An excruciating cold slowly crept over Joe, stinging his lungs and freezing his diaphram with each inhale. His eyes flew open allowing the chill to attack his eyeballs.
Around him the forest was ablaze. Each branch, each leaf, each blade of grass was engulfed in an amber inferno that angrily reached up to the smoke-filled night sky as if daring the gods to interfere. Out of the flames, a creature came. It towered over Joe as he struggled to breathe in his state of eerie hypothermia. The creature was nothing but fire – a standing flame with limbs and two small circular voids for eyes. The eyes stared down at Joe and he stared back. Suddenly the being grew, as if a gust of wind had swept by and fanned the fire. Its flames grew brighter and its height doubled then it shrank back down again. Joe couldn’t respond, instead he watched. In the fiery creature’s hand was a stone, smooth and round and glowing with heat.
In my hand I hold pain.
The burning person stepped towards Joe, who still cowered on the ground.
But I also hold power.
As the creature neared, the cold began to evaporate from Joe’s body, his nerves began to thaw. He gasped for air.
I hold the power to kill.
The man was getting too close, the heat was becoming unbearable. It was as if the sun itself was setting on Joe’s body. His muscles trembled as sweat oozed from his pores. His skin was soaked with perspiration, he felt as though he was melting – but he couldn’t move.
And I hold the power to protect.
The figure stopped moving and watched Joe with its nightmarish eyes, holding the glowing stone out as if offering it.
You have great promise, Joe, if you take this ability. You have the potential to be the greatest our universe has ever seen – but only if you take this ability.
Despite the waves of burning heat and the person made of flames standing a yard away, Joe wasn’t afraid. Despite the fact that the entire forest around him was engulfed in fire, Joe wasn’t afraid, not anymore. Joe’s eyes were on the stone. He understood what the creature was offering, it made complete sense. Somehow, at that moment, everything made sense.
He tried to speak but couldn’t. It was unnecessary.
Be warned, this will be more painful than anything you’ve ever felt.
Joe understood. He nodded.
In one swift motion, the burning man strode forward and thrust the glowing stone into Joe’s chest.
Bright, brilliant, beautiful agony.
A pure radiant white filled his view, a majestic lion-like roar filled his ears, the sour stench of sulfur filled his nostrils, all he could feel was heat, a wretched warmth, and all he could taste was sweat and charcoal. His entire skeleton melted and then hardened and then melted again, soaking his flesh in molten bone until his very being became fire.
Only in a dream could his body endure such pain and only in a dream could such pain be almost completely forgotten by morning.
– – –
Joe awoke to a breakfast of razor-toothed rabbit, which was exactly what the name implied. Ekaf had shoved a stick up through the exit of the large intestine and roasted them over the camp fire. They were crunchy but the bones were easy to bite through and wound up being the best part of the meal (it was the flavor of popped organs, spurting vomit-esque fluids down Joe’s throat, that was the meal’s downfall). Ekaf assured Joe that they were better well-done than medium-rare. As they tossed their stick and rodent carcasses into the fire and shifted dirt over the coals, Joe reached in his pocket instinctively and that’s when he remembered that his insulin, blood meter, and pricker were in his Honda which was, consequently, in another dimension.
Sweat beaded up and rolled down his forehead despite the cool of morning. His movements were shaky, he was jittery, uneasy, unsettled, and, most of all, he was incredibly irritable. As a diabetic-veteran, a blood meter was unnecessary for him to realize that he had a low blood sugar – and it was going to get steadily lower.
“Ekaf, do you have anything sugary?” Joe asked as Ekaf inspected the extinguished fire. The Knome looked up at Joe and frowned. Before he could reply, Joe explained, “My blood sugar is low, I’m diabetic, remember?”
“Ah, yes,” Ekaf chuckled. A quick flash of anger popped up in the back of Joe’s mind when the Knome laughed, this isn’t a laughing situation. This could be serious, but it was nothing but a flash, something he’d grown accustomed to when in such a state. Ekaf continued, “I could forage around a bit, these woods are full of berries.”
“Sure. The chipmunk thing should help stabilize me for now but eventually I’ll need something else. A couple handfuls of berries should hold me over until we meet your friend.”
“And there you can say good riddance to your pancreatic curse!” Ekaf took Joe’s hand and slid the warp cube into it, “I’ll go get the berries but you should stay here, by what’s left of the fire – it should keep monsters at bay.” Ekaf said, he looked to Joe then to the woods and then back again, “I know you think this is a dream or something – a figment of your imagination – but don’t go testing it because you’ll find out quite fast that Solaris is very real.”
“Don’t worry,” Joe smirked, “if dying once landed me in this crazy world, the last thing I want to do is die again.”
And with that the Knome was gone, scurrying off into the woods, leaving Joe with the cube and his thoughts. I wouldn’t mind this place being real if that means I can go home without diabetes…though, I’m not sure how I could explain that…Or how I will stop myself from getting in that wreck. Wandering over to the edge of the bluff, he stared into the water below. Ekaf can’t really expect me to stay – if he wanted a hero, he should’ve picked one! The cliff was quite high and, from Joe’s point of view, it seemed even further from the water’s surface than he actually was. The longer I stay here, the more I waste his time. His stomach churned the extra-terrestrial meat in his gut and he decided to avert his gaze from the drop. Instead, he tossed the warp cube into the air, watched it reach its peak over his head, and then stuck his opposite hand out to catch it as gravity sucked it back down.
Back on Earth, objects like the warp cube were little more than science fiction. They were impossibilities. Portals to parallel universes. It blew his mind. I wonder what else they have here? He held the cube up to his eyes and pressed the button on the top. A green ray shot out, portraying the key in a lime-colored hologram. Imagine what I could bring back to Earth! I may not be able to do his world any good, but Ekaf sure as hell could fix up mine! He reached out to touch the key and it solidified as his finger slid through the ring.
“Amazing…” Joe whispered.
He tossed the key up into the air and watched its velocity slow as gravity began to take hold of it yet again. Then, for just a second, his eyes slipped down to the water below. Did I see something? He stared into the water, watching the murky green surface. He choked on his breath as he saw the round side of a scaled creature dip back down below the waves.
The silver key fell past his feet towards the water.
There was no pause of hesitation. Joe stooped over the edge of the cliff, his hands reached out for the key, and his feet left the ground as he dove head first towards the water. He dropped the warp cube as every thought in his body was directed to getting Ekaf’s key. His fingertips tickled the cold metal but at that same instance the surface of the water exploded. Jaws, with finger sized fangs, shot out of the water.
His hand closed around the key.
The creature bit down on his forearm.
Then the two of them hit the water.
The beast’s fangs dug into Joe’s flesh and pulled him downwards, its snake like body squirming in the murk. His eyes were closed, lips curled back in a grimace allowing oxygen bubbles to slip out from between his teeth. His free hand desperately grabbed hold of the reptilian snout, attempting to pry his fingers beneath its teeth to yank it off his arm but it was to no avail. The beast was going to take his arm, key and all. Releasing the beast’s snout he balled his hand into a fist and began to strike the scaly dragon-like head, over and over. He hit it in the eyes, in the nose, in its triceratops-like-crest, but all it did was cut his knuckles, anger the monster, and convince it to bite down harder.
He could feel the dragon’s teeth cutting into his bone. Then, the beast let go. Opening and closing its mouth as if it’d tasted something horrid – Joe stared at the bite on his arm – or as if it had been burnt. The flesh beneath his elbow rolled back from his bone, floating in the lake water like kelp, blood turning the green water brown, and in his hand was the key. But what stunned Joe, what sensory observation made its way to Joe through his pain-filled mind was that bubbles, thousands of bubbles, tumbled out of the holes in his arm. He could feel heat from where the bite was and, somehow, he knew it was his heat and not something left from the beast.
In my hand I hold pain. But I also hold power.
Joe felt a wave of warmth rush over his face.
I hold the power to kill and I hold the power to protect.
For the first time he noticed an orange glow resonating from beneath his button up shirt. Had that been real? Had that been more than a dream? His time to ponder was interrupted by two things: first, the necessity of oxygen, second, the fact that he was now surrounded with the squirming eel like creatures, each of their heads watching him through the cloudy river water as they stuck their forked tongues out to taste his blood. Their heads were horned, each having a triangle of spikes, one in-between their eyes and two more upon the crest that separated their heads from their bodies. They were below him and they were above him. They were all around him. The pain, the fear, the cold, the suffocation, his mind was on the frits and then suddenly he was at peace.
He closed his eyes. He could feel the stone in his chest, the one that the man of fire had presented him with in his dreams. The warm comforting heat that it sent throughout his body, he could feel it: fire that coursed through every vein and every artery causing no pain. It was as if the fire was a separate being watching the approaching river-creatures and burning with an undying desire to protect its host. He could feel the fire building, every inch of his body contributing; he could feel every bit of energy inside him balling up like a fist, combusting, and then-
– – –
Ekaf stood on the small beach of land beneath the cliff and before the river, where his row boat faithfully awaited them. A few branches of berry bushes lay stacked in the little vessel. Ekaf had known Joe would ask. And when Joe had seen him skip off into the woods, Ekaf had only done so to keep from raising a red flag. After all, the last thing he wanted to do was lead Joe to realize this wasn’t Ekaf’s first attempt to save him.
The Knome watched as Joe dropped the key, as he dove off the cliff, and as the young river-dragon leaped out of the water in an attempt to swallow Joe’s arm. Ekaf waited as his friend struggled beneath the calm water of the Saluman River. Every muscle in the little man’s body urged him to leap into the river, Duikii at the ready, and slice those starving legless salamanders to pieces. But he knew not too. It was imperative that Joe find out for himself how to wield his new found strength.
Seconds after Joe was pulled under, the surface of the river began to boil. Ekaf watched with impatient excitement. The water exploded, shooting up as high as the bluff as it turned into steam. The giant snake like creatures were flung into the air, scales melted together, bodies flopping limply, their organs a molten slush. They fell back into the river, their corpses clapping against the surface as water rushed in over the origin of the explosion.
Now Ekaf intervened. He dove in, his tiny arms tearing through the water, his miniscule legs pumping. It was murky, he could hardly make out what was only a yard in front of him, but he could see a faint orange glow sinking to the bottom of the river and that’s where he swam to. In a matter of seconds, the Knome had reached Joe and, slipping his arms beneath Joe’s arm pits, he began the laborious task of bringing his companion back up to the surface.
When Ekaf finally pulled the boy onto the land, the glow from beneath his shirt flickered like a dying light bulb, sending waves of auburn flashes across his body with each blink. Ekaf had to work quickly. The Knome tore open the buttoned shirt, yanked the blood-colored tie out from around Joe’s neck, and paused. A glowing orb twinkled in his chest where his sternum should’ve been. With each flash the glow grew fainter and, with each flash, flames swarmed across Joe’s body. The sight would seem to be an illusion, for the fire didn’t run over his flesh nor did it travel through but rather within – as if his bone, muscle, and organs became fire for but a split second before returning to solid matter. Undaunted, Ekaf touched the orb – it was cool.
But before he could refill Joe with energy, he needed to get the water out of his lungs. Raising his fists above his head, Ekaf brought them down, slamming them into the stone. Joe’s entire body twitched but his chest was still motionless. Ekaf raised his hands and struck again. This time Joe’s body convulsed. His chest thrust upward, shoulders and head rocked backward, and river water mixed with blood and saliva sprayed out of his mouth to drench Ekaf. Eyes still shut, Joe’s chest began to rise and fall.
“Now the arm.”
Joe’s right arm was a gnarled clump of flesh. Bone, slick with blood, was visible in some places. Muscle and skin swarmed around his forearm, it looked as if he’d stuck his arm into a blender yet somehow his hand got off scot free. Blood was flowing out of the arm steadily, rolling down the dirty beach towards the river. Still, the body continued to flip flop between biological matter and flame. Fire jumped to life along the trail of blood, as if it were gasoline, only to extinguish itself a moment later. Hastily wiping the blood from his hands in the dirt, before it could combust on his fingers, Ekaf removed his knife-sized Duikii. Pointing the knife at Joe, it grew to about the size of Ekaf’s arm. Nothing happened.
“Come on, Du,” Ekaf whispered, “last time, I swear, help him out.”
The sword hesitated for another second, as if indecisive, then a beam of light shot from the tip of the blade to engulf Joe. The gold shine swept over his body, freezing the flesh in its natural state and isolating the flashing to the stone in his chest. Joe’s jaw sagged open and the glow slipped between his lips to repair his charred organs. Then the radiant luster focused on Joe’s bitten arm. The tissue swirled about the blood painted bone, twisting and regenerating until no sign of the wound remained. The new muscles twitched beneath his skin, tightening and then relaxing. Joe’s hand opened and the key fell out of his grasp and into Ekaf’s palm.
Sticking his sword, which was once again a dagger, into his belt he put the key beneath his cone hat, then returned his attention to the human.
“That’s a step, now to fuel him.”
Ekaf pointed a slender, sharp nailed finger at the stone in Joe’s chest and cast the same spell he’d cast on the fire only twelve hours ago. A skinny strand of flame poured out from Ekaf’s fingertip, hitting the orb and splashing over its surface to be absorbed. The stone began to glow steadily again, no longer blinking. Clouds of flame swirled about beneath the opaque surface. Joe’s eyes flew open and he jerked, making Ekaf jump as he cut his spell short.
“What the hell!” Joe gasped, sitting up straight, “Where am I?”
Ekaf smiled in greetings.
“Oh yea…” He remembered the wreck and his stubby savior first, only after a few seconds did he recall his fall off the cliff, “My arm!” Joe lifted his right arm and frowned when he saw no trace of a bite, then he remembered the warmth he’d felt below the Saluman’s surface and the heat that emanated from, “My chest!”
He stared at the glowing rock in his ribs, suffering a fourth confusion. How am I not dead? Joe looked back up to Ekaf.
“How am I not dead?”
“The Duikii, as its siblings, has a power that it itself activates. The wielder can control the growth ability – to a certain extent – but the sword itself chooses who it wants to heal and when, in that ability I, the wielder, has no say at all. Thankfully, it chose to heal you.” Ekaf explained, “That shamoo tore you up! It’s a wonder you didn’t run out of blood before I got to you. I’ve been bit by a shamoo, not a fun experience, and thank the Guardians you were met by a school of children, an adult three-horned shamoo would’ve swallowed you whole and-”
“So you healed my arm but,” Joe paused, unsure of how to put it, “but underwater I…I exploded. Shouldn’t I be in pieces?”
“Erm, well, I’m not the best one to describe the ways of a pyromancer-”
“Pyromancer?” Joe asked.
“Yes, a pyromancer, much like a necromancer but with fire rather than bone.” As Ekaf spoke he strode over to the little row boat bobbing in the water below the cliff, “Need any berries?”
“Nah,” Joe was too intrigued to want a snack, initially, but upon second thought he decided he wouldn’t mind getting the taste of steamed lake water out of his mouth, not to mention, I’ve got no clue how exploding might impact my blood sugar, “actually sure.”
Ekaf tossed him a branch and continued, “So, remember in the story I told you last night, Creaton powered his incantations with his inner energy?”
Munching on berries, Joe nodded.
“That is the way of wizards, they wield their inner energy – stockpiled in meditation – and channel their spells with the Sacred Tongue, but there are many different ways to use magic. There are two kinds of magicians who draw their energy from outside sources: elementalists and mancers.”
“But Creaton was a necromancer and he used meditation and the holy language.” Joe countered.
“Sacred Tongue,” Ekaf corrected, cleared his throat, then continued, “A magician can often combine methods to power their spells, but not always. Mancers can use the techniques of other magicians but magicians cannot use all the techniques of mancers. If you aren’t a necromancer, then you can’t store bone energy. You may be able to craft a spell where you use the energy left in the dead, but you won’t be able to store it like its your own inner energy like necromancers do. This is because to become a mancer you must be converted, your body must be changed, in order to have a place to store the unique energy. Necromancers store it in their flesh, shadowmancers in an eye, and pyromancers-”
“That’s why I have a rock in my chest!” Joe exclaimed as he buttoned his shirt.
Taking a deep breath, Ekaf began to untangle the long splintery rope that tied the boat to a water-soaked log.
“So who was the fiery man that visited me last night?”
Ekaf finished unwrapping the rope and plopped down on it before answering, “Agony.”
“Agony. Remember when I told you about the Fate Programmers?”
“Yea, the guys who understood that magic rock?”
“The Voidstone, yes. They were cursed,” Ekaf explained, “and Agony was one of them.”
“And he came here last night?”
“Yes-” A fit of coughs suddenly forced Ekaf to pause, when he recovered, he continued, “No…Kind of…He comes into the dreams of all pyromancers when they’re being initiated.”
“He isn’t the initator?”
“The dream, the initiation, is caused by an encantation spoken by someone outside the dream. While you spoke with Agony, I recited the spell and stuck that coal in your chest.”
“You put this in my chest?!” Joe exclaimed.
“Yes, but if you didn’t approve your body wouldn’t have accepted the ember-”
Joe glared, “Would’ve just left me with third degree burns, right?”
“You aren’t excited? Don’t you realize what you just did? You just evaporated an entire chunk of the Saluman River!”
“There’s no getting it removed, is there?”
“Well then,” Joe grunted, “I suppose you win.”
“How’s that?” Ekaf asked.
“I can’t go home with a giant rock full of fire lodged in my sternum.”
Ekaf apparently misinterpreted Joe’s tone, “I knew you’d want to stay!”
“This better be a dream.” Joe muttered as he hopped in the row boat and looked across the Saluman. The river rushed west with a gentle gliding pace. It had fully recovered from Joe’s detonation. His fingers ran along the wooden side of the vessel, daring the splintery edges. The sweet stench of dead fish, or dead reptile?, invaded Joe’s nostrils. Joe mumbled under his breath, “If I have to stay, he better cure my diabetes…” As Ekaf jumped in, Joe asked aloud, “Where’s the paddles?”
As soon as the two were settled the boat began to drift across the river. Joe idly rubbed the orb in his chest then adjusted his river soaked neck tie.
“So where was I?” Ekaf asked.
“Um…well, we’ve been over why I am a pyromancer but not what is a pyromancer.”
“Mancers, like most organisms, steal their energy. Pyromancers get their power from fire – you still have to eat and drink and everything, now you just have to be sure to consume fire too. Wherever you go you must remember to absorb any flame you find. Keep fire stored up so you can release it when necessary. If in dire need, with or without any stored flame, you can release your energy in a fiery explosion – but, you’ll die.”
“I didn’t die.”
“That is because I have the Duikii.” Ekaf said. “Even if you had a healer rush to your aid, I doubt they could repair the damage before your body transforms completely into flame and your soul drifts off towards Solaris.”
“So long as it takes me to a better place than this…”
“It’s a last resort type decision,” Ekaf elaborated, “and it nearly guarantees that, though you may die, those that backed you into the corner will go along with you. The explosion of an exceptional pyromancer can evaporate a hurricane.”
“And what about a not-so-exceptional pyromancer?”
“Could easily clear a courtyard! That’s why it is illegal.”
“You’re a living, breathing bomb! People don’t feel comfortable with bombs roaming around in crowded cities here and I’m pretty sure that’s the same on Earth, too.”
“Hold up!” Joe flapped his hands, “You turned me into a criminal!”
“I forgot about that…” Ekaf giggled a little bit, “You’re not wrong.”
Joe gave the Knome a squint eyed glare, “What if you’re the bad guy and Creaton’s the good guy?”
“What if indeed!” Ekaf clapped his hands with pleasure, “That is why I started my tale at the dawn of history. You must know the full story if you are going to fight in this war.”
“War…” Joe gulped.
“Don’t worry. If you don’t think you can all you have to say is no…” the Knome lowered his voice, “…but you kind of owe me with me saving your life and all…three times now…no, four times?” He had to count on his fingers, “The wreck – if you count it, that is –, the spirits, the barren, the explosion – yup, four! But I’m not a petty man, too old to be. Don’t worry, I have no problem putting you back in your car…”
Joe rolled his eyes, “Hurry up with the story. Maybe you’ll finish before we get across this river.”
“Doubtful, but worth a try,” Ekaf paused, “where were we?”
“Creaton Live united the earth elves of Tadloe and conquered the world.” Joe answered.
“Not quite. He got Batloe and some of Sondor – two of Tadloe’s neighboring continents – but then got stumped when he turned on Tadloe’s western neighbor.”
“Ah yes, Zannon, Cannon, and Bluff.”
“You want me to tell the story before I tell it? No more questions!” the Knome exclaimed.
Joe grumbled, “No promises.”
Ekaf took a deep breath, “Here we go…its winter in an already frozen land. The world here is covered in a perpetual blanket of snow. It was there, near the icy mountains of western Iceload, that Solaris’s first heroes found themselves…”