Warning: this story is incredibly stupid. Years ago I sent this to an editor and the reading team swiftly rejected it, saying it was a “disgusting reading experience” — not kidding! I wasn’t upset at all. In fact, it gave me a good laugh because it’s probably true.
Please read at your own risk. And, as a fair warning, toilet humor is involved. Maybe don’t read it while having breakfast.
Howard O’Kemp was an untamed, untapped wizard of a peculiar sort. From an early age, he knew he couldn’t cut it at University, yet his parents forced him to attend. When his instructors performed basic hexes, he couldn’t imitate them. If they asked him to recite incantations or decipher scrolls, he wasn’t able. The only aspect of schooling he succeeded in was finding the bottoms of tankards, but even then, he was outmatched by some of his peers.
During one particularly grueling lecture about the history of a magical bloodline – the O’Kemps – one of the students spoke up from the front of the room.
“Professor?” he said, raising his hand.
“Yes, Blaise, what is it now?” the grizzled old man replied.
“You’re talking about Howard’s family, aren’t you?”
Silence swallowed the room whole. Everyone perked up – sat a little straighter, leaned in. Quills stopped scratching parchment. Even Howard lifted his eyes from his doodle of a dragon taking a nap on the smoldering remains of a village.
The professor raised an eyebrow, scratched his beard, then asked: “Howard who?”
The class erupted in a bout of laughter, incredulous at the fact that Professor Gizzard – who had been teaching the same pupils for two straight terms – still didn’t know the name of the boy in the back-right corner of the room.
He was, of course, talking about Howard’s family.
Howard went back to his drawing. He wanted to hide. He dreamt of the day the magic in his blood would come to life. As the professor regained control of class, Howard cursed them all under his breath, then drifted off to faraway places and times.
One night at the Oak and Kettle, when Howard should have been studying for an upcoming exam, he ordered his usual pint of ale. When his stomach rumbled, he asked the barkeep for sausage and peppers.
“Just how hot are the peppers?” Howard asked.
“Ain’t too hot at all,” the burly, bearded barkeep named Jakob said. “Might put a hair or two on your chest, but no more.”
Howard shrugged – the hell with it.
When the food came out and he took a bite of the peppers, his entire mouth was set ablaze in a spicy inferno.
“Holy sh – ”
“Good, my friend?” Jakob asked, smiling innocently through his beard.
“Oh, excellent, excellent,” Howard replied, exhaling fire. He drained the rest of his ale and slid the tankard toward the much larger man. “Another, please.”
Sweat started to collect on Howard’s brow. When the barkeep returned with the ale, Howard thanked him and downed half of it.
Howard wanted to place his dish under the barstool for the mangy mutt lingering about the tavern, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. For some unexplainable reason, Howard felt obligated to finish the volcanic dish.
Four pints later, the deed was done. Jakob collected the plate and utensils. He even offered Howard a curious wink.
Howard stifled a burp as his belly trembled. He tried to ignore the rumbles and gurgles escaping his midsection as he turned his attention to the bard in the far corner of the room.
While watching the musician strum his lute and sing along to Must Have Been the Mead, Howard silently passed gas. Within moments, an invisible, putrid cloud surrounded him. The only person to notice was a scrawny man with scraggly hair. He covered his nose with his shirt sleeve. Eventually, he gagged and ran off into the night.
A full-scale war erupted inside Howard O’Kemp. The lethal peppers pummeled his innards, almost bringing him to tears.
“Not too hot,” Howard said spitefully as he clutched his gut. He passed gas a second time.
On the third release, he yelped, as if something had singed the bottom of his pants. Luckily, the bard’s increasingly rambunctious rendition of the song had enveloped Howard’s pitiful cry.
Howard clutched his buttocks and made a run for it, but it was too late. The battle was lost.
Howard caught a glance from Jakob – whose expression could only be described as horrified – as he darted toward the privy, which was situated in the opposite corner from the bard. Most of the patrons at the bar were so enamored with the charismatic musician – who was now barking like a dog and lifting his leg – that they didn’t notice the young man who was actively shitting his pants.
When Howard burst through the door to the toilet – which was really just a hole in the floor that drained down into the swamp behind the tavern – it was occupied, of course.
“Out, damn it!” Howard yelled, grabbing the unfortunate man around the shoulders and throwing him into the barroom. Once he was alone, Howard snatched a broom that had been propped up near the door and jammed it shut.
Howard lowered his trousers and stumbled toward the hole in the floor, defecating everywhere. He sweated profusely.
“Ugh,” he moaned as his dinner left him. Howard floated between life and death.
That’s when the door rattled and shook. Raised voices could be heard on the other side.
“You’ll regret this, boy,” a gruff voice said.
A few more men hurled insults and threats as they pounded on the heavy slab of oak that separated them.
“Shit,” Howard said as he envisioned the men breaking through and beating him to a pulp. He had never been in a more vulnerable position in his entire life – squatting there above the hole in the floor, trousers around ankles, death fast approaching.
He had never been more scared, either.
It’s said that magical users need to have a moment of magical awakening. Allegedly, magic comes alive when the body and mind experience a pure emotion: fear, anger, maybe even happiness (yet the latter is rare). This event often occurs during childhood, but for those who had lived bland existences, or whose parents held the leash a little too tight, well, they often fell behind in the magic department.
Sadly, this was Howard’s case.
The good news: his awakening had arrived.
A strange, foreign electricity flowed through his veins, colliding with the heat and spice and rage from the ungodly peppers.
When the angry mob broke through the door, Howard held up his hands in defense.
Fire flew out from Howard’s fingertips, blowing his assailants out of the room with a great WHOOSH! The men shrieked as flames licked their bodies. They rolled about, patting the flames off one another. Jakob rushed to their attention and doused them with a barrel of slop.
The music stopped as pandemonium broke out.
Howard looked on, horrified, as the hell-storm continued to surge toward the others from his unharmed hands and fingers. He tried to make it end by waving his hands, clapping them together, and telling the incessant fire to “STOP!” – but nothing worked.
Flames crawled up the walls and caught the ceiling alight. Timber popped.
By this point, Howard couldn’t see through the thickening smoke, but he imagined the tavern must have emptied. Howard pulled up his soiled pants, and miraculously, the fire from his hands and fingers stopped blazing. He had no idea why. It was as if it had agreed this moment was right.
When Howard tried to flee, the doorframe collapsed, trapping him inside. He only had one choice: to break through the dusty window in the back of the room.
He ran to it, balled up his fist, and punched through the glass pane, slicing his knuckles and arm. When the ceiling heaved, he knew he had to get out quickly. He took a few steps back and ran toward the window, leaping toward it and ramming it with his shoulder. In one fluid motion, he burst through and plummeted into the swamp in a torrent of glass.
When he landed and rolled down into the muck, which immediately made him queasy, he turned back to look at the Oak and Kettle. The entire tavern was up in flames. Silhouettes of its denizens could be seen on all sides, safe distances away.
No one bothered to head toward the swamp because, well, it was a filthy swamp. Howard sat in the sludge and watched longer than he would care to admit. He was stunned that he had caused this situation – by his very own, newfound magic. (And it was fire, no less!)
For a moment, Howard glanced at the trees that surrounded him. He was tempted to see if he could set the whole world ablaze but then thought better of it.
Before anyone located him – or thought to look– he decided it would be best to get out of there. He trudged through the swamp until he arrived at the winding forest lane that led to the University.
While on his trek, he snapped a tree branch in two and held both pieces in his hands. He thought of fire, of seeing the tips of pine grow hot with red and orange. Sure enough, they lit instantaneously.
“What fun,” Howard said, beaming. What power! He tossed the burning bits of the branch into a mud puddle.
When Howard crept back to his dormitory, he packed his things. He stunk like muck and ale and shit, but he didn’t care. Louis Ludlow, the top in his class, noticed him. But all he did was shake his head and return to his studies, in typical Louis Ludlow fashion.
Within five minutes, Howard had slung his belongings into a canvas bag and hit the road. He took a dip in the nearby river, discarded his soiled linens on the rocky bank, and changed into fresh traveling clothes, all under the light of the moon. Somewhere along the way his stomach had stopped aching, too. Things were certainly looking up.
He had no idea where he was heading, but he wasn’t sure it mattered anymore. As long as he created some distance between himself, the University, and the Oak and Kettle, all would be well – for he would no longer be known as Howard Who.
He was Howard O’Kemp, a magic wielder from an ancient bloodline. Yes, he had made quite a mess of himself in public, but now magic coursed through his veins.
Howard stepped onto the highway and hummed a new song, which he invented on the spot and aptly named, Praise the Petulant Peppers.
I wrote “Howard Who?” back in 2019 but haven’t given this story a thought in years.
I have a horrible stomach bug at the moment, and last night while rushing toward the bathroom, I thought of this story, and particularly Howard’s character. As I floated between life and death myself, it was an easy decision: I knew I had to dig and find this story. (Also, I was in no shape to write.)
Terry Pratchett’s character, Rincewind, was the primary inspiration behind my weaving this tale in the first place.
Before you go, are you a reader of fantasy fiction? If so, do you have any author or book recommendations? The most recent fantasy book I read was The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. It’s the first in the Gentleman Bastards series. I was completely blown away and thought every aspect of it was incredible. I highly recommend it!
Thanks so much for being here. I’ll see you next Monday!
PS — I’ve unlocked all Embers posts dating back to October 2022. All subscribers can access them now. If you’re in need of writing prompts to jumpstart some stories, please be sure to check them out!
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I think I remember reading this one when you first wrote it, Justin. Sorry you have a stomach bug on your spring break. But maybe it's good that you can take your time getting better, and you don't have to worry about school!! I don't really love fantasy, but right now I am reading a really good book called The London Seance Society by Sarah Penner. I read her first book, The Lost Apothecary, which was interesting and maybe a bit of fantasy. This new one takes place in Victorian England. Feel better!!
🤣🤣🤣🤢🤢🤢 We need lighthearted stories like this for entertainment, even if they are more ridiculous than normal! Thanks for the recommendation of the fantasy series. I'm going to check it out. I hope you feel better soon!