On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Where the world is broken
The thief was in a foul mood because of the weather.
It had rained for almost two days, and their journey would take at least another week. They travelled on horseback, and while the going was steady, the days were damp and the nights were cold.
“Can’t you do something about this?” he asked, throwing the question at his nearest travelling companion like one of the daggers he kept sheathed along his thighs.
The mage smiled. “What would you have me do?” he asked, and the thief pursed his lips in annoyance.
“Make the rain stop,” he replied sharply. “Or hold it above our heads. Or conjure a covered wagon. Take your pick.”
The mage scratched his beard as if considering the request for a moment, and then he met the thief’s glare. “To act against nature is not my way,” he said. “Better to accept what is. Therein lies wisdom, and peace, and also power.”
“And wet boots besides,” the thief muttered, shaking his head dismissively as he urged his horse forward, moving ahead of the mage and out of earshot.
“Perhaps he’s forgotten that you dried us off last evening,” came the voice of the warrior from the mage’s opposite side, and the old man turned to look in that direction.
Her cloak was dark with rain, but she looked as proud as ever, not at all bothered by the downpour. The heavy two-handed sword she wielded was still strapped to her back, even though it had been a long ride and she could readily have lashed it along the side of her mount instead.
She spoke the truth. When they had arrived at the small inn near the river the previous day, the mage had drawn the fire from the hearth, pulling the heat around them but not the flames, and they had been warm and dry within minutes. It was an act in service of nature — one of the purposes of fire was to give warmth, after all — and so it was not only his pleasure but also his duty. He had learned well from his mentor, so many centuries ago.
“I have heard the birds speak,” the mage said, “and we will soon find better weather. His spirits will lift.”
“It is little concern of mine,” the warrior replied, and the mage had the sense that something was troubling her. After a few moments she spoke again. “And what do the birds say of the task ahead of us?”
The mage shook his head. “Nothing,” he replied, “for they do not know of such things. If they did, I imagine they would advise us to return the way we came.”
The warrior made a sound that might have been amusement, and the mage sensed that she felt better for the confirmation of danger, rather than worse. It was the way of her kind, of course. Battle until death.
The fourth member of their party had been some way behind, and she now caught up to them. Her white robes remained dazzling no matter how dark the sky became, and the mage took note that there was not a speck of dirt upon them. It was a blessing, he knew; one of many that the young woman possessed. The mage more than any of the others knew both the benefit and the compromise of her abilities. A divine gift came with rigid constraints as to its use: the cleric could heal almost all wounds and illnesses, but could never do harm to another living creature, no matter the circumstances. If she did, the goddess would surely strike her down where she stood.
“Perhaps we should rest a while,” the young cleric suggested, and the mage thought it was a prudent measure. There was a copse of trees a short way ahead, and they would provide shelter. The thief seemed to intuit their intentions in his usual strange way, and he glanced back before gesturing towards the trees, then urged his horse in that direction.
Even you have abilities you don’t understand, the mage thought. He wondered if it was part of a larger plan, put into motion by the forces of the hidden world. It would not be the first time that he had felt the hand of fate upon his shoulder. Indeed, he felt it there today.
It was no less than the grandmaster of his order who had set him the task, and the three others were hand-picked for their own roles, but they were under the impression that the mage himself was simply another hired member of the party. In fact, the mage would receive no payment at all, at least in the monetary sense. His reward was to be the supreme achievement of retrieving the artefact they sought, presenting it to his grandmaster, and having the satisfaction of knowing that it would be sealed away from men and mages and all other creatures for all time. To leave it where it was presented the risk that others would find it first. The thought was a trouble to his brow even here, with their destination still days ahead.
Once they reached the shelter of the trees, the horses were watered and tied, and the mage called forth a fire for them all to sit around.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything to eat?” the young cleric asked, and the mage smiled at her.
“It is the purpose of the land to feed those who walk upon it,” he said, passing his hand through the air as he rearranged the patterns and the corners and the symbols in his mind, speaking in a place beyond the hearing of men, and then a hearty meal was in front of them. Without courtesy or care, the thief immediately grabbed the largest chunk of meat and began to devour it.
The warrior turned to the mage, and she clasped her hands together in a way that made her arm muscles even more pronounced. “Thank you for this meal,” she said, nodding respectfully, and the mage returned the gesture.
The cleric said a prayer which the mage could hear echoed back to her from the birds and even the insects, though he knew she couldn’t understand their languages, and then they all sat silently for a while as they ate everything that he had brought forth from the air. The rain had gone off by the time the last of them had finished eating, and though the sky was still heavy, there were several good hours left for their journey, before nightfall would force them to stop once more.
“Our employer told you alone what we seek, old man,” the thief said, and the mage nodded. “I care only about the money, but I also care about being alive to spend it.”
The cleric looked at the thief with her crystalline eyes, her expression bordering on reproach, and the warrior spat on the fire just to hear it sizzle.
“There is danger, yes,” the mage replied, “but we are not sent to our doom. Together we will have victory, and its rewards. You must have faith.”
“That’s her department,” the thief replied, tilting his head towards the young cleric who avoided his gaze. “My trust is in my knife and my coin purse, and nothing else besides.”
The mage laughed aloud, the sound of it far larger than it should have been, echoing through the trees as though they were columns of stone in a vast and unseen hall. The noises of all the wildlife stopped for a few moments, and the fire grew in magnitude before settling back down.
“Your candour refreshes me,” the mage said, “but perhaps we shall teach you new beliefs before the month is out.”
He moved his hand again, and then the fire snapped and spat and twisted, until they could see the wavering outlines of a structure within it. It was a thing they all knew, but which none save the mage had ever visited — and even he had not been inside. It lay far to the north, beyond the silent plains, where almost none dared go.
“Our goal lies there,” the mage said, “and we shall need all our skills at their best.”
The cleric made a hurried sign of blessing over her chest, and the image in the fire wavered violently for a moment but then reasserted itself.
“My tribe knows of that place,” the warrior said. “It is said that to go there is to pass beyond the reach of the goddess. I was once told that it is where the world is broken.”
The mage expected the thief to protest, too, but the other man was still staring into the fire.
“Your courage is too stout to believe children’s tales, my friend,” the mage replied, speaking with a confidence he did not feel.
Sometimes lies were in the service of nature, too.
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