When Kathka finally woke, he didn’t recognize where he was. He didn’t remember falling asleep on a rocky ridge overlooking the land; he didn’t even recall lying down to sleep. Yet he was here, and something terrible had happened.
Before him lied a swirling fire-blackened chasm. Smoke from burning evergreen forests filled the air, distorting his view through layers of pink heatwaves. Above all the burning, the ruins of a looming fortress stuck up from the horizon like a gigantic, black claw reaching up from the hells below. The sight of it sent a thrill of horror up Kathka’s spine. He knew that fortress.
He stood and screamed at the sky, and though he had nothing to scream at in particular except his own terror, his shriek became a howl of animal fury that echoed up the mountains and across the wide forests.
He screamed again, this time calling on the Magus, begging them to come and save him from whatever nightmarish calamity was upon him. He was swept by a dizzying wash of fear and despair, but he was filled, too, with sudden clarity. Even though its walls were crumbling and the world looked to be ending abruptly, he knew he had to make it to that fortress.
Numb and tunnel-visioned, he walked to the edge of the rocky cliff and looked from the horizon down into the deep ravine below.
The ruins seemed impossibly far away and the ground below was obscured by the haze of more flames, but he felt the presence of the Magus and braced himself for a grand leap of faith.
He stepped off of the craggy cliff and into space, and for a moment he felt as if he were flying. But he wasn’t, and his body fell straight down into an eventual, bone-rending crunch and he laid immobile, temporarily stunned at being so forsaken by the Magus.
After an eternity of thought, he pushed himself up from the ground, unbent his legs and forcefully cracked the bones back into place. Slowly, he stood, gazing up at the black sky, and raised one arm toward the heavens as if he could take off flying like in his dreams.
A raging red wind whistled past, slapping his face with such force that his eyes popped out of their sockets and bounced on the stones below. He blindly reached for them, found them, dusted them off, and popped them back into his head. He squinted to contain his eyes and once again looked back at the sky with a renewed sense of determination. The wind picked up and sounded loud and powerful.
There was a burst of bright red light from overhead, followed by a horrible smell and then silence. Kathka found himself surrounded by thick black smoke and smoldering, red-hot pebbles.
As he squinted into the smoke, Kathka saw a green circle of grass push through the ground in front of him, erupting with life from between the lifeless crag. It rose, and then out of it, a thin column of green smoke rose. The smoke snaked back and forth through the air, slowly widening, until it became a glowing silhouette.
The outline of a man began to take shape — and then the shape really was a man, walking, dancing, skipping about the grass, without a care in the world.
“Who is it?” the Magus asked. “Who summoned me?”
“Don’t you know?” said Kathka. “You should know.”
“No, I don’t know,” said the Magus. “Why would I know?”
Kathka stared, dumbstruck.
“Kidding, I’m kidding,” the Magus grinned a horrible, toothy grin, “obviously. You are the one they call Kathka,” said the Magus. “The One Who Cannot Kill. Weird title, if you ask me.”
The Magus walked over to him and stood for a moment, his head cocked to one side. “But it suits you, I suppose. Congratulations, my friend,” he added.
“What are you talking about?” stuttered Kathka. “Are you, are you mad?”
The Magus looked overly puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said. “What does mad mean from your tongue?”
Kathka was beside himself with rage and fear and despair and frustration, and he had to fight the urge to throw himself further down the ravine. Instead, he sat down on the grass and willed himself to wait for the Magus to explain.
“I would have liked to have been mad once,” the Magus mumbled softly, just barely audible enough to be heard over the rumble of widespread wildfires. “I think I would have liked that, to be mad. Would it make me happy?”
“What are you talking about?” seethed Kathka. “You are mad!”
“Yes,” the Magus agreed. “Perhaps. I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
“Can you explain to me, at least, why you are here?” pleaded Kathka, sweeping his arms at the inferno raging over the skyline. “What happened here? Why come if you’re not going to help me?”
“There’s no reason for anything, my friend.”
“That’s not a reason,” said Kathka. “I need a reason!”
“I thought it would be,” said the Magus. “I am surprised you are surprised. I thought you’d see the humor in it. You know, the emptiness of it all.”
“Humor?” said Kathka. “Humor in my horror?”
“Yes,” said the Magus.
“Look around! Is this not hell?”
“Well, yes, of course,” said the Magus. “You must have expected that.”
“Everything was fine. I expected to just wake up,” said Kathka. “I expected nothing. Nothing. Not hell. Not heaven. Nothing. Certainly not this hellfire.”
“Good for you,” said the Magus. “That is better than a lot of people who die and come here. They expect heaven or they expect hell and they really just miss the whole thing.”
“And what thing is this?” asked Kathka.
“This?” said the Magus. “This is life, my friend.”
“But I was alive,” said Kathka. “I had a life.”
“Yes,” said the Magus, “and now you aren’t; you have a new one.”
“But I’m here,” said Kathka, rubbing his bulging biceps thoughtfully. “I feel the same. I can hear you, see you, see me. I am me, here!”
“I am here,” said the Magus, and there was an eerie look of blankness in his eyes. “I am here. I am here.” He began to dance about, twirling, pirouetting, and leaping through the air.
“You are mad,” said Kathka, letting his head hang low.
The Magus stopped and looked around as if he’d forgotten mid-conversation what the two of them were doing there. “Why, yes,” he said. “What is your name again?”
“Kathka,” said Kathka flatly, too worn down for any more jokes from the Magus.
“No, it was Kathka,” the Magus corrected with a long, raised finger. “What is it now?”
“I don’t understand,” said Kathka. “I’m still Kathka.”
“I didn’t think so,” said the Magus. “You will.” He waved at a point above Kathka’s head. “You know,” he said, “that most people, when they first get here, are actually relieved. Relieved to be dead,” he added. “But not you, of course! That’s a good sign.”
“You’re mad,” said Kathka. “I’m not dead. I’m alive, here!”
“Yes, you are alive, here. Or no, you are dead, here, if you prefer,” said the Magus. “The two are the same. You know, it is a bit like water. It’s just a bucket, you know?”
“What are you talking about?” said Kathka.
“Water,” said the Magus.
“I understand water,” said Kathka. “What about buckets?”
“You can’t really tell,” said the Magus, “whether a bucket of water is full or empty, it is just a bucket. When it is empty it doesn’t care. When it is full it doesn’t care. Whether it’s filled with water or gold, it doesn’t care. When you refill it, it doesn’t care.” He chuckled. “It’s just a damn bucket.”
“Okay, what’s your point?”
“Just like water,” said the Magus. “It’s all just here. Whatever it is. Whatever the story is. It’s all here. No reason to it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Kathka. “The legends never said Magus were riddlers.”
“There’s no one who does,” said the Magus. “But you’re starting to understand, Kathka.”
“I don’t have time for this. Do you see that fortress over there? With the crumbling walls, there. I’ve seen it in my dreams for years. It’s a sign from the Gods and I need to get there. Can you help me? You are a Magus. Can you take me there?”
“Why?” said the Magus.
“What?” said Kathka.
“Why?” repeated the Magus. “Why do you need to get there?”
“Because I’ve dreamed of it,” said Kathka. “For so long, as long as I can remember. In so many dreams it’s been right there on the horizon, just out of reach. I’ve flown, ridden dragons, and trekked for years to find it, but it’s always been a dream; never as real as it is now.”
“Oh,” said the Magus.
“So you see,” said Kathka, “you must know about it. It sprung up out of nowhere! It must be important; can you take me there?”
“You must remember what I said about hell and heaven,” said the Magus.
“I have no need for that,” said Kathka.
“No?” said the Magus. “How about love and hate?”
“They are the same, too,” said the Magus. “They come from the same place, like water. The place where love and hate are just there.” He pointed up. “They come from there. You know,” he said, “there’s no place like here, for understanding.”
“But what of that fortress?” said Kathka. “You must know something about it. I don’t want to stay here. You must be able to take me there, right?”
“Of course I can,” said the Magus, rolling his eyes. “But we’ll need a river. Water, obviously.”
“This has nothing to do with water,” shouted Kathka. “Why are you so obsessed with water?”
“Yes, it does,” said the Magus. “It absolutely does; didn’t you hear? Everything is the same here. Water, love, hate. All the same. It just needs a bucket.”
“I need to get to that fortress,” begged Kathka. “Please take me to the fortress, O Magus. I’ve heard legends of the unbelievable power of Magus, there to help when we most need it. I need it! Can’t you see that? I’m begging you.”
The Magus scrunched his face and let out a loud, rumbling moan, then jumped up and down and waved his arms, spinning in a circle. After a short burst of what looked like well-choreographed dance moves, he ended his abrupt routine with double finger guns pointed at Kathka, then pulled both triggers.
“You’re the Magus now, Kathka.” He grinned again, that horrible toothy smile. “You take me there, Magus.”
“But I can’t,” said Kathka, scrutinizing his hands. “You’re the Magus! I have no powers.”
“Yes you do,” said the Magus. “It’s just like water. It’s just like love. Just like hate. Be the bucket.”
“Yes you can,” said the Magus. “You just don’t know it yet. Just like you didn’t know you were dead.”
“Just like water,” said Kathka sarcastically. “I suppose water is dead, too?”
“Yes,” said the Magus. “Just like water.”
Kathka looked at the Magus and started to tear up. “You’re insane,” he said. “I don’t know why I ever believed you would help.”
“Bucket,” the Magus announced grandly. “Water.” He lifted a hand up, extended a finger, and tapped Kathka lightly on the forehead.
A gush of clear water forcefully sprayed out from Kathka’s forehead with such force that he fell backward onto the ground, spraying him and the Magus both. When it stopped, the Magus walked over and stood over the man to admire his handiwork, dripping water from his chin onto Kathka’s already-soaked clothing.
“Like water,” said the Magus. “Like love,” he continued, holding out his hands. “I am the water, and you are the bucket,” he said, bringing one hand down to press against Kathka’s chest, where more water oozed out like a sponge. “Like hate,” he continued, jerking his hand upward, which guided an arc of water up Kathka’s nose.
Kathka choked and gasped for breath, but the Magus kept going. “Just like hate.” And another, stinging stream of water sprayed into Kathka’s eyes.
Kathka staggered to his feet and a pulsing blue glow emanated from his chest and arms. A moment later, arcs of water sprung from each of his hands, splashing all around the bottom of the stone ravine.
Kathka stood there, hunched over, his hands at the ready.
“Like water,” said the Magus, pointing. “Now fly.”
Kathka looked down toward the bottom of the ravine, then at the Magus. He closed his eyes and imagined himself flying.
A moment later, he was airborne.
The Magus gazed up at him. “Fly,” he cheered. “Fly, fly!”
Kathka flew, climbing up the side of the ravine past where he had woken up and jumped from, then on up to the top, and he did a big loop before making a beeline toward the fortress.
“Good,” shouted the Magus from behind. “Just like love.”
But Kathka didn’t hear. He soared above the trees, above the dirt roads, above the smoldering farmlands. He stumbled through the air ungainly at first, but eventually found his rhythm, quickly picking up to a breakneck pace, faster and faster. He swooped down, coasting above the treetops, dipping and rising with the wind, flying in loops, taking in the surroundings, and shot occasional streams of water from his open palms down at the wildfires below.
On the horizon, the ancient fortress grew larger. From the air, the crumbled walls of the ancient building were visible, and a few of the rooms remained intact. The highest point was the keep, which appeared to be a steeple. There were several stories, with jagged edges, and only half-formed. The building’s exterior walls were missing large sections, and the entire structure was marked by a distinct rusting. It was smaller than what Kathka had expected, but from above, the view was more breathtaking. Even in his dreams, he’d never been this close.
He couldn’t wait to see what was inside.