The Solar Pepper

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They say he did it because he asked to sit by an innkeeper’s fire one night and was denied with a lie.  The innkeeper said that there was “not enough fire” to warm the man who was dressed in rags and filth.  He appeared to be a beggar, but he was not a beggar.  He was a warlock.  And he was none too pleased by the innkeeper’s response.  It was no surprise that he should cast a curse.  What was surprising was that he did not just cast the curse on the innkeeper himself, but on the innkeeper’s entire country.

“Let it be as you claim,” the warlock said.  “That there is ‘not enough fire’ in your country.”  And then he spoke the words of his spell, his curse.

And from thenceforth, only candle flames could abide in our country.

If a fire grew larger than a candle flame, it would extinguish at once.  And if too many small flames were close enough to each other, they too would all extinguish. 

For three generations, our people struggled to discover the limits of the curse and to adapt to those limits.  Our activities could not extend far into the night, for only a single candle could be lit in each room, and only a small dim one at that.  Feasts became a thing of the past, for no great amounts of food could be cooked.  It took three days to bake a loaf of bread.  There were no more smithies. 

Our leaders arranged to buy bread, smoked meats, and metal-works from our neighboring lands, but such expenses could not be born for long.  

Of course there were those who aimed to break the curse.  There were mages in our country in those days.  And there were those who were dispatched by our leaders to track down the warlock, and ask if there was some way he might be appeased and convinced to lift the curse.  Those who found the warlock found him unrelenting in his cause of punishing their country for what he called their “unnecessary inhospitality.” 

***

While the few sought to break or lift the curse, the many sought to carry on as best they could.  Some of those who had the means began to move away to other countries.  The people who remained had to find other ways to keep warm during cold winters without roaring fires to warm their homes.  They fortified their homes with thicker walls and doors, sealing every hole and seam against the seeping in of chill winter wind.  They made warmer heavier clothing.   One of the more inventive ways to keep warm was eating spicier food.  Pickled peppers became quite popular. 

Our country grew humble, and some towns, villages, and even entire regions, grew poor and failed.  Those places where people could do more than just survive were those towns and villages where the people built tunnels between their homes and shops and such.  And where they were greatly skilled in jarring, pickling, rationing, and sharing.  And they were places where springs and summers were full of vibrant sun and where autumn harvests were generous.  Travelers still visited our country, out of curiosity, and sometimes for trade.

But nowhere did our country thrive since the warlock cast his curse. 

There were always those who sought to do what those who came before them could not, break the curse.  Few mages remained.  They found that their abilities could not flourish in a land without fire.  If any child expressed the desire to become a mage, and if they had families and friends who could provide the means, that child was sent abroad to study.  Rarely did such a child return home.  But some did, and some still sought to break that curse. 

As it was, the curse was lifted one fortnight past.

But it was not broken by a clever mage.

After three generations, the warlock himself lifted the curse of no fire from our country.  He did not say why.  Everyone was so grateful, so relieved, that they did not question why.  On the contrary, for fear that the warlock might change his mind, our leaders made proclamations about the warlock’s benevolent heart.  But they knew that in time, there would those who would question the warlock’s supposed benevolence.  He was a warlock after all.  So the leaders quietly began to outlaw any investigation into the lifting of the curse.  In some regions, the law passed quickly, and the punishment assigned was severe, permanent banishment from the country.

***

The law was still in debate in my region by the time my good friend Valentina received a letter hiring her to investigate the death of a mage in the southern region.  Vale was an investigator, though she did not often investigate deaths.

“I discourage you from pursuing this,” I said as we sat in her office.  As it was spring, the windows were open and the scent of jasmine puffed in with a gentle breeze.

Wesley, a local constable, and my other good friend, sat in the corner, re-reading the letter.

“This is her, isn’t it?” he said.  “That same mage who claimed she had come close to breaking the curse?  And that this could be the first winter in a long while that we could enjoy roaring fires in our homes?  She has posthumously hired you to investigate her own death?”

Vale nodded.

“Leonora.  Her laboratory was destroyed, and she was found dead,” I said. 

Vale raised a brow.  “And how was her laboratory destroyed?”

I sighed.

The mage’s laboratory was destroyed by fire.  The news had spread quickly.  No one claimed to have truly believed her claims, for she had provided no details or proof as of yet.  Still, I was certain that people would have been dismayed to hear the news.  For people always held out hope that one of ours would break the curse.  But there was no need to be dismayed.  The mage died several days after the warlock lifted his curse.  The official reports said it must have been an accident, that she was killed by her own experiment, a failed experiment it seemed. 

“Why do you suppose she kept working even if the curse was lifted?” Vale asked. 

“Well, it was her life’s work, wasn’t it?” Wes said.  “I’d want to see it through if it were me.”

I shook my head.  “But how could she see it through?  With the curse lifted, there was no way for her to prove that she could break the curse.”

Wes inclined his head in agreement.  “This would be far more suspicious if the warlock was the one who suddenly died.  Killed by the frustrated mage for ruining her chance to complete her life’s work.”

Vale smiled as her gaze shifted between me and Wes.  “You two seem quite curious about this case.  Do you know how we might quench that curiosity?”

“I don’t want to be banished,” I said.

Vale raised her shoulders in a slight shrug.  “For what?  We’re not aiming to investigate the warlock.  We’re going to investigate the death of this poor mage who might have been a hero to her people.” 

“I also don’t want to be the reason my people are cast into eternal cold and darkness if our friend the warlock grows angry enough to recast his curse.” 

Warlocks were long-lived.  That was why he was still alive to remove the curse a few generations after casting it.  But they were not immortal.  And if he were to die, his curse would not die with him, but would be locked in place for all eternity.

Vale pointed to the letter in Wes’s hands.  “I have been hired by her estate, Ada.  It’s all on the up-and-up.”

“Why you, I wonder?” I said, frowning.

Vale pointed a finger in the air.  “We shall find out.”

I was not as opposed to the investigation as I expressed.  And it was not the first time we were hired by letter without meeting a client face to face.  I was just suspicious.  But that was in the nature of my profession.  I was suspicious about the mage.  And I was equally suspicious about the warlock.  I did wonder why the warlock lifted his curse.  I did doubt that it was because of his benevolence.  He lifted the curse because it served some purpose of his own.  Of that, I was certain.  He was a warlock, after all.

***

Wes decided to join our investigation, though he would not carry his official title of constable when we crossed into the southern region.

After a few days’ travel, we found the mage’s laboratory.  It had not been disturbed, for that same estate that had hired Vale and me had also hired guards to protect the laboratory and the surrounding grounds.  And they had been given specific instructions that the head guard found odd as he showed us into the laboratory.  They were told not to disturb anything.  Leonora’s body had been removed, prepared for her funeral and then her entombment in a mausoleum.  But everything else had been left as it had been when she was found.

“It appears her experiments had to do with growing something,” Vale said. 

There were broken shards of clay pots and dirt scattered on the floor and the tabletops.  It was warm and humid, even for spring. 

I had burned some paper once when I was a child, on a dare from my older sister.  It was a frightening sight to see the paper vanish so quickly into ash, nothing but ash.  But before it turned to ash, we saw the scorch marks on the paper.  And we smelled the odor of burning, of smoke.  So I recognized the scorch marks on the floor and along the eastern and northern walls.  And I recognized the fait odor of smoke that still lingered in the air.

We found no seeds, no plants, no writings or records of the work that Leonora had done.  They were all gone, burned, or perhaps stolen. 

“It’s difficult to fathom a fire so big,” Vale said. 

“I’ve seen a fire bigger than a candle,” Wes replied, “when I went to visit my family abroad, a few times in my youth.  They called me there and paid for my passage.  They had a hearth in their home that they lit.  I remember being so scared to come into the room, much less to sit by the fire as my cousins were doing.  I thought they were so reckless and foolish.  But the fire that must have burned here…”  He scratched his head as he gazed at the northern wall.

We spent that day searching the laboratory for clues.  We opened every drawer, every cabinet.  We searched underneath the surfaces of things.  We searched for hollowed out books, or loose bricks, or even notes written in blood.  But we found nothing.  We could not say if the mage had died by accident or by some sinister purpose. 

We worked late into the night.  When it grew dark, the the guards had brought lanterns and hung them about the laboratory so we could continue our work.  Every time a flame flickered, I flinched, expecting it to go out.  I remembered that the curse the lifted, but my reflexes obviously did not trust that it was.  

Vale sighed as we left the laboratory.   “Let us go to pay our respects,” she said.

***

As those among the well-to-do often did, the mage had commissioned a death portrait.  I had made arrangements for my death upon the birth of my first child.  They were nowhere near as elaborate as the mage’s arrangements.  It was to that portrait that we paid our respects.  I caught Wes frowning at the morbid likeness of the dead mage.  There was a raw redness on the left side of her neck where she must have been burned by the fire before she could escape.  This painter must have been instructed to depict her as she was. 

Now that candles could burn beside each other, there were dozens arrayed below her portrait, which would be hung outside her family’s mausoleum for some days more, before being permanently mounted inside.

There were other visitors paying their respects.  Many thanked the mage for trying to break the curse, even if she had failed.  They spoke their regrets that she had not stopped her efforts after the warlock lifted the curse, else she would still be alive.  But I did overhear one person say that it might be well for our country that the mage happened to die, for it might have insulted the warlock to hear that she continued her work, and he might have recast his curse as a petty challenge.

So many times had I overheard someone’s fear that the warlock would recast his curse.  The curse was lifted and still our people cowered before the whims of this warlock.  After so long, the curse of no fire had spread to our hearts.

Vale leaned toward me as we left the grounds of the cemetery.  “Did you notice her left arm?”

I frowned.  I hadn’t noticed anything in particular about the portrait.

“The tattoos, all along her exposed forearm.”

***

“The traditional attire of a mage is to cover the arms to the wrist and the legs to the ankle.  Did you know that?” Vale asked over a lunch of freshly roasted chicken and rice that had been cooked in less than half an hour. 

Wes nodded slowly.  “I’ve heard not all mages adhere to the practice in other lands.”

“She’s been particular in her instructions so far,” I said.  “I’ll wager she chose her outfit for the death portrait.”

“Yes, very particular,” Vale said.  She smiled.  “And now I know the answer to your question, partner.  I know why she chose me.  I recognized a few of the symbols and characters in her tattoo.  It’s an ancient language, one I’m only familiar with because I studied it back in the days when I longed to be a scholar by trade.  When I thought being a scholar could be a trade.  It was my special focus.  Even scholars of languages might not recognize this particular patterning.  It was half-symbol, half-glyph.  I couldn’t read it, but I might be able to translate it.”

“How?  If the language is so rare, I doubt this humble town’s library will have any tomes to help you.”

Vale smiled again.  “Have you forgotten where we are headed after we finish our feast?”

We visited the mage’s home.  Though her laboratory was at the edge of town, her home was in a busy sector of town.  It was busier still now that the people had already started breaking down the winter tunnels between homes, to begin building more homes and shops at the borders of the town.

The mage’s home appeared quite undisturbed.  Wes and I searched anyway.  Vale quickly found the books she needed to begin her translation of the characters she had seen tattooed on the mage’s arm.

By evening, she had finished. 

“It’s a story,” she said, “almost like a journal entry.  And this small bit on her arm answers another of our questions.  What was she growing in her laboratory?”

Wes and I waited as Vale paused.

“Peppers,” she said.

“Peppers?”

“I believe so, though I’m not sure why.  Maybe she was trying to cultivate the spiciest pepper in the land?”

“How would that break the warlock’s curse?”

“I don’t know, but she failed to grow the pepper here, so she traveled to the nearest country.  There’s more, but I couldn’t see enough in that portrait to translate.”  She glanced between Wes and me.  “There might be more, more details about the mage’s travels, and about her experiments.” 

“But she’s already entombed,” I said.

Wes shook his head.  “I am not disturbing the rest of the dead or defiling a corpse or angering her ancestors.”

Vale raised her brows.  “I was thinking that we could ask the painter who painted her death portrait if she had commissioned any nude portraits of herself, preferably from every angle I need.”

Wes’s eye widened.

“Failing that, we might consider breaking into the mausoleum.”

***

Fortunately, we had no need to disturb the dead from their rest.  Vale’s deduction that the mage might have left us an easier means to gather the clues we needed was correct.

The painter only let Vale and me see the paintings.  Only our names were specified in the mage’s instructions. 

We found that there was tattooing along the entire left side of her body.  It was depicted in three paintings.  One of the mage’s front side.  One of her back side.  And one of her left side.  Vale asked if we might borrow the paintings.  But the painter told her that they were meant for her and that she could keep them. 

I could not discern any symbols or glyphs in the markings on the mage’s body.  They only looked like intricate patterns and sometimes a familiar shape or figure, like a crescent moon or a dragonfly.  Vale said that without study, it would be difficult if not impossible to tell where one character ended and another began, or how characters twined together to form a word or a thought. 

In some places, the mage’s skin had been burned so badly that the tattooing was obscured.

“We’ll just have to do our best,” Vale said.

But it was Vale who did the work, while Wes and I fetched our meals and returned to the mage’s laboratory in the hopes of finding more clues.  We found nothing.

We met at the mage’s house, which had become a makeshift office.  We returned to our inn only to sleep and eat breakfast. 

After a few days, Vale told us that her translations were nearly complete.  She learned that Leonora herself designed and applied the tattoos.  They were alchemical tattoos, drawn in some special ink that mages learned to use. 

“And another question is answered,” Vale said.  “Why was Leonora growing peppers?”

***

Leonora was one of a few aspiring mages in her town who had all become friends.  One winter’s day, they were sitting in an inn, competing to see who could eat the spiciest pepper in the pantry.  One of her friends spit out a pepper in a streak of fiery juice.  She declared that the pepper was so hot that was surprised she wasn’t breathing fire.  Someone remarked that such a feat would be wonderful, for if they could breathe fire, perhaps they could thwart the curse of no fire.

Some began to wonder if dragons, or other fire-breathing creatures, existed, and if they could be tamed and raised in their country.

But Leonora kept looking at the pepper, and she wondered if she could create such a pepper as they described.  The mage believed that even though fire was extinguished in the land, there was one place it might be stoked, inside of a person, bolstered and powered by the energy from that person’s very soul. 

She tried to cultivate a fire-breather pepper, but she failed.  She did not know if she was failing because she lacked skill or because of the curse.  So she left her country and to try again.  She wrote many letters and sent them back home, describing her progress and her failures.  Fire provided two main things.  It provided warmth, and it provided light.  She tried to grow varieties of peppers that mimicked the properties of fire, either all in one pepper or separately in different peppers.

Over the past year, she succeeded at last in creating a pepper that would cause the eater to breathe flame without harming the eater.  She called it the “solar pepper” for it burned with the heat of the sun.  But when she tried to pickle it and send it home, the pepper lost its power.  It had to be fresh when eaten, and it had to be eaten by one who could bear the pain, which she believed would be no problem for her people.  After three generations, they had become a people capable of bearing, quite handily, the heat of a mere pepper. 

The mage returned home to find some way to cultivate the solar pepper in her own land.

***

Vale paused to take a bite of her dinner before it grew cold.

“So, could it be that she truly was destroyed by her own invention?” I asked.

Vale finished chewing.  She swallowed, and then she sighed a deep sigh.

“If her account is to be believed, she learned something about the warlock’s powers.  He could only place a curse powerful enough to affect a country once every hundred years, give or take, for it required the sacrifice of all his energies.  They would return, in time, a long time.  And the warlock would age more quickly until his energies returned.  So the mage wondered why, then, the warlock would waste his curse on her country, and why he would devise the ruse of being insulted by some careless innkeeper.  She guessed it was because our country’s mages were growing more powerful.  They were curious and passionate.  Always tinkering and learning and sharing their knowledge with each other, bolstering each other, and their country.   She wondered if the warlock was hired by a rival nation, but she doubted that.  A warlock would not sacrifice all his power for the cause of another.”

Vale’s account prickled the hairs on the back of my neck.  They echoed my own suspicions about the warlock, suspicions built on general presumptions about warlocks.  That they served only themselves. 

***

“We must have left a candle burning,” I said, agape. 

There were people gathered all around, equally agape.  None had ever seen such a sight.

We had arrived at the mage’s home to begin another day of work, only to find that it had burned to the ground the night before.

“Two fires in the same town just after the curse is lifted,” Vale said.

“Ada is right,” Wes said.  “It must have been our own carelessness.  We’ve never had to worry about leaving a candle burning.  Now we must re-learn caution.”  He shook his head.   “I was certain we blew out all our candles and lanterns before we left.”

“As am I,” Vale said.  “But it is in my nature to be suspicious.  Indulge me.”

Even before our shock wore off, we began questioning those who were—conveniently—gathered about the burnt husk of what was once their neighbor’s home.  From what we gathered, the last person to be seen around the empty home before it burst into flame was a tall elderly gentleman with pale skin, dressed in black and purple clothes.  We had never met him, but we had read many an account of his appearance.  It sounded very much like the warlock.

“We should track him down,” Wes said, his expression growing dark. 

Vale peered at the still-smoking remains of the poor mage’s home.  “No, we should follow her clues.”

“But we’ve lost the paintings.  We’ve lost our clues,” I said.  I glanced at Vale.  “Perhaps the painter made copies.”

“There is no need,” Vale said.  “I remember the one clue that may be all we require.”

***

The clue that Vale remembered was a map, a map to where the mage was cultivating a solar pepper plant.  Deep in a cave outside of town, she had built a room with glass walls and a glass ceiling.

Wes cautioned that the warlock—or whoever the man was whom we suspected of burning down the mage’s home—might follow us.  He seemed to be destroying all of Leonora’s work.  Somehow it served his purpose to do so.  The mage’s own guess seemed best, that the warlock did not want the mages of their country to surpass his own powers.  Perhaps there were others who came close in generations past.  Perhaps he killed them too, and destroyed their work. 

We took a circuitous route to the cave, though Vale thought it was in vain.  The warlock would have some means to track them if he wished.  Their only hope was to find Leonora’s solar pepper first, take it, and escape.

“If need be, we could eat one and fight fire with fire,” Vale said.  Her voice was shaky and a bit breathless, and I suspected it was not just from the strain of our hike to the caves.

We decided that in truth, if we encountered the warlock, our response would be to flee, and if we could not flee, we would hide.  Fighting would be a last resort, for only Wes was practiced in fighting.  But the warlock would likely not engage in fisticuffs.

We reached the cavern at last.  And Vale guided us from the map in her memory, through tunnels, until we found it.  It looked like a small house, built with glass walls and a glass ceiling.  There was a hole in the ceiling of the cavern through which sunlight poured through, directly onto the glass house.

Inside there were several rows of common peppers, familiar to all of us.  We walked to the back of the house, where we saw three pots, each growing a different variety of pepper.  Most of the other peppers had ripened, and not being picked or tended, had fallen to the ground.  But there were a few left on each of those three pots.  In one pot grew a pepper that was milky white.  In another, one that was vivid red and orange.  And in the third, there appeared to be a delicacy, a deep green-and-blue pepper known to have a salty and fiery flavor.  It was called “ocean’s flame” by some.

Vale shook her head.  “I don’t know what they are.  They may have been described in the part of the tattoo that was burned off the mage’s skin.  Or in the tiny bit that I had not yet translated.” 

“They could be dangerous, poisonous,” Wes said.

I narrowed my eyes at the red-orange variety.  “One of these must be the solar pepper.”

I realized that it was growing hotter and hotter in the room.  I heard a strange sound.  A crackling, and then a bubbling.  I glanced at the walls and saw that the glass was melting, running down.  And outside of the glass, I saw tremendous flames, as tall as the wall.   The flames stopped and in the few breaths we took to turn toward the open door of the glass house, flames shot through that door.  We each grabbed a pepper pot and scattered.  I hid behind what I hoped was a heavy case containing the tools of gardening.  I peered from the side of the case and saw a figure in black and purple robes enter the glass house.  The warlock. 

“Give me the peppers, he said.  The warlock’s voice was loud, and his cadence somehow cloying.  “You don’t know what powers they contain.  They are dangerous.  Don’t be fools like that mage.  I do not aim to harm you.  But you are only mortals.  You will not be able to fight me.”

He opened his mouth then and flames erupted from his lips.

The solar pepper.  He must have eaten one.  I suddenly recalled the sight of the mage’s laboratory, and the charred remains of her home.  I had already suspected the warlock.  But I had thought he had used a spell, or perhaps even a common match.

“Your mage was toying with dangerous powers, powers that should not be handled by those not skilled or schooled in their handling,” the warlock said.    “If those powers were only for herself, I would not have been concerned, but she meant them to be for all.  I wanted you to break the curse yourselves, so I could commend your cleverness and know you were worthy.  But the mage’s way was too dangerous.  That is why I returned and lifted the curse, enough those I was reluctant to do so.”

I could see his eyes.  They too were aflame, but not with fire.

I retreated behind the case and looked at my pot.  I had taken the red-orange pepper plant. 

Fight fire with fire, I thought.

I tore one pepper off the plant and placed it in my pocket.  I tore another off and ate it. 

***

My mouth, my throat, my skin, my eyes, even my ears crackled and burned.  I felt liquid trickling down every part of my face and feared it was blood.  I was frozen in place as another burst of flame passed by me.  I felt myself being dragged further back into the room by one of my friends. 

“She’s frozen with fear,” Wes said.

“No, it’s worse.  She’s eaten one of those peppers,” Vale said, and then she looked at me.  “Are you mad?”

Heat was building within me.  It was unbearably hot, but it kept growing hotter and hotter.  I could not fathom how I was still alive.  I felt as if I would burst apart.   I spotted a metal stool nearby.  I grasped it and I felt the heat within me flow down my arm into the stool.  The entire thing began to glow, and then it began to melt. 

Vale and Wes realized right away they should not touch me again.  But I began to feel calmer.  The pain was receding.  I wiped my brow.  I touched a nearby stone, and it turned so hot, it began to glow.  I rose and threw the rock at the warlock.  It struck his robes, and he cried out in pain. 

I felt a satisfied pleasure at that cry.  I did it again and again, picking up a rock, infusing it with intense heat, and throwing it at the warlock.  And he continued to breathe fire at us.

“All I have to do is think it and it’s so,” I said to myself.  “The heat from within me is poured into something else.” 

I wondered if I might be immune to the fire that the warlock was breathing, but it was too much a risk to test the notion.

Though I kept attacking the warlock, I was not stopping him, or even slowing him down. 

There were no other doors.  We were trapped in the glass house, in danger of suffocating or worse, dying from the burns of the dripping melted glass from the ceiling.  I infused a rock with heat, and this time threw it at the closest wall, hoping the wall would shatter and we could escape.  But the stone struck the wall without even the slightest crack. 

Then I heard Vale cry out, “No!” 

I thought she was crying out to the warlock, but then I heard Wes begin to scream.  And I knew what had happened.  He had eaten one of the other peppers.  An intense white light began to glow from where he’d fallen.  I understood then that these peppers were some of the mage’s experiments with separating the qualities of fire.  I had heat.  Wes had light.

Like me, Wes rose to his feet after the initial pain of consuming the pepper faded.  But Vale pulled him down.  She motioned for me to crouch down as well.

“The warlock has the solar pepper,” she said, “but if he doesn’t know how to grow more, his power will eventually fade.”

“When will it fade?  Soon?” I asked, hopefully.

“I don’t know.”

I nodded.  “Then you two make for the door while I pelt him with rocks.  Oh, first collect a pile of rocks for me.”  I was beginning to run out.

But the warlock blew flames at the ceiling and it dripped fist-sized globs of melted glass all around them.  They couldn’t look up and dodge them at the same time they fought off the warlock.

“If you kill us, you won’t get the peppers!” Vale called out.

“I would rather you die than suffer another to have the powers I should have.”

People said that all warlocks were greedy and parasitical.  I had always thought there might one or two out there who were not.  But this one certainly was.

Perhaps he dropped his pretense after he realized that two of us had eaten peppers.

He had us pinned down.

Vale looked down at the pepper she had taken, the blue-green one. 

“I don’t think that’s an ocean’s flame,” I said.  “I think it’s another power.  Eat it.  Perhaps it will help us.”

“If you’re wrong, this will only weaken me.  I like strong peppers, but I’ve never been one for the strongest peppers.  If I faint, leave me behind.”

Vale ate a blue-green pepper.  Her eyes widened and turned red.  Her hands went to her throat.  Her brown face turned red.  And she fell unconscious at our feet. 

“You carry her out,” I told Wes.  “Rise and glow as bright as you can.  All you have to do is think it and it will be so.  Then I’ll pelt the warlock with rocks.  I’ll run beside you so he won’t be able to see us.”

Wes nodded.  He rose but before he could glow, he was thrown back by some force. 

The warlock was a warlock after all, and had more than the power of flaming breath.

I could not carry both friends out.  I made a new plan.  I determined to let the warlock get close enough so I could pour as much heat into him as I could.  Warlock or not, I was certain that any amount of heat that could melt steel would kill him.  If he were gone, I would have time to carry them out one by one.  But even if I died as well, my friends would have time to come to their senses and escape.

I waited, but the glass walls were melting, dripping all around us.  I had to act now.  A gob of glass dropped beside me, grazing my arm.  I cried out, and I glanced to my side.  I saw the warlock raise his arm, and I knew he was preparing to fling me back.

Just as I ducked down, the glass house shattered and blew outward.  Sparking blue-white light arced around me and above me.  I felt its razor-sharp heat. 

I looked behind me, and I saw Vale.  She was standing, and those arcs of light were coming from her. 

Lightning.  They were arcs of lightning.  An arc burst past me and knocked the mage against the cavern wall. 

The air crackled and boomed. 

Vale, still sparking, stepped past me and toward the mage.  I ran to where Wes had fallen.  He was awake but appeared stunned.  I helped him up and he watched as our friend, the walking storm, attacked the warlock with another bolt of lightning.  The warlock cried out, but his cry was swallowed by another thunderous boom.

The warlock rolled away, and then just like that, he vanished into the shadows of the cavern.  As I helped Wes up, he began to glow.  His glow illuminated the whole cavern, but the mage was nowhere to be seen.

***

We surveyed the cavern to see if anything was left.  But the mage and our battle with him had destroyed all of the peppers.

We did not tarry.  We had wounds to tend to.  We readied ourselves to encounter the warlock again at the cave’s entrance, but we were not surprised when we did not.  He had looked truly shocked and terrified to see storm harnessed in a human body. 

But we did not doubt we would encounter him again once his shock and terror calmed.  We would have to be ready.

We met that evening in Vale’s room at the inn, and we recalled and recorded our adventure.  The effects of the peppers were still apparent, but were quickly fading.  I was able to keep my tea hot.  Vale could still make her hands spark.  Wes glowed a bit to give us light, until he realized that it hindered our conversation as we could not see his face and eyes.  It was somewhat unnerving speaking to a large ball of light.  So we lit some lanterns, and watched them closely. 

When the conversation lulled, I decided to make my confession.  I pulled out the second pepper, the one I had slipped in my pocket.  I knew the others hadn’t seen.

I was mildly surprised, but should not have been, when the others each produced a pepper of their own. 

There were seeds inside of those peppers.

We glanced between each other.   And we gazed down at the peppers. 

“Should we plant them?” Vale said.

Surely the warlock had saved some seeds from the solar peppers he had stolen from the mage, and who knew how many he had.  Perhaps they would grow.  Perhaps they would not.  It would be prudent of us to have some defense against his powers. 

But there were other ways to defend against a warlock. 

“He might place another curse on us again,” Vale said.  “This time on our soil, so that nothing might grow.”

“Then he would have to curse the whole world.  We could always go elsewhere.”

“These two are impressive,” Vale said of the red-orange pepper and the white pepper.  “But this one…she has harnessed the power of lightning.”

“We thought it was ocean’s flame,” Wes said.  “But it’s something quite more powerful.”

I peered at the blue-green pepper.  “The heavens’ flame.”

“I wouldn’t want the warlock—or anyone like him—to have such a power,” Vale said.  “I fear what would happen if he got ahold of them.”

Wes glanced between us.  “Then should we destroy them?  All of them, or at least the heavens’ flame?”

“The one who made them would not have wanted us to destroy them, I’m sure,” I said.  “But she is not here to decide their fate.”

Vale crossed her arms.  “And she has left us no instruction…or at least, no instruction that survived the warlock’s destruction.”

“Then it’s up to us,” Wes said.  “And in deciding, we must be wiser than we were before we found them.  Much, much wiser.”

“Then the question remains, should we plant them, or should we destroy them?”

Once again, we all three peered down at the three peppers.

 

Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

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