“That was not a good idea,” Caspar said.
“The king invited us back, never a bad thing,” Balthazar said as he shifted his muscled bulk on one of the stone benches ringing the town fountain. “Stop complaining. If you want the highest help, go to the highest source. Not only will we be well–paid, we have the king’s seal of approval.”
“There are higher sources,” Menchoir said as he watched a green flame dance across his palm. “And I must agree with Caspar. The king has other ideas concerning our task; ones I fear will not be in line with our own.”
“Put that away!” Balthazar swung at the mage’s hand. “Your slant little eyes already draw attention! Do you want us locked away as warlocks? Besides, we do not even know why this babe is so important or even what we may be facing in finding it. Do not forget it was your idea that put us in the king’s court! We would have found a babe far easier by questioning the midwifery than by seeking out a mother with child. Now all of them are suspect, not only ones that have just given birth! We shall need the help of an army if we are to find this needle in straw. Place the blame at your own door and no one else’s.”
“I only mentioned we could better guarantee the safety of the child if we found the mother before she would give birth,” Menchoir said as the flames died.
“Why was I saddled with the two of you? I could have done this with my eyes closed.” Balthazar said.
“As I assume you do all else in your world,” Menchoir said.
Balthazar shot him a warning look and wagged a scarred finger. “I have killed over less insult, magi…”
“Of course, you will not. First, you seek your precious gold. And second, you would die before your steel could clear your sash. You would not accomplish the first and would find the second in the merest wave of my hand.”
“Gentlemen!” Caspar hissed then went into a sneezing fit. Warrior and mage chuckled at him softly as he regained his composure. “This is no help!”
Balthazar cleared his nose into the well, enjoying the grimace of distaste from the mage. He was known far and wide, the survivor of countless wars and as hard a man as had ever been. Men of his caliber did not come cheaply. He’d been hired to protect them and use his sword as he saw fit to accomplish the task. It mattered little to him that their task had yet to be as defined as he would have liked, but mercenaries were well-used to the shifting goals of their masters. Those that couldn’t adapt ended the day with rust on their swords.
Caspar was a man of science and reason, an ink-stained scholar that left no subject from his purview. Architecture, mathematics, the arts; no pursuit daunted the small, constantly sneezing man. Chief among them was cartography and astronomy, though the latter had a penchant for buying him more trouble than worth when his predictions came to disastrous truth. He had been hired to watch for, of all things, a new star and to guide the rest in its path to some unknown destination. Truth be known, Caspar was little interested in gold and silver, save to sustain him to the next idea. The task had come with the promise of seeing what no other had seen, and it was this more than coin that signed him on with this lot.
Of the three, Menchoir was the most mysterious. His manner of dress, slight yellowish complexion and the glaring absence of a facial hair in these lands certainly marked him as a man of the East. The fact he was true Magi made certain those less-enlightened in these desert lands gave him little issue. His full purpose among them hadn’t been divulged by their employer, much as most anything else about their mission, though both Balthazar and Caspar knew with certainty the mage was well aware of his place. Their promised payments more than made up for their annoyed curiosities, though it didn’t mean Menchoir’s smug looks and slight smiles gave them any less grief.
“We need return to the inn,” Caspar said. The others grimaced. The only thing that seemed to calm his nose was his incense. The scholar had developed its burning into a medicinal treatment, breathing the frankincense fumes the others found noxious in the close confines of their tiny rented room.
“Let us stop for a bit of tea to fortify ourselves against your vapors,” Balthazar said. He held his head to the side for a moment then turned towards the path they’d just used.
“What is it?” Caspar asked, his finger under his nose to ward off another attack.
“Sandals and swords…” The grizzled mercenary’s hand fell to the huge scimitar at his side.
“Well, they should not be coming for us, we have the approval of the king,” Caspar said.
“Precaution is the better of bravery,” Menchoir said as he slid around the side of the well. “I would suggest you invest in it.” Caspar struggled off the bench, scurrying behind the mage. Balthazar took turns looking at them and the path. The sound of marching feet was easy to hear now over the low din of the market. Balthazar cursed to himself, his mind whispering that perhaps the magi had a point and came around the well to join them. Moments later, the head of a column five–deep entered the marketplace.
“By order of King Herod, all women with sons born since three days past will come forward!” the officer announced, his eyes scanning the crowd as he spoke. A moment later the crowd parted as rough hands expelled a young couple forward.
“What is it you seek?” the young husband asked, pulling his wife close. The infant in her arms squealed as his mother held him tighter to her breast.
“By order of King Herod, answer my questions,” the commander ordered tersely. “Good wife, did you bear a son these past three days?”
“I… yes…” she answered hesitantly.
“Is this that child?” the commander asked. She nodded mutely, turning her torso so the babe was between her and her husband. “Turn the infant over to me; now.”
“I do not understand!” the young man stammered, squeezing the infant more fully between them.
“God has spoken to our king. He has decreed that evil has been born in the form of a son. You will turn your son over to me.” Three soldiers advanced on the young couple. The father took a step forward, placing himself between his wife and the soldiers. But his youthful bravery was no match for a spear. His last breath brought Balthazar’s sword half out of his sash.
“No…” Menchoir said softly, his hand like iron on the pommel. Balthazar struggled a moment against the unnatural weight.
“Stop your tricks! They are going to…” Balthazar started.
“We cannot help them. To do so will only have us killed, and then we are of use to none.” The three slipped off silently around the well and down a side street. But even the distance couldn’t mask the screams of the boy child, or the horrendous, sudden silence after.
Back in their tiny room, Caspar slumped to the floor, his charts scattered about him. “They… they killed that child…” he whispered, his bottom lip quivering. “Because of us…”
Menchoir sat at a small table, a cup of hot tea before him that had not been there a moment before. He sipped then handed it to Caspar. “Drink, it will help.”
“Nothing is going to help!” Caspar barked on the brink of another fit. “They killed the child because of us! We killed it… his parents…”
“Soldiers killed them,” Balthazar said, his hand on his sword, “the act of cowards, using cowards’ weapons.”
“It seems this Herod does not like challenges to his divine rule,” Menchoir said.
“I cannot do this… I do not care what the pay…” Caspar breathed.
The three fell silent for a few moments, listening to Caspar’s labored breathing. Menchoir rose and fished about in Caspar’s bag, finally coming out with a bit of his incense. He lit the brazier and watched as the thin smoke lifted into the air.
“Caspar…” Menchoir began, “…that is the precise reason why we must continue. Our task is obviously far greater. That a king would set about killing infants in the street says as much.”
“But more will die...” Caspar said.
“More will die, if we continue or not,” Balthazar said. “That father stood before soldiers with nothing more than his courage and was slain like a dog. If we do nothing, that man, his wife and their son will have died in vain. Every father, mother and child that dies this day in this city will die in vain.” He turned suddenly from the window, his eyes glassy and dangerous. “I will continue, with or without you. There is honor and there is gold. I will not deny the first nor give away the last.”
“As much as it pains me, you are correct,” Menchoir said. “I will continue as well. I feel something in the air… power… change… there is much more than meets the eye this day.” He looked down at Caspar. “We need you, Caspar. Somewhere there is another mother, another father, another child that may yet be born that needs you…” Menchoir’s eyes suddenly rolled back in his head. He stumbled then fell as a long moan slid from his throat, just missing Caspar as he crumpled to the floor.
Menchoir’s knew this room, every corner and crevice, every inch of the thick padding that covered the floor. A smile crossed his lips as he turned and looked to the back of the room. The old man was there, a long scroll laid out on the floor before his cushion.
“Master,” Menchoir said then dropped to the floor in supplication.
“Rise, my student,” the old man said warmly. The voice that had once been so strong had become weaker, softer. Menchoir rose slowly and approached, seating himself on the floor.
“It is good to see you again,” the old man said. Menchoir’s smile faded. The old man’s eyes had taken on the milky pallor of blindness. It had been ten years since Menchoir last saw his master. He’d grown much in those years, but it seemed as much as he’d grown his master had faltered.
“As it is to see you…” Menchoir returned.
“Ah…” the old one said. “You seem troubled.”
“No, master. It is only…” Menchoir said.
“It is only your master’s appearance? All age, Menchoir. All die. Everything that lives, dies.”
“Are you sick?” Menchoir asked.
“Your master is only what you see. Nothing more or less. Nothing is as it was, or again.” the master said.
Menchoir cocked his head at the cryptic statement. “I do not understand.”
“There is little to understand and much needs learned. You embark on a new quest, while your master finishes his.”
“You speak in riddles.” Menchoir said.
“Is that not what life is? What magic is; the greatest riddle, the most intriguing of enigmas? Knowledge gained leads only to more questions, with each answer leading to still more questions. Is that not so?” the master asked.
“You taught that long ago. You also taught life was never-ending, that death was only another step towards knowledge, the same path in a different land.” Menchoir said.
“In that, there is truth. Life is never–ending. The vessel that carries us may change, but we all go on. Have you followed a path, my student? Have you sought the magic… the knowledge?” the master asked.
“I have.” Menchoir said.
“There is a force at work,” the old man said softly. “The magic your master has lived is dying.”
“That cannot be!” Menchoir stammered. “Magic holds this world together! It binds everything…”
“In that you are correct. It holds all worlds together,” the master said, holding up a spindly hand to interrupt Menchoir. The sight of his palsied hand struck Menchoir like a stone. “Magic does those things, more. But man has been going about it the wrong way. Magic does not come from the land, from the animals, from the people. It was given to all, to everything. There is a benevolent force that controls this power. That force has decided to change all that we know.”
“Is it... a god?” Menchoir asked.
“A god?” the master asked whimsically. “For thousands of years men have made them, broken them. Those that chose to study the true power, the true knowledge of our existence though, those who call themselves magi… always knew, yes? Ever knowing truth the idol–worshipping masses could simply not fathom, eh? That there were no gods, only magic that thrived on the power in both the living and dying of all things. Truly enlightened and learned magi knew this.”
“Of course we did!” Menchoir said.
“The magi knew nothing!” the old man roared. “Denying the simplest of explanations for power they believed the magic ethereal, unconnected from most yet prevalent in all. The most simple and basic answer was ignored, played away as the ramblings of an ignorant world, and in so doing the greater question was ignored. There is only one God, Menchoir. It is He you have to thank for the magic.”
The master’s words slammed through Menchoir’s mind, his way of speaking grating against his senses, all Menchoir had ever known challenged by the only man he’d ever truly believed his superior. “Magic has died?” Menchoir asked.
“As you have known it, it dies by the moment. It trickles away and back to Him. Your magi have always known the power. But it was guarded secretly, jealously, even among your own. You believe in it because you can see it, manipulate it. The rest, the brotherhood of man, is not so lucky.” the master said.
“You no longer count yourself among us?” Menchoir asked.
“Your master has joined with the true magic, Menchoir. He has found that which he has sought.”
“If you have become one with the magic, how is it that it dies? You speak to confuse me.”
“You have answered your own question.” the master said. His face seemed to grow even more haggard, tired. “God never intended for the knowledge, for magic, to be so elusive to His children. But we are far more frail and fragile than all that. When the magi made the study of magic so elusive and elite to the masses, man became more interested in science and their own selfish natures than in His gifts. And in so doing, they made the study of magic a game at best and an affront to humanity at worst. How many times have mothers hid their children from you as you made your way, eh? They whisper about you, worried you will turn their camels to straw. He never intended magic to be so. He intended it for all. Perhaps the magi have their own natures to blame. Perhaps if they would have freely shared the knowledge.” the master said.
“I do not see how we can be held to fault,” Menchoir said. “Men are ignorant, savage. They choose not to believe. They are incapable of understanding true power.”
“You are different?” the master asked. “You are a man just as the shepherd or king. Magic is changing, growing in use but diminishing in selfish desire.” He stopped speaking and slowly closed his eyes.
“What is it?” Menchoir asked.
“You have important work. You are young and strong, a man of good heart. You can learn the new ways. Your master’s life is too closely wrapped to the old. This task you have undertaken, it is far greater than the coin the brute seeks, the curiosity your scholar looks to slake or your own desire to understand. Your task will change the world. It will change all knowledge. And, it will change magic at its very core.” the master said.
Menchoir had forgotten his quest, his party. Even now he could hear the ghosts of their voices calling to him. “Then… please… thank this God for this moment He allowed us.”
“The key to unlocking the magic requires you to tell Him that yourself. If you seek the knowledge, if you seek the power, you must now ask it of Him. Follow His words and ways. Sometimes, the magic will work. Sometimes, it will not. You will not always see it, feel it. But, you must always have faith in it. If you have such faith, you and all others that follow will be rewarded.” The master rolled the scroll before him tightly and regarded it as if he held a child. “To spread the word of the new magic, God has sent His only Son, to be a beacon to those without faith or cause, for all to use their faith to unlock His magic.”
“The mother we seek…” Menchoir started.
“God has deemed His Son be born and grow as all men, so He may know their pains and trials. The woman you seek carries the child of God. You must protect and keep them from harm until the babe is born. Tell your scholar to cast his eyes eastward this night. Now go, and be wary. Just as there are forces for good there are forces that keep the birth of the Son as ill omen for their cause.” The master handed Menchoir the scroll. “Your master’s last spell; it will require more than your voice to release it.”
“I shall never forget you,” Menchoir whispered.
“Do not mourn your master, Menchoir. Have faith in the one God, and know that He watches over you on your quest.”
“Menchoir! Menchoir!” The mage’s eyelids fluttered open to see the large glob of water fall from the pitcher held over his head. He sputtered, gasping at the sudden cold. Balthazar smiled like a child caught in a prank.
“I am awake, brute!” Menchoir gasped, shaking his head to clear away the last of the cobwebs. Caspar helped him to unsteady legs. “How long…” he started to ask, the taste of sake still strong on his lips.
“A few moments, Menchoir.” Caspar said. The scholar started fussing with his eyelids, lifting them and looking deep into his pupils. “Are you well?”
“I believe so."
“Menchoir…” Balthazar said. The mage looked at him then back to the scroll in his fist. “…you were not holding that before you fell.”
“You are as observant as you are oafish, Balthazar.” Menchoir said as he slid the scroll inside his robes.
“What happened?” Balthazar asked.
“My master called for our spirits to meet,” Menchoir turned to Caspar. “We are to look east this night.”
“And what are we looking for?” Balthazar asked, annoyed. “We should be seeking the mother. Herod’s proclamation will have spread, and any with a male child will try to leave the city.”
“I fail to see the worth in going out to traipse across the desert with no real direction, either. We could easily go one way while the woman goes another. But I have been told east, and east is where I shall go.” Menchoir said.
“That would be better than standing in this room doing nothing at all!” Balthazar added angrily.
“A thousand pardons…” Caspar said, “…but we should be on our way; east. If that is the direction we are to look, logically that is the direction they will go.” The mage and warrior turned and regarded the scholar. Caspar shrugged his shoulders. “Sometimes, the simplest answer is the correct answer.” he said.
“And sometimes, the correct answer is not so simple a thing.” Menchoir said, his traveling satchel full of the bits of flora and fauna for his more powerful spells suddenly at hand.
It had taken more than two hours for them to leave the city, Herod’s proclamation having clogged the various egresses as soldiers inspected every bundle and cart. During their waiting Menchoir explained his meeting with is master. Caspar hadn’t placed matters of faith high on his list and continued to question and probe long after Menchoir was forced to repeat himself. For Balthazar, Menchoir’s tale was just that. The warrior held no god and had faith only in his sword and the arm that carried it. It was enough for Balthazar to know in the end he could gain some measure of satisfaction and not a small amount of gold by seeing their quest through. He patted his coin purse each time he spoke, the purse that contained one-half his fee paid to him by their mysterious employer.
They had spoken little of that shadowy figure in their time together. Each had been hired separately and each could vividly recall their meeting. But just as each knew these things, each drew a blank when they tried to picture the man’s face. Caspar attributed it to a life–long inability to remember faces, though he knew it to be more. The loss of the man’s features had actually been one of the reasons Menchoir had stayed with the quest, knowing that such things were rarely the fault of the observer and more likely done by intent. And it was painfully clear that Balthazar could care less on the face of their employer so long as his coin could be seen. Such uncertainty of the mind made for uncomfortable talk, so each decided to avoid it as much as possible. Now in light of Menchoir’s vision, each had come to the conclusion it was perhaps best not to dwell on it further.
The sun had set by the time they found a discernible track in the shifting sands. They continued east, heartened by the tracks; those of a man and a mule walking side by side, the latter leaving deep impressions as if weighted. While Balthazar kept his eyes to the ground and Menchoir kept his to the horizon Caspar cast his gaze where it was most comfortable; to the stars. The pinpoints had finally started to show through night’s curtain. Every few feet the astrologer would hold his lantern to his charts, mumbling or making slight changes in their course. They kept on this way for a time until Menchoir looked behind them to see the scholar had stopped. Caspar stared, mouth agape, into the sky.
“Looks like stars to me.” Balthazar said.
“Caspar…” Menchoir gently shook his shoulder and squinted up, hoping to see what enthralled the scholar.
“There…” Caspar whispered. He dropped his prized chart and pointed to the sky. “Do you see it?”
“I see only stars. I need you to give them meaning.” Menchoir said.
“There is a new star.” Caspar’s arm remained stock–straight, his finger jabbing into the night. The warrior held his hand up as if to shade his eyes and squinted.
“Looks the same to me as it ever has.” Balthazar said.
“The stars have remained unchanged for a thousand years, Balthazar,” Caspar said, “and yet, there it is. A star that was not there just last night…”
As they looked on, thin tracers of light suddenly shot from the star in all directions, their paths bringing them low to the ground. Several of them sped over their heads, illuminating the night. In the sudden light, the warrior’s eye caught movement just ahead. He squinted hard at it and let out a grunt. “There… due east; large enough to be an animal.”
Caspar peeled his eyes away from the sky and pulled a small cylinder from his robe. He pointed it east and peered through it. “Not a camel… a donkey. And it is burdened.” The trio set off over the sands moving towards the shape as the sky dimmed back to night. Without warning, Balthazar stopped.
“What…” Menchoir whispered. Balthazar pointed several yards ahead where a large shape moved just below the surface of the dune.
“Caspar…” Balthazar whispered, pointing at the scholar’s lantern. Caspar moved a plate affixed to its side, forcing the light through a small hole. When the beam of light hit the mound it stilled.
“Whatever it is, we have its attention…” Menchoir said.
“Keep the light on it,” Balthazar said. He slid his scimitar from his sash and crept across the sands, taking a less than direct approach towards the end of the light. The warrior closed to within a few feet of the mound then stopped short, the sound of shifting sand hissing from behind. He strained his ears, his arms spread out in anticipation until suddenly he spun his sword and sank it into the sands.
The world went red and hot in that instant. Balthazar screamed as a geyser of flame shot up around his sword like wine past an ill–fitting cork, the force of the eruption throwing him into the air to land several feet away towards his companions.
The shape of a man covered in flames rose up from the sands. Easily half again larger in all dimensions than Balthazar it towered over them. It was smiling. Caspar took in its massive horns and cloven feet and dropped his lantern from nerveless fingers. Menchoir heard Balthazar groan. He was a short distance away from them, between them and the monster. His hair reduced to a smoldering clump, the warrior slowly rose to his feet. Steam and smoke wisped away from his body as he raised his sword and let out a hoarse cry for battle.
“Balthazar! No!” Menchoir cried, his feet already moving. Balthazar seemed not to hear or care. Menchoir’s lips moved soundlessly, his hands crumbling a bit of dried ginger. He grabbed the warrior about the shoulders, his hands glowing in a soft blue light. Aided by magic, his strength was enough to throw the warrior behind him to land at Caspar’s feet. The creature opened its mouth, sending a stream of flame towards the mage. Menchoir flipped backwards and let his momentum carry him back as the flames blasted the ground he had occupied.
“I should kill you… magi…” Balthazar groaned as he got to his feet.
“It would have melted you as easily as it did that!” Menchoir said, pointing to the warrior’s hand.
“Look at your sword!” Caspar said. The flame had warped and melted the blade, making it little more than a steel club. The demon laughed then looked down at its feet. There in the sand was Balthazar’s coin purse. It plucked the pouch from the sand, sniffed it then leered at the group.
“Gold…” it hissed. “So precious…” The demon made a show of licking the leather pouch with the tip of its forked tongue. It cupped the bag in its taloned hand and laughed as flames consumed both bag and metal, gold dripping through its fingers and hissing into the sands. “…and so fragile. Just like man.” The demon folded its arms across its massive chest and stared down at them. “The Son of the Accursed One is to be born, the hope of all His weak, insignificant children, and this is what they send? Against me? It is good my master did not come. To me, you are nothing. To him, you would have been insult most foul.”
“If we are so small, why send you at all? Why not simply have the desert swallow them?” Menchoir asked. He knew such conversation would do little for them, but the longer they kept the demon occupied the more time they bought the blessed couple to get further away.
“The will of my master is not subject to the question of worms,” the demon said.
Menchoir shot a look behind him. Caspar stood only because his legs were locked by fear, his eyes set open as he watched the demon start slowly towards them. Menchoir said a small, silent word of introduction to this new God.
“Prayer?” the demon growled as it stalked near them, sensing Caspar’s silent plea then turned back to Menchoir. “You are of the East, magi. What would you know of the Accursed One, eh? He will not listen to heathens and fools. You are godless, worth even less than these other maggots.”
Menchoir shoved his hand into his satchel and pulled out a small glass globe, a faint blue mist swirling inside it. He crushed the globe in his hand, wincing as the tiny, razor–like shards sank into his palm while he called out a word in a language long–dead. The swirling vapor mixed with his blood, turning the mist to its color. It hung in the air a moment then expanded, roiling as the demon neared to cloud the party in its haze. The mist colored their vision crimson, making the flames from the now-enraged demon seem all the more hellish. But the sudden respite from the site of the demon was enough to snap Caspar out of his terror–induced coma, bringing him back to the world no less terrified but more or less in control of his senses. Balthazar kept glaring at the hazy shape of the demon through the mists, his near–useless sword clutched at his side.
“I could have…” Balthazar began angrily.
“Got killed?” Menchoir supplied helpfully. “Yes, and us with you.”
The demon roared outside, pounding on their now-solid, misty shell. “What are we to do? Wait until it tires and goes away?” Caspar asked.
“The mist will not last long. At best we have a moment to collect ourselves,” Menchoir said.
“It has already taken my gold! I will be damned if I will allow it to slaughter me without battle!” Balthazar said.
Menchoir kneeled as the demon raged outside. He pulled the scroll from his robe and placed it unopened on his legs. “If you have not noticed, your sword is wasted and the only thing keeping your legs under you is stubborn nature.”
“Then what are we to do?” Caspar asked, flinching with each blow to their shell. “The mists are already starting to fade!”
“I suggest we call upon a new weapon.” Menchoir said.
“Bah! Do something useful with your magic and make my sword whole again! I will make the demon rue this day!” Balthazar said.
“What do you mean?” Caspar interrupted. “The faith you spoke of, to the one God?” Menchoir nodded and folded his hands over the scroll. Caspar traded his glance between the seething warrior and the mage before settling himself beside Menchoir. “I will regard this as an experiment.” he whispered softly to Menchoir.
Several of the demon’s fingers poked through the mists, hissing as they sliced through the ethereal barrier. Balthazar roared and pulled a curved dagger from his sash, bringing it around to slice through the offending digits. But as soon as it hit the demon’s skin it melted in a dull red flash in his hand, bits of melted steel dripping onto him. He screamed and dropped to his knees, cradling his hand.
“Nice of you to join us, Balthazar,” Menchoir said wryly. Balthazar looked up, pain mixed with hate in his eyes.
“May your gods burn as I do!” Balthazar spat into the sand. “If your god is so powerful, why has he not come to our aid? Eh? If he is so great, why does he allow his son to be in peril?”
“Perhaps we have not asked for His help.” Menchoir said.
“Perhaps it is because he does not exist!” Balthazar shot back. He was looking less like a man and more like an over–baked loaf with each passing attack.
The demon’s whole hand breached the barrier above them, clawing and reaching at the air over their heads. Caspar sat transfixed for a moment before he caught Balthazar’s wounded gaze. “Balthazar, is the demon real?”
“Fah!” Balthazar exclaimed and spat, ducking his head. “As real as my sword when I cleave you in two…”
“If the demon is real, logically there is a hell from which it sprung. Yes?” Caspar interrupted. Balthazar kneeled more deeply in the sand to avoid the probing hand and nodded just slightly at the scholar. “It would stand to reason for hell to exist there must also be heaven. And if there is heaven, a God rules that heaven, just as the demon claims a master in hell, yes? The presence of the demon supports the existence of both hell and heaven. I would suggest we seek it… quickly.”
Balthazar grumbled on his weak companions and tried to mimic the posture of the mage as best his singed body could. Each fell silent in counterpoint to the still–shrieking demon outside.
“Show yourself to me! Show me you are worthy of my worship!” Balthazar challenged at the corners of his mind.
Balthazar found himself on a lone dune under high sun. He was shirtless and armed with his scimitar, both of them whole and new, the sting of windborne grit on his heavily scarred and tattooed flesh. A warrior that would’ve made the demon a dwarf stood before him. He was dressed in a robe of white that shimmered so brightly Balthazar couldn’t make out his face. The chest of his robe fluttered open in the desert breezes, revealing the tattoos of a chieftain. Each hand held a scimitar larger and finer than any Balthazar had ever seen.
“It is you that must prove yourself worthy to receive my blessings, warrior. Come…” his opponent said. Balthazar smiled and brought his scimitar to the fore as the two crashed together in glorious battle.
Caspar looked about. The workshop was vast, endless. Tables full of odd contraptions sat everywhere. Massive sculptures and tiny portraits sat haphazardly about the place. There were no windows. In their places stood shelves that ran down the length of the room and out of his sight filled with all manner and sizes of tomes, scrolls and reams. His eyes followed up one of the shelves until it ended in an inky blackness across the ceiling. He gasped and stumbled backwards as he beheld a perfect map of the night sky where the ceiling should be. Many of the stars he recognized, but there were many more he’d never seen. In awe of such perfection, he failed to notice the small, bald and bearded man threading toward him from the depths of the laboratory.
“You like the stars?” the man asked, smiling. The sudden words snapped Caspar’s head back to regard him.
“This is… incredible! How…” Caspar said.
“That is a story for which you have not the time, nor the comprehension.” A stool suddenly appeared and the old man sat.
“Are you… ah…” Caspar started. The man smiled warmly and picked up a small, half–assembled clock from a table.
“I am all and yet nothing, childe,” the man said. “You could consider me a creator, an inventor, an architect like yourself. You could consider me more than that, or less. But in all things, I would at least warrant consideration.”
“What is this place?” Caspar asked.
“What you see here is what man is capable of achieving.” the man said.
Caspar looked around the room, trying to memorize everything he saw. A thought struck as he looked in all directions. “I see no walls here… it seems to just… go on…”
He smiled at Caspar. “There are no walls… man was conceived to be limitless in potential. The ceiling is nothing but the heavens since that is where man can reach. Some projects in this room are of my design. You, for example.” the old man chuckled softly. “Some represent knowledge man has discovered. As he seeks knowledge and truth, more tomes are written, more inventions are born… and the workshop grows. You sprang from my knowledge, crafted in my image so that you too could seek knowledge.”
“Could you not simply give man such knowledge? There would be no war, no kings… if all men would have such knowledge…” Caspar said.
“If I did what you suggest, man would never strive, achieve. He would never be forced to a moral choice and he would never develop the curiosity so vital to his existence.” He stood slowly, the stool gone. “A question; what would you do if you knew everything? All the knowledge world and stars have to offer. I know you as I know all my children. You would shrivel away to nothing. With nothing left to learn, no curiosity to slake? I have placed knowledge throughout this world and these stars, in the hopes that man would seek it, better themselves… to learn. Consider it my own great experiment.”
“But that very thing makes proving your existence all the more difficult. Science does not allow for what cannot be proven. If you cannot offer yourself up to study, how do you expect man to follow you, to worship you? You have created paradox.” Caspar said.
“I guess I have, eh?” the man said. “Faith, my child. Science, technology, crafting… I have given these as tools. Valuing them is of no affront to me. But the intricacies and exacting natures of these things must be placed in balance if they are to lead to true enlightenment. That balance is faith. If a man can balance faith and science, there is nothing he cannot achieve. You have been a teacher, Caspar. Why? Why take the time to teach others?”
Caspar was quiet for a moment. “I enjoy it.”
“Why, Caspar?” he asked.
“I take pleasure in seeing others learn.”
“And in the process, do you learn as well?” the old man asked.
“Yes, I suppose I do.” Caspar answered.
“Our philosophies are not so different then. I take pleasure in teaching my children. And, just every so often, even I learn something from them.” He chuckled again, this time turning and moving off between the tables.
“Wait!” Caspar said, suddenly remembering the demon. “I have more questions!”
“Then you should seek their answers.” the man answered over his shoulder.
“What about your Son? What about the demon?” Caspar asked.
The old man stopped. “My Son is also a crafter and scholar, much like me and much like you, much as He will be in the world of men. He will have important knowledge for you all one day.” He started walking again and the room began to swirl around Caspar. “As to the demon, they absolutely despise silver… silver and myrrh.”
Menchoir sat in meditation. He called to this God but nothing would come. He asked over and again; no sign, no vision, no voice from beyond. He had done as his master had told him and still no answer would come, no proof of His presence. Balthazar’s sudden, pained gasp broke his trance just in time to flatten gracefully as the demon’s whole arm broke through the barrier and swept over him. A bright flash of light suddenly flared from the warrior’s body, destroying the tattered remains of their protective shell and hurling Balthazar several feet through the air to land behind Caspar, his useless sword burying its blade in the sand nearby. Menchoir pulled his legs beneath him, rolled in the same direction and spun to face the demon in the same motion, nearly bowling Caspar over in the same instant.
“That was a pointless and deadly waste of time!” Menchoir whispered to Caspar as they both looked up into the grinning face of the demon.
“Was it? I found it enlightening.” Caspar said. Menchoir took a look behind them at the warrior face-down in the sand.
“The demon has claimed Balthazar,” Menchoir reached down and picked his scroll from the sand where it had dropped. “And God has not deemed to aid us. I only hope there is enough magic left to power this.”
“Your prayers have gone unanswered!” the demon hissed. It extended its neck, gnashing its teeth at them. Menchoir opened his master’s gift. The scroll was blank. He flipped it over several times, trying to find the spell captured in the skin. He found no words, no arcane symbols.
“It seems they have,” Menchoir said, still clutching the empty scroll. He stood quickly and raised a hand as thin, spidery words of magic crawled from his mouth. A glowing ball of bright red energy shot like an arrow and slammed into the demon’s chest. It fell back only a few yards, still on its hooves. Caspar stood up beside the magi and calmly slid his traveling pouch to its normal position across his chest. Menchoir’s mouth opened slightly, whispering another string of powerful words.
Caspar leaned over to Menchoir as if they were seat mates at dinner. “Demons hate silver and myrrh.” he said, as if talking about the dry meat at the table without the host overhearing.
“What?” Menchoir exclaimed, the banal statement enough to break his concentration from the spell he had been weaving.
“I have it on good authority that demons hate these things. Do you have any?” Caspar’s nonchalance fueled a dark look from the magi as the demon spread its arms wide and roared at them.
“I have no silver!” Menchoir screamed above the demon’s cry. But the seemingly careless manner of the scholar had jolted his mind away from the absolute terror of the moment. He shoved his hand into his satchel of magical components and came up with a fig leaf–wrapped bundle. “I do have myrrh…” He offered it to the scholar along with a look of sheer confusion. They were about to be incinerated in a burst of hell-fire and Caspar was concerned with spices. It seemed a fitting end.
Caspar opened the leaf and palmed the pile of powdered, pungent spice. The demon bent towards them and started to inhale, the breath expanding its chest as the smell of brimstone rushed at them. Tiny flames started to dance from its nostrils as Caspar flicked his wrist, sending the powder into the air. The tiny flecks followed the demon’s inhalation deep into its chest. The demon ceased its breath, its eyes growing wide as it took first one then another step backwards. A taloned hand wrapped itself around its neck as if it were choking. It dropped to its knees, coughing great gouts of flame that turned the sand under it to glass.
“We have learned something this day, eh Menchoir?” Caspar said, completely unaffected by the sickened demon expelling fire and ash just a few yards away. “Though I feel we should do something else… he will be rather displeased with us once his wind returns.”
“How did you know about the myrrh?” Menchoir asked.
“God told me,” the scholar said simply. “Did he not speak to you?”
“No.” Menchoir answered.
“It was you that told us of Him,” Caspar said. “If any of us were to find Him, I would have thought…”
“It was not!” Menchoir said. “My spell was not nearly as powerful as I had designed! As my master said, magic is dying!”
The demon ceased its heaving and rose menacingly to its hooves. “Your deaths shall be slow…” it wheezed, “…you will feel the flames of hell on earth before you are consumed by them in the domain of my master!”
“I must concentrate…” Menchoir said, placing his feet wide apart and lowering his head. “I have no spell that will slay this demon. I only hope we can slow him more from his pursuit.”
Caspar watched the demon for a moment before his ears caught the pained moan. With his lantern half–buried in the sands behind them, the only light in the desert was from the demon’s own flaming skin, enough light to see Balthazar stir behind them. “The warrior lives!” he whispered, more to himself than the chanting mage beside him. Caspar turned back to the demon and watched as it started to close across the sands, though more hesitantly than before. Had the myrrh given it pause? “Menchoir!” Caspar whispered. The mage did not respond, only kept to his chanting. The magi’s body had started to glow softly, though Caspar had the notion that in another time such a fete from the talented mage would have lit up the night sky. Already, even the glow he had achieved was fading from him though his chanting came more feverish with each passing moment.
“It dies, mage,” the demon hissed, “I know it dies. It is fitting that you die with it!” Caspar took the measure of the demon’s stride. He was toying with them, moving with deliberate ease to intensify their fear. For all his new-found confidence Caspar was no fool. Their deaths were imminent. Perhaps God had need of a laboratory assistant? He supposed he would find out soon enough. A sudden notion took hold of him, powerful enough to risk grabbing the mage to shake him from his casting. As he grabbed Menchoir’s shoulders and broke his concentration the magical energy he’d been forming released instantly. With no will to control it the power exploded, the shockwaves throwing the pair apart by more than a dozen yards. The demon was taken by surprise as much as the mortals at the explosion. Powerful, but only enough to give him pause.
“Caspar! Damn you to the abyss!” Menchoir said as he struggled to his feet, hand still clutching the useless scroll. “If you would have let me finish the spell…”
“The demon stands! The magic would have done nothing then as it did now!” Caspar shot back as he half–walked, half–crawled towards the magi. “That power is gone, Menchoir! Even I could see it failing.”
The demon stood laughing at the mortals as they crawled across the sands. “I have had my fill of this, however amusing it may be.” It breathed twin gouts of fire through its nose and started at them, its pace far quicker than before.
“Menchoir!” Caspar yelled. “You didn’t visit your master! That was your vision! Menchoir… God did speak to you! What did he say?”
Menchoir thought back. It had not truly been his master, at least not his mortal master, had it? He cursed himself a fool. There were so many questions he’d have asked. The new magic was faith, faith in the one God; unseen and untouchable. He’d been given the scroll, but his own words alone were not enough. Was the magic he held in his hand the last vestiges of a dying power? Or was it the first spell of this new magic, gifted from the one God?
He held the scroll up before him and turned to face the demon. Closing his eyes, he spoke first to himself then to the one God. His vision explained if to no one other than himself, he found he did have faith in this One God, and that he could believe in His power. He’d sought to fight the demon with what little remained of the old magic when he should’ve had faith enough to embrace the new. He prayed there to the one God, acknowledging Him and the power that faith in Him could unleash. When he opened his eyes the scroll had sprouted a single word in its center.
The demon stopped there in the sand just as Menchoir’s eyes shot open, feeling the power of the magi's prayer. More importantly, it knew there’d been an answer. Its face a mask of hate it turned in mid stride and went straight for him. Caspar cried out and tried to get to the Menchoir before the demon did and knowing he wouldn’t make it. But just as Caspar had been upon awakening from his own prayers there in the desert Menchoir had become now. His face was peaceful, unlined and seemed to glow with an inner light visible in the desert gloom. The magi raised his hand as the demon let out a tortured roar, the horrendous sound drowning out the word he spoke off the scroll from Caspar’s ears.
A beam of intense, white light shot from the magi’s hand, the same light that’d tossed Balthazar away when their magical barrier had been shredded. The light slammed into the demon with the force of a thousand suns, shoving it backwards through the sand and washing out its own hellish light. The glow around the demon slowly faded, leaving a softly–glowing yet solid chunk of ice where it had once stood.
“By God…” Caspar said.
“Yes,” Menchoir said as he walked to where the scholar had stopped. “By God.”
“Are you… well?” Caspar asked, tearing his eyes from the confined demon to examine Menchoir.
“As well as I have ever been friend Caspar, perhaps more. We should go to them now. Mark your map so that we may return for Balthazar’s body…” Menchoir started then stopped. A tiny red glow had started in the center of the ice, a glow that was intensifying by the moment. Great cracks formed and just as quickly as it had been imprisoned the demon was free in a shower of icy slivers. It stood a moment, its chest heaving violently as it shook off small bits of ice and water from its crimson skin as if they were acid.
“So much for that,” Caspar said. “Would you happen to have another scroll?”
“No.” Menchoir answered. He looked down at his empty hand, the scroll no longer there.
“Well, he does not look happy with us...” Caspar said.
“I would think not.” Menchoir watched the demon remove the last bits of steaming ice and start for them. But it didn’t shine with firelight as it had before and with each step it took its flaming skin faded that much more. “He is… weaker.”
“But he is not weak enough for the likes of you two!” a deep, growling voice called from behind them.
“Balthazar!” Caspar exclaimed. The warrior stood over his plunged sword as his savaged skin reformed and his hair grew back to its wild and proper length before their eyes in the dimming light of the demon’s form. He reached down and gripped the now-jeweled pommel of his weapon and yanked it up into the air, catching it as the hilt swung back down to him in a graceful arc. The worthless blade glowed with that same light, restoring it as if fresh from the forge.
“Demon!” Balthazar roared, exulting in his healed body and perfect sword. “God has granted His favor! I am His sword, His enemies mine! Face me and die honorably! Turn from me and die a coward!”
The demon regarded the warrior only a moment before taking a breath and roaring fire at him. But instead of jetting across the sands the flames shot only a few paces away and disappeared. The demon tried again and was rewarded with only a gust of sulfurous air. Balthazar smiled wickedly and charged across the dune, his battle cry ending only when he came within his sword of the beast.
It raged at him, massive claws searching for a chink in the warrior’s spirit. With each attempt Balthazar was able to find the demon’s own weaknesses. With each rage-fueled attack, Balthazar snaked his scimitar past the demon’s fury. Caspar and Menchoir watched their dance of death as the demon’s blood sizzled like fat on the warrior’s blade. When finally the demon managed to land its claws across Balthazar’s chest he paused only for a moment to watch the flaming scars before launching his own attack, his laughter chilling the onlookers almost as much as the demon’s had done.
“He is… not right, is he?” Caspar asked Menchoir quietly, nodding towards the berserker warrior. Menchoir didn’t even look away from the battle and gave only a slight nod in reply. Moments later the beast made its last mistake. With a cry of victory Balthazar ran his scimitar into the demon’s gut and shoved upward, slicing the demon’s heart in two. The demon opened its mouth but was cut short by an explosion that made the desert night as day. Caspar and Menchoir shielded their eyes against the sudden glare, and when they looked again the desert night had returned.
“Balthazar?” Menchoir called out quietly into the suddenly still night.
“Do not fear, mage. I am still with you. Someone needs to protect you weaklings,” Balthazar answered from the gloom. Caspar scanned the dune until he found a pinprick of light winking back at him. He walked to it and plucked his still-burning lantern from the sands. Caspar turned the shutter completely open and held the lamp in the air, revealing nothing more than their tracks. No trace of the demon was left save bits of glass from its myrrh–induced sickness glinting in the lamplight, that and something that glowed metallic on the spot where the demon had met its fate.
“What is that?” Caspar asked, focusing the shutter on the lump in the sand. Balthazar reached down, picked it up and bit at a corner of the roughly–shaped brick.
“Gold!” Balthazar said breathlessly. “Demons turn to gold when they are slain!” He held the bar aloft in one hand, his perfect sword in the other. “You are truly a just and great God!” he exclaimed to the heavens.
“Well, that is one way to ensure Balthazar’s sword in His service.” Menchoir said.
“I would not want to be a demon within a thousand dunes of Balthazar,” Caspar said. He produced one of his maps and after a few moments and several glances to the new star he nodded. “Still East.”
“What lies that way?” Menchoir asked as they started their trek across the dunes once more.
“There is a small town. Bethlehem, I believe they call it and not so far from here. If she is heavy with child we should seek there first. Perhaps they have taken refuge.” Caspar said.
They found the inn almost immediately in their path at the edge of the town. Men both rough and refined, scholars and shepherds and all manner in between and animals by the score littered the ground outside the stables. They picked their way through the crowd and stopped where a young boy sat on the ground, a small drum made of stretched goat skin over an earthen pot on his folded legs.
“Child… what is all this?” the mage asked.
“You were not called here? Did the angels not appear before you? The son of God has been born this night, there in the stables!” the boy said, his face alive with joy.
“It seems we have found the proper place and all is well.” Caspar said.
“We should see for ourselves. We have not come this far to take the word of a child.” Balthazar said.
“Agreed.” Menchoir said. The crowd parted as they continued on, the warning whispers about the approach of the magi and the warrior leaping yards ahead of them. By the time they made their way into the stable most of the people had respectfully thinned, giving them access to the stall where the Son had been born.
“Who are you?” the new mother asked, her eyes narrowing at the sight of the huge sword at Balthazar’s hip.
“We are…” Balthazar started before Caspar stepped up between the warrior and mage.
“We are from the East,” Caspar interrupted, nodding towards Menchoir as a way of explaining his facial features little seen in these lands. “We have heard the call and have come to give our good tidings to the Son of God, King of all men.”
“You are magi?” a tall, bearded man asked from the other side of the cradle.
“Uh, yes. Magi.” Balthazar said, awkwardly sliding his robes to cover the hilt of his sword.
“Gifts we bring to the newborn Son,” Caspar said, trying to cover Balthazar’s weak explanation. “Tokens, really,” he added to the dark looks his companions gave him. He fumbled in his pouch and came up with another, smaller pouch. “This is frankincense. It can aid in clearing congestion and bad humors of the lungs.” He handed the pouch to the mother and stepped back, avoiding the eyes of his companions.
“Yes… hmm…” Menchoir mumbled. He rooted around in his own satchel and came out with another fig–wrapped parcel. “This is myrrh. Among other things, it has the power to… ward off evil spirits.” He handed this to the father and stepped back respectfully from the cradle. The babe slept peacefully, far more peacefully than he would’ve expected one so fresh from the womb.
Balthazar kept looking between the parents, the babe and sidelong at his companions. “I have nothing to give!” he whispered harshly. “I have only my sword! My gift of slaying the demon should be more than enough…”
“You have more than your sword.” Menchoir reminded him. Balthazar’s eyes went wide, his sash suddenly heavy where the glob of gold hung inside it.
“You cannot mean… I will be left with nothing from this!”
“Nothing?” Caspar asked. “You saved the life of the Son of God. That would be something I would think.”
Balthazar’s eyes narrowed as he swore ever–so–softly in his native tongue. At that, the child’s eyes flicked open to regard them. If he hadn’t known better, Menchoir would’ve thought the baby was amused by Balthazar’s inner turmoil. The warrior sighed heavily, reached up under his sash and pulled out the fist–size bar of gold. “To help provide for the Son.” he mumbled roughly. The father exchanged looks with his wife as Balthazar set the gold down beside the makeshift cradle.
“Magi… it is too much! We cannot accept such…”
“Please!” Balthazar said through clenched teeth, a sidelong glance to his snickering companions. “I insist.”
The parents nodded gratefully. “You have our thanks for your fine gifts. I am sure they will all be put to good use.”
“It is we who should thank you, for bringing the new King among us.” Caspar said earnestly.
“We should go now. I am sure the family would like a chance to rest.” Menchoir said. The three said their goodbyes and left the stable, passing among the growing throng and back into the cool desert night, walking to the tune of Balthazar’s grumbling.
“Gifts we bring…” Balthazar whined in imitation of Caspar. “Tokens, really…”
Oh, yeah... and just write, damn it.