, seems like most people would get the unlock before they have to actually go through the full hundred,” I said. “So it’s not totally outrageous to think that if the thing is fair and unbiased, it’s more probable than not that I won’t have to go through a full hundred times.” I cracked my neck and stretched out a bit, relishing the freedom that I didn’t have while we were repeatedly going through this procedure. “Anyway, I’m good to go, I think.”

“You still have time left,” said Amaryllis. “Better to take your break now. Anything I can get for you?”

“Nope,” I said. “And I’d like to start now, if it’s all the same to you. If you give me another five minutes, I might lose my will. Besides, I have a good feeling about the next ten. I have a point in LUK, that should help me, right?”

“Maybe,” said Amaryllis. “Assume that we’re in it for the long haul.”

We didn’t get it in the next ten, or the ten after that, or the ten after that. People still came and went, with Amaryllis being the only constant. In part, it was boring, and in part, it was terrifying, since there was something about my flesh burning that I couldn’t get used to no matter how many times it happened. Eventually, I requested a movie be put on, and we spent a bit of time talking about what there was available before I settled on Star Wars: A New Hope, which I had seen twice before and wouldn’t mind missing bits and pieces of. I didn’t even particularly like Star Wars, but it was a staple, and I had seen all of the staples, most of them with Arthur, the better to understand what more modern creators were building off of (in his words).

Eventually I stopped Amaryllis from saying which iteration we were on, so that it was simply a string of burning, extinguishing, healing, application of accelerant, and then more burning. The movie didn’t really help.

Once A New Hope was finished, I asked for another break.

“How many is that?” I asked.

“Do you want to know?” asked Amaryllis.

“Maybe,” I said. “Probably. I mean, at a certain point, we have to just say that the Dungeon Master doesn’t want to let me have this, right?”

“I suppose,” said Amaryllis. “A point beyond which it’s so improbable that we have to rule out what we know?”

I nodded. “So?”

“One hundred thirty-two,” she said.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Is it possible you missed it?” she asked.

I closed my eyes for three seconds and looked at the character sheet behind my eyelids. Everything was exactly as I had left it, and the spot where ‘Fire Magic’ would go was still blank.

“Nothing,” I said, sighing a bit. “So what’s the limit?”

“The highest record is for two thousand, four hundred and twenty-eight times,” said Raven. “It was set by a now-legendary fire mage during the time of the Second Empire.”

“Well, fuck,” I said. “I’m not doing that. Five minutes per, that’s more than eight solid days, not including breaks for sleep, food, or anything else.” I paused. “Now-legendary, you say? Is there some kind of correlation between how many attempts it takes and how much power you get?”

“No,” said Raven. “But the kind of person who has the perseverance, or more to the point, bloody-mindedness, necessary to carry on for so long will probably be well-served in other areas of their life.”

“Is that a challenge?” I asked. “Because it sounds like hell, but I think I probably could endure two weeks or so of this.”

“No one is asking you to do that,” said Amaryllis.

“I win if you’re under two hundred,” said Valencia, who had appeared in the room at some point, perhaps while I was on fire. “And keep in mind that this kind of bet is completely unfair, because Grak’s axe won’t work on me.”

“Don’t try to sway him,” said Amaryllis, casting a frown in Valencia’s direction. “Fire magic was supposed to be a key element of the final approach. It’s got a lot of beneficial interactions.”

“I haven’t been talking about bailing,” I said. “But I’ve been sick of going through with this for at least a hundred attempts now.”

“Let me know if you can think of anything that would make it more pleasant,” said Amaryllis.

“I will,” I said. “But, I guess, let’s get back to it.”

“It’s been eleven hours,” said Grak. “Perhaps tomorrow would be better.”

“Why?” I asked. “The tuung have generously offered to take up the work of sleep on our behalf. There’s no actual need to stop. Besides, eleven hours is nothing in the scheme of things, and that’s including various breaks.”

“You don’t need to push yourself,” said Amaryllis. “Grak is right. Better to rest and reset, get some maintenance in, make sure that the team is sharp.”

“Fine,” I said. “But as Captain America says, I could do this all day.”

By the fourth day, I was getting pretty fucking irritable.

“Fuck the Dungeon Master,” I said.

“Don’t say that Juniper,” said Amaryllis, who was apparently as cool as a cucumber, not letting frustration show through, if she was feeling it at all. Then again, she had thirty clones floating around out there, and was taking brief breaks to sync up with them, which meant that her lived experience was much different than mine. Also, she wasn’t the one getting set on fire, which wasn’t painful, but was a bit distressing.

“We’re in the eight hundreds, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis.

“Then I’m being fucked with,” I said. “So fuck him.”

“There’s a chance that it’s legitimate,” said Amaryllis. “A low chance, but it’s there.”

“It would be approximately zero point zero one percent,” said Grak. He was folding his arms. “I would be inclined to agree with Juniper.”

“Things that are one in ten thousand happen all the time,” said Amaryllis. “That’s approximately the odds of rolling a twenty-sided dice and getting a natural 20 three times in a row.”

“The shitty thing is that I’m not even ‘due for it’,” I said.

“That is how probability works, yes,” said Grak.

“Well it’s not how the human brain works,” I said. “You go through eight hundred times of failure and your brain starts to prime itself, thinking that success is coming up. But it’s not, it’s just as likely the next time. I’m saying it’s shitty because it’s very hard to correct the magical thinking that goes on in my brain. Each failure hits harder because of that priming.”

“Then take a break,” said Amaryllis. “A long one, a few hours, go for a walk, get something to eat, take your mind off it, and if you want to call it quits, no one will blame you. You’re already well-past what most potential fire mages prepare themselves for, and it’s not crucial.”

“It is,” I said. “We need every advantage, if not for Fel Seed, which is going to be rough either way, then for the Long Stairs.”

“You’re just saying that to be hard on yourself,” said Grak. “You feel like a failure.”

“I don’t — I mean, I do, in this instance, because I don’t want to crack, but holy shit I’m tired of this, and I want to give up,” I said. “It’s a slog, it’s a grind, it’s unpleasant and nauseating, and everything that I hate about life. And it’s taking a long fucking time.” I turned to Amaryllis. “Look at it this way, what are the odds that the Dungeon Master would fuck with me? A lot higher than one in ten thousand, right?”

“I understand that,” said Amaryllis. “But the Dungeon Master has incredible power, and to do something petty like this … I don’t think that’s him, not from what we’ve seen so far. Seeing you suffer, or at least grind this out, doesn’t seem like his typical style of operation. Think about the most bullshit thing he’s pulled so far. Is this like that?”

“I guess not,” I said. “But if you’re asking me to just have faith … this really reminds me of the story of Job, where the Dungeon Master is putting me through some shit to see whether or not I’ll stick to it. Not being a dick just to be a dick, but as a test of faith? Maybe.”

“That would be more in line with what we think we know about him,” said Amaryllis. “But either way, I think you need a longer break than you’ve been taking. Rest, relax, take your mind off things, try to drain the built up stress.”

I did as she said, and wandered out into Poran, trying not to have any particular destination in mind.

When I ended up at the door to Raven’s room, I wondered whether that was just through random chance in my wandering, or whether some part of me had intended to come there. I gave a tentative knock on the door, not really knowing what I was going to say.

“Enter,” she said, so I did.

“Oh, Juniper,” she said, looking me over.

“You thought it would be someone else?” I asked.

“Some of the tuung approached me, offering to be my research assistants,” she said. “I’ve taken them up on their offer. I was surprised to find out that Amaryllis hadn’t put them up to it, actually. She seemed offended that I didn’t think of them as being able to take the initiative.” She shrugged. “I assume you’re a fire mage now?”

“No,” I said. “Just taking a break. I thought I would come here and, I don’t know, see how you were doing. Or what you were doing. You haven’t been by to visit.”

“I found it distressing,” she said. “Also boring.”

“Yeah, me too,” I replied, smiling a bit. “So what are you doing?”

“Reading, mostly,” she said. “Bethel’s been lending me Earth books.”

“Anything good?” I asked.

“Not really, no,” she said. “I had started out looking for evidence that Earth was under the dominion of the Dungeon Master, but that was a fool’s errand. From your perspective, it’s obvious that Aerb is under that dominion, not just because he rips off a lot of your old designs, but because he makes jokes that you’d have to be from Earth to get, or that you’d have to be you to get. You would know even without direct intercessions. There’s nothing like that on Earth, but that might just be because there’s an extra layer above, so all the jokes, references, and cribbings are undiscoverable by us.”

“Sounds maddening,” I said.

“It was, and I don’t want to pretend that I suffered through trying for all that long,” she said. “After that, I descended into the field of comparative media studies. In practice, that meant comparing things that Uther had written against their inspirations. Amaryllis had already done a lot of it, and not found it particularly fruitful, but for me …” she turned away from me. “For me it was a way of trying to reconcile who the man was.”

“You didn’t like what you found?” I asked.

“I was there when he wrote most of it,” said Raven. “He spent a lot of his time lost in thought, and would always answer that some new story was on his mind, or some new poem, or song, or — something. It might have been suspicious, if he hadn’t produced enough great works to banish the question from anyone’s mind.”

“And in retrospect, that question is still there,” I said. “All those times he said he was working on something now seem like deflections.”

“I’m sure it was occasionally true,” said Raven. “Even being who he was, reproducing a novel from memory is no simple task, and he did take liberties in the reconstructions, altering details and sometimes conceits in order to make the stories or characters translate across cultures.”

“Still,” I said.

“Still,” she nodded. “Still, it’s a lot of deception.”

“Has anything come from the analysis?” I asked. “Any insights?”

“He has a tendency to cast things in black and white,” said Raven. “He makes the heroes into better people, and the villains worse. There’s more of a structure to his stories. I think more telling might be in what he chose to adapt and what he left behind. There’s almost nothing of what we would call postmodernism in his own works. Maybe those aren’t the kinds of works that he enjoyed, or maybe he didn’t think the intended audience would enjoy them, or … it’s hard to know, because it’s nothing he ever spoke about. It was all internal to him.”

“Unless he told Vervain,” I said.

“Or his wife,” nodded Raven. “Or other people who weren’t me. He viewed me as being very young.”

“You were,” I said.

“In some ways,” she replied. “And in other ways, I was ancient.”

“I’m guessing you’ll have a chance to ask him,” I said. “We’ll get our answers.”

“Or we’ll die trying to get to him,” said Raven. “Or Bethel will murder him within three seconds of us finding him. Amaryllis has been talking doom and gloom lately, specifically with me, I think, because she knows that I’m in on this plan come hells or high water.”

“I hope Uther’s decent to you,” I said.

“Decent?” she asked.

“Hrm,” I replied. “I hope that when he sees you, and understands how long it’s been, that he greets you like an old friend. I hope that he asks how you’ve been and respects that it’s been hard for you to try to fill his shoes.”

“I hope that too,” she said, nodding. “But I don’t expect that. I’ve been trying to change my perceptions of him so that they account for him being from Earth, him hiding things, him having gone a little insane, or if not insane, then maybe just working within the framework of an insane world. I’m not sure that I know what kind of man we’ll find, if we find any at all.”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” I said. “I’m not the best equipped for much but killing, if I’m being frank, but when I say anything, I really do mean anything.”

“When you say that, it’s hard for me to not think about the mission,” said Raven. “But of course I know that’s not really what you’re offering. If it were about the mission, I would only have to ask, but if it’s about my own mental health, my own understanding of myself … it’s hard to make my mind go in that direction.”

“I know,” I said. “If I were a better friend, maybe I would understand what you need, and just do it without putting the onus on you.”

A tuung woman walked into the room carrying a stack of papers, then walked right back out once she noticed I was in there.

“How about this,” said Raven. “Tell me what it’s like to create a world.”

“For D&D?” I asked. “Or just in general?”

“Did you do much of it outside of the games?” she asked.

“A bit,” I said. “Sometimes for other systems, other times just for fun. And you’re asking this because … ?”

“It’s something you care about,” she said. “It’s something that you have honest enthusiasm for. It’s not really related to any of our missions, except insofar as it gives insight into the world we live in, which means that it will be easier to focus on you.” Left unspoken was the fact that we repeatedly failed to connect with one another, which I was fairly sure neither of us were all that happy about.

“Alright,” I said. “Usually it starts with some idea, or image, or, sometimes, me watching a movie or reading a book. Building a world is usually about that seed, and what naturally grows from it. Like, I had this idea of a world that was completely overgrown, plants everywhere, growing so fast that you have to worry about being smothered in your sleep. That’s the seed, plants growing so fast that you could realistically get smothered in your sleep. And then from there, I have questions I ask myself, which is where everything else takes place. Questions like, how do these plants grow so fast? And sometimes the answer is just ‘it’s magic’, or a longer version of ‘it’s magic’ that maybe feels a bit less lazy but contributes about as much. Otherwise, I try to think about some unifying force or phenomenon that I could put in, something that would make the plants grow so fast, something like … I don’t know, the plants are harvesting some far-off energy source due to a celestial gate that someone opened up a thousand years ago, or the elemental plane of plants collided with the elemental plane of sunlight, or a spell was ultra-maximized by a legendary artifact, or … you know, it’s the kind of thing you could do all day, thinking up things like that and trying them on, but eventually I would settle on one that was the most promising.” I looked at her. “Is this about what you wanted?”

“I think this is what makes you special,” she said.

“Not the godly powers?” I asked. “Or the fact that I came here from another world?”

“You’re special in those senses too,” she replied. “But no, this is what makes you special as a person. It’s nice to see. I’m sorry that you don’t get a chance to shine in that way.”

“Ink magic is the closest,” I said. “But that has a little bit too many restrictions on it, a little too narrow of a focus, and it wears me down.”

“And after you’ve figured out the gimmick for a world?” she asked.

I briefly considered that I was probably going over my allotted break time, but decided to say nothing about it, because I was enjoying myself. As unfortunate as it was to admit, that was a rarity with Raven.

“After the gimmick is squared away, then come the people,” I said. “You have to worry about being smothered in your sleep by plants, so then you take to the trees, or you hack things down, or you lay down a ring of salt, or you go on the seas if they’re not choked with seaweed, or you dig down below where the roots can reach, and because it’s a good way of developing a world, probably all of those things are true in different places. From that seed, that core idea of not having to find a safe place to sleep so the plants don’t grow too much around you, you can get other things that hook the imagination, like people who live in symbiosis with certain kinds of plants. I imagine a little old auntie living up in a hollowed out tree, descending on vines to a world that’s always a bit different from how it was the day before, but that’s fine, because she knows all the tricks, all the native plants and the way they ebb and flow with the weather and the seasons. I usually try to think of as many compelling things as I can, then work backward to make sure that they make enough sense.”

“Why?” she asked, cocking her head to the side.

“Why what?” I asked back.

“Why do they have to make sense?” she asked. “Uther always said that some of the best stories had some element of the nonsensical. He thought that if you had to decide between adding a few lines to make something make sense and skipping that in favor of brevity, you should choose brevity every time.”

“Eh,” I said. “It’s a conversation we had a few times. For myself, if it doesn’t hold together, it’s not actually interesting. If I poke things and they fall apart, then there’s no way that they can entertain me late at night when I should be sleeping, or in class when I’m bored by the lesson, or while I’m waiting in line, or walking somewhere, or otherwise want to detach myself from the world. And if they don’t survive at least some scrutiny, then they’ll never make good worlds for playing games in.”

“What was it that made him light up?” asked Raven. “With you, it’s easy, you just … gush about things. For him, I thought that it was his writing, his plays, even his songs, but knowing that almost all of it came from Earth, knowing that so often it must have been a deflection from his true thoughts — what was real about him?”

“Sorry,” I said. “You’re in a better position to answer that than I am. When I knew him, he had a love of dissection, of argument. He liked to tear things apart to construct the hottest take he could.” I saw the confusion on her face. “He liked to put forward inflammatory arguments just for the sake of how difficult they were to defend, or to make conversation.”

“Ah,” she said. “That he did. But looking back on it, with the context that I have from Earth, it seems like many of his ‘hot takes’ are just what a teenager from the Midwestern United States of America might have taken for granted. Did you know that he advocated for democracy?”

“Dangerous thing for a king to do,” I said. “But yes, I’m something of an Uther scholar myself. I’ve read a lot of his arguments. It’s weird, because there’s nothing perverse about them. I don’t mean perverse like — just nothing that makes it seem like he’s taking the piss, I guess. There’s no satire, no ‘modest proposals’, it’s just straightforward rote argumentation. Some of it is gripping, but it’s just … played straight, I guess. Maybe that’s him having grown up, or maybe it’s him playing a role, but it’s hard for me to not read it as kind of sad.”

“I worry,” said Raven. “That used to be my job, when I was Head Librarian, so maybe I just got in the habit, but knowing what I do about Uther, I worry about the reunion.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

“I’m not sure you could beat him, if it came to that,” she said.

“No?” I asked. “I mean, even with the full team?”

She bit her lip for a moment. “If we all made it through Fel Seed, and whatever is waiting in the Long Stairs … I don’t know.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’re not natural enemies though. Arthur and I were friends.”

“I know,” she said. “But I worry.”

I nodded. “Sorry,” I said. “I should have stuck with talking about something that I love.”

“It’s okay,” said Raven, giving me a forced smile. “We can go back to that.”

I hesitated, thinking that it was time to go back to the fires, then pressed on anyway, working through the development of an idea into something that someone might some day want to play, or that would at least get me through a boring class.

She seemed to take some enjoyment from it, at least, which I suppose shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. She shared that in common with Maddie, and maybe gave me a bit of insight into what Maddie had actually been like. Maybe Maddie hadn’t asked me so many questions because she wanted attention, or because she was annoying. Maybe it was because it was a chance to see me when I was happiest. It was hard to tell though: Maddie and Raven were wildly different people, for all the points of similarity.

I left just in time to meet Amaryllis, who had apparently decided that it was time to see whether I was going to be coming back to set myself on fire again.

“Odd of you to seek her out,” said Amaryllis. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was surprisingly good though. I think she’s a little bit stressed, and obviously the trial by fire isn’t going well, but I think we helped each other, at least a little.”

“Good,” said Amaryllis.

“You need to stop unloading your fears and concerns on her,” I said. “It’s getting to her.”

“Noted,” sighed Amaryllis. “I’d thought we were of a like mind.”

“You are,” I said. “But she’s not made of iron like you are.” I shrugged. “Just a thought.”

“No, you’re probably right,” she said. “Are you ready to return to the fires?”

“I guess,” I said. “But I wish that life could be more about conversations, and less about repeatedly setting yourself on fire in order to get a somewhat marginal benefit for a fight against a being of such immense power that there’s almost no way we could possibly win a direct battle.”

And, of course, I got it first try back.

Skill Unlocked: Fire Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Actually, We Did Start the Fire

I breathed a long sigh of relief and satisfaction as stress drained from me and an unpleasant task was finally completed, then steeled myself for a day of racing through the skill levels as quickly as I could.

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Alexander Wales

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