The air hung thick and black around him, and he was uncertain if it was due to the wall of flames ravaged the crops outside his village as it marched toward his home like the front lines of a great army, or if it was the darkness of the sinister force he had been fighting these past eleven months. It mingled with the assaulting stench of death, which was ever present in these days, and the elements of a forbidden magic found only in the hidden lairs of those brave enough to defy the king’s degree and keep its power and mystery alive and relevant.

Alastor was one of those few. He was still breathless after having run to his underground cavern of secrets, tripping over the remnants of an opulent life that had gone to hell in a heartbeat when the Black Death had surfaced. The broken faces of his former craft had skittered across the floor as he remembered the day his wife had destroyed nearly all of his life-like creations in her panicked tantrum.

"How can you sit here and continue this wasted art form while people are dying!” she had yelled. “You are supposed to be their physician, their savior! Fix them!” Her eyes were wild and reddened, either from tears or from the early symptoms of the dreaded disease, which Alastor had feared now plagued her in its earliest of stages. He wouldn’t mention his conjecture to her and add to her terror and worry. There was enough of that.

Instead, he only sighed and prayed for patience. “Nessa, my love, I’ve told you everything I’ve done of late is directly related to finding a cure.” She knew nothing of his secrets in the caverns below the cellar, of his craft that violated the anti-sorcery edict and would deliver certain death upon them both if the illness didn’t take them from this life first.

His answer fell on deaf and frustrated ears. In a rage she cried out and took to smashing everything of value in the home, vases, statues, plates, lanterns. If it could be destroyed, it had been, until she stopped, heaving and breathless, only because there was nothing left of their former life to destroy.

Days later, she’d disappeared, and Alastor knew the futility of searching for her. The only way to save her, to save them all, was to keep working for a cure.

He was thrust from his memory to the present as the sounds of weighted footsteps stomped across the floors of his home above him, crushing what was left of the life that now seemed merely a dream. His time was at an end. If this final attempt failed, he would die with the fact that he’d failed all of humanity. If he succeeded, he would die thanklessly at the hands of the king.

As quickly as his tired, old muscles would allow, he heaved aside the old oak armoire to access his hidden treasures beneath the loosened stones of the cavern. Below them rested a small alcove filled with the evidence of the sorcery which flowed through the blood of his ancestors and would now end with him. He hopped carefully into is so as not to drop the vessel he carried and placed it on the small mound of old fabrics to keep it intact. He took a deep breath as the footsteps grew in number and volume, coating him in a light layer of dirt falling from the ceiling. Breaking open the vial of blood he’d collected from one of the plague’s innumerable victims, he let the nearly coagulated contents ooze into the vessel as he whispered the incantation in a language he knew how to repeat but could barely translate. He coughed as the air thickened and the stench of the vessel’s contents overwhelmed him with disgust and the utmost joy.

His heart racing, he whispered the final word of the spell, which etched itself in the vessel’s surface as evidence of its power, as the door from the cellar to the caverns splintered apart with the force of cannon, and the sound of the chainmail of the king’s most elite soldiers filled the corridor with its echo.

Alastor cursed as he hastily, but carefully, covered the vessel and its gruesome contents with additional thick layers of cloth, and tucked his family history, the notes of ancient sorcery, into its hiding spot beneath yet another layer of dirt. He held on to the faintest hope that the vessel and his legacy would survive the flames struck out of desperation and fear, even though he knew he would not live to see that day come.

There was still more to be done as he shoved the armoire with what was left of his energy. The force of his efforts tipped the mass, and it fell to its side, creaking and splintering as it emptied its various ointments and oils which would look to anyone as merely the dabbling of a physician. It landed in a heap of dust upon the alcove which hid the work for which he would likely be giving up his life.

“You’re out of time, old man,” the king’s general growled at him, as Alastor still panted with his efforts.

“Perhaps, but at least humanity is not.” The general’s brow furrowed. 

“You speak in riddles, physician. Can you not hear the screams of your failure?”

“I hear the screams of innocents consumed by a fire sparked by desperation and fueled by fear.”

“You speak treason against the king!” 

“I speak the truth as I see it.”

 “You were hired to heal them!” 

“And I have!” 

“Then why does the air still permeate with Death?” 

“I cannot restore the lives lost, only those who remain living.” 

The general rolled his eyes. “Speak plainly, Alastor. These words will likely be your last.” 

“Go out among those labeled infected and see the relief for yourself, and leave me be! I have completed my commission and have but one thing left to do before my time on this earth draws to an end.”

The sound of a sword being unsheathed reverberated through the caverns. “Your time draws to an end now.”

“On what charge and whose authority?” 

“By the king’s authority for falsifying that you could heal our land before he was forced to resort to this destruction.”

“Bring me to him, then, and let my actions exonerate me.” 

“It’s too late for that. You’re to die amongst those you failed to save.” 

Alastor smirked at the man’s comment. “Even at my age, I can out run those flames.”

 “Perhaps, but not in your current condition.” 

As the words passed Alastor’s ears, he felt the painful penetration of the steel blade slicing through his chest near his heart. Everything around him came quickly into sharpened focus before the black halos began to creep in from the edges of his sight. He collapsed into a puddle of his own blood as he coughed and his muscles contracted in excruciating pain. His vision went black.

When he regained consciousness, he was alone where he lay still in a puddle of blood. He could feel it oozing around the cheek that was pressed to the hard earth. He coughed painfully, the air around him thick with black smoke billowing from above him. A tear mingled with the blood as he realized his home, his former life, was now engulfed in the relentless flames intended to leave relief in their wake.

An orange glow illuminated the cavern as the flames crept their way below the surface of the earth. Perspiration joined the moisture on his face as Alastor focused his attention to the armoire still laying exactly as he had shoved it before the soldiers had barged into the room. Though most of his muscles no longer obeyed his commands, he was still able to smile knowing his sacrifice had not been in vain.

Flames came into view at the stairwell, licking their way across the cave and devouring the contents of the room as it crawled toward both him and the giant armoire. Alastor sucked in a few more jagged breaths and exhaled, sputtering and spitting out blood, as his vision blurred and blackened once again.

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