Prisoner of Tartarus
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There were four human-sized figures wearing brown robes, their faces were covered by masks of different expressions and colours. One wore a smiling yellow mask, the other a frowning red, another a crying blue, and the one who held a mystic rune-etched hammer wore a green mask with an expression of utter indifference—a face comparable to that of a blank, thousand-yard stare. They stood next to one another, behind a great stone altar that curved around the barely lit room. They stood each with their shoulders broadened by hundreds of feathers adorning their mantles, looking down at the centre, down at Arkadiusz Fringe.
Fringe’s blond curly hair flowed chaotically about his head with every slight movement and turn. He looked young, though within the glint of his eyes there was unfathomable sadness—one that comes with age and wisdom; such as in order to access a forbidden website, one must use a proxy; or if a member of the fairer sex becomes enraged for seemingly no reason, it must mean it is the full moon.
‘How do you plead?’ the green masked figure asked.
And Fringe’s attention was pulled back towards the here and now, his mind experiencing only a slight whiplash from the astral wanderings in the middle of the hearing.
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ smirked Fringe.
‘Banish him to the Otherworld!’ screamed the red masked figure.
‘Magi Laws are there for a reason, why would anyone break them so carelessly?’ cried the blue masked figure.
The yellow masked figure started giggling until the one with the green mask banged his hammer upon a slab of black metal on the altar, creating a resonating sound that sent shivers down Fringe’s battered spine.
‘Fine.’ the green masked figure paused, then spoke again:
‘In spite of committing the minor crime of slaying an endangered species of dragon “Gula Gladius”, you have gone further and broken the Laws of Magi! I shall now read out your major crimes:’ but he was interrupted by Fringe’s sigh.
‘Get on with it.’ The young-looking man said under his breath.
The green-masked figure hit the rune-hammer on the black slab upon the altar. The sound vibrations alone felt like they’d crack all of Fringe’s bones.
‘For summoning a Dark Lord into the middle of a Mundane town,’ the green-masked judge continued, ‘for appearing to the members of the Mundane Society using magic and for casting spells without a substantial reason or permit in addition to breaking Rule One of the Laws of Magi, Arkadiusz Fringe, you are hereby sentenced to eighty years in Tartarus.’
Then Fringe panicked, ‘Hold on a second! I thought the world was in danger, it was that stupid interpretation of the prophecy—and I didn’t summon any Dark Lord! He came here on his own! Ask the Nature God, he’ll tell you!’
‘The Elemental you mention already gave his testimony, it only confirmed what we already knew.’ laughed the yellow masked figure.
The green masked figure smashed the hammer into the metal slab, this time crushing it in the process. A gaping chasm opened beneath Fringe’s feet, and he fell into an abyss of blackness. His last sight of the familiar world was of the green masked figure being handed another hammer, and he heard the words:
‘Send in the next case, that Blue Crystal Alchemist will meet his doom today.’
Then, once Fringe’s vision faded, his lungs noticed the lack of breathable air surrounding him. After a while of invisible struggle, his consciousness corroded into a random assortment of his memories both good and bad—mostly just ugly.
One unfortunate side effect of gaining the knowledge and honing the ability to use the strange and whimsical force that the magi, wizards, witches, warlocks or sorcerers called magic is that one tended to lose a little sanity after a prolonged exposure and practice. That is to say, these kinds of people could live for a near eternity if they so wished to, barring sudden death due to: stabbing, gunshot, explosions, or drowning. The fact that in between a few hundred years they might go from highly educated self-professed masters of logic to completely loony, loomed over each and every one of them. He heard those stories but could not fathom the pain that such loss of sanity could cause.
‘Young man,’ Fringe’s consciousness was pricked by a dry, elderly voice, ‘You should wake up before nightfall.’
Once his eyes opened, he saw nothing but a blue bright sky, he wondered if the voice meant the loss of his marbles.
He sat up and saw that he was surrounded by a barren wasteland with nothing but dust dunes and dry pieces of wood.
‘Where am I?’ he muttered to himself, more so that he could hear his own voice than anything else.
‘Ah, so he speaks,’ the other voice was amused, ‘you are in a place of true happiness.’
Now Fringe realised the voice did not come from within his head, but from behind, the source of which was an old, almost naked man with grey hair around his temples and none on the top of his head. His face was sharp, contoured into a natural frown.
‘Happiness?’ Fringe smirked, ‘No. This is prison. I remember now. I was sent here for 80 years.’ then he cried, ‘8-0!’ almost pulling his blond curls out. ‘80! And they didn’t even let me take my Hell****er comics to pass the time!’
Witnessing such a frantic display of melancholy, the old man laughed uncontrollably, tripping and falling on his back, a cloud of dust raised around him as he did.
‘You’ve got a place to stay for the night?’ the old man asked after his humoured interlude, and when Fringe replied that he didn’t, he waved at him.
Then he led Fringe to his “staying” place, a few hours away from where the young wizard fell. On the way, the old man explained that if one were to search for anything they need, they’d find it somewhere within the sand—this way he survived for days, or months… since he first ended up here. He also told Fringe about the dangers of this strange land: the giant worms swimming in the sands and the dreaded “King Mouse” … Though this place didn’t look much like a mouse kingdom. Too much “yellow sand” and “not enough yellow cheese”.
The old man’s staying place was on a rocky shelf raised up a couple of feet above the sands. Surrounded by dust dunes and nothing else but the naked sky. By the time they got there, the setting sun crowned the horizon and dyed the yellow sand gold. Though the stone shelf itself was only a few feet above the level of the ground, standing upon it made the horizon in every direction bend around. In the middle of the shelf, there was a large clay jar laid to its side, large enough to fit a man inside. Or two. There were strands of hay sticking out from the inside. Fringe deduced that the hay must’ve been some kind of bedding. Several small rocks were set up in a circle on the ground outside of the jar, in the middle of which were piles of old and almost rotten wood.
‘I meant to make a fire, it wasn’t going too well.’ the old man said, after which a chicken jumped out from the jar and, with a coo coo greeted the two men. And the chicken was naked with all of its feathers plucked out. When the two sat down around the rock-circle of the non-existent fire, Dio added, ‘but where are my manners! Lo and behold, this here is Man!’ the old man pointed at the chicken.
After introducing the chicken, the man introduced himself as Dio.
Upon hearing Fringe’s first name—Arkadiusz, Dio laughed; it was so foreign to him, and he asked about its origins.
But Fringe wasn’t really in a talkative mood. Instead he shivered due to the cold air that had been whipped up with the sun’s disappearance. Though at least he himself wore his purple coat, compared to the half-naked old man, his jaw still clattered and clicked.
‘You said anything I want I could find in this hell-hole.’ Fringe spoke with a tone of someone who’s closest relative or friend slept with their wife, ‘well how about a warm house or a portal out of this dimension?’
And Dio fell down on his back in a hysterical chuckle. The chicken cooed along as if laughing along with the old man.
The darkness had by then made it difficult to see Dio, or the chicken even though they were only a few feet apart. Yet Fringe had been comforted by that fact, it meant that Dio couldn’t see the teary, tired, sad face that he wanted to hide…
‘Do you have nothing to start a fire with?’ Fringe’s words shivered out of him.
Dio’s laughter ceased. There were quiet mumblings followed by words ridden with guilt of an ashamed child that had to admit some wrongdoing to their mother:
‘I lost my flint and steel.’
Then Fringe laughed.
After some time, the shivering in his spine shut him up. Until he asked why the old man didn’t just use some basic pyromancy.
‘Do you take me for a fool? I cannot control a fire without anything to even start it!’ Dio’s frustration evidently scared the chicken enough that it ran back into the echoing chamber of the jar.
‘I meant use magic’ Fringe uttered.
‘Ah.’ Dio calmed down.
A moment later there was a loud “eh?” from the old man, as if he meant Fringe to explain further what he meant.
When the young wizard stayed silent, Dio added, ‘Magic?’
‘Yeah. Magic. We can still use spells in here—whatever greater-good that will do us. Why don’t you cast some easy-peasy fire spell so there is light and,’ Fringe gulped down the spit that had built up in his throat, ‘warmth.’
‘You must’ve hit your head really hard, friend.’ Dio said.
The young wizard was bewildered at the old man’s response.
‘Come on!’ Fringe snapped, ‘didn’t they teach you simple elemental control in Wizard School? Have you never read Parry Patter?’
‘Calm down.’ Dio shifted a little further away from Fringe, making a swoosh noise as he moved, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Pyromancy, magic. If it weren’t night, I would ask you to leave.’
‘If you’re not a wizard, how did you end up in wizard prison?’
But the only response he received was silence.
‘Why don’t you make fire? Wizard?’
Arkadiusz Fringe held out his palm, gazed longingly at the centre. Due to the darkness he couldn’t see it. Still he imagined the lines on the skin and the curves of skinny muscle. Images of light and warmth spread wild across his mind’s eye, to be funnelled into the focal point just above his fingertips. There was a spark. A tiny flicker of hope flashed sudden images—landscapes of horror. As quickly as he started the conjuration process, he withdrew into himself. Powerless against fear.
‘No.’ Fringe said. ‘I can’t.’ he closed his eyes, ‘We’ll just have to freeze to death.’
‘It’s not that bad.’ Dio leaned back, what little rags he wore rustled with his movement.
Then, having taken a moment to think, simply asked the young wizard what it was that brought him to this place.
Fringe’s jaw ceased clicking for a moment, ‘It’s not my fault!’
Dio sighed, ‘Well, it rarely ever is. For me it all started when my father, Diodades, minted coins for the Noble of Sinope.’
‘I don’t care.’ Fringe cut into the old man’s monologue.
But Dio continued, ‘he then fell in love with the Noble’s daughter, a fair lady, Diomama. When I was born, Diodades taught me everything he knew about his craft. Unfortunately, the other Nobles didn’t like me very much, so they banished me from my hometown. After several years on the road, I met a—’
The chicken squawked loudly from within the jar, as if annoyed at the loudness outside. Then Fringe grabbed one stone in one hand, another stone in another and smashed them together. Sparks flew down at the pile of wood surrounded by little rocks, creating a blaze that lit the entire area and showed the crackly and dry features of Dio’s face.
‘Wonder why I didn’t think of that.’ the old man said in one breath.
Fringe moved several feet away from the fire, while Dio warmed his hands close to it.
‘It didn’t look like you were cold.’ Arkadiusz Fringe smirked.
For a while there was complete silence, but then Fringe’s stomach growled.
Dio took out a small pot from the large jar that was his home, placed it atop the flames and filled it with water from a leathery waterskin. He then smiled at Fringe and slowly turned to face the chicken…
After a couple of hours, and with some spare seasoning, Dio cooked something resembling chicken soup.
‘How am I supposed to eat it without a cup or bowl, or at least a spoon, old man?’ asked Fringe.
Dio took out a spoon—a wooden thing with weird green muck on it. After Dio scratched the muck off, he shoved it in Fringe’s face.
‘I only have one.’
When Fringe protested the suggestion of sharing the old spoon, Dio only shrugged.
‘As you wish.’
‘I wish for some room service.’ Fringe’s stomach growled.
‘Nothing. Never mind.’
Dio opened his mouth as if about to say something but a loud quaking in the distance interrupted him.
Though Fringe couldn’t see through the distant darkness, he could still make out some movement, some shifting in the sands.
‘It’s the worms!’ Dio cried.
At first Fringe stood up, wearily squinting his eyes in the hopes of seeing something more than darkness within utter blackness. Then when even a spell for better sight revealed nothing more than he could see with his naked eyes he stumped back to his seat closer to the fire—but not too close.
‘As long as we’re on this slab we should be fine.’ Dio patted the stone beneath their feet when a high pitched “Ho ho” came from the direction of the worms, it repeated every now and then, as if it were a mocking laugh.
‘The King Mouse…’ whispered Dio dreadfully.
The “Ho ho” and the quaking of the earth continued throughout the night. While Dio slept with a snot bubble coming out of his nose, Fringe rocked back and forth between the coldness of the night and the burning sensation of the flames. He dared not look at the red and orange blaze, instead imagining what monstrosities were hiding within the darkness.
There was a woman’s scream quickly silenced by another “Ho ho”.
The night was long, longer than Fringe thought it should’ve been. When he saw the sunrise on the blurry horizon just as the fire finally died out, his dry eyes hurt. The hot pink ball that raised itself slowly over the now boiling sandy line between the land and the sky took his breath away. Fringe choked and coughed, trying to catch his breath—waking Dio up in the process.
Any signs of the worms or the “King Mouse” lurking somewhere near were gone, there was just the sandy wasteland surrounding them.
‘Place of true happiness my ass.’ Fringe whispered under his nose.
That was when the blond wizard noticed what must’ve been a mirage. It was something green with a red top walking across the desert towards them. The sky turned pink and orange and much of the desert remained in the shadows of the dunes.
‘A desert rose?’ he mumbled to himself trying to keep his sanity intact.
‘Dessert ambrose?’ Dio snapped.
But soon he could see that the figure of green and red was a woman, pale green-skinned, with a dark green, almost black dress made out of giant enveloping leaves. On top of her head was a pair of large scarlet roses, their petals flowed like hair in the dusty wind. Once she took a step onto the stone shelf, he could see her feet were bare.
And there was a cool air around her with a sweet cherry scent.
Her appearance reminded him of the descriptions of ancient dryads from books his father stored in his library.
Dio’s face blushed and he laughed. ‘Am I hallucinating or has the lady of the night finally—’ but before he could finish, the lady threw her pale green hand up.
Then a chill wind swept the old man into a cube of ice that was thrown as if by sheer force of wind into the sands. Once the old man was gone, she turned to face Fringe.
The young wizard noticed the cut of her dress was rather low, and he himself blushed.
‘Another human.’ she said, raising her hand again.
And as the chill came from her open palm and long fingers, Fringe knelt and felt the stone of the shelf. Once the rock beneath her feet softened, it swallowed her near whole—only her naked shoulders and head remained. Fringe then had a closer look at her fair pale-green face, and her scarlet glowing eyes, and her dark pouty lips. She could almost be beautiful if she didn’t look so angry.
‘You weird bastard!’ she screamed, then Fringe realised he had said that last part out loud.
‘Bastard I may be,’ Fringe started, ‘but at least I’m not a murderer!’
‘Who? What are you—the old man? He’ll thaw out in an hour or so. He’ll be fine.’ She looked in the direction of the ice block in the sands, lacking free hands to point at it.
After glancing in that direction, Fringe sat down a few feet away from her, then turned to face her.
‘So, who are you?’ Fringe asked after introducing himself, but the woman only turned her head away.
‘There’s no need for that.’ Fringe apologised, but she was still silent.
The ice thawed faster as the risen blistering sun beamed down upon them. By the time Dio was half-way out of the ice, she quietly spoke under her breath:
‘Let me out of here.’ she said, only her head and shoulders poking from beneath the stone slab.
‘You’re a sorceress, get yourself out.’
‘I can’t.’ she sulked.
But she wouldn’t budge.
Fringe turned around to look at Dio, the old man struggled out of the brick of ice that had yet to melt completely. On the horizon he saw nothing but the hot air warping and bending the line between the sky and land.
‘That’s the only one element I need to control. Stone just seems…’ he heard a faint voice of the femme dryad behind him.
‘A bit tough?’ Fringe turned to face her, smiled.
The rose woman frowned. She was not amused.
Once Fringe touched the hot surface of the slab and repeated words in the old tongues of elder mages in his mind, the woman rose from her confinement as if the quicksand had begrudgingly spewed her out. Slowly. Though once Fringe freed her, she at least introduced herself as a Dryad Witch from Elfland, Daelothwen.
‘You seem to have an ounce of capability, for a human.’ Daelothwen said.
‘What a cruel fate for a rose to be banished into a desert prison.’ Fringe sighed, sitting down.
The Dryad Witch stood over him.
‘If you’re about to ask how I ended up here. Don’t bother.’
‘I wasn’t.’ he crossed his arms. ‘Ok I was.’
She turned her nose to her right, in the direction she had come from, and the brows (or the tree-things in the shape of human eyebrows, adorning the tree-thing in a shape of a beautiful, young femme-fatal face) above her eyes shifted from what the young wizard would describe as a v shape into an upside-down v shape. He noticed once more the brown ends of her dress.
‘Your dress is wilting.’
Daelothwen’s pale green face lit up as if on fire.
‘I’m sorry’ Fringe again could not help himself but smile, ‘but if you can conjure ice couldn’t you conjure some water?’ though he spoke as if to himself.
However, upon hearing his words the Dryad stomped her bare lime-tinted foot on the stone slab and held up her hands, pointing them at Fringe as if she were casting a great curse upon him. But nothing happened.
‘But you just froze my friend to death.’ he said.
‘Almost!’ Dio screamed.
‘Shut up!’ she fell to the ground and after a moment turned to her side, shivering into a fetal position.
‘Blast! I don’t need this.’ and she got up, took a few steps forward in the direction Fringe first came from with Dio as a guide.
But before she could step off the stone and into the sands, she sunk to her neck into the rock again, ‘Stop it!’
‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’ Fringe asked, his hands feeling the dusty smooth texture of the rock in which he trapped the dryad.
‘I don’t have to tell you.’ she spat at him, however what little spit she managed to muster out of her pouty mouth didn’t reach him.
‘That’s fine.’ and he sat on the edge of the stone slab, beside her head.
‘I’m going to break out of here.’ Daelothwen sighed.
After a few seconds of silent disbelief, the Dryad Witch sighed even heavier than before. Then she explained the logistics behind her plan. How there was a place on the edge of the prison, where the Warden steps out from a portal gate once in an aeon. According to rumours and speculation…
‘You mean,’ Fringe uttered in quiet disbelief, ‘there is a way?’
By then Dio managed to get back to the stone slab and hide in his jar.