Prompt by Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds here. I rolled this scenario:
Brannog hefted the leather bag up on his shoulder, carefully steadying the load with one hand while he walked through the mess of parcels and bags and stepped back into the workroom. The soft shirring sound of papers being slid and sorted through many hands filled in the air, occasionally interrupted by the quick tump-tump on the wooden counter as a pile was set right and neat after being stacked. Brannog moved back to his station through the line of workers, two rows down, one column up from the storeroom door, and set his new load down beside him. A glance at the post addresses on top of the pile showed that this batch was for the Riverway Line, southward bound. He took his stick of graphite from the cup next to his bench and began sorting. First one, then another, scribbling the 4-letter town code on each for easy delivery. SHBR goes to South Boertown, RAVL to Ranville, and so on.
He let his mind drift a bit as he continued sorting. With all 549 major town codes of the district memorized, it was easy enough to scribble and sort as he went. An easy job, not too stressful, just right for someone like him, and thanks to the Gods for that! Which Gods, Brannog wasn’t yet sure, but one of them was probably responsible.
As his mind wandered, a faint whiff of sulfur reached his nose. He resisted the urge to look up. It was nothing. Certainly there was no sulfur here, not in the basement of the city post office. Certainly it was just his imagination, making something fanciful out of the musty paper smells of this old room.
But his hands shook as he sorted and he had to stop a moment and lay his pencil down. He breathed slowly out through his nose, forcing his stomach to relax.
No more, he thought. No more of this, please!
But the smell grew stronger and the wood counter under his palms began to smoke, tendrils rising and slipping through his fingertips. He snatched his hands up, aghast. The counter was charred in the shape of his hands, two perfect outlines in dark relief.
He pushed himself up from his work station; the stool clattering to the ground and underneath the desk behind him.
“Oy, watch it Bran!” Haderk—at least Brannog thought that was his name—shifted his weight as the stool rolled over his foot, quickly hooking the rungs over his toes and kicking it back towards Brannog. “What the hell’s a matter with you?”
Haderk’s eyes widened as he saw the smoke that was still curling up from his co-worker’s hands. Brannog stood silent, his eyes screwed shut and his hands stretched up and away from all surfaces. “You alright, mate?”
“I think.” Brannog stopped, looking confused. He started again, “I think everyone here should leave. Right now.”
The last phrase was said with gritted teeth, as his hands began to spasm and shake. The smell of sulfur grew stronger, mixing with the smell of wood smoke and burning leaves. The room had grown silent as the each worker noticed the smell and the sight of the newest sorter standing in their midst in a cloud of smoke.
“All of you! GET OUT!”
Haderk jumped up as Brannog shouted, kicking his own stool to the side. “Out, you fools! Everyone out!” He began pushing through the line as his and Brannog’s words spread. He pulled on the coat of the sorter who sat next to him, jerking him to his feet. “I got the feeling we’ll all be ash if we don’t move our asses outta this room!”
The others began to rise, first one, then his neighbor, then the whole line began pushing and pulling at each other as they pressed toward the back staircase. Some turned and stared at the still-struggling Brannog, but the look of pain and focus on his face made them turn and run more quickly.
Brannog felt the heat rise in him as he stood, his eyes closed and every muscle tense. Just a few more minutes, just until they all get out. The fire inside him reached his stomach and it was all he could do to keep his breath steady, keep it moving in and out as slowly as possible. Hot sweat trickled down his face, dripping from his forehead, his upper lip, his temples.
Finally he heard the last of the footsteps clunking on the stairs above his head go quiet. The majority of voices now drifted in through the casement windows set by the ceiling, letting in the air from the street above.
“Now!” He heard the now-familiar voice bellow, as if from right next to him. “Let go of it!”
With a whoosh of exhaled breath Brannog let his muscles relax, feeling the heat build and rush and run along his muscles as if he were a wick. For a moment he saw all the papers now scattered around the room burst into flame at once, before the heat reached his head and the world went dark.
“Well that was spectacular!”
Brannog groaned softly and tried to open his eyes. For a moment he thought he was blinded, but it seemed his eyelids were just stuck tight. He raised an aching hand and wiped at his face, clearing his eyes finally. The first thing he noticed was the thick layer of soot that had come away onto his hand. The second thing he noticed was the thin fellow standing next to him, grinning.
“W-what?” He croaked. His lips felt dry and cracked, and his throat burned as if he had taken a gulp of hot tea.
“It was truly a spectacle!” The man continued smiling down at him. “In fact I think that was one of the most powerful, and probably the most expensive, displays of talent I’ve seen yet.”
Bran ignored him for the moment (clearly the man wasn’t quite sane) and focused on sitting up. He found that he was lying in a bed, with simple blankets and a thin pillow. He looked around the room and saw other beds, some with screens set up around them and small stations of cabinets and trolleys scattered about. Pushing himself up on one hand, he saw a glass of water sitting on a chest of drawers next to his bed.
“You’re in a hospital, you know.” The small man continued, gesturing around them.
“Yes.” Brannog looked back to him. “I had gathered that.”
“Do you know what kind of hospital though?” The fellow smiled, as if pleased to be offering a riddle.
“No. Why don’t you tell me?” Brannog reached for the water, taking a sip as the man pouted quietly.
“Well, alright. If you won’t guess.” The man flipped his collar up and leaned in conspiratorially. “It’s a hospital for the Maliciously Insane,” he hissed. “They think you’re an arsonist!” That statement seemed quite funny to him and he smiled even wider. “They even tied you down!”
Brannog blinked and looked quickly at his feet, moving them slightly. Sure enough, under the blankets they were manacled individually to the bed rails. “Oh. I see.”
“Yes but you and I both know that’s nonsense. I mean I suppose technically, yes, you did set the fire. But not purposefully!” The man waved his hand in front of his face dismissively.
“I couldn’t stop it, though.” Brannog said softly. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“That’s the most fascinating part! You warned them. The whole room had time to evacuate before you lost control. That takes a considerable force of will!” The fellow leaned in again, patting Brannog on the shoulder.
“Most of the time, when I get there, they’ve already lost themselves to it. And I’m left picking up the bodies and explaining to the mayor or what have you. But not you! I found you lying in pile of rubble with not a scratch on you and forty postal workers gossiping about what had just happened. Quite a unique turn of events.”
“Wait,” Bran held up a hand, still smeared and blackened with ash, “most of the time? You’ve seen this before?” He stopped, peering more closely at his visitor. “And just who are you?”
“Oh yes, quite a few times before.” The man smiled again and reached his hand out to Brannog. “I do apologize for my poor manners, I was just so excited. I’m Professor Carril.”
Bran shook his hand, leaving a smear of soot as his did.
“I see you still look confused.” Carril wiped his hand absentmindedly on his pant leg. “Only natural. You see I’m currently working out of the Applied Theology department at the University of Greenford. I’ve been following cases like yours for a good twenty years now.”
Carril nodded. “Yes, incidents of what I’m called Spontaneous Deific Manifestations. You’re the first one I’ve seen with an incendiary focus, though, which is fascinating!”
Bran just continued starting, unsure of what to make of the utter absurdity of the situation.
“Don’t you worry, don’t you worry!” Carril petted his shoulder again. “We’ll soon have these manacles off and get you set up in one of the University dorms. I’ve worked it all out with the magistrate. Considering how many lives you saved today, and considering the money the University has generously donated in my name to rebuild the post office, he was happy to oblige.”
He stopped, pursing his lips. “Only I fear you are not allowed to return to this town again. The magistrate feels you’re too dangerous. I told him that was silly, because why would you really want to come back? But he insisted. So thus you are sentenced: exiled from North Hanlea, and soon to be my Scholar’s Assistant at Greenville.” He paused, looking to Brannog. “So? Can I count on you to help?”
Bran met his gaze, still confused. “Your research, you mean? Into what, spontaneous…?” He couldn’t remember the rest.
“Spontaneous Deific Manifestations.” Carril nodded.
“Well, what does that mean? What’s happening to me?”
“What that means,” said Carril carefully, “is that your power, uncontrolled as it is, is a small spark derived from the power of the gods. I have a theory that, since only the gods can control the elements in the way that we’ve seen, these incidents must have a tie to a godlike lineage.”
“Lineage? You mean…?”Brannog shook his head before quickly laying back on the pillow. “No, that can’t be true.” He placed his arm over his eyes as he closed them in shock.
“Precisely!” Carril beamed again, seeing that Brannog finally understood. “Your mother or father is a God.”
“My mother is just a seamstress,” Brannog murmured behind his arm. “She just makes dresses all day.”
Carril nodded. “Yes, then definitely your father. What does he do?”
Brannog laughed softly. “I’ve never met him. Mother said he was thrown from his horse and died when I was young.”
“Well,” Carril said, “I wouldn’t bet money on that story.”
Nor would I. The voice spoke in Brannog’s ear quietly. It was a deep bass, just like from before. Bran began to chuckle, then laugh, his body shaking until he could barely breathe. He wiped a tear from his eye and sat up again, looking Carril in the eyes.
“Is there a way we can find out which God, if I work with you?”
“I hope so! Yes, that’s my goal, certainly!” Carril agreed.
“Good.” Brannog paused to take another sip of his water. “Because if I help you, I want you to help me.”
“You can have anything you could want, at the University. We will provide room and board and a small stipend.”
Bran shook his head. “No, more than that.”
Carril spread his hands. “What more do you need?”
“If you can suss out which God, then I want you to help me find him.”
He put a hand up as Carril started to protest. “You will help me find this God, and then you’re gonna help me kill the bastard.”