The Ancient Tome

copyright 2011, 2018 by Chris Benedict

Astrodemus pushed the broom harder. The guy was such a slob. But Astrodemus would do anything to learn to be a Level Five Megawizard. He gritted his teeth. Anything.

Every day, Gurnwurtz would let him read a page of the Ancient Tome, a battered, leather-bound journal. One single page of the crabbed, archaic handwriting; and never any more. Then they would discuss its contents for hours, as Gurnwurtz taught him the secrets of Megawizardry.

The Master Megawizard strutted through the room. “Are you prepared, Apprentice?” he blurted, his halitosis reaching Astrodemus in a fetid wave. He held out his hand expectantly.

“Yes, Master. I am prepared.” Astrodemus placed the hundred into Gurnwurtz’s soft hand, baring his teeth in a grimace that Gurnwurtz always mistook for a smile.

Dropping the broom, Astrodemus followed his master up the tawdry, soot-stained stairway lit only by a bare, dingy bulb. The guy let out a fart on his way up, and Astrodemus felt his breath catch in his throat. Unbreathing, he continued up, feeling his chest burn with oxygen deprivation and rage.

They squeezed into a tiny, book-filled room, barely bigger than a closet. Gurnwurtz pulled out the locked metal box, ostentatiously flourished the silver key he wore around his neck, and brought out the Tome. With gravitas, he set it upon the reading stand and gingerly opened it to the book mark.

“Are you ready to read the last page, student?” Gurnwurtz challenged him with watery blue eyes. “Are you fortified to learn the final secrets of Megawizardry?”

Astrodemus had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. He was so done with the man’s posturing. Instead, he pulled on all his acting abilities to keep sarcasm from his tone. “Yes, Master. I’m ready.”

They read the page together, and after they had done it, silence grew between the young man and the older man.

“Is that it?” Astrodemus asked finally. He had been half-expecting a flash of light, ominous music, the sudden appearance of a shadowy force, or at least something. Something extraordinary, to finish his transformation. To make him into the Level Five Megawizard that he knew lurked somewhere within him.

Gurnwurtz laughed, a harsh, mocking sound. “Yeah, that’s it, kid. So get outta here, I’m sick of looking at you.”

Astrodemus just stared sourly at him. Now they were equals, weren’t they? Wasn’t that how it worked?

“Go on, git,” Gurnwurtz said dismissively. “You heard me. Leave.”

Astrodemus’s lips compressed thinner and thinner above his blazing eyes. “But I cleaned for you, I did all sorts of unspeakably disgusting things. And you promised.” Astrodemus’ voice had grown shriller. “So, make me a Level Five. Right now.”

Gurnwurtz snorted, a sound that distilled derision to one sharp note. His face was set and hard. “Sure kid, you’re a Megawizard now. Whatever level you want. Just get out.” He took the Tome off the stand and locked it back into its metal box. “I can’t believe how stupid you are, really. Level Five Megawizard? I just made that up. Now get out of my house, or I’ll call the cops.”

“But… the Tome…” Astrodemus protested.

“Is bullshit.” Gurnwurtz sneered disdainfully at him. “You dummy. It’s all a scam. I found the so-called ‘Ancient Tome’ at a used book store, and picked it up for ninety-nine cents. That stuff doesn’t work; if it did, do you think I’d be conning college kids out of cash for a living?”

Repressed anger blazed up in Astrodemus. He began to mutter the spell from page fifty-seven, intoning arcane syllables etched deeply into his brain. He spoke the sonorous words without the halting hesitation with which Gurnwurtz had sounded them out. His guttural chanting echoed eerily in the tiny room.

A moment later, Gurnwurtz’s sneer was replaced by a gasp of surprise. And a moment after that, Gurnwurtz burst into flame.

“Page one, paragraph three. It is necessary to believe fully in the power of Megawizardry if you are going to master the power of Megawizardry,” Astrodemus quoted as the man screamed in agony.

Astrodemus plucked the silver key from Gurnwurtz’s neck and tucked the metal box containing the Ancient Tome into his backpack. As he turned to go, dying gurgles faded away to silence.