The hero Frederick did not know that when he faced the warlock king in battle, he faced his own father. Twenty years past, the babe who was the heir to the kingdom had been sent away into hiding by a fearful queen and mother. Green eyes gazed into green eyes. The warlock did not know his son. He did not know he had a son. Frederick had made it to the chamber in the castle where the king and his fellow warlocks had wrought their blasphemy. An immense slab of stone stood in the chamber, its night-black surfaces swirling with primordial lightning and glittering with stardust.
The hero tried to wound and capture the king, but the king would not yield. In the end, Frederick killed the warlock king. He unknowingly killed his father. As the blood of battle dried, Frederick called upon his allies to secure the great stone. It was not a thing that was meant to be trifled with, not by mortals. But already his fate swooped toward him, for the gods had seen the patricide. They had sent a Fury to punish the hero. They had marked him for eternal torment in the underworld.
When the Fury reached Frederick, he tried to fight her. And he tried to fight the venomous creature coiled around her waist and shoulders. He asked her to tell him why she had been sent. For many men had killed and slaughtered. But only he was chased by the justice of the gods. With cold and measured words, she told him. She watched as he lamented. She listened as he raised his head and begged her to let him finish his work of destroying the stone. He promised he would go with her then and face his punishment.
The Fury stopped for a moment. Then she raised a black hand toward him. Frederick closed his eyes and lowered his head. She placed her hand atop his head and transformed him into a dragon. She carried him to an island, there to be banished. The Fury believed this punishment would satisfy the gods, that it was just. She had punished Frederick for his crime, but given him a chance for redemption if he earned it.
But the Fury was wrong.
The gods were not satisfied. In their wrath at her disobedience, they forgot about the hero, and they forgot about the stone. They punished the Fury. She had transformed the mortal. So too was she transformed…into a mortal.
She was called Merula Moray. Her memory of being a Fury was gone, but Furies are strong and full of cosmic force. The gods could not take all away from her. And they realized their mistake in not letting Frederick secure the stone first. So they left in Merula the knowledge of the stone, and they placed in her a great compulsion to find it and guard it. For the gods had grown idle, and they were wont to leave such heavy tasks to other immortals.
So she found the stone. Frederick’s allies had been true and good. They had tried to destroy it, and when they found they could not, they had locked it away in the deepest and farthest dungeon. They had blocked all passages to the dungeon, and burned all maps that showed where it was. They took blood oaths, bound by sorcery, to assure that no one among them would be tempted to seek it.
It took Merula a generation to find the stone, but she found it, locked away in the forgotten dungeon of a ruined castle. Along the way, she became a great sorceress, for the knowledge of the stone made her curious, and her Fury nature gave her native skills that others did not possess. She kept the stone where it was and used her sorcery to guard it from any who might stumble upon it, by accident or by purpose. She became renowned for her skills. She was imitated in her garb, for she wore always a red hooded cloak over a black dress with black stitching and black buttons. She was envied for her youthfulness. Some thought she performed sorcery on herself that she was not sharing with others. It was not so. The sorceress did not question her longevity, for she believed she had been given it for a purpose. She did not know it, but she still had the soul of a Fury. And she was compelled to pursue and punish the wicked with her sorcery. But so too did she heal and build.
From time to time, news came to her of troubles in other realms. When her own land was mostly at peace, she began to travel and offer her help in dealing with such troubles. While guarding the stone felt like a burden, seeking justice for her fellows felt like her true purpose. So it was that she came to a land where the people complained of a dragon that had been terrorizing the villages for two generations.
At first, the Sorceress Moray devised ways to destroy the dragon. To do so, she gathered as much knowledge from the villages in the region as she could. Aside from the theft of sheep and cattle, and some destruction of barns and buildings, the dragon has not actually harmed anyone during his raids. No maidens had been carried off. No babies had been eaten. Young warriors, both men and women, had at times sailed to the island where the dragon kept his lair. They had marched up to the mountain to fight and kill the dragon. He always defeated them. Some died. But not all. Among those who survived, some were burned, but not all. And it seemed to the sorceress that there was something amiss about this dragon.
The villagers said that he did try to speak to them, but they took no heed of his words, for dragons were tricksters with forked tongues and they could not be trusted at their word. There were no records of what he said. The villagers claimed not to remember his words. And perhaps they spoke the truth. If they were fleeing for their lives, they would likely not stop to parlay with the monster from which they fled. At last, the sorceress was prepared. She sailed alone to his isle. She marched up the mountain, reached the great cavern mouth, and entered.
He was an eel-like dragon and he sat upon his coils, his skeletal wings folded against this fiery yellow-orange body. His eyes seemed strange. They were green as the forest is green. Here was the villain she should be punishing. But as he raised his head and the fins behind his cheeks flared in curiosity and caution, the sorceress felt an inexplicable and troubling affection for the creature.
She challenged him.
“Speak to your crimes, dragon, for I have come to make you answer for them.”
She braced herself as he flattened the fins against his skull and answered.
“I’m not a dragon. My name is Frederick. I’m a man. I was a man. Until the gods saw fit to punish me for killing my father. Only I didn’t know he was my father. He was a wicked man. A man with great power and he pressed that power onto the heads of his subjects until he broke their necks and their spirits. They punished me not for killing a man, mind you. That they would have forgiven, if he were any other man. Or if I were any other man. They might have raised me up. I might have usurped that throne. As it is, I was its rightful heir, and yet here I sit in this dismal cave, upon the bones of sheep and goats. It was because he was my father that they punished me. I cannot even live like a man, much less like a king.”
The sorceress gleaned much from this first lamentation. But she kept quiet and listened. And the dragon spoke again. He told her who he had been two generations past. He told her of the warlock king and his discovery of the starry black stone, an artifact that was never meant to be held by mortals or known to them.
The sorceress was thunderstruck, for the stone he spoke of was the very one she guarded. She knew much about it. It was one of several cosmic objects that were rumored to have fallen from the heavens to the earth during the early days of creation, when the skies were filled with warring gods.
The object was known to ancient peoples as Astrilapis, the heavenly stone. But more commonly it was called the Sunderer. Their myths spoke of a great archway built of stones that looked like a starry sky, swirling with the primordial fire and ice and dust that made all things that are in the world. The ancients believed that when a mortal died, his or her body should be sent out into the ocean, for it would find its way to the Isle of Mist and Gloom. There the body would wake just one last time and walk onto the shore of the isle and through the archway, which would then separate the elements of a mortal as the elements of the cosmos were separated. Body, soul, mind, and heart were sundered. The mortal shell was left behind. The soul, mind, and heart were rejoined and forged together into a spirit. And this spirit was what emerged on the other side of the archway, beyond the veil of death, passing into whatever came next.
Merula believed that the stone in possession of the warlock king was but a piece of this archway. She knew the story of that king well, for she knew all that any mortal could know of the stone. And she knew that the hero who had slayed the king had vanished after the battle, never to be seen again. Now she knew what had really happened to that hero.
Perhaps some hidden memory prodded at her mind. She did not remember that the spell upon him was cast by her. But even if she had, she was a Fury then, a creature who knew the secrets of the world apparent and the worlds beyond. As a mortal, her mind was not built to comprehend such things. But it was built to comprehend guilt and responsibility. And she felt both. She felt compelled to help the dragon and the villagers.
And she had a dangerous idea. She believed she could use the stone to sunder Frederick’s spirit from his dragon body, transform his spiritless body back into a man’s, and then rejoin and restore him. For she could heal wounded flesh and even transform it, but transforming a living body, even one that slept, even one newly dead, was so difficult as to be impossible. But transforming a body devoid of spirit was a task she had done many times. She told the dragon her plan. The dragon rumbled and she saw fire glowing through the scales of his head. Frederick abhorred the idea of getting anywhere near the stone for any purpose other than to destroy it.
“That you can do,” the sorceress said, “or try to do, for it cannot be destroyed, at least not by us mortals. But you can attempt it after we restore you.”
The dragon hesitated. “I long to be a man again. But I have seen that stone tear people apart. Sunder them as you say. Tear out their minds, their souls. Shatter them.”
The sorceress told him she had kept the stone for as long as she could remember, when she was but a young and untried sorceress. It had not tempted her in all that time. She had been marked to be its keeper. She had learned all the knowledge there was. She knew how to invoke its powers. She just never had, not even on enemies. The one danger was that he might die if she could not rejoin him after sundering him.
Frederick was tired of his banishment. He had tried to live free, to live in harmony with the villagers, but he had failed. Death seemed a relief. But the true vengeance against the stone would be to use it to regain his life.
The dragon agreed.
He followed her off the island. And over rough roads that few traveled. She led him back to her home. She led him to where she had hidden the stone. The sorceress grew even fonder of the dragon, and part of her regretted the loss of the beautiful creature upon the return of his true form. But another part of her longed for him to succeed in destroying the stone. For even when she was leagues away, she felt its weight about her neck.
She brought him to the ruined castle. So remote was her dwelling and the castle, that they did not need to hide the dragon as she had during some parts of their journey. As they descended to the chamber, the dragon began to shiver. He told her he remembered the castle and the battle he’d fought within it. He wanted to turn back. And the sorceress too felt a twinge of doubt. But onward they went, compelled by desires that were stronger than doubt.
Merula instructed Frederick to stand beside the stone but warned him not to touch it. The stone had only one purpose and would fulfill that purpose on its own if the conditions were met. Merula placed the dragon in a death-like sleep. And the stone woke. She watched and saw nothing at first. But she had devised a screen through which she might see Frederick’s spirit. After a few moments, she saw a glowing form through her screen. She was not sure if that was Frederick’s spirit. But then the dragon’s form began to change.
Merula started. She had not triggered the transformation. The form was changing on its own, it was shrinking and darkening. Merula raised her hand and tried to transform the dragon into the form of a man, just as Frederick had described himself.
When she did, the spirit form began to change. It burst into bright flame, a ball of flame like a tiny sun. Then bulges of flame grew out from the ball and lengthened, and the form began to look like a figure, a man made of flame. Two burning eyes formed in the figure’s head. It was not Frederick’s spirit. It was Frederick.
The dragon was gone now. A glittering green creature that appeared to be half-serpent, half-eel was formed in its place. The creature writhed in the air and straightened itself and slithered toward Merula.
Frederick reached out and tried to grasp it, but the creature was too quick. It wound through the air as an eel would underwater. It knocked Merula down and wrapped itself around her.
Frederick stared at her with eyes of flame. “Who are you?” His voice crackled with suspicion.
Merula struggled to rise, so heavy was the serpent. She thought that the serpent had never felt so heavy before.
Then she wondered, Before what?
Memories surfaced. The Sorceress Moray understood what had happened. The dragon was far older than the oldest man, some two hundred years old. The body that had once belonged to the man Frederick was gone. It had died long ago. It was her serpent-eel’s body that had sustained the man. For her companion, her serpent-eel, could live indefinitely. He could be killed, but he could not die of old age. When she had transformed the man, she had merged her companion’s body with his. The affection she had felt for Frederick, she understood it now. She couldn’t remember her companion. But part of her, the part that the gods kept hidden from her mortal self, knew. And that part had crept through somehow, crept into her mortal heart. She had given him up, without a thought, and he had obeyed. It didn’t seem such a sacrifice when she had been a Fury.
Frederick understood too. He recognized the serpent and he thought he was being punished again with new torments.
“You are loathsome,” he said. “The Furies punish the wicked with whips and torments of the flesh and the mind. But never had I known that they would use hope as a torment.”
He began to advance on her, his own fury flickering. But she held up a hand and spoke. She told him that she had heard his story and if he owed her any debt at all, it was that he should listen to hers.
And he did, though he was not sure he believed her. After all that he had suffered at the hands of immortal beings, he trusted only his fellow mortals. But he let her go when she said that she would find a way to help him still, even in defiance of the gods. She said she owed him that much, his life and his freedom, for she had learned much being a mortal. She would not remember all that a Fury knows in her mortal form, but she hoped to remember enough.
The sorceress studied for many months. And the man of fire guarded the stone, even as he longed to destroy it.
Frederick had thought it was a burden to be a dragon, but at least dragons were flesh and blood. He was something that should not have been. He had been denied death and peace. But as before, when he was a dragon, he wondered if he might do some good with his new form. As the sorceress studied and learned, so did he. He found that he could rise up into the air, but once he did, he could not return to the earth again unless he grasped something. In the stone castle that did no great harm, as he could grasp and scorch the stone walls. But if he should rise above trees and grasp one to come down again, he might light a forest on fire. So he remained in the ruined castle.
He felt no hunger and he felt no weariness of body. The first time it rained, he sought to find out if he could walk in the rain. But when he reached out his hand toward a drip in the ceiling of the chamber he stayed in, the drops burned, and he pulled his hand back. He considered dashing out into the rain and destroying his fire body. That would surely kill him and free his spirit. But he could not do it. He did not fear death, but nor did he truly seek it.
Merula came every so often, to study the stone and to assure he had not died. She was not the same woman who had first entered his cavern many months ago. Nor was she the unrelenting Fury who had chased and flogged him until he had at last convinced her to show mercy. She seemed a bit of both. And always with her was her green companion, whose body Frederick had unknowingly shared for two centuries.
Frederick marveled that he had not gone mad in that time. He wondered if the serpent-eel had protected his mind somehow. For without it, even in a body of flame, he began to feel restless and impatient.
One moonless night, he heard someone approach and thought it was the sorceress. He went out to meet her and was assaulted by two men, who did not show their faces. They were like shadows. He advanced on them, so he could reveal them and burn them with the light of his fire, but they tossed chains upon him. They burned with a familiar burn. He fell to the ground stunned by sparks of pain.
The shadows spoke. They told him that the chains were made with primordial water. He would not break them. They asked him where the sorceress was and where the stone was. They seemed to know it was close by, but they could not find it, for the sorceress had hidden it with spells they could not break. Hours passed as they asked and asked their questions. He did not answer theirs and they did not answer his. They dripped water upon his face from afar. The shadows could not come too close. For his flames, while they did not seem to hurt them, did make the shadows vanish. Frederick seethed as much at the sorceress as he did at his captors, who seemed not to be of the earth. He cursed all immortal creatures and vowed that if he was one of them now, made of fire, never to die, he would guard all innocent mortals from the harms and machinations of immortals.
After a while, a third shadow appeared in the cavern and whispered with the two. All three left. Frederick suspected that they had found the stone. As far as he knew, it was his only chance to be mortal again. He struggled and struggled and strained at his chains, and though he could not break then, he suddenly felt his head slide off. He detached his head from his neck. Startled, his head floated up and rolled over, dizzying him until he willed it to stop, and it did. He turned his head in the air and saw that his headless body was still on the ground in chains. He felt his body anchoring him to the ground so he would not float up and up into the clouds to be extinguished. He did not know how far he could go. Or how fast. He tested his limits quickly and then flew down to the dungeon. He found no one there.
Merula, he thought. And he zoomed toward the sorceress’s home.
When he reached it, he saw the shadows fleeing from it chased by the Fury’s companion. The creature whipped through the air and snapped at the shadows, but they vanished into the darkness.
Frederick flew through a cottage window and stopped, floating in mid-air. Merula’s body hung from a rope tied to a rafter above. A fallen stool underneath told the story. He felt a burning between his flaming eyes. The serpent-eel returned through the window as well and wrapped himself around the sorceress’s body. Frederick bit through the rope with teeth of fire. Merula’s companion held her body as the rope went slack.
Frederick knew of only one thing to do. Hoping the serpent-eel would understand, he directed the creature to follow him. The creature followed. They reached the ruins of the castle and descended to the chamber with the stone. The serpent-eel placed Merula’s body before the stone.
And three shadows appeared in the chamber. They threw chains of metal upon the stone and began to rock it back and forth.
Frederick watched helplessly as the serpent-eel flew at the shadows and flew through them. He looked down at the body of the woman who had tried to help him, the Fury who had taken mercy on him. And a surge of hope filled him. Not faith or certainty. Only hope. He flew at the shadows and willed himself to blaze brighter. He broke through the first shadow and the chain it had held went slack. He splattered the next shadow. And the third vanished before he reached it.
He zoomed around the chamber. He would do so until he knew that Merula’s spirit had crossed the veil. And then he would try to burn the stone down. He would stay and blaze as brightly and hotly as he could, scorching and cracking. He was an immortal thing now. Surely he could do what mortal men could not. Surely he could destroy the stone.
The serpent-eel lay upon Merula’s body as Frederick circled the room, searching for the shadows. The sorceress was dead.
But the Fury lived.
Frederick stopped. He felt a presence in the chamber with him. The serpent-eel whipped up and hovered in the air, coiled.
“I am here,” a voice said. Frederick and the serpent-eel turned. He saw a familiar figure beside the stone. She wore a red hooded cloak and her body was black, not the natural black of mortal flesh, but the black of night. The serpent-eel glided toward her and wrapped itself around her.
“The stone worked,” Frederick said.
The Fury shook her head. “The piece cannot do what the whole can do.” She looked down at herself and back up at him. “This is the work of the gods.”
The gods had restored the Fury and all her powers and memories. Immortal again, she was alien to Frederick. And fearsome. As he watched, tears of blood dripped from her eyes as she loomed over the mortal body that had contained her.
“I spared you eternal torment in the underworld and gave you a torment that could end one day, if you could find a way. So long as there is life, there is hope. I left you with hope then, as I do now.”
The Fury told him that she had been tasked with restoring the stone to its rightful place, for the enemy of both gods and mortals knew where it was and would use it to wicked ends. It was this enemy who had whispered in the warlock king’s ear long ago and stolen into his dreams and twisted his purpose toward destruction and despair.
After she was done, she would return to the task of punishing the wicked. He would have to find another to restore him one day. Frederick lamented that no one would be as skilled as Merula, for she had the soul of a Fury.
The Fury chided him for having no faith in the very mortals that he preferred over all other beings. Frederick realized she was right. She told him to start with the many apprentices the sorceress had during her time on earth. The Fury freed his body from the chains. She told him to return to the sorceress’s cottage, for there he would find a coat and gloves that she devised for him so that he might at least go among his fellows. She meant to give them to him until she found a way to restore him. They were made of primordial water on one side, but woven through with primordial fire on the other, so he would not be pained in wearing them. He would have to be mindful still in the rain, lest his fire become extinguished altogether. He would have to be careful still not to set things on fire.
The Fury gave him one last warning. She had been punished for showing him mercy. She told him to obey the cosmic laws, for if she were set upon him again, she would obey.
“Your mercy was no mistake,” Frederick said, “though I did not deserve it.” He had been changed and humbled by his punishment. “In your mercy, you showed yourself to be better than the gods.”
“Blasphemy,” the Fury said. But she sounded pleased. Perhaps she too had been changed by her punishment.
“Don’t forget Merula,” he said. “I won’t.”
“Nor will I.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.