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513 seconds  .  and all the bullets too  . the good wizard  .  the magic men  .  bonedevil (a work in progress)

513 seconds

 

     Deacon kicked, trying to regain his leverage—gasping for his last breaths visible in the hostile cold of the decrepit shack. The fire almost out, the pitch-black night threatened. He pulled at Jacob’s arms urgently, needing to wedge his fingers in-between and steal one more second of life. Jacob’s fingers remained a stubborn vice—his arm around Deacon’s neck—both men on their backs, imprisoned by the mortal struggle.

     Waiting for the inevitable…

     Don’t let go! You almost have him! Jacob screamed. Remember the payoff…his will staring to wane. Should he change his mind again? He had done so before. So has Deacon, the voice reminded. Remember? Remember? Yes, yes, his fingers relaxing a bit.

     But will he next time?

     Let go, his mind echoed, he’s your only friend. No! Remember! He tried to steal it!

     Remember! his heart pounded. His fingers found strength neither men should have. Deacon gurgled, spitting out something that sounded like “I’m sorry”.

    Finally, after too many unpredictable ticks of the clock, the struggle ended.

     Jacob laughed. First a short relief. Then grateful to be alive. Lastly, maniacally—giving in to the madness of the undeniable truth.

     It’s all mine! It’s all mine! Finally, it’s all mine, he laughed. He grabbed the can of peaches and the can opener, his fingers numb from the struggle and the bitter cold. He fumbled with it, dropping it twice in his desperation. Precious moments wasted.

     Then he heard it…

     First the pop, then the telltale release of air as the wedge penetrated the rusted aluminum.

     Squeezing the levers with every bit of his remaining strength, he turned the handle—the sweet smell of the California peaches erupting from the can, filling his lungs with whatever hopes and dreams remained on the dead, frozen hell.

     He engulfed the peaches in an orgy of anguished delight, laughing every second as he chewed and drank. The sweet nectar ran down his cheek, sinfully spilling onto his overcoat.

     After he finished the last bit—tapping the can desperately, slopping up what remained with his dirty fingers—he realized the fire had gone out.

     Nothing left to burn. Nothing left to eat.

     He’d freeze to death in a few minutes. It had been nearly forty-three years since they last saw a living soul. Nuclear winter had long ago killed the earth.

     Jacob laughed, his laughter quickly turning to tears. He stared at his dearest friend. “I should have shared it with you” he wept. “I don’t want to die alone. Don’t let me die alone. Please forgive me, old friend. Please?”

     Deacon did not answer. His haunted eyes damned his oldest friend to his last remaining moments in hell. Greedy bastard! they raged in accusation.

     “Please, no, Deacon. I was afraid. I was only afraid, and hungry. So hungry” he justified desperately.

     Greedy bastard!

     “Hypocrite! You would have done the same thing in my place! You’re just mad I got the last bit. And it was good! So, so good” coughing blood. “How dare you judge me!”

     His lungs froze.

     The last man alive died alone.

 
 

and all the bullets too

     They say comets aren’t supposed to be that big. That’s what they say. I guess no one ever told the comets though. This one, the one that came, he was twice the size of Jupiter.

     “Someone oughta’ told the comet” my grandpa laughed when it first showed up. Not everyone laughed though. I didn’t. “If they had tell ‘im, he mighta’ been less ornery!” Didn’t stop my grandpa from joking. “Ignore ‘im” my grandma said “he ain’t never been right.” Maybe she was right, maybe she wasn’t, but I guess someone should have told him too. The last thing my grandpa said to me right before he died was “Life sweetie, remember this about life…all life is…is relish n’ mustard.” That’s a strange thing to say before you die but he said a lot of strange things that day.

     X/2045 P1 Herrera. That’s what they first called it. But the woman who found it didn’t want her name attached to it, so they just called it X/2045 or “X-45”. But that’s not what we called it. What people called it.

     We called it the Sunkiller.

 

***

 

     “Come on Jesus, we’re gonna be late!”

     “It’s hayzeus, Olivia. How many times do I gotta tell ya’?”

     “What’s the difference anyhow?”

     “When you pronounce it like that, it makes people think…you know…”

I rolled my eyes, I guess I shouldn’t have. He meant it, and I could see it on his face. It made him sad. But it just seemed stupid, that’s all. Who could ever think some twelve-year-old kid from middle-a-nowheresville Rock Bottom was gonna save them? Or even could. But now that I think about it, I guess I did too. Not my life or my soul, but me. The me from before the comet.

     It wasn’t gonna hit the Earth. We’d be on the other side of the sun. But it was gonna hit it. The sun, I mean. And it was gonna take a couple of planets with it. Uranus and Mars. And a bunch of moons. And a bunch of other little planets I had never heard of too.

     It had already eaten Pluto.

     Didn’t really eat it, but it cracked Pluto into pieces. We could see the explosion from anywhere. Lit up the whole night sky. And its leftovers lit up our sky for months afterward.

     They hoped Pluto would stop it or change its course. They hoped a lot of things. “Hope is fer people ain’t got nowhere else to go” my grandpa laughed. He said a lot of things. He always laughed when he said something bad. Guess it was his way of taking the sting off. “That’s just how he copes” my grandma told me.

     “Slow down!” Jesus yelled, wheezing.

     “Use your inhaler, Jesus. Hurry up! We’re gonna miss it. You dropped it. Your viewer. Look at where I’m pointing.” Boys take so much lookin’ after.

     It was made up of rock, dust, water ice—what other kinds of ice is there?—and a bunch of gases and stuff I ain’t never heard of. A lot of different carbons and acids and stuff that ended in ide’s and ine’s and such. I think they just made up some fancy words to make themselves feel better about it. Maybe it made them feel safe.

     It didn’t make me feel any safer. Or my dad. That’s why he left us. “He’s in a better place, now” my grandma said. Grandpa didn’t have a funny saying about that. My mom didn’t say much either. She just cried a lot. People cried a lot that year.

     I never saw Jesus cry. Not once that year. And we spent every day together. So, I didn’t either. Not even at the funeral. Seemed kinda silly to cry about that, considerin'. My grandpa finally said something about it that day. But he didn’t laugh. “Guess he beat God to it. Your pa always had to have the last word.” He smiled when he said, but it was sad. Like when you force yourself to be happy about something that chokes your heart to think it.

     “See, I told you we’d make it.”

     “No thanks to you.” God’s Ridge people called it. The highest point in the entire county. Indians had a different name for it. But that was a long time ago. “Now we gotta fight our way up to the front.”

     “I didn’t even think this many people lived in Rock Bottom.”

     “They don’t. They came from all over the state to see it from here.”

     “How was I supposed to know?”

     After it passed Jupiter, it changed everything about our solar system. Planets realigned, asteroids got sent flying off God knows where, even some of the moons that were left changed planets. “If a moon can change its mind, maybe man can change his heart” my mom said. I don’t think she meant my dad. I think she meant all of us. People got real—“profound” was the word my grandma used, but Jesus said “romantic”. That’s a weird word for a kid, but he said he didn’t mean it like that. He told me he heard his dad say “Folks wanna romanticize human history now. Wanna leave out all the bad parts. Like when someone dies.” I guess he was talking about Jesus’s older brother. He liked to hurt little animals. But when he fell off the roof, people didn’t talk about that no more.

     Some people say he didn’t fall at all. The sheriff found the body real fast and his pa didn’t look too surprised when they told him. That’s what people said anyway.

     “We need to be at the front or it won’t matter.” God, I hate that look on his face. It feels like I kicked a puppy for no reason. “Not as much, I mean.” I didn’t mean to hurt him again but I wanted to be up front when it happened.

     “I’m sorry, I’m slow.”

     “It’s fine. Excuse me. Mister, I said excuse me.”

     “You runts got here late. That’s your problem.”

     If he keeps lookin’ at me with that stupid smirk, I’ll give him a problem… “Are you from Rock Bottom? I’m from Rock Bottom. We both are. Our grandparents were born here. Were yours?” I didn’t think so.

     “His grandparents where born here?”

     “What the hell does that mean?!”

     “Come on, Olivia, let’s go around. It’s not worth it.”

     “Jimmy what’re you doing? Let them by! Now…” Boy she looks mean.

     “But-” I wouldn’t want her lookin’ at me like that.

     “Thanks, ma’am.” Even adult boys take so much lookin’ after, I guess.

     “Why do you always have to pick a fight?”

     “I wasn’t pickin’ no fight. They’re late-”

     I didn’t hear the rest. Didn’t care to neither. People still argued. That much hadn’t changed at all. Not one bit. But they stopped fighting. Now, they always ended with both people crying. And hugging afterward. Everybody wanted to forgive everything now. Right away too.

     When the comet came, every war stopped. Some said it was the Second Coming. “Jesus ain’t comin’. He took one look at ol’ Sunkiller and ran the other way!” my grandpa laughed. That one made most everybody laugh. But not a happy happy laugh. More like they were afraid he was right. A lot of people killed themselves in the first few months. A lot. But as we got used to seeing it in the sky, everyone calmed down some. Especially the bigger it got.

     It did a lot of stuff to the planet in those last few months before it hit the sun. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and such. Grandpa said people would give up then but mom believed. She couldn’t not believe, grandma said. Had to believe. Not sure what she meant by that. Not sure I wanted to know.

     No matter how bad it got. No matter how bad someplace was hit. People didn’t stop showing up to help. No matter where in the world. Everybody stopped working. No one saw the point. And they went to help. Guess mom was right. But grandpa said people were just afraid “God’s takin’ notes.” Jesus laughed real hard at that one. I didn’t think it was that funny. Grandpa liked Jesus, said he looked like Elvis.

     “I didn’t think there’d be so many people here.”

     “That’s why I said we shoulda’ camped out here last night.”

     “Looks like a lot did. Some for a long time too. But my pa wouldn’ta let me anyway. I’m surprised he let me out at all. I think my parents wanted to be alone today. What about your mom? The Ridge is two miles long, you’d think there’s be plenty of room.” God, he talks a lot when he’s nervous. I’m not nervous. I think. I don’t feel nervous. Not sure what I feel right now. How should I feel? “Think we’ll get to the front?”

     “She’s got an old friend from high school stopping by to visit. An old boyfriend, I think.”

     “Huh?”

     “My mom. I think it’s her high school sweetheart.”

     “You think they’re gonna do it- Sorry.” I think I just looked at him like that lady looked at her husband. I know I thought, shut up—well, I thought a bit worse but God mighta’ been taking notes. I think I like that look. “I think my parents are. I think that’s why they wanted to be alone.”

     “I dunno. She was smiling and singing all day. And cleaning. She hadn’t smiled like that since my dad…”

     “Went away?”

     “Yeah.”

     The world didn’t end the day it smacked into the sun. Some thought it would. But they said it wouldn’t. They said the problems might come after. But for now, the planet would get quiet again. People were afraid that after that day, wars would start right back up. After people realized we’d survived. Some murders still happened. And stealing. Mostly by people who were afraid there wasn’t enough to eat. And shootings by people defending what they had. But for the most part, a lot of the other bad stuff stopped. “Not at the Bunny Ranch” my grandpa laughed. I wasn’t sure what he meant till Jesus told me.

     I didn’t ask him how he knew.

     There was one big fight. One last one. It lasted a few days. Looks like even they were afraid the food would run out. But they worked it out. The rest of the world helped. Mom had said they would, but I could tell she was scared the fight would go on forever. Like it could this time. It could have spread. But it didn’t. Grandma said we still had too many bullets. Even though no one was making anymore.

     “I smell hot dogs.”

     “Didn’t you eat before we left?”

     “Yeah. But it’s making me hungry.”

     Uhg! I don’t want hot dog breath. Doesn’t he think at all. “Maybe they’ll share one. One.”

     “We don’t have to, if you don’t wanna.”

     “No. Let’s go see. I’m kinda hungry too, now.”

     People were still making food though. That was all the work that mattered. And medicine. And rebuilding what they could. One town, one city, one day at a time. We didn’t need to fix it all at once. There weren’t as many people as before.

     When the comet hit the sun, it was like God opened heaven and let us take a peek inside. It was daytime even at night for weeks on end. There were so many rainbows. Big and bright. Brighter than I could ever have imagined. And something called the Aurora Borealis. But everywhere, all at once. When the glow finally died down, the sunset was the most beautiful everyone had ever seen. They called it God’s Sunset. The sunrise was just as pretty. Majestic, mom called it. I had to look it up. It’s like pretty, only better.

     I was home when it hit. Me, mom, grandpa, and grandma. I wanted to be with Jesus. Was that wrong? He was my best friend since kindergarten. We went everywhere together. Some people thought it was weird. That I should play with other girls but he was smart for a boy. And I’d rather play with snakes than dolls anyway. Not that he liked snakes. He was kind of a baby about them. Didn’t mind spiders though.

     There was no sound. I thought there’d be a sound. But there wasn’t. And there were no quakes or tornadoes and such. All that stopped in the days before. Grandpa said that was cause we were in the eye of the storm. There was a silence after and then a whoosh. Like the planet took a breath and let it out. God’s Breath some called it.

     They said it was the planet resettling. Adjusting to its new orbit. The moon’s too. There was one big earthquake that followed. But the world swooped in like bees in a hive. And a big volcano erupted. The island was evacuated and people made room. Grandpa said it was the damnedest thing too. The comet pulled us about half a mile closer to the sun. Which meant everything would get hotter everywhere. But the eruption a few weeks later filled the sky with dust, which cooled us off. We could still see past it, it didn’t block out the sun, but covered it just enough. “I guess Jesus didn’t run away after all” he laughed. It was the first time he had laughed in a long time.

     “I’m surprised they shared.”

     “I’m not. Mom says people are good at heart. Just need a reason is all.”

     “Okay, I guess. Admit it though. You’re glad we stopped to eat.”

     “Yeah. They were nice. But we gotta hurry. It’s almost time.”

     “We got thirty minutes. We’ll make it.”

After that, people started to believe in each other a bit more. Not everyone. But most. “Some people are just born bad” grandma said. Jesus agreed. I didn’t ask him if he was thinking about his brother at all when the comet hit. I think I should have. Not sure I’m as good a friend to him as he is to me. He asked me about my dad. Not all the time, but enough. His brother used to hurt him some, I just don’t want him remembering it. Though lately, his family only remembers the good stuff about him. I don’t. I can’t forget the things he did to Jesus. The way he scared him. Or what he did to my hamster after he climbed into my window and stole it. But I guess I’m not that good a person.

     Forgiveness is divine my mom told me. I had to look it up. It means like God. Or from God. I think she forgave my dad for leaving us. But I haven’t. Sometimes at night, I hate him for it. I made Jesus swear he’d never leave me. Not a baby pinky-swear neither. I made him cut his finger so I’d know he meant it. And I cut mine. But I think I’d forgive him if he had to leave. If he had no choice. As long as he promised to come back.

     “You think we’ll get in trouble?”

     “No. Why would we?”

     “It’s just- I didn’t tell ‘em!” I gave him that look, in case you were wonderin'.

     “You’d better not have.” I’m glad I was born a girl, I’d hate to need so much lookin’ after. “Come on. It’s almost time.”

     A few months after the impact, the sun started acting weird. Something about solar flares—electrons, ions, atoms, and electromagnetic waves, and other fancy words they made up to make themselves feel better. The sun didn’t agree with some of the chemicals and matter inside the comet. “Bad indigestion” my grandma said. “Like when your grandfather eats too much dairy.”

     That ain't pleasant. Not at all. I hope the sun doesn’t start smelling like that.

     They came up with a plan to fix it. “They can fix the sun?” Jesus asked. Mister Goodman, that’s our science teacher—he was the smartest person in our town but not smart enough to help fix the sun—said they could. But it would take all the uranium the world had. Which was a lot. And some other stuff too.

     Every country that had it, and the missiles, was gonna launch it at the sun at the same time and at the same spot. The reaction would, or should, calm the sun down. In theory. I didn’t need to look that up to know I didn’t like it.

     “See, I told we’d make it.”

     He’s so proud of himself. As if he’s the reason we made it.

     The rockets started launching. All around the world at the same time. Or they’re supposed to be. People started cheering, not sure why. When they first announced they were going to, grandpa laughed and said “Heck yeah. Send ‘em all. And all the bullets too!” “They won’t help” grandma told him. “They won’t hurt” he replied.

     “He ain’t never been right” she complained to me. “But he ain’t wrong. Not this time.”

     The rockets lit up the sky like you wouldn’t believe. It was…majestic. That’s a good word. I like that word.

     Is he really just gonna stand there lookin’ at me like an idiot? Fine! I guess I’ll do it. Boys take so much lookin’ after.

     I told him a few days before I didn’t want to die without at least kissing once in my life, and it seemed like the perfect time. But that wasn’t it. Not the only reason anyway. I loved him. From the first time I saw him, I loved him. And I knew then, he loved me.

     His kiss tasted like relish and mustard.

 

 

the good wizard

 

Chapter 1

     “Oh no, oh no, oh no! She’s going to kill me!” Ferne cried out, his pudgy fists balled tightly in front of his sweat-soaked forehead, peeking at the mess from behind them as if they might shield him from his own idiocy and the horrendous blunder he had just unleashed.

     They had one rule. Actually, they had a lot of rules. She had a lot of rules. But this remained the singular, unequivocal, inflexible “One Unbreakable Rule”: ‘Don’t use my potions and I won’t use your charms. Cause if you ruin one of my elixirs…AGAIN…I’ll never touch your wand…AGAIN’. Her words exactly. Literally. Verbatim, word for word, and To-The-Letter. He seared them into his mind so he would never do something as stupid as he had just done. Not figuratively. Literally. He had a mage friend cast a spell so he would never forget those words. They were supposed to, and did in fact, pound in his head if he ever touched, reached for, thought about picking up, or generally walked too close to any of her potions or elixirs with the intent of using one. Or even if he looked at one too long.

     Didn’t work. Obviously.

     Actually, the spell worked just fine. As it was meant to. The pounding nearly gave him an aneurism as he worked. That he was able to ignore it was a miracle in and of itself. Not that his wife would care.

     WHY? Why didn’t I listen!?!

As the slime erupted violently from his wife’s cauldron, threatening to flood their shared workshop, Ferne struggled to extricate his wand from his belt, whirling around in a panic, knocking over several beakers and vials with his elbows and breaking more than a few, which only added to the smoking, bubbling mess, and caused the slime to turn into a gelatinous foam which then expanded exponentially in a putrid maelstrom of foul-smelling gas, gray smoke, and lime-green froth.

     “Oh no, oh no!”

     The door swung violently open, the chubby wizard’s lean, graceful—much too elegant to be with someone like him—wife and stern, disapproving mother-in-law instantly filling him with superfluous anxiety.

     “You’ve got to be kidding me” her old-world Agarthan accent making her every damnation of him over the years seem even worse. His mother-in-law threw her hands up in disgust, turning away from the scene as if witnessing it lessened her somehow.

     “I can fix this! I can fix it!” Finally getting the wand out. “Prohibere!”

     Nothing happened.

     “Prohibere limus?” The foam now reaching a boiling point on the verge of exploding.

     “Prohibere erraum!” his wife Nidia screamed.

     “Prohibere erraum! Prohibere erraum!” he repeated. A light-blue glow emanated from his wand, sending small blue particles of living luminescence, like fairies, throughout the workshop, finally bringing an end to the disaster.

     “You married a buffoon” Demetria said, the foam exploding in a final damnation. “You could have married that handsome warlock from Brittia, but instead you married this...” Ferne’s portly frame covered in green-gunk from head to toe.

     “Mother” she warned, a serious edge in her tone.

     “You know he sits on the Warlock Council and serves King Higginbotham directly now, don’t you?”

     “Mother! Not helping.”

     A few minutes and a few spells later, Ferne had the mess mostly cleaned up—with a little/lotta help from Nidia.

     Nidia stared glumly at weeks, even years, of hard work left completely in ruins. She sighed audibly several times, apparently trying to calm herself down before she spoke. “What were you trying to do?”

     Ferne spat out the words. “My friend, Daron, you remember him. The-”

     “Mage from Agartha. The one who slew Stormwind the Horrible” Nidia interrupted, tired of hearing the story of the defeated dragon and how Ferne had “helped”.

     “They’re not friends. He doesn’t even know him, I bet.”

     “I do to-”

     “Honey. Ignore her, focus on keeping me in this marriage.”

     Sighing “He sent me a spell. This one” showing her the scroll. “He said it might finally help us, you know”-casting an uneasy glance at Demetria-“conceive.”

     Taking the scroll—her mother reading over her shoulder “That might actually work…if you hire a proper wizard to do it.” Not that idiot.

     Nidia sighed again, clearly tired of sighing for today. She ran her fingers through her long hair, attempting to massage the frustration out of her scalp. “No, it won’t.”

     “How do you know-”

     “We tried this. Two years ago. Don’t you remember?”

     “This is the reason wizards and witches don’t marry, it’s too difficult. Your magical forces are too diametrically opposed. It’s too much to overcome.”

     Ignoring her comment, tired of hearing that as well. “Your friend from the Nysa Wizardry Institute helped us.”

     Ferne looked up, recalling the awkward incident and how it ended—with his tall, handsome, firmly-chested, drunk “friend” offering to impregnate his “hot witch of a wife” the “old-fashioned way” wink, wink. All night. Several times. As many as it took. Anything for a friend. “Oh yeah, I forgot.”

     “Maybe the gods are trying to tell you he shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. It might be dangerous for all of us…”

     “Mother! I swear!” stopping short when Demetria threw her hands up in apology.

     “I’m sorry” Ferne said again, looking woefully at the mess he made.

     “Listen, mother has found something. Something that could really help.”

     “You trust her?”

     “Trust me? I’m not the one-”

     “Mother. Ferne.”

     “What? It’s not like she’s rooting for us.”

     She let loose a long sigh to help her pull back the dark magic that escaped from every pore of her body—mother and husband wisely retreated a few steps. “The Youtan Poluo. It blooms only once every three thousand years. It’s very small and very delicate. So, it’s tough to find, even harder to handle. It measures just one millimeter in diameter.” Ferne slumped. “It’s white and smells like sandalwood. That’s how you’ll recognize it. Its parasitic and it grows only on the Kadupul flower. And that blooms only at midnight and dies at dawn.” He slumped a little more. “And only during the first Blue Moon of the Summer Solstice during the Virgin’s Celestial Alignment.” Only a miracle kept him upright. “These other items we’ll need, you can get along the way.” She handed him an ancient looking scroll.

     It tried to snap his fingers off, causing him to jump. He eyed Demetria angrily, who only shrugged “not me”. He snatched the scroll out of Nidia’s hand and slammed it against the table when it tried to jump out of his hand. After it went limp, he opened it. “The Six Impossible Ingredients! Oh man.”

     “That’s in three days, hon. THREE DAYS. We won’t get another shot. Not for fifteen thousand years.”

     “You’ll be dead by then” his mother-in-law gleefully reminded.

     “Where?” he asked, trying to ignore her.

     “Mount Athos” Demetria answered.

     “Mount Athos?”

     “Not the small one you can see. The big one, you can’t find” Nidia told him.

     “But I never successfully completed the teleportation there. The instructor only passed me because I recovered his cat. Most of it…but-”

     Reaching up, she lovingly took his face into her hands. “Listen to me, baby. I love you. You know I do. You are the most beautiful man I have ever known. But if you screw this up…my mother will turn you into a toad—again—and this time, I won’t make her change you back.” A single tear formed in each of her eyes. “I’ll miss you. More than you could ever know”-his face sagging-“but I’ll marry the warlock from Brittia. The cute one.

     It’ll break my heart, but I’ll do it. You understand?” After he said nothing. “Please, tell me you understand.”

     The shelf holding what remained of her unspoiled potions collapsed.

     “I understand. I’ll get the-”

     “No! Just go. I’ll clean this up.”

     “But-”

     “Ferne” she warned.

     “I’ll help you-”

     “No. It was your idea. You’re going with him.”

     “What!?”

     “Mother…”

 

 

Chapter 2

     “Well, we’re not dead” Demetria stated in surprise, coughing from inhaling the smoke residue after their successful teleportation to the base of Mount Athos in the Province of Arcadia. She did her best to wave some of the smoke away but it seemed to want to enter her lungs. Ferne tapped his wand on the ground and the smoke retreated into it as if it lived inside the wand and was returning home. Once it had cleared, Demetria looked up at the two mountains side by side and let out a sharp whistle. “Is that the monastery of the Antediluvian Brotherhood of Monastic Parsons who keep The Sacred Perpetual Vigil over the Eternal Azure Conflagration of the Caerulean Celestial Virgin?”

     “Yeah. We just call ‘em monks for short.”

     “Oh. And what do you call the Eternal Azure Conflagration-”

     “The Flame. We just call it, the Flame.”

     “And the S-”

     “The Watch.”

     “The Flaming Monks of the Watch? No. The Flame of the Watching Monks? No, that can’t be it either. The Monks of the Flaming…Watching…”

     “The Monks who Watch the Flame!”

     “That sounds stupid.”

     The “real” Mount Athos stands roughly sixty-six hundred feet tall. Atop the mountain stands a vast castle-like monastery which houses thousands of orthodox Mages and Wizards who have dedicated their lives to ensuring the eternal blue-white flame never dies out. The castle measures nearly a hundred meters wide, two hundred meters long, and has dozens of steeples throughout with the tallest reaching over five hundred stories high: some of them carved right out of the mountain itself. Every stone and piece of wood came from the mountain itself, including all the furnishings. Nothing used in the monastery is imported from outside the mountain, including magical herbs and elixirs, or even food, to maintain the purity of the holy site. Everything the monks could ever need is grown or crafted from within.

     The Eternal Flame itself sits under a thirty-meter wide, three story tall, octagon-shaped gazebo dead-center in the monastery: continually guarded by three monks on each side: thirty-six hours a day, nine days a week, all sixty-three weeks out of the year. It’s roof and eight grooved columns are constructed of pure crystalline white marble and adorned with pure gold, silver, and bronze, all mined from within the mountain. The Flame itself is five meters in diameter and two stories tall, and though it emits no heat, it does burn anyone who dares to touch. No magic can heal flesh that has been charred by the Flame. Only the most dedicated and learned “Burning Monks” are allowed to meditate under the gazebo. It appeared out of nowhere over ten epochs ago and called out to a select, chosen few who built the monastery and recruited others to their holy cause.

     Should it ever go out, the unholy Dark One would return from his hellish dimension of fire and ash and all life on Lyonesse would come to an end.

     “It’s really been burning for over an eon?”

     “Yeah.”

     “And you’ve been there?”

     “Yeah.”

     “You’ve seen it?”

     “Yeah…”

     “They let you near it!?”

     “Uh-huh.”

     “They must be very brave monks indeed. Is it true they take life-long vows of both celibacy and silence?”

     “Yes...”

     “Why didn’t you join? I think it would have been a good fit for you.”

     The “faux” Mount Athos, which cannot be seen by the layman eye, stood next to the other over twenty-thousand feet high at its highest peak. The hidden mountain, known as Athos II, was teleported in from an alternate reality by the magus Ngan the Immortal who went insane trying to master wizardry after achieving mastery of magecraft. Though the two schools of magic are related—magecraft: a study in the physics of magic, and wizardry: a dedication of the spirit to the aspect of magic; both elemental—it was simply too much knowledge and power for one being to possess.

She was last seen three thousand years ago selling “Troll” organs out of a travelling cart in the Elven district of southern Nysa.

     “We’ll have to climb. Can’t teleport to the summit” Ferne told her, staring up at the peak of Athos II.

     “Can’t I just…you know…broom us up?”

     “No. That kind of witchcraft won’t work here.”

     “Great!” She sighed, her hands held at her hips. “I still can’t believe she forced me to come with you. What?” after seeing a pitiful look flash across his face.

     “Nothing.”

 

 

Chapter 3

     A few hours later, after they’d loaded up their backpacks with supplies from the general store, they started hiking up the path leading up to the mountain.

 

     “Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

     “Yes. And keep it down. There are bandits and trolls in these mountains.”

     “I can handle bandits.” After a moment “Are you sure you don’t want me to carry the jar?”

     “No. Nidia said I had to. She wants me to bring back the flower as proof I can handle being a father. I have to carry the jar up and back.”

     “Okay. It’s not like she’d know.”

     “I’d know. I have to do this. I have to do at least one thing right for her.”

 

***

 

     “I’ll cast the concealment spell” Demetria offered after Ferne set up camp for the night.

     “I’ll do it. Wizard concealment spells are more secure.”

     “Some wizard’s are” she murmured.

     “Huh?”

     “I said, we made good time. We should reach the summit a day early.”

 

***

 

     A few hours later, they sat in makeshift cells half-way back down the mountain in a ‘properly concealed’ bandit camp. As Demetria put it.

     “I don’t hate you, Ferne. I really, truly don’t. But she’s my only daughter. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole life and she deserves to be happy.”

     “I love her. I make her happy” he complained.

     “I know you try. You really do. But I also know how much she wants children-”

     “I’m a good wizard! A damn good wizard!”

     “I’m sure—in your own special way—that you are. And I know you mean well for her but a witch and a wizard don’t belong together.”

     “Shut up! Both of you” a bandit warned from the campfire. “Or we’ll cut out your tongues.”

     “They got some good stuff” said another, rummaging through their things.

     “Hey, did anyone get the wizard’s wand?”

     “He’s a wizard?”—all eyes turning to him.

 

***

 

     “Not bad” Demetria complimented, turning the last one into a toad. “You are a good wizard, I’ll give you that. What?” Upon seeing the look on his face when he looked at the bandits, hopping around and ribbiting. “Please, tell me you’re not going to cry again.”

     “You turned me into a toad. Into a toad!”

     “You killed my cat!”

     “It was an accident!”

     “Two accidents involving furry little animals. Some people would say that’s a sign of sociopathic behavior.”

     “I’m not crazy! I was tested.”

 

***

 

     “We made good time again. We should make it up with hours to spare” her breath visible in the daytime air. She followed his footprints in the snow and saw him turn to look at her. “What? I did not jinx us last time. That was not my fault.”

     Ferne bit back his rebuke, awed by the sight. Demetria stopped, turning to see what had mesmerized him so. Two-thirds of the way up, higher than all the surrounding mountains: Snow-covered caps and lush green valleys for hundreds of miles in all directions. An orange-yellow sunlight kissing all of it the way kissing was meant to be done—softly. Captured by the moment, they found it impossible to imagine their world had ever seen a single argument, let alone war or plague or famine. To them, Lyonesse existed in a state of absolute perfection.

     “This is real magic” Demetria said.

     “Let’s just try not to get caught by Ice Trolls. They’re meaner than all the hells in Abaddon.”

     “Fine. I’ll cast the concealment spell this time.”

     “Fine.”

 

***

 

     “Ferne, I am so sorry, I have no idea how they saw past my spell.”

     “Wicches cas’ bad hidespell” the Ice Troll grunted.

 

***

 

     “Not bad. You really are a good wizard!” She rubbed the elixir on her hands that protected them from the frigid cold.

     “I’ll renew my spells, too” taking the bottle from her.

     “Do you really need to? I still feel great. They really make me feel strong. I could climb two mountains today!”

     “Just in case I don’t get a chance to later. We’ll camp here. The Ice Trolls actually brought us higher up. Plus, it turns out, Ice Troll liver was on the list.”

     “See. At least my mistakes work for us.”

     “What?”

     “I said, I can’t wait to see the Fabled Forest.”

 

***

 

     Atop the summit, they looked down into the Green Valley of Eternity. Only in Nysa; the Land of Perpetual Magic, could such a place exist. Trees and flowers flaunted colors unseen anywhere else in Lyonesse. Wildlife so majestic and delicate it frightened anyone who dared to look upon it—the Shimmering Sunbirds, the Purple-Furred Lynx, the Goldhorn Antelope…

     A flock of Phantom Unicorns galloped in the mythical Red Meadow.

     “It’s beautiful” Demetria said, taking Ferne’s hand. “Thank you for showing this to me.” Witches were rarely allowed to visit the mountain, mages considered them bad luck, and he had to pull serious strings to bring her. It cost him his prized Flaming Pearl. Which he received from the Prince after he defeated the Stone Troll that had been terrorizing the small villages east of the capitol. Not that he told his wife. She would never have allowed him to do it and he wanted so much to make up for the mess he made of their workshop. Among other failures.

     “Is the Youtan Poluo in there?” she asked.

     “No, over there” he answered. Nodding at the Valley of Unending Death.

     “Of course, it is.”

 

***

 

     Streaks of blinding light shot from both their wands—his green, hers red, in complete contrast—as sprite after sprite descended on them, bouncing and shrieking manically.

     “You’d think with the pounding rain, roaring thunder, and howling winds, that the constant blindness-inducing lightning would be unnecessary” he yelled to her over his shoulder.

     “Yeah. You’d think! How many sprites in a coven?”

     “About a hundred. Give or take.”

     “And how many have we killed?”

     “Ten? Fifteen?”

     “Give or take.”

     “Yeah.”

 

***

 

     “Finally” Ferne said, warming his hands by the fire. “We’ll rest here till midnight. The flowers should be up on that ridge.”

     “Who knew sprites tasted so good” Demetria chewing on the bone. “Are sprites on the list?”

     “Two eyes. I got ‘em. That just leaves the flower.”

     “Wait, what about the Six Impossible Ingredients?”

     “Oh. I got those at the general store.”

     “That must’ve set you back.”

     “A little.”

     “Well, with both of us casting the concealment spell- You know, I’m not even going to finish that thought.”

     “Good idea.”

     “Yeah.”

     “I just want to get a good nap in” he started to say before the ground gave way and he fell into a large hidden cavern.

     Demetria kept chewing, determined at least, to finish her sprite.

 

***

 

     “I fell down a hole” he grunted. The damp, dungy smell of the darkened cavern assaulting his nostrils as he crawled back into full consciousness.

     “Yeah, I saw. Give me your hand” helping him up. “You know, I finally see what my daughter sees in you.” The remark cut him deep. He thought they had been making progress in their relationship. “Hey, I meant that” she assured.

     “How so?” he asked carefully.

     “You never stop trying” she said earnestly. His eyes welling up “Don’t cry. Don’t you cry. If you cry, I’m gonna cry. And so, help me, if I cry-” she sighed, her shoulders sagging.

     “There’s something behind me isn’t there?”

     “Don’t turn around. Ferne, stop. Ferne. Don’t-”

     “Ugh…”

     “I told you not to turn around.”

     “That’s Blackheart the Terrifier.”

     “Yup.”

     “The Beast who will devour the World.”

     “You’re explaining this to my daughter.”

     “Largest dragon in history.”

     “I’m not telling her.”

     “Prophesized to end all life were he ever to reawaken.”

     “At least he’s still asleep.”

     “She’s gonna kill me…” pointlessly adding to his anxiety.

     “Are those scales really made of iron? They look impenetrable.”

     Taking stock of their precarious predicament, Ferne came up with a plan to exit the chamber quietly.

 

***

     As they fled with all haste, Blackheart the Terrifier let loose a fiery blast—his deep-green and yellow eyes opening windows into his dark soul. Chasing them out, he tore through the side of the mountain, destroying the ridge, and creating an avalanche that wiped out two valleys below. Then flew off toward the largest city, visible in the distance.

 

***

 

     “Oh look, the Kadupul” Ferne noticed amid an oasis in the wreckage of snow, trees, and dirt as they descended.

     “And that’s Youtan Poluo. They’re so beautiful” she admired. “Carefully.”

     “I got it.”

     “Carefully.”

     “I go it” he assured. “That’s everything on the list” closing the jar.

     “Are you sure you don’t want me to carry the jar?”

     “Hey. I got us this far.”

     “Can’t argue with that. What about Blackheart?”

     “I fight Trolls and bandits. Dragons are mage-work” he shrugged.

     “True enough. Shouldn’t we at least warn somebody?”

     Looking down the mountain at the rampaging dragon—fire and smoke as high as the eye can see, accompanied by screams of panic and terror—“I’m pretty sure they know.”

 

bonedevil

 

    coming soon