Kel could not spark his lightning.
He snapped his fingers but could not amass a charge. He sat powerless atop a bell tower, sunset on the horizon, a horde of ghouls clawing at the stone down below. His finger hit his palm. He waited for the scratch of static within, the rumble in his hands and blue glow at the edges of his vision, yet his lightning would not spark.
Hundreds of ghouls crowded below. Decayed hands grabbed at the stone. Their rotting bodies created a pyramid as they piled over one another, climbing halfway up the tower, frenzied at the sight of the living. Groans and wails overlapped. Townspeople slept behind walls, knowing their mage would clear out the horde and keep them safe.
He snapped his fingers again—no charge. He stood, stretched, and yawned. Kel walked to hold on to one of the four walls, leaning over, watching ghouls climb to the top of their pyramid only to be pushed down to the bottom. Hundreds more than last week. They crowded an abandoned town square, weather-beaten market carts and a crumbled fountain under their feet.
A ghoul in a slashed coat scaled to the top of their pyramid, reaching up, then fell backward. Kel stepped away. The bell rope brushed against him.
The townspeople had rung it an hour ago to group the fiends in one spot. Kel had nodded to a guard before climbing up. He gave a confident smile, nothing to worry about, and patted the guard on the shoulder, directing him to a tavern.
Then, he'd ascended the stairs to the bell.
His legs had felt like lead on the way up. His heart thudded in odd beats, and his vision blurred as he passed torches. Without a doubt, it’d be his fault if the walls broke. The horde would tear through the townspeople. When he reached the top, looking down at the wave of death below, he couldn't spark his lightning.
Hundreds more than he could deal with. He could only do so much on his own.
When you’re expected to always come out victorious—when there is no choice but to win—what do you do when you can’t? Who do you talk to when everybody depends on you, where one wrong word can send everyone into ruin? They’d have nowhere to run if he couldn’t protect them. The settlement would fall.
Pressure builds up and days pass, Kel thought. Ghouls claw at the walls. Warm smiles turn into cold stares, keep us safe, and when the bell tolls…
The wooden flooring creaked. Kel exhaled, paced, waiting for the nerves to calm. He slouched down against the wall and undid the cap of his canteen. He swished water around his mouth and spat it at the gathering pyramid. The ghoul at the top, wearing faded robes, reminded him of his professor. The one who had taught him to wield lightning. A deformed, brutalized ghoul took its place. Scratched out eyes and bug infected skin.
Kel turned his head to the left. He could make out the blacksmith’s forge. Its chimney expelled smoke—the man always worked late, crafting pitchforks for farmers, tools for construction workers, and weapons for guards.
If not for the ghouls, Kel would’ve heard steel hitting steel.
Wind blew past, and he watched the wheat sway. One farmer, an old man with a toothy grin, had complained about bugs. He’d joked about how Kel would be a good ‘pest zapper’. The man worked from dawn until dusk.
Every time Kel walked past, the farmer smiled and waved.
He snapped his fingers. No charge. Kel looked to his home, where candlelight illuminated the window. The artist would stay awake and wait for his return. She used to paint landscapes, but lost her inspiration to the plague. Her paintings became grim. Macabre pieces from her nightmares. She weaved baskets for the town in their place.
Kel promised her she had nothing to fear.
They had spent mornings skipping stones at the river, and nights pointing out constellations. They broke apart fresh bread under the stars, laughing, feeling alive. Days where the stress melted away. Until the bell tolled.
The townspeople's work would be for nothing if he couldn’t protect them. It’d be an echo of the past—his father failing, torn apart by a horde. A settlement overrun. Kel left wandering, a mage too weak to protect anyone. Years spent with an old academy professor to master his craft as a plague raised the dead by the thousands.
He looked down. A child ghoul jumped up from the pyramid. It struggled to find its grip against the stone.
“How long until I’m here twice a week?” Kel asked.
A ghoul lined with arrows reached up. Another pushed it down.
He exhaled. The settlement required a mage who could deal with the ghouls, lest they fall like the rest, and the hordes at the walls would only increase in scale. More people, more noise, and you can’t turn refugees away at the gate when you’re trying to rebuild civilization. They would all rely on the mage, no matter what.
Thrive and live or fall to disaster.
One or the other. Rise to the challenge or abandon it.
He loved the artist. The people loved and depended on the mage—their praise never ended. Even when Kel slept, men at taverns cheered his victories until morning. Women sent gift baskets, and children wrote cards for the quiet mage who returned to the bell tower at the end of each week.
The artist always waited for him to return with open arms.
Kel snapped his fingers and his lightning sparked.
He stepped back, ran, and leaped off the bell tower. His hair flowed out behind him, his vision gleaming with a blue tint, lightning dancing between his fingertips. Ghouls jumped from the pyramid in attempts to catch him midair—the sparks encircling his hands surged with power. Azure lightning covered Kel’s arms and legs, bright enough to blind, and he hit the ground with the crack of thunder.
A shock nova erupted around him.
The barrage of sparks stunned his surroundings. Kel aimed his hand and snapped his fingers. A bolt of lightning circled his palm before shooting forward, striking a ghoul in the chest. The bolt arced from one fiend to the next, darting between quarry like a runaway thief, setting tattered clothing aflame. Kel breathed out tendrils of electricity.
Talent begging to be used.
Crackling lances impaled ghouls, branching out after frying their targets, incinerating them into charred skeletons. The ghouls dropped like insects. A field of conductivity developed around him, amplifying his powers, hieroglyphs etched into the ground. Thunder roared at each snap.
He could hardly see through the lightning sparking off his eyes.
He swung his hands forward, a shock wave of electricity pushing ghouls back. He’d be the mage the settlement needed for decades to come. A storm with such potential, not even the strongest of walls would hold him back. Kel hovered from the ground, lightning a blur under his hands, bolts shocking any ghoul that dared to come close, and released the power within.
A shaper of storms.
Dark clouds amassed overhead. Spires of lightning struck the ground. Kel controlled the wrath of the storm, breaking apart hordes with divine ire, feeling pure amidst the lightning. His chosen element. The reason his kind existed. Eradicate the undead.
Kel hit the ground, the power fading, his mind buzzing. Surviving ghouls trembled from the outburst. Their diseased brains would shut off in seconds to come, overwhelmed with electricity. He stumbled to the gates, zapping loose fiends with his remaining energy along the way.
Crossbowmen atop towers climbed down to guide him. He collapsed as he entered the settlement, fading in and out of consciousness. Healers checked him over. Men and women gathered in crowds, silent. The artist broke through, and Kel struggled to his feet. He would not fall before them.
He raised his fist in the air.
“No matter what,” he mumbled, breathing out sparks, “I’ll keep you all safe. I swear it.”
Cheering sounded in the night.