the black fyre orphan
One winter, on a whim, I decided to enter NYC Midnight's 2017 Short Story Challenge. I had a week to come up with a 1,500 word story based on their prompts: Fantasy, a detective, and a curse. I waited too long to come up with a plot, then dashed out something in a matter of three or four days. It's OK, considering I don't consider myself a fantasy writer and I rushed my way toward the end (and the 1,500 words). I didn't make the second round of the competition, but I got some good feedback from the judges and a little bit of confidence knowing that I at least put something coherent together.
“If you’re going to insist on going out there, you’ll need to write down your next of kin.”
Sir Abraham Mulhern rolled his eyes and grabbed the quill from the guard. First of all, the only real kin he had was his ex-wife Rachel, whom he doubted would shed many tears if she were notified of his untimely demise. Secondly, the Kingdom of Albion’s hysteria regarding the dangers beyond The Wall were beginning to grate on his last nerve. He’d been out here at least half a dozen times since the protection spell, and he always found the small camps of witches, wizards and healers that had popped up since then to be both accommodating and helpful. They’d assisted him with a high profile kidnapping case. They cooked up an antidote for a epidemic of sleeping sickness. They even helped him determine the paternity of a newborn troll.
But the guard, and everyone else in the Kingdom, would never know that. As far as anyone inside the wall knew, he was going out here to find the bad guys, the ones publicly being held responsible for the bizarre string of maladies now affecting some of the Kingdom’s children.
Abraham handed the quill and the parchment back to the guard. “There you go.”
“Be careful. You know as well as anyone what kind of people are out there.”
“Right,” Abraham replied in a gruff monotone. “You too.”
From the castle wall, it was an hour-long trek along Pellington Forest Road to the edge of the marsh his old friend Roland now called home. Roland was not a witch, nor a warlock, nor a wizard nor even a healer, but a middling amateur magician caught up in the Great Magic Purge and exiled along with those who actually knew their way around spells and incantations. When the public turned against all things unexplainable, the differences between occasional slights-of-hand and the occult became of little import.
“Roland the Magnificent!” Abraham called out as he approached the makeshift grass hut that now served as Roland’s dingy, dirty, domicile. “Is the great purveyor of magical arts at home?”
Almost immediately, a large bearded face grinned out the window.
“Abraham! Great Gods!”
Roland burst through the thatched door and gave Abraham an enthusiastic bear hug. When it finally broke, Abraham was able to see in great detail the weathering that exile had wrought upon his friend. Despite his joy at this meeting, Roland’s face was haggard and defeated, aged far beyond the 18 months that had gone by since The Purge. His appearance, once impeccably maintained for performance purposes, was now that of a common beggar, unkempt and unwashed. Abraham immediately felt a wave of deep regret, wondering to himself whether there was anything he could have done to save Roland from his undeserved fate.
“It is so good to see you, Abraham! How is everything in the kingdom? How’s Rachel?”
“It didn’t work out, Role. But she’s fine, I guess.”
“Oh, man. I’m so sorry.” The sadness in his voice reminded Abraham that Roland was the best man at his wedding. “So what brings you back out to the hinterlands?”
“Unfortunately, it’s another case, Role.”
“So the Great Detective returns!”
About a year ago, Roland helped Abraham with the kidnapping case, introducing him to several of the Light Witches, convincing them that this rough-edged rumpled inquisitor was no threat. The Light Witches proved instrumental in helping him track the children and destroy the Dark Warlock who had kidnapped them.
“So what can I do for you?”
“I need you to take me to Lucinda.”
All traces of joy left Roland’s face. “I can’t do that, Abe,” he said curtly. “Lucinda’s dead.”
Abraham instinctively knew that was a lie. “C’mon, Role. I wouldn’t ask if this weren’t important. Children in the kingdom are getting sick one by one. Going blind, deaf, dumb, then paralyzed. It’s like they’re trapped in their own bodies. No one knows what’s going on, but King Michael is telling everyone it’s a curse coming from out here. Abraham drew a deep, slow breath, trying to make the next sentence as clear as possible. “Role, they’re talking about coming out here and rounding people up.”
Roland stood silent for what seemed to be an eternity. He looked at his friend, and recognized his candor.
“All right, Abe. Frankly, we’ve all been expecting this. I’ll take you to her.”
The Light Witch Lucinda was, just two years ago, a beautiful and popular figure in the kingdom, the proprietor of a spice and herb shop that featured a cure or remedy for nearly every ailment. She was well known for her kindness and charity, and for the sugary treats she served up to any child entering her store.
But then came The Black Fyre.
It was a spell so powerful, so destructive, that it took four Dark Witches to cast. And that’s what they did at a sold out Royal Opera performance. The Black Fyre consumed the entire Opera House, killing everyone in attendance, including King Robert, Queen Christiana, and their beautiful daughter Nicole, who would have been first in line for ascension to the throne.
The four dark witches who cast the spell were caught, tried, convicted, and burned, but that did not appease the public thirst for revenge. Temples were torched, shops destroyed, and all purveyors of magic were publicly humiliated and harassed. King Robert’s brother Michael seized on the fervor, taking the throne and forcing Lucinda to cast a protection spell on the entire city wall, not only to keep dark magic out, but light magic as well. Three weeks later, in the middle of the night, Royal Guards rousted anyone associated with magic and forced them outside the wall. Lucinda became an exile among exiles, largely thought a traitor to her people for performing the protection spell. Abraham, however, considered her more a victim of King Michael’s long con.
Today, word in the hinterlands was that Lucinda was something of a hermit, known to all but seen by none. Roland had heard rumors of her location third hand, and when he and Abraham had trudged their way to the supposed location, it was clearly off the mark, but not by much. Abraham recognized a well-worn trail through the thick forest undergrowth, and the pair followed it about a mile before coming to the entrance of a small cave in a rocky outcropping.
“We seek the Light Witch Lucinda,” Roland shouted into the cave. “I bring a friend from Albion who seeks knowledge and guidance!”
“Albion no longer seeks nor deserves guidance from The Light,” echoed a voice from the cave. “Go on your way!”
“Light Witch Lucinda, please do not send me away.” Abraham was a bit surprised by the supplication in his own voice. “I come only to aid the innocent children of Albion, who fall gravely ill.”
After a period of silence, a slender, white-haired woman emerged from the mouth of the cave. She, like Roland, had aged exponentially since being exiled.
“You are Sir Abraham Mulhern, Detective of the Realm,” Lucinda proclaimed pointedly. “Why should I believe you do not represent the will of King Michael?”
“Because I come to prevent war, not to cause one.”
The Light Witch let out a sigh. “Then you have come in the name of benevolence. Please, enter, and I will offer what wisdom I can provide.”
The three huddled around a fire in the depths of the cave, and Abraham detailed for the Light Witch the spread of the strange illness that had turned dozens of healthy, active children into little more than human shells. First one child, then four, now numbering into the dozens.
“And these children,” Lucinda queried, as if she already knew the answer, “is there some connection between them? Perhaps something to do with The Black Fyre?”
Abraham was stunned. He always played his cards close to the vest, figuring anyone who knew more details than offered might be giving themselves away.
“As a matter of fact, there is. Each of the children afflicted is an orphan of the Black Fyre, adopted by citizens of the kingdom in the aftermath.”
Lucinda nodded silently.
“So it is a curse then? Coming from out here?”
“No, not from out here. My protection spell remains in effect. No magic, light nor dark, can penetrate that wall.”
Abraham pondered that statement for a moment, trying to determine whether Lucinda was capable of lying to him. “That would mean the curse is coming from inside Albion, that someone there is harboring the enemy that everyone despises. That’s absurd! And even if true, why would they target kids adopted from Black Fyre?”
A quiet voice from the shadows in the cave interrupted them. “Not all of them. Just one.”
The slight figure stepped into the firelight.
And a stunned Abraham suddenly had all the pieces in place.
* * *
Two days later, word spread through Albion that Sir Abraham had returned with evidence that the plague affecting the kingdom’s children was indeed caused by magic. King Michael summoned all citizens to the Black Fyre Memorial to hear Abraham lay out his case. Many, including the king, expected a great war to follow, leading to a triumphant, final extermination of all things connected to magic.
The memorial was constructed above the ruins of the Royal Opera House. Designed as an open-air public gathering space, it consisted of four curved granite grandstands, set in circular formation around an ornate stage. At the center were three white marble statues of King Robert, Queen Christiana, and Princess Nicole, who were interred underneath. The names of the 1,207 victims of the Fyre and its deadly aftermath were etched on the pedestals, and in King Robert’s hands was a scroll reading “Magia non producat bona” (“Magic leads to no good things”). On either side of the stage were four Eternal Torches, permanently kept burning to represent the execution of the four dark witches.
Abraham arrived in a carriage and climbed the stairs at the back of the stage with more than a little trepidation. The crowds gathered here were hungry for vengeance, and he wasn’t sure how they would react to the message he was about to give them.
He approached the center of the stage, and thousands of eyes became attached to his visage. The murmur of the crowd diminished to hushed tones and silent stares, and when King Michael held his right hand aloft from the Royal viewing stand, Abraham began to speak.
“Good people of Albion, I am Sir Abraham Mulhern, Detective of the Realm. I was charged by King Michael to investigate the devastating disease that has infected dozens of the kingdom’s children. I have determined that this vicious malady only affects those who were orphaned and adopted after the Black Fyre tragedy.”
As you all know, the king banished all practitioners of magic from Albion 18 months ago, and had a protection spell placed on our city walls to keep all magic from entering the kingdom. My investigation has revealed that the spell remains intact. No magic, dark or light, has entered the walls from the outside.”
Abraham shifted on his feet as he noticed the king’s confident grin turning to a suspicious glare. “But have you ever wondered why we purged light magic along with the dark? Why we banished the good along with the bad?”
“Magic leads to no good things!” shouted a lone voice from the crowd. Other voices echoed in agreement, and the king whispered angrily to an aide. Abraham knew he did not have much time left. His voice grew in both volume and urgency.
“It’s because light magic can do more than bring light. It can reveal truth! With light magic, we would know that the disease crippling our children is coming from inside Albion! With light magic, we would know that three, not four, dark witches were executed after the Black Fyre! With light magic, we would know that only two royal bodies are buried at this memorial!”
With that, a young woman emerged from Abraham’s carriage and began climbing the stairs to the stage. As she came into view, murmuring turned to gasps and then to stunned exclamations.
“Princess Nicole! She’s alive!”
As he watched the King rise hastily from his seat, Abraham’s speech took on the tempo of a full-throated indictment.
“Princess Nicole felt faint on the way to the opera the night of the Black Fyre, so the King and Queen took her to the Light Witch Lucinda’s shop to rest and be healed. After the attack, it became apparent to Lucinda that the Royal family was the actual target. When Michael declared the princess dead, took the throne, and banished light magic, Lucinda knew that Michael was behind everything. And when King Michael realized that Nicole had not perished in the Black Fyre, he had this curse placed on Black Fyre orphans inside the wall to be rid of her once and for all!”
The crowd was rising, riled and ready to hunt down their traitorous king. But a cloud of black smoke suddenly filled the air in front of the stage, accompanied by a clap of thunder loud enough to stifle thoughts of rebellion from the mob.
When the smoke thinned, Abraham recognized immediately the figure left behind: it was the Dark Witch Dorthea, one of the four supposedly executed Black Fyre witches.
But the witch paid Abraham no attention, instead focusing her steely gaze on Princess Nicole.
“Your highness!” Abraham shouted as the witch turned the power of her staff on the young royal. Nicole had seen the attack coming and ducked behind her own statue just before a bolt of black magic torched the spot where she had stood. But the witch was not going to miss again.
Without pausing to think, Abraham snatched one of the Eternal Torches from the side of the stage and charged. He knew what was coming. Seeing Dorthea’s staff aimed directly at him, Abraham took one more step and released the torch into the air. A heartbeat later, an electrifying bolt tore into Abraham’s body, rendering him bleeding, paralyzed and helpless on the scorched ground in front of the memorial stage.
Fatigue overtook him, but Abraham’s ears could still hear roaring flames and piercing screams. The torch had found its mark. The last vestige of dark magic would be gone from Albion, and with the protection spell still intact on the wall, its evil king would be left to the whims of an enraged populace. As Abraham’s vision faded, he saw the rightful Queen Nicole beside him, grasping his hand tightly and stroking his hair.
“Do me a favor, doll. Bring back the light,” Abraham wheezed, and then closed his eyes one final time.
Nicole nodded quietly that she would.