The tales of an unapologetic nerd
The following is a companion tale to "Disasters 'n Danger," my current Dungeons and Dragons campaign, which is live-streamed every Monday night on Twitch. This story follows the current struggle of my character "Fable Frost," an Ice Genasi Phoenix Soul Sorcerer. In short, a character who is quite literally both fire and ice. In a recent adventure, a new ability manifested itself as Fable was about to be slain by an enemy, and the phoenix spark within brought her back to life. But, all magic comes at a price. And while the fire has saved her many times over, it has taken as much as it has given. What's more is, Fable herself does not know or understand where this power comes from, or why she is the one to wield it. Now, she can feel its pull more than ever, and she has a choice to make ...
The forest was quiet and still tonight. No creature was disturbed by the extra bodies of the Archivists and their rescued prisoners. Barely a wind rustled the leaves overhead, or tossed fallen plant debris across the small clearing where they’d made their camp.
On any other night, Fable’s own silence would have been a curiosity. She often told stories by the fireside, or listened to Screebers’ mad tales with rapt enthusiasm. But tonight, when all was still, her quiet melancholy blended right in with the exhaustion of her fellow explorers. No one questioned it. No one so much as batted an eye. Nor did anyone ask why she sat so far from the others tonight. No, not from the others … why she sat so far from the fire.
She could still hear it calling … that spark that had ignited within her as had she fought the very trees. As she had struggled to keep herself from shattering and melting and exploding all at once.
As she had died.
Fable looked down at her hands, where she could still see the angry red and purple lines running through them like veins of ore. She had been sure she was dying. Her normally blue flame had turned a strange and unfamiliar crimson, as if tinged with her own blood or … or something. Even now, she could remember the feeling of her skin cracking, the ice breaking around her at every blow until, suddenly, there was nothing of her left. None of Fable Frost, the circus performer. The loving friend. The adventurer.
There was only Fable Frost, the living flame. Consumed by a fire that burst out of her from within, threatening to roast her friends alive and set the entire forest ablaze. And, for the first time, the flame had a voice. Not Fable’s own. Not even one that entirely had words or a proper language … but she could hear it all the same. She could feel it in her head and in her heart as the fire clawed its way through her and gave her its strength, forcing her to live. To fight. To survive. Its voice sounded like fear and the snarling of a caged, feral animal. It sounded like wings and the rushing wind that fanned a massive bonfire, and felt like the moment right before that contained inferno caught itself up on something outside its pit and began to spread.
It sounded like the circus big top burning while its patrons were trapped inside. Like losing control again, and being forced to run and hide and escape. Fable might have been caught in the explosion for mere seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. A lifetime of memories, all crashing down on her at once as she felt the guilt and shame and terror she had tried so hard to leave behind in the circus. But here it was, happening again. She had lost control in her panic, and in her weakness. Only this time, she knew better. The circus had been an accident … the first indication she had any gift with fire at all. It could have happened to anyone, any of the young magicians and performers and freaks still growing into their talents. She had told herself over and over and over in the year since she’d run that it wasn’t her fault. Now she was sure: the fire inside her had a life of its own. And it wanted something.
It wanted her alive.
Fable closed her hands tightly into fists and hugged her knees to her chest, trying to squeeze herself into as small a form as possible. Something so small that, perhaps, her companions would forget about her. Then she could slip away into the darkness, and find another place. Another company. Another family. Again.
Tonight. She would go tonight. She volunteered for the final watch as usual, the pre-dawn cold agreeing with her more than most. She made certain her things were packed and carefully tucked away just inside her tent flaps, out of sight of anyone who might ask questions. And then, after a sufficient but nightmare-plagued sleep, Fable took her place by the dying fire to keep an eye out for trouble, her egg cradled in her lap.
“It’s not that I want to go,” she whispered to the still and quiet shell. “I never want to go. But I never want to be the reason anyone else dies, either.”
Fable could hear Treasure snoring from her shared tent, and she felt a pang guilt stab at her.
“Saraid was right,” she admitted to the egg. “We all chose this. And we choose to keep being here, no matter the dangers. But … but what if the danger isn’t some great monster or someone chasing one of us, it is one of us?” Fable shook her head, a grimace of irony and frustration on her face. “I always worried he’d track me here, if he even survived the fire. Now Treasure’s the one with a bounty on her head, and I’m back where I started. Only this time I’m not running from him, I’m running from myself.”
A log in the dying fire snapped, letting loose a shower of sparks that made Fable jump and turn around, her eyes falling on the innocent collection of embers and spent timber. Only, it no longer looked so innocent. Something was waiting in the flames, poised to strike. Fable cradled the egg closer to her and stood slowly, ready to run. She tried to move her feet, to bend her knees and just move. But she found she couldn’t tear her eyes away. The dance of light and shadow was intoxicating and alluring. She wanted to reach out. To touch it. To be enveloped by it once more, and hear its voice even as it melted her.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she lied, shaking where she stood.
The flame laughed in her head. She could feel it vibrating through her mind and heart and stomach as her hands began to warm and spark in answer.
“Stop it,” Fable growled. “Whatever you’re doing, stop.”
For a moment, the laughter grew, and the fire snaking its way around Fable’s fingertips spread through her arms and all the way up to her shoulders. Panic filled her, and she wanted to scream. To wake the whole camp, to tell them to run, get out, save themselves before she exploded again and couldn’t stop it. But no sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the flames subsided. The laughter went quiet, though the sensation of being watched from all around was still strong. And Fable, catching herself just before she made a sound, let a slow and triumphant smile stretch across her face.
“Interesting,” she murmured. None of the camp stirred, so quiet was her voice, but the flame heard her. It felt her, she knew it did. “You play with my life, but you need me, don’t you? You need something only I have. So then, why don’t you want me to run? You could have me all to yourself, but you went quiet when I was about to scream.”
A different kind of warmth spread through Fable’s body now. Again, it was a jarring sort of communication. The flame had no proper words, at least none that she could understand, and translating it was a bit like watching the mimes at work. And yet, this feeling was familiar. It wasn’t the warmth of fire, but the warmth of family. Of comfort. Of feeling safe with the people around her. Fable knew it well, but she hadn’t felt it this strong since she’d left the circus.
“You need me,” Fable repeated, slower this time as she tried to work out the meaning behind the flame’s unspoken words. “And you think I need them.”
She realized she could move her feet again, and Fable slowly turned to take in the dark and silent camp. But I do need them, she thought to herself miserably. I need them alive. And what’s more is … I’m pretty sure they need me, too. It would still be so easy to run. To hide. To disappear again and not look back, and simply hope they survived. Like she hoped her family, fellow performers, and innocent patrons had survived the circus fire. She could live her whole life hoping and wondering and being afraid to know the answer. Or … Fable squared her shoulders and held her head a little bit higher as she turned to face the remnants of their camp fire. Or, she could take charge of what she did know: she finally had leverage.
“I don’t know what you are,” she said, her voice even and eerily calm, even to her. “And I don’t know why you came to me. I don’t know what you want, where you’re from, or how your magic works around mine. But I know one thing for absolute certain.”
Fable set her egg aside and crouched down right next to the fire pit. She leaned so close to the dying embers and sparks that her entire body felt impossibly hot. And, with a voice that sounded more like hardened ice than Fable had ever heard herself, she growled right into its heart, “I know that if you ever turn me and my body against my family again, you won’t get anything from me. You can consume me alive from the inside out, burn away my frost, and run rampant through my mind like a nightmare, but I won’t help you.”
Fable had never seen an element look afraid. But now, as she glared viciously at every spark that dared fly, she felt as though all of them were shaking in terror. “You want me?” she said. “Then you help me protect them. We’ve got too many games being played right now for me to be an unstable piece on the board. So figure out a way to work with me, not through me. Understand?”
Without waiting for an answer, Fable stretched out one hand and cast a thick blanket of ice over the fire pit, stifling the last of its glow. Satisfied, and still shaking from it all despite her calm and confident tone, Fable went back to sit with her egg in her lap, prepared to wait out the rest of the night’s watch in peace. There would be no running tonight. Only quiet and darkness and the comforting chill of the pre-dawn hours in autumn.
And then a soft whisper, so subtle it might have merely been the wind, found Fable’s ears even as she turned her back on the frozen fire pit. The voice made her shiver and sweat all at once. It sounded both hauntingly sad and dangerously powerful. But now, at least, Fable knew what it wanted. The whisper echoed in her head until morning, and even then it could barely be pushed aside by the waking of her companions and the preparations to set off for the day. In fact, Fable found herself worrying that it might always be there, reminding her. Calling to her. Begging her.
When I was about fifteen, my dad sat me down before school one morning and asked me, "So, who's the boy?" I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. I knew that. But for weeks now, I'd been up, dressed, and ready for school hours early. And I was (am) not a morning person. All of this added up to, in my parents' eyes, "Kaitlin is secretly sneaking out to meet a boy."
Oh, how I wished I were that cool. My father probably did, too. But no, the answer was much, much more frightening. Two words: HARVEST. MOON.
Every morning, I had been waking up at four AM, getting completely ready for my day, and scurrying downstairs to spend two blissful hours of uninterrupted game time before I had to go to school. And most of the time, that game was Harvest Moon. My first gaming addiction. Well, tied for first with the entire Neopets website and Spyro: Ripto's Rage.
To me, it was simple: when Mom was awake, my screen time was limited to half an hour a day. And, if she woke up and I was NOT completely ready for the day, she would FIND things for me to do. So I did everything in my power to make sure I was overly prepared. To make SURE there was nothing for her to find, nothing she could possibly invent for me to do before school. NOTHING that might take up my precious gaming time. Hence the makeup, when I didn't usually wear makeup. Bed was made, healthy breakfast was eaten, dog was fed (and often walked), and I was an all-around model citizen and perfect daughter. All in the name of gaming.
It's no secret that people can lose themselves in video games when they are experiencing depression or lack of fulfillment in their lives. In her memoir, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day goes into great detail about her own World of Warcraft addiction. When she felt unsuccessful and lost as an actor, she turned a part-time gaming hobby into a full-time gaming alternative life.
We all know the danger. We have all seen the citcom cariactures that have lost touch with reality and drowned themselves in gaming. We've read internet articles about the dangers of too much screen time on our children and ourselves. But video games have saved my life, and given it purpose, time and time again.
When I first wrote this (originally for a journalism class, later published on a since-deleted literary website) I was stuck at home, recovering from a hosiptalizing knee injury. I was awaiting surgery. I was out of work. I could not walk without crutches, or get in and out of the shower safely without assistance. People had to come over and feed me, and I have never felt quite so pathetic in my life. Right after the injury, I was on the verge of becoming a semi-catatonic depression blob, never getting out of bed. I wasn't eating, even when people tried to bring me food. I slept all day. I wasn't even hydrating, because getting up to pee afterwards was just too exhausting on crutches.
And then, my boyfriend helped me downstairs one morning before he had to go to work. He turned on my console, and started up the game I had last left off on. Dragon Age: Origins -- Awakening.
It worked. I awakened.
The Dragon Age franchise has been my favorite video game series since I created my first Grey Warden in early 2010. I have fallen in love with the characters, the story, and the world. It has become my new Harvest Moon; the game that can literally get me out of bed in the morning. The next day, I figured out how to get myself downstairs for the first time in weeks, because nobody was home to help me, and the console was down there. Since my painkillers put me to sleep, I started drinking caffeine to keep myself awake and log more hours. Very soon, I was hydrating properly again. I was getting myself to and from the kitchen, not to mention other household necessaries. I started setting alarms to wake myself up at a normal hour in the morning. I started eating. I started sleeping regularly through the night, since I wasn't allowing my painkillers to force me to nap all day. Most importantly: I was out of bed, and happy.
I am a workaholic. At the time of my injury, I had thirteen different jobs, plus school, an active social life, and a collection of ridiculous hobbies. I have always been, as my dad used to call me, a "creature of chaos." I do not do well with a sedentary lifestyle. But, between medical bed rest and an entire apothecary of sleep-inducing medications, sedentary was forced upon me. Dragon Age kept the depression at bay, and gave me back a small sense of control and accomplishment.
And it's fairly simple to figure out why: there is measurable success. There are clearly defined quest lines and story progressions. There are battles to win, and every hour I spent in the game resulted in achievements and gained levels. But every hour my body spent healing? When I still couldn't even walk? (Insert eye roll and disgusted noise here.) How do you measure THAT?
It's not the first time a video game has positively affected my life and encouraged out-of-game progress. In 2015, when Assassin's Creed: Syndicate was released, my physical health took a major upswing. I have always loved the AC games -- some more than others (Edward Kenway, you will always have my heart) -- and in the back of my mind I always wanted to be able to do what they did. Physically, I mean, not the assassinating. But it wasn't until Evie Frye came along that I got up and did something about it. I wanted to be her. And it was a motivation that didn't fade. I started going to the gym more regularly, and taking kickboxing classes. It motivated me so well that I actually started to noticeably lose weight, an issue I've struggled with for over fifteen years. In fact, the only thing that stopped me in that particular quest line was my aforementioned knee injury.
But there is not a single aspect of my life that gaming has not touched, and changed for the better. I became a voice actor and electronic puppeteer, which is how I make my living, because of my love for video games. They actually hired me at one of my favorite jobs because I knew how to handle different console controllers. My boyfriend and I bonded over our favorite franchises when we first started dating, and became deeply involved in our tabletop and roleplaying worlds as well. My writing has constantly been influenced by the amazing worlds and incredible characters I find in my favorite console worlds. Even in my family life, games have helped shape who I am. As a child, my older siblings only let me hang around when I showed interest in what they were playing. It was usually Wolfenstein or Lode Runner, and for years it was the closest contact I had to either of them on a day-to-day basis. I wasn't old enough to play yet, but oh how I longed to do what they did. In my heart, even then, I knew I was a gamer.
There is something about art that draws us in. Mankind has killed for paintings and sculptures. We idolize musicians, and have glamorous awards shows for film and television. Books take us into a new world we can visit over and over again, and classic poetry has survived since the age of Homer and The Odyssey. But there is something sorely overlooked about the particular immersive beauty that is video games.
It is important to have a life. But it's just as important, I think, to have an alt life. It is a built-in social circle, filled with friends you haven't met yet. It's not just a hobby, it's a life you can aspire to. Maybe you can't slay dragons in real life, but you can always be a hero. Maybe you can't actually sword fight in real life, but why not learn? Bring a little magic into your real, everyday life. Stand up for what you love.
I had a long, arduous recovery ahead of me, after my knee exploded. In fact, to this day I still have pain and weakness and healing to manage. But, because of Dragon Age, when my boyfriend came over after that to check on me, I didn't have to tell him all I did was sleep and mope around all day. My glow of success from fighting through Thedas had put the spark of determination back into my life. A spark that has never faded since, and has reminded me that I can, in fact, fight through the worst of times. I began to write a few scripts. Podcasts, a webseries, even revisited some of my dusty old novel ideas, one of which I'm still working on to this day. I threw myself into a few hands-on projects -- crafting in real life, guys! It's so much harder than in looks in the games!
Gaming woke my imagination back up, because that's what gaming is at its very core. Imagining. Even if you're playing a farmer, in a little mountain town with pixilated people and cows and truly impractical farming mechanics. I will always call that little mountain town home. It taught me to balance life and gaming, and always let one inspire the other. It taught me that it was okay to love a fictional world that took up more time than an average book or movie.
If I could go back to that fifteen year old girl, embarrassed that she was hiding a video game obsession instead of a cute boy, I would tell her, "Baby, it's all gonna turn out alright. Love what you love. And game on."
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.