The Tinkerbell Problem
by Alex Shvartsman
Herbert woke up shivering. His mouth was dry, and he had an epic headache, but mostly, he was freezing. Stubbornly refusing to open his eyes and face the new day, Herbert felt around for his blanket. Instead, his palm touched cold stone.
Herbert sat upright, which sent a minor nuclear apocalypse through his skull. He was totally naked, sitting on the ground inside of an elaborate pentagram.
A large five-pointed star was drawn on the floor in a gooey red substance which Herbert dearly hoped wasn’t blood. A wider circle was drawn around the star. A variety of symbols were sprinkled along the circumference of the circle. Herbert recognized a peace sign, a stop sign, a smiley face, and a Pepsi logo in the mix.
Herbert gaped at the unfamiliar surroundings. The floor and walls were made from large rough-hewn stones. There were no windows and only a single door. The unfurnished space was lit by a chandelier filled with dozens of candles, hanging so high up, it barely illuminated the ground.
He vaguely recalled going to a party the night before. Had he been drinking that much more than usual? He took a pair of unsteady steps toward the door and ran face first into an invisible wall.
“Ouch!” His nose wasn’t bleeding, but it hurt almost as badly as his head. He reached out cautiously. The invisible barrier was there, stinging his fingertips with what felt very much like an electrical current.
That’s when the door opened, and a monster walked in.
It was nearly seven feet tall. Its red skin contrasted with obsidian-black horns. The creature ambled over to the outer edge of the pentagram. It stared at Herbert, its rattlesnake-like tail flicking impatiently, like a cat’s. It bore long, sharp fangs as it spoke.
“Hello. I’m Murzivel,” it said, in perfect English.
Herbert did the only reasonable thing he could under the circumstances. He fainted.
When Herbert came to, he was disappointed to find himself in the same uncomfortable position. His overwhelming desire to wake up from this nightmare did not bear fruit. Murzivel still stood nearby, studying him with what appeared to be great interest.
“Are you quite finished with this whole playing dead business?” asked Murzivel. “Because I’m not buying it, and besides, you know we only have a short amount of time. So why don’t we get around to making a deal?”
“A deal?” Herbert rubbed his temples. A deal, the pentagram… “Wait. Do you think I’m some sort of a demon?”
Murzivel laughed, sounding like nails on a chalkboard.
“Again with the tricks. I’m a demon. You,” he said, “are obviously a human.”
“That I am,” Herbert admitted. “But why am I the one inside of a pentagram?”
“I see that you’re going to be difficult. Very well,” Murzivel sighed. “I performed the ancient summoning rites to bring you here from the human realm. Now you must make a deal with me and fulfill my greatest desire before I release you.”
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” said Herbert. “I’m not some sort of jinn or wizard. I’m an accountant from Hoboken. If your greatest desire is to file your taxes using itemized deductions, then sure, no problem. Can’t help you with much else, I’m afraid.”
“You’re trying to deceive me,” insisted Murzivel. “I understand. It’s in your human nature. But remember, you only have until the pentagram shrinks, so don’t waste too much time playing your games.”
Herbert looked down at the pentagram. He couldn’t be certain, but it may have gotten a little bit smaller than it was before his fainting spell.
“Um…” he said. “Suppose you tell me what happens when the pentagram shrinks?”
“Why, it will crush you like an insect,” said Murzivel. “Do you truly not know the basics? What kind of human are you?”
“A very confused one,” Herbert muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, “OK, Murzivel. What is this wish you want fulfilled, anyway?”
Murzivel straightened up, looking earnestly at his captive.
“I want only what any demon wants. Respect. Power. A successful career. You know, the usual.” Murzivel paced along the outer edge of the circle as he spoke. “I might’ve achieved all those things on my own. But who’d show respect to anyone with a joke of a name like mine? My parents doomed my chances from the start, with a single, ill-considered decision.”
“I see,” said Herbert. “What’s your name again? Merciful?
“No. Murzivel,” the demon winced, “which is even worse.”
“And if I help you, I can go home?”
“That’s how such things work.”
“Sounds like an easy fix to me. I invoke my human powers and hereby grant you permission to change your name to whatever it is you wish. How’s that?”
“Useless,” said Murzivel. “One cannot change his true birth-given name, not even with magic.”
“Look, Murzivel. I’m sorry about your troubles, and I’m sorry that I am not what you expected, but I honestly possess no magic and have no idea how to help you. For what it’s worth, I used to get picked on as a kid because my name is Herbert.”
“Herbert is your true name?” asked Murzivel.
“Yeah. Herbert Handon. How’s that for alliteration?”
Murzivel stopped pacing and stared at Herbert for a while. “No human would share their true name so cavalierly. Yet, I sense no deceit from you. Could it be that you’re as clueless as you claim to be?”
“Utterly,” said Herbert. “Before today, I didn’t even think you demons existed.”
Murzivel nodded. “Most demons don’t believe in humans anymore, either. The powers that be—they know better. I’d be in a lot of trouble if anyone found out that I performed an unauthorized summoning. If humans can’t do magic, then tell me, what’s your world really like?”
They talked for the better part of an hour, comparing their lives, desires, and problems. At the end, they agreed that their worlds were rather similar in many ways, most especially in how much it sucked to be the little guy with no prospects or influence. By then, Herbert was beginning to like the hapless demon who had summoned him.
“I think I choose to believe you,” Murzivel said. “You’re telling the truth, or you’re the greatest liar I’ve ever met, and I have no hope to outwit you. Either way, I’m not going to get what I want. So the only question is, what do we do now?”
“I would really like to be sent back home,” said Herbert, “where it’s warm and where I have clothes. Why is it so cold here, anyway? I always imagined Hell to be a very hot place.”
“It froze over some time ago,” said Murzivel. “Long story. To be honest, I have no idea how to send you back.”
“How can you not? You managed to bring me here, didn’t you?”
“The incantation is very specific,” said Murzivel. “It brings you here. You then make a deal, work some magic, and go free or get carved up by the pentagram. There were no provisions for getting a malfunctioning human.”
“That,” said Herbert, “is one hell of a quandary.”
“Indeed,” said the demon.
The pentagram was getting visibly smaller. They tried everything to stop the shrinking, from reciting Murzivel’s incantations to wiping off some of the drawing with a mop. The barrier held, preventing Herbert and any physical items from passing in or out.
“It’s too bad you’ve convinced me that you have no magic,” said Murzivel. “Otherwise, we might’ve had a chance.”
“How is that?”
“I keep forgetting that you’re new to this. Magic is fueled by faith. If someone believes in you strongly enough, then you’ve got actual power. If that faith falters, so goes your ability.”
“I see,” said Herbert. “Had I not convinced you that I was powerless, your conviction alone might have allowed me to perform an actual miracle?”
“Yes, something like that.”
“In my world, this is called the Tinkerbell Effect.”
“But you said that humans have no magic?” Murzivel asked with suspicion in his voice.
“We don’t. Tinkerbell is a fictional character. At one point in the story, she’s about to die and needs many children to believe in her existence in order to survive.”
“That is brilliant!” Murzivel shouted. “Nothing is stronger or more pure than the faith of a child. I’ll be back soon,” he told Herbert. “And when I return, act magical.”
Murzivel arrived with a much smaller demon in tow.
“This is my son, Beelzebub,” he said proudly. “Now that is a good, solid name, even if it’s a bit commonplace. Beelzebub, meet a human I’ve summoned from across the nether. He’s here to do our bidding.”
Beelzebub stared up at Herbert, wide-eyed.
“Hi there, Bleez—Beezle—you don’t mind if I just call you Bobby, do you?”
Beelzebub nodded slowly, though Murzivel snorted and frowned; he didn’t appear to think much of abbreviating his son’s perfect name.
“This human is a mighty terrible sorcerer,” Murzivel said, pointing at Herbert. “He’s eager to fulfill any one of your wishes. Why don’t you ask him for something? Anything you like.”
Herbert admired the way Murzivel managed to deceive his son without lying. After all, he really was terrible at being a sorcerer. The demonling didn’t catch the distinction. He kept staring at Herbert, mouth agape, but said nothing. He looked away and ran to his father, hugged him and buried his head in the older demon’s knees. Then Beelzebub began to sob.
Murzivel held his son tight and shot Herbert a venomous glance.
“You scared him.”
“Me?” Herbert threw up his hands. “You were the one doing a terrible wizard routine!”
Murzivel shook his head. He picked up his child. “I’ll be back later,” he announced and headed out the door.
Herbert was alone for a long time, cold and miserable, watching the pentagram inch ever closer to the center of the hall. He was beginning to suspect that Murzivel had abandoned him to die alone. The demon wasn’t an evil sort, but he had probably run out of ideas and didn’t want to be around to watch the unpleasant consequences of his failed plan.
The building shook violently.
It felt like an earthquake tremor and was powerful enough to knock Herbert into one of the pentagram edges. His shoulder connected with the invisible barrier and stung badly from the contact. Above his head, the chandelier swung with enough force to extinguish several of the candles.
On his knees, Herbert crawled back to the center. He curled up on the cold ground, barely managing to keep in place as the subsequent tremors jolted the hall.
The door opened to admit Murzivel and Beelzebub.
“What’s happening?” Herbert had to raise his voice to be heard over the rumbles.
“This is bad,” said Murzivel. “Really bad. The powers that be, they must’ve detected the summoning. They’re coming now, to punish me.” He turned to Beelzebub.
“Listen to me, son. Stay here with the human. I know he frightens you, but he’s far safer than what’s coming. I will go and surrender myself. If we are very lucky, they’ll take me and won’t bother to look inside for either of you.”
Murzivel hugged his son tight, his jaw quivering, and his red arms shaking as he embraced the demonling. Then he rushed out the door.
The tremors were growing stronger. Herbert crawled as close as he dared to the edge of the pentagram.
“They’re coming, Bobby. The bad people, they want to hurt your dad. Do you understand?”
Beelzebub looked terrified, but he didn’t run away and was instead staring at Herbert with large, yellow eyes.
“I can help,” said Herbert. “I want to help. But I’m stuck inside this pentagram. Come on, Bobby. It’s all up to you, now.”
The biggest tremor yet caused a hairline crack to appear in one of the walls. Bits of gravel were being shaken loose from the ceiling. Beelzebub walked up as close as he dared to the line encircling the pentagram. He was now face to face with Herbert, who knelt on the other side.
“Save my daddy,” whispered the demonling.
An immense wave of power surged through Herbert. The pain, the cold, even the fear were gone. He instinctively knew that for as long as this one child believed in him unconditionally, he could do anything. He could save Murzivel, and he could return home.
Herbert smiled and stepped out of the pentagram.