Shape of Fire

It was noon in Scorch's time zone when the party arrived. They'd already known what it looked like, having looked at Scorch through a verseviewer in order to teleport to it, but Jason still found it jarring to suddenly be in the town. He noticed how the place had earned its name. It was mid-autumn here on Gyeeds's southern hemisphere, and the sun beat down as brutally as it did in the north in July.

Common wasn't common in Scorch. As the party walked along the small, dusty streets lined with small, dusty buildings of reddish stone, Jason saw signs written in runes he didn't recognize. The speech of passers-by, too, was in an unfamiliar language. Hopefully, the trio themselves would be no more familiar to these people—although they'd taken the time to disguise themselves a bit, anybody who knew to look for them could identify them at a glance.

After a brief survey of the central parts of town, the party split up and arranged to regroup a few hours later. Jason wandered through his assigned section, jumping between the few, narrow bands of shade this time of day afforded, as he examined his surroundings. Despite its harsh climate, Scorch was not a very poor town: Jason could recognize typical business establishments like hardware stores, barber shops, and laundromats. He didn't see Keaton.

Many, many hours slowly ticked by. The party met, split up again, and met again. Neither hide nor hair of Keaton could be found. Eventually, a while after sunset, the threesome went out for dinner.

"My aching feet!" Jason whimpered once the waiter had taken their orders. Roland knew a little of the language, so they managed to scrape by with that and a bit of pointing and pantomime.

"My feet hurt, too." said Curtis.

"Good," said Roland, "maybe you've lost some weight."

"I'm not that fat." Curtis insisted, glaring at the man.

"Of course you aren't." Jason butt in. "The problem with this town is that it's just a little too big for us to have a good chance of spotting this guy within the allotted time."

"Exactly." said Roland. "Stop that, Curtis! We just might need your magic yet." Curtis destroyed the little creature he'd created, grumbling.

"Oh, we're hardly likely to find him in the next… four-and-a-half hours, are we?" said Jason. Nobody replied. "I don't think so, either. But we would be least likely to spot him at the last minute, and I've come to expect the unexpected. In fact, call me crazy, but I'd bet money that we will see this guy." Then, in English, he added "The nose knows."

"What's that mean?" asked Curtis. Jason translated, and Curtis mumbled "Pup.", laughing.

After a surprisingly good meal—the first good-tasting food Jason had eaten since he'd acquired super smell; he found the pleasant flavor intensified and increased in complexity—the party returned to business. Much to Jason's delight, they soon met with success: Curtis spotted Keaton walking into a small motel. Roland, making a quick trip inside, determined that the target had retired to one of the rooms. The group then booked their own room, so they'd have an excuse to be there and a hiding-place, and watched the hallway for any sign of Keaton's exit—Jason figured he'd leave for the meeting later.

Their patience was rewarded when at an hour and a half to midnight, Keaton, wearing a long black robe, strolled out of his room and out the door of the motel. Jason, Roland, and Curtis followed him some distance behind as he walked down a street, out of town, and into the desert with only the beam of a flashlight to guide him. As they journeyed, Roland cast a spell on the three of them that covered them with a desert-camouflage pattern, rendering them nearly invisible in the moonlight.

Curtis swore. "It's so cold." he whispered.

"Yeah, that's the desert at night." Jason whispered back. "I guess this meeting really is out of the way. Thanatos really is a crazy cult."

Keaton led them a long distance in a straight line across the desert. The journey was made rough by the weather and the party's fatigue, but, Jason thought, at least he could enjoy the scenery. Above was the great blue star-studded vault of the sky; below were the infinite waves of dark sand, marked only by the occasional boulder or cactus. Ahead was Keaton, a tall, dark figure backlit by the glow of his flashlight; behind were the lights of Scorch, now very faint indeed.

After about an hour, the light behind finally disappeared, and a new, faint light appeared ahead. As the party approached, Jason made out a group of black-robed figures standing around a large bonfire. A circle of austere stone pillars surrounded the scene, reminding Jason of Stonehenge. Once relatively close, the party fell to the ground and lay on their stomachs to minimize their chances of being spotted.

"Ah, good, Keaton." said one of the—well, cultists, Jason supposed—in Common. The man stood before a slab of stone which Jason assumed was the altar, itself standing before the fire. This cultist, like the rest of them, had the hood of his robe up, obscuring his face. Jason couldn't have made out anybody's features in the firelight at this distance, anyway.

"Hey, Zadoc." said Keaton. "Here's hoping Thanatos can help, eh?"

"Of course; we all are."

"Oh, I get it." Jason whispered. "They're asking the death-god for help." Roland motioned to him to be quiet.

The next few minutes were filled with inconsequential conversation as more cultists teleported in. One of the cultists brought the corpse of a large quadruped, which Jason's nose identified as a bull. (Over the past few weeks in Gyeeds, Jason had taken to time to visit zoos and farms and build up a mental catalog of animal scents, just in case it turned out to be useful.) A total of about forty people eventually showed up, all young or middle-aged adults, not all male.

After a while, the one Keaton had called Zadoc, who was apparently the leader, declared "The ceremony begins now." The others arranged themselves into a large circle, with large enough gaps between them that the trio could easily see past, and Zadoc sang:

Thanatos, we need your wisdom.
Thanatos, we seek your advice.
Thanatos, we require your guidance.

The rest of the cultists sang:

Lord, give us a sign!
Lord, give us a sign!
Give us a sign to show us the path.
Show us the way to extend your dominion.
Show us the way to fulfill your will.
Lord, give us a sign!

Zadoc responded:

Thanatos, we bring you a gift.
Let it prove our undying loyalty.

"Og, the bull." he whispered loudly.

One of the cultists picked up the corpse, placed it on the altar, and returned to the circle. As the group continued to sing, Zadoc took a long knife out of the folds of his robe and proceeded to butcher the animal. Jason, who'd been somewhat sensitive to the sight of gore ever since he'd witnessed the pirates' attack on the "Argo", was thankful that the flickering firelight revealed few details of the operation.

After Zadoc had finished slaughtering the bull and thrown some of it into the fire, the group stopped singing, and Zadoc shouted at the stars: "Thanatos! We, your humble servants, have done everything in our power to ensure the reelection of Stanley Ironbone as Mayor of Gyeeds, as you requested. Yet it seems we are doomed to failure. What must we do, O mighty god? Please help us serve you."

With that, the singing resumed. It now sounded expectant. Ever since Jason had heard the group sing "Lord, give us a sign!", a plan had been stewing in his brain; now seemed like the perfect time to execute it.

"Roland," Jason whispered, "I've got an idea. Kill my camouflage as I stand up. Both of you, get ready to fight if things get ugly."

Jason got to his feet and slowly walked into the firelight. Roland had silently removed the camouflage spell, so now it looked like an ordinary boy had spontaneously emerged from the darkness. The singing stopped, and all eyes focused on him.

"You have asked for a sign," said Jason loudly and gravely, spreading his arms in an all-encompassing gesture, "and here it is."

"That's Jason Blue." said one of the cultists, looking at him incredulously.

"I have come in this form" Jason continued without missing a beat "to show you the boy you must seek. You ask for guidance; Jason Blue will guide you. He does not worship or even know of me, but he is clever, and his cunning may lead you to victory."

The cultists seemed very much unsure of how to react, glancing quickly at each other as if some might know better than others. Suddenly, a loud, deep humming noise emanated from the center of the circle. Everybody turned to see Zadoc writhing in pain, barely able to stay on his feet. A moment later, he stood tall, his eyes glowing dark violet, his body wreathed with translucent magenta flames—and yet he was not consumed. He stared at Jason, a grim frown on his face.

"Do not be fooled, my servants." Zadoc cried in a booming, extremely low voice. "The boy is Jason himself, seeking to trick you as he tricked two dragons and a senile wizard. Destroy him at once!"

Jason was shocked, not to mention terrified. He did his best not to show it. "Muh—my servants!" he shouted. "This demon is guilty of the very crime he accuses me of. Do not be swayed! I shall reward the faithful, and punish those who doubt me!"

Now the cultists were really confused. Zadoc had the special effects and seemed more sure of himself, but Jason had shown up first and made a threat they didn't dare ignore. They looked from Zadoc to Jason, scared to death that they might make the wrong choice. Some openly asked each other "Which one?"

"If you really are the avatar of Thanatos," Zadoc called to Jason, a note of mockery in his voice, "then surely you can tell us what his servants requested of him as their last supplication."

The gears in Jason's head spun at Mach 10. He'd called himself clever; now was the chance to prove it. He recalled a line from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy": "'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'" This had a grain of truth in that religion was so characterized by its lack of proof that accepting and even expecting no justification was widely considered a sign of piety. Religion had thus turned its greatest weakness into a rallying cry of its people. Jason could do the same.

"Look at the demon tempt you, my servants." said Jason. "He seeks to prove he is your lord. But he will never succeed in misleading the truly faithful, for the truly faithful need no proof. I do not need to prove I am who your hearts know I am, for faith shall show you the truth! Faith is invulnerable, faith shall endure!"

Jason grinned inwardly as he saw the effect of his speech. The cultists seemed convinced by this appeal to emotion; they looked at Zadoc doubtfully.

"I am saddened that you are moved by such soulless rhetoric." said Zadoc. "Surely you remember how I have never spoken such nonsense to you. I will, however, make it quite clear who is the real avatar. As I have long promised, I shall grant Zadoc the Gift!"

The cultists seemed to know what he was talking about, and watched him excitedly. The strange magenta fire that had long enveloped Zadoc become opaque and grew to a great size, shining brightly. After a moment, it returned to its former state, and Zadoc, pulling off his robe and tossing it to the sand, was revealed to be transformed. His skin was a pale, greenish white, his lips were bright red, and in his mouth were long fangs. He smelled more like a corpse than a living person. Jason could hardly believe it: Zadoc had turned into a grade-A storybook vampire.

Zadoc grinned as he slowly rose about a yard off the ground, and there he hung, his arms folded across his chest and his feet dangling in the air. "Anyone who is still confused as to which of us has been fooling the lot of you can become Zadoc's first meal as a drinker of blood."

Everyone looked at Jason. None of the cultists seemed in the least confused.

Jason chucked nervously. "I really had you guys going for a while there, didn't I?"

"Kill him!" Zadoc roared.

"Whoops, gotta go now." said Jason. With that, he spun around and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him.

Immediately, nearly all of the cultists, Zadoc included, fired lethal magic at his back. His life was saved by Roland, who leapt to his feet and conjured a shield for Jason in the nick of time. The shield was battered almost to nothingness, but it held.

Jason turned back to the battle as Curtis joined Roland. The two mages created another shield together that withstood the next volley better. Now the cultists, seeing that this fight wouldn't be as easy as they'd thought, spread out to flank our heroes. Jason soon found himself in a tight circle of magical shields in various states of deterioration, literally rubbing elbows with his companions. Though Roland and Curtis were severely outnumbered and surrounded, they were aided by the fact that most of their foes were not especially skilled wizards, whereas Roland was a better-than-average mage and Curtis a superb one.

Of course, in order for the two of them to win, they'd need to attack their enemies, which they hadn't yet done even once, entirely occupied with defense as they were. Roland and Curtis spoke to each other hurriedly, then held hands and cast a spell together. From Roland's hands, just extended past the shields, there sprang a great jet of flame like the one he'd used in Jilothus. It plowed through shields and cultists, but not just in one direction: it was a Chinese-dragon-like fiery being that curved through the air as Curtis gestured. It slew as many as twenty-five cultists before Zadoc, flying high above it, created a body of water that extinguished it instantly.

When Roland and Curtis tried to pull off the spell again, Zadoc arrived on the scene and destroyed the effect before it could hurt anybody. Then, the vampire fired a few lances of purple energy down at the party. Curtis cast an orange glob that scattered the bunch; as he did so, a cultist's spell broke through a nearby shield. The explosion was small enough that only Curtis was hurt and he wasn't killed, but he was burnt badly and thrown to the sandy ground, knocked out.

Immediately, Roland, bellowing, cast a lightning bolt at Zadoc. It connected, but, to Jason's horror, the vampire was completely unharmed. Roland cast a plume of fire, then several projectiles; Zadoc neatly dodged them all by flying from side to side. Not wishing to suffer the same fate as Curtis, Roland then tended to the shields and even made a new one in the air above him to protect against Zadoc's spells. In response, Zadoc zoomed downwards, feet-first, towards Roland. The adventurer was slammed to the ground, and he, too, fell unconscious.

Now, let us take a moment to survey the scene. Jason stood in the center of the circle, his eyes locked fearfully on Zadoc's glowing violet orbs. Zadoc stood on Roland's back. Beside them was the prone and helpless Curtis; around them were a circle of magical shields that were getting weaker by the moment, and, further away, the remaining spellcasting cultists.

Jason had not the shred of an idea of what to do. Filled with crazy despair and the feeling of impending, immediate, inevitable doom, he shrieked, with all the volume his little lungs could muster, the very worst profanity he could think of.

But then, in the space between Jason and Zadoc, a great ball of glowing white light appeared. The vampire stared at it, amazed, and then hurriedly walked backwards; Jason fell prone, hoping he'd be forgotten in the midst of whatever was about to happen.

The ball of light flashed, and then in its place stood—of all things—a phoenix. It was a man-sized bird, its feathers blood-red with orange and yellow highlights on its wings. It was covered with ghostly white flames like the magenta ones that perpetually surrounded Zadoc. Its mighty talons pawed the sand, itching to tear into the vampire's undead flesh. It was an awesome sight to behold!

The phoenix appeared facing Zadoc; for a moment, it craned its head backwards to look at Jason. He looked at its long yellow beak and its spherical, glowing white eyes. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as a sudden ecstasy overcame him. In spite of everything, he was filled with a strong, yet warm and gentle happiness, a deeply fulfilling pleasure of such intensity he had never felt before. This, his soul cried out, this was what he had always been unconsciously seeking since birth; this was what gave life meaning. His heart beat rapidly with feverish excitement.

Then the phoenix turned back to the vampire, and all those sensations washed away like pebbles tossed aside by a sudden flood. Just before the phoenix moved its head, though, Jason could've sworn it winked.

The great bird flapped its wings, hopped into the air, and flew towards the vampire, cawing. Zadoc quickly flew backwards, casting spells at the phoenix; it seemed mostly unaffected. The chase wove crazily through the air as the remaining cultists fired at the phoenix. None hit the bird, but one hit the vampire, stunning him for a moment. That was enough for the phoenix to finally catch him. It slashed him with talons that seared him with intense heat. Zadoc struck it with his fists, which did hurt it somewhat. He opened his mouth, exposing his long fangs, and lunged for the bird's neck. But then the phoenix suddenly burst into a fireball. It was unharmed, and all that remained of Zadoc was a charred skeleton, which fell to the ground, sending a small cloud of sand into the air.

One by one, the phoenix summarily dispatched the other cultists without taking much damage. Once it was finished, it landed near Jason. It flapped its wings ceremoniously and cawed, and Roland and Curtis glowed with golden light for a moment. Then it disappeared in another flash of light.

"Thanks a bundle!" shouted Jason.

Roland and Curtis slowly awakened and stood up. Jason was already on his feet. The two mages were still wounded, albeit less severely than they had been before the phoenix's intervention.

Roland looked around. "How did you do this, Jason?"

"I didn't." said Jason. "I got a phoenix ex machina, just like Harry Potter."

"Can't you speak in Common?" said Curtis.

"I'll tell you guys all about it later." said Jason. "In the meantime, let's figure out what to do. All the cultists who attacked us are dead. The ones who couldn't cast spells, Keaton included, are nowhere to be found."

"They could be hiding anywhere in the surrounding darkness." said Roland. "It would probably be best to simply teleport home from here."

"Wait!" said Jason. "We still don't have what we came here for: information about the Piercers."

"Yes, and what are we to do about it?" said Roland.

"Hmmm… let's check Zadoc's robe. Maybe he was carrying something more interesting than that butcher knife."

They did, and they found a personal digital assistant of Droydanian make.

"Score!" said Jason. "All right, there's no place like home."

"I would not be caught dead wearing ruby slippers." said Roland sourly.

"They were silver in the book."

"That's not much of an improvement, so far as I'm concerned."