Again, I created this idea with two things in mind: Magical Horror, and the desire to focus only on story. The setting and other details just kind of happened naturally and I ran with it, and to my delight the premise was given to a fairytale structure. Hopefully I made something original out of what could easily have become cliched, but you be the judge, reader. If you feel a twinge of the creepiness I felt when I wrote it, I did my job.
By Ben Pienaar
He took up in a lanky wooden tower by the river. No one knew what it had been used for originally, only that it had been abandoned and that now it was being put to evil purposes. This last was clear to everyone in the village, though the ‘Dark Man’ as some called him had only lived there for the latter half of autumn. It was enough.
Mitchell left the village with a lot of resolve and a little dread, but by the time he reached the heavy front door he had none of the former left and most of the latter. He tried not to think of his dear brother Marcus gibbering in his bed, or of the priest Matthew Kendall, who’d returned from his own quest to the tower with eyes that were all pupil and a mouth that preached only death and the devil.
He knocked and the sound echoed like a giant drum through the structure. His other hand was curled around a sawn off shotgun behind his back, and he also had two sharp knives tucked into his belt, which he could wield well enough. Nevertheless, he was afraid. He’d determined not to leave unless he be dead or mad, or had driven the wizard from the village, though that last hope seemed very unlikely to him now.
‘He works with fear, he works with fear. Remember that Mitchell son, and you’ll be fine.’ He was muttering this way when the great door swung wide open, and he was greeted by no one. The room beyond was dark and musty, and crowded with a million objects.
Mitchell raised the shotgun to his chest and swallowed dry. Then he stepped into the room, put his back to the wall, and tried to look everywhere at once. The door swung shut with a bang that made him jump a foot in the air. He was on the point of pulling the trigger when he realised there was no one there.
The room was so full of things that Mitchell could have called it a storeroom except that it was right here in front of the house. His eyes, flitting nervously over every nook and cranny, picked up dusty skulls with glass eyes in the sockets, a broomstick covered in thorns, three crystal balls of each primary colour and a glass box full of dead insects, among other things. There was an opening to another room on this floor, but somehow he sensed it was empty: the only presence in this place besides him seemed to emanate like a powerful stench from the helix staircase beside a portrait of a skinless man.
As if listening to his thoughts (and who knew, maybe he was) the wizard spoke. His voice was deep and serious, but it sounded put on, as though the speaker was struggling desperately with hysterical laughter. It seemed to be coming from the room on the second story. ‘A mean intentioned guest is it who enters with a weapon drawn, Mitchell Scott.’
‘Show yourself,’ Mitchell said, and heard a low chuckle in reply.
‘Why? So you might blow half my house away with that crude tool of yours? That would be a bother, and I’d have to take your own house to replace it. I doubt your pretty wife would much like that.’
He gritted his teeth and relished the small rage that took the place of some of the fear. ‘I’m coming up, you bastard, and your mind tricks won’t work on me, so you best run.’ Before he could take a moment to think himself out of it, he rushed forward and up the steep stairs, eyes and gun aimed up as he went, primed for the slightest movement. He heard a flapping sound and felt a whoosh of hot air, but when he reached the second story, the wizard had gone up the next helix to the topmost chamber.
This room was shaped like an octagon, with two opposite sides taken up by the stairs and the other six lined with floor to ceiling shelves. Each wall seemed to hold some new and wonderful thing, and at a glance Mitchell realised what the place was. ‘Temptations of the devil,’ he whispered under his breath.
The laughing voice answered him from the top room. ‘Oh, you’re a fast one, Mitchell, and a better man than your dear priest. Matthew stood where you are but ten seconds, before he dropped his great cross and sold his soul for the thing on the window sill.’
There was only one window in the room, and its sill served as part of a shelf which seemed to hold nothing but tiny marbles of different colours. There was one empty spot in the centre, a tiny circle where the dust had not gathered.
‘Do you know what they are? Oh yes, I can tell you do by your silence. You know what all these trinkets and fancies are, don’t you? It must be difficult to stand so still when you’re so close to your dearest dreams.’
Mitchell swallowed and forced himself to shut his eyes against the marbles, which shone so brilliantly in the morning light that they hurt him. Once he was blind, he found he could think again. ‘They’re whole worlds,’ he said.
‘More than that, they are universes. No, they are infinite realities, and each one is a heaven greater than anything your mind can comprehend. Paradises of all different kinds, and all eternal. Unfortunately, they all show an unpleasant truth to those who look at them too long, and I think you’ve seen it already, though you don’t quite believe it yet.’
Mitchell nodded, but didn’t answer. He’d seen it alright, and he did believe. He’d fixed his eyes on the black marble and seen what lay beyond the grave, and it was simply this: nothing at all. No thought or memory, heaven or hell; nothing. And the only escape would be to pick up another marble and put his soul inside it, so that he could live forever in heaven while his body on earth remained empty, a tool for the wizard.
‘Never,’ he whispered.
The wizard laughed. ‘No, not never, dear Mitchell. In fact, I think a few more seconds would have done it. Half a glance into the nature of one of those worlds there and you’d have stopped at nothing to get it. Even I wouldn’t be able to stop you then, if I ever wanted to.’
Mitchell’s breathing was coming harshly, and he was sweating. He had the shotgun aimed at the foot of the stairs, and he began to slide his shoes off his feet with his eyes squeezed tight. He had to keep the wizard talking, or he might glide quietly down and finish him now.
‘Your trinkets are nothing but shiny toys to me,’ he said, and began to tip toe toward the staircase.
‘Are you sure? What about that shelf with the red and blue fruit? Eat one, and you experience the accumulated pleasure of a lifetime with each bite. Or what about the rocks below them? Put one in your pocket and every pain and sadness you feel will seep into it and leave you for good.’
‘That… isn’t enough. I want more. What else do you have?’ He paused while he spoke, and then continued across the room when he was sure the wizard’s voice was no closer.
‘See the shelf that holds the coins? The gold coin is worth whatever you want to buy with it, and reappears in your pocket with every use. The silver you give to your love and you both shall live as long as that love endures. Or take the bag of copper and give one coin each to an enemy…’ He didn’t elaborate that last, but Mitchell knew well enough what it meant.
His toe hit the bottom step and he winced and opened his eyes. The wizard wasn’t there.
‘I’m coming up, devil,’ said Mitchell. He waited, half expecting a cry of rage or surprise from above, but there was only silence. He raised the shotgun and came on, much slower this time, keeping both eyes on the rickety path ahead of him. He reached the top without incident, and stood on the threshold of the top room in the tower, and there the dark man waited for him.
It was the first time Mitchell had ever seen the wizard up close, and it was every bit as terrifying as he’d feared. Nothing to do with appearance; yes, he did have a smile as wide as his face full of black and yellow teeth, and he was two heads taller than Mitchell – but the real source of menace was just a feeling that came from him. It was that presence he’d felt when he first entered the tower, so thick in the air it was intoxicating.
The top room was the tallest in the tower, and the pointed top was several more feet over even the wizard’s head. There was a small window near the top, but every other inch of wall was taken up with shelf after shelf of potions. Hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny glass bottles covered every possible inch.
‘This is where the magic happens, young Mitchell,’ the wizard said. ‘Potions for every conceivable thing. None of them are labelled, but each bottle is unique, and each solution has a distinctive colour and smell, so that only I know which is what, and what does which.’
For his answer, Mitchell aimed the shotgun at the wizard’s chest and put his finger on the trigger. Why was it so hard? His head was spinning and he felt almost drunk, his limbs moving as though they had hundred pound weights dragging from them.
The wizard shot a long spindly arm to a nearby shelf and seized a beaker of charcoal black liquid. He did not bother uncorking it but simply crammed the whole lot into his mouth and crushed it between his teeth. Mitchell felt the heaviness retreat from his finger and he pulled the trigger.
The shot was so loud in the small room it seemed that every bottle there should have shattered in a hundred pieces. They did not, of course, and neither did anything else including the wizard himself. Mitchell stood at the top of the stairs for a moment, eyes wide, waiting for the dark man to look down, his smile faltering, and see pools of blood wetting his black cloak.
It didn’t happen. The wizard continued to watch him as he chewed the last fragments of bottle and cork in his mouth and then swallowed them, with visible effort. He breathed a sigh of relief when he was done, and a stream of red fell from his lips. For a second Mitchell nursed a hope, but then the wizard rolled his eyes and said: ‘It’s the cork that’s the hardest to chew, you know. The glass is easy, though it stings more.’ He wiped the blood from his mouth and then shook his head. ‘Ah, poor Mitchell. All of that will and bravery only to learn that your weapon is useless against me. What do you propose to do now, I wonder? Attack me with those knives of yours? Run?’He raised his eyebrows, genuinely curious. In truth, it was the latter option that Mitchell was thinking of now, but he could feel the heaviness resting on him again and he knew that the wizard would catch him within two strides.
‘Not sure? Well, let me tell you a little story, brave Mitchell, and then I will make a suggestion of my own, and you can decided what to do after that, yes?’
Mitchell nodded, lowering the shotgun. His face was white, and though he told himself there was hope, he didn’t believe it. He was sure the last things he’d see and smell would be those sharpened black teeth and the stench of the wizard’s breath.
‘Now, firstly, I should tell you just how old I am. Six thousand, three hundred and seventy nine years!’ He gave a short laugh. ‘I know, I can hardly believe it myself! But anyway, for the last century or so I’ve been travelling the various parts of the world searching for someone worthy. So far, it’s been very unsuccessful. I arrive in a town or village or even a city. I terrorize the common folk, murder, mischief, and destruction – install a healthy fear, you know. Then, I wait for the brave champions and challengers to confront me. Most never get past the room of temptations, which is understandable, I suppose. The ones that do, however, I offer them their chance.’
He paused, and winked at Mitchell. There was an awkward silence, until Mitchell realised he was waiting for him to say something. ‘A chance for what?’ he said.
‘Why! To become my replacement! You see, there are only a very small number of us dark wizards in the world, but we serve a valuable purpose. Without us, there wouldn’t be half as much evil and horror in the world as there is. Unfortunately, it’s a tiring task, and even though it’s fun, there comes a time in a wizard’s life when he must retire and hang up the old cloak, etcetera.’
‘You want me to take your place.’
‘Yes! Don’t worry, no training required. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.’
‘And just what makes you think I’d do a thing like that? What, you’ll kill me if I don’t? Well I’d rather die a thousand deaths than serve you.’
He cackled and then dropped suddenly to the ground, cross legged. Even seated he came up to Mitchell’s waist. ‘Oh I won’t need to threaten you, lad,’ he said. ‘That’s already done. You won’t leave here unless you attempt my final trial, the last test of your worthiness. If you fail, you’ll die, too. If you succeed… Then you’ll follow in my stead whether you like it or not.’
‘Fine, then. What’s your test?’
He patted the ground in front of him and fluttered his eyelids. Mitchell laid the shotgun against the wall, feeling like a starving man setting aside his last meal, though he knew it was useless now. He lowered himself to the cold floor and sat cross legged, opposite this thing that seemed to feel every inch of him with billiard ball eyes.
When he was seated, the wizard shuffled uncomfortably close to him and then leaned forward and whispered: ‘The test is…’ A smell of rotten fish wafted from his mouth. ‘You have to kill me.’
He leaned back and waited with his mouth open and his eyes shining like someone who thought they’d just told the best joke in all the world and was waiting for raucous laughter. Mitchell only stared back, blank faced. He felt what he supposed a mouse might feel as it tried to crawl away from a playful cat. ‘I have to kill you?’ he repeated.
‘Yes! But here’s how it’s done. You must pick two potions from the shelves in this room. Then, I drink one and you drink one. It is a test you see, because using only intuition, sight and smell, you have to choose a potion to kill me and one that won’t kill you. Although, I can’t vouch for what kind of side effects it might have. Only a good potential wizard would have that intelligence, you see. Once I die, you will then become the new wizard.’
‘No. I won’t.’
‘Oh, right, I forgot to explain that part. In short, you will. In long, you will because the murderer of the wizard then becomes the wizard. Now, the books you find in the basement should be more than enough to get you started. After that, the natural powers will save you from your inevitable mistakes, and the rest is good clean fun! Have no fear – experiment! Who knows what delicious anarchy you can concoct?’
Most of that had gone over Mitchell’s head, because his thoughts had frozen at the point where the murderer became the wizard. What was that? Some universal law? A bluff?
‘Now. Go.’ These last words were said with such harsh fury that Mitchell almost toppled backwards down the stairs in surprise. His leg flew out to the right and knocked the shotgun over with a clatter. When he looked up again the wizard was leaning back on his hands almost casually, watching him.
Mitchell tried desperately to think in the heavy silence that followed. What could he possibly do? The wizard had lived six thousand and some years, what chance did he stand against that? The dark man had made it impossible for him to do anything except what he was meant to. Of course, he could still try to run, but whether he was caught or not the wizard would only find some other poor fool to try his ‘test’ on.
At length, Mitchell stood up and turned to the wall immediately on his right. He forced himself to calm down and think. The wizard was smart alright, but he’d given him a room full of potions and promised to drink whatever Mitchell set before him. That was something, wasn’t it? What if there was one that gave him super speed? Or the ability to fly?
So he searched. Bottles of every shape and size, containing liquids of every colour. Some fizzed when he uncorked them, others let out a stench of oil, or roses, or rum. Some were thick and others were lighter than water. How on earth was he to know which were deadly and which were not?
The deadly ones will surely be the worst smelling, the most vile and disgusting, the voice of reason spoke in his mind. So, those with the best effects must be the sweetest and most alluring. Simple. But a glance at the wizard changed his mind. This was a test after all, and surely he wouldn’t be the first to think the obvious. It had to be a trick, and the opposite was true: the sweetest were also the deadliest.
Mitchell spotted a small, square bottle near the floor on the left wall. It was filled with light blue liquid. When he opened it, the liquid fizzed quickly and then stopped, making a sound like a match being struck. It smelled of chocolate. ‘This is yours,’ he said, lifting it from the shelf.
The wizard smiled and clapped his hands politely. ‘Very good, young Mitchell. There’s hope for you yet. No doubt you’re remembering the temptations on the floor below us. You know you cannot escape that way, after all. And when you’re wizard, all those things will be yours to explore at your pleasure.’
The next potion should have been easy, but only if he were playing by the rules. As he went from shelf to shelf, smelling and uncorking and weighing bottles in his hands, he sensed the wizard growing impatient. He’d already gone past several vile smelling concoctions, and though he’d chosen none of them, he’d paid careful attention to each: they were the way to break the code.
The potion he stopped at was silvery white – the colour of lightning. It was a tall, slim bottle, and when he took it from the shelf it was so light to the touch it felt empty. This one smelled like burning rubber and electric fire. This was the one.
‘I’ll take this,’ he said at last. The wizard must have heard the despair in his voice, and he seemed to relax at last. He gestured for Mitchell to sit down and Mitchell obeyed quietly. His heart felt like a stone in his chest.
‘Ah, don’t look so down, now! Be happy, brave Mitchell. You’ve proved yourself worthy where plenty others failed, and now you get to reap the rewards! Just think, thousands and thousands of years, as many as you want, total freedom and joy and none of the pesky trappings of remorse or fear. And thanks to me, you can’t even blame yourself for becoming a monster. I forced you into it, you see.’ He winked and raised his glass. ‘Now, time to drink, lad. I suppose you don’t really have to drink yours if you don’t want, but suit yourself. You picked well – might as well enjoy it while you can still appreciate the small things in life.’
And without another word or a moment’s hesitation, the wizard uncorked the bottle in his hand, drank the blue liquid in a single swallow and ended his six thousand year life. He coughed and an arm of flame shot from his mouth. ‘Christ,’ he said, ‘I wish you hadn’t chosen this one, though. You’ll make a worthy wizard, boy, that’s for sure.’ He cackled and then broke out in another coughing fit, this one bad enough to turn his face dark red.
Mitchell watched him die with bitter, bitter satisfaction. The wizard was barely aware of him at all, and in a few moments he was writhing about on the floor, hacking up blood and clutching his throat. His eyes swelled to the size of peaches and turned black. Then, to Mitchell’s horror, they became like liquid pools in his face and spilled onto his cheeks. When it was all over, he lay on his back, smoke pouring from his throat.
For a brief moment, Mitchell thought he could hear the dark man laughing from beyond the grave, and then he realised it was himself. The transformation had begun already, and who knew how long it would take? There was no time to waste.
Choking back his hysterics, Mitchell opened his own bottle and downed it in one. Before it had gone all the way down his throat, he was searching the shelves again, grabbing bottles, inspecting them, and throwing them aside.
The first potion he found within seconds. It looked like liquid gold and smelled like burning pine. It was a good smell, but not a great one, and that told him it wouldn’t be a quick death. He gulped it down in a flash.
It was then that the first potion hit. He was reaching for another bottle when the air’s viscosity changed, first to that of water, and then to honey. He panicked, but when he saw the way the bottles fell and shattered in slow motion he realised it was not the world that had slowed down, but he who’d speeded up. The lightning drink had given him speed, even though it felt to him like torturous slowness.
Now, he couldn’t leave by the second floor. He’d made it through – barely – on the way up, but if he tried it again, under this terrible illusion of slowness, he would surely give in to temptation. No, there was only one way out of here, and that was the window.
In his mind, it took him another five minutes of painstaking searching to find the bottle he wanted, though in reality it could have been mere seconds. This one was completely transparent, in a pyramid shaped bottle. It was so light that one didn’t drink it so much as breathe it in.
He picked up the shotgun, aimed it at the small round window in the ceiling, and fired the second barrel. The bullet was so slow to his eyes that he caught a glimpse of it as it hit the glass and sent the shards floating out into the blue sky beyond. He watched them fall like feathers through the air, fascinated.
The last potion was working on him now, and when he leapt for the window it was as though gravity no longer existed for him. He sailed through the tiny opening, breaking the remaining glass from the frame, and then he was outside, three stories above a field of thick green grass. He did not quite fall but rather floated down toward the ground. For a long time he drifted through the air and watched the clouds in the sky and waited to hit the ground, and it occurred to him that this would be the last moment of true peace he would ever feel.
It seemed he had hours to manipulate himself in the air and so when he landed, it was lightly, on his feet. Then he was running, and fast too, because he could feel the poison working on him now, cramping his stomach and sending wild pains up his spine. They were ever more agonizing because they took so long for him to perceive. His death would have been slow, sure, but now it was going to be even slower.
His house wasn’t far, but as it happened, he didn’t need make it all the way. Mary was waiting for him by Kendall’s corrupted church, standing on the hill with her arms crossed against the cold wind.
He reached her and they embraced, and now he felt truly grateful for that slowing of time. Looking over her shoulder, he saw that she’d thought to bring a long steak knife with her, just in case. Naturally, he grabbed it and brought it up to slit her throat.
‘Mitchell?’ she said, feeling the weight of it leave her side. He stopped, horrified.
‘Jesus, it’s happening already,’ he whispered, almost to himself.
There was no time to tell her, none at all, and it was harder still because he had to speak in slow motion just to make himself understood. He dropped the knife and watched it turn slow somersaults through the air.
‘If I live, I’ll become the wizard,’ he began. He grabbed her shoulders to make sure his hands didn’t do something else evil. ‘But listen quickly. At the bottom of the tower are books. Read them all and they’ll tell you about his potions. You can use them to cure Marcus and maybe even Matthew Kendall. You can undo everything he did.’
He bent double as another cramp ripped through him and sent ribbons of fire streaming through every organ and artery.
‘Mitchell, what is it? Jesus, what did he do to you?’
‘NO! It was me, bitch.’ He clamped a hand over his mouth and she stepped back, horrified.
‘I’m sorry! It doesn’t matter – I’ll be dead before I’m evil. Mary, read the books, save the others. Use it all to help the village and then burn the whole tower down. You hear me? The whole tower!’
‘Yes, I hear you. Mitchell, what’s he done to you? What’s going to happen?’ He’d bent over double and she stepped forward to put a hand on his shoulder.
‘Please Mary,’ he said with great effort. ‘You have to go.’
A ball of fire exploded in his stomach and he went down to his knees, his jaw clenched tight. He could feel blood leaking from his tear ducts, and he kept his eyes down so she wouldn’t see. ‘GO!’ he cried.
Tears streaming down her face, she turned and started off towards the tower.
She twisted around.
‘Close your eyes when you pass the second story. Don’t you dare open them, understand?’
He was sprawled out on the grass now, and when he looked up at her again, his eyes and mouth seemed to have doubled in size. ‘Come back here, whore! I’ll spill your blood with my fingernails and lick the wounds.’
‘I love you, Mitchell Scott, and God save your soul,’ she answered.
‘God’s as real as a filled in hole, love,’ he said. She turned her back and ran for the tower.
The wizard stood up and rose his right hand, not sure exactly what spell he mean to cast but confident it would come to him soon enough. Then something burst inside of him and he collapsed into the grass. When he opened his eyes again he was Mitchell Scott for the last time.
By the feel of it, something was slicing his lungs and liver into mince meat, but Mitchell managed a smile with every cut. ‘Try that move, you sly bastard,’ he said. ‘Check mate. No wizards in this part of the world, so enjoy your time in hell.’
He rolled onto his side and watched his wife run for the dark tower. He knew she would do what he said, but he also knew she’d be smart enough to read the books and take the best of the potions. Everything was going to be alright after all.
He turned on his back and stared at the sky around the same time his lungs ignited and made his last breath burn.
Mitchell Scott died alone on a green hill, and his last thought was a vision of his own son, flying like an angel through blue skies and white clouds. The wizard died with him, and his last thoughts were not so pleasant.