"FORTY THOUSAND FEET"
When I unclenched, when she did, we gazed into each other’s eyes.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
I goggled down at my chest, then back up at her. “I ... the same ... I guess ...”
A big smile of relief brightened her face. “Oh, good! That’s good! My potions are working!” She hugged me tightly. “Good, good, good! This might actually work!”
She pulled back.
“But not after twenty-four hours,” I said.
“That’s right. You must get back here before that or we will both die.”
“I should get going then,” I said with justifiable urgency. “Where is your pendant?”
“The men and trolls who have it are under constant watch by my monkeys. I’ve kept the monkeys from taking it back because, though they aren’t magical, they are made from magic and the trolls will detect that magic if they get too close, and I don’t want to take the chance of losing the pendant forever. Besides,” she sighed, “they have a penchant for screwing things up. It’s not far from here, maybe a hundred miles or so.”
I blinked. “What? Zelena, I can’t make a hundred miles in five days, let alone there and back in one!”
She smirked knowingly and came close. She came to her tippy-toes again and grazed my cheek with her lips. “You’ve got my heart, my darling,” she murmured very sexily. “And my potions are working perfectly.”
She drew back and kissed the tip of my nose and gave me an impish smile. “Understand now?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She waited with obvious relish.
“I ...” I chuckled “... I’m magic now?”
She grazed my lips with her own. “You’ve always been magical. Now ...” she wrinkled her nose “... you’re just a little more.”
It wouldn’t register. I had her magic! I could wave my hand and do all sorts of things too!
Did it require training? I went to ask, but then it struck me, and I gazed with horror at her.
“You ... you have my heart ... so you are not magical now?”
“Just temporarily,” she said with no obvious concern. “No more than a day.” She brought her hand to her chest. “I promise I will protect your heart no matter what. Have no fear, Nathan. You have my word. Do you trust me?”
I laughed uncertainly. I still couldn’t believe this was happening. “Do you trust me?”
She kissed me. I returned it. “Always,” she said. “Always.”
We kissed again. When our lips parted, she smiled. “I’ve got some good news. I’ve located your Cruxx!”
That was good news. “Is it safe for me to collect? Is it about to turn dark?”
“I think you are ready to be reunited with it. It’s very strong, just like you. There is plenty of time yet before it begins to darken.”
She led me by the hand out of the potion room and back up the stairs to the palace, where we stopped behind the huge curtains. On a side table was a crystal ball on an ornate silver mount. She led me to it and released my hand.
“Here is your first test. Go inside my heart and ask it to reveal the location of the trolls. It’s a simple bit of magic I have used for a long time now, so it should be easy for you to feel it and bring it to your consciousness. Go on, give it a try!”
She seemed genuinely excited, which made me excited. I closed my eyes and concentrated.
The weird thing was that what came to my consciousness didn’t feel like anything but mine. Indeed, it felt entirely native to my being, and ridiculously easy to access. I opened my eyes and gazed into the transparent crystal sphere. Almost thoughtlessly I waved my hand over it.
The ball’s interior clouded over instantly. The mist roiled, then dissipated.
I was looking down between the boughs of what looked like myrtle and elm trees on an encampment of maybe ten or twelve trolls, with half a dozen men milling about with them. They had built a fire. Some were sitting in a loose circle around it and eating.
I winced. That wasn’t beef. Or chicken. Or pork.
The rage and contempt certainly felt like mine. My lip curled—something it had never done before but felt like I’d done it a thousand times. I brought my gaze to Zelena.
The innocence in her stare caught me. She looked up from the ball.
“It’s like ... it’s like ... morning ... a new day ... a new sun ...” She reached for my cheek. Her smile was gone. “It’s ... almost unbearable ...”
I grasped her hand.
“What’s it like for you, Nathan? Tell me.”
I held her hand and thought about what I must do.
“It’s like midnight,” I said, anger and hate burning through me. “Like midnight, and it’s storming, and ...”
I smiled. She waited. “And what?” she pressed.
“Like I want to stand in the middle of it and bring it all down on me and take in its power.”
She smiled—far too innocently. “I think you’re ready.”
“Indeed,” I said with confident coldness.
She led me to the palace courtyard. Politicians and suck-ups and other specks of dirt hurried out of our way as we approached. One of them must have been a personal so-and-so to her, because he approached like a starving rat and bowed, simpering, “Your Highness! What is your pleasure today?”
“Would you have everyone clear the courtyard, James?” she asked very nicely.
He glanced at her, surprised. “Why ... certainly ... of course, Your Highness, immediately.”
As he went about asking everyone to leave, she turned and stared at me, horrified.
“How ... how is it we came together? How did I give you even a second’s notice? And—why didn’t you flee from me? I can see it in your eyes. I can see my anger and hate—in your eyes! How can you stand it, Nathan?”
The part of me that spoke wasn’t all Nathan Vach, and it wasn’t all Zelena. It came from a turbulent, creative mixture of both. I pulled her to me and kissed her.
“Because I love you. Because you could see the darkness in me, and I could see the light in you. Because we belong together.”
I gazed up. The sky above the courtyard’s trees was wispy with high clouds. I knew if I wanted I could fly right up to them.
“Do you know how to find the trolls?”
The magic from the crystal ball must have implanted itself in me, because I nodded confidently. I did know.
“Thank you, Nathan. Thank you for this. That pendant ... it focuses my power. It gives me new avenues of magical exploration. It’s invaluable, as are you.”
I felt the power—Zelena’s power—surge through my body. It was a sensation I’d never felt before in my entire life—utter confidence, utter will, the desire to do whatever it took to meet a goal, and total contempt for any who stood in my way. The magic was right there, bubbling like a cauldron of boiling black tar.
She released me and stepped back.
“One invaluable green pendant coming right up.” I flourished my right hand between us. Green-white smoke surrounded me, and I rocketed into the wispy sky.
Moments later I materialized on a forest road far from anywhere I’d ever ventured before.
I had always wanted to know what being a god must feel like. I strode down that lane like one. My legs felt heavy and light at the same time. They bounced with dense power, but also with the innocence of a man who had tried with all his might always to avoid anything scary or challenging. I was an adult and a child at the same time.
I stopped and glanced down at myself. I was still dressed in my traveling cloak and a favorite shirt and pants. The hiking boots I wore were years-old favorites.
But Nathan Vach was something else now.
I waved my hand and green-white smoke surrounded me. I thought, Dress me—and there in my mind was the image, made magically precise and temporally unhurried, of how I wanted to look.
The smoke cleared. I looked down. I smiled.
My cloak was no longer brown wool, but a shining, weightless black and green material in ornate patterns. It flowed around and behind my form like mists in a cave. My shirt and pants had changed to match—gray-blue, gold, and more black. I typically wore my shirts buttoned to the neck; the one I wore now was opened down to the third button, exposing my chest. My trousers were black and tight-fitting; the boots below them rose up to mid-calf, with pointed toes. Very comfortable.
I stopped and glanced ahead. A thin rope of smoke trailed into the sky from the center of a copse of elm and myrtle trees a half-mile off.
I smiled wider. It wasn’t one of joy, and it wasn’t one Nathan Vach would have ever smiled. That is, before that day on the bridge. The day I nearly died.
But truly, that Nathan Vach was dead. He really did die that day. The one who replaced him was much improved. And very much in love.
I didn’t need to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t need to wait or plan. I knew exactly what to do.
I waved my hand and rocketed into the sky. A moment later I materialized a hundred yards from the trolls’ encampment behind a thick, wide bush. Zelena’s potion would mask my magical presence, at least enough to help me get the job done. The monkeys, however, would still be able to sense me.
I spied them. They had already found me. There were three of them, one each to distant trees that triangulated on the group. Zelena’s magic must have pointed them out, because they were expertly hidden and I knew I wouldn’t have seen them as the old me.
They appeared confused. I closed my eyes, brought my index finger to my forehead, and thought:
Back home with you. She will feed you well for this good work. Off now with you.
They launched from their hiding posts. Their large wings were loud and brought the men and trolls to their feet, weapons drawn. That was what I wanted. I waved my hand and a moment later stood in the center of the group. They didn’t see me. They were still watching the monkeys.
A man turned. “Who the hell are you?”
The others wheeled about.
Those were his final words. I motioned viciously at him and his heart—not his heart of hearts; his actual, physical, bloody heart—burst out of his chest and into the fire. He collapsed to the ground with a look of horror forever etched on his greasy, filthy visage. The others stopped cold in their tracks.
“That’s better,” I said conversationally. I turned in place, looking each of them in their beady eyes, the trolls as well. They held battle maces that probably took two men to lift, and appeared ready to attack any moment. Something inside me told me they would, to be ready.
“Any of you remember me?” I asked pleasantly. “Anyone? No one? Pity.”
The crackling of the campfire was the only sound in the entire forest. Even the birds had gone still.
“Some members of your little party mugged me on a bridge near my home a few months ago. They knocked me unconscious and threw me off it. I nearly died.”
I thrust my hand out. The bearded oldster glaring at me from my side clutched his chest, but not before his heart tore free from inside it and flew into the fire. The flames flared and crackled before settling once more.
“That wasn’t us!” protested another, who stood behind me. “I’ve never seen you before in my life! Now leave us in—”
I turned to face him, but only after his heart had flown over my head into the fire.
“—peace?” I asked his lifeless, crumpled form, smiling wickedly. “Leave you—in peace? Is that what you were going to say? Pieces, yes. But peace? Sorry.”
There indeed weren’t men with the trolls that fateful day, but that didn’t excuse them. These men knew these trolls; it was the only way the trolls would consort with them. Trolls took a very long time to trust others, especially men. So the ones here and these hairy bipeds must have known each other for quite some time. They were all accomplices.
The three remaining men stared, frozen where they stood. One of them was wearing the shirt I had on that day. Another stood over my bedroll.
It was clear they didn’t want to die like their comrades. Still, not one of them had the intelligence to lower their weapons. As for the trolls ...
I turned slowly as I spoke. “My love had her pendant stolen the day you greedy bastards attacked me. She wants it back. She knows you have it. Give it to me now, and I’ll let the rest of you live.”
I held up my hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I am a generous and forgiving man. My love, however ...”
“I have it.”
It was barely intelligible, that declaration. A troll had spoken it. Behind me.
Of course, it was the largest of all of them. The leader.
It lowered its mace. “I’ve got it. Put away the magic and let’s do battle, just me n’ you. Whaddya say, human?”
I didn’t answer. Zelena’s wrath ... there was something astonishing about it: its ice-coldness with its sweet undertones, especially as it considered doing something especially wicked—just as I was with this beast.
“I remember you,” it went on with a low growl. “I was there on that bridge that day. You should be dead—and so should that bitch who killed my brothers!”
“I could take it from you now,” I offered kindly. “There really is nothing stopping me.”
“Witches and wizards have no honor,” it growled. “Fight me as a man, and if you defeat me, you shall earn your bitch’s talisman back. If I kill you, we keep it.”
“Show me the pendant.”
The troll reached into a pack at his feet, pulled out a green pendant, and held it up. It looked identical to Zelena’s, who had had a jeweler create a fake one so that I would know what it looked like.
I reached towards one of the men. His sword tore free of his grip and sailed into mine. I returned my smiling glare to the troll. “Deal.”
The troll hefted its mace and attacked without another second’s notice, the pendant in its other fist.
I had no combat training. I didn’t know the first thing about swordfighting. The troll came in with the mace ready to smash the life out of me, and the only thing I could think to do was drop the cutlass and rush the monster headlong. I dodged past the mace as it smashed into the earth and jumped on the beast and clawed up to its wide face.
This wasn’t the old Nathan Vach, and it wasn’t something inspired by Zelena’s rage. This ... this was something else entirely. This was a new Nathan Vach, angry boy-turned-man seeking bloody revenge for the mugging that damn near killed him. It surprised me as much as the troll, which bellowed as I began punching mindlessly.
It wasn’t going to end well. The monster grabbed me by my throat and held me at arm’s length and laughed. It squeezed.
And squeezed harder. Then harder.
“You aren’t fighting fair!” it roared when it became clear I was using magic to protect myself.
“Neither are you!” I hissed. I threw out my hand, and the troll’s closed fist, the one with the pendant, opened. It was a fake, almost as good as the one Zelena’s jeweler had crafted. I knew it was fake before the fight even started.
I thrust my hand behind me. The troll directly behind me—the one the boss troll didn’t want me see run away, as it was, real pendant in its possession, bellowed as the magic rope I’d conjured curled about its thighs and dragged it face first back to the camp.
The boss troll threw me. I materialized in the center of the camp before striking the ground. The other troll was tangled in the magic rope there. I flicked my wrist and its fist reluctantly opened. There was Zelena’s pendant, gleaming green and beautifully authentic. I flicked again and it floated up and around my neck, where it clasped itself securely.
Indeed, it was powerful. It felt like I had just connected my entire being to a lightning bolt.
The boss troll and the others attacked. They came at me all at once, swords and maces raised.
Here’s the thing. I was going return to Zelena, no more killing, and call it good. But they really pissed me off when they came at me like that. It didn’t help either that the pendant’s focusing power was way too tempting.
I disappeared in a swirling cloud of smoke, reappearing an instant later at the camp’s periphery. I snapped my fingers, and a bright casing of light surrounded each man and troll, freezing them in place. It held for a moment, then faded away.
“I fell forty feet,” I snarled, all pretense of pleasantness gone. “I wonder: What would it be like to fall forty thousand feet? You’re all about to find out! And you’ll have all the air pressure you need to survive all the way back to the ground!”
I raised my arms. Trolls and men, roaring with fear and fury, rose helplessly into the sky. I snapped my fingers to unfreeze them so that I could enjoy watching them writhe and twist helplessly.
I enhanced my voice with magic so that every single cell of theirs would hear me in these, their final moments.
“Enjoy the trip to heaven, boys, BECAUSE THAT’S NOT WHERE YOU’RE GOING TO END UP!”
I thrust my arms at them, calling on every ounce of Zelena’s awesome magical strength focused like light through a magnifying glass by the pendant. The men and trolls blasted into the sky like a fireworks display of filth, rising, rising, rising until they were virtually invisible against those wispy, slowly gliding clouds. They passed through them and went higher still. I jerked my arms apart with a cry of victory, and the filthy fireworks display exploded apart. Men and trolls began their long descent back to the unforgiving earth.
I watched them fall for a few moments, relishing the knowledge that each and every one of them were alive and conscious and screaming, and would be all the way to their gruesome deaths.
I went back to the campfire, thought for a few moments, and waved my hand.
Moments later I materialized near the bridge where I had been mugged and left for dead. I had a few things to find, including my Cruxx.
I couldn’t locate it. I wasn’t worried about it, and for that reason I didn’t really search all that hard for it. Zelena knew where it was, and that was good enough for me.
As for the other items, I found them after maybe an hour of looking. Satisfied, I vanished in a green-white cloud of smoke for home.