Magnus ventured into the darkness of the hanging pines, holding his blackgun in front of him and willing the runes on the barrel to flare blue. He stepped carefully on a carpet of roots and needles, his gleaming blue eyes examining every exposed branch for another assassin like Augustus to take shots at him.
The pines reached for him, scratching his cheek, pushing his hat back, catching his frock coat. They were so cold. This whole place was cold, and getting colder. The pine needles thickened with frost, turned blue from the light of Magnus’s spellslinger’s eyes and the flaring runes on his revolver. The blue made the trees seem colder. Or maybe they weren’t frosted at all. Maybe they were what was glowing blue.
Yes. Magnus realized it as he trod on–shards of arcanum were growing on the pines.
“Good fates,” he breathed. It seemed impossible–arcanum was mined from stone. It was a mineral, at least in its natural form. And yet he could feel the power all around him, clawing at him from the branches of those impossible trees.
Even if they weren’t frosted, they were still cold to the touch. The floor began to crackle with every step Magnus took, as though iced over after a late-autumn night. Crackles, pops. Exactly like ice.
The ground seemed to swallow Magnus whole. He fell through the crumbling shards of the ice floor into–what? Water? No, not water.
He found it. A pond of liquefied arcanum–thick and syrupy as he tried to swing his arms and swim through the arcane chemical. He touched what felt like a roof–a cold roof–and realized he was under the ice bed. He had taken a gasp of surprise when he fell, but his breath was running out. He smashed the barrel of his blackgun against the ice, but it didn’t give. Smash, again. Nothing.
Most guns don’t work underwater. But spellslingers didn’t use “guns” the way non-spellslingers did. They focused and propelled energy, shaped with alchemy and triggered as much by willpower as the revolver the spells were fired from. So Magnus thumbed his cylinder to the fourth chamber–a cannonball of naked force–and aimed upward.
It was then that he was grabbed around the ankle and pulled.
He swung his arm to take aim at the creature–or whatever it was–that took hold of him, but something happened first. He fell. He fell out of the pond, landing in dry air with his backside against a stony floor. He could still see the pond above him–this eerily beautiful, shimmering pool of raw arcanum. Like an azure sky dotted with stars, flowing like the Northern lights.
The thing was still tugging at his ankle. Instinctively, he took aim, from his sitting position wherever he now was, and fired at the humanoid shape. A blast of kinetic force launched the thing away, skidding across the floor with Magnus’s other boot in hand. He never did get his left boot back from his bolted horse.
Magnus’s head was swimming. The arcanum. It wasn’t meant to be bathed in. Such raw magical power… if not for Magnus’s inherent handle on arcane energies, his willpower, he didn’t know how he would be able to hold it together. He smacked his ear to empty it of any wetness.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” said a voice.
Finally, Magnus saw the eyes. Two, three dozen pairs of glimmering eyes of various colors. They couldn’t all be spellslingers, he thought, worrying that his arcanum bath affected his perception.
One pair of eyes–golden, like two burning topazes–gleamed brighter than the others. The rest of him was vaguely illuminated in a pale blue, the result of the pond flowing above them–and the many, many crystalized formations of arcanum in this bizarre cave.
The man with the golden eyes–he wore a bone-white double-breasted leather coat and a red scarf–or so Magnus guessed, beyond the blue glow. He said, “Did you kill him?”
The voice echoed strangely. Like bubbles popping the words in Mag’s ears.
“Who?” said Magnus, still trying to clear his head. He recognized some of the other men behind the gleaming eyes. Prospectors from Avernus. Innocent men. But now, they were… changed.
“Augustus,” said the bone man.
“No,” said Magnus. “He one of yours?”
“He works for me.”
Magnus began to get to his feet when he felt something keep him down. Not something physical, something compelling him downward.
“You’re in my head,” he said. “You’re a slinger.”
“Please. I don’t sling spells. I will them. I shape the arcane.”
Magnus’s vision was clearing, and he saw how the prospectors had changed. They were pale as death, but their veins were bulging, prominent, and just barely glowing. And those shimmering eyes–all sparks from his fire. The bone man with the golden eyes.
“Lucky for you there’s an arcanum bath on the way in here,” said Mag. “‘Nowhere,’ right? I take it you got Gus or some other hooplehead to pass the map around? Get some thralls to play with. Soak ’em in arcanum so you can–fates, what did you do to them?”
“I made them listen,” said the man. He stepped toward Magnus, who tried to stand. He barely made it to his knees, but he couldn’t raise his gun.
“I didn’t think I could control another arcane-user,” the man went on, now leaning forward to examine Mag’s pine-scratched face. “Such a gift tends to come with a powerful will.”
Magnus almost had his gun raised, but four prospectors rushed in to hold him down.
The bone man trailed his slim fingers along the floating pond acting as the roof of the cave. “Beautiful, isn’t it? And so remarkable what arcanum can do. It’s not one element. It’s a table of elements. Vast form and potential, so far beyond the minerals these tragic souls wasted their lives trying to scoop out of the rivers. And just think–what could this raw material do to a person if it grew inside them? With them. What kind of form it would take.”
“You want to feed it to children?” Magnus grunted, the prospectors pressing all their weight onto him to keep him from rising.
“Look around you. You see how quickly these men can change? And how obedient they can be? Look, look at their eyes. Like ours, yes? I believe we could breed arcane-users. Make them better than the wastes of organic matter they chose to be. The things we could learn about the arcane, about the other side…”
“And you just happen to be able to influence arcanum, no matter its host.”
The bone man smiled. He had a mole on the side of his lip, which made his mouth look perpetually curled upward. An ever-smirk.
“There’s a reason Perditia outlawed our kind,” he said. “Too unpredictable. Too much power to play with. But I can minimize risk. I can make study safe.”
“Because you’re doing all this for science,” said Mag. He tried to focus his willpower to clear away the fog the bone man was blanketing his mind with. He was not being controlled, but he was still being held down, his gun arm pointed at the stony dirt beneath him. What chamber was he on?
“Avernus is the obvious first stage. Arcanum flows in these hills, and you lot pick it clean. Plenty of power to play with. To study.”
There was no time to worry which bullet he was using. He had to do something, while his mind was clear. So he raised a trembling thumb to drag back the hammer, and he squeezed the trigger, hoping he wasn’t about to face a blast of acid bouncing back into his face.
No. Another air cannonball. But it wasn’t much better.
The kinetic force bounced off the ground and socked Mag square in the face, launching him backwards–along with the prospectors holding him down. He used the momentary surprise to spring to his feet and aim at the spellslinger.
A prospector threw himself in the way of the spell, and when he hit the ground he shattered into countless stone fragments.
Several more prospectors were on him. He didn’t have enough shots to take them all–and besides that, they were innocent. Thralls of this bone man. But they began lining up in front of him, putting a wall of sacrificial flesh between Magnus and their master, while several more tugged at Magnus’s arms, legs.
A strong power, being able to infest a mind through arcanum. Magnus could only ignite and propel a shaped burst of arcanum through his revolver. And he couldn’t exactly stuff one of the arcanum-soaked prospectors into his cylinder chambers. No, the prospectors belonged to the bone man.
“Arcanum is the key to the world,” the bone man echoed from behind his human shields. “But there is only room for one through the door. Kill him.”
Mag could see the glints of blue light on the mining picks and skinning knives the prospectors began to produce from their belts and pockets and packs. Even the prospectors holding him back began to strike him, chew on him through his coat. He fought through the pain, realizing their new goal kept them from holding his gun hand down.
So he stuck it in the air–right into the floating pool of arcanum.
This time, Magnus knew which bullet he was using. He focused his willpower on fusing the arcanum pool with the bluepowder in his bullet. With this much raw energy, the result was unpredictable.
“What are you–” echoed the bone man.
“Performing an experiment,” said Magnus, and he held his breath.
When he pulled the trigger, the entire pond turned from liquid to gas.
The sensation was overwhelming–it took all his willpower to keep the sleeping spell from seeping into his pores. The prospectors had no such luck. They dropped like flies, snoozing heavily. Perhaps too heavily. Magnus was worried the spell would keep them knocked out for months. But at least they were alive.
“You can’t–” the bone man wheezed, coughing blue smoke as the gas began to dissipate into the forest air. A giant gap was now above them, rather than the pond. Mag could see the crystalized pines looming above them, and the greyblue sky beyond.
He wanted to give a snarky reply, like, “I can,” but he was still holding his breath. So he had to club the bone man with his revolver sans snark. It was a primitive knock-out tactic, but when your enemy can shape the arcane, better to play it safe and not use spells. And anyway, it worked. The bone man crumpled to the ground on top of a pile of sleeping prospectors whose veins already seemed to be returning to normal.
After waving away the last of the gaseous spell from in front of his face, Magnus breathed without feeling too sleepy. The easy part was over. Now he had to find a way to get thirty-odd sleeping prospectors and a clobbered spellslinger back to Avernus. He didn’t even know where to start.
After all, he was in the middle of Nowhere.
There. Boom. Done. Yes, I wrote past my 15 minutes. Maybe a lot past. But we had to keep this thing from turning into a six-parter, didn’t we?
I hope you enjoyed the pulpy adventures of Antony Magnus, cowboy wizard. I think I’ll polish this up into a real short story. In the meantime, back to normal prompts, starting tomorrow. See you then, Reader!