Edgard skipped everything this morning: no apple, no painting, no church. Between his repeated deaths and his conversation with Hilda, he knew that this wasn’t the day he would escape. For the man who had tried to leave the forest over and over again, success didn’t come until his process was radically changed. Edgard had the rune, but before today he hadn’t really changed how he was behaving or what he planned to do. For him, he could see the paths he took the day before, but his rune was more than that. He was still treating time as if it were moving in one direction, and each day could be the last one, but the first tracker had trusted in what he saw–and trusted he would continue seeing it. Edgard knew that, above all else, he needed to trust that today would come again after he died.
So how do you stop a group of bloodthirsty, murderous maniacs trying to slaughter everyone all across town, gutting innocent people, blowing up buildings and setting everything on fire. Edgard scratched his head. Somewhere in the thought was a place to start. They always begin with burning, with fire. Of course! What else can kill so many people at once? Edgard thought back to the explosive torrents of fire that the killers used to destroy buildings and take lives. He remembered Cedric’s seared flesh, the food hall bursting into flame, and the countless other terrifying displays of fire magic he had witnessed. If it works so well for them, maybe I should pay the Flame Guild a visit and see what they’re up to? He grinned a little. I could even tease one of Hilda’s suitors. A chuckle escaped his mouth at the idea. Previously, he might have been a little self-conscious about laughing to himself when others could see him, but, today, he was going to die, and none of it would matter.
“What’s one more gruesome death, eh? I can do this.” He took a deep breath and started a fast jog towards the Flame Guild. He wasn’t settled with the idea of dying, but he didn’t have a choice. If he ran right now, it would still only be a matter of time before he ended up getting killed. He didn’t even know if, the God forbid, he would make it to the guild hall in time to do anything worthwhile.
When he got there, he found himself stopped at the bright, orange- and yellow-themed double door of the Flame Guild’s building. He hesitated for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. Do I just go in there and ask, ‘do you have anything incredibly dangerous I can use to kill a bunch of people?’ He frowned, staring at the door. What could I even say to get them to let me see the process at all for making explosives or even handling flame cells?
“Who are you?” A grating, snide voice sounded off in his ears from behind.
Oh, no, I know that voice. Edgard turned around to look at the man. It’s him. Edgard cringed in a knee-jerk reaction upon seeing the obnoxious man who had yelled at him during his death on the first day. “I’m . . . I’m Edgard, sir, just a Brother at the church,” he began, but then saw the glazed-over, bored look on the man’s face, which also managed to bear a distinct air of peevishness. Only a Flame Guild member could be both bored and angry at the same time. Edgard almost let out a sigh, but was able to catch himself this time. No, if I try to talk to him like he’s a normal person, it won’t work. These people need their words soaked in honey and covered in sugar before they’ll swallow them. “I came here because I wanted to get help from some of the best people for the blessing tomorrow.” There. ‘Best people.’ Is that enough? The words may have sounded sweet, but just saying them raised enough bile in his stomach to make anything taste foul.
“Get help for the blessing?” The jerk’s eyebrow popped upward, his expression telling Edgard that there was still a remnant of skepticism lingering in his thick head. “What sort of help has you out here begging your betters?”
Help with how to punch your face, good sir. Should I hit you in the eye or the jaw? He wanted to say, his fist trying to resist the feigned charm in his words and punch the man regardless. “Well, you see, we wanted to put together a magnificent show for the visiting clergy. That’s when, at my suggestion, we decided to seek out the Flame Guild for help. I know it’s a little last minute, but I am told you all are more than capable of working ten times harder and being infinitely more productive than the rest of us. Me especially.” Edgard decided he didn’t want to punch the man anymore, he wanted to hit himself instead for saying this sickening drivel.
The man’s cold eyes continued to peer out from under his heavy brow as he scrutinized Edgard for a moment longer, but then lightened up as a smile creeped across his face like a snake dancing out of the woodwork. “Of course we can–and do.” The man gave a small chuckle. “No need to be so self-deprecating. It’s not your fault God gave you a useless rune.”
A useless rune? My rune is likely the only reason I’m still alive, and you’re de– Wait, is he dead? Edgard’s hand touched his rune involuntarily. Am I dead? He mumbled to himself as his hand continued to trace out the pattern on his rune. What if the previous tries were dreams? What if this is a long series of dreams, a prophecy I must solve before I am granted an escape from the nightmare? His mind started to race with the possibility. What if I did die, and this is a new me, a different reality? Like the world was recreated around someone else’s wishes, and my rune only gave me consciousness of their schemes? he thought, knowing that, while said magic was incredibly unlikely, so was a rune that let him come back to life. No, he’s still alive. I’m alive. It’s not a dream. It’s a retry. Man, I’m getting paranoid. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and did his best to even out his nerves. The whole subject was one he had avoided for the most part because he was so obsessed earlier with getting people out of town. He had single-mindedly pushed for an escape and missed the philosophical questions begged by his situation completely.
“Hey, don’t blank out on me. I know it must be an honor working with someone from the Flame Guild, but you shouldn’t space out so much. People will get on to me for hanging around a dimwitted scribe if you draw too much attention,” the snobby man, who only came up to Edgard’s eyebrows yet still managed to look down on him, said as he flipped his nose up and pushed through the doors. “Come on, tell me what you had in mind so I can tell you how it’s wrong and give you a better idea for the show.”
“Uhhh . . .” Edgard gulped and followed in after him. How in the world does he honestly walk around with a head that big? “Well, actually, we wanted a ton of explosions.”
If all of the previous compliments hadn’t been enough to make the man happy, the word ‘explosions’ was. The man’s face lit up like a firecracker as the creepy, smug smile turned into an expression of pure exuberance and a light flashed behind his eyes. In fact, two passing Flame Guild members who heard Edgard say it also turned to see what was being discussed. It was as if the word ‘explosion’ was its own magical spell within the Flame Guild. “The Church wants to make explosions?” he gasped. “That group of grumpy, moralistic guys wants to make things go boom? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Edgard nodded. I definitely have some things I want to blow up. “Though . . . if you had other ideas on something awe-inspiringly devastating for a show?” Edgard was open to suggestions. After all, he still had three tries before it had to work. He wasn’t entirely sure what would happen when all nine of the patterns forming his rune lit up. He didn’t exactly want to find out if he could help it.
“No, not at all. I think explosions would be awesome!” The man had gone from pompous to giddy like a child getting a present.
It really is a magic word. Edgard’s smile wasn’t fake this time. Just watching the excitement the man got from the idea of blowing things up gave Edgard more than just relief at the fact he wouldn’t have to work so hard to maintain his cover story. It also gave him a bit of hope. He clearly has thought about this a lot. He will know exactly what I need.
“We can make it so destructive and powerful it will be bigger than a building, or we could contain it and make it smaller than even the poorest Flame Guild member’s room!” the gleeful pyro cheered.
The Flame Guild has different sized rooms for their members? Edgard, not knowing the internal politics of the other guilds, found his mouth hanging open in shock at that notion. You mean, they actually have people with tiny rooms? How can you raise a family if your house’s room isn’t big enough to fit them comfortably? Wouldn’t people get stressed out with one another? Wouldn’t it get too warm in the summer? What monster came up with that idea when building a large house is easy, and there is tons of space? Edgard found himself almost wanting to know if there was a way to save everyone in town but this guy–and maybe his loud-mouthed neighbor from across the street too, of course. If they both died in the accident, that wouldn’t be too bad, right? No, it would be good for the town perhaps . . . Edgard found himself dreaming of a world that likely wouldn’t come to be. If the town did manage to survive this coming catastrophe, it would do so with its worst people most likely alive and unscathed. That was just how luck and fate worked.
“So, what size are you looking for? You want a bigger one, right? Bigger is always better, isn’t it? Big is the best for booms!” The man was now outpacing Edgard as they took a turn and went up a flight of stairs. He was talking to himself, with hand gestures included, more than addressing Edgard.
Is that the only word you know? ‘Colossal,’ ‘gigantic,’ ‘massive’? Nope. Just ‘bigger’? Edgard found himself still mocking the man as they ascended the flight of stairs and finally reached the open workroom of the Flame Guild.
For all the differences their guild culture had with the churches ‘equality first’ attitude, their days seemed to be spent in an almost identical fashion to his. Each one of the Flame Guild members was sitting in front of a wooden table on a bench without a back as they gripped tiny, dull stones for a minute in one hand while holding the rune on their shoulder with the other and then, after a few breaths, tossed the resulting shiny flame cell into a bucket before picking up another stone. Edgard, from glancing around the giant floor with dozens of workers, began to hypothesize that if one were to simply replace the stones they were holding with quills and the work they were doing with writing, their days would mirror his own to the letter. These poor saps, he mouthed silently. “Well,” Edgard couldn’t take his eyes off the working members, “I was thinking big enough to wreck the largest building in town . . . Perhaps a little stronger?”
“That’s great! I have just the idea for that then!” He went over to an empty table, presumably his desk, and picked up one of the many buckets of red, glowing, spherical stones, which were no greater in diameter than a young woman’s fingernail, and then returned to where Edgard stood, still taking everything in.
He said idea, didn’t he? Edgard was a bit distracted as he kept looking around the place. For all of their mastery with flame cells, there wasn’t any smoke above the building, nor any actual fire within. The walls were just as warm as the walls at the church, albeit more colorful with the red and yellow designs that streaked across them to imitate the namesake flame of the Flame Guild, which was, ironically, entirely absent, and the people working were all quiet aside from Edgard and the giddy would-be bomber. The guild members sat in front of their desks working so studiously and silently that it was actually surprising. The church, with half the number of people helping, tended to be rather loud in the mornings when people settled down to copy manuscripts after lectures. Perhaps it was just that his profession required one to be versed in talking, debating and arguing the finer points of God’s words, but it was . . . cheerful. This place was more eerily hushed than an empty room at night. “Wait, have you ever actually detonated anything?” Edgard had to ask as the man returned. What is his name? He frowned a bit as he realized he still hadn’t even asked him that. Maybe I’m the jerk here . . .
“Oh, heavens, no! They don’t allow that. Can you imagine us having a blast”–he paused on the words, his pun not going unnoticed as one of the men working at a bench near him groaned out loud–“with all of these flame cells around here? It might be the death of the whole town.”
“Oh . . .” Edgard thought for a minute, “Has anyone?”
“Well, that’s why I have this idea, you see? Back when the Flame Guild was first getting set up, a group of the managers wanted to make the building bigger, more space for the workplaces of the best and most efficient Flame Guild members, but . . .” He trailed off for a moment, his eyes looking around the room as his hands fidgeted.
Come on, whatever your name is. God, I need to pay attention to that stuff. “But what?” Edgard found himself actually somewhat eager to hear what was next. Not for the same reasons, likely. The idea of destruction and devastation didn’t really excite Edgard in the same way it seemed to thrill this worker bee–not before having to repeat explosive and fiery deaths and definitely not after. No, his curiosity was because this type of thinking flew in the face of standard town logic. People weren’t supposed to ‘want’ more. They weren’t supposed to ‘strive’ for superiority. So what happened when they did? Edgard found himself hungry for the end of this story.
“But, well . . . that’s the thing. The Church and the Builders Guild both vetoed the expansion without even taking it to the Father for guidance. The first Brother that was approached said he wouldn’t hear any of that blasphemous heretical speech and sent us away. The Builders Guild was no different. It’s just . . .” His beady eyes kept scanning the room, looking over his shoulder as if he were expecting others to be paying attention before leaning in further. “It’s just that didn’t fly well with the uppers.”
If this was rejected by the Brothers, why are you telling me? I agree with the Brother that sent them away! Edgard wanted to tell him, but he had a mission, and a lecture would be forgotten as soon as they both were dead. “I can imagine what those elders must have thought,” he responded, trying to sympathize without lying. “But what did they end up doing?”
“Well, if we couldn’t build up . . . well . . . we decided to build down in secret . . .” His eyes looked towards the staircase leading back to the first floor. “The only problem is, well, we couldn’t do it with tools.”
“Because the ground was too hard?” Edgard knew well enough that growers were always needed to soften and move the dirt aside whenever they built basements for the other guilds within the town. The deeper they went, the harder it was to break up the dirt, so, for the Flame Guild to attempt to go deeper than one floor, it would have required a great deal of assistance from another guild.
“Exactly! So we tried to get creative with the flame cells. In fact, one of the top Flame Guild alchemists–”
“Alchemist?” Edgard found his eyes bulge when he heard that word. What is he talking about? What in the heck is a Flame Guild alchemist?
“Oh, that’s right. Um . . . they are the people who come up with new and creative ways to use the flame cells.” He shrugged as if this were common knowledge. “The more creative the way and the more useful the invention, the higher the status of an alchemist.”
“But . . . why do you need new inventions? Don’t we already have everything we could want?” Edgard wasn’t sure he had ever heard of any new inventions in his entire life. What were they? What did they even do?
“Well . . .” The guy started walking towards the stairs back down to the first floor he had been eyeing since they first walked into the building. “That may be one of the things that we could do to show off the town if we can’t make an explosive. We have a ton of new gadgets. All of them use the flame cell to operate, but we don’t generally want to bring them out because of how pig-headed and stubbornly old-fashioned the Father is.”
“But why do you need new tools?” Edgard felt like the man was missing the point of his question. He wasn’t asking where they were or why he didn’t know about them. He just wanted to know what could possibly be improved by anything new.
“Come on, why would anyone invent anything? To make life easier! Why spend the rest of your life doing the same job over and over again if you can come up with a faster way to do it?” His nose seemed to turn up even an inch higher as he spoke.
It actually made sense to Edgard somewhat. If there were a way to write books without him having to sit down and scrawl them out patiently by hand every day, he probably would take it too. The only thing was that, if they really were coming out with tons of new inventions, then why did they seem to be actually working more than most of the other guilds? For all of their bombast and bragging about being the harder workers, after looking at their craft space, Edgard found himself hard pressed to argue. They really did go all out. “Have you come up with any?” he asked, hoping it wasn’t going to put the grumpy guy on the defensive. After all, he called the people who came up with these inventions alchemists as if the title was for them only, not himself.
“Well, once. I came up with a way to cook a loaf of bread in almost no time flat, but the problem is the bread doesn’t taste that great, so it didn’t get approved for the vault.” He shrugged again.
“Ah, so how did the alchemists solve the floor problem?” Edgard continued to follow the man as they now began their descent into the basement. As soon as it became clear where they were heading, several Flame Guild members turned their heads to look at them. Some even stopped what they were doing and straightened up as their gazes followed Edgard and their fellow guild member.
What in the heck is his name? Edgard cursed himself for still not knowing what the guy was called.
“See, that’s the thing. They came up with a solution because we are the best at what we do after all, but the solution was too flashy. It would have caused such a commotion that we wouldn’t have been able to hide it from the other guilds,” he answered, still not explaining what the solution was.
“Umm, I know this is a bit late, but my name is Edgard.” Edgard gave up on calling him ‘man’ over and over again in his head and just decided to proceed with the introductions.
Edgard’s guide looked at his bucket and then at Edgard’s hand. His face seemed to show an internal debate on whether or not this ‘Brother’ was worth knowing. He didn’t have a problem talking, but Edgard suspected that it had a lot to do with how his ego was boosted with each boast, and the identity of his audience wasn’t important–just that he got a chance to brag to someone. Anyone. Finally, after much deliberation, the fellow switched the bucket to his left and extended his right to Edgard. “Acwel.”
Edgard wasted no time in shaking Acwel’s hand, but the name almost caused his facade to falter and a cringe to hit the surface. They named you that? He really wanted to ask his parents what they were thinking. “Pleasure to meet you.” Edgard managed to keep his fake smile up as he looked the man in the eyes and squeezed the proffered hand. “Now, Acwel, what was the solution?” Edgard looked at the bucket. “And is it something that a Flame Guild member would have to do?”
“Yeah, just watch.” As Acwel spoke, he took one of the tiny stones out of the bucket and put it in a wall lamp, illuminating the entire room so Edgard could make out exactly where they were before he grabbed two more out of the bucket and started heading to the center of the room.
While the place was dark, Edgard took it as nothing more than a simple basement, but, once it was lit up, that was an entirely different matter. While the space itself was merely a plain storage room, when Edgard saw what was being stored there, he suddenly felt that it was more beautiful than any of the paintings on the tables at the food hall. It was more magnificent than any of the etchings of runes and their stories across some of the sermon hall walls in the church. However, it was also a crude splendor. The room was filled with odd devices of every shape and size, all of their origins and purposes unknown and all stowed somewhat haphazardly on a number of shelves. Half of him wanted to follow the man and find out what the much-vaunted solution was, but the other half wanted to just pick up each piece of equipment off its shelf and see what it did. With unique metal and crystalline lines gracing the mostly wooden mechanisms, it was impossible to determine what any of their functions could be just be glancing at them.
“Up here,” Acwel said, grabbing an empty flame cell heat converter off one of the shelves and putting it on the ground. The converter was nothing more than a bowl-shaped device made of crystal which was no bigger than a hand with two tubes hanging off each end. “You see, it’s actually kind of brilliant. While these tubes are exposed to the air, they do their job by letting heat out of the heat converter. It’s the basic concept for how all the technology in the city functions. One of these five-foot tubes lets out the heat. The other tube, well, it sort of stabilizes. Even if you remove the second tube, the device will still function though. See.” He pulled off one of the converter’s tubes.
“How do you tell which one is the heat one and which one is the stabilizer? They both look the same to me.” Edgard noticed that each tube was black, and there wasn’t really much of a difference between them.
“Oh, that’s easy. Put a flame cell in and put your hand over each. The one that’s warm is obviously the converter tube.” Acwel pointed the converter tube at Edgard, and he felt a waft of heat hit him. “Now, here is where the fun part starts,” Acwel said. He pushed his fingers into the converter tube and pulled out some of the crystalline substance that filled it. Then he took the flame cell he had been holding and put it in the empty spot before ripping out the stabilizer tube and tossing it on the ground.
“What are you doing?” Edgard was keenly paying attention to every action, trying his best to memorize the motions.
“Well, I have no idea what the stabilizer tube does, but I do know what its socket does. If we take just a regular flame cell, and . . . Well, watch,” Acwel said and then proceeded to cut the converter tube in half, after which he jammed the flame-cell-filled tip of its original end into the socket where the stabilizer tube had been. “Now, we have an explosive.”
“But it’s just the same converter?” Edgard didn’t want to argue, but it just looked like the same crystal bowl with two tubes sticking out of the wooden box that held it, the only difference being that the tubes were now only two and a half feet long, not five.
“Shows how much you know,” Acwel shot back with a haughty laugh. “Look, this is just one flame cell inside. Watch this.” He went to the storage cabinets that lined the walls and grabbed a simple metal box with two holes in it. He then put the converter in the box and ran the tubes through the two holes so that the converter wasn’t visible to Edgard or Acwel, and the open top of the box was pointed away from them. “Here, get back a bit.” Acwel shooed Edgard with his left hand as he held the ends of the two tubes firmly in his right. “Now, watch what happens when we reconnect the tubes and complete the circuit.” He gave Edgard a wink and pushed the ends together.
At first, it was incredibly anti-climatic. A second passed and Edgard found himself squinting as he tried to figure out what had happened that Acwel had been so excited about showing him. Then two seconds passed, but Acwel’s face didn’t lose it’s joy for even a moment. Finally, somewhere between two and three seconds later, it happened: an explosion that rocked the room and shattered the metal box. Acwel, who had barely been a foot away from the makeshift bomb, was knocked back, and the metal case itself, obviously a hackneyed safety measure, split into two pieces with one of them shooting off towards Edgard.
You’ve got to be kidding me. Edgard stared at the metal sheet that had gutted him and left his entrails slowly shifting as they started their descent into the real world by sliding out of the open wound on his stomach. I’m going to die this early?
Acwel, who, other than the concussive force of the explosion, had gone mostly unharmed, looked over at Edgard in shock. “Oh, God, God, save him! I did not mean this!” he cried frantically, rushing to Edgard and pressing the wound with his hands. “Help!”
“Wait.” Edgard shook his head. You moron, there isn’t enough distance for me to use this explosion. I’ll kill myself every time in the process, he realized. “Wait, I have to know something before I die . . .” he found himself strangely comfortable with talking through the pain. Is it just that common for me to suffer now? What the heck have you– no, no time for thinking about that. “Before I go, I have to–”
“You’re not going to die. We’ll get someone. You’ll be fine. Trust me. Just hang in there.”
“No, no, I don’t have time.” Edgard knew that, even if he didn’t die, he was passing out soon. He could feel a very real struggle occurring between his will to stay conscious and his desire to simply close his eyes and sleep. He felt his vision already blurring and knew that he didn’t have much time left. “I need to know, is there a way to extend the length of the tube? Can you make it thirty, forty or fifty feet long?” If just one flame cell, barely enough to keep a room moderately warm during fall did this to me, what would happen if fifteen flame cells were put in a converter like when it was used to heat up food in the kitchen? Or twenty? This can work . . . but I need more space.
“Umm,” Acwel looked around, “yeah, of course. I just didn’t think to extend it. I didn’t think that the casing would–”
“Stop. Just tell me how.” Edgard found himself having to swallow down blood to speak.
“Okay, umm, just take the cords from other converters and tie them together. As long as the crystal parts within the tubes are touching, it will just act as a longer converter. You can even put a flame cell between each tube. They act as a sort of magnet. It’ll hold easily. Trust me. But . . .” Acwel stopped talking and watched as Edgard picked up one of the inventions to his left and broke it open to expose a sharp metal edge.
Several Flame Guild members piled down the stairs, looks of horror drawn across each of their faces as they beheld Edgard, lying bleeding against the wall with the piece of metal from the containment box still firmly stuck in his side. Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not the one who built a faulty boom box. Edgard closed his eyes for a moment.
“Sorry to leave you here, but I’m really not enjoying the pain,” Edgard said with weak laugh, each breath causing more excruciating agony in his stomach and chest. He then stabbed the sharp metal edge he had just procured into his own temple with all the force he could muster. The last thing he remembered seeing was the horrified looks on the Flame Guild members’ faces as he shoved the blade into his head. It hadn’t been a clean cut, but it had been enough to make the world go black and leave him lying on his bed, eyes closed and waiting for the day to start once again.
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