The wolves were howling. Not their normal cries of salutation, signal, hunt. Something more, this time. The forest was noisy tonight, and Joseph wanted nothing more than to get home. His stores of food, and tea, were dangerously low, and as he lived alone there was no one else to go to town. He had set the clockwork butler to guard the door and not let anyone in, and he had only been gone for a day, but returning at dusk with a heavy satchel on his back and the wolves howling noisily behind him, he could sense that something was wrong. He should get an assistant, someone to guard the homestead while he was gone – or to run the necessary errands for him. But it was too late for that.
He reached his ramshackle tower, taller than the trees and overgrown with ivy and moss. He took the last few steps to the door blind with joy, and only then realized that the door was hanging on only one hinge, askew. He held his breath as he pushed it in, revealing the clockwork butler taken to pieces all over the floor. "Damn!" he whispered, and carefully stepped inside, setting his satchel down and reaching for a heavy bludgeon, carefully avoiding the delicate gears that used to comprise his butler as he made his way towards the laboratory.
He crept to the laboratory and found it empty, but dismantled entirely. He cursed again, this time a shout. The tables were overturned, the floor covered with who-knew-what chemical or mixture thereof, the hydraulic shelving system was completely trashed, and pieces from his flying machine were scattered from one side of the room to the other. Everything was either singed or covered in ash, and the smell of the smoke remained thick in the air, and there was one window, crashed open either to allow entrance or escape. He shouted again.
It would take a long time to clean up the laboratory, but first he had to check the other rooms in the tower, to be sure that his burglar had left. He opened a cabinet to find his trusty crossbow, a net made of iron chains, and a few bolts. He picked up a mirror as well, and made his way through the tower. Carefully, he examined each room, and in each room he found the same destruction, until he came to the top of the tower. This balcony had been his sanctuary, and as he made his way up, he could hear sounds that someone was there. He knew exactly what to expect, then, and loaded the net into the crossbow to fire and entrap whoever was up there.
Joseph pushed the door, and it turned smoothly on its hinges. The balcony was deserted, except for one man, skeletally thin, sheathed in blue. That would be the upstart sorcerer, playing some game. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Joseph asked.
"Why are you so afraid of magic?" came the answer.
Joseph shiverred, but wouldn't let it show. "I'm not afraid of magic," he insisted. "I laugh in the face of the countless sorcerers I have killed. I am more powerful than magic, and therefore have nothing to fear."
The blue-sheathed being laughed, the sound of dry leaves scraping across cobblestones. "You are afraid of magic, for although you are the most powerful sorcerer in the land, although you have killed so many magicians, there is not one item with any magical power in your possession. You have never, it appears, even touched magic. You do not know magic, and you must fear what you do not know."
"If I'm so afraid of magic," Joseph said with a chuckle, "Why am I not afraid of you?"
The skeletal man turned to face Joseph, and Joseph shuddered to see two blue eyes sparkling – almost glowing – beneath the hood. "You are afraid of me." It was the intruder's turn to chuckle. "You are afraid of me, for you know that I bring your death. Your time of reckoning has arrived, Joseph Daedalus! You are faced with your doom, and you are powerless to stop me! Never again will you sully the very name of magic with your existence; you will be purged and the title of sorcerer will be washed clean. Daedalus, prepare to meet your death."
And then Joseph Daedalus realized it; if this man had come prepared to kill him, there would have been one quick spell and the deed would be done. Suffocation was easy enough, he knew, and there were stories of sorcerers powerful enough to stop a heart with the blink of an eye. Joseph laughed outright, a joyous laugh, and as it echoed into the forest the wolves began to howl again. "I'm not in the mood for fighting," he said jovially. "Perhaps another time?"
"I have invaded your home!" The man shouted. "I have come to kill you, and you are not in the mood for fighting?!" The cloaked figure stepped toward Joseph. "I will not tolerate your impudence! You are a mockery to sorcery! Your very existence is a thorn in the side of magicians everywhere! It is my duty to relieve you of your mortal coil!"
Joseph laughed again, and the man in blue screamed in rage. "Relieve me of my mortal coil? Is that the best you can come up with? You really are new at this." Joseph smiled at the sorcerer. "But really, I can go put a pot of tea on, if you'd rather that. I would have the butler do it, but you took him to pieces and I haven't had time to repair him yet."
The man in blue's shoulders fell, like a disappointed child. "You aren't afraid of me any more."
"Nope," declared Joseph, smiling broadly. "Not really."
"I have powers you can't imagine!" The cloaked man whined, petulant. "I found nothing of real value in your tower, so you must not know real power! I can make the seas boil, I can stop your heart just by thinking of it – you must know that, so why aren't you afraid of me?"
Joseph just laughed again. "If you can stop my heart, why haven't you already?" The cloaked man stuttered something, but Joseph just shot the crossbow and caught the sorcerer in its iron net. The man fell to the ground, shouting. He reached his hands through the net, but Joseph just smiled and walked over. "Who are you?"
"What?" asked the defeated sorcerer.
"Who are you? Why didn't you want to kill me?"
"You know who I am," the sorcerer spat. "You know all too well."
Joseph sighed. "I thought as much," he said, and then he pulled out his mirror, holding it in front of the sorcerer's eyes. "Look at yourself. Look at what magic has done to you. Once upon a time you were healthy, happy, human, full of life. Now you're a dying sheath, just like I said you would be. Look at what you did to yourself, and ask yourself if it was worth it." Joseph felt a tear roll down his cheek.
"It was worth it," hissed the sorcerer.
Joseph shook his head and loaded a bolt into the crossbow. "No, no it wasn't," he said, and aimed for the sorcerer's head. He shot straight and true, and whispered, "I'm sorry," to the night. It was necessary, Joseph thought. He didn't have a choice.
The choice had been made long ago, when his opponent decided to open a book of magic. This was what always happened.
Joseph thought, ruefully, that one of these days someone would arrive who wouldn't be afraid to kill him, and that one of these days someone would come who would stop his heart first and gloat later.
He wasn't looking forward to it.