Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
“Turn it up,” the young chef ordered. She stirred the vegetables around in the wok, waiting for the right shade of char marks to appear. She leaned in to scrutinize the zucchini, but there was a sudden flash of heat, forcing her to pull back and wipe the sweat off her face with a hand towel. “Not that much!”
“I’m sorry,” Frykeesh panted between breaths. “You didn’t… say… how much.” Their voice emanated from under the wok, words spilling out as licks of red flame. “You should say… medium heat… or something like that.” The young woman lifted the wok and slammed it back down on the stove, the metal sound ringing painfully throughout Frykeesh’s gaseous form.
“Haven’t you ever cooked before?” she chastised. “What did they send me? A blacksmith’s ember? You’re treating my precious ingredients like chunks of unrefined ore. That makes for unrefined cuisine and I can’t have that tonight. I’m having guests over. So moderate your flame, keep your whiny words out of it, and sear my damn vegetable medley!”
“Yes miss,” Frykeesh acquiesced. The poor engineered flame didn’t get anything out of their efforts. They didn’t even get to see the woman’s lovely rustic kitchen with its uneven stone walls and dried hanging herb bundles in yellow, purple, and tan. All the fire saw was the bottom of the wok they breathed on. In and out. In and out. Frykeesh cooked as evenly and calmly as possible, until the impatient young lady dismissed them. She didn’t move the wok so they could glimpse the result of more than two hours of helping her prepare. Oh well. Somewhere in the city there was someone who would by more gracious for Frykeesh’s heat.
The flame turned around in the narrow pipe of the stove and made their way back into the network. There was nothing to see in there either; it was a labyrinth of curving pipes as narrow as a human wrist. If a flame were to try and decorate the insides with paint it would get blackened and flake off within minutes. No, decoration was only for the ash heap. Besides, Frykeesh was supposed to be working, not idling in the pipes like nothing hotter than a horse radish belch.
Frykeesh left the apartment building, traveling down a tube at seventeen kilometers per hour, and passed through several of their siblings. One of them could help that woman with her crème brulee. Frykeesh chose a pipe leading to a more industrial district. Whether the flame admitted it or not, the woman’s criticism nearly snuffed them out. She said Frykeesh wasn’t subtle or dexterous enough to work with food. Suddenly certain they weren’t, the flame now sought rougher work more concerned with raw temperature than even heating.
The red flame found an empty pipe with a little flashing light at its entrance. A flame was wanted. Frykeesh swam through the heated air and dumped themselves out the wide end of the pipe. They were inside a kiln, the space mostly taken up by an earthen gray jug.
“Hello?” Frykeesh voiced.
“Hell in there,” an old man greeted, tapping on the outside of the kiln. “Are you my flame for today?”
“Yes sir,” Frykeesh answered. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing fancy.” The flame breathed a sigh of relief. “I just need the glaze on that pot to stick. I hope you don’t mind if I sit here next to you for a while. I like the heat on these old hands.” Frykeesh said that was just fine and then went about spreading their form around the jug. A few moments later it was coated in undulating red air, the heat sinking into the material, fusing it stronger. “These Fall holidays must be a busy time for you little embers,” he said after a few minutes. “Everyone’s making gifts and all the good crafts need fire.”
“Yes sir,” Frykeesh confirmed. They didn’t want to say that they weren’t exactly working hard at the moment. Most of the fire rested inside the jug like fluid; there was nothing more comfortable to a flame than the receptive surface of shaped clay. It was like taking a warm bath, sinking into it, letting your body become the water and transform into something that would never be able to be uncomfortable again. “The busiest time of the year, but it’s not so bad. We usually don’t have to go outside when the city’s so busy.”
“Eh? They send you embers outside? What for? There’s no pipes out there. The wind’d just take you.”
“Nature needs fire too sometimes,” Frykeesh answered after a moment, sinking deeper into the jug. Their temprature increased nervously. “I hate going out there. It feels like destroying. Not like this. This is building.”
“That it is,” the old man agreed. A few minutes later Frykeesh heard snoring just outside the oven. Something slumped against the side. Frykeesh pulled all the heat out of the metal there in case that slump was the man himself. The fact that he didn’t immediately wake up meant the flame had succeeded in saving him from a burn. Every so often it became clear why humanity had needed smart fire. Humanity did need it, but Frykeesh didn’t like being it.
When the glaze was firmly in place and shining Frykeesh slunk back into the pipes and let gravity take them most of the way home. The engineered flames were supposed to act whenever they saw a need or a flashing light, so Frykeesh couldn’t ignore the woman walking on a dark street by herself. The flame climbed into a lamp post and filled the glass orb at the top, bathing the area around her in warm flickering light. They moved with her, lamp to lamp, until she fumbled with the keys at her door.
The door closed; there were no other humans about at that time of night. Frykeesh was finally free to rush home to the ash heap. The pipes became much straighter and wider near the bottom to accommodate all the hot air from the morning and night rushes. Frykeesh thought none of the others liked the ash heap better than they did, but several flames rushed through and by in a greater hurry. Eventually the timid flame dropped out of an opening in their allotted iron bubble and hit the ash heap: a soft black pile barely larger than a human palm.
“Ahh, that’s better,” the flame told the walls. They were deep underground now, so there was no chance at all of another scolding human voice coming through the pipe. No chance of a disprespectful unappreciative bang on the metal. That was good for so many reasons. Engineered flames weren’t supposed to keep belongings, or belong to keepsakes, but that was a rule Frykeesh stopped respecting after their first forced trip out into the wilderness.
The pipes prevented them from bringing anything large down, and when they did they had to be extra careful that the heat from the pipe traffic didn’t destroy them. Still, Frykeesh managed to collect four tiny glass jars that stood near the walls around their ash heap. One held a pine cone. The second a butterfly’s chrysalis. The third a dried mushroom with a lovely red cap like a worn piece of shoe leather. The fourth was a rodent’s skull without a single crack or missing tooth.
Frykeesh spun slowly in the ashes, rolling them over their burning body, and examined each souvenir one by one. Each was from a different burn, a different memory that Frykeesh couldn’t force to evaporate with their heat. The red flame darkened to crimson. The seven tendrils poking out of the ashes became six, then five, then four… Frykeesh pulled into the pile, hid the room from sight with a screen of soft black ashes. Now they saw only darkness. They knew flames weren’t supposed to see that; it was like humans looking upon the skeletal visage of Death. Darkness was a thing Frykeesh could never fully wrap their mind around, for understanding it meant being extinguished.
If any of their friends knew, Frykeesh would not be allowed to live alone. They would need to keep a burning eye on them at all times, for engineered flames were not allowed to risk their own lives. That was against the rules, and the same people who kindled the fire kindled the rules as well. Frykeesh didn’t tell any lick that they were close to. They didn’t tell Incinernat, who braved the wilds in those stuffy suits with them. They didn’t tell Flintiddlo who raced across the street lamps on their way home.
It was Frykeesh’s secret, the only they had outside of a jar. The ashes were supposed to help them cool down for just a moment, to shed the excess heat of their last jobs so they didn’t warp their sleeping chambers. Frykeesh bathed in the ashes for hours, letting a lull overtake their soul. They flirted and yawned at the edge of darkness, somewhere between a deep yearning and a curious suicide attempt.
At first the flame just thought they were lazy. The cool pull of the ashes was like a deep dream. They muffled all sound. When Frykeesh felt their body fading they felt all the criticism fading along with it. The ash ate the fire, the insults, the very idea that Frykeesh was inadequate. As the flame sat there, flattening in the heap, they couldn’t even remember the voice of that young lady with the wok. They couldn’t remember the slam of the metal on the cook top. That impact was soft as a feather.
When it became a habit seven months ago, Frykeesh was forced to face the misery. They looked forward only to the ash heap each day. The only new steps to take were the ones on the edge of that permanent ashen darkness. That final step might’ve been taken, but a tiny bell clanged inside Frykeesh’s home. The flame sprung out of the heap, throwing ashes everywhere. The alarm. That didn’t go off for any old job like lighting someone’s cigarette or toasting a marshmallow without blackening it. They were being called out into the wilds once more, into donning the suit and becoming a pyrator.
The two human-shaped suits were dropped off by a wagon once the vehicle could penetrate no deeper into the forest. It would remain there for them to return to once the controlled burn was complete. Human could not be trusted with such a task, as their figurative hungers knew no boundaries. They could never see the exact moment where the burning should stop. It always tipped over the edge with them, into raw destruction.
Instead it was entrusted to the engineered flames, but they could not survive in open air without fuel. The solution was the pyrator suits: collections of fireproof fabric and rubbery trim with blown glass helmets shaped like the tops of alpine trees. On their backs they wore tanks containing spirals of driftwood: a slow-burn fuel source that could keep them moving for two days if needed. There were no faces to be seen behind the glass, just swirls of red flame.
The two pyrators were Frykeesh and their friend Incinernat. Once they walked deep enough into the trees and shrubs to avoid human sight they shared an embrace. Controlled burns were physically and emotionally taxing. Everything in the forest looked so wet. There had been rain not one day prior. Droplets of it, clinging to all the tree needles, occasionally fell around them; they reflexively recoiled as if they were venomous spiders or five meter boulders.
“How much do we have to do today?” Frykeesh asked their companion.
“Ten hectares,” Incinernat answered. They were the braver of the two, so they helped Frykeesh muster up the nerve by stepping forward. They held out one glove and propped it up with the opposite forearm. The fingertips opened, extending small brass funnels. The palm opened as well, with a sound like a vacuum-sealed can being punctured by a rather irritated can opener. Incinernat took a deep breath and pushed their flame outward while keeping its heart firmly in the suit. Out spewed spiraling jets of fire aimed at the underbrush.
It took quite a while for anything to catch, but eventually smoke started to rise. Incinernat followed behind the blazing path, encouraging it whenever they needed to. The humans examined the suits closely both before and after controlled burns, so they would know if Frykeesh didn’t do their part. They stumbled along behind their friend, opening their own palms and spraying halfhearted fires at any clumps of green the first pyrator missed.
Frykeesh knew what the humans said they wanted out of a controlled burn. It kept parasitic vines from getting out of control. It helped very specific seeds attuned to natural disaster germinate. It made harvesting the logs easier, as the pyrators could burn the leaves and branches without harming the trunks. Something about the procedure always felt off to the timid but loyal flame. They didn’t like destroying life of any kind.
Sometimes small animals got caught, unable to flee their burrows fast enough, like the skull in a jar Frykeesh kept by the ash heap. They had picked up that little blackened body, its tail turning to charred dust from the mere act of moving it, and solemnly taken it back, cleaned it, and gave it the only place of honor they had access to. The flame had seen something when that little vole died. There was a puff of flame from inside its chest. One desperate little gasp of raw blazing energy. Logic said it was just gases escaping, or the fires themselves working through its thin sheets of meat, but Frykeesh didn’t think so.
They weren’t the only one with an objection. Incinernat put out both hands and unleashed a wave of fire that ate several low-hanging branches. They dropped, revealing the furious snout of a moose cow. She bellowed and charged the pyrator. Incinernat wasn’t afraid, as the animal didn’t even have antlers. Absent the instincts of biology, they greatly underestimated the cow’s fury. She had a glade nearby where she liked to graze with her calves. She didn’t have any still reliant on her milk, but that little glade held great sentimental value, enough to convince her to kill the intruder.
Her charge bucked the pyrator onto her back. The sleeves of the suit were stiff, so Incinernat could only spray fire out to the sides as if the moose was rocket-propelled. Frykeesh stood there, shocked, palm vents hanging open but issuing nothing. The flames pressed against the back of their helmet, trying to escape the situation, to fly right back to their ash heap.
“Help me!” Incinernat cried out, with the sound finally rousing Frykeesh. They rushed forward, but didn’t use their fire. They’d never killed something the size of a moose before, never anything with big emotional eyes even larger than a human’s. They tackled the cow instead, pushing with their shoulder. She dropped the other pyrator and circled around, disappearing behind the trees. She would stand at the very edge of the glade and protect it there.
Frykeesh cradled Incinernat on burned mats of moss, one glove behind their glass helmet. They thought everything was alright, but then they noticed Incernat flailing, slapping at a spot on the front of the suit. There was a tear caused by the sheer power of the cow’s charge. Flame sputtered out of it with thin trails of smoke. The suit was compromised.
“What do we do?” Frykeesh asked in panic.
“I go into the sky,” Incinernat whispered weakly, their flailing slowing. “I won’t burn more than I’m supposed to. I am in control. That’s why they picked me…” The flame gave up, dropping the suit sleeves. Frykeesh wasn’t ready to give up. They only tackled the moose to keep anything from dying. That meant Incernat too! They fumbled with the latches and valves around the belt of their own suit.
Incernat was nearly snuffed, had one non-breath of that permanent darkness, but then they regained consciousness. They sat up and looked down; the pyrator suit was intact! Not only that, it looked a little newer and cleaner. The buttons and buckle were in all the wrong places. It wasn’t Incernat’s suit; it was Frykeesh’s.
The transferred flame jumped to their feet and whirled around in search of their savior. They spotted Frykeesh leaning against an already-burned tree. They were suitless: nothing but a mirage of swirling red air. The breeze would take them soon if they didn’t catch any fuel.
“I’ve thought about dying out here,” Frykeesh said numbly. “Or… I thought it was likely.”
“You saved me,” Incinernat said, just as numbly. Their gloved hand twitched. “I wish I could do the same for you.” They reached behind their back and pulled out a small metal canister with a nozzle. Frykeesh looked at it dumbly, not realizing in their fading life what it was. Then they remembered. There was a reason two flames were always sent out as pyrators. They were to keep each other in check in case one went mad with the power of burning in an unrestrained wilderness. The canister was an extinguisher.
“I just saved you,” Frykeesh muttered. “And now you have to… because I might…”
“It’s in the rules,” Incinernat said, walking forward, aiming the nozzle. Frykeesh didn’t know what struck them just then. It had to be something blowing about in the air itself, because that was the only thing there they’d never been exposed to. Frykeesh had been a millimeter from death a hundred times, back in their quiet metal bubble of a home. Yet out here with the wind blowing through, threatening to kill them regardless, Frykeesh did not want to die.
Incinernat depressed the handle of the canister; white foam shot out. Frykeesh dove to the ground, a very strange act for a flame. They broke upon it like water and scurried away in search of something to hold and burn. The shell of a nut. An untouched fiddle head. Frykeesh crawled across the forest floor piece by piece, avoiding both Incernat’s spray and the gentle breeze.
Even in their weakened state they were faster than the clumsy suit. Frykeesh disappeared under a fallen log and kept as quiet as they could while Incinernat passed by. They didn’t even let their fire pop a single wet pocket in the pine cone they clutched. When the coast was clear, and the crumbs of fuel nearly spent, Frykeesh lurched out from under the wood and nearly fell into a pond. The mud at its edge dried out under them.
The second of safety was split as something churned under the water. Out shot a white-pink tongue that tried to grab the flame, but just passed through their body. It recoiled, disappearing with a curl of smoke into the wide mouth of a surfacing creature. Frykeesh stared at it. Its bulging amphibious hide was topped with two amber eyes and two strange horns. It was like a frog but far too large, and with far too many thoughts swimming in its pool-shaped black pupils.
“You burned my tongue,” the frog complained with a deep voice that rippled the water.
“You can talk?” Frykeesh asked. Their own voice was weak; the wind pulled more of it away every moment. The flame looked up and noticed the frog’s strangest feature for the first time. It had a flame of its own perched between the two horns, burning strong and blue. “And you have fire?”
“Every living thing has fire,” the horned frog said dismissively. “Smart ones keep it in their hearts. Hear you are, naked as an inside-out volcano, dying to my breath. Yet you don’t give up and let me eat you. Make up your mind.”
“Your fire’s on the outside,” Frykeesh noted.
“I know how to handle it. I keep it out here because I like to hold my prey in my mouth and feel them struggle. Don’t want them grabbing at my fire while they’re doing so. Go put yourself back in your body. You’re embarrassing both of us.”
“I don’t have a body; I’ve always been fire.” The frog ribbited, which turned into a deep laugh that shook the ground. Frykeesh whipped around to see if the sound would draw Incinernat back. They shushed the frog.
“I bet you did,” the horned creature argued. “Maybe they pulled you out of it and scrambled your soul, but if you’re alive you had one. Foolish wisp. I think I might go nuts without mine, so I shouldn’t judge too harshly. Without a body you can’t do a controlled burn.”
“I was doing one just now,” the flame argued. It flicked a pebble at the frog; the stone skipped twice but sank before hitting its fleshy side. The action didn’t throw off a single spark.
“No. I’m talking death. Your body keeps your flame and lets it go out slowly, but inevitably. A controlled burn. You burn out and then your fire is done. They didn’t teach you a damn thing.” Frykeesh stumbled backward, hitting the wet log. The concepts clicked into place. Yes. Frykeesh wasn’t lazy; they didn’t want to die. They just missed the true controlled burn, the slow fade of life lived as intended. The campfire allowed to weaken to a glow and then to ash as its makers slept around it.
“Thank you!” Frykeesh said, flopping over again and rushing away from the pond. The horned beast made one more attempt to snatch them with its burned tongue, but missed. Frykeesh didn’t want to burn the forest or the city, just themselves, just slowly. Piece by piece they journeyed back to the human borders, snatching dry leaves and clumps of twigs whenever they could. They consumed little to stay small.
Climbing the city’s outer wall was no easy task, but they caught a leaf and rode it on the wind. That leaf landed in the middle of an abandoned alley, which had a pipe entrance and a grate for engineered flames. Frykeesh slipped inside, relishing the stability of the heated air in the pipes. They rushed back to their home and opened all the glass jars with the souvenirs from the controlled burns.
Frykeesh combined all four items into a little pile: skull, cone, mushroom, and chrysalis. All flames had bodies before they were pulled out and made to run mankind’s machines. Frykeesh couldn’t remember what they used to be, so they would make something new. The flame split into many tendrils and climbed into the holes in the pile. They didn’t try to burn, simply to inhabit.
The objects fused and grew. The new creature busted the side of their tiny metal cage and burrowed upward in the loose soil, scrambling around any pipes in the way as they continued to grow. A cobblestone popped out of the street. The animal squeezed their way into the fresh air. By now they were large enough to scare the people wandering by.
A furry thing with wooden armor upon four mighty toned legs, masked by a skull and winged with the translucent shell of a newly-transformed butterfly, climbed the towers of the city. They spread their wings wide, letting sunlight pass through and warm them.
This was it; the beginning of the true controlled burn. This was the brightest Frykeesh would ever be, and it was all downhill darkness from there. It would be a great descent to the next ash heap, when Frykeesh the beast could rest truly.