Flash Fiction Story 043: THE FOURTH WALL: To End The Story Is To Die

His subjects had committed Arthur’s departed body to Glastonbury. The skies over Camelot must have known the change in the air, and wept for his absence in the world. What’s worse, Merlin was nearly out of ideas.

The final words that had been spoken between wizard and king still echoed through Merlin’s mind, threatening to upend any positive progress he might make against the question at hand.

“I know you can accomplish all forms of magic. I do not wish to live forever, but I plead with you, my old friend, do not let my death mean the end of my story.”

Even if the King had lived, there would be no way Merlin could bypass the request with anything resembling honor. Enough people had betrayed the King in the final months of his life, merely contemplating being among them was enough to make Merlin feel ill.

He called for Morgan Le Fay—sister to His Majesty—and Geoffrey—Merlin’s scribe. They were just what Merlin needed to make this scheme work.

They arrived quickly, and were both appropriately dressed in mourning black.

“Her Majesty the Queen sends words of love to you, Sir Merlin,” Geoffrey said dutifully.

“I’m sure she does,” Merlin said. He exchanged a knowing look with Morgan. “God save the Queen,” he told them as both he and Morgan appeared to vacillate between a feverish need to wail out in anger, and the desire to laugh at the sublime farce that Camelot had now become.

“God save the Queen!” Geoffrey parroted. Morgan muttered vaguely similar words.

“Now that we have that out of the way,” Merlin said, leading them further into his workshop. “Let us engage with the business that has brought you here.”

Normally, Merlin’s workspace was a menagerie of chaos that could only appear lucid to the wizard himself. Today, however, the room had been cleared, aside from three brass fixtures jutting out from the stone floor. Ceramic bowls filled with a light red fluid were attached to the base of each outcropping. Each fixture came to a point near the ceiling, appearing like a claw hovering over them. In the center of the room, a dull brown rock with etchings upon it sat in judgment of the contraptions Merlin had wrought.

“What is this, Merlin?” Geoffrey asked.

“Yes,” Morgan said. “Your entire arsenal is missing. This apparatus of yours would be useless, unless…”

“Yes…” Merlin urged her forward in her thinking.

“You’re madder than the talking birds,” Morgan declared, her surmising complete.

“Well, I’ve always had that ambition…” Merlin agreed as he took his position at the base of one of the fixtures. 

“I’m merely a historian,” Geoffrey said, his eyes narrow in a vain attempt to parse their conversation. “What is all of this?”

“The thin border between the magical and the mundane is held together for a reason, this…dull blade of yours could destroy the entirety of the world.” Morgan answered Geoffrey’s question, but did not take her suspicious eyes from Merlin.

“No,” Merlin replied.

“No?” Morgan asked.

“Yes, no,” Merlin repeated. “You have been a good student, Morgan, but you forget the basic rule of all existence. Nothing can be destroyed. Not you, not I, not the King. We only change forms.”

Morgan appeared unimpressed.

“The King’s final wish was to be remembered well, and that his story will continue to be told. This is the only way I can think of to do this,” Merlin pled. “Please. I can only do it with your help.”

She blinked at him and then took her position at the second fixture. “Come along, Geoffrey,” she said, and he dutifully followed her command.

“I still don’t understand what we’re doing,” Geoffrey proclaimed.

“You are the King’s historian; we his magical cohorts,” Merlin explained. “With our fanciful notions, and your eye for the truth, we will bring the real and unreal together in a way that ensures no soul forgets Arthur of Camelot.

“This should only hurt a bit.” The fixtures had already started to glow.

***

Weeks had passed since Merlin had unleashed the chaos that had consumed the kingdom and beyond, and no one had been able to find a trace of poor Geoffrey. When Merlin once again called for Morgan to join him in his chambers, she almost ignored the request.

“I know where he is,” he proclaimed when she rejoined him. “No, wait. First, you were right. No, that’s not quite right. I was right, but you were right to caution me against such wild magics.”

“You appear to have begun this conversation before I arrived,” Morgan said, turning to leave.

“The thing I did not account for,” Merlin continued, proceeding from faith alone that she would not complete her exit. “Is that we are imaginary.”

“Come again?”

“You, me, the King, dear old Geoffrey, we are the stuff of legend. In our attempts to make sure the King was not forgotten, we made moot the question of what is real, and what is imaginary!”

“You keep using this ‘we’ word, Merlin,” Morgan groaned. “It indicates your memory might be failing.”

“It is of no matter!” Merlin proclaimed. “The devices I constructed tore the border between our worlds, and sent Geoffrey to live amongst the real. We must go retrieve him, and then there’s the matter of putting what we’ve broken right… Yes, both worlds will need protection. We may never come back to Camelot again, I’m afraid. We’ll need some kind of new name to travel under… Marlborough? No, too grim. Brocéliande? No! Merlin, use your head! There’s no way the natives where we are set to travel will understand such oblique terms. I’ve got it! The Fourth Wall!”

“What does that mean?” Morgan asked.

“I have no idea. It just sounded right,” Merlin replied, and then continued his unstoppable monologue on his way out of his chambers. Morgan followed, if for no other reason than someone would need to keep an eye on him.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 028: "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hellhound: Part Two"

For Part One of this story, click here

 

3. What Did She Just Say?

 

“What did she just say?” I asked. I didn’t particularly care who answered me.

Shirley ignored me. Strode ignored me. The half-crazed woman from the inn—Ms. Telson—shot me a rueful glance, and then ignored me. Once again, I should have known better.

“Johnny, please,” Shirley chided me. She took the current wad of gum out of her mouth and jammed it under the nearby windowsill of room one at the Baskerville Inn. There was more than enough to keep her attention now; she’d have no need to chew a stick until she got bored again. “Tell me more about these dogs of yours.”

Telson took a harsh step towards Shirley. “Do you mean you believe me?”

“Hardly,” Shirley said. “But I’m reasonably certain that someone doesn’t burst through a door talking about demonic dogs for absolutely no reason. Your raving—er, information—may be useful.”

Talking through her tight, offended expression, she gave us the skinny. Ever since Mr. Baskerville had moved the hotel closer to the the newly opened highway, guests were checking out in the middle of the night, claiming to hear spooky howling from the cars making their way beyond. This might not have been enough to get people back on the road before daylight, but when they saw a glowing, four-legged figure approach the inn from the road, all bets were off.

Yeah, I didn’t think it wasn’t much help, either.

Shirley unwrapped another piece of gum. “Very well,” she remarked. “I need two rooms for the night. One for myself, the other for Johnny. We will uncover the true nature of your paranormal canines, Miss Telson. I trust you will cover our expenses, Strode?”

Strode hadn’t expected the question. “Uh… Uhh…”

“Very good.” Shirley walked out toward the parking lot and stared at the highway beyond. What she could have hoped to get from the road in broad daylight? Beats the hell out of me.

“Shirley,” I pleaded. “I was with you when you brought down the red-headed communist sleeper cell.”

“Yes. I remember. There’s never been a problem with my memory.” She kicked some gravel aside with her feet.

“And I was with you when that polka dotted rope turned out to be a venomous python.” 

She added two fresh sticks of gum to the one she was already chewing. She was definitely working on something, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my continued pestering was splitting her attention. It didn’t stop me, but I did wonder about it.

And I was with you when Old Man Mortimer pushed you off the edge of that water tower.”

“I have some vague suspicion that you are trying to make some kind of point.” The gum bubble she had blown was nearly the size of her head.

“This thing spooks the hell out of me, and I don’t want to be here when the sun goes down.”

“Nonsense,” Shirley said. It looked as if she had gotten all the information needed. She walked towards me. “You are vital to my process.”

“Aw, thanks,” I said.

“Yes. I often find myself needing to speak to someone less intelligent. It helps clarify my own thinking. I’m very close to a solution in this particular matter, and this conversation has been extremely helpful.”

She walked past me and to her room. 

“Th-thanks.” I said.

 

4. In the Face of the Hellhound or The Conclusion of The Case

 

Just after midnight, the howling began. I leapt out of my lumpy new bed and out the front door of my room. I was alone in the night air, aside from the glowing spectral form of the hellhound of Baskerville Inn.

I was completely speechless, which only made the next voice I heard more frightening.

“Johnny,” Shirley called from the open door to her own room. I flinched, thinking her voice was the dog’s. “I don’t think the creature means us any harm.”

“It’s glowing,” I breathed.

“I can see that, yes,” Shirley said. “Let the dog come to us.”

Surely enough (no pun intended), the dog meekly approached us. Once it was clear of the large floodlights dotted across the highway, it looked no more spectral than anything else, although it had shock white hair. I pet the delightful little beast, and my hands felt dusty.

“Shirley, this dog’s been covered in some kind of dust,” I wiped the stuff on my pants.

“Yes,” she said. “Phosphorus. It is what caused the creature to appear to glow under the lights of the new highway. Judging by the size of the animal, it didn’t kill anyone.”

I was about to ask how she could possibly know that, but for once, I actually did know better.

“Furthermore,” Shirley continued. “I think we will find that the culprit of these murders is none other than Mister Baskerville himself, assisted by his lover, Miss Telson. She told us that she was terrified of anything happening to the hotel but had no reaction to my placement of gum on the windowsill. Additionally, I think if we searched the home of Mister Baskerville, we might find a stuffed trophy that has the same bite profile as the wounds on the victim. It’s really simple, Johnny. You just have to think about it for a little while.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “When you put it that way, it does seem to be obvious.”

“You see, Johnny? You’re a very real help with my work,” she said, as she picked up the telephone receiver to fill Strode in on her discoveries. “Well, not the carhop thing, but I think you understand what I meant.”

For once, I did.

 

Streetwise tough Johnny W. and Shirley The Car-Hop Detective will return in season 2 of The Fourth Wall, coming soon from Party Now, Apocalypse Later Industries.

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly