by Dan Suptic
(Winner, 2nd Place, 2016)
A falling star threatens to obliterate the village of Mosswald. How will the kingdom's aging archmage deal with this impending doom?
Alexundar shouted the incantation, dropping to one knee with a grunt as the energy poured from him to power the spell. The old archmage struggled to stand back up, drawing in deep breaths. Not that he had to keep stoic, of course. While collapsing feebly to the ground could certainly hurt his reputation, the spell's effects ensured no one was going to notice.
Mosswald village had become abruptly silent. Alexundar's spell had plucked him from the timestream, letting him act freely while the rest of the universe stood still. No sound, no breeze, no movements save his own. Birds in flight hung motionless in the air, and those few people still outside stood frozen, staring unblinking as Alexundar regained his composure. He looked up along with them, the falling star close to the village, close enough that its light matched the sun's. Its trajectory aimed it right into the middle of Mosswald, but for now, it's velocity was nonexistent.
“Right on time…” Alexundar muttered to no one who could hear.
A local seer had foretold this event. Other fortune tellers had even corroborated this, which was a rare enough thing on its own to gain the interest of the king, and he'd sent Alexundar to investigate. Usually this job was a simple one. Go out to the panicked commoners, wait for the predicted time to pass uneventfully, then remind everyone that seeing the future is an inaccurate art, and that you shouldn't get too worked up on every doomsday prophecy and vision of destruction.
Except in this case. The time and location of this catastrophic event had been foretold quite accurately.
Alexundar sighed and headed towards the edge of the village. Might as well get started.
The walk back felt longer, the strains and pains of moving his joints more pronounced. This was already more exercise than the elderly wizard was used to getting in a day, and the casting of the time-stopping spell certainly hadn't helped. The incantation and execution of the magic wasn't difficult, but it did come with a rather hefty cost - a year of one's life, paid in an instant. If Alexundar bothered to keep track of his age anymore, he'd have to increment that number by one. Instead, his body took note of the year swiftly spent, with joints and muscles aching just a little more, a half dozen new wrinkles added to his skin.
He reached his cart where he'd left it, the horse that had pulled it currently tied to a fence post, stuck in mid-chew as it grazed on grass by the road. Alexundar gripped the side of his cart and concentrated, another year of his life spent as he strained, pulling the small, one-horse vehicle outside of normal time and into his. Two years he'd already used up on this task. To be fair, Alexundar had come here fully expecting nothing. What's two years of an old wizard's time if he can save an entire village?
He pondered, briefly, about pulling the horse into his time as well. But no, already enough personal time wasted for now, and the horse would require his attention, lest it wandered off and hurt itself on the immobile grass. This left only one option for moving the cart.
Alexundar slowly made his way back towards the middle of the village, dragging the heavy cart behind him. He took his time, since he had all the time he needed, but his body still protested greatly. The extra years didn't help, and several breaks were taken before the aging archmage made it back into the spacious, silent town square. He plopped down on the ground, panting and cursing under his breath.
The falling star loomed above as Alexundar took a waterskin from the cart and drank. The trailing flames almost looked painted on, holding still like that, and he was surprised to see that the body of the star itself wasn't flame or light, but solid rock. A rock, ablaze, dislodged from whatever remained of the heavens above. In a way, beautiful. In another, much more obvious way, absolutely terrifying. The thing had the look of a stone fired from a catapult. It didn't look like an accident or a bizarre natural event - it looked like a weapon, a tool of destruction.
“But who'd want to attack this stupid little village...” he asked himself.
Alexundar shrugged as he reached into the cart again, this time withdrawing a foil-wrapped chunk of food. Its label was written in overly ornate Boru script, stating it was a “Tasty Nutritious Good Bar”. He unwrapped it and bit into it, impressed that the wrapper managed to tell three lies in only four words. Still, food was food, the chewy bars kept pretty much forever, and it would give him the energy to set up shop and get started on the problem.
His quick meal consumed, the archmage got to work. Alexundar detached a panel from the side of the cart. Legs dropped from the plank, forming a quick, makeshift table. Another small panel he detached, unfolding it into a compact and uncomfortable chair. On the table, he piled papers, pencils, maps, and one single, heavy book.
This wasn't a standard grimoire or tome of magic spells. It held knowledge of an entirely different sort. What had started as a hobby in Alexundar's career in the arcane had slowly grown into a form of magic in its own right, one he found useful to keep on hand. Armed with this book, The Complete Rules and Functions of Mathematics, Alexundar started the task of determining the severity of the threat to Mosswald.
It was fortunate that the falling star gave off its own light. Alexundar walked slowly around the town square, taking measurements of shadows cast by the star. There were plenty of data points; shadows formed by edges of buildings, hitching rails, rain barrels, even a young lad nearby who'd stayed outside to watch. Alexundar went to each, measuring the object and its shadow, writing down angles and length differences in columns of numbers and symbols.
That gave him the size of the burning rock. It wasn't as large as he would have thought a falling star would be, barely bigger than the horse he rode in on. Alexundar made note, got some fresh, blank paper, and moved on to view the fiery tail of the star.
He made more observations and calculations as he noted the length of the fire behind the rock itself, the dips and spikes in the flame, and the degree at which the thickness of the star's blazing tail thinned out. Columns and symbols and numbers converged together on the paper until another singular number was resolved - the falling star's speed.
As for the composition of the rock itself, Alexundar would have to make a best guess. Who knew what type of rock made up the core of a falling star? It'd have to be strong and heat-resistant of course, but that could describe about a hundred different types of stone. He again consulted The Complete Rules and Functions of Mathematics, which had tables and charts for everything, including hundreds of types of rock. With the heat and speed factored in, Alexundar picked a hardy volcanic rock and worked with the assumption that the star's content would be similar.
Size, speed, and composition - those three values went through a few more calculations to arrive at one final number.
Force of impact.
Alexundar frowned as he idly stroked his beard. That number was pretty big.
He pulled out a map of Mosswald to confirm his calculated suspicions. The trajectory of the falling star wouldn't land it exactly in the middle of the village, but it would be pretty close. With the force of impact, its radius of destruction drew a circle that neatly fit the entire village. The thought that this was an intentional attack rose to mind again; something to discuss with the king once business was done here.
So, that was the threat. Total destruction of this small, peaceful village.
With the threat assessment done, the next job would be to determine what to do about it.
The scene would be humorous, if anyone had been around to view it. Archmage Alexundar was scrambling back and forth from his cart, pulling out small blocks and pieces of wood, setting them up in several spots around the town square, cursing, nearly out of breath from the exertion. Not an activity of a distinguished master of magic, that was certain.
But the end result would serve a good purpose. A dozen little groups of blocks stood around the square, each a miniature mimicry of Mosswald village. Distances and sizes of buildings were scaled precisely, the ratio recorded to ensure proper testing. These mini-Mosswalds would tell Alexundar which defense would work best.
He visited each one, casting a diminished version of a battlefield spell over them in turn. One was encased in a shimmering force field, another protected by a tiny, floating iron wall, another had a rune shimmering in the air that would concussively strike any incoming attack, and so on and so forth until each small village had its own, distinct protection.
Now, Alexundar just needed a small scale falling star.
He cast one more spell, a simple, basic summoning spell that any combat-ready wizard would know. A moment later, an imp popped into existence. It was a standard incantation of Common Demonology, summoning a small demon to lob fireballs at one's foes from whatever dimension was home to fireball-lobbing demons. The imp stretched a clawed hand out, a sizzling fireball already at hand as it looked up to Alexundar, waiting for the gesture or word that would tell it what to strike.
“Listen,” Alexundar said, “I need you to do something special for me, alright?”
The imp tilted its head and replied, “Sumin' specha?”
Alexundar grunted as he bent down to show the imp a piece of paper.
“Look, I know this is complicated, but I need you to make a fireball this big,” he said, pointing to a drawing of a fireball surrounded by measurements, “and it needs to be thrown in an arc like this, and you need to hit each of these group of blocks right here. Does that make sense?”
The imp's brow furrowed as it studied the paper.
“You wan jus a lil fie-ball?” it asked.
“An you wan me to trow it like dis?” the imp asked, pantomiming a lobbing toss.
“Yes, just like that,” Alexundar said.
“An, I gonna trow the fie-ball in the same place on all the lil blocks?”
“Yes, yes, same fireball, same throw, same place, every time,” Alexundar said, his voice's tone beginning to show impatience.
The imp counted, slowly, the number of model Mosswalds.
“So… I trow twelf times, same place, same lil fie-ball, same erytime for twelf times, yes?”
“Yes!” Alexundar almost shouted, grinning through gritted teeth. “Twelve 'lil fie-balls', all at the same place, all at the same speed and angle. Got it?”
“Got!” the imp said, modifying the fireball in its hand.
The imp did a good job with the instructions, and each of its dozen fireballs, launched one at a time, found its mark right on the spot. It hooted and cheered as each struck the clumps of blocks, each striking the various defenses of the scaled-down Mosswald villages. Once the last had hit, the imp vanished in a puff of sulfurous smoke, cackling shrilly.
Alexundar frowned, both at the over-dramatic nature of the imp's departure, and of the results of his test.
Each of the dozen tiny villages had been obliterated by the faux falling stars. None of the defenses had held. The force field had been burst open, the rune's concussive blast bypassed, and while the tiny iron wall had destroyed the fireball, the force of it had carried over, making the iron wall as dangerous of a projectile as the star itself. Complete failure across the board.
Alexundar trudged back to the cart, dropping into the small chair with an angry grunt. He rummaged around the inside of the cart's contents and withdrew a flask, drinking the stinging liquor as he pondered his options.
No defensive spell could stand up against the falling star. No offensive spell was adequate in strength to destroy or divert it. Directly attempting to affect the heavenly missile had the same result every time - rock falls, everyone dies.
So then, what indirect options did he have?
He could move out of the range of the star's destruction and come back once the damage was done, make an attempt to resurrect those killed in the blast. But, that would take too much time, and way too much magical power for a single mage to perform. Not only that, but one needed either an intact body or a full name of the corpse to be revived. The falling star wouldn't leave the first, and Alexundar didn't have access to the second.
He could pull people into the time-stopped moment with him, move them out of range of the blast. But each person would cost him another year, and by the looks of it, the village likely held a couple hundred in population. Maybe that was an option if Alexundar was an elf or a particularly stubborn dwarf, but as a human (and an old human at that), Alexundar could probably count the number of people he could save this way on one hand.
Teleportation wasn't an option. He couldn't affect those in the normal timestream, and pulling them from normal time had already been ruled out.
Just run away? Leave the village to its fate? He'd survive, but his reputation wouldn't. Being forced into retirement was not a good thing, and if the magnitude of his negligence was deemed horrible enough, he'd be arrested, sent to trial, imprisoned for the rest of his short life, possibly even executed.
No, he had to deal with this, or die trying.
Frustrated, Alexundar threw his half-empty flask into the air at the falling star, followed by several creatively strung-together swear words. The flask flew upwards, then descended, directly onto the head of the young lad that Alexundar had previously used for calculations.
Alexundar couldn't help but wince as the flask bounced off the kid's head, annoyed at his knee-jerk reaction. There wasn't any cause for concern - since the child was still in normal time, nothing done in Alexundar's time could hurt him. He could walk over and strike the kid with fists and feet for relative hours and the boy wouldn't feel a single thing. He could stab him, slice him, shoot him with arrows, throw flasks and ale mugs at him, drop a…
The obvious epiphany hit him while he imagined random acts of ineffectual violence. The kid, the villagers, the buildings, even his horse grazing outside of the village… none could be hurt or affected in any way by anything in the time-stopped moment.
“Oh you old idiot!” Alexundar exclaimed, laughing as he cast the last spell he'd ever need.
Leave it to a wizard to spend so much time figuring out the obvious, he thought to himself as his levitation spell took hold. He floated above the buildings, slowly lifting upwards as the village of Mosswald became smaller and smaller. Shame I can't prevent all the casualties, but eh, one dead to save a whole village… that's damn good! He smiled as he floated away from Mosswald (which by now looked as small and fragile as his previously built models), floating slowly towards the flaming rock that still waited above.
Alexundar landed on the falling star, tilting a bit before he found his footing on the uneven stone. The flames, frozen around him, didn't burn him or hinder his sight too badly, and he found himself peering over the edge at the silent and motionless village below.
The star will strike. It was foretold. It's inevitable.
It just wasn't going to do anything.
The old archmage dropped carefully to all fours, bare hands on the body of the falling star. He concentrated, spending a year of his life once more as he dragged the star from the normal flow of time into his own.
The falling star flickered, the flames sputtering as Alexundar concentrated, forcing himself to keep at the task, gritting his teeth as his fingers burned, blistered, blackened. The pain is temporary, he thought to himself, just a few more seconds and it won't matter. He pressed closer to the flaming rock, willing with every ounce of energy left in his body to force the falling star past the temporal barrier.
After a few more agonizing moments, the burning chunk of stone finally broke through, incinerating Alexundar instantly as it hurtled towards Mosswald village.
No one saw the falling star strike. No one heard the deafening, explosive roar. No one felt the shockwave as it ripped through the air.
The falling star had struck exactly when and where it was prophesized to, and no one noticed.
The infinite, endless moment went on.
And then, it passed.
The people of Mosswald village cautiously began to come out from their homes, nervously looking to the sky. With no impending doom hanging above them anymore, cheers and exclamations of relief began to fill the air. The seers and fortune tellers had been wrong - death and destruction had been averted! The village was saved!
Although, it did appear to be missing its savior.
People searched for a while, looking for the old archmage who'd come to their rescue. Aside from his horse, no trace of him could be found. He'd vanished into thin air, just as the falling star had.
Strange for sure. But that's just the way it is with wizards and wielders of magic.
Without magic, the falling star would have struck the village unimpeded. The destruction would have been total. Even if knowledge of the event was taken seriously beforehand, even if all the villagers had been evacuated, the rebuilding would have taken them years.
The villagers of Mosswald were therefore very thankful for the archmage Alexundar and his magic. Wherever he was now, whatever he'd done, saving the village had taken him nothing but a moment.