Tori texted Anya on her way back from the bodega. She had bought two dozen plastic containers that she hoped would fit most of the dragon steak if they cut it up enough. She almost dropped the bag holding the containers when she saw a plume of black smoke emerging from Anya’s building. A crowd of people had assembled on the sidewalk below, but away from the building to allow a crew of firefighters to come and go as needed.

“Oh no, Anya!” Tori said and rushed forward. “Anya!”

“Here!” Anya called as she stood up from the curb. She was impossible to miss, towering over everybody around her by at least a head. Tori wasn’t sure whether to laugh or gasp at her friend’s appearance: her face was smudged with black soot, and her reddish hair was singed and frayed along the edges so that it flared out at the ends in a brittle fan of crisp points.

“Pfffft!” Tori settled somewhere between amusement and concern as Anya frowned at her. She started to ask her what happened when she saw the tall, rugged-faced firefighter standing nearby. “Uh, sorry.”

“No problem,” the firefighter said. “You live here?”

“Just visiting,” Tori said. The firefighter nodded and turned back to Anya.

“So, no explosive devices?” he asked.

“No, I swear. I was in my kitchen, I lit a candle and then ka-boom,” Anya replied.

“Yeah, looks like you just left the gas on. No serious damage outside of some light burns on the walls in your kitchen.”

“That’s not too bad,” Anya sighed.

“And you’re fine? No injuries?”

“No, thank god. Scared the shit out of me and ruined my hair, but that’s it.”

“You’re lucky. If the gas had built up, it could’ve been real bad,” the firefighter said. He nodded at the rest of the firefighters as they exited the building, giving various thumbs-up or nods at him. “All right. Seems like everything is okay now. You might wanna talk to your super about any kind of smoke damage or maybe moving apartments if you think there might be an issue with your gas line.”

“Right, thank you. Sorry for making you come down here,” Anya said.

“Our pleasure,” the firefighter said. “No trouble at all, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call the station. Just ask for James. That’s me.” He smiled at her as he put his helmet on and climbed back into the fire engine.

“If you’re not gonna call James, I might,” Tori said. Anya laughed and shook her head.

“You think there’s other leaks?” an old woman asked them. Anya didn’t know her name, just that she lived on the first floor and had too many cats. “This building’s older than I am. Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Uh, no, I’m sure it’s fine. The firefighters seemed to think it was safe,” Anya replied.

“Mmmm,” the old lady said and then glanced up and up at Anya. “Were you always this tall?”

“I had a little growth spurt recently.”

The old lady shrugged, then patted Anya on the arm and walked inside with the other tenants. Tori looked up at Anya, the obvious question clear on her face.

“I’ll fill you in when we’re upstairs,” Anya said as they followed everybody else inside. Tori gaped at the apartment when they arrived. Long black streaks marred the otherwise pristine white walls of the kitchen and reached up onto the ceiling. Their pattern made it look as if the kitchen were in the clutches of some great black hand whose fingers were closing around it. The apartment reeked of burned cloth and smoke, even with the shattered window letting fresh, frigid air in. Anya switched on the overhead van to blow as much of the lingering smell out as possible, then went to the bathroom to wash her face and neaten her hair.

“So,” Tori said. “Been busy while I was out?”

“Sort of,” Anya said, and explained what had happened. Anya held up the finger she had used to summon the tiny flame. It stung a bit and the fingernail was cracked and blackened.

“Flame dominion,” Tori said and pinched the bridge of her nose as she sat on the edge of the bed. “Jesus, Anya.”

“Well, I didn’t know it was gonna explode! I just conjured a tiny itty bitty candle flame.”

“And it really worked?”

“Yeah, really easily too. Until it uh, blew up.”

“Can I see it? Not the blowing up part.”

Anya looked around at her apartment——broken window, toasted walls, singed floors——and then at Tori. She couldn’t blame her. If Tori told her she could do magic, she’d want to see it too. “Okay, but on the roof. I don’t need any other explosions in my apartment.”

The roof of Anya’s building was empty save for a few wooden planters that her neighbor, Mr. Kim, had set up along with some huge brown clay pots that held kimchi he made himself. He always shared it with people in the building and sold the rest at markets nearby. The planters were empty during the winter, and thankfully Mr. Kim wasn’t up here to witness the impending demonstration.

The roof was much colder than the street below, exposed to the wind as it was. Or it should have been. Tori shivered even underneath her coat and hat and scarf, but Anya barely felt the chill. A gust blew past them and Tori groaned as it bit at her with its frigid teeth.

Anya felt the wind push past her, but no real temperature change. There was a slight dip, but nothing more. She was able to sense a drop in Tori’s outer temperature though. It was similar to watching a light bulb dim, or hearing a person’s voice fade.

“Weird,” Anya muttered as she looked at Tori.

“W-what?” Tori asked and rubbed her arms.

“Tell you later. I’m gonna do this so we can get back inside.”

“Th-thanks,” Tori said. Anya held up her undamaged index finger so Tori could see, and once again she drew on the hot center inside of her. This time she tried not to let her emotions get away with her, but she couldn’t suppress a smile as a tiny flame once again appeared over her finger.

“Wow,” Tori said and stepped closer. She leaned forward and stared at Anya’s finger and the flame above it. It sputtered in the wind, but didn’t go out. Anya had to keep feeding the tiny fire from the heat source within her, as it threatened to be snuffed out unless she maintained it. It was a lot more difficult than summoning the flame indoors. She began to notice the chill in the air around her more and shivered for the first time since they had stepped outside. She also noticed she was breathing a bit harder than normal, and the longer she sustained the flame, the faster her heart beat and the more her breath puffed out in heavy clouds. The warm reserve of energy within her cooled as well, shrinking and ebbing away with every second. After she and Tori stared at the flame for a while, Anya extinguished it and took a deep breath as she put her hands on her knees.

“Oh man, head spins,” Anya said.

“You okay?” Tori asked.

“Yeah it just takes a bit out of me, like doing heavy cardio or something. Shit, I’m really hungry too.”

“That tiny fire on your finger made you this tired?”

“I only put one point into the skill,” Anya shrugged as she straightened up. Her breathing and heart rate were mostly back to normal, and the cold didn’t bother her as much as it had a moment ago. That warm center of energy within her began to grow once more. It beat slowly within her, a second heart that spread fire instead of blood.

“Let’s get back inside. I’ll cut up the dragon steak and you can lie down,” Tori said and put a hand on Anya’s arm as they went back inside.

Anya was almost back to normal by the time they were inside her apartment again, which was good because her apartment was still a mess.

“Where’s the dragon steak?” Tori asked as she looked around. She hadn’t noticed the meat’s absence when she had entered last time. It was too easy to notice the scorch marks everywhere instead.

“I shoved it in the fridge before the firefighters came. Didn’t wanna explain why I had a hunk of meat bigger than an elephant’s ass on my counter.”

“Charming comparison.”

“That’s me,” Anya said. She set about cleaning as best she could while Tori carved the dragon steak and placed it in the numerous plastic containers. Anya taped plastic and towels around her now completely broken window, and scrubbed the black marks off her walls and floor as best she could. It was still a mess, but better than it had been when she started.

It was a few hours later when both women were finished, and Tori sighed. “I think I’m gonna head out,” Tori said. “I have hit my weird limit for…well, probably for life, if I’m being honest. You gonna be okay?”

Anya looked around her apartment and then down at herself, her muscles, her singed finger. “I’m not sure. I’m definitely not gonna blow myself up again if that’s what you mean. But I have no idea what I’m gonna do about work.”

“I’ll cover for you on Monday, tell them you were crazy sick or something. Give you at least a few days to figure it out.”

“Thanks, Tori.”

“No problem. Now, if there’s an emergency, call me, but otherwise, I’m going back to my apartment until Monday morning, and trying to not think too much about what I’ve seen today. And I’m taking some of the dragon steak.”

“Be my guest,” Anya said and chuckled. She was a little sad to see Tori go, but couldn’t blame her. She walked her down to the sidewalk and waved as she left, huddled against the cold. Anya hadn’t bothered to put on her heavy coat to come outside, and even without it, she only felt the cold as a gentle touch on her skin.
She sighed and her breath plumed out, hotter than usual. Anya shook her head and trudged back to her apartment. The plastic taped over her window rustled in the wind and bowed into the room with every gust. It was too quiet.

“Hey, uh, AI thing,” Anya said. The construct materialized over her shoulder like a chubby angel. Or maybe a demon.

“Hello!” it cheered.

“I gotta think of a name for you,” she said. “You got any preferences?”

“None whatsoever. Whatever suits you best works for me.”

“Hmmm,” she thought as she took out a small pair of scissors from a drawer nearby and started to clip off the burnt edges of her hair. “Well, you’re super happy, and enthusiastic…how about Felix?”

“Felix is Latin for Happy!” the AI said. “That’s fantastic!”

“Nice to meet you Felix,” Anya said.

“We actually met already. I’m your personal——”

“I know. Just…nevermind.”

“Okie doke!”

“So that fire magic I used,” Anya said. “I’m guessing it’s tied to emotion or something? I got excited and it exploded. I also got really winded after, and on the roof.”

“Let’s see,” Felix said and tapped their chin with a finger as they thought. “Looking at data on the flame dominion skill, it seems that lower levels of ability are less stable and more likely to be disrupted by breaks in concentration. Raising your skill as well as your awareness stat can fix this. Also, a lot of magic skills require the caster to act as a conduit for energy both ambient and inherent, so a high fortitude stat is essential! If you’re not careful, you could exhaust or even kill yourself with the amount of energy you use.”

“Got it,” Anya said. “Magic though. Really? Like, real magic?”

“The menu classifies it as such, yes,” Felix nodded.

“And I’m guessing the menu system learned about all this when it got close enough to Earth? Picked up all the information on the planet in however many seconds it took to enter the atmosphere and smack me in the chest?”

“When not attached to a host, the menu system has an informational intake range of up to 100 light years. I don’t have access to where all of the menu’s information came from, but it isn’t all from Earth.”

“So are the aliens who made this thing basically just gods? Because this is some god-level stuff. It might as well all just be magic. Any sufficiently advanced technology, and all that.”

“I don’t have any data on the menu creators except that they’re not from Earth,” Felix said and shrugged. “They might be gods!”

“Weird as fuck gods,” Anya said.

“Have you thought about your class selection? Evocation Mage would be a good match for your flame dominion skill. That would be a lot of fun!”

“Gee, I dunno, that Accountancy class sure looks tempting,” Anya said and rolled her eyes.

“It sure does!”

Anya sighed. “I only have one class point, right? And there’s thousands of classes. I still don’t know if I even want all of this. I’ve outgrown my entire wardrobe, ruined my hair, and almost burned down my apartment building in less than 24 hours. This is kind of a pain in the ass to deal with. And please don’t say anything about literal pains in the ass, it’s an idiom.”

“Well, that’s up to you. You could just buy new clothes and redesign your hair though,” Felix said.

“Shit, yeah, I could,” Anya raised her eyebrows and studied her customization and status menu. The picture of her now showed her crispy, frayed hair. She actually thought it looked pretty good shorter, but she could do without the uneven chunks made from her hasty trimming. Evening out her hair was easy enough with the menu, and only cost 5 RAC.

Anya decided to change the color of her hair as well after some consideration. She decided she couldn’t stick out much more than she already did, and since she could summon fire now, bright red seemed like a good choice. Her scalp tingled and the picture of her in the status menu changed. Her once dull, coppery red hair was now the shade of a vibrant sunset. Another 5 RAC.

“And only 10 RAC for all that,” Anya muttered. “Not bad.” She thought about other cheap cosmetic changes, like eye color or tattoos or her nails and decided against it. Instead she flicked over to the RAC store and the clothing section. She spent the rest of the night browsing through the menu and indulging in some of the best it had to offer her.

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