Dave the Terrible never wanted the unholy scepter, but you couldn’t refuse your mother’s dying wish. He hefted the gilt scepter from his nightstand each morning and used it to gaze upon the past and the present and sometimes even the future. It had come with a mist-cloaked fortress in the mountains that had a stone fireplace and a cozy library, so things weren’t all bad.
The first adventurer arrived a month after the probate finished. A knight from two counties east, riding a great stallion and carrying a gleaming sword. Or maybe it was Matt from Sales with his dog and a bag of golf clubs; it was terribly hard to be sure when it was so misty outside and one’s glasses were lost in the fortress’s—more a cottage, really—chaos.
“Come with me and we shall smite the king’s enemies from these lands together!” The knight’s voice echoed from the surrounding mountains.
At least, that’s what the scepter claimed the knight said. Dave’s hearing was being fuzzy again, because he thought he had heard something about answering his texts and a missed tee time.
The scepter squirmed in Dave’s grasp, whispering entreaties to smite the interloper from the mountain, to bar the cottage gates, to retreat to the fortress of solitude.
“Together?” Dave said, mostly to himself. He had a distinct lack of friends since moving out to Mother’s cottage, and smiting enemies sounded like better exercise than sorting the attic.
“You’re not ready,” the scepter whispered.
“Don’t,” the scepter growled.
“You should leave.” The words were in Dave’s voice, directed at the knight, but they really came from the scepter.
Magic smoke wafted from the scepter’s gemstones.
“Fine. Be like that.” The knight retreated to his stallion—more an over-sized truck, really—and departed the mountain with the dog whining in the seat beside him.
The second adventurer came from one of the kingdoms to the west. A dapper wizard garbed in shades of blue, riding a chariot of hammered gold. “Put it aside, dear fellow, and move on with your life. We shall play bridge again in the lands of milk and honey.”
The scepter hissed something about turning the prince into a peacock and roasting him over an open flame. Dave actually considered putting down the scepter, though he wasn’t entirely sure about the milk and honey, unless it was supposed to go in a cup of tea.
The scepter quivered. The scepter smoked. The prince returned to his mid-sized luxury sedan, adjusted his jacket’s sleeves, and suggested that Dave really should seek professional help.
Such a barb shouldn’t have stuck.
It did, because life wasn’t fair, Mother was still gone, and Dave was being a coward, though he could only admit it to himself late at night while staring into the fireplace’s dying embers. He cradled the scepter, trying—and failing—to draw strength from it.
Weeks passed. Spring turned to summer. Another adventurer appeared. Her auburn tresses glowed in the golden light of the setting sun. A princess from the fair lands to the south, most assuredly. “I’m looking for Dave.” She double-checked her phone and looked back up at Dave, but she didn’t recognize him with his shaggy hair and overgrown beard. “Could you tell him Jess is here?”
The name was familiar, but his brain felt as fogged as the mountain valleys on a summer morning. He knew, abstractly, that he should invite her inside and offer her tea. He didn’t.
“She’s a succubus,” the scepter whispered. “Here to steal me away from you.”
Dave wasn’t so sure, but before he could find his courage, the scepter used his voice to say, “You’ve got the wrong address. He’s about twenty minutes west of here. Navy suit, gold Lexus. Can’t miss him.”
“Oh.” Jess’s face fell. She shuffled back toward her car.
A few days later, Dave took breakfast in the library. He ate his porridge and stared at a brown bottle that his psychiatrist had prescribed shortly after Mother first fell ill. When Dave reached peak courage and minimal tea, he set the scepter aside and fumbled one of the pills into his palm and swallowed it before he could have second thoughts. He didn’t like the pills, but he needed magic. Powerful magic.
* * *
One morning, Dave rose and dressed in his favorite corduroy trousers and his softest sweater. He slipped into the tweed jacket that Matt Knight had once complimented and Jess had helped him choose when they were still seeing each other, before Mother’s long illness. He poured two cups of tea and added cream to both. He put two lumps of sugar into one of the cups, just the way Mother had liked it, and set the table.
He drank slowly, letting his determination grow with each sip.
“I think I’ll go out today.”
The scepter quivered. “It is not time.”
Dave’s hand shook as he washed down his daily pill with the last dregs of his tea. The mist that cloaked the valley thinned.
He took the cups to the sink and poured Mother’s cup down the drain. He washed them. He dried them. He put his own cup into the draining rack. He put mother’s cup into the back of the cupboard and closed the door.
The scepter shivered and quaked from its place on the table. Its power faded.
Dave collected a gilt-edged picture frame from the table. Him and Mother, back before her diagnosis. He used his sweater’s hem to polish the dust from the frame’s inlaid stones. He set the frame and its photo onto the mantle where it—and the past—would be safe and out of the way. He locked the cottage and tucked the key into his pocket.
Dave the Mostly Functional ventured out into the world again.
PATREON EXCLUSIVE: BEHIND-THE-SCENES INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR BRENT BALDWIN
FFO: How did the idea for this story germinate?
BB: It took three attempts to find the core story you see today. The first iteration started with “Dave the Terrible, Wizard of the Third Order, Sorcerer of Dark Skies and Cold Feet, stands at the precipice at the end of the world and shouts to the sky. The heavens tremble. The precipice–it’s a hillside overlooking O’Hare airport–stirs, but only for the goats to move to another clump of weeds.” I still like that as an opening, but I couldn’t make that story work in the word count for a flash piece, so I slept on it. And I dreamed. At about 3:00 AM I woke up and jotted down the line “Dave the Terrible is the protag. A wizard made powerful through artificial means, but whose one natural ability is actually stunning if seldom used: the ability to create and orbit telecommunications satellites.” Reader, I’m here to tell you that at 3:00 AM that line was BRILLIANT and HILARIOUS and 100% destined to win a Nebula. By 10:00 AM, aided by a cappuccino, I started on attempt 3, which turned into what you’ve read today. A good friend recently lost his mother after a long decline, and I saw the toll that took on him. This story is a combination of empathy and asking how I could portray grief through a new lens. It took many passes of revision to tune the relationship between what the reader sees as real and what Dave sees as real, including some help from FFO’s wonderful editor, Emma.