Stray Fire and Toppled Heads
by John Oakes
After messing up a spell, a wizard loses his head and must escape a family of angry trolls.
John Oakes is an emerging writer who is currently studying creative writing at Western Washington University. In his free time, he writes, reads, and writes some more. His work can be found in Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror and Etherea Magazine. Keep an eye out for his name. He does not intend to slow down anytime soon. If the timing is right, you can find him on Twitter at @johnroakes67
“Mudderfader!” The burlap sack wriggled into his mouth. It was like sandpaper on his tongue as it jumbled his words. His eyes burned from the prickly fabric, and his nose screamed from a raging itch that sat directly at its tip. His head might as well have been a handful of potatoes as it jounced loosely around the bag; it was humiliating.
It was not supposed to go this way—not at all—but the blame was his.
A spell that granted you life after death. It sounded amazing on paper but performing it was not an easy task. ‘As long as the brain remains preserved.’ That was what he had clarified during his cast. For hell’s sake, he didn’t want to end up a zombie, but he should have been more specific.
It had completely slipped his mind that the brain could survive whether the head remained attached or not.
That was where he’d messed up. It was crucial to be as specific as possible when dealing with the mystical arts. Magic was a fickle being—yes, that was ‘being’ as in a conscious entity, and a sadistic one at that. If you wanted to meddle in the mayhem that was Magic, you better be charming as well as intelligent. After a lifetime spanning several eons, Magic was tired of playing games.
(Correction: Magic was tired of everything but games. If it could find a way to twist your words, you better believe that they’d end up warped.)
So he—or he should say his head—was trapped in a burlap sack. What now? Well, there wasn’t much else to do except escape. However, how he would manage that without a body was a different question. He could barely remember what had happened before he woke up in this bristly bag, much less explain why. It turns out that having your head severed is bad for the memory.
He’d cast the spell around a month before this unfortunate predicament. He was sure of that, but that didn’t explain why he’d done it in the first place. All he knew was there had been a very good reason, which was evident because wizards were nothing if not responsible.
So, in conclusion, he had cast a spell that didn’t work out the way he had planned. He had cast it for an excellent reason. And he had somehow misplaced his body, but he was still alive.
Where he was going, why he was going there, and why he was stuck in what had to be the world’s most uncomfortable bag was still a mystery.
Outside the bag, a noise that resembled a rusty door rattled into his ears. A weightless feeling surrounded him as whatever had been holding the burlap sack tossed it onto a wooden surface with more force than necessary, and a dull pain shot through his ear as his head bounced across the sanded wood.
Whoever possessed his head did not seem happy with him, but it made sense. If your first reaction to seeing someone was decapitation, then it was likely you weren’t very pleased with them.
His vision became a whirl of motion as a hand shook the bag out, and then he was rolling forward. He did somersaults, and his head began to ache as he tried to gauge his surroundings through the toppling images flashing in front of his eyes.
Gradually, he came to a standstill. He squinted through the blinding light to see an extraordinary kitchen. It was not extraordinary in its contents—those were, in fact, fairly subpar—but in its layout. Every object in the kitchen was tilted at a forty-five-degree angle as if gravity had no presence in the house. The cast iron oven clung miraculously to the floor, slanting up as if it sat at the base of a steep mountainside. Several pantries hung open to reveal food that ignored any idea of physics as they lounged at haphazard angles. Candles, whose flames danced sideways instead of up, lit the room.
He felt a leathery hand grab the top of his head, and another gripped the base of his neck. Then he was spinning again. The room gyrated, making him want to puke despite the absence of his stomach. It stopped suddenly, and his vision steadied as the hands set him back on the table. He blinked, trying to clear nausea from his head, and looked back at the kitchen.
Oh, it was normal. The inclination was gone, along with the otherworldly anomalies. The Wizard’s head now sat upright in an ordinary kitchen.
From somewhere behind him, a burly gray figure shambled into view. The creature’s back faced him as it fiddled with the stove, setting a fire and preparing the pot for a meal. He could not see his face, but The Wizard knew who it was. He could recognize the halfwit bastard anywhere.
“Holy shit!” The Wizard spoke, and he felt his chin knock against the tabletop.
The figure jumped and whirled around, his face flushed with shock. “WHAT THE HELL!”
“I should’ve guessed you were the one to take my head, Marvin!”
Marvin, the troll, looked like he had just watched a dragon sing soprano as he inspected the severed head. He turned it around in his palms, his grimy fingers drawing lines of grease along The Wizard’s face, and when he returned the head back to the table, his eyes kept their dumbfounded look.
“What the hell are you?” The troll was a breathing contradiction. He towered above The Wizard. His aura burned with a bestial fury that conjured paralyzing fear, yet his soft, tubby stomach protruded against his leather garbs in a poor imitation of a sofa. He was somehow scary yet also comfy-looking.
“C’mon Marvin, I know you’re about as slow as a gimped tortoise, but look, it’s me!” The Wizard’s voice was jovial. If he had had the parts to do it, he would have thrown his arms out for a large embrace.
“Holy hell, the wife isn’t gonna be happy ‘bout this.” Marvin’s words tumbled over themselves, giving his voice a slurred cadence.
“What do you mean Gretchen won’t be happy? I love that old broad with all of my heart! Er, with what used to be all of my heart. Why would she be anything but ecstatic when she sees me?”
“YOU INCINERATED HER PARENTS , YOU KOOKY WARLOCK! YOUR HEAD IS SUPPOSED TO BE A GIFT!” Marvin exploded.
Every forgotten detail came rushing back to him in a deluge of information.
Now he remembered why he’d cast the spell.
“Come on now, Marvin,” The Wizard said, avoiding the point. “Don’t call me a warlock. You know I’m no hack who beats off in a dungeon and calls himself a caster. I do real magic. I’m a wizard.”
The Wizard chuckled. It was awkward, and it was nervous, and it was the wrong thing to do.
Marvin bellowed and swung a meaty fist. The Wizard realized he was tumbling through the air before he processed his broken nose. He hit the back wall and fell face-first to the ground. His vision was speckled with shadow as his eyelids fluttered against the wooden floor. A fly-like tickle scurried through him as Marvin grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
The troll set his head back on the table and moved towards one of the cabinets. The Wizard blinked tears from his eyes and strained his neck, trying to see around Marvin’s burly figure. He couldn’t. Without any shoulders, The Wizard’s neck was as useful as a rotten stump.
The squeaking song of metal against metal rang through the kitchen as Marvin rummaged through cabinets and drawers. The troll hummed a dirge to himself while he searched, and he grunted in awe as he snagged something from a drawer. He turned to produce a steak knife that glittered in his hand.
“Whoa…whoa, whoa, WHOA! Hey Marvin, calm down! Put the knife away and talk to me before you do something stupid!” The troll advanced on the immobilized head with the knife brandished in a brawny fist. “Put the knife down! Come on, just let me talk to you!”
The Wizard screamed and clenched every muscle he could, causing his head to wobble on the table like a pudgy court fool.
Trolls, bless their hearts, are determined creatures—determined yet gullible. Marvin’s heavy feet slowed as The Wizard bartered with him. His knife hand dropped to his side, and Mavin’s eyes thinned at the severed head. “Gretchen’s gonna piss herself a royal one if she comes back to see you still blabbering on as usual. I’m gonna have to put you down, permanently.”
“But why, Marvin?” The Wizard slowed his words. Marvin had hesitated, and once a troll second-guessed itself, it had already changed its mind. “It was an accident, and you know it. I’d never intentionally hurt Gretchen—her or her family—I love the woman like a sister.”
He didn’t, but when you lived close to trolls, it was smarter to be friends than enemies. There was a headless body somewhere in the woods to prove it.
“You murdered her family,” Marvin repeated.
“Not on purpose. Never on purpose! It was a stray fireball Marvin. You have to believe me.”
That was not the whole truth. A fireball had torched Gretchen’s family; that part was accurate. ‘Stray,’ on the other hand, was a bit of an exaggeration.
In all honesty, The Wizard had been trying to impress a woman. It was childish, and he knew it. But she was an elegant princess whose beauty was worth a thousand ballads. Who could blame him for a tiny lapse in judgment?
She’d been the daughter of a queen from a land far across the sea, and it would’ve been The Wizard’s head—his lifeless one—if someone had caught them together.
He was already risking his life by being with her, so he might as well skip the niceties. Why waste time trying to be a gentleman? That was his motto, anyway.
He took the beautiful princess back to his tower, and there, the wooing commenced. He threw torrents of water, bolts of lighting, and balls of fire into the trees below. It was a spectacular show that would soften even the stoniest of hearts.
How was he supposed to know Gretchen and her parents were taking a walk through the woods?
“Stray?” Marvin grunted.
“Yes, stray! It was never meant to hit anyone. I was experimenting, practicing. I swear it.”
When The Wizard heard the screams, he immediately ushered the princess out of his tower. He told her to wait at the door while he went to check on what he had hit. In hindsight, she would’ve been safer inside, but there was too much contraband in his tower—it should not be surprising; he was a wizard, not a square—to let a woman of royalty explore freely.
He remembered how his heart tumbled to his stomach when he saw the scattered ash and bones. He hurried back to his tower after burying the remains in a shallow grave, but by the time he returned, the princess was gone.
Burn it all in a pot of oil and feed the remains to a wobblyrook! He’d forgotten about the hellfiend he’d accidentally summoned!
But that was a story and problem for another day. At that moment, The Wizard had had a family of torched trolls to deal with. Trolls were creatures that The Wizard preferred to be happy, and carelessly blowing their family to smithereens was not a way to keep them cheerful.
Lucky for him, the trolls were all dead, and there had been no witnesses. However, after years of messing with the malignant magical world, he didn’t want to take any chances. So he set to work, hastily crafting a spell for insurance.
As it turned out, one important someone had escaped the blaze.
“Hrgn,” Marvin grumbled as he placed the knife harmlessly next to The Wizard.
“Give me a chance, Marvin,” The Wizard pleaded. “Let me talk to Gretchen when she gets back. I’ll explain everything; I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Well,” Marvin sounded defeated. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting you talk to her. She’s at the funeral now, and she’s pretty torn up about it. If she hears one word from you, it’s my ass on the line. I might as well kiss the marriage and kids goodbye.”
“Please, do I really deserve to die because of some stupid mix-up?”
“I’ll tell you what, she gets back tomorrow morning. When she does, I’ll talk to her. I’ll explain everything you said to me, and then I’ll let her decide for herself. That’s about as much as I can do. Does that sound fair?”
The Wizard tried to nod, but for obvious reasons, he failed. “Sounds wonderful!” And he flashed Marvin a toothy grin.
The night was a long and boring one.
He sat on the same table, unable to toss or turn to find a comfortable position. Anytime his eyes began to droop, his neck muscles relaxed, and then his head toppled over. It took a lot of precise muscle movements to get upright after he fell, and it hurt his face to roll over.
Being a sentient head was much more difficult than expected.
A candle burned in the corner of the kitchen. It mixed with the window’s moonlight to illuminate the room, but The Wizard’s vision was still poor. The Wizard could only make out shapes and shadows. Nothing had concrete details unless it sat within hypothetical reaching distance.
From outside the cottage, a barrage of sounds populated the night. Crickets chirped from the darkness while wolves howled throughout their lunar hunt. Bushes rustled from unknown creatures, and at one point, The Wizard swore he heard a gurgle followed by the telltale pressurized hiss that a hellfiend produces when it is on the hunt.
The Wizard shuddered, but there was nothing to worry about as long as the monster didn’t decide that the cottage was a decent spot to find prey. Hellfiends were wily by nature. It was difficult to escape their torments. It was nearly impossible if you lacked the body parts required for running.
A crashing sound exploded from the passive silence like one of The Wizard’s fireballs, followed by a nervous gasp.
The Wizard tensed. What if the hellfiend had wandered inside? Or worse, what if it was a peeved troll whose parents had just gotten obliterated, returning early from said parents’ funeral?
He squinted, trying to see more than shadow as the kitchen door creaked open.
An unidentified shape stepped through the door’s crack. It walked hesitantly, calculating where to put each foot before moving. Yet it moved confidently as if it knew where everything in the room was.
The Wizard continued to gawk at the shape as it crept through the kitchen. Its courage didn’t sit well in his brain. For something to know a room so well meant that it had been there before.
Dammit—dammit, dammit, dammit. It probably was Gretchen coming to stick a dull kitchen knife through his eye and end him forever!
The Wizard’s absent heart pounded, and his phantom stomach churned with a sickening fear. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the strike land. Then he heard a snap, followed by the gasp of fire as it burned into existence.
He popped one lid open. In front of him, outlined by the light of the moon, stood a miniature troll. She was only half the size of Marvin, but she still towered above The Wizard’s immobilized head. Her skin was the expected troll-gray, and her hair fell in a tangled bundle—the regular troll fashion. In one hand, she held a match whose head sputtered forth a faint orange flame. In the other, she clutched a small cone of rolled paper stuffed with ground purple herbs.
“Hey!” The Wizard whispered.
The troll spasmed with shock as if she had just forced a hand into The Wizard’s jar of lightning. The rolled herbs bounced in her grasping palm while the match puffed out in the other. For a split second, the kitchen fell back into the shadows. Then another hissing gasp sounded, and a second flame sparked to life.
“Holy shit!” The troll reeled back as she looked at The Wizard. Then, as if possessed by a barbaric instinct, she charged the head, arm outstretched, sending the tiny flame to lead the attack.
“Hey, hey, whoa!” The Wizard tried to keep his voice low as he flexed his muscles, giving his face the expression one would make while pushing something out of their back end. The troll approached fast, and The Wizard couldn’t do anything except blow steam.
Lucky for him, it worked. As The Wizard twisted his muscles and muttered at the troll, his words caught the match and killed the flame with a faint gust of wind.
There was darkness yet again, and then another match lit. This time the fire aimed at The Wizard’s hair. He extinguished this flame with a huffed breath, as with the fourth and fifth matches. Finally, as the troll struck the sixth, The Wizard spoke.
“Stop with damned matches! I’m a wizard; even if you managed to set me a flame, I could put it out as easily as you lit it!” That was a lie of course. With no hands to make a magical glyph, he could put out the fire as well as he could stand up and walk home.
“Who are you?” The troll asked.
“Who are you?”
“I asked you first.”
“Yeah, well, there’s more of you than me. I’m in more danger.”
The troll looked down at herself as if she needed proof. “Fine,” She hissed. “I’m Irina.”
“Thank you… I’m a wizard.”
“Hey-” Irina protested, but The Wizard cut her off.
“Do you live here?”
“Why the hell would I be here if I didn’t?”
“Fair enough. I suppose you’re Marvin and Gretchen’s daughter.”
“Yeah. You’re smart.”
“That’s about all I have left.” The Wizard gestured at his body—or lack thereof—with his eyes, ignoring the mockery in Irina’s voice. “I suppose your parents wouldn’t be too happy about that little thing you have in your hand.”
Irina glanced at the ground herbs and scowled.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” The Wizard continued. “I know what that is. You got yourself a little drab of Fae Root, dontcha?”
“You have no proof.”
“I-ree-nuh,” The Wizard pulled her name apart like wet clay. He could tell he had the upper hand, and he enjoyed it. “You have all the proof I need in your hand. One loud shout and I’ll have your dad running in here faster than a dragon could smoke that thing.”
The Wizard puffed his cheeks up as if he were getting ready to howl, and Irina bit. “Hey, hey, okay! What? Do you need something? Do you want something? Just don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“Me? Stupid? Irina, I wouldn’t dare. All I want is to get out of this predicament.”
“And how do I help you do that?” Irina asked, the Fae Root still pinched between her fingers.
“I just need you to open the door and carry me outside. I can take care of the rest. After that, you do as your stupid little mind pleases.”
So Irina obeyed. She carried the severed head out the front door and dropped it in a nearby bush—which just so happened to be full of blackberries and thorns. The Wizard assumed the young troll chose it because of his ‘stupid mind’ comment.
Irina spun around, lighting the drab as she did so, and walked back towards the cottage with a trail of thick blue smoke following her path.
Meanwhile, The Wizard struggled. He flexed his muscles, lurched, and grunted. The thorns and brambles clung to his head like the hands of a prying zombie. They snagged his hair and skin, restraining him with their sharp pinpricks.
It was not easy—some may have described it as grueling—but eventually, The Wizard freed himself. He landed upright and began his voyage. The Wizard flexed the right side of his face, raising his eyebrow and scrunching his mouth into a snarl. He quickly copied with his left and repeated. Moving got easier as he went, and the struggle with the thorn bush proved good practice for The Wizard as he found himself coasting along the forest floor in no time.
The Wizard meandered through the dirt. Sweat sprung from his brow and crept down his face in irritating rivers. Twigs and pine needles stuck to the stump of his neck, catching a free ride as the bobbing head weaved in and out of the tree trunks.
The forest was alive with the sounds of the night. The crickets provided a backdrop to the low melody of the toads. Bushes rattled as prey ducked into their leafy boughs, and the ghostly call of an owl gave the world a haunting theme.
All of a sudden, a low growl gurgled from behind The Wizard. Padded feet crunched dead leaves as something stalked the moving head through the darkness; it was hunting him. The Wizard quickened his pace. He could not afford to slow down; it was too difficult to get moving again.
There was a vicious bark, and then sharp teeth clamped down on a chunk of The Wizard’s hair. He screamed as his world turned into a blur of cool colors. A wolf held The Wizard in its jaws, and its neck snapped violently as it flung its prey in playful circles.
The Wizard shrieked and shattered the peaceful night. He tried to flex his way free, using his method of movement, but nothing worked. Pain seared through his scalp as the wolf’s momentum wrenched at his hair. There was a repulsive tear as his scalp ripped, throwing him from the creature’s jaws, and then he was soaring through the air.
The Wizard landed, and his head bounced through the dirt. It reminded him of the time he’d dropped his crystal ball after an unexpected and particularly erotic vision.
He came to a skidding stop. Grime splattered his vision as he spat out a mouthful of mud and leaves. The top of his head ran with warm blood from where the wolf shaved him.
The Wizard did not hesitate. He struggled his way upright and began to hobble forward. He could hear the hasty footsteps of the wolf close behind, and his figurative heart dropped as more sets of feet joined the chorus.
His breath was heavy, and his eyes were wet with tears. The Wizard continued to retreat but then slowed. He hesitated and listened, still moving but allowing his panic to dissipate as the sound of the wolves mysteriously faded.
His fear was nearly gone when the ground disappeared under him. The Wizard had been too focused on his pursuers to notice the approaching cliff edge.
He tumbled down the hill, bouncing off stones and earth alike. He felt bruises spawn deep under his skin, and cuts dug red rivers all over his face. He coughed and sputtered—grunted, spat, and moaned. The Wizard tried to reorient himself as he fell, his world was a blur of confusion, but it was not until a protruding root snagged his head that he could get a hold of his senses.
His brain bounced around the inside of his skull as he came to an abrupt stop. The Wizard hung suspended in place. Far beneath him, the earth leveled into a flat plain, and above him, the sound of the pack began to return.
The Wizard’s mind raced. Somewhere at the top of the cliff, a hungry pack of wolves was looking for a snack; meanwhile, the solid forest floor lay about sixty feet below. He would choose the floor any day of the year with no quandary. If only he had a way to reach it.
The Wizard tried to slow his mind with little success. He was a genius about to die by the jaws of some mutt. Was that the way the world was supposed to work? It was an insult!
There had to be some way to escape.
He could talk to Magic. He had no limbs, so casting was off the table, but he was a wizard. He had a connection to the nearly omnipotent being that other creatures did not. Maybe he could convince them to help. He’d known Magic for years; what were friends for, if not favors?
The Wizard opened his mind, forming a temporal link between him and every entity with a similar gift. He was barely into the trance—his mind out of its normal state and in a spectral one—when a feeble yip shocked the night.
The Wizard froze. Another squeal, like a gutted pig, startled him out of his trance. Then there was a third. Silence followed.
Rapid scrambling approached the cliff’s edge, and The Wizard stretched his eyes to see above him. An explosion of noise broke the flimsy silence as a dark shadow catapulted from the cliff’s edge.
The Wizard’s gaze followed the figure as it crashed through the thickets landing at the bottom of the valley. He squinted through the shadows to see the gutted body of a wolf lying limp in the bushes below.
A heavy hiss like an ignited fuse quickly pulled his attention back up. Sloppy, wet tearing formed a cloud of horrifying noise, and any hope The Wizard had left died as he stared into two red, beady eyes.
The menacing eyes glared at The Wizard, tracking his pupils as he looked frantically for a last-ditch escape. Bones ground together to create an ominous creaking noise, and the skeletal figure of a hellfiend peaked from the edge of the cliff above. It stared down at The Wizard, its predatory gaze meeting his. Tufts of fur sprouted from its stained jaws, and The Wizard saw its razor claws tense, readying itself to pounce.
The Wizard cursed himself. Forget his stray fire; he should have dealt with his botched summon after all.