The following is the first chapter of my new science fiction novella, EPIC FANTASY 0.9b. It’s also available as a full e-book; click the link above for more info. Enjoy!
Ian looked down from the outcropping of gray rock and spied on the Dracinarium nestled in the gully. To his right, the path meandered back and forth, forming an easy route to its front door, but Ian was in no mood to prolong his journey. After a quick check to make sure the leather pouch was still attached securely to his belt, he leapt forward, bounding down the rock face with a few well-timed hops to the clearing below.
The Dracinarium, now less than a hundred paces away, was really nothing more than a simple thatched-roof shack with wispy smoke rising from its chimney. As he approached it, Ian kept his eyes locked on the mountain that loomed overhead, visible through the break in the tree cover.
That’s where the orcs live, he thought, and beyond that, the Decay. Ian had never liked visiting the Dracinarium; it made him nervous to travel so close to the force that had laid waste to entire continents. The fact that the elders of his village considered such thinking the hallmark of a troublemaker or a dunce didn’t matter to him. In his mind, it was simply a question of logic: orcs, owing to their partial immunity, would always take up residence in the border areas between the Decay and where mankind held dominion. And having done so, they would tend to press as close to the human sides as possible, where food would be most plentiful.
Then again, no one he knew had ever seen an orc. And besides, if the Decay did move south and the orcs invaded to escape from it, it wasn’t as if he’d be any safer in the village than he was here. Ian made his way around the hut, past Old Man Giesling’s vegetable garden and waste pit. He reached up and rapped three times on the metal plate affixed to the Dracinarium’s front door: an ornate bronze dragon with a curled tail, the symbolic crest of the Dracini school of magic.
“I’m coming!” came a muffled shout from the other side. There was a bit of commotion; sounds of a chair scooting and earthenware dishes being hastily put aside, and then the door opened and Old Man Giesling’s ruddy, pockmarked face presented itself in its place. “Welcome to my Dracinarium, traveler, it is my pleasure to meet all of your needs that the order of the…oh, it’s you, Ian.”
The old man ambled back the way he had come, leaving the door wide open as a sign of welcome. On the opposite wall of the dwelling, a hearth was busy crackling, making the room unpleasantly warm. A low table strewn with various small objects lay to the right. Most of the objects resembled locks, child’s spintops, or other such useless doodads. But here and there among them, small charcoal-gray crystals stood out, their facets catching the glimmering firelight. In the center of the table, the clutter had been cleared for Giesling to eat his lunch.
“Why do you always give that long speech whenever you open the door?” Ian asked as the old man prepared to sit down again. “You know as well as I do that no travelers ever come here.”
“Impertinent young man!” Giesling took up his spoon and brandished it as if it were a switch. “It’s what I’ve been instructed to say. When I was inducted into the order of the Dracini, I pledged to conduct my business in a manner befitting their traditions. When people come to a strange Dracinarium for the first time, they know what to expect; they want to be served with a certain speech and in a certain manner. Finding each Dracinarium the same throughout the region helps to put them at ease, and therefore increases sales.”
“Oh, come on,” Ian said. “When was the last time you even made a sale?”
“None of your business,” Giesling snapped. “Now, did you bring me my supplies, or have you come only to make light of me?”
Ian nodded and unlaced the leather pouch from his belt. He placed it on the table with the opening up, so that it parted to reveal its contents: a dozen of the gray crystal gems, along with a few bundles of herbs wrapped in twine.
“Excellent, I thank you for your service.” The old man smiled and showed his grayish-brown teeth. When his face relaxed again, the two jowls on either side slid back into their places beneath the tufts of gray fuzz that served as sideburns.
“Oh! I almost forgot. There was something else I was supposed to give you, too. A note…” Ian withdrew a piece of folded parchment from his tunic and handed it over.
The old man held the letter close to his face and angled it to catch the light from the fireplace. “Interesting. And I’m to understand that you haven’t read this?”
“Me? How would I know how to read it?”
“Ah, yes. Pardon my rudeness. It’s just that this note concerns you. It’s a request to take you on as my apprentice.”
Ian’s eyes went wide. A magician’s apprentice? Him?
It did make a certain amount of sense, he realized. The elders would consider him a good match for the strange old man’s temperament, and sending him away from the village where he would be unable to make trouble must have seemed advantageous as well. But to reveal their intentions in this way, by writing his own fate in a note that he was given to deliver? That showed a lack of courtesy that Ian found unconscionable. He would have to make a big stink out of it when he returned.
“So, what of it?” The old man placed the note down and looked Ian over, as if he were a hog being sold at market. “I can see from the look on your face that this idea is new to you. Do you wish to learn my trade, or not?”
Ian hesitated. “Well, I…”
“Hmm? Out with it, boy! Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that…you’re asking me to decide what my entire life will be like in the space of a few seconds! I can’t just say yes or no to that!”
“Please.” Giesling turned his palm down and flicked his fingers in Ian’s direction. “Don’t be so melodramatic. Have you ever stopped to think that you might have an aptitude for magic?”
Ian considered it. He had sometimes wondered what would happen if he became a magician, but in his fantasies the circumstances had been a bit more grand, more heroic; not leading the life of a poor old man in the woods. “Even if I do, it still seems wrong,” he said. “I don’t want my future decided by the elders. How do I even know which school of magic is the best?”
“None of them are ‘best,’ Ian. Each is simply a different aspect of the same underlying principle.”
“That’s not what I mean…” Ian’s tone had gone from surprised to depressed. It was beginning to dawn on him that he might not have any say in this matter. “If I explain to you what my problem is, you’ll probably think I’m crazy.”
Giesling stared for a moment, then slid over on his workbench to make room for the young man to sit down. “Please, I would love to hear of this madness that seems to have overtaken you. Mental illness is one of the afflictions that can be treated by the magical arts, you know.”
Ian ignored the sarcasm and sat. “I guess I just always had the idea that I could be different. Everyone in the region takes up some trade when they come of age. The woodsman chops his trees, the tanner makes his leather, the piss pot man carries his piss, and so forth. But what does it all mean? Why do all these things need to be done? Each one seems just as pointless as the next.”
“Pointless? Surely the people who depend on the tradesmen for their goods and services do not think so.”
“No, no…it’s hard to explain,” Ian said. “I don’t mean pointless really, just…”
“Perhaps the word you’re looking for is arbitrary,” Giesling said.
“Yes, exactly. Arbitrary. I always thought I could…I don’t know…cut through it. Find out what all of this really means.”
“If you seek a profession with a deeper meaning, perhaps your calling is as a wanderer for Omim?”
“No, no. Don’t you see? That choice is no better than any other. Sure, Omim created the world, but why? Why did he put mankind here to serve him? Why the forests, the rivers, oceans, and four schools of magic? Why is there a Decay? What good does devoting my life to spreading Omim’s teachings do if I can’t answer those questions?”
The old man leaned back, grinning mildly. “I think I understand now why the village wants to send you to study with me.” He stood up and made his way back towards the fire to fetch another bowl of stew from his hanging kettle. “But perhaps the decision is more fortuitous than you think. We magicians are closely tied to the forces that underlie this plane, forces set in motion by Omim himself. The four schools were not chosen arbitrarily, you know. The Dracini’s sigil is the dragon, because the dragon’s shape was one of the four created by the embers of Lavenia’s soul as it burnt in the eternal flame of Ser.” He pointed at the fireplace with his spoon. “Her divine ashes curled and twisted as they cooled, eventually forming the dragon’s tail, and in a similar way the other four aspects were created. Together, the ashes became the elements that Omim formed into the world.”
“I know the story,” Ian said. “But what I don’t understand is, why that particular shape? Perhaps there were other forms, other worlds that could have come out of the flames, but didn’t? Doesn’t that seem important to you?”
Giesling smiled and nodded. “Not in the slightest.”
Ian exhaled, feeling his enthusiasm for the debate rush out of him along with the air.
“You’re just nervous,” the old man said. “Your problem isn’t ashes or dragons; it’s your worry that you might be missing out on something better than our humble profession.” He managed to slip in the word ‘our’ in such a subtle manner that Ian almost didn’t catch it. “But this will fade with time. You are a poor artisan’s son from the Northwestern forests. You should consider it an honor to study with a real magician. Would you rather be a piss pot man? Now, return to your village and tell them I have decided to accept you as my apprentice, provided a reasonable price can be negotiated. It will all be worked out by the next festival, I’m sure. No need to rush these sorts of things; I still have a few years left in me, Omim willing.”
Ian nodded glumly, then turned and made his way out of the cabin. The skies had grown overcast, and he could see rain beginning to fall over the nearby mountainside. He took to the path at once, winding his way back out of the gully and up towards the forest.
“The old man is right, I should be grateful,” he mumbled as he stepped over hollowed logs and ducked under low branches. The path began to break up, but he felt confident that he wouldn’t get lost. He had been playing in these woods since he was a child, and the slope of the hilly country made it easy to find his way by dead reckoning.
Childhood. Carefree, happy, looking forward to a lifetime of possibilities. But now he was nearing the age of manhood: fifteen. Even though he was a late bloomer and still looked half a babe, the truth could not be avoided. He would have to make his way in the world somehow, and that meant his childish fantasies were through. Solemnly, he rubbed the sides of his arms and looked down as he walked, taking his time to avoid any pits or brambles on the forest floor.
And that was when he noticed the shape.
He had thought it was a snake at first by the way it moved, undulating and slithering beneath a carpet of dead leaves. But it was far too large; the only snakes in the forest were barely longer than a man’s forearm, whereas this one was at least three feet across. It seemed to have limbs as well, splayed out like a starfish, although the exact details were difficult to judge through the cover of the underbrush.
Ian ducked behind a nearby tree as the shape came towards him. He wasn’t even sure whether or not the thing had eyes, but it seemed prudent to hide just in case. As it shuffled past, Ian peeked out for a better look.
As soon as he saw the helmet, he knew what it was. Ian had never seen an actual orc before, even a dead one, but there were several bent and splintered helmets on display over the hearth in the village lodge. What had taken him by surprise was the motion; he hadn’t expected orcs to crawl along on their bellies like that, undulating in a way that would be uncomfortable or impossible for any normal creature. A wave of fear made him struggle to catch his breath, and in doing so a small yelp passed his lips.
The orc stopped moving. It was less than two feet from him by then, and Ian felt his hairs stand upright as it slowly began to turn towards the tree. What he could see of its skin under the loose leaves was brownish-green and scaly, covered in some sort of transparent ooze that made it hard to determine what was flesh and what was torn, dirty clothing. It continued turning until the part that the helmet rested on—Ian could only assume that this was the thing’s head—faced him. It looked up towards him and let out a ferocious, snarling howl.
Ian screamed. He lifted his right leg and delivered a straight kick directly to the orc’s nose, causing its face to crumple and cave in beneath his foot.
Wide-eyed and panting, Ian stared with disbelief at what he had done: the orc still screamed with its head split open, distorted noises emanating from its mangled throat. But even worse was what the throat was made of: the inside of the orc’s head was metal. Not hard metal; it had more the consistency of parchment, all folded together and rumpled in a loose pile. But it gleamed and shimmered like a polished surface, at least in the places where a viscous black liquid was not seeping out through its crevices.
Ian backed away, unable to take his eyes off the creature. The orc was still coming after him, clawing at the ground with one arm even as it reached up to tear at its now-destroyed face with the other. Ian yelled once more, then turned and ran, tearing away at top speed off into the forest.
Continued in Part 2.