It’s my 53rd birthday! Have a party favor

Over the last year, I gained some serious XP and am now a level 53 human. So far, it’s delightful. I’m at a mini-retreat with three excellent people, Alyshondra, Christine, and Jen. They have plied me with eggs, rosemary scones, and cardamom shortbread that would make Ted Lasso weep with joy and envy.

For you, I have a party favor.

I didn’t publish a lot last year, but of the two short pieces I did, “Ina’s Spark” has an evolution that I thought might be interesting.

Sometimes I pre-plan a story and the idea comes first. Sometimes, I do exploratory writing, where I’ll just sort of describe where I am and see what comes of it. This began as one of those, because I was at a retreat with a wood-burning fire. Partway down, you’ll hit a # and everything after that are notes to myself. I really do that stream of consciousness thing. I had no idea where this was going, or if it was going anywhere, but I thought seeing what it looks like when I’m noodling might be interesting.

Evina adjusted the logs on the fire with a green sapling, trying to get the airflow exactly right. The ruddy coals shifted and cracked as she reached under the logs and scraped them together into a pile The logs were burning, but with a low, yellow flame.

“Why don’t you just magic the fire?” Behind her, Cenrod lifted his head from the saddle he was using as a pillow. “Mother Savior, you’d be done by now.”

One of the charred logs shifted into position and the draft stoked a long dancing flame out if it. It popped and crackled as water trapped in the wood evaporated. Evina pursed her lips and gave another poke to a log near it, trying to see if she could get that one to go up, too.

“Some of us want to eat, you know?”

“The coals are hot enough, if you want to put a potato in there.” Evina glanced over her shoulder at her travel partner.

‘Could’a been that way half an hour ago.”

She sighed and rubbed her forehead, at the ache between her brows. There was probably a dark streak there from the charcoal. “I’m ever so sorry you had to wait an extra quarter hour for your dinner.”

“A half hour. You make fires instantly.”

“Fire, yes, but the coals still have to heat enough to cook something so it’s only a quarter hour at most it would have saved.”

Cenrod rolled up onto his elbow and fished around in his saddle bag for a potato. “A quarter hour closer to food means I would already be eating–“

“Not true.” Evina pointed the tip of the sapling at him. “It would still take the potato an hour to cook, so you would still be no closer than a quarter hour to eating.”

He rolled his eyes at her, stringy hair hanging across the scar on his forehead. It was healing well, at least, leaving the skin was red and shiny. He sidled up to the fire on his knees and shoved the potato into the coals, snatching his hand back from the heat. Without looking, he grabbed the sapling out of Evina’s hand and poked the potato deeper into the coals. Then he pointed it at her. “If I had magic, I’d use it all the time.”

“And you’d die young.” Evina turned to reach for her own pack and the night air, away from the fire, was a cool slap across her skin. She rummaged for a bit of bread and the hunk of cheese they’d picked up in Kellyston.

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but mercenaries don’t exactly have a long life expectancy anyway. I seen plenty of old wizards.”

“Because they don’t do magic for things that can be accomplished other ways.” She took the sapling back from him and settled on the ground next to the fire. Setting the bread and cheese on the least stained part of her trousers, Evina unsheathed her knife to whittle the sapling to a point. “And before you ask, yes, I could do this with magic and am choosing not to.”

“Will it… will it really kill you?”

“Not directly or immediately, no. But over time, yes, it will trim days off my life in the same way that using a knife dulls its edge gradually. You can sharpen it, but you do that by taking away a bit of the blade.” She held up her knife, which had belonged to her grandfather. The edge had been honed to a narrow slice of the original blade. “So… With that. Would you use your sword to trim a sapling, or chop firewood? Because it can do both.”

He gave a bark of a laugh. “More likely to break with firewood.”

“And there are spells that could break me, as well. So why risk it for eating a potato a quarter hour sooner?” She whittled another couple of pieces off to shape a rough spike. Laying the sapling across her lap, she dug a hole out of the bread and shoved the cheese into it. 

It seemed that Cenrod had finally dropped the subject, because he just watched her as she resheathed her knife. Evina slid the sharp end of the sapling through the bread, pinning the cheese inside. Carefully, she held the thing out over the cooler yellow flames so it would heat slowly.

“All right, but that you could heat up right now. Right?”

Evina sighed. “Yes. I like toasted bread. All right? It doesn’t taste the same when you magic it.”

“But it would–“

“Look. Do I second-guess the way you practice with the sword?” She rolled the sapling so that a different part of the bread toasted. 

“I’m just–“

“I can kill you with a word. You remember that. Right?” She turned to face Cenrod and he’d stopped with his mouth open.

Slowly he closed it. He swallowed. “I’ll just wait for my potato.”

“Good choice.”

The fire crackled, embers shifting from red to black. Moisture popped, sending sparks flying into the smoke.

“So… if you can kill me with a word, why do you need a mercenary?”

Evina dropped her head with a groan. She was going to kill him. “So… is the reason you work alone because you drive everyone crazy?”


Here I need to pause and figure out what this story is. So I have a wizard and a mercenary, on their way somewhere. They know each other, but not that well. It’s a new relationship. But old enough that he’s been injured since they met. So figure three weeks. Is there anyone else with them? No. Or she would have been thinking about them. And there wasn’t anyone else on the team, or she would have thought about their death or disappearance. So, just the two of them.

A heist? 

What else is interesting here. Revenge? Okay– wait. What does my MC want? Clearly she wants to just eat her dinner in peace, but that’s an objective. What’s her super-objective. Shall I give her “being admired,” which is mine? Or something more specific. She wants to do good work. She wants to change the world. She wants stability. She wants mastery. That… that feels the most connected to what I’ve been doing so far. She wants mastery and hates feeling out of control. That’s feels like a decent super-objective. 

What is her objective then, relating to that super-objective? There has to be something that is standing between her and mastery. An object? A talent that fails? A challenge? There… there’s something there. A challenge. Someone has challenged her to do a thing that she thinks she might not be good at. Is that the same as a dare? It seems as if it is, and yet at the same time, she’s demonstrated that she can’t be baited. She’s sensible. So the challenge would have to come from someone she respected and offer a tangible reward. A simple “toldya I could” isn’t going to be enough.

So what would make me push myself? An audition — oh… yeah. Yeah, that would do it.

If there’s a mentor she really wants to work with, but there’s a proving herself aspect. Holy cow, this is the wizard reality show I though of ages ago, but in a different context. Is it a mentor or a library she wants access to? The latter feels more organic. What I’m leaning towards now is that a king is looking for a new court wizard and has put out a challenge to all comers. If you can meet the challenge then you’re a contender. The one who ultimately defeats all of them gets to be the next wizard. It’s a steady paycheck AND access to the private papers of the royal library. So she’s going to go for it, because everyone is.

There’s an aspect that requires a mercenary. Is it as simple as she’s fairly certain that one of her rivals will try to kill her during the course of the contest? That wouldn’t be a physical threat though… Or maybe. Maybe, she’s figured out how to block magical threats, which leave only the physical. That could work. So she’s hired this guy?

Or, and this might have more possibilities… she’s figured out that in order to solve the challenge, you can’t rely solely on magic. There’s a monetary reward, too, so that gives some incentive for the mercenary. Did he approach her or did she go after him? I want her to be smart, so I feel like she’d have at least a little investment in hiring someone.

This is not the opening scene, and is fairly deep into the story. You can see the pieces of it that remain. So much of the world-building was just discovered as I free-wrote. Then I used my outlining tools to find the structure of the story.

If you hop over to Uncanny, you can read the final version of “Ina’s Spark.”

I hope you enjoy it!

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