by Astrid Knight
The Mages of Velmyra Saga #1
Genre: Portal Fantasy
Intended Age Group: New Adult
Published: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Self Published
Panic! In the Forest • Strange Magic • Burn, Baby, Burn
Her favorite tabletop roleplaying game is real, and her kidnapped childhood best friend is trapped in a far off land. Will she be able to save her? Let’s roll initiative!
Violet Spence wants nothing more than to have a normal life. After witnessing her childhood best friend get abducted by monsters, that’s easier said than done. At twenty-three years old, Violet cannot seem to move past that fateful night ten years ago. Her only solace is Mages of Velmyra, a tabletop roleplaying game filled with goblins, fairies, and all-powerful magicians. But of course, that’s all fantasy.
Or so she thought. As it turns out, the land of Velmyra is very real and the home of the monsters that took her best friend.
With the help of her friends (and the creator of the game itself), Violet must navigate the once-fictional creatures and powerful mages of Velmyra to retrieve a set of ancient relics—all in the hopes that the journey will lead her back to her friend. But for Violet, fighting monsters and magic workers doesn’t seem nearly as terrifying as confronting her own demons. And she’ll soon realize fighting the battle within herself can be just as tough as those fought against demigods.
Perception Check is the magical first installment of the Mages of Velmyra Saga, great for fans of Dungeons and Dragons, Critical Role, and The Magicians. With endearing and hilarious characters, an exploration of mental health and trauma, LGBTQ+ representation, gut-wrenching twists, and a whirlwind of an ending, you will never want to leave the world of Velmyra.
Shown on page: Depictions of mental illness (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide/suicidal ideation), Animal violence (involving fantasy creatures) Child abduction and harm (involving two thirteen-year-olds and fantasy creatures)
Alluded to: Childhood sexual assault, Alcohol abuse, Child death
I stop walking a couple of miles out from the campsite after I realize that I’ve been aimlessly wandering without really thinking for almost an hour. The pieces of Adrian’s story are all there, but it’s like they won’t fit together for me. There’s something I’m missing. Something that connects all of them.
As I slow to a halt in a clearing near the edge of the river, I close my eyes and shake my head. What am I doing? Why does it matter if I figure him out or not? He’s kept his stuff secret for a reason, and I should respect that.
Distracting myself, I pull out the handful of Residuum stones that Melandrich gave to me before he left. He’s told me to be sparing, since he’s unsure if we’ll pass through Magburn or just outside of it to get to the Crystalline Relic. If we can’t make it to the city, we won’t be able to replenish what Residuum we have stored up. We’ve been running low on Earthen, so I only have a couple. Heavenly is more plentiful. Most of what he’s given me, though, is Infernal.
I ignore the amber-orange stones for as long as I can. I practice pulling up pointed spikes of dirt with the Earthen stones, creating swirling cones of controlled wind with Heavenly. After an hour or so, though, I’m out of both. I stare down at the pile of a dozen glowing ember-like crystals on the ground, simmering like hot coals after a fire has died down.
I glance up at the sky. The sun still sits high. It’ll be a few hours before dusk.
I shouldn’t even touch those things. Not until I can work with Adrian on it.
Although, I tried Heavenly without his instruction before, and it turned out fine. What’s to say this could be any different? Besides, I have used Infernal already.
I flex my hands, shaking them out to dry the sweat from my palms before reaching down and grabbing one of the larger stones.
The familiar resonance of coursing energy passes through me, coming from much further below the ground than Earthen and vibrating up through the soles of my shoes. Earthen always manages to spread up to my limbs, but Infernal energy stays rooted in the pit of my gut, settling in my core. I hold onto the stone, letting it gather, but it’s so uncomfortably much. When I used Infernal in Castle’s Edge, it went off so fast that I couldn’t let it build. With no distractions, though, holding onto the energy without letting go of it immediately is painful. Like my stomach is filled with hot coals.
Frantically, I glance around me, looking for a way to release it. A long-fallen branch on the ground catches my eye, and before I can consider any other options, I reach my free hand out to it. I don’t even have to think about the intention. My body does it for me.
And it does. The branch bursts into flame, and the hot pit of energy within me eases.
I stand over the burning branch, breaths coming out of me in gasps. I feel lighter somehow. Looser. Every muscle in my body feels like it’s been worked out at the gym after a long period of inactivity. It was so painful in the moment, but now that the tension has been released, it’s almost euphoric. As I pant, a laugh shudders out of me, catching me off guard.
It takes me longer than it should to realize that a smoldering branch just sitting on the forest floor is probably a good way to start a wildfire. I scramble back over to the pile of Infernal Residuum. That little bit of flame used up the smaller stone like it was nothing. This time, I grab a bigger one off the pile, turning back to the blaze with my hand out.
Except I don’t know how to stop it. How do you call back a fire that’s already been lit?
My hand stays extended toward the flame, and my intention is out there. Stop, I think. Stop. It should be so goddamn simple. It’s one four-letter word. But as much as I think it over and over, casting my intention forward, it doesn’t pull itself back. In fact, it spreads. The flames of the branch lick at the ground, grabbing onto the dead leaves sitting amongst the brush and instantly igniting. I’m no longer throwing my intention forward––I’m catapulting, hurling, desperately propelling it at the spreading flames in front of me. But the fire doesn’t hear my pleas. It does what it’s meant to do––it consumes.
I only have to blink, and the entire forest surrounding me is engulfed.
Flames crawl up the nearby trees, even the bright green leaves succumbing to their power. Smoke gathers into the air, looming over me in a suffocating miasma. I back up into a patch of bare dirt, the only thing that won’t catch amid the inferno. The river is next to me, and I think for a moment about running over and hurling water onto the flames, but using what? My hands? It would be just as good as spitting on it. My knees give out, my hands clawing at my hair as I look on helplessly in horror at the mess I made.
Because I did make this mess. It was me. Me and my malfunctioning emotions, my weak intentions. I knew this would happen. Adrian was convinced I could do it, but he was wrong. All wrong. This is all wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Breathe in breathe in breathe in––
It’s so hot, I feel like the air I’m pulling into my lungs has been set on fire too. I close my eyes against the heat, feeling like the fluid in my eyeballs will boil if I keep them open too long.
Breathe in breathe in breathe in breathe in breathe in––
I hear it over the intense crackling of the surrounding flames, and something hot and calloused sets itself on my cheek. I open my eyes.
Adrian’s face is in front of me, a wall of yellow flame blazing behind him. It takes me a moment of blinking back the blinding light and muscling through the intense heat to realize that his hand is resting on the left side of my face. Through the light, I can just barely make out his wide-eyed panic.
“You have to call it back,” he says to me, his voice elevated over the discordant snaps of the fire around us.
I shake my head. “I tried,” I cry. “You have to. I can’t.”
“I––” He stops himself for a moment, his eyes scanning my face. “I know you can do it, Violet.”
His hand stays on my face, but the other thrusts something into my palms and closes in around my fingers, keeping the jagged object enclosed in my grasp. “You can do it,” he says again. “But you need to calm down first. Take a second to breathe.”
I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. Just a sputtering gasp.
His grip on my hand tightens, his nails digging into my knuckles. “Breathe. Come on.”
For a moment, with my whole world around me immersed in flickering orange light, raging heat licking at my skin, I feel like I’ll never breathe again.
Until I do.
The breath I’ve been holding in explodes out of me, and it clears my head just enough for me to feel the Infernal energy gathering within me again.
Stop, I think. No, not think. Plead. Beg.
My eyes closed, nothing seems to change at first. The magic within me slowly wanes, like it’s being used and released. The heat is still there, the light given off by the flames still piercing through my eyelids.
But the burning air around me eventually cools––hot, but bearable. The light fades, and as I open my eyes, I see the wall of fire slowly recede, like someone is gradually turning the knob down on a gas stove.
And the sheer panic on Adrian’s face subsides, his nails pulling themselves out of my skin. He takes his own advice and breathes, looking around at the quickly fading ring of fire around us. With the last bits of flame trickling out, he looks down at my now empty hand, a faltering smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Told you you could do it.”
The hand that rests on my cheek gives it a little pat before dropping. As he stands up and walks away, the extent of exactly what I caused shows itself. Surrounding us is a ring of scorched trees, some with still-simmering leaves and charred bark. The ground around us is covered in ashes, and a thick layer of dissipating smoke settles in among the rubble. The sea of bright orange flame has died, leaving in its wake seared desolation.
As I finally allow myself to cry, the thought won’t leave my head.
I made this.
1. Tell us a little about how this story first came to be.
In high school, I wrote a book about demon slayers. It was all very anime and not very good, but I still loved the characters and was sad to let them go when I moved on to other projects. Around 2018, I had been really into Dungeons and Dragons and started daydreaming about what it would be like to actually travel into my campaign. When I decided to use a few characters from that high school series, things just started clicking, and that’s how Perception Check came to be!
I definitely learned about the editing process and what it means to really be objective about your own work. The amount of effort it takes to really scrutinize even the parts of your writing you like is massive but totally necessary. It was painful but overall, I think I’m a better writer because of it!
3. What surprised you the most in writing it?
I think since it had to do so much with mental illnesses that I have, I was surprised with how much I had learned about myself and how I handle my own thoughts and feelings after years of mitigating those symptoms. At times, I feel like I have it under control while other times, it feels like a wild fire. But writing this had quite a bit of wisdom that even surprised me!
4. If it’s not a spoiler, what does the title mean?
A perception check in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons is where you roll to see how well you’re paying attention to your surroundings. My take on the title plays into Violet and the other characters suddenly realizing and perceiving a world outside of their own. Not only that, but they become more perceptive about who they are and how they react and interact with each other.
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people? If so, do they know?
I try not to do direct character inserts of people I know. That gets really awkward really fast if they find something about that character they don’t like. There are a couple of celebrities that I’ve modeled some of the characters after, just because it helps me not only visualize a character but also hear how they speak, picture their manerisms, etc. The character Adrian is modeled after Eugene Lee Yang, and the character Melandrich is modeled after Matthew Mercer. That’s about as close as I’ll get to real-life character inserts!
6. Do you consider the book to have a lesson or moral?
I think for many people, especially those who deal with mental illness like myself, we tend to hide our more intense emotions because we think they’re a sign of weakness. A sign that we’re not normal like everyone else who is functioning so much better. I hope if any moral or lesson is learned from Perception Check, it’s that feelings and emotions are not something to push away. In embracing the fact that you feel and that even your sadness and despair is part of you, you can learn to better handle those parts to make more room for the most positive stuff.
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
My favorite parts are all spoilers! I’d say most of the latter quarter of the book. Though I do have a particular soft spot for a scene where the gang sings Rasputin by Boney M together.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Adrian is by far the most complex character in the book. Balancing casual sass with his very tragic and messy past was definitely an undertaking. I also think Jackson was a hard nut to crack mostly because he’s a huge jerk for most of the book, but I also wanted to portray him as sympathetic. Getting readers to like these pretty big assholes was certainly a hill I had to scale, at times.
9. What are your immediate future plans?
I’m currently working on The Mages of Velmyra Book Two, entitled Rules As Written. I also have a new series coming out that I’ve cowritten with my good friends Blake R. Wolfe and Taiylor R. Wallace that’s based on our DND campaign. The Wayward and The Wanderer (The Obsidian Archive: Book One) will come out in the next few months!
About the Author:
Astrid Knight is an author and storyteller with a love of fantasy and all things strange. A graduate of Adrian College, she has served as a contributing writer for anthologies such as In the Wake of the Kraken and Welcome to Simmins, Detective Spencer. They are also a co-founder and player on the RPG Twitch channel, Atlaran Adventuring Company. Perception Check is her first novel.