The Exchanger of Wishes

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt

36 comments

Urban Fantasy Crime Suspense

Ian Dovecombe reached into the tepid waters of the mall’s fountain and scooped up another handful of coins. For ten years he’d been living like a beast, like half a man, but this haul would finally overturn his fortunes. He knew a guy, Warren, who could help him for a steep price. Not the coins – the wishes on them.

“Hey!” a mall security guard shouted, from down one of the wings. Most of the place was abandoned at eight PM and those few people who were still there dutifully ignored Ian and the guard, lowering their heads.

Ian didn’t spare him a second glance. There were way too many coins for him to grab all of them, so he squinted and tried to see them the way Aoede taught him to see a decade ago. He looked behind them, at the shadow they cast beyond the veil – and a number of them started glowing faintly.

These wishes were potent. They had attracted the universe’s attention and the cosmic pathways were conspiring to make them come true – or something like that. Even after a decade of this life Ian still had little idea how it all worked. Little idea or desire. If he had a time machine, he’d go back to before Aoede showed him what was beyond the veil, and gouge his own eyes out.

Then he spotted one particularly polished penny, glowing almost as bright as a lightbulb. A very strong wish indeed. Ian lunged for it and then launched himself from the fountain just as the guard was raising his stun gun.

“Hey!” the guard shouted again, nearly slipping on the wet mess Ian made on the floor. Another guard down another wing had spotted them too and ran towards them, but Ian’s business here was done. He bolted, veered around a bench, and then sprinted down a side path with the first guard following.

Ian made his way towards a derelict store that used to sell clothes. Most of the mall’s lights had already been turned down for night time, and the ones that were left cast ominous shadows from anything in their path. Anything save Ian himself. If the guards had been more attentive, they might have noticed their quarry didn’t have a shadow. Or rather he did, only it wasn’t on him anymore. Aoede had stolen it when she broke him.

When he glanced over his shoulder he saw the guard gaining. Since when did these guys care so much about their jobs?

Focus, he told himself. Keep your eyes on the prize. Soon he’d have his life back, and the wealth and fame he was due.

He turned a corner and saw the derelict shop. Doors and windows shuttered, closed to normal humans living normal lives. But Ian knew there were other paths in the world. He accelerated, ran right at the wall, and then into it.

And he was gone.

***

“You must unburden yourself of rules,” Aoede told him ten years ago. They sat at his hand-me-down table in his ramshackle kitchen, in the dive apartment he rented across the street from the even divier bar Jinx. The only good things about Jinx were the dirt cheap vodka and the fact they let his band play semi-regularly.

Well, and the girls he met. Like Aoede.

“Rules are meant to be broken, right?” he said. Although it was night, she insisted on closing the blinds and was now lighting the candles. With her finger. He wasn’t convinced about all the hocus-pocus junk she rambled on about, but the flame dancing at the tip of her matte magenta nail was mesmerizing all the same. One hell of an illusion.

She placed her hand on his. “No,” she said. “Never broken. But rules are meant to be bent.”

“Right, bent. I get it.”

Her subtle eye roll expressed both their convictions in his statement.

“Do you trust me?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course.” The last two weeks had been the best of his life. This chick – he never really thought about things like settling down or marriage or the L word, but Aoede made him feel something deep and irresistible in the darkest pits of his heart. He didn’t think she was the one, he knew it.

“Do you believe me when I say I can make you a star? Famous everywhere, beloved by everyone?”

“Yeah,” he said, with a coy smile and the barest hesitation. He wanted to believe her, but come on. That was quite a boast for a girl that hung around Jinx with the likes of him.

“There’s doubt in your voice.”

“No, I believe you!”

“You must place your trust in me.”

“I do.”

“Stardom is hard work, especially for a musician.”

“Tell me about it.” She didn’t respond and the silence dragged. “So, uh, what do you need me to do?”

“You need to cut away the parts that don’t serve your art.”

“Cut away? Uh…”

She placed a small velvet bag on the table and pulled out a wishbone. “Take it. With both hands.” He did, and she wrapped her hands around his. “Now, open your eyes, Ian. The way I taught you.” He nodded. “And put your faith in me.” Another nod. “And wish.” He swallowed, seeing a faint light arcing over the bone.

“And now, may the best man win.” She withdrew her hands. “Pull, Ian.”

Ian did. He snapped the bone in two, and Aoede tore him in half.

***

Ian made his way through the night of the city, keeping to the alleys and shadows. Ever since his own shadow was torn from him, he’d found that normal people were unsettled around him. He didn’t know all the rules of the world behind the veil, but he did know it was dangerous to introduce normal folk to it, so he figured the fewer chances he took the better.

There were, admittedly, some advantages for being unburdened of his shadow. It left him inexplicably lighter, and was what allowed him to pass through the odd wall or other solid object, and that made navigating the city all the easier.

He travelled down side streets ever heading to the docks, which was where Warren had set up shop. A mutual acquaintance – a self-described “failed witch” perpetually down on her luck and indebted to unmentionable entities – had put him in contact with Warren in exchange for a favour. Said he was a reliable “exchanger of wishes.”

Ian trusted him about as much as anything else from beyond the veil – which was not at all – but Warren seemed willing and able to help him get his shadow and his life back. For an exorbitant fee.

Warren’s office was the back of a dingy white van parked on cinderblocks right by an ancient warehouse. To casual onlookers he took the seeming of a jolly rotund man with a big mustache, selling counterfeit shirts and watches and whatever-your-heart-desires. Ian had learned to pierce the illusion though, and he saw Warren’s true nature.

A grotesquely tall creature hunched over severely, with gangly limbs and dozens of fingers per hand. In lieu of skin he had scales in an alternating pattern of dark and light greens – all glistening wet – and his face was three-fourths mouth, filled with thousands of needle teeth. And atop his head, a crown of horns.

When Warren spotted Ian approaching he muttered something to his goons and they ushered his normal customers away. Warren opened his hands in welcome, and smiled a tiger’s smile.

“Ian,” he said. “So nice to see you.” He sniffed the air with his flat bump of a nose. “You’ve been busy.”

“I have,” Ian said, careful not to get too close. After a decade of this life, he knew that even the friendliest of the hidden creatures were dangerous. And Warren wasn’t particularly friendly. He scooped some of his wish coins out of his pockets and held them out for inspection.

Warren sniffed again. “Mm, not bad, not bad, yes. A decent haul, some workable wishes here. But, still not quite enough for what you need. And, for what you owe–”

He gasped when Ian produced the bright penny.

Ooh,” Warren cooed, his serpent eyes widening. When he reached out for the coin Ian pulled it back.

“Is this enough?”

“Mm,” Warren hedged. “I need a closer look. Let me hold it.”

“No. You can see it just fine.” All of these creatures trying to pull fast ones, all the damn time.

Warren grinned cruelly. “Well, maybe that’s so.”

“Is it enough? Or do I walk?”

“Wait, wait,” Warren said. “It’s strong. Is it strong enough? To undo the curse of a muse?”

Ian’s lip curled involuntarily. Aoede had seemed like just some bar fly, maybe with an unusual interest in the occult, but everyone he met from beyond the veil spoke of her with reverence and fear. And they were pretty insistent she was literally an ancient Greek muse, or something. Well, Ian couldn’t deny the fact she had made his shadow into the foremost rock star of the day. Fame and fortune that rightly belonged to him.

But hell, he knew he’d settle for just being a whole man again.

“You said you could do it.”

“And I can. You just must be aware that this kind of thing won’t go unnoticed. My craft might be seen as… unwholesome, by some. Aoede may take it… poorly.”

“Let me worry about that.”

Warren’s impossible grin widened. “Good. So long as we have an understanding.” He held out his palm with its foot-long fingers uncoiling. “Give me the wishes.”

Ian looked at the coins in his hands, at the bright penny. Tried to ignore the cold blooming in his gut. “What, um, exactly will you do with them?”

“The universe has decided to grant these wishes, and the wheels of fate are already in motion. I will simply nudge their path, in a way. And when the universe finishes its business, it will arrive at a slightly different destination. Our destination.”

Ian bit his lip. “And what will happen with the original wishes.”

“They’ll have been spent and left unrealized. To the wishers, it will appear as though nothing has happened, though they may feel a burst of hope and then a period of despair. No matter, your people are used to disappointment.” His fingers writhed. “Give them here.”

Ian swallowed. “And what are these wishes?”

“You try my patience, human.” Warren rolled his eyes. “Oh, very well. It’s the mundane rubbish a species with no imagination would wish for.” He pointed to a couple coins as he prattled off, “A wish for money. One for love. One to quit smoking. One–” his grin became all the viler “–for the famous Ian Dovecombe’s autograph.”

“And the bright one?”

Warren hesitated a moment. “What do you want me to say? Injured puppies, lonely kids, broken homes, leukemia – who cares? What’s the difference? Why dwell on their suffering? Isn’t it time you were happy, Ian?” His fingers roiled again. “Hand them over.”

Ian took a deep breath and made a decision.

***

Over the past decade he had met many people and things that were aware of the veil, from humans that practiced ancient and forbidden arts, to nameless and unfathomable monsters. Most of them were dangerous and saw him as prey, but he’d also found a few sympathetic to his cause, and he’d tried dozens of times to undo his curse.

But none of them panned out, and he ended up right where he began every time – square one.

There was the college fraternity that promised him the moon, only for him to realize they were just using him – and his ability to pass through walls – to steal for them.

There was a goblin noble that ran a number of upscale nightclubs in New York, but when some of his debts were called he decided to sell Ian to cover them.

There was a friendly coven in Rhode Island that wanted to help, but were too weak to do so. There was the other friendly coven in New Mexico who also were sympathetic and were powerful enough to help, but they were wiped out by an unfriendly coven in a turf war.

And the story repeated over and over. Several times he had even tried to dabble in magic himself, but he had little idea of where to start and nobody was willing to teach a cursed half-man like him.

The most promising lead he had found was a firm of lawyer-sorcerers, but the price their faceless patron exacted was too much for what Ian was willing to pay.

And then, finally, there was Warren.

One dream built upon the bones of countless others.

One more bridge Ian had burned.

***

Ian found himself back at the mall again, at midnight. No customers now, no security. No one between him and the fountain.

He approached the still waters and dug the coins out of his pockets with a sigh. And then he tossed them in again, one by one.

Tomorrow was another day, after all. Maybe he was at the bottom again, but that just meant there was nowhere to go but up.

April 19, 2023 22:56

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36 comments

Delbert Griffith
13:24 Apr 21, 2023

Wow! Great concept and story, Michal. This is such a great allusion to the human condition, wherein every human struggles with their two halves. The shadow and the substance of human make up the complete human, and you did a fine job of showing how we redeem ourselves, even when it costs us our greatest desires. Hope glistens at the end, of course; starting over is not defeat but renewed purpose. Everything about this tale shines bright through your excellent allegorical tale. Masterful writing, my friend. Simply masterful. Cheers!

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Michał Przywara
20:41 Apr 21, 2023

Thanks, Del! I didn't initially expect it to end on a positive note - the premise of losing out to your own shadow very much felt like a short-end-of-the-stick situation. But as I wrote on, that idea of what we were willing to sacrifice to get what we wanted emerged - as well as the question, "is it worth it?" Maybe over a decade, Ian learned something about himself. Glad that came through :)

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Kendall Defoe
02:38 Apr 22, 2023

Such a well-developed narrative here... I am not the most devoted fan of this genre, but I love what you have here. Excellent!

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Michał Przywara
20:44 Apr 24, 2023

Thanks, Kendall! It's not a genre I'm too familiar with either, but I've wanted to dig into it for a while and expand horizons a bit. I appreciate the feedback!

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Viga Boland
17:59 Apr 20, 2023

Ah…the perfect finish 👏👏 Fantasy isn’t my thing but you had me hook, line and sinker from word go. Just loved the idea behind all the wishes folks make as they throw coins in a fountain. What a superstitious bunch of hopefuls we humans are! Another great story Michal. 👌

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Michał Przywara
20:38 Apr 20, 2023

Somewhere along the way, an idea struck me of someone fishing coins out of a fountain - only they didn't care about the coins, but the wishes. It just had to get a story :) I'm glad you enjoyed it, despite the fantasy :) Thanks for reading!

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Viga Boland
20:48 Apr 20, 2023

Always a pleasure to read your writing.

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Michelle Oliver
09:04 Apr 20, 2023

This story is so intriguing. A half man, ripped apart by a muse through a wish to gain more fame and fortune. You would think this would make him less human, but your ending shows otherwise. There are things he would do, lows to which he would stoop in order to reconcile his two parts, however stealing the wishes of others seems to be the one thing he won’t do. He had a crisis of conscience and, if I’m reading correctly, decided to return the coins to the fountain rather than given them to the unscrupulous Warren. “One more bridge Ian had bu...

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Michał Przywara
20:44 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks, Michelle! Yes, that was the intended reading - he decides against the deal and returns the wishes. Though, if a reader interpreted it differently, I wouldn't hold it against them :) It's been a while since I did something more plot heavy, and I forgot how tricky it could get, how quickly it expands. But I've had trying my hand at urban fantasy in mind for a while, so I ended up with this tale about fame, and what that might cost us. I appreciate the feedback!

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Lily Finch
03:11 Apr 20, 2023

Michał, nowhere to go but up. Who could ask for anything better? Isn't it better to be at the bottom than to be cursed as a muse? He@l ya! The storytelling is superb. LF6.

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks, Lily! Yeah, all things considered, it turned into a bit of an upbeat ending :) Thanks for checking it out!

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RJ Holmquist
01:05 Apr 20, 2023

What an intricate world and intriguing system of magic in a few thousand words! The bright shining penny was a great MacGuffin of sorts, the promise of finding out why it was bright/what it could do/what its wish was added allure to the story, but in the end it we found out important details about the character instead. I hope he finds someone to sew his shadow back on! Thanks for a fascinating read.

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks, RJ! I'm glad the penny led to some questions - that was a technique I was developing with intention this week, so it's good to hear there's some payoff. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Mary Bendickson
00:07 Apr 20, 2023

I wish...I could write like Michal.

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Michał Przywara
01:24 Apr 20, 2023

Ha! Thanks Mary, you're very kind :)

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Anna W
04:44 Jun 02, 2023

Fantastic story. This genre is one of my favorites, and I find this concept of wishes as a sort of currency/power very intriguing! Love Ian’s arc, and how he lost his way, but had renewed purpose at the end. Loved reading this!

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Michał Przywara
20:44 Jun 02, 2023

Yeah, this one was great fun to write, and the wish currency was the seed for the whole thing. I think part of the appeal of this genre is, we can take something mundane and familiar, and reinterpret it in wild new ways, how it "really" works behind the scenes. I appreciate the feedback, Anna!

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Sophia Gavasheli
17:29 May 13, 2023

Woah, the urban fantasy aspect of this was so neat! Who knows how much we humans miss in this world because we can't see "beyond the veil." ;) First off, I love the wishes. I've seen so many fountains littered with coins. Interesting in this world how some are chosen to come true and others aren't. I wonder what would happen if Ian wished on a coin to regain his life... It's also interesting how despite being "broken," Ian hangs onto his humanity, and even with the opportunity of regaining his life, he chooses to put others' wishes above...

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Michał Przywara
20:57 May 15, 2023

Thanks Sophia! I had a lot of fun with this one, and it kept generating new ideas as I wrote, so yeah - expansion is a possibility :) The idea that there's a parallel world to ours, just out of view (for our own safety maybe?) is a neat thing to explore, especially if it's filled with ancient and arcane laws that aren't intuitive for us. I'm glad it was an appealing story, and I appreciate the feedback :)

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Amanda Lieser
06:00 May 05, 2023

Hey Michal, Wow! This was a wonderful take on the prompt. I instantly felt the way this piece was magical, holding some secrets to be uncovered and some rules to be broken. It felt like something written for Hollywood. I particularly loved that part about the shadow-very Peter Pan. I loved the way this character still managed to feel human and it made me question my own understanding of the world in a way. If there is magic, what is the price we pay to be touched by it? Is it worth it? Nice work!

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Michał Przywara
20:44 May 05, 2023

"If there is magic, what is the price we pay to be touched by it?" That's an excellent way of looking at it. Pairs nicely with being a rock star/celebrity :) I'm glad you enjoyed this piece, Amanda. It was fun to write, and I'd been meaning to dig more into urban fantasy for a while. This thing generated a load of offshoot ideas, which is always nice for a story to do.

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Russell Mickler
03:24 Apr 27, 2023

Hey Michael - So, I’ve wanted to ask: what’s with the special meta character as the L in your first name? :) Love the fantasy, of course, and the cross-over to real world stuff, with the magic of coins thrown into a fountain - awesome! This line was great: “Over the past decade he had met many people and things that were aware of the veil, from humans that practiced ancient and forbidden arts, to nameless and unfathomable monsters.” A very strong, clear narrative, good dialogue, with a good voice. Maybe the start of something larger, si...

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Michał Przywara
20:48 Apr 27, 2023

Thanks, Russell! Yeah, this story generated tonnes of ideas, and I may well revisit and expand the world. It was fun finally getting to some urban fantasy. As for my name, the Ł/ł is the Polish letter "L with stroke". Nowadays it's pronounced pretty much like English "w" (and confusingly, Polish "w" is like English "v"). So my name natively is more like "mee-how", but it is the equivalent of English "Michael". If you're interested in more details, a good starting place is https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%81 Thanks for the feedback!

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Russell Mickler
20:59 Apr 27, 2023

Wow, fantastic! Thank you for explaining that :) R

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John K Adams
00:02 Apr 27, 2023

You expertly took my imagination places I never would have gone without this amazing story. So layered with sadness, humor, betrayal, irony and, finally, with mercy. I can't say enough good things about this. Superb!

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Apr 27, 2023

Thank you, John! It was a fun one to write, and it kept spawning more and more ideas. Definitely had to trim it down to stay focused - but now I've some ideas of how to expand it too.

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Zack Powell
21:12 Apr 26, 2023

Thanks for reminding me why Urban Fantasy is my favorite genre on here. What a creative way to take a story that starts out with someone grabbing coins from a mall's makeshift wishing well. Lots of good twists and turns in this one, which definitely earns it the Suspense tag. Weird thing to focus on, but I think my favorite aspect of this story was the line breaking. I like the structuring here: Present tense -> backstory -> present tense -> backstory > present tense. It's a nice weaving of the information, instead of, say, having backstory...

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Michał Przywara
21:00 Apr 27, 2023

Thanks for pointing out the structure - that was an intentional design. When I was younger, I kept falling into that trap of heavily loading the start of a story with exposition and stage setting, which was odd because even then I had a sense it was boring or in the way. I think I've used this five-point pattern before, as it's conducive to run a present story, with background woven in, as you say. "How did you even think of this idea?" The idea came to me when a friend mentioned a strange encounter with an apparent beggar, who refused coi...

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Chris Miller
18:17 Apr 25, 2023

Nice ideas Michal. Little bit of a Neverwhere feel. I like the idea that losing your shadow makes you less solid/able to pass through things, but possibly only some things, some times. Nicely structured to take him from the fountain - off into the weird world, dip into his history and end up back at the fountain. A fun read.

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Michał Przywara
20:35 Apr 26, 2023

Thanks, Chris! Yeah, this stirred up all sorts of neat ideas as I wrote - I think there is more to this world to explore. Perhaps in the future. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Helen A Smith
15:13 Apr 24, 2023

There is a sadness to this story. The Mc has tried everything to reverse his painful position. He has been badly let down after trusting someone. This has elements of the mythical and fantastical, I like the allusion to the shadow side of his persona; that is surely more powerful than he knows. A great cast of characters tumbling along the way. Your story highlights human desires and needs and weaknesses that never go away. Love, fame, fortune. I know a bit about the dreams of musicians. The coins are compelling in they way they represe...

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Michał Przywara
20:35 Apr 24, 2023

Yeah, I think you're right about the sadness, Helen. In a way, he's stuck in the past, dwelling on the injury he received a decade ago and hung up on what he feels he is owed, instead of finding a way forward. But it seems there's limits to what he's willing to do, so perhaps that's growth. I appreciate the feedback!

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Suma Jayachandar
14:00 Apr 23, 2023

What would you do if your shadow ran away with your dreams and wishes(infact even achieved the stardom you hoped for) and you are damned to keep feeding it with 'bending' the rules by exchanging the wishes of others? Surprise, surprise - you end up being more miserable than ever! If that is not holding up a mirror to the fragile human condition I don't know what else is. Michal, read this earlier, commenting now( it's been a crazy week). I was awestruck by the brilliance of the concept and execution;very unique and thought provoking. Kudos t...

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Michał Przywara
20:41 Apr 24, 2023

Thanks, Suma! Urban fantasy is something I wanted to try my hand at for a while, and the prompt finally clicked this week. The initial idea was just stealing wishes but it led to the shadow/split, and I'm glad it did - I also think there's a lot to explore here :)

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Mike Panasitti
12:33 Apr 22, 2023

If anyone could make an interesting literary dish combining urban fantasy, crime, and suspense genres, it would be the Tribal Scribe. I know serials aren't your thing, but I'd be willing to read more about Ian and his accursed rock star adventures.

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Michał Przywara
20:42 Apr 24, 2023

Thanks, Mike! I think there's definitely room for expansion here. This was one of those rare stories where every new idea itself generated three new ideas, and it all just ballooned. I guess breaking down the walls of reality a bit does open up creative possibilities :)

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