A beautiful woman waited alone in a small, dingy apartment. Its only window afforded scarce illumination. Despite twilight fast approaching, Margaret sat still amid a muddle of shadows and the indistinct outlines of the room’s furnishings. She listened quietly to the neighboring inhabitants return home. Noises of life reverberated about her. Above, young children knocked about playing. Murmured greetings echoed from across the hall. Beneath, a couple argued as a baby cried.
Distancing herself from the homey babel, Margaret closed her eyes and focused inward. With body stilled, her mind journeyed out past the town toward the castle walls. What she sought was within the keep itself. Probing the lowest levels, Margaret found what she was looking for. Sprawled upon a dungeon floor lay an unconscious man. The cell was dark, but she didn’t need natural light to see. Dried blood matted his hair, yet still he was breathing. Casting her farsight about, Margaret confirmed the inquisitors had no immediate plans for their prisoner. She sighed with relief despite her frustration.
You’re a damn fool and so am I.
Margaret felt guilty, an emotion she found tedious and useless. Self-assured in her ability to mentor Will, she had foolishly tasked him with a challenge beyond his capabilities.
I should have accompanied him.
Margaret had given in to his pleas to go alone.
“Play cards at the Sooty Dragon over a pint of ale. Practice bending your luck while avoiding notice. Discreetly return the ill-gained money, afterward.”
Those were the instructions. Unfortunately, hubris waylaid Will’s commonsense.
Thought I scared him enough with tales of luck benders believing they’re invincible.
Will played recklessly, winning every deal. Unaware of his latent ability to charm, he instinctively assuaged any suspicions with fair words. But, others were unaffected. They soberly watched as his opponents blithely surrendered their coin. Before long, the guard was called.
This audacious use of luck bending is dangerous. It might kill you, Will!
She shuttered recalling stories of spells and potions inquisitors plied to extract information. The Baron would be keen to discover any other rogue wielders of magic within his domain.
Suddenly, Margaret became aware of a familiar presence entering the building below. It was Will’s roommate. With Will’s arrest, she had quite forgotten about Tom. Childhood friends, both men had left behind an impoverished existence to seek better fortunes. They landed work in the Baron’s coal mine. Margaret came across them a month ago at the Sooty Dragon. Sensing Will’s abilities, she started a conversation. Unlike his friend, Tom was unreadable. Nevertheless, she was certain he possessed no magical gifts. Tom distrusted Margaret. He would correctly lay blame for Will’s imprisonment at her feet.
Tom, it’s high time we cleared the air between us. Will is going to need your help which means I’m going to need it too.
Margaret heard the scuff of dirty boots pause in front of the door and the scrape of a key in the keyhole. She opened her eyes and waited.
Don’t worry! I plan to continue! More to come soon.
The Saga of Jockular, the Swamp Barbarian and George the Dishwasher Continues!
George sat at his kitchen table, head resting on his hands, staring at the butterfly he had just drawn. He waited impatiently, feet bouncing. It had been a week since his sketch of Jockular, his LARPing character, had come to life.
My life was boring! Can’t say that anymore. What the fuck is happening? This shit is crazy! Amazing! But, insanely crazy!
The shock had worn off. But, his body refused to relax. Instead, it continually idled, awaiting the next adrenaline rush. He knew he wasn’t hallucinating. Yet, he still had no explanations.
Wonder why the timing is so inconsistent.
George had brought other things into existence; nothing monstrous as Jockular requested. He had been exceedingly judicious with his choice of subjects. First an apple, then a rose, followed by a ham and cheese sandwich and a housefly, all eventually became reality. He had googled butterflies, searching for a picture of a type common to this area. George selected the spring azure. Its periwinkle, blue wings with traces of purple had enchanted him. Peering closer, he sensed all the waiting was about to pay off. The monochrome sketch, still only shades of grey, appeared to shimmer. The perspective seemed deeper, stretched.
Espresso, tobacco, an old grudge and a chance meeting. Daydreaming About Mesoamerican Indigenous Folklore.
Everything was quickly settled into the new apartment. Qochata’s lifestyle was simple; uncluttered. He changed locations often to avoid the inevitable questions.
“How do you do it? You haven’t age a day. I must have your secret.”
Qochata would smile, demurely attributing his perpetual youth to good genes and a healthy lifestyle.
“Abuela and Abuelo, both past one hundred, still run our family farm. They work hard, rest well and eat humble home cooking.”
The lie never worked. Once someone remarked his agelessness, the wary looks and whispers began. He’d soon moved on.
His new, small studio in a historic, Mexico City building came furnished. He required only a bed, a nightstand, a comfortable chair and a lamp for late night reading. A large brass bird cage hung from the ceiling, empty with the door ajar. Each wall was entirely lined with crowded, newly installed bookshelves. The numerous books, his sole material burden, formed towering piles about the room. The kitchen table held a terrarium; home to a red coffee snake. Qochata reached in and stroked the reptile.
“Ah, Café. It’s been centuries since we’ve been to Mexico City.”
A cawing, keel-billed toucan flew in and perched upon Qochata’s shoulder.
“Yes, Pluma. I was waiting for you to return before beginning.”
With each relocation, Qochata felt at home, only after preparing his favorite dish; a sweet corn cake made with masa harina. Centuries ago, he had travelled far, working his magic to acquire the maize plant for the Mexica people. His patronage had helped humans conquer famine. Qochata taught the Mexica to live peacefully in magnificent cities filled with art, music and scholarship. It had been a happy time.
“Now let’s begin.”
Qochata gathered ingredients. He set out butter to soften and began mixing together cornmeal, masa harina, sugar, salt and baking powder. Shucking ears of corn, he carefully cut off tender kernels to add to his mixture.
“Now, for the cream.”
Qochata opened the refrigerator. Moving items about, he saw no heavy cream or milk. Frowning, Qochata rummaged about the cabinets.
“Mierda! No condensed milk either. Don’t worry my pets. There’s a corner market nearby.”
Grabbing keys and his wallet, Qochata donned a white, felt, stetson. Encircling the hat was a silver band, styled as a rattlesnake, holding a solitary eagle feather.
“Be right back.”
Qochata crossed the street to the market. Stopping in front, he regarded the placard above the entrance.
The sign depicted the caricature of a jaguar smugly sipping espresso, smoking a cigar. Hesitating, Qochata glowered at the sign. He distinctly disliked jaguars.
Sneaky, brutish cats! Lazing about or devouring the weak.
Bells jangled as he entered. The store was split in two. The right side contained shelves of groceries with a small refrigerated section along the back wall. The other half was dedicated to a large espresso bar. Lining the wall, behind the counter, was a selection of cigars, loose tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. The individuals working behind the counter greeted Qochata warmly. Noticing the comfortable, leather chairs set out for patrons to lounge in as they enjoyed a smoke or cup of coffee, he decided to sample the espresso.
“A solo espresso, por favor.”
“Coming right up, señor.”
Settling down in a chair, Qochata flipped through an abandoned newspaper. A barista approached with a demitasse and saucer.
“Your solo. Enjoy.”
Qochata cupped his hand over the tiny cup, feeling the steam tickle his hand. Lifting it to his nose, he inhaled deeply. Murmuring approval, he slurped his espresso. The rich flavor was smoothly bold with hints of caramel and brown sugar. He swallowed, savoring the rush of smokey, bitterness. The espresso was exquisite.
“Excuse me? Where do you source your beans?”
“The owner is a connoisseur of coffee. He owns a plantation in Chiapas. He cultivates new varieties and tinkers with the processing and roast.”
“Yes, I find his work with tobacco in San Andreas even more fascinating. I’ve never smoked anything close to the tobacco he imports from his own properties.”
“I would very like to meet with him. Is your boss in?”
“Yes, he’s out back. One moment.”
Qochata finished his espresso. He walked about inspecting the hanging photographs. They were all pictures of Mexican soldiers and scenes from famous battles.
He seems to be a military buff as well.
Qochata hated conflict.
Gazing out the window, waiting, he heard someone approach from behind.
“Señor, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tchondee. Welcome!”
Qochata turned around to make his introduction. Both men’s smiles melted as their eyes locked in recognition. No handshake was made. They stood still, sizing one another up. Qochata spoke first.
“Thought you were in Afghanistan or Syria nowadays.”
“I was. But, with everything winding down, it’s just a dull routine now. I had a hankering for home.”
“Yes, me as well.”
“I see. Espresso is delicious isn’t it? You enjoyed it?”
“I suppose. I really must go. I was looking for heavy cream. I came to the wrong place.”
Qochata made to pay his bill and leave.
“What name are going by now?”
“Qochata.” he grimaced embarrassingly.
“Ha. White man, huh? Fitting.”
“As is Tchondee, brother. You always enjoyed tobacco with its smoke and death.”
Tchondee simpered, holding his hands out with a shrug.
“Look, Quetzalcoatl. It needn’t be awkward. The days of importance and power are over for both of us.”
“Perhaps, but you still relish stirring up trouble. My people have suffered terribly.”
“How long are you going to hold that over me? I am what I am. However, I’ve been trying to broaden my perspective.”
“Ha! That’s rich! What? Focusing on more subtle ways to kill? Cancer, addiction?”
“You wound me, brother.”
“As I said, I was just in need of a carton of cream.”
Qochata turned away, reaching for his wallet.
“Yes, sweet corn cake. I know.”
Qochata stopping, turned to watch Tchondee retrieve a carton of heavy cream. He held it out to Qochata.
“Here. It’s free, as is the espresso.”
Qochata looked down at the offering, deliberating. A few seconds passed and he took the carton.
“It was a fair fight, until you tricked me.”
“Yes. It was.”
“Your actions have been utterly reprehensible for an age now. What’s your angle? Should I move on?”
“It’s tiring always being evil. Guess, I’m feeling more neutral these days.”
“Neutral? Interesting. What about your new fascination with agriculture? You could use your talent for something actually helpful. Humans take readily to your influence. They’re destroying themselves and this world with your beloved smoke, smog and pollution.”
“Look. I don’t want this fifth age to end. We could see what we can do to save it.”
“Our days of being heroes are over.”
“There’s a bit of juice still left.”
Qochata considered his brother’s words. He walked to the door and stopped.
“Tezcatlipoca, the sweet corn cake will be ready in about an hour. My apartment is across the street. Number 282. Bring coffee and cigars. And you can bring Colmillos, provided he doesn’t try to eat my toucan.”
Tchondee smiled, chuckling to himself, as Qochata walked out.
George’s life was literally an endless, boring routine of wash, rinse, and dry. He was dishwasher at a local restaurant.
“George! Running low on plates again!”
Perhaps, Mr. Witherson, if you shelled out some money to buy more plates, we wouldn’t be constantly running out on a busy Friday night.
“Right away, Sir!”
His current job at “Rodeo Ribs” was the latest in a long line of menial gigs. Never lasting, he either quit or was fired within a couple of months.
This job rots. My hands are perpetually pruned. I leave every night drenched down to my underwear and I smell like an old sponge.
Despite being intelligent, college was a disaster. Failure to focus, when disinterested, was a constant. George dropped out after a semester. Retrieving a rack of dishes, he climbed upstairs.
And who puts the dish sink in the basement of a restaurant?
George wasn’t completely devoid of ambition, however. He had two passions; his art and role-playing. Drawing was intimately connected to creating fantasy characters to play. He enjoyed putting his imagination on paper. Recently, he discovered LARPing. Now, his entire world revolved around it. When live action role-playing, he felt authentic and truly alive. His alter-ego was a bold, brawny, swamp barbarian named, “Jockilur of the Murky Fens.” His character wasn’t the brightest, but compensated for this flaw with stupendous strength. The barbarian’s legendary battle-rage filled even his most formidable opponents with dread.
“George, I said plates!”
“I’m working on it, Mr. Witherson.”
George sputtered and skidded back through the hectic kitchen to the top of the stairs. Rushing, he nearly fell on the way down.
Really need some non-slip shoes or I’m gonna kill myself.
George whistled happily, daydreaming about his upcoming weekend. His LARP group was hosting this month’s regional adventure weekend. It was called, “Taming the Titan’s Tempest!”
Two whole days of play. Can’t wait to show off the new armor I’ve constructed. Good chance of winning MVP, if I effectively deliver those new jokes and taunts I’ve been rehearsing.
His barbarian’s name was a play on the word, “jocular”. Feeling particularly clever, George enjoyed explaining the name’s pronunciation accentuated the character’s ubiquitous laughter and prodigious sense of humor. Jockilur gleefully sought any opportunity to taunt his adversaries with gruesome puns foreboding impending doom. George also never forgot to mention the spelling of his character’s name alluded to the barbarian’s athletic prowess.
Look at all these dishes! Jockilurwould never tolerate having to while away the time scrubbing at dirt and grime like some kitchen wench. Ha! No need! He eats with his fingers!
“George? Mr. Witherson is going to have a coronary. You have those plates yet?” one of the waitresses called down.
Hefting a load of fresh plates, George hurried to deliver them. Taking the stairs two at a time, he failed to make proper contact with the last stair.
He fell with a tumultuous clatter. Plates shattered everywhere as George landed with a sickening pop on the basement floor.
“George?! Are you ok?”
The waitress clamored down.
“Ow, ow, ow!”
George heard Mr. Witherson yelling upstairs.
“What was that noise? Was that plates breaking?”
George racked with pain, ignored the shouting above.
“Damn! Oh, God! Oh, God!”
“Your forehead’s bleeding!” the waitress exclaimed.
George swiped at his face. His hand came down slick with blood. Scrambling to get up, his right foot erupted with an agonizing explosion of pain. He crumbled to the floor and threw up.
“Somebody help! George is hurt bad!”
Mr. Witherson begrudgingly allowed a busboy to drive George to the emergency room. An x-ray confirmed his ankle was broken. George was sent home, sulking with a cast and a bottle of prescription painkillers.
Once home, beginning to feel the dull throb grow, George defeatedly collapsed on the couch. Reading the instructions on the prescription container, he tossed it on the cluttered coffee table in disgust.
Ugh. Next pill in about four hours.
Rummaging about George found his sketch pad. Gingerly propping his foot up, he began to draw.
Thank God, I didn’t break my hand. I’d die without being able to draw.
As the charcoal pencil danced across the paper, a figure gradually emerged. George sketched a burly man clad in furs, wearing a scaly, green, armored breastplate. Elk antlers protruded dramatically from either side of the barbarian’s helm. His face was ringed with a golden mane of unruly blonde hair. George smiled down at the image he had created of Jockilur blithely, brandishing a bloodied, double-bladed battle-axe. Gradually, he retuned to thinking about this weekend and all the fun he was going to miss. George frowned.
Damn! Whole weekend is ruined!
Disgusted, George threw the notepad and pencil across the room. The sketchbook skidded to a stop just outside the kitchen. Breathing heavily in anger, he closed his eyes, listening to the grating sound of his pencil roll across the linoleum.
Ugh! I hate my life!
Lying still, feeling sorry for himself, George heard something. It was the sound of rustling paper. Quietly listening, attempting to identify the source, he was startled by a loud crash from the kitchen. His foot adamantly protested as he sat up quickly.
“Dragon’s Piss!” someone whispered loudly.
Alarmed, George painfully hobbled toward the kitchen, arming himself with a pillow. Reluctantly, he edged closer to the muffled commotion in the next room. Pausing, just around the corner, panic took over. He froze.
Oh, God! Oh God! Come on George! You need to look!
He managed to peep, ever so slightly, into the other room. He was instantly paralyzed again by the sight. In the middle of his kitchen was an unnaturally large beast, back turned to George, doubled over, picking up the shards of glass from a broken pickle jar. The refrigerator door was glaring, wide open. Food littered the countertop. Initially, mistaking the figure for an animal, he realized it was a man dressed entirely in an assortment of furs. Regaining control of his body, George stepped backwards, placing the entirety of his weight on his bad ankle.
Eeeeeyy.” he squealed involuntarily.
The man spun around.
“What ar ya doin on yar feet? Ya’r suppose to be restin!”
Disregarding his pain, George skittered backwards, bumped against the wall and slowly slid to the floor. This hulking man standing before him was exactly how he imagined Jockilur. The fur, the long hair, the antlered helm, even the green, dragon scale breastplate; it was all there. It was as if Jockilur had climbed straight out of George’s drawing. The man sighed with exasperation.
“Now, I was fixin’ to whip ya up a thing, a healin’ thing. Does me ever so much good when I find meself feelin battered and bruised from battle. Trust me! It’ll work ya wonders. Ya’ll be on yar feet in no time.”
The stranger folded his arms and laughed loud and long. George stood stock-still, gawking. Catching George completely off guard, the huge man lunged forward, his hands outstretched.
Effortlessly, he plucked George up off of the floor and schlepped him back into the living room.
“Quit yar belly achin’ lad.”
Depositing him onto the couch with care, the giant stuffed a pillow gently underneath his injured foot. Grasping a nearby blanket, the stranger then clumsily tucked it around George.
“Thar! Snug as a bugbear.”
He chortled to himself, striding back to the kitchen. Stopping abruptly, the behemoth bent down.
“Oh. Ya dropped this.”
Holding up George’s sketch pad and pencil, he walked back over.
“Har’s yar quill n parchment. Oooh! That quill looks magical. Gives me the heebie-jeebies just touchin’ it. Mind ya, I ain’t afraid. Seem to remember haring of things such as this. Is it a quill of eternal ink?”
George lay staring up, eyes wide as saucers. He was in shock. Receiving no response, George’s new and unexpected caretaker returned to the kitchen.
“Ya’v cared for me many a times, Georgie. My turn to return the favor. I don’t spect ya’ll thank me none too soon tho. This ol’ shaman’s recipe, me Mam taught me, tastes of pig shit.”
The man snorted and guffawed as he returned to the kitchen.
Coming to his senses with the giant out of view, George dared to quietly flip his sketch pad back to the page he been working on.
The sketch was gone.
The page was completely blank.
“Balderdash! Ya seem to lack some of the necessary ingredients. Not to worry! I’ll forage about. Shouldn’t be hard findin’ some goat snot. Course, now that I think on it, Mam did say I can always use me own.”
“Jockilur?” George whispered to himself.
Jockilar leaned his head suddenly back into the room.
“Oh! Georgie! When ya’r feelin’ better, perchance ya’d draw me some trolls er goblins to practice me fightin’ moves with. Whatcha ya think?”
This is my third piece featuring Nakul, who wields the ability to take on traits from nearby animals and use them. There is a cost though.
This story is set in India. Below are definitions for the Hindi words you’ll find used in the story.
Mātā – mama.
Ajee! – Good gracious! Good Heavens!
Priya – Nakul’s deceased, older sister.
Vaah! – Wow!
Are nahin – Oh no!
Ḵẖudā – diety, god, divinity
Lēnēvālā – taker
Monsoon season dominated the countryside. A seemingly endless storm ebbed and waned, day to day, week to week and now month to month. Torrential rains submerged much of the landscape surrounding the village, its people patiently enduring this life-giving deluge.
From an outlying house, a restless boy stared out a doorway. Nakul was aching to venture outside. He was ever vigilant, scanning above for signs of any approaching respite in precipitation. The especially prolonged, heavy, soaking rain, the day began with, had miraculously ceased and a burgeoning patch of blue sky emerged high up in the sky.
“What is it Nakul?”
“The rain has stopped. I’m going out. I’ll stay close. I want to see how fat the stream is with rainwater.”
“Stay out of the stream, Nakul! It will be swift and the flooding disrupts the wildlife.”
“Nakul! Your walking stick. In case of snakes. Remember, Priya. Ajee!.”
“Yes, Mātā. I remember.”
Nakul didn’t fear snakes, even the poisonous ones. He understood his mother’s dread, but he had never known his older sister. She died before he was born.
Nakul’s favorite tree grew along the stream. He was surprised by the extent of the flooding. The familiar scene was strange and compelling. No longer along the banks, it sat within this new, swollen river.
“Vaah!” he exclaimed.
Nakul yearned to climb up and survey everything.
Reluctant to disobey his mother, the water posed a problem. He gave the situation some thought. Only a few steps would bring him to the trunk. Swishing the stick back and forth repeatedly, he probed the water. Nakul cautiously waded in. The water was just past his knees. Emboldened, he sloshed quickly to the tree and secured the stick into the submersed earth. His conscience nagged. Keen to leave the dangerous water, he blindly grabbed the lowest branch to pull himself up.
Straight away, he noted a difference. Expecting a rough, unyielding surface, his grasp instead sunk into something softer. The branch roiled. Pain lanced Nakul’s hand, jarring fingers, wrist and arm like an electrical shock. Releasing, pushing away, he stumbled backwards falling with a splash. Gaping upwards stupidly, Nakul recognized the markings of a king cobra. Dumbfounded, he peered down at two marks glistening like vibrant ruby pendants.
Finding his feet, Nakul ran. He sprinted. Adrenaline quicken his breath, his heartbeat and supercharged muscles. His frantic struggle accelerated the spread of venom throughout his body. His vision blurred and waves of dizziness disoriented him. Unbeknownst to Nakul, he was racing further away from his village.
“Are nahin! Help! Somebody!”
Nakul struggled to breath.
He collapsed to the damp ground in pain.
He tried to rise, but his limbs felt stiff and uncoordinated.
Nakul lay gasping, growing colder, knowing he was dying.
Moment bled slowing into moment.
He was lost and alone.
As he began to drift away from the pain, a voice shouted.
I’M COMING! DON’T GIVE UP!
Nakul searched feebly, seeing no one. But, an ember of hope flickered brighter.
He fought to stay awake, alive.
The voice sounded close.
Here. Next to you.
Nakul turned his head to vaguely see an old, graying mongoose. Nakul understood animals didn’t speak, but he was young enough to accept this current incongruence with reality.
“A cobra bit me.”
I smell it.
“Mongoose. I’m dying.”
No. You are different. I can help. Accept my help. I am old with little time left. I will give you what I no longer need. You could demand it; take it from me, but I see you are unaware of what you are. I gift it to you. Take it.
“i …don’t know what you’re talking about…i don’t understand”
You are out of time. Let me help you.
“how…how can you help”
An ever so sight pain pinched Nakul. The little beast had bit his wounded hand. Now, a warm itchiness oscillated up his arm.
He felt the mongoose’s nip only added insult to injury.
Nakul wondered if the mongoose was hungry.
The thought was absurd.
“why did you bite me?”
Giving you something only a mongoose possesses…so you may live.
Nakul felt a sweat break out. A buzzing in his ears intensified, drowning out all other sounds. He felt as if his very blood was boiling within. Somehow, he knew a battle was raging and his side was winning.
Time passed and finally all was still and silent.
The pain was gone.
“I feel better. I don’t understand?”
A mongoose is immune to snake venom. Now, you are too.
Most men don’t have the speech and the ability to assume power from us. To us you are Ḵẖudā. Your kind calls you Lēnēvālā.
Nakul sat up. Observing his hand, the wound appeared now only as a bite from something non-poisonous like the checkered keelback snake. Gazing up, he startled seeing the mongoose lying prone with labored breathing.
I too… change. You have given… in return… a part of yourself.
Nakul sat by the mongoose gently stroking its fur, watching in disbelief as glossy, dark brown hair replaced its grey, grizzled appearance. Suddenly, the mongoose was up. It stretched and bounced around.
This is a tremendous boon! Youth returns! You have given me some of your natural longevity.
Nakul pondered this. He knew mongoose typically lived a fraction of the time a person might.
“Am I going to die now?”
Hmm, I need a good look at you.
The mongoose jumped around Nakul sniffing. Satisfied with his inspection, he peered up at in Nakul.
You smell the same to me. Humans live forever to a creature such as me.
But, something else felt different to Nakul. Watching the mongoose catch and tear apart a large beetle with sharp canines, he realized what was different. Feeling inside his mouth, he confirmed it was full of sharp, pointy, jagged, canine teeth.
Last I checked, you still can’t get something for nothing at the “Magical, Paranormal, Special, Super Powers Store”! It’s downright outrageous… the prices they’re asking fictional characters to pay these days! Oh well…limited supply; great demand will inflate prices. Previously, I explored the tedious path of exhaustive studies to gain greatness. I also talked about sacrificing something greatly valued, as another way to secure fantastic outcomes or abilities. Now, let’s consider magic with “strings attached”! There are some delightful examples of “items of power” harboring evil intelligences within. These hidden presences patiently wait with deadly agendas and excessively, domineering wills all their own.
Something deep within the human psyche seems to enjoy a good fright, especially, if couched safely and comfortably within the bounds of a story. The sheer quantity of books, television shows, and movies narrating the exploits of supernatural evil elements attests to this fact. Many presume fantasy focuses solely on the eternal struggles between good and evil and expect to be regaled with scenes of epic battles. Yet, there are many tales about subtler forms of malevolence wrecking havoc, if not more! Within these sinister plots, woven throughout, are tantalizing snares attractive to those thirsty for power. Fair-faced villains cajole, bargain with or outright trick characters into promising payment in return for the bestowal of unnatural gifts.
An absolute favorite character of mine, Elric of Melniboné, was created by Michael Moorcock during the mid-twentieth century. Elric is a weak, albino prince, who hails from a mighty sorcerer race. He is reliant on an endless supply of potions and magic only just allowing him to live a stilted, embarrassing existence. Complicating matters, there is a cousin eager to usurp the imperial throne and have the woman Elric loves. Additionally, the people Elric presides over find him odd, even distasteful as a ruler. Needing to find a way to remedy his inborn weakness, he forges pacts with chaotic gods to rid himself of his frail constitution. This leads Elric to a demonic sword aptly named, Stormbringer. The sword grants Elric strength, vitality and great power, but only if he kills and feeds the sword souls. The blade, having an insatiable appetite, demands ever more. Its evil nature yearns to feed on everyone Elric holds dear. He is dependent upon the sword, yet abhors the evil acts it demands. Initially, the perfect solution to his problems, it ultimately brings much ill to Elric. The books are difficult to obtain now, unless you enjoy graphic novels. But, it’s worth the trip to your local library! Thankfully, later this year, the series is being reissued by Tor Publishing!
The mythos of a crossroads demon is brought to life on the television show, “Supernatural”, with enormous dramatic appeal. These diabolical fiends will grant a person whatever they wish, in return for the person’s soul at the end of a set period of time. They are attracted to intense desire for fame, fortune, power or other desperate worldly yens. “Supernatural” uses a legend surrounding the late, famous blues musician, Robert Johnson, to introduce these demonic characters to the series’ storyline. Johnson burst onto the music scene, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly garnering accolades and fame in the early twentieth century. Popular opinion at the time insisted only a pact with the Devil could account for such an overnight success. His death at a relatively early age only fueled speculation and added credence to this tale. An episode of “Supernatural” begins depicting a frightened, bedraggled Robert Johnson hiding, late at night, in a small, isolated, ramshackle shack. The agreed upon period of ten years has transpired and the time to pay for his unnatural musical talent has come. Doors locked, lights all on, salt on the floor to bar out demonic forces, he sits with a rifle. All the precautions are all to no avail though. Invisible, sulfuring-smelling, giant dogs prowl outside the house. These are the hellhounds of myth. Well…you know what happens. The demons penetrate Johnson’s defenses and his soul is devoured, right on schedule.
Even Disney writers frequently dip a hand into the murky waters surrounding bargains with evil. A recent example from the plot of the animated movie, “The Princess and the Frog” contains a refreshingly, new look at magic and the desperate promises one make to obtain it. Doctor Facilier, a practitioner of dark voodoo, is a greedy man with high aspirations. His target is a wealthy, young prince. Facilier attempts to entrap the spoiled, foolhardy royal. But, working with magic usually caused things to go awry and this time is no different. The prince escapes, but not before being turned into a frog. Facilier requests further aide from evil voodoo spirits, vowing to hand over to the otherworldly forces all the souls they desire, once he is in control of New Orleans. Flush with supernatural assistance, he banks all his hopes, putting into motion a plan guaranteeing dominance over the people of the Big Easy. Failing to outwit the protagonists, Facilier is doomed to repay his “friends on the other side” the only way he can. The villain is devoured, body and soul by the spirits. Not an easy scene for an adult to watch, let alone a youngster!
I would be remiss without mentioning the One Ring in Tolkien’s, “Lord of the Rings”. The gradual devouring of Sméagol’s “humanity” is elegantly evidenced. Despite being initially taken in by the insidious glory of the master ring, the hobbit is, temporarily at least, an effective foil to Sauron’s plan. Perhaps, it is his simplistic, pastoral mind which prevents him from seeking vast power over countless others. Yes, Sméagol does initially create trouble for his small community, but ultimately chooses to run off and hide with his Precious. How different and interesting would it be if the character, Sméagol, was more worldly and learned. What if he held a place of prestige and authority within his river dwelling hobbit society? We could assume, he would have taken control and ruthlessly used what meager resources they had to expand his rule. But, how would it have looked? Perhaps, Sméagol and his fellow stoors would have sought to create a powerful, mercantile enterprise controlling the trade along their river? Would the ring have tolerated such a diminutive exercising of power? Certainly, Sméagol’s cruel, domination of his fellow hobbits would have attracted the attention of Sauron and the Nazgul would easily have recovered the ring.
But, despite Sméagol pouring his heart, soul, love and very essence into the ring, he doesn’t seem desirous to master it or wield it. Rather, the ring becomes a bosom “friend”, ally, and confident for the river hobbit. I would suggest the ring replaces the friend Sméagol kills to obtain it. It seems our poor hobbit might have had a shred of a conscious at one point. Nevertheless, Sauron is still able to conquer Sméagol, who becomes twisted, demented and wholly enslaved to the ring. Becoming ever more jealous, delusional and distrustful, he is unwillingly to share the ring and convinced there is a constant threat to his possession of it. Sauron’s master ring utilizes these character flaws to dominate Sméagol and Gollum is born. In turn, the hobbit is able to become invisible and lives far beyond his natural lifespan. But, it is the ring itself that Sméagol desires, not power or riches. This appears to be something Sauron never anticipated…an individual uninterested in commanding the latent, immense power the ring held. Sauron’s failure to anticipate others could resist the ring’s allure, simply because they did not desire power, was the only weakness Gandalf and the WhiteCouncil are able to use against him.
The master ring is the prime example of an evil object of power hiding behind a beautiful facade. Interestingly, Sauron, himself, was at one time able to mask his treachery in fair form and with silvered-tongue speech. But, he lost this ability when destroyed with the men of Númenór, long before the events retold in the “Lord of the Rings”. I recommend reading J. R.R. Tolkien’s true masterpiece, “The Silmarillion” to learn about the origins of Sauron and the rings of power he created. The master ring, Sauron created, was truly master of all! One has to ask was it the ring that was wielded or did the ring wield the wearer? The one ring, in a sense, ensnared even its creator, who poured so much of his own essence into its making, he ultimately couldn’t properly survive without it. It boggles the mind!
In part three of Magical Economies, I’d like to consider those character willing to sacrifice everything, even themselves, to purchase magnificent gains in magic or power to defend and save others.
In honor of the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax. Most gamers try to do something special on July 27th, Gary’s birthday. How does one throw a party for the late, original, consummate dungeon master? Gather together with fellow RPG geeks and dive deep into an adventure for the entire day! Well..that’s what I did. The game has evolved over the years with several edition. I still prefer AD&D, first edition. This year my DM decided to run a later edition module. I created a green–ancestry, dragonbornpaladin to play, which was really going out of my comfort zone. Interestingly, this adventure was recently finished posthumously for Gygax by his two sons, who used notes he made, but never got around to using.
My penchant is to play wizards, magic-users, druids, illusionists or any other arcane force weilding character. Consequently, I definitely had wizards and dragons on my mind when I decided to put out a piece of flash fiction inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons.
The resulting 1500 word (just small enough for some to still classify as flash fiction) story has been rattling around in my head for months. The characters Garv, Bryndis and Amin feature prominently in a fantasy book I’m developing. The scene is from deep within the middle of the plot. So…treat it like a trailer for a movie.
Music also fuels my imagination. I recommend listening to “Fix You” (The cover of the Coldplay song.) by Danny Olson with Jadelyn.
I must have replayed this hundreds of times while visualizing the scene in this story when dragon fire starts flying!!!
Please follow the link below to read the story, “The Dragon Eyrie”.
Nakul stared. The woman’s pupils were slitted like a snake.
The youth nodded.
“Why, Boy? Show you comprehend my meaning.”
He shifted apprehensively; surveying the cluttered hut. Nestled beneath the washbasin, an immense python lay curled upon itself. Seemingly attentive, the snake slowly blinked pronounced, round, brown eyes.
“Why are we and others like us damned?”
Nakul had fled home and everything he knew to escape death. He cursed those afraid of him. But, the animal speak he cherished.
“Every time I use the power; I lose a part of me.”
Keenly conscious of Indali’s piercing gaze, he subconsciously ran his tongue delicately over his teeth. The needle-sharp canines filled him with a sense of exhilaration.
“Nakul. You saved your life the day the cobra bit you. Most would have died. The price though was a fragment of your humanity.”
“You can’t get something for nothing.” is an old familiar saying. Consequently, anything worth having in this world is only gained with hard work, sweat and even a few tears. If one is lucky, the work required is well-suited to one’s sensibilities and becomes a joyous labor. Yes, there are people who live easy, by subjugating others or perhaps on inherited wealth. This is the exception though rather than the rule. Until limitless energy, endless supplies of raw materials and free labor (without any human cost) is discovered, everyone must exert effort and spend time to receive material gain. No matter how small the desire, it necessitates some form of sacrifice. Yet, the setting of a fantasy or science fiction story distorts, weakens or altogether negates this maxim. Readers can enjoy immersing themselves in a world full of magic or advanced technology (and with a willing suspension of disbelief) feel as if anything is possible. For example, the replicator, from Star Trek: Next Generation, is an interesting story element often paid little heed. With ample supply of energy this device allows humanity to instantly order up any form of matter desired. Viewers see the characters use this technology primarily in the storyline to order food or beverage at a moments notice. But, I don’t see anything limiting this ability, so long as the desired specifications for an object are inputed. In this futuristic, utopian setting, humans now have no need for money. There isn’t anything to be bought. There is an endless supply of essentially anything, provided the technology is available and sufficient energy. And there it is! The limiting factor remains. My musings have brought me back full circle. “You can’t get something for nothing.”
Let us contemplate how magic is typically portrayed in a story and think about the rules governing its use. There is almost always an economy of power dictating, when, how often and in what fashion magic is used. It is a very rare to find an example of a character with unlimited magical powers. Effortless use of magic tends to be found more often in tales written for youth or when the story’s purpose is to entertain. Consider Bewitched, a 1960’s sitcom featuring the character, Samantha, a good-natured witch living as your average suburban housewife. She can do practically whatever she wants with only a twitch of her nose and pointing her finger. I Dream of Genie replicated this format, simply replacing the witchery with the all-mighty power of the jinn. Of course, it was necessary to have some limitations to their powers, otherwise there would be no struggle to drive even these simplistic plots. The shows were light-hearted comedies. The audience wasn’t looking to see “under the hood” at the magical engines. There was not mention of how the magic worked. It just did.
Magic begins to be more reflective of real life attitudes and values when encountered in highly developed fantasy settings. Ultimately, the existence of magic, supernatural powers or sci-fi technology gives an author great fodder to be used in tackling heftier topics. But, before dipping our toes into a more serious discussion, let’s look at the motif of magic as an arcane study. The Harry Potter series veers closer to a more believable rendering of magical power with the J. K. Rowlings’ fabrication of a “school for magical arts”. In Harry’s story, the magical world is able to perform great feats, but only with intensive study and lots of practice. Genetics is a bit of a wild card for Rowlings’ characters. Not unlikely in sports, some are just born with more raw talent.
Many RPG gamers, from the 1970s and 80s, undoubtedly feel familiar with what is presented in J. K. Rowlings’ books. The magic-using character classes designed for play in Dungeons and Dragons also follow this path. Magic-users must travel and adventure in order to gather treasure and experience to make their magical studies worthwhile. Just like Hogwart’s students, these imaginary characters shop for magical items, gather spell components and commit to memory obscure knowledge. They too, early in their careers, are limited in terms of the magic they can successfully perform. Further constraining their power, once a spell is discharged it must be painstakingly prepared again. The cycle of study, researching, memorizing, and obtaining additional magical component is never-ending. The rules and mechanics of the game are complicated and at times frustrating, yet they give it life and purpose.
The source of power in our world is readily attributed to science, technology and other educational endeavors. But, what does one resort to when the mundane ways of getting something we want fail? Depending on how important it is to us, we might find ourselves turning to a faith-based solution. After all, the miraculous requires the intervention of something extra-ordinary; better yet, supernatural. Thus, we pray, beg, plead and bargain with any higher power, we feel might listen. Perhaps, skepticism is high and faith low. Submitting our laundry list of requests, we already expect disappointment. In small matters, we accept the silence, thinking “something” beyond us must know better. We console ourselves, proclaiming the ill we endure will ultimately lead to a better opportunity unasked for. Yet, what happens when the request involves grave or dire circumstances? One may desperately offer to sacrifice anything for an answer to their prayer. This need causes people to recite or perform lengthy religious formulas, fast, abstain from all-manner of things, exorbitantly give alms, devote all their time to charitable works and even subject themselves to pain, in an attempt to cajole from the heavens speedy, effective aid.
Religions evolve from the desire to ward against and make sense of the evils and misfortunes of this world. Proffering a sacrifice to buy salvation is the ultimate result. It is here one finds the crux to why humanity invents and tells stories. We use fiction, as a means of mulling over our circumstances, as mere mortals, and in the process map out a remedy for it. Our favorite characters, settings and plots help us to cope with the ravages, this indifferent life can put us through. A vivid fictional portrayal of this is found in the popular television series, American Horror Story. The Coven season depicts, Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess, performing a powerful fertility spell. A component to the ritual requires Laveau to ingest, straight from the fire, the hottest type of chili pepper in existence. The character professes her belief that displaying a willingness to suffer will cause the spirits to “sit up and take notice”. Watching the scene, one wonders what circumstance in the real world would make us willing to suffer so greatly. It’s only a story some might say, but cultures in the not-too-distant past ceremonially slaughtered individuals as offerings to obtain a greater good for the many. Modern society abhors the notion of human sacrifice, but elements of the practice remain. We have offered to the gods the choicest animals, other valuables, arts or the best share of harvested goods. What was presented mattered not as long as it was the best, the most beautiful and invaluable.
The idea of only gaining great power through an immense sacrifice is central in many high fantasy plots. A well-known example from current pop culture is the story of the arch villain, Thanos, from the Marvel Universe. He seeks an unimaginably, powerful artifact. The bearer of this item is able to alter the very fabric of time, space and existence. His goal is to reorder all life in the universe. Thanos has an interesting perspective of the known, physical world. He is haunted by the suffering of those too weak to grab their fair share of what they need to survive. He sees over-population throughout the universe and resulting scarcity of resources as the root cause of war and conflict. In order to ensure a more peaceful future, he embarks on a quest to gain the power to eliminate half of all life in the universe. Interestingly, the notion of wanting to bring an end to warring over resources and providing all with ample living space is a noble one. But, his willingness to sacrifice trillions or more is misguided to say the least. It is an evil plan of immense proportions. It is worth pointing out, one can readily identify shades of this scheme within our own human history, which is full of instances of ethnic cleansing and wars for living-space. The implement Thanos is seeking is a gauntlet powered by “magical” stones. They must be collected and inserted into the glove. One of the stones needed, to complete his plan, can only be obtained by sacrificing someone he loves. Knowing her father to be cruel and always self-serving, his daughter believes Thanos has failed. She is convinced he is incapable of love. Any villain, worthy of the title though, is complex and harbors within good intentions long laid aside; even love. To everyone’s dismay, Thanos does gain the stone because does love his daughter. In a perverse fashion, he is committing a great act of love, self-denial and sacrifice. Tragically, Thanos’ ability to parse good from evil is eclipsed by his fanatical devotion to his belief that he is actually saving the universe.
Next time…I will explore characters, who gain magical or supernatural power by making sinister bargains with the darker forces in fiction.
Do you enjoy fun and comedic characters who absurdly can do just about anything? Know about other stories of magic/power involving characters who study and refine their craft at a school, academy or as an apprentice in a guild? Lastly, share with me your favorite story-lines in which a character must sacrifice something they hold dear or someone they love to access magic/power.