The Angels novel, Chapter 1: The Vault Theft

Author’s note: So, I’ve been considering the idea of taking all of my Angels stories and compiling them into a collection or book of some sort.  They are my favorite to write.  Unfortunately, I’d need a central theme to tell, even with little asides or stand-alone stories.  Hmm.

As Sariel drifted slowly along, he wondered if he would get in trouble if he did the next lap with his eyes closed.

He probably would, he eventually decided.  But, just like on the last seven million laps, the idea was tempting.  If he could walk this route with his eyes closed, he could give that whole sleeping thing a try.  Of course, no angel had ever managed to fall asleep, but that didn’t stop Sariel from wanting to attempt it.  And what if he did manage to fall asleep?  He’d be famous!

Still with his eyes open, Sariel turned around the next corner, passing by the Salt Pillar of Heavenly Wrath.  To his eyes, it looked like any other pillar of salt.  Apparently it had once been some woman of vague importance.  In Sariel’s eyes, that fact would be a lot more apparent if someone went at the pillar with a chisel for a few hours.

In truth, Sariel just wanted an escape from this job.  Initially, a few thousand years ago, the job had sounded perfect.  Guard the Vaults of Heaven!  Protect the most powerful treasures in existence!  Repel the hordes of demon invaders!

In the entire time that Sariel had been employed as a guard for the Vaults of Heaven, he hadn’t even seen an imp, much less an invading demon horde.  That had really been false advertising, he grumbled to himself.

Sariel was now approaching the Astral Wing of the Vaults, where the gadgets tended to be smaller and covered with lots of spikes.  These devices were designed for bridging the gap between the astral planes, allowing the bearer access to the different realms.  They were also very, very illegal, and thus were promptly confiscated from any being who came to possess one(1).

Of course, like any angel, Sariel did a good job at his job.  It went against every fibre of his being to do otherwise.  He was assigned to this job, and he was going to do it well.  He still kept up the vague hope that he’d get a promotion.  Unfortunately, that avenue didn’t seem to be panning out either.

At his last performance review (that had been what, eight hundred years ago?), he had shifted uncomfortably in the seat across the desk from his superior, Razakael.  His superior was scrutinizing him over a pair of silver half-moon glasses.

Razakael didn’t need glasses, of course.  All the angels had perfect vision.  But he had seen humans use them to project an air of dominance, and he thought they made him look more like a proper supervisor.

“So, Sariel,” he finally spoke up.  “How long has it been since your last review?”

“One thousand years,” the other angel replied.  Angels were designed to respond well to authority, and Razakael was definitely the superior.  The fourth syllable in his name showed that.  “Give or take a few months.”

“Well, I’m a very busy angel,” Razakael replied, trying to brush away the second half of that comment.  He really wasn’t.  He spent most of his time sitting with his feet up on his desk, attempting to throw his halo over various objects in his office.  But he couldn’t let Sariel know that.

“Looking over your report,” he went on, “I don’t see a single report of a demon being repelled from the Vaults, much less a horde.”

Sariel shrugged uncomfortably.  Angels weren’t really built to shrug, but it was such a useful expression, they’d adapted it almost immediately.  “There haven’t been any demons attacking the Vaults, though!” he protested.  “I can’t repel demon attackers if there aren’t any!”

Razakael wasn’t going to give in to mere logic.  “The conditions are clear, Sariel,” he insisted.  “I can’t give you a promotion unless you repel demons.  And you haven’t repelled any demon attackers, so I can’t promote you.  Those are the rules.”

In his seat, Sariel slumped slightly.  The rules.  They didn’t always work out, but he couldn’t disobey the rules – to do so would be anathema to everything he was.  “I understand,” he said in a glum tone.

His boss rose up from his seat behind the desk to walk him out of the office.  “Perk up, Sariel,” Razakael said, not unkindly, giving the lesser angel a pat on the shoulder.  “You never know when a demon horde might be around the corner.  Maybe next time.”

Sariel nodded as he stepped out through the doorway, but he didn’t have high hopes.  And now, with only two hundred years until his next review, he still hadn’t seen a single hint of a demon.  Just aisles and aisles of dusty artifacts.

As he’d considered this, Sariel had been making his way through the plinths and shelves in the Astral Wing, past row after row of little devices that hadn’t been touched in thousands of years.  Perhaps if another angel was demoted low enough, he’d be sent down here to dust, and Sariel would have some company.

But something wasn’t quite right.  Sariel paused, his nose rising up in the air a little like a bloodhound(2).  He had patrolled this way millions of times, and he had long since memorized every single aspect of the route.  But this time, something wasn’t right.  Something was out of place.

Sariel’s eyes scrolled over the shelves, across the little gizmos and gadgets.  As he searched for whatever was different, he had to sigh.  No wonder this wing didn’t draw any visitors – the layout was appalling!  Most of the objects were piled on the shelves with no real sense of order.  And while the Salt Pillar of Heavenly Wrath at least had a small little placard at its base to tell inquisitive admirers about when and where it had been created through Divine Providence.  These objects weren’t even in labeled.

Finally, Sariel’s questing eyes settled on what was wrong.  On one of the shelves, there was a small circle lacking dust, a single little clean spot in the midst of the other discarded objects.  And that little circle hadn’t been there before.

The angel squatted down, bending over until his thin nose was only an inch or so from the little circle of cleanliness.  He took a long sniff, inhaling in through his nostrils until his lungs were full – again, not unlike a bloodhound.

There was definitely a hint of sulfur in the air.  And that meant demons.

Standing back up, Sariel reached down to his belt and grasped the handle of his flaming sword.  As a guard angel, he had been issued the standard angel sidearm.  Of course, it hadn’t left its scabbard a single time before this in the course of his job, and he had to grunt and yank at it a bit before it finally slid free.  But it still sprang into flaming life as he drew it out, blazing up in a plethora of red and orange.

Sariel grinned.  This was his chance to prove himself.  He was finally going to get to go after a demon!

But as he dashed up and down the aisles, he saw no sign of any demonic presence.  His nose told him that there had definitely been a demon at the site of the missing artifact.  But it must have simply popped in, snatched the device, and immediately leapt back out.  Sariel had missed his chance to finally try out his smiting skills.

As quickly as his good mood had set in, the pleasant feelings vanished.  The tip of Sariel’s flaming sword dropped back down to the ground, leaving a small char mark on the floor of the Vault.  This meant that Sariel had failed in his guard duties.  And now he would have to report to Razakael that a demon had managed to make off with an artifact.

What had the demon felt was worth stealing, anyway?  Sariel turned his attention back to the little circle, trying to recall what had sat there.  Slowly, his mind filled in a picture of a little disc, deeply tarnished and covered with small, ornate carvings.  It seemed harmless enough.  There weren’t even any spikes(3).

When Sariel made his report to Razakael, however, his supervisor turned pale, and those silver half-moon glasses slipped all the way off his face face to clatter onto the desk.  “Are you certain?” he gasped, his fingers tightening on the scroll with Sariel’s description of the artifact.  “Are you completely sure that this is what’s missing?”

Sariel nodded, not sure what all the fuss was about.  “It’s just an astral shifting device, isn’t it?” he asked.  “And I’m sure we’ve tagged its signature.  Can’t we just trace it and get it back?”

Razakael was already clambering up out of his seat.  “No.  Yes.  Maybe.  Look, it’s very important that we recover this immediately!  Do you understand?”

Sariel also stood up, although he wasn’t quite sure why.  He’d never seen his boss so agitated.  “So I should head down and see if I can get this traced?” he asked, unable to keep a note of hope out of his voice.  This would be his first time out of the Vault in millennia, and he was quite looking forward to it.  He had a demon to hunt down, an artifact to retrieve, and a chance for some fresh air!  He should have let a demon come in and snatch something centuries ago.

Before he could move towards the exit, however, Razakael shook his head.  “This is bigger than you, now,” he said.  “You’re going to follow me.  We have to call in a strike team.  This is way beyond what either of us can handle.”

This sounded serious.  “This artifact,” Sariel asked, as he followed his boss out of his office and along the white corridors of Heaven.  “It’s important?  Dangerous?”

Razakael nodded.  “Oh yes,” he replied.  “More than you can imagine.”

*

(1) Given that these devices were illegal, Sariel was never quite sure why they were being displayed in the Vaults of Heaven, and not simply destroyed.  He supposed that perhaps they were intended to impart some sort of lesson.  They were not a popular exhibit.

(2) Having been stuck on guard duty in the Vaults of Heaven for the last few millenia, Sariel didn’t know what a bloodhound was.  Even if he did, he would have been very offended by this comparison.  Despite his objections, however, it was an apt comparison.

(3) Most of these artifacts had been created by demons, attempting to find a way to break into Heaven for some underhanded scheme.  In the mind of a demon, everything was made more ferocious through the addition of spikes.  The sight of a demonic toilet was enough to give anyone nightmares.

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When the Mountains Woke Up

One day, the mountains awoke.

We still don’t know what triggered them to come alive.  There must have been some signal, however, given how coordinated everything was.  Maybe they have some way of communicating with each other.  Or maybe, somewhere in the world, someone just did the wrong thing.

They awoke on June 29, 2014.

All across the world, the mountains began to shift, to rise.  Legs emerged, huge pillars of stone, each one miles across.  Slowly, ponderously, unstoppably, they began to advance across the world.  Belching smoke and spewing lava, they began to bring about our extinction.

Surprisingly, Australia did the best initially, not counting the loss of New Zealand.  It turns out that New Zealand was basically just a bunch of these creatures sitting in the sea, and they decided that it was time to submerge.  A few thousand survivors were pulled out of the ocean with rescue choppers, or managed to make it to boats in time and escape being sucked down, but the rest of them were wiped off the map, along with the country.

Second best was probably America.  The rural South was trampled by the Appalachians, but they’re fairly small as far as these mountains go.  The East Coast and Midwest did all right – they got to sit and listen to the tragedies on the news as California was steamrolled.

The worst faring were probably the Chinese and most of the Europeans.  Between the Alps and the Himalayas, they didn’t stand a chance.  Half a billion people probably died in the first day.

It only took two hours for the President of the US to get an executive order out, although the jets weren’t scrambled for another couple hours.  The generals were experiencing a bit of consternation, it seemed.  How did you kill a mountain?  And most of the US weapons weren’t pointed in towards our own heartland.

Incredibly, it was Pakistan that was the first to bring one of the monsters down.  Satellite surveillance captured the attempt.  Despite the dubious honor of getting the first kill, they didn’t make a good job of it.  It took six hits, and they managed to vaporize most of their defensive forces as well.  But they eventually managed to pierce the abomination’s stony hide, and thermal imaging picked up the subsequent meltdown as the beast literally exploded.

After being briefed, it took six hours more before the President cleared the US arsenal of ICBMs to launch.  Unfortunately, the monsters had already begun to trample across the Midwest, where many of the launch silos were located, putting them out of commission.  Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming was wiped off the map when one of the ICBMs detonated prematurely, still inside its silo.

Still, with over 5,000 nuclear weapons at its disposal, most of the Rockies fell in that initial wave of firepower.  Nuclear submarines turned out to be most effective, as they were relatively protected from the monsters and could move into location.

By the end of June, over a thousand nuclear weapons had been detonated.  The United Kingdom was heavily crippled, and most of central Europe had gone dark.  The Middle East was, for the first time in history, actively requesting the help of Israel, which had finally confirmed rumors that it was a major nuclear power.  Most of Western China had been wiped off the map.  India claimed that it was holding its northern mountains at bay, although satellite images revealed a different story.

Conservative estimates put the count of the dead at between 1.5 and 2.5 billion.

In the next week, the various nations did their best to counterattack.  The United States was momentarily clear, thanks to its massive arsenal, but there were new threats moving up from South America, the Bajas, and down from Canada.  Military engineers began stripping the nuclear power plants of all fissile material to replenish their depleted arsenal.

After days of silence, France suddenly erupted spectacularly.  Experts knew that they had been sitting on a nuclear arsenal, but it was believed that they hadn’t had time to launch.  Surveillance showed that they crippled several of the larger Alps, as well as some of the Pyrenees, but the collateral damage was estimated to be immense.

By a month later, most of the beasts had been brought down.  Scientists were already bemoaning the fallout effects from the sheer number of nukes deployed, but they were being largely pushed aside by the sheer scale of the rebuilding movement.  It turned out that, inside these gigantic moving mountains, huge deposits of rare and valuable ores were hidden.  Even in the wreckage of great cities, new companies were springing up, workers in armored radiation-resistant suits harvesting these great sources of new wealth.

The final kicker, almost an ironic announcement, came from NASA, of all places.  They revealed that they had detected movement on the moon, shortly before the initial movement on June 29th.  It was believed that the awakening signal had come from there.

A new chapter in the space race was opened.  In a matter of days, Congress, acting proactively for the first time in decades, voted to divert huge levels of funding into space travel.  We had been attacked, crippled, but we weren’t out yet.

We were headed back to the moon.  But this time, we’d be armed.

The Man Who Didn’t Smell, Part II

Continued from Part I, here.

“Hello there, Sampson,” Carson greeted me, grinning broadly as he ushered me inside.

“Sammy, please,” I responded automatically.  I was talking on autopilot.  The rest of my brain was busy trying to absorb him through my nose.  It was unbelievable.

By this point, smell was an integral part of who a person was.  I could recognize most of my mechanics who worked for me before they even entered the room, just from their odor.  Terry was very earthy, mainly from his work with farm equipment.  Calvin dealt with small motors, so he always had that hint of oil.  Bob was a deft hand with plumbing… let’s just say that I preferred to eat lunch at the opposite end of the room from Bob.

But Carson’s smell was unlike anything else, anyone else.  Aside from a slight hint of flowers, it was, well, absent.  He was a man who didn’t smell.  It felt like an impossibility.  But no matter how my nostrils strained, I just couldn’t pick anything up.

“Ah, so you’ve noticed!” Carson commented, watching with a smile as my nostrils flared.  “Yes, it’s quite unique.  And that’s why I invited you here.”

My brain finally managed to catch up with my nose.  “You don’t smell!” I commented, rather stupidly.  Okay, maybe my brain hadn’t caught up all the way.

“No,” Carson responded, “I don’t.  And I want to show you why.”

As I stared at him, Carson closed the door behind me.  For a moment, we were in pitch blackness.  And then I heard the click of a light switch, and the room was illuminated.

We were standing in a large warehouse, surrounded by shelves holding large cardboard boxes.  Carson reached out and pulled the nearest one off the shelf.  “Do you know what these are?” he asked.

I shook my head, and the other man popped the box open.  From inside, he withdrew a plastic tube, rather flattened, with a cap on one end and a little knob at the other.  He popped off the cap, twisted the knob a few times, and a white rubbery substance began to rise up from inside the tube.  “This,” Carson revealed, “is my secret.”

He held it out to me, in front of my nose, and I took a sniff.  Sure enough, it had that same faint scent as Carson.  “What is it?” I asked.

Carson grinned.  “Deodorant!”

We talked a bit longer there, Carson still holding that tube.  It turns out that he had purchased this whole warehouse at a steal, as it was rumored to be near a hot zone and possibly contaminated.  That rumor proved to be false, but the deodorant had been a much greater find.  Carson knew that I was a gifted tinkerer, and he wanted me to try and reproduce the formula of this substance, to try and make more.

“I’ll do my best,” I promised, “but no guarantees.”

Carson looped an arm around my shoulders.  “Just think of it,” he said, spreading out his other arm in front of us.  “If we can sell this stuff, no one will smell any more!  We’ll put those rubber scraper folks out of business in weeks.

As I walked home that evening, holding the two tubes that Carson had given me as a gift, my thoughts were a jumble of ideas and disbelief.  I had to keep on uncapping one of the tubes and sniffing it to convince myself that this meeting had actually happened.  It was unbelievable.

A world where people didn’t smell.  It was almost too much to believe.

The Man Who Didn’t Smell, Part I

I coughed, anxious, as I approached the door at the back of the alley, featureless gray and unmarked by any sign.  In my hand, I held the gold-embossed card that had summoned me here.  But even though I held an invitation, I couldn’t stop myself from trembling.

We all knew him, of course – his name was famous.  Carson Stone, the man who didn’t smell!  He had appeared on Letterman, once.  I had watched that episode, and still remembered vividly the contrast between Carson and the joking host.

Carson had strode confidently onto the stage.  That confidence wasn’t unusual, but his appearance was.  Somehow, his skin was free of grime, as though he’d spent hours running a rubber scraper over his skin.  His clothes appeared similarly clean, free of the stains of sweat – they must have been brand new.

Even more than that, the audience responded to him instantly, leaning forward with their nostrils dilating.  Most times, people maintained their own personal space to avoid too much stench, and indeed, the audience members were well dispersed.  But Carson was different.  There was no bubble around him, and the host and audience seemed almost eager to draw close.

We all knew the secret to attraction, of course.  Smell good.  Hence the booming business of rubber scrapers, “guaranteed to wipe away all dirt and grime from the skin, taking off those pesky odor particles!”.  But they never worked as well as the commercials and ads promised – and after just a day, sometimes even only a few hours, a new layer of dirt would take its place on my skin.

Of course, there was always the wild tale of an untainted spring.  Someone was always claiming that they’d found the “pure source”, water that hadn’t been contaminated, water that didn’t make skin burst into painful boils and weeping sores.  But it was always a hoax.  Most of the time, the braggers were scammers, looking for an easy bit of money before they’d inevitably vanish.

Reaching the door, I lifted my hand and gave a tentative knock.  I had to admit, if pressed, that I had some value as well.  Ever since I was young, I’d been good at fiddling, tinkering, and I’d help get many machines from the olden ages working again.  I ran quite a successful business as a mechanic, fixing televisions, screens, cooking appliances, and vehicles.  I was one of the few people who could get a motorcycle working again, and I didn’t know of anyone else who had successfully converted one to run on alcohol.  I had even managed to make a small improvement to the solar stills that pulled water out of the air, a few meager drops at a time.

But still, receiving this invitation from Carson had been unexpected.

I lifted my hand to knock again, but the door sprang open before my fist could land.  And there, larger than life before my eyes, stood Carson.

He was clean, immaculate, his teeth gleaming.  But that wasn’t what nearly knocked me off my feet.

He smelled . . . amazing.

To be continued!

The Fog

The first day was probably the worst, in terms of raw number of people affected.  By the time the fog had blown off, his phone had been ringing off the hook with calls from the concerned citizens.

Fortunately, the effects of that first wave weren’t too bad – after he headed out, the lights on top of his Jeep cutting through the few whispers of remaining fog, the folks he found just appeared to be stoned out of their damn minds.

After he got them into the back of his vehicle, they immediately started to calm down, but he ended up hauling them back to the station’s single holding cell anyway, just in case.  By the time they arrived, the sun had burned off the remaining slivers of fog, and they were all protesting pretty vehemently.  “Sheriff Carter, really!” insisted Lynette Jones, her bright orange hair still up in curlers.  “Is this truly necessary?”

Carter sighed as he pulled the cell’s door shut.  “Lynette, I found you with your bathroom open, trying to climb a tree so you could go after a squirrel,” he said.  “I’m thinking that maybe you should lie down and take it easy for a little while.”

The woman just huffed and turned away, although most of the other patrons of the holding cell refused to meet her gaze.  Carter gave them all a last, long look, and then headed upstairs.

The town didn’t have the capability to do blood tests, and whatever was in the peoples’ system was gone by lunch.  Carter ended up letting them all out with a stern warning, although he wasn’t sure what exactly he was warning them against.  Aside from stepping out into the fog in the morning, nothing seemed the same across their different stories – or, at least, what they remembered.

The next day, things didn’t go so well.

By the time the fog was gone, three people were dead – Mr. Henson, out on the outskirts, shot a vagrant attempting to break into his barns.  Although Carter didn’t feel that it was necessary for him to shoot the poor transient six times, including two in the head.  The shotgun made it just overkill.

More tragic was the death of Sally Clovers, who had just turned eighteen a few days previously.  Although the way that Jeffrey Temmerson, the still half-shocked general storekeeper, described the scene, he hadn’t had much of a choice.

“She was clawing at me, at herself, screaming like a wild thing,” he managed to get out as Carter held his pen to his notepad.  “Sheriff, she was possessed!  I just meant to shoot over her head, scare her off – I swear I did! – but she moved, and, sheriff, I didn’t mean to…”

Carter wasn’t quite sure what to make of the story, but he added Jeffrey to the cells.  And, just as a safety measure, he cautioned the assembled crowd from the public that they should stay out of the morning fog.

“Just until we get things all figured out,” he emphasized.

The next day, Carter crawled out of bed at the earliest he’d ever risen, groggily rubbing his eyes.  The clock beside his bed read 3:45 AM.  Staring out the window, the streetlight outside his house still revealed an empty town.  Setting the pot of coffee on the boil, he sat and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Fifteen minutes later, just as his clocked dinged the hour, waves of fog began to roll up the streets.  They looked especially thick, tendrils snaking around the buildings and seeming to crawl as if alive.  Carter sipped at his coffee and watched, thankful that the windows were shut.

Something wasn’t right, he decided after a while.  This didn’t seem right.  But this was definitely more than a small-town sheriff could handle.

He was going to have to call for help…

The Poodle, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Private Huffleman was concerned.  He switched his grip to the PlasMark II and shoved it down, barrel first, towards the dog as it crept closer.  The weapon’s barrel was shaking back and forth a little (Private Huffleman had never fired it in combat), but it was still aimed at the animal.

The dog, however, didn’t seem fazed.  Instead, it sniffed at the weapon and then extended that long tongue and licked the barrel a couple of times.  Private Huffleman flinched back, in case the animal’s saliva was toxic or acidic, but there didn’t seem to be any reaction.

After the licks, the animal flopped back down on its haunches and looked up at Private Huffleman again.  It seemed perfectly content.

Slowly, still ready to react at a second’s notice, Private Huffleman holstered his weapon.  Instead, he withdrew his supercomputer from its little pocket on his waist and pointed the built in camera at the dog.  “Analyze,” he said, speaking as softly as he could to avoid inciting some sort of attack.

The supercomputer paused for a second, and then beeped.  “Dog, subspecies poodle,” it announced in a crisp, faintly accented voice.  Someone had once told Private Huffleman that the accent was called “Braitish.”  He didn’t know what that meant, but went with it.

“Scientific name *Canis domesticus,*” the supercomputer went on.  “Species originated on Earth several thousand years ago, as a domesticated breed that lived in a mutual relationship with early humans.  Further genetic blending led to more intelligent Canids.  This particular subspecies is known for being an excellent companion, as well as for frequent shedding.”

“Danger level?” Private Huffleman asked.

“Danger level two.  Species may bite when threatened, and bite carries significant chance of infection.  Generally docile and friendly.  Warning signs include: raised hackles, growling, aggressive lunges.”

The dog hadn’t shown any of those signs.  Private Huffleman relaxed a little more.  “Toxicity?”

“Animal is non-toxic,” the computer told him.  “In earlier times, the fur was often touched to relieve stress.”

Slowly, his fingers quaking, Private Huffleman extended his hand towards the dog.  Its eyes locked on his hand, and it tilted its head as it examined the approaching appendage.  It made no other movements, and very slowly, he touched the curly fur on the top of its head.

Indeed, the animal felt wonderfully soft – softer than most things that Private Huffleman touched during his day.  The animal seemed to enjoy the contact, too, its eyes squeezing shut and scooting a little closer to him.  He slid his hand down over its neck, rubbing along the length of its back.  He wasn’t sure, but the dog appeared to grin.

Private Huffleman grinned back, but then his eyes rose up to the airlock hatch just ahead, and that grin faded.  His orders were not to pet artifacts of the Improbability Drive.  He was supposed to jettison them out the airlock.

At his feet, as if sensing his thoughts, the dog whined.  The supercomputer hadn’t said anything about telepathy, but Private Huffleman quickly banished the thought of this poodle going out the airlock from his thoughts, just in case.

What was he going to do?

The Poodle, Part I

The dog sat in front of the airlock, its mouth hanging open and a long, pink appendage hanging out between the teeth.  It seemed perfectly content, aside from the huffing noise it was making.  And its eyes were boring into Private Huffleman’s soul.

Private Huffleman (Private Second Class, age 22, currently fourteen months into his three-year-tour, assigned to the UFCS Enterpriser) hadn’t had many issues of morality to deal with yet in his career.  He had been fortunate enough to test out of grunt duty, and had been assigned to a ship that was a third of the way through a government-sanctioned aid distribution mission.  His day job mainly consisted of patrolling the hallways of the ship, especially the exterior access areas, making sure that none of the grateful indigenous populations attempted to hitch a ride off their little balls of rock.

This week, he was also responsible for cleaning up the Improbability artifacts.

This week’s list of artifacts, by his mental count, had so far included several very weird metal sculptures, a few balls of unidentified organic goo, a large spider that had clacked at him menacingly several times before he’d whacked it with the butt of his PlasMark II.  All of these items had been carefully swept out of the corridors, into the airlock, where they were promptly jettisoned.

But now there was a dog sitting in the corridor, staring up at him.

Private Huffleman knew that this animal was a dog.  He had never before seen a dog in person, of course, but he had an annoying tendency to not fall asleep right away and instead lie awake in his bunk reading random entries in WikiUniverse.  The Enterpriser had also made one of its aid relief stops on Arcturus 371_B, which had been settled by a group of Canids.  They had been created through genetic blending with dogs, Private Huffleman had read on WikiUniverse, and indeed, they had borne a strong resemblance to this creature in front of him now.

The dog stood up, wiggling its hindquarters.  A long tail, quite hairy, wiggled back and forth as it gazed up at Private Huffleman.  The private, unsure what to do, reached down to his waist, but hesitated between his PlasMark II and his personal supercomputer.  Was this creature dangerous?

The dog padded a couple steps closer, that pink appendage still hanging out of its mouth.  It looked a lot like a tongue to Private Huffleman, but he’d never seen one that oversized before.  It was getting awfully close…

To be continued!

Thaddeus the Ender, Part III

This story begins here.

“The War of Darkness,” Old Thad repeated to us as we sat bolt upright, staring back at him.  Our minds were barely able to believe what he was speaking – and yet, he somehow banished all doubt.  “The worst moment of humanity.  And yet, it was the best it could have been.”

“The powers to reach the gods?  They are beyond your imagining,” Old Thad confided to us.  “And so many men were burned out by just trying to channel that level of power.  But other men, they were changed by its touch.  They were twisted, turned into shells of themselves, driven by nothing but the desire that kept the atoms of their bodies held together.

“And there was no caring of what had to be sacrificed to reach those goals.

“Throughout it all, I stood by.  I had lost my gift.  I could do nothing against these men who built their towers to the sun, blotting out its light as they strove to rend open reality itself.  So I did the only thing that I could think of.  I picked up a blade, a little scrap of useless metal, and I swore to bring an end to the attempts.”

Old Thad once again looked down at his hands.  “Perhaps I was selfish,” he admitted.  “I wanted no one else to have what I had.  But I knew that it was too much power for humanity.  It would destroy us all, even if we didn’t all die in the attempt to reach it.  So I, alone, powerless, stood against it.

“The first few wizards didn’t even know what I was doing.  They died quickly, easily.  The later ones knew what I wanted, what I tried to do, and they did their best to stop me.  But I knew every trick they used.  I had done it all.  Discovered most of their secrets.  And one by one, I brought them down.

“And so,” Old Thad confessed, “I became an angel of death.  I visited genocide upon the wizarding race.  And I became The Ender.”

“Eventually, enough damage had been done to make my intentions clear.  The rest of the wizards, fearful of what I would do to them, agreed to stop their attempts to reach the gods.  An accord was struck, an agreement forged in blood and fear.  But it held.  For as long as I existed, none dared to violate the agreement.  And I would exist for perpetuity.”

Thaddeus shrugged his shoulders, working out the knot that had been forming in them as he had hunched forward.  “And it still holds,” he said.  “All of those who signed, who wrote it, are now long gone.  Even their memories have faded into obscurity.  But I remain.  And now, I work here, to ensure that such circumstances never arise again.  There will never again be a call for The Ender.”

Thaddeus slid forward, standing up from his desk.  For as long as I could remember, the man had been a hunched little goblin – a caricature of the old, forgetful wizard.  A figure to be mocked, to be parodied.  But now, he straightened up, stood tall and proud.  And it seemed as though the rest of reality dimmed, as if he was all that existed.  And it filled me with a fear I’d never before felt.

“This will never be spoken of again,” Thaddeus commanded.  We knew that we could do nothing but obey.  “This will be kept to yourselves, never shared.  All true wizards know this, but it is never spoken about.  But it will remain with you, in your souls, until the end of your days.

“This is my lesson on the dark side of your power, on what you can become.  And you will never become this.  For I exist, and I say that it is so.”

We all filed out of Old Thad’s classroom after the hour had ended, every last one of us silent.  Nobody spoke of what Thaddeus had told us.  He had gone on, laying out the framework of true power, showing us the horror and destruction we could create.  He painted a picture in darkness, a picture where every color was black, scraping it into our souls with a knife as his paintbrush.

But around the corners, the older students were waiting for us.  “Hey,” one of them greeted us, patting my shoulder gently.  “He has that effect, doesn’t he?  Best not to think about it too much right now.  C’mon, the hall’s open for lunch.  Let’s eat.”

The older students somehow managed to break that tension.  And now, we walked away from the classroom, unable or unwilling to look back at the room where the man remained after we had left.

Thaddeus Constellariae the Ender.  Powerless, lacking even the slightest magical ability.  And the true victor of the War of Darkness, the most powerful wizard to have existed.

Thaddeus the Ender, Part II

Continued from Part I.

We were all spellbound, staring at Old Thad – which was especially remarkable, as he had just revealed that he could do no magic.  Why was he a professor at a magical academy?  Who was this man, to teach us about magic, when he couldn’t even do that which he taught?  We were filled with confusion, frustration, even rage.  And yet, we needed to know why.  We listened, and Old Thad spoke.

“I have been here,” Old Thad spoke, in his old and dry voice, “for far longer than you can imagine.  I have been here long before this school stood, before the idea of teaching magic was more than a passing thought.  When I learned these spells, there was no structure.  Magic ran wild.”

Old Thad tilted his head back, his gaze lost in his memories.  “I don’t think that I was the first wizard,” he said, his voice so far away, “but I was one of the first.  We didn’t know why we could call forth this power, why certain gestures and actions seemed to create these effects.  We had to learn through doing, through trying.  Nothing was recorded, or passed on.  Magic was a secret to be hoarded.”

“But we were determined,” Old Thad laughed.  “Perhaps we had to be, to persist with such insanity.  Our friends, colleagues, competitors, they all died by the day.  We teach you how one wrong word can turn a spell’s power back on the castor.  We found this out through trials, learned these lessons in blood.

“And yet, we continued.  And oh, the things that we did!”  Old Thad’s voice had a deeper strength to it, a tone we’d never heard from the ancient man before.  “There were no rules then.  Nothing to hold us back, to force us into structure.  We were titans, rulers of the world!  We bent reality and shaped it to our will!

“And for a lucky few, we met the gods.”

The entire class was frozen.  Our mouths hung open as we listened.  The gods?  Old Thad spoke this so casually, as though he was going out for a spot of tea.  We couldn’t even fathom the power he spoke of.

“The gods,” Old Thad repeated, shaking his head.  “Now, that was a bit of magic that I’m glad to see has been lost to time.  For the gods are cruel, capricious.  And when I tore open the soul of the world to find them, they offered me a choice for my hubris.”

Old Thad spread his hands wide.  “I think they were concerned by my power,” he said.  “Is that presumptuous?  Perhaps.  But I think that I scared them at some level.  And so they offered me a taste of their power.  Immortality – for my gift.”

Old Thad stared out at us in our desks, and his gaze was filled with judgment.  “What would you do?” he asked, and we all had to pull our eyes away instead of staring back into that infinity within his pupils.  “Would you give up all that you’d learned – to exist until the end of time?”

After a moment, Old Thad took a deep breath.  “I know what I did,” he said, looking down at his hands.  “I made the trade.”

“Of course, that wasn’t the end of it.  No, I couldn’t keep what I had done a secret.  And soon, others wanted what I had.  I never revealed my secrets, and I don’t think anyone else ever truly met the gods.  And thank goodness.  I can’t even imagine what destruction that could have unleashed upon the world.  Even a pale shadow nearly broke us apart.”

Here, Thaddeus paused.  He was looking out at us as if waiting for the answer.  And I knew what he was speaking about.  “The War of Darkness,” I said, my voice barely audible.

But Old Thad caught my words, and he nodded.  “Yes,” he confirmed.  “The great war.  When man attempted to fight the gods…”

To be concluded!

Thaddeus the Ender, Part I

I wanted to write something magical.  High fantasy.  Harry Potter.  So here it is…

His name was Thaddeus, Thaddeus Constellariae the Ender, but none of us called him that.  To us, he was just Old Thad, always hanging around in the hallways.  He’d yell at us if we got too rowdy, it was his duty as a teacher, but we knew that his heart wasn’t in it.  Most of the time, when he wasn’t giving his dusty and dry lectures, he just sat and watched.

Most of our class didn’t have much respect for this man.  Not only was he dusty and dried-up, like most of our teachers, but he didn’t even use magic!  What could he hope to teach us?  All of us, even bumbling Quincy, could work the rudimentary forms.  We could summon forth showers of sparks, pull and push the world around us, reach out and make little adjustments to our reality to give us something more.

We had the gift.  And Old Thad didn’t.

And yet, the school still kept him around.  For some reason, they thought that he was a valuable resource.  He had been here forever.  Longer than anyone’s memory could stretch back.  For as long as there had been the academy, there had been Old Thad.

Yes, some of his lectures were useful.  He mainly talked about theory, about constructing deeper enchantments with many layers, and the results always sounded impressive.  But he never put on demonstrations.  There was never a show in Old Thad’s class.

Instead, he’d ask us for alternatives.  Always asking about the alternatives.  “How else would you handle this?” he would say.  “What if you couldn’t use that magical spell?  What else would you do?”

What stupid questions! we all thought.  Of course we’d use magic!  Why even think of anything else?

The older students never seemed to give Old Thad any trouble.  We asked them why, tried to figure out why they gave this daft old man such reverence.  “Just wait,” they’d tell us.  “He’ll let you in on his secret soon enough.  It will change everything.”  But they’d say no more.

We all made wild guesses about this secret, about what it could be.  Thaddeus Constellariae the Ender.  The name was engraved on his door, on the plaque on the front of his desk.  Ender of what?  Some students thought that he was the one who pushed for dark magic to be regulated.  Some claimed that he had brought peace to a strike between the academy and the teachers.

A few students even suggested that perhaps he had been involved in the War of Darkness, when the very powers of good and evil had picked up spells and marched off to battle.  Continents had been razed in that war, entire civilizations summoned into being and then banished as though they had never existed.  Reality itself had been all but broken, before peace had somehow been established.  The man who had finally ended the annihilation had been known as The Ender.  But it couldn’t be the same person.

That war had been millenia ago.

The end of the school year was rapidly approaching.  For once, we began to look forward to Old Thad’s lectures.  Was this going to be the day that he finally revealed his secret?  We were dying of curiosity.

Finally, when we walked into Old Thad’s classroom one day, there were no diagrams on the dusty chalkboards behind his desk.  There was just Old Thad, sitting on top of his desk.

“Take a seat,” he told us as we entered.  His voice was as ancient as the rest of him, dry and dusty like the rest of him.  We sat, our notebooks and quills out.

“No notes,” he said, and we put our notebooks away.

“You all know the First Forms,” Old Thad began as we straightened back up, our books back in our bags.  And we all nodded.  The First Forms were the absolute basics, taught to all wizards as a way to channel their magic when their abilities first appeared.  Even infants could perform them in rudimentary ways.  They produced nothing more than a flash of light, a small clap of noise, a little shower of sparks.

Old Thad raised one hand, his voice speaking the words of the Opening Form.  We all waited, watching for the little glow of light around one finger that came with the final word.  But as Old Thad finished, nothing happened.

His form had been textbook.  The results were clear.  We all understood.

Old Thad couldn’t do magic.

As our mouths fell open, Thaddeus lifted his non-glowing finger.  “That is my secret,” he said.  “And now, I will tell you how I got this way…”

To be continued…