Flaming Crown

“I promise I’ll be careful,” Marcus looked up at his mother with pleading eyes as he asked for permission. She looked down at him with tired eyes and gave him a soft, sad smile.

“Anyone want to take Marcus to see the Universal Flame?” She asked the group of siblings gathered around the picnic table. The concrete picnic table was the family’s first stop after the gates of the theme park.

The park was once a solemn and stringent cathedral used for religious rituals. The Universal Flame was thought to reveal a person’s destiny until it started giving less than insightful predictions. The last official prediction was recorded over a hundred years ago. It said, “Heart Attack” in response to a morbidly obese man that needed to be wheeled to the fire. According to the same record, he died three days later of a heart attack. No one doubted the predictions of the flame, but they didn’t need it to tell them the obvious.

As people lost interest in the flame the church could not maintain the cathedral and was forced to sell. The Universal Flame could not be moved; they tried. Instead, they sold it with the cathedral. It was incorporated as its own attraction.

“No….,” all six of Marcus’ siblings, ranging in age from 19 to 14, replied without looking up from their nodes. His mother sighed and looked at her 7th child. She was about to tell him no.

“I’m 11!” He held up his transparent, glassy node. “I have a node. I’ll be fine, mom.” He pointed at the mostly empty park around them; it was still early. “There’s no one around.” She looked unsure, but she also looked tired of saying ‘no’.

“You better call me if you so much as stub your toe young man,” she said. Marcus stood taller and puffed his chest out as much as a sickly, 11-year-old bag of bones could. It was the first time she called him a “young man”. All four of his brothers hated it but he couldn’t wait for the day that he was considered a man.

“Yes, Ma’am!” Marcus beamed and immediately bolted in the direction he thought the flame was. He didn’t know where it was exactly, but he wanted to get away before his mom, or worse: one of his siblings, changed their minds.

Marcus could not run long before he got winded, but he ran long enough to lose sight of his family. Now that he was on his own he slowed down to appreciate his first taste of freedom. He was at a theme park on a bright sunny morning with almost no one else around. He did not have an army of siblings giving him conflicting orders about what he needed to see next. He could wander and peruse at his own leisure.

He walked slowly and tried to catch his breath; then, he noticed a sign that pointed the way to the Universal Flame. He was closer than he expected. Marcus took a left turn at his next chance and found the right building.  It was a relatively small building with a handful of steps leading up to the entrance. Four black stone pillars lined the front of it. Marcus was glad to see there was no line. He walked as quickly as he could without losing his breath. The steps slowed him down but eventually, he made it to the top and wandered in.

The interior was straightforward and empty. It was not much bigger than Marcus’ house. The floor was black like the pillars but extra shiny somehow; it reminded Marcus of the night sky.  The walls were decorated with ornate tapestries, each one taller than Marcus himself. At the back of the room wide space was cut in the floor for the flame. It burned soft and calmly like a barbecue grill waiting for something to cook. It took up almost an entire third of the floor.

“Whooaa…” Marcus took a step closer to the flame; then stopped. It grew brighter. He waited a moment then took another step, again it grew brighter and he stopped. “How about THIS?” he said as he sprinted forward. It was only a few steps before he got to the edge. When he stopped the flame was taller than him and bright orange. “This is awesome!” he grinned.

“Okay,” he closed his eyes and started talking to himself. “No matter what it says, don’t be disappointed,” he reminded himself. He stood up straighter and spoke to the blaze.

“Universal Flame! Burn down the curtains of time so that I might see what lies ahead,” he said. Normally it was an ordained priest giving the incantation, but according to the internet, anyone would do. The flame dimmed and sunk into its hole. Marcus leaned forward to peer over the edge. “Universal Flame?” he asked again.

The flames jetted upward with a roaring whoosh and formed a towering spire of fire. After a few seconds, the blaze died down again. The fire sunk but left a flaming word floating in the air.

“Conquest,” the flames said.

“That’s a hell of a fate, kid,” a man’s voice said from behind Marcus. He jumped and turned around in the same motion and saw a tall, lean, pale young man with a sharp widow’s peak. He looked like he was the same age as Marcus’ oldest sister. She was 16. The stranger wore black jeans and a black t-shirt.  “What’s your favorite number?” he asked.

“47!” Marcus shouted. The boy was frightened but the answer forced itself out anyway; Marcus didn’t even know he had a favorite number yet. The stranger grinned; a red crown began glowing on the center of his forehead just under the point of the peak.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” the teenager said and stepped toward Marcus.

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