(This is the first in the short story series. The next story is “Dusteater“.)
“Do you have any idea who I am?!”
Malachi teetered on the edge of the wall. Behind him, the desert floor spread out to the horizon some hundred feet below. In front of him, thirty blue-cloaked soldiers raised their spears and bows along the wall-top path, closing in from right and left as the sun glinted off the silvery domes and spires of Sahar. Malachi waved the soldiers back with one hand as he clutched his blue tome to his chest with the other, with one finger pinched inside to hold a certain page. He grinned. “Trust me, you’re outnumbered.”
A mustachioed soldier wearing the turbaned helm and jeweled scimitar of a captain stepped forward. “Malachi Draas! You are under arrest!”
“On what charge?” the young wizard demanded.
“Summoning demons, causing the deaths of thousands innocent people, destroying the entire city of Antar, and assaulting the city of Kalahar,” the captain answered.
“Not on purpose! And besides, I stopped the demons in Kalahar,” Malachi pointed out. “And I stopped them here, they didn’t even get in here, I completely saved Sahar! So really, you should be thanking me. For that.”
“Surrender immediately, or we will shoot.” The captain nodded to his side and the archers took aim over the heads of the spearmen.
“No-no-no!” The wizard flipped open his blue book to a dogeared page, wove his fingers through the air in strange spirals, and cried out a string of arcane syllables.
A dozen arrows shot across the ramparts…and clattered uselessly against the shimmering wall of the Nacreous Sphere. The curved barrier of prismatic light danced and flashed around the wizard, harder than adamant and thinner than air itself. Malachi exhaled and leaned back against a small stone pillar. He had barely completed the spell in time, and now his head throbbed and his spine ached from the force of the conjuring. It was, after all, a very large and quite impenetrable sphere. But now he could take his time.
With a sniff and a stretch, he leaned against the little pillar and began flipping through his book. He had inscribed each spell himself as he learned them, which meant that he now had dozens of powerful invocations and enchantments at his command, but they were written in no particular order. So he flipped, and looked, and muttered to himself…
Another volley of arrows glanced off the Nacreous Sphere, which continued to glitter and swirl with iridescent clouds around him. Spears clinked and thunked against the rainbow shield. The captain shouted something at him.
The wizard waved his hand and said, “Sheket!” and the noise outside the sphere dimmed considerably. “Thank you,” he sighed into his book.
For a minute or two, Malachi continued to admire his own penmanship, the delicate line-craft of the arcane glyphs drawn in an ink of his own alchemical mixture. Scorpion venom, snaregrass ashes, goat eyes, white honey, and so on. It smelled quite nice.
“Ah!” He found the page he wanted and began muttering the incantation. As the symbols on the vellum began to flicker and flare with eldritch light, he dashed his fingers through the air, precisely tracing the signs of the spell, shaping the flow of the energy. Far more complex than the sphere, this spell took nearly a full minute of murmurs and gestures to cast, and the soldiers’ tension rose by the second.
The armed men shuffled back as Malachi Draas completed the spell, placed his open palm on the open page, and then several things happened at once.
To the blue-cloaked soldiers, the rogue wizard exploded in a terrible thundercrack that filled the air with stone dust, briefly contained by the Nacreous Sphere, but then this too burst like a soap bubble and the dust dispersed, revealing the shattered stonework of the wall and no sign at all of the man in the black robes.
But from Malachi’s perspective, he had simply stepped off the high wall and stepped onto a low dune a hundred leagues away from the city and its ungrateful inhabitants. He immediately stumbled in the soft sand and fell to all fours. His head pounded, his vision crackled with white lights, his ears whined, and his stomach threatened to empty itself in the most violent of fashions.
He ached from the tips of his ears to the pads of his toes, and he eased down to lie on the hot dune, where he coughed and moaned and wailed softly. The pain was terrible, and it was everywhere.
Too far…much too far…note to self…not to do that…again…
Minutes passed and the arcane whiplash faded. Malachi crawled to his feet, secured his precious blue book in its leather straps on his belt, and he took in his surroundings.
Brown and gold sand, streaked with white. The wind rose and long streamers of loose sand sprayed from the crests of the dunes. The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky. A lone vulture rode the thermals to the east. Mournful voices sighed on the breeze, and disturbingly face-like patterns seemed to emerge from the crystalline slopes only to fade away a moment later.
Where the devil am I?
There! The sharp outlines of two mesas broke the smooth curves of the northern horizon, and Malachi smiled at his discovery. He had no idea what they were, but they were landmarks and that was something. He briefly considered a second use of the Shattering Exeunt to reach them, but a sudden wave of dizziness put that out of his mind.
Don’t be an idiot, it’s a three-day spell! Three days of recovery for the Exeunt. Three days…But that’s fine. What’s three days in the desert? Any moron can survive three days in the desert.
He saunterd north toward the mesas, whispering an endless string of simple cantrips to ward off the miserable heat of the afternoon.
More than once, he stumbled over a cracked bone or the gray remains of cactus, but the only movement he saw was the heat shimmering on the horizon.
Shortly after the sun set and the sky faded to violet, Malachi stumbled upon a flat island of red rock amidst the motionless waves of sand. A small broken stump no taller than his waist stood over a crack in the stone, its branches long gone, its dead roots splintered and worn smooth by the wind and sand. He sat down on the warm stone to rest his throbbing feet and aching back. Rubbing his grimy forehead, Malachi slowly realized that he had stopped sweating some hours ago, and while he was no outdoorsman, he knew that was bad.
His mouth felt like old leather and charred bread, his lips cracked, his tongue swelled. He pawed at his belt and the many hidden pockets of his robes, but he found only trinkets, bits of wood and stone and crystal and thin metal slivers for constructing various magical tools.
Nothing he could eat or drink.
…I must have something…
Malachi pulled out his blue tome and flipped through its soft pages. He had spells for everything, and didn’t even need his book for the simplest cantrips like lighting, warming, cooling, cleaning. But with his book, he could find a grain of salt in a sand dune, or summon a dust storm, or conjure sylphs with a word. He could communicate to distant peoples through effigies of false blood. He could command a half dozen people to obey his will, and hurl lightning from his fingertips. He could turn leather into shoes with a wave of his hand, shatter boulders, and transport himself vast distances over land, and under it.
I can’t make water. Is that right? That can’t be right. I must have something…
He continued to flip pages back and forth.
There must be something, some elemental transformation, or liquid servant, or…
As he sat on the rock, glaring at his book, a flicker of movement caught his eye. A tiny brown lizard had darted up through a crack under the stump to bask in the gentle twilight warmth of the stone. Its dark golden frill undulated behind its skull, and its black eyes stared upward, unblinking.
Malachi stared at it.
He had never eaten anything alive before, but he was suddenly and acutely aware of the fact that this lizard’s body contained the only moisture he had seen in half a day.
It was only ten feet away. Tantalyzingly close, but still too far.
He wracked his brain, not daring to blink lest the little creature escape.
A cantrip, something simple and quick, and quiet, something that can—
The lizard darted back down into the crack.
Malachi slumped. The lizard did not return, and the stars emerged with the nighttime void, soon to be joined by the sister moons, silvery Qamar and bloody Qaray.
The wizard crept over to the stump and placed his hand around the crack, ready to snatch at the first hint of movement.
I can wait, lizard.
I can name you, kingdom and species, blood and bone.
I can measure the beating of your tiny heart, the flicks of your tiny tongue.
I have unraveled ancient secrets, commanded the elements, and mastered the forces of heaven and earth with nothing more than my mind and body, and I will master you!
After a few minutes, he fell asleep.
When he jerked awake, the moons were still rising and a chill had settled over him. His hand was nudging back and forth, and he looked over to see his smallest finger being gnawed and wrestled by the tiny fangs of a familiar brown lizard. With a shriek, Malachi yanked his hand away and clutched it to his chest. The lizard tumbled across the rock, flared the leathery frill at the base of its skull for one indignant hiss, and then vanished into a crevice. Holding up his finger, Malachi stared in horror at the bloody stump where his last knuckle used to be. A pale green foam clung to the open wound, and he realized his hand was mostly numb, the flesh rubbery and limp.
Trembling, he wiped the strange green foam off with his sleeve and then stuck his too-short finger into his mouth as he fumbled for a clean handkerchief to bind the wound. The bitter taste of the reptile’s venom stung his tongue, but he ignored it as he worked. After a moment, he had a red-soaked bandage clumsily tied about his hand, which he hugged to his chest, and he stood at the edge of the rock, swaying nervously, watching for any sign of the lizard.
But after just a few moments, his shock melted away to rage and he glared at the stump. “Fuh yuh!” he hollered with a rapidly numbing tongue, his face red and shaking, his foot stomping, his whole body curling forward with the power of his shout. “Fuh yuh, yuh fuhin fuh!”
The lizard did not reply.
The wizard spent several more minutes alternating between staring at his bandaged finger and staring out at the desert, trying to make sense of the notion that part of his body simply wasn’t there anymore. It didn’t feel real. It was the sort of thing that happened to other people. In stories. For a reason.
This was just…stupid.
Blinking woodenly, he gazed about. In the pale light of the apathetic stars, the golden desert lay transformed into a land of sterile blacks and grays. Shivering, Malachi looked out at the distant mesas, and saw that one of them was not a mesa at all, and not even very distant. It was a large angular shape, and it seemed to be leaning to one side. He squinted.
Ruins? Shelter? Oasis?
The cold air stung his eyes, shocking some life and vitality back into him. He inhaled and felt a bit more clear-headed as his tongue regained its normal sensations and movements against his clenched teeth.
A faint scuffle caught his ear and he stumbled back a step, feeling an odd crunch under his foot. Looking down he saw the brown lizard trapped under his heel. But before he could react to the sight, the lizard cast off its trapped tail and scurried back down into its den.
“Let’s see how you like it.”
Malachi picked up the tail and slipped the tiny morsel into his mouth, feeling the faint splash of moist blood on his tongue, and started walking toward the leaning shape in the distance. But only a moment later, the wizard paused to spit out the tail and make an obscene gesture at the rock behind him.
(This is the first in the short story series. The next story is “Dusteater“.)