“It’s the standard puzzle,” said the old wizard, as he led me through a hallway lined with red doors. “A mere formality, I’m afraid, though once it vexed the greatest of minds. Behind one door lies the treasure you seek, and behind the other is certain death. One guard to each door. One always lies. One always tells the truth. You’re allowed one question. Doubtless you have been coached by your mentors.”
“And it is the true Elixir?”
“Who can say but those who have drunk of the sacred pool? They did not linger here, but tales have reached even us, of great men who have survived the long centuries, even millennia.”
Tales had reached my village too. Kassim, with scars on his belly older than I, told me the way to this crumbling tower in the eastern desert. His tales had all the answers, how to appease the guardian at the Red Gate with a song, what gifts to offer the King of the Rose City, how to escape the attentions of his snake-haired daughter.
I had crossed the golden sea with merely the gain of a scar across my chest from a bandit sword. At the Mage’s Tower, I gave up my weapons and armor before entering. Now, at long last, I stood before the two iron doors. The guards did not look at me.
They were but bone, yet black as the starless night. Their eyes, swollen pools of amber.
I felt the absence of my sword as I looked upon their wicked scimitars.
Yet within me was the great elation that comes of being a strong man, a warrior who knew no fear. I did not wish to give up this fire in my blood. I could not have chosen any quest but the one that lead me here.
“The Elixir was imbibed into their tongues,” said the fussy little wizard, his old purple robe raising dust as he hurried to stand between the two skeleton guards. “Vocal chords, and parts of their brains were saved. The art of it is lost, long lost, sadly, but… one has the lump of the brain that tells truth, and the other… you see the way of it. Their flesh rotted away but we didn’t need bodies to feed.”
“Yes,” I said, wishing he would let me get on with it. He was like no wizard from a tale. He moved nervously, adjusting his over-large turban each time it slid down, filmy gaze sliding away from mine. He scratched furtively at his neck and face. An allergy, he said, to date wine.
“I’m sorry, I prattle on like a woman. I don’t’ receive many visitors… ah, please, yes, ask your question.”
A riddle so well known that I was heaping humiliation on this old man by answering it. I wondered why the custodians of the Tower chose to grow old and weak. Perhaps certain death was more comforting than all the uncertainties of eternal life.
Not all men were made to live forever.
I turned to the guard on the left, mastering my fear. “What would the other guard say,” I said. “If I were to ask him what lies behind the door he guards?”
A heavy voice, like a stone dragging across a marble floor.
“Death,” he hissed.
I moved to the door on the right.
“Ah well done,” twittered the little wizard, fishing in his robe. I glimpsed wrinkled bare skin under the tattered cloth. “Here it is,” he said, producing a small iron key with a flourish. “I’ll… uh, yes, I’ll just leave you to it then, shall I?”
He backed away, bowing repeatedly, a weak, scared old man.
Yet a wizard.
The tales were unclear about wizards. Sometimes they were good, and yet often they were dark, corrupted by powers lent to them by ancient gods who were merciless and demanding.
I looked at the skeletal guards. They frightened me, despite all that I had faced in my travels. Yet the dread was not coming from their presence.
Lies, I thought, remembering Kassim’s strange, bright eyes. The tale hinges on the liar. Find the liar!
“It’s you!” I roared, lunging to grab the Wizard. “Liar!” The first scimitar caught me across the belly, and my skin split —
The other scimitar was at my throat, as coils of innards slithered out of my belly. I barely felt the pain through the rage. “You! It’s you! The guards tell the truth! You’re the liar!”
“Oh,” he said, pressing a hand to his mouth in fright. “It’s gentle poison, gentle. The sacred pools lull you to sleep, give you dreams, I am told, of eternal life… very pretty.” He made a gesture to one of the guards. I was dragged across the cold floor through one of the doors, it no longer mattered which. Death.
Death behind both doors.
“I was so glad to see you,” the Wizard twittered. I could see him, adjusting his robe. “My skin… it was flaking away,” he bent over me, cooing as if to a child. “Your youth, your beautiful youth,” I shuddered in revulsion as he touched my face. “Your sweet blood and my magic, my beautiful Elixir.”
“Please,” I whispered. A word I had abhorred for so long, only spoken by the old, the weak. The strong did not plead, did not ask before taking. “Please.”
The Wizard sighed.
“I made a bargain,” he said, pressing his forehead to mine. “Long, long ago. Kassim was young when he failed the riddle. Such an ugly boy… but beautiful words — told me of the wide world, of brave fools who would fall in love with a story.” He smiled. “Oh, the reckless men and proud maidens Kassim bewitched with a quest. He bled on this floor as he bargained, never as powerless as you, my sweet child.” The Wizard slowly pulled away, patting my cheek. “Not all men are made for eternity.”
Sathya Stone writes in Pitakotte, Sri Lanka.