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Killer Shrike

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My friend Enki lays dead upon the bier, three days gone and wormy. My attendants scurry around the edges of my awareness, concerned, bored, anxious, exhausted, obsequious in turns. Secretly wishing, hoping, that I'll leave off the death vigil I've held for two passings of the sun and moon too long. But my grief...it will not let me. The cloying smell of flesh turning cannot be hidden by the cloves and smoking fronds any longer. Despite the efforts of fan-bearing slaves flies have congregated and relentlessly alight upon Enki's noble body whereever sallow skin remains exposed. In a moment of clarity, I become self-aware enough to know that I soon must gather my wits and reform my power and put aside my remorse and resume my place as a great king of the land of Sum, warlord of Ur. For though my heart has been emptied by the felling of my battle brother, mine enemies, the enemies of all my kind, are without mercy, without respect for anguish. Particularly the greatest enemy of all...Time...and the handmaiden thereof...Death. In the last three days I have passed through madness and emerged again sound of mind but of new certainty. I must defeat Death. That which has claimed great Enki and left him reduced to this flyblown corpse must not claim me. I will become immortal. I will seek out the secrets of the old time, the long lived ones of the days before the floods, those who came to this world from the other place, those who are like unto gods, the several severals who have survived and live still. I will wrest the answer from one of them. I will become like them. I will ascend.

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"Papa, I had the nightmare again last night.", the boy said over breakfast the next morning while eating his cereal...his favorite, store bought Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes!

 

The boys father, a dapper man dressed finely in tailored pants, a starched cuff-linked shirt, bow tie, and suspenders, folded down one corner of the New York Times he was reading to peer over at his only son. One eyebrow quirked, sharply intelligent and uncommonly shrewd eyes pinning the boy to his chair. "Did you face the bull this time?", the man asked in an urbane and sophisticated voice that suggested eloquence and a hint of Old Europe filtered into English through some place stuffy, perhaps Cambridge.

 

"No, papa.", the boy seemed despondent. He did not know why the "bull" was important, for his father rarely told him anything before it was needful. But given that his father always asked every time, the boy could tell it was important. He was left with a vague feeling of inadequacy he always awoke before any kind of thing that could be called a bull entered his slumber. The boy had been having this same nightmare at least once a week for nearly a year. His father had gotten excited when the boy had first mentioned them, and had said it was normal, a strong sign that the process was working and that the boy's studies were progressing. But that had been months ago, and whatever was supposed to happen next had not yet happened. A couple of times the boy had gotten further...one time he even dreamed of a fight with a pair of horrific lion-like monsters which had delighted his father. But for the last couple of months, nothing more. And definitely no bulls thus far.

 

A small, nearly microscopic, downturn of the father's mouth was the only hint of disappointment. He then repeated nearly verbatim what he said every time the subject was brought up, "...Well, no worry then. Remember, when it happens, you mustn't lose your head. Remember what I've taught you and stay with it until the bull is defeated."

 

"Yes papa, I will remember". 

 

"Good, good. You'll do well, lad, when the time comes. What you lack in talent you make up for in tenacity. You will best the bull, I have no doubt about it. Now, eat up. I'm planning to start you into the third passage of the Acatropix today. There are a few forms in particular in there you'll not want to attempt on an empty stomach."

 

"Yes, papa."

 

The boy returned pensively to his cereal, the father to his paper.

 

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It had taken three years before the "bull" finally appeared in the boy's slumbers...so long that the boy's father had begun to struggle to not show his concern. It turned out to not be merely a male cow, but rather some horrible thing from someplace beyond...a beast of metal skin and lethal breath, four legged and horned but bearing as little resemblance to an auroch as a locomotive bears to a flock of migrating sheep. A thing of El, also called An and many other things...ruler of the god-folk of that other time of the dream...an engine of destruction unleashed as a weapon against those who would stand against the star-borne. In the logic of dreams, Enki was still alive when the "bull" attacked, and it was only by fighting together as one that the boy's dream self and Enki were able to slay the beast...it was in retribution for helping to kill the thing that Enki was struck down soon thereafter, by treachery. The battle was dire, and the boy nearly failed...he sensed that if he were to fall to the bull in his dream there would be consequences in real life. But he had been prepared well and mustered the mental disciple even in sleep to overcome his morphean opponent.

 

Over the next couple of years, the nightmare saga elaborated and progressed, not always in logical order, sometimes repeating certain scenes. Meanwhile, the boy's training continued...learning esoteric lore bit by bit at his father's side. The lad was not particularly precocious, had no special talent for the work, and if not for the seemingly infinite patience of his father was unlikely to have progressed very far by himself. He lacked even the ability to sense the auras of magical things innately and failed to develop the knack regardless of multiple techniques his father attempted. Finally, his father guided the boy through the making of a minor artifact, an amulet invested with a spell to compensate for the boy's lack of esoteric awareness. Armed with this and tireless discipline the boy grew to become a young man whose life consisted of day in day out practice, repetition, practice, repetition, practice, repetition. By dint of constant grinding at the whetstone of his father's curriculum the young man became a fairly reliable, technically proficient journeyman wizard, skilled at rote casting in controlled circumstances and with a head full of the lore of classical hermeticism as well as tidbits of secret knowledge salted here and there to keep things interesting. 

 

Eventually, in the evolving nightmare narrative, the young man's adventures descended into a nether place, and he was forced to slay daemonic guardians with impenetrable skin and other such dark entities to gain power with which to force the gods themselves to give up the secret of endless existence. Eventually his dream self overcame all the challenges put in his path...yet in success he also failed and his dream self died a natural death having accepted that eternity is not for mortals such as he, no matter how great they may be. But in so dying he rose again from Death's embrace, reborn with a spark of the everlasting as either a gift of the gods or a side effect of the power he had stolen to travel to the other side by harvesting the essence of a psychopomp.

 

This dream death would prove to be the young wizard's final dream in the sequence. He never again returned to it, having reached the culmination of an extended, complicated, Hermetic rite of internal transmutation, a subtle spell cast upon the self in many parts. In the waking world, the young man was forever changed, no longer as bound to the turning of the wheel of life and death, unshackled from senescence, the count of his days extended. It was the first time he expanded his own life span, but not the last. He had taken the first steps onto the long and tightrope like road of eternal life. One misstep and he might still meet his end, but with diligence and a little luck such an outcome need not be considered inevitable.

 

Perhaps more importantly, when playing out the by now nearly-routine breakfast nook scene one last time the morning after the final dream and describing to his father his dream self's death and rebirth, the young wizard basked in the rare glow of his father's unmasked pride. The memory of which would sustain him in later leaner years in moments of self doubt, an often reached for moment of validation. 

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The puzzle box refused to yield its secrets to the young wizard, as he sat scowling upon it in an overstuffed tufted leather club chair before a banked fire, smoking jacketed and slippered. In the corner a wooden cabineted television, a very recent and somewhat gauche addition to the richly appointed study, reeled grainy color images of a new show...Lucy something or other. In a moment of reflection the young wizard imagined the quirked eyebrow and paternal "suggestion" he would have received were his father present to free himself from distractions and focus on the task literally at hand...opening the box...instead of watching "that infernal contraption".

 

The box was cube shaped, 9'' square, each side variously bearing geared cogs, buttons, sliders, knobs, panels, or other manipulatives. Standard puzzle box fare and perfectly mundane. However, such mechanical impediments were of little consequence compared to the complex layering of mystical wards, traps, binds, and riddles the object was festooned with.

 

His father had made this in a mere afternoon and an evening before departing on a junket, a casual effort for him that would take even most master wizards the better part of a year and great planning to accomplish, and left it for the young wizard to solve in his absence. All his father would say was that he'd be in the budding state of Israel, founded a mere few years ago, for a month or so to "keep a steady hand on the tiller", and that the puzzle box would "keep you busy" until his return. Four days later our young wizard had made some progress, mostly in the first day, but had become stumped on a clever combination of a magical cryptogram intertwined with a multi-step mechanical release for a hatch on one of the sides. It seemed to require him to partially unravel the mystical construct, move a piece, re-weave the construct, move a different piece, and then repeat that basic sequence several times. One wrong move, and the puzzle box would magically reset. Starting over and going through the entire sequence from the beginning took at least two hours just to get back to the same step in the process, an arduous and aggravating exercise even for someone inured to practice and repetition.

 

After half a dozen wrong moves today alone, a low throbbing headache competed with general frustration and the long suffering low-level resentment the wizard sometimes felt about his life situation. A late-thirties academic of some prowess, by societal norms he should be an independent man with his own career and household, perhaps with a family or at least a wife, and entirely out from under the shadow of his father. He might perhaps be a professor or a writer of serious literature. But other than the outward charade of normalcy maintained to hide in plain sight, there was nothing normative about his actual situation as a journeyman wizard subordinated to a vastly more capable master who also happened to be a doting and overprotective parent. Even per the traditional journeyman-master relationship the young wizard should be striking out on his own initiative at least from time to time, but he was still treated more like a senior apprentice. It was stifling. Nearly suffocating at times. 

 

Finally, with a grimace he gave up for the nonce, put the puzzle down upon a side table next to his chair, deactivated the amulet that allowed him to see supernatural auras, and sprang to his feet filled with pent up frustration and a desire to leave the house. In an act of mini-rebellion he decided on the spot to do something his father would strongly disapprove of...visit a den of iniquity, risking injury to his finely trained hands with ill-advised physical activity, possibly even polluting his finely trained mind with cheap alcohol and cigarettes, and squandering his finely trained social graces by rubbing elbows with the hoi palloi of less monied folk.

 

He was going bowling!

 

It was a secret pleasure which he only rarely got the opportunity to indulge in on the few occasions when father was away. He was unable to join a league and had no friends, but just getting a solo lane and allowing himself to be in the company of other people doing something...well...normal...was sufficiently thrilling. He even had a pair of shoes and a bowling ball hidden away in his room, and several bowling shirts and slacks which were charmingly cheap and common compared to his usual attire of bespoke suits and respectable evening wear.

 

The headache was already giving way to excitement as he left the study and ascended the stairs to don his illicit bowling garb. He did not notice several of the elements of the puzzle box, magical and mundane, changing after his back was turned... 

 

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Her name was Devorah Levine, though she went by Debbie in mixed company. Raven haired and nontraditionally beautiful, daughter of a successful small business owner with a chain of Buick dealerships across the New England seaboard. Funny, with a piercing observational wit, and a wry sense of humor that bordered on scandalous at times. The young wizard had met her at the bowling alley the fourth night of slipping away from the extremely vexing puzzle box, which he had begun to realize was even more complex than originally understood, capable of subtle mutations according to some scheme or stimuli that was not yet clear.

 

He had been minding his own business bowling alone on the far lane up against the back wall of the bowling alley, when Debbie had separated herself from her pack of girlfriends and come over under the pretense of giving him some bowling tips. It soon turned out that she was definitely a better bowler than he, but her true interest was in something other than bowling. 

 

Unaccustomed to female proximity, having lived a somewhat cloistered life, the young wizard was entirely unprepared for such a bold show of interest and similarly ill prepared for flirting, but luckily for him good breeding and manners prevented him from making a fool of himself and Devorah seemed to find his refined behavior charming. Without him really knowing how it happened, the young wizard eventually realized that he had somehow become committed to taking Debbie on a date the upcoming Friday night. She eventually departed with her friends to return to their sorority house in time for curfew, leaving a bemused and slightly befuddled young man in her wake. 

 

It would be charitable to say the young wizard continued dutifully in his attempts to unravel the secrets of the puzzle box over the next few days, but it would require a certain stretching of the truth to do so. He could barely hold focus for more than half an hour at a time before his mind would inevitably stray to thoughts of what Friday night might entail, followed by a subsequent inattentive mistake which would reset the box. He returned to the bowling alley each night hoping to encounter her again, but to no avail. Friday night rolled around with agonizing slowness, and after much perseverating over what to wear and fussing over coiffure and accouterments he set out on his first date ever in his father's sleek black 1950 Cadillac Sixty Special. 

 

The puzzle box, left to its own devices on the side table in the study, continued to slowly permutate in his absence.

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