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.
(The adolescents and children held in the RVR facility have been there so long that their methods of communication have drifted away from the language practices of the world they were stolen from. At times it can be difficult to catch their meaning, given the preponderance of acronyms in their speech. This record provides helpful notes to clear up the issue.)
The counselors were likely to call it ‘running away from home’, but that phrasing was unfair and misleading. The facility could never be home, and not just because of its refusal to allow the comfort of anything other than a right angle. They had no mothers to tuck them in and no fathers to slip them sweets. They had only their block counselor and their professors.
KLS (kill light swiftly) stuck her hand into the hallway and pressed her flat palm down near the ground. The lamps on either side dimmed slowly. When she was confident that nobody would be able to see her from the other end, she stuck her head out for a look. KLS was fifteen, malnourished into the frame of a twelve year old, and frightened. She’d never taken so much initiative in her life, and it was simply to flee the initiative of others.
Her sister pressed her shoulders, urging her to actually step forward. They could run away without any running. KWS (kill wizards swiftly) was nearly identical except for a few key differences. Both of them had hair dyed a wild and unnatural color, primarily to aid in telling them apart. Her locks were blue and white to indicate the mana-focused sorcery that was the focus of her training. KLS was orange and red for the bombastic flashiness of regular magic: the one of the two arts that commoners back in the world might actually recognize.
“Are we ITC?” KWS whispered. (in the clear)
“We don’t want to be!” her sister hissed back. “We’re looking for CNI!” (change numbers inconspicuously) “He was supposed to meet us here right? I bet he was lying. We’re out of time. Bed checks are done already.” The two of them crept forward. It wasn’t like CNI to be unreliable, but perhaps something had stopped him from hanging around. The counselors never kept the schedules exactly the same, to help throw escape attempts off balance. Vital when some of the students could twist or rip reality itself.
According to their carefully laid out plan, he was supposed to meet them in hallway 17G where he would give them the number trail that led to freedom. KWS pointed at the sign on the wall, her hand shaking: 17G. There were other numbers below it, and neither of them could remember seeing similar ones before: Access to 20T by way of 19T. That couldn’t be right. It had to be a signal! CNI was telling them that he’d made the requested modifications in room 20T, and that the back-up room was 19T. That meant they had a long way down to reach their escape route.
CNI was born and trained as a magic-user, or wizard, much like KLS. His spell adaptability was limited to number and word modifications, a skill that seemed endlessly dull to children but that made scheming adults water at the mouth. The name on a deed could be any other name. The sum on a bounty poster could have a few more zeroes.
That would be the upper end of his skills of course: the ability to change reality by changing the number. For now all he could do was shift the ink and chalk itself. With luck, that was all his friends needed.
KLS and KWS skittered to the next hallway, aiming for the stairs that could take them down to T level. First, KLS had to stick her hand in and once more kill the lights. She wished she could make the whole place go dark, tired as she was of staring its refined decorations.Even the stairway was made of fine wood and had a plush red carpet rolling across each step.
If one looked closely however, they would see the artificial nature of it all. Magic could only build lasting structures in right angles or fractal patterns, so over time the RVR facility became a headache-inducing mess of overlapping squares. The children didn’t know anything else, every sunset they’d ever seen was a simulacrum in a wizard’s cupped hands, but they still felt how wrong this rigid world was.
KLS took a step and her foot lowered, the only problem being that she hadn’t reached the first stair. Gasping and hopping back was all she could do, nearly knocking her sister over as the depression in the floor sagged.
“We’re going have to fight aren’t we?” KWS moaned as she put her back to the wall and aimed the base of her palms at KLS’s heart.
“We could always ask really nicely,” KLS muttered before speaking up. “How about it MFV? Will you pretty-please let us go?” (makes floor vanish) The depression extended, making the first step collapse like a tart with too much lemon cream. At its center a bump appeared and grew taller. It was the counselor’s hat: as annoyingly square as everything else despite its fancy silver trim. It sat on the head of a man with long greasy hair, which sat on a robed body with sleeves so large that the hands were lost within. Every inch of MFV emerged, but he didn’t repair the angle of the floor, in order to keep them off their balance.
“It’s past curfew,” he said in his droning voice, sounding annoyed that he wasn’t able to go to bed with everyone else. “Get back to your rooms. No breakfast tomorrow.” He held out his hand for them to take, but KLS had another idea that KWS was already preparing for.
“2AM,” she whispered to her braver sister. (two active mana) KLS already knew it of course, there was no feeling stranger than having a second mana in your heart; it made it seem like death was knocking at your door and screaming to be let in. It was a painful pressure in the chest, and even without it as distraction KLS had a hard time imagining how anyone had withstood six mana crowding each other in order to build the facility in the first place.
She lashed out, pretending only for a second that she was taking the counselor’s outstretched hand. When she tapped his fingers the entire hand vanished, and not back into his sleeve. The man recoiled, the floor bunching up behind his heel as if it were a rug. His face contorted, meaning he actually believed she had taken his hand.
Normally KLS, at one mana capacity, could simply brighten or dim a room. With two mana, the second created from the first and stoked by KWS, she could manipulate light into helpful illusions, like making a cruel old man think his hand had been obliterated instead of simply obscured. Her ankles quivered after her first successful attack, sweat gluing hair to her temples. Two mana hurt so much, but she was more worried that KWS wouldn’t maintain it. She was always afraid of irreparably damaging her sister’s heart.
Mana was somewhere between an internal organ and a clam’s pearl. It was a perfectly spherical gemstone, usually the size of a marble, that formed in the hearts of individuals that practiced magic. Over time they learned to pass magic through it, like light through a prism, choosing the exact color they wanted.
At that level magic was just parlor tricks: changing numbers and snuffing candles. It needed the parallel, and more powerful, art of sorcery to achieve anything beyond that. Sorcery was the ability to sense mana and convince it to replicate for a limited time. KWS’s aimed hands achieved that, but she couldn’t wait to put them down so her sister could breathe.
Every powerful wizard needed an equally powerful sorcerer at their back to fuel their arcane weaponry. The worst disasters of the world were committed by just one person, with fifty sorcerers bowed in prayer to them.
“We didn’t teach you that,” MFV growled as his hand faded back into sight. His still-transparent fingertips snapped. The floor was gone. Only the two children fell, smacking against the floor below so painfully that they couldn’t maintain any of their efforts. The lights went back to scalding brightness and the two mana in KLS’s heart fused back into one.
At least it was enough of a relief to let her run. Without checking to see if MFV walked across the air, as he often did to frighten them, the twins made a run for it. They were one level lower after all; the counselor didn’t know he was bringing them closer to their goal. There were many ways out of the facility, but only one way to open those doors.
H went by. I. J. K. A section of ceiling vanished ahead of them as they ran down Hallway L. The counselor dropped down, arms crossed, landing so softly that it wouldn’t wake even a mouse sleeping in the walls. Of course, if there were any such vermin the facility would’ve reduced them to bones and spat them out immediately. Plenty of magic went into making it the least friendly place there ever: just a cube of nearly identical passages and rooms drifting in a magical void.
“PBD,” he announced, three letters frightening enough to make the two disobedient children stop in their tracks. (punishable by death) It was the counselor’s ultimate privilege. He could punish them in any way he wanted. It was most likely just a threat, they knew they were too important, but not all the children were.
MFV’s punishments didn’t seem so bad at first, back when they were six years old and he was just the physical disruption professor. If you passed a note in class he would appear next to you, gently lay a hand on your shoulder, and then proceed to fold you up like a piece of paper until you were the same size as the note. After that he told the class to pass them around for a while and gave a small lecture about how everyone at the RVR facility was part of a family. Every act of disobedience damaged the unity of that family, made the students more likely to run away when they got older. That would make it impossible to fulfill their potential. They wouldn’t topple any kingdoms or slay any guardian dragons.
There was one such punishment where KWS had held PAM (polar animal manipulation) gently, giggled, and passed her flattened body back to Professor MFV. PAM had mocked him personally, saying his specialty magic, the removal of floors and walls, was just to get rid of the evidence puddle whenever he wet himself in public.
It was a very strange sound… when MFV ripped her in half in front of all the others. There was no scream. It was like paper, but stiffer and louder. They watched the wastebasket in the corner for the rest of the lesson to see if she would recover, but they had to leave her there when the bell rang.
“I need three!” KLS shouted.
“You can’t handle 3AM!” KWS cried in protest.
“I can’t handle living here! Give it to me!” KWS focused, shutting her eyes. There was her sister’s soul, crystallized into the mana. The sorcerer projected her support, splitting it in two. She had to ignore KLS’s gasp. This was necessary if they were ever to see the actual sun. Two became three and the gasp became frightfully close to a death rattle.
They weren’t the most traditional sisters, born in a cauldron from the same hair. Made different only so one could use magic and the other sorcery. Nevertheless, their bond was their support, and they didn’t need any of the floors MFV ripped out from under them.
The counselor was frightened again, as he never could’ve guessed they’d secretly practiced all the way up to three mana. There was one of the gems in his billowing pocket, claimed from the heart of a corpse. His tactics were only possible while gripped it and used it in conjunction with the one in his own heart. If they had three he was actually outclassed.
His panic response was to remove several floors below them instead of just one, hoping the fall would kill them before they got off their next spell. What a blunder this had been. They were among the most highly-valued subjects. KLS was supposed to eventually choose when days started and ended. KWS was supposed to kill rival wizards by multiplying the mana within them until their hearts burst.
All three fell in a jumble, grabbing at each other and trying to keep their talents focused. MFV wrapped his hands around KWS’s neck, ready to rip her in two, thinking her the more dangerous. That left KLS free to grab at his robe, until she found the rock hard second mana. There were only two in her heart at that moment, but with a third she could do it. They were already in position, having fallen directly over room T19.
Keeping hold of him was crucial, because he wouldn’t let himself die by fall. MFV was forced to soften the final floor, and KLS made him choose T level by jamming a finger in his eye at the right moment and threatening to blast it with a million beams of light.
Still, it was not the softest landing. The sisters rolled away only to smack into the wall. Luckily the counselor didn’t notice its peculiar shudder as he struggled back to his feet, grabbing at his pocket to confirm his second mana was still there.
“You SUTs!” he boomed. (suddenly useless trash) That was the moment he saw the numbers on the wall. 24X. Perfect. The next room over was a disciplinary chamber. He wouldn’t even have to clean up the mess if they bled in there. He grabbed the second mana and focused, a minor effort considering the similarities between floors and walls.
KLS and KWS fell backward, straight out of the RVR facility and into a grassy meadow of Earth proper. MFV was stunned, especially since he hadn’t seen natural light in just as long.
“3AM!” KWS shouted as they both jumped up. KLS had no room for breath, but she managed to raise her arms anyway and fire off a beam of light. They didn’t know if it killed him, but it was enough to close the gateway. The facility didn’t exist in real space, nor a real place, so it never opened on the same two spots twice. They were safe, and all it took was a second level illusion that made one room like like another, and CNI’s helpfully altering of some signs.
The sisters turned, mana shrinking in the wizard’s heart. She collapsed, but KWS was there. Their only other companion was the sun, barely having risen.
“There it is,” the wizard said weakly, tears forming. “I want more of it!” She lifted her hand, and only with a sole mana, the fiery orb rose and showed them the glory of the tree line. The facility had many purposes, including dampening the power of the subjects.
The whole word would deal with the consequences of KLS and KWS simply exaggerating the dawn. It was best they not antagonize them however. Before long all would know those six letters, and feel the mana rattle in their hearts.