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A Wizard's Fire

Updated: Jun 24, 2021


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A Wizard's Fire

 

My name is Alrix. It is a good name, isn't it? My father stole it from a black-clad bread maker during Belmouth's Midsummer Festival when I was six. He might never have named me at all were it not for the bread maker. Perhaps that's why I have an affection for fresh rye and dark clothes.

The Stranger at the bar wore black. His boots, leggings, and tunic were all pitch, and he wore a coat that stretched to his feet like midnight, collar curling under his ears. Above the coat, his wild hair was a dark, wooly crown. Only his eyes held color, cold and crushing like the sapphire heart of the Azera Ocean. He smiled at me. The expression chilled my bones.

"Aye!" The short, fat man to my left slammed his fist down on the table. I jumped in my seat, and my pouch of wooden cogs fell and scattered. Painted images gleamed in the faint light. A robust woman held a large coin to her breast; crimson flames surrounded a silver sword, a hammer and an anvil rose and fell. I snatched at them, but it was too late. The ruffians at the table had quick eyes for mistakes, no matter how much ale they drank.

"Well then," said the fat man, grinning beneath a greasy beard crawling with lice. "I guess it's a good thing I did it, lads. That's a Witch Knight cog. He'd have me running naked through the streets with a bucket on my head." The other three laughed, scoundrels all. There were three Lathen pirates and a mercenary all the way from Creol. Why she was there, only she and the Night God could say. The fat one leaned close and smiled. His eyes were hard, his head long and misshapen, the way all Lathens are cruelly built. He wore brown leather trousers and a tunic, bleached and cracked from many days under an ocean sun. A curved blade, stained with salt and rust, was sheathed under his hip sash. "You know you still have to play that hand, don't you? Even if I did see it."

I gaped at him, but my eyes flitted past, searching the tavern for avenues of escape. The lanterns were burning low as midnight came, and most of the patrons had long ago departed for sleep or other secret venues to drink and whore. Even if I were inclined to appeal for help from the city authorities, there were no Witch Knights here. The City of Belmouth did not allow gambling, whoring, or excessive drinking at this tavern or any other. If the Knights came here, it was to drag us all to the dungeons.

I couldn't summon the bartender. He was preoccupied with propping fallen chairs. He wouldn't care, so long as they paid their tab. He especially wouldn't assist me since I hadn't paid my own in several days.

My eyes fell on the Stranger again. He occupied a stool near the corner, silhouetted against a makeshift brazier. An iron pot of overcooked beans hung from a spit over the fire, but he had touched neither food nor drink since he had entered. He sat there, a glint of insanity in his smile, motionless, watching.

"Not this time, friends, "I said, picking up my cogs and putting them back in the sack. "No point in finishing the hand when you've all seen it." I chuckled sheepishly. I'd been playing with them since nightfall, always careful.

The fat one slammed the table again, but this time I nearly fell out of my seat. Whatever could be said of his smell and appearance, he was stout. The table shook like thunder, the cords of muscle in his shoulder tightened. He leaned, watching me as a jungle cat might eye a deer. "I said you were going to play."

I righted myself and gathered my things. "You'd force me?" I said hesitantly.

"Aye, I'm going to make you." he leaned back, but his shoulders squared. He looked ready to pounce and throttle me. "I'm going to keep making you play until I figure out how you've sullied us."

"Sullied you?" I repeated, doing my best to sound sincere.

"Yes. 'Sullied the Light, claimed the Night,' as you Belmouthians are fond of saying. Swindled us. Cheated..."

"Cheated?" I said, squirming. "Wait there, Blume…"

"Blothem," he corrected.

"Blothem, that's right. I have come to this bar and drank more nights than not. I've never been accused of cheating anyone."

The bartender weaved past then, and worse, decided to involve himself. "Did I hear Alrix claim he's never cheated?" he laughed. "That's rich, and next he'll tell you he's the future Lord Regent of Belmouth. Perhaps he'll lead us to the Rank of Stars, to sit at the throne of Azel and conjure fireballs from his arse." The bartender shook his head and bellowed. "Never cheated. That's the best joke I've heard here in ages."

"Fix your bloody eyepatch, Rommel! Such a jokester, that one." I chided, turning my eyes down on the table as the barkeep passed us. "Good friend of mine, Rommel. Don't mind him. Most nights, he's sauced on his own swill. I'm surprised he's sober enough to speak at all."

Blothem's eyes had become glints of obsidian, and his smile ossified into something murderous. He stared at me in silence.

"I was saying I've only had a good night, barely at that," I said.

"Your winnings are three times the size of any other," said the lady mercenary, who, from what I could tell, was contemplating savagery.

"Still," I said, fiddling with my hard-earned coin. "It's one thing to be wary, but these accusations are based on nothing more..."

"You win every third hand." said the second Lathen. "You've done so the last twelve."

I swallowed. 'Careless,' I thought. I knew better than to use the same formula over and over. "That's not right. Over the last few, let me think. I pulled the Romance On the Farm cog from the box." I pointed at it, a round disc featuring a golden field in which pranced a herd of seductive swine.

"You've got that one three times," accused the mercenary.

"That doesn't sound right. It was only a few. It seems worse because I bet you wouldn't kiss a pig..."

"Fondle a pig." she corrected.

"And I played it against your Blasphemy piece on the last hand. Romance defeats Blasphemy, since you were unwilling to touch swine, yet I was perfectly able to shout obscenities at a priest. Moreover, it lets me draw two more cogs since I had won three in a row."

"I drew a Theft and flicked it on its back after calling that it would land heads up." replied the mercenary, "A shot that should have sealed the win, since you said you would be too frightened to steal from a Witch Knight. You only won because you had yet another Romance cog. Magically. Only three of the same are allowed in one player's bag out of a hundred. Somehow you drew them all."

I frowned and laid Greed face-up on the table. The woman holding an oversized coin to her chest stared up at me. "The Greed cog allows me to take back my farm and reverse the play," I muttered. "That's not my fault if..."

Blothem unsheathed his knife and drove it into the table. The whale-bone handle quivered as the iron blade bit deep into the wood. Like its owner, it stank of fish guts. "Twelve times you've made those plays," he growled. "Four or five? Maybe, but not twelve. You're cheating and mocking us. Show me what you were about to grab from your sack.”

I swallowed and fingered my pieces. In my lap, hiding between my thighs, were the extra cogs that waited to confirm his accusation. I couldn't rise, or they would fall to the floor. That would be the end of me. "Gentlemen," I said. "This is ridiculous. One bad night, and out comes the nastiness." I slid my hand across the table to take a fresh and unknown cog from the small, wooden box.

Blothem pounced. Quick as a cat, he dove forward and grabbed my wrist, pulling me out of my seat with such ferocity that I thought he had yanked my arm out of its socket.

"Wait!" I cried, twisting in his grasp. "This isn't necessary. Unhand me!" It was too late; my hidden pieces fell from my breeches. I jerked free, slipping on my fallen cogs. Blothem flipped the table as if it were made of goose down. The tabletop bounced on my chest with a heavy 'thud,' taking my wind. Pieces I had collected over two decades scattered in every direction.

"Day God, look at that one, Blothem. It's a gold piece. Look at the coloring! What in the Night-Claimed hells is that?"

"A Wizard's Fire," came an unfamiliar voice. "You must attempt to perform magic. Very rare for Belmouth. And in remarkable condition. Tell me, where did you get it? Oh, let me help you." The table lifted off me, sailing across the room and into the wall. As it crashed to the floor, the Stranger filled my vision with his maniacal grin. I stared, hypnotized. His merriment turned to bemusement, then irritation, and finally realization in a heartbeat.

"My apologies," he said. "Let's get you off the floor." He took a handful of my tunic and pulled me to my feet.

I took several breaths. The inn's ancient walls swam around me. I was in no shape for quick answers. But, even if I were, I would have to lie. Otherwise, I'd have to explain that I found it grave robbing. My mind was addled with dizziness and pain.

"There," he said, patting me on the back. "Take a moment, better? Good. Now answer my question, or I'll put you back where I found you."

"I bought it from a traveling merchant, from... Tinuvelle." I said weakly. The Stranger's face soured. No merchant from the Witch Knight capital would sell a magic trinket, false or not. It was a bad lie, but still better than admitting to grave robbery.

"I see," he said. "That's a fortunate find, isn't it? In Tinuvelle. Where they sometimes dismember folk for owning the wrong color candle."

"I don't give a damn where he found it. How much is it worth?" Blothem eyed the Stranger, turning the golden cog over in his hand.

"More than anything you've ever owned times a thousand." replied the Stranger. "Let it go. Stick to what you know, which I gather isn't much. If you're caught with it, you'll burn. You've made a ruckus, and the Witch Knights will soon gather like stains on that disgusting rag you call a tunic."

Malice absorbed Blothem's features. He eyed his dagger, still embedded in the table. The other Lathens drew their blades as well, and firelight glinted against steel. "Say that again." The red in Blothem's face became an ashen grey. A new thought had occurred to him as he soaked in the Stranger's words. "Magic?" He whispered. "In Belmouth? That is punishable by..."

"A lovely conflagration! A good, old-fashioned staking!" Quipped the Stranger, leaning on the table with that feral grin still on his lips. "Just for being in the same room as that little knickknack. The fiery judgment of the Day God is the least of your worries. Believe me when I say, you won't make it out the door. So how about you return my new friend's belongings and leave. Otherwise..." He took a dramatic step toward Blothem, adjusting his high collar even higher. "I'm going to kill all of you. Right here, right now. I'll paint poor Rommel's walls with your guts."

The room went silent. The Lathens looked stunned; I doubt anyone had ever spoken to them that way. I knew with absolute certainty at that moment that the Stranger was either entirely insane or true to his word. I shifted all my weight to my left leg. I was not light on my feet. This was not the first time someone had threatened murder in Rommel's Inn. It was that kind of scandalous place, of course, where bad men did terrible things for coin, pleasure, or simply as the result of too much ale. I had learned much from my days spent there, but this above all else. I was much faster if I took off from my left foot.

"Wait," I said. My mind had thawed just enough to realize that even if I ran, there was a good chance I would die. "I have another proposition."

All of them looked at me.

"What?" said one of the Lathens.

I winced, rubbing my chest. Most certainly, the table had broken some ribs. "Look around you. Rommel is gone. This...um. I'm sorry, what was your name?"

The Stranger smirked and gave a slight bow. "Canthorn. Yours?"

"Alrix. Pleased to meet you," I lied. "Canthorn isn't wrong. Chances are the barkeep has left to gather the authorities."

Blothem scoffed. "You can't lie your way out of this. The bartender isn't going to bring Witch Knights. He'd have to answer as to why we were playing in the first place. It's as illegal as magic in Belmouth."

I shrugged. "Why not? All he has to say is that we barged in and started turning pieces, then caused a commotion. It wouldn't be the first time it's happened, probably not even this week. We need to get out of here. I'll take you to my farm outside of town. We can play the wizard one. Winner takes the pile."

They all looked at each other, but Canthorn kept his eyes on me. His gaze was piercing and electric. 'I know what you're doing,' said his smile.

"None of us know magic," hissed Blothem. "How exactly do you propose we play it?"

"An excellent question," said Canthorn.

"Technically, we don't have to conjure magic. We just have to attempt it. It so happens that, among my possessions..." I hesitated.

"Day God save us..." muttered the mercenary. "What else have you got in your pants?"

"No, no, not on me," I said, absently pointing in the direction of my home. "It's a book, a book of spells. Well, a book of incantations to conjure dark powers from the Night God. It's in my farmhouse. I'll grab it, and you can peruse the incantations. We each find a spell we can reasonably attempt."

"You're sure you don't have more of those?" muttered the mercenary.

"Just that," I said. "Anyway, whoever's craven forfeits goods."

"And if no one backs down?" asked Canthorn, rubbing his chin. "What then?"

I thought about it. "Well, it's an isolated place. You can always go back to killing."

Canthorn laughed. "Well, I'm convinced. So what say the rest of you? Surely you'll attempt it for the excitement, if nothing else. There are easier ways to steal coin."

"Very well, I'll play," said Blothem, approaching me. To my surprise, he handed me back my pieces. There was hunger in his eyes, feral greed, the kind vultures might have after spotting a dead carcass. They said plainly that one way or another, he wasn't going away without more than he'd come in with. I gripped the pieces in my palm.

Blothem turned sharply toward the door, and the others followed. All but Canthorn. "I will tell you now, Alrix," said Blothem over his shoulder. "If you try anything, and I do mean anything..."

The fat Lathen never got to finish his threat. I had already pivoted and leapt over the bar. The door leading to the storeroom was stuck, but not locked. If it had been full of barrels and salted meat, I would have died there. Instead, it was nearly empty after a full night of merriment. I pried it open, losing only a few of my pieces. Not the Wizard's Fire, that I kept close. The others didn't matter.

Before they realized what was happening, I was through the back door and into the night. The alley behind the tavern was gloomy; no moon reflected between the buildings. Thank the Day God I knew the way. I had taken it more than once. The passage led past horse stables, and bricks gave way to fence posts as the walls of Belmouth businesses ended. I staggered on the patchwork of jutting stones but kept my feet, cradling the cogs against my chest. When I felt the stones change to dirt, I stopped to listen, but the sound of my heart thundered in my chest, and I could hear little else. Still, after a few moments, I was confident no one had followed. The way I'd come held only darkness. I kneeled and laughed the mad laugh of a man who had escaped death. My mirth gave way to fits of coughing, and the agony in my chest flared to life. I winced and wiped the sweat from my forehead. My mouth tasted of copper as blood leaked between my lips. "It's not your fault, you see," I said, shoving the wood pieces in my pockets. "I'm faster than I look, friends. For a fat, old man, I'm much too..."

Blothem hit me like a horse at full gallop, and once more, I was on my back. The Lathen pinned me to the ground. The smell of his foul breath made me want to vomit. "Where is it?" he growled, clenching my wrists so hard I thought they might break. "Come on now, let's have it..." I tried to keep my grip on the cog, but his strength was ungodly. He wrenched my fingers apart and stole the Wizard's Fire. "There it is," said Blothem. Behind him, his compatriots jogged into view. Canthorn was nowhere to be seen. "Now then..."

The Lathen sent his fist into my face. My head bounced off the stone, and more blood surged into my mouth. "Where were we? Oh yes, we were going to make some magic for you. Play for some book, yes? Well, I see no reason to quit now..." The Lathen straddled me, weighing me down like a barrel of rancid meat. "Here we go then, are you prepared?" he said with that crippling smile. His knife was in his hand, and he waved it at me as if he were a conjurer himself. "Upon your Night God, I call. To stab you to death where you..." he paused, thinking on it. "Stall...fall...no, I can do better."

"Crawl," suggested Canthorn.

"Yes!" spat Blothem, raising his dagger. "Stab you to death where you crawl." The others circled me, silhouettes and shadows. The last images I was ever going to see. Behind them, Belmouth rose on the horizon. It held its beauty regally, with its castles and churches and its clay-tiled-roofs. The city held pinpricks of torchlight that wavered like an ocean of stars. I blacked out and came back again. All the world was pain.

A sheet of fire erupted from the alley, an emerald inferno unlike anything I'd ever seen. It twisted and roared down on Blothem, licking across his skin, burrowing through flesh and bone like ravenous, sentient tentacles. He screamed until the flames squirmed down his throat, then it was more of a gurgling. The light of agony danced behind his eyes until even those were inflamed. Then twin pyres erupted from the sockets as the flesh cooked. I reached up and shoved him with all my strength, fully expecting to scorch my hands. To my surprise, I felt nothing. The fire held no heat. Blothem fell away from me, weightless. He'd become a pile of soot that did not realize it was dead, then the Lathen shattered as he fell to the stone. I waited for the fire to consume me too, frightened beyond all reason, but it never came. When I opened my eyes again, I saw only Blothem's eyeless skull staring at me hatefully. The rest of him was char.

Canthorn stood over me, an abyssal blur, his arms and legs moving with the kind of speed and strength that belonged to legends, not in an alley that reeked of piss and death. One of the other Lathens now lay on the ground beside me, his leg dangling off of his body, held on by only skin and sinew. He choked out blood in a macabre fountain before stilling. Then the last pirate collapsed into a pile of broken bones and entrails.

The mercenary was the last alive, not that it was a benefit to her. She screamed as Canthorn snapped her arm with a brutal crunch. He laughed and watched as the sellsword retreated into the night, arm cradled to her chest. "Do you like my magic?" sang Canthorn as the flames disappeared. Then he turned and, for the second time, pulled me to my feet. "There there, Alrix," he said. "All better now. You risked a lot by fleeing, you know. You should have kept to your plan. It sounded entertaining."

"You're a..." I said between breaths.

"A wizard, yes." finished Canthorn, dusting off his jacket. "Among other things. It's safe to say I'm a very good one."

I stared at him and held out my hand with the Wizard's Fire cog in my palm. "Here..." I said. "Take it."

The wizard blinked. A smile spread across his lips. "Oh, that," he said. He took it from my hand and tossed it absently. "It is in excellent condition, considering. I don't want that, Alrix. I never did. That's not what I need at the moment. Let's get going. We don't want the Witch Knights showing up, now do we?"

"No..." I agreed, limping as we walked. "So, what is it that you need?" I feared the answer.

Canthorn clicked his tongue, his eyes bright, lingering furnaces. That feral, mad grin spread once more across his lips. "A place to stay until my business is concluded," he said. "

"That's all, Alrix. A place to stay. I promise."







Copyright © 2020 by Kenneth McIntosh


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Thank you for reading! Comments are always welcome and appreciated. Remember to sign up as a member for notifications and access to more. And be on the lookout for exciting news about my upcoming book, The Silent Hand!


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