The following was my submission for the first round of the 2022 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. My assigned prompt was Genre: Fantasy, Topic: A Grudge, Character: A Gatekeeper.
The ancient room seemed to amplify silence, in spite of the crackling fire burning in a wide hearth, and it made Metatrix uncomfortable. It did not appear to have the same effect on the Academy’s headmistress, and she took her time before speaking.
“As with all newly matriculated students, I’ve placed you in our Beginners cohort. Once per week, you may return here, and you may attempt a test to be promoted along.”
“Headmistress…” Metatrix protested. The older woman cut her off.
“It can take some getting used to for those from the hinterlands, but at the Academy, we are referred to by our magical rank title, not by our role within the school. I am Rank Seven, so you may call me Enchantress. You are an Acolyte until you have graduated Academy.”
“Well, Enchantress” she overemphasized, “Can’t I just… take a series of tests right now? I’m older than most of the students here, and I’m sure I’ve already mastered some basics.”
“Once. Per. Week.” The Enchantress emphasized each word with a bony finger stabbing at her broad oak desk. Metatrix held her composure, focusing on her ultimate objective. “With no prior formal magical training, it’s a very generous schedule.”
“Would you just look at my notes…” Metatrix pulled a book from her satchel and flipped it open to a middle page. Tightly written notes and diagrams filled the space around the printed words. The Enchantress snatched the book and walked the room flipping pages, her face looked as if she’d smelled an unkempt barn.
“This is Alchemy. A nonsense field, heretical to the established practice of magic. Only Alchemy commits the five sacred elements to symbols on the page. Alchemy and Magic have no overlap, nothing in common.” She casually tossed the book into the fire, where the flames eagerly engulfed it. Metatrix winced and lunged to snatch the book, stamping out the embers with bare hands and clutched the cindered volume against her chest. She felt hot tears in her eyes.
“Fine. I’ll see you in a week,” she managed.
* * *
Duul was a small town, nestled near the head of Shadow Valley in the Northern Reach. A simple place, the town actively eschewed ‘modern’ conveniences many similar towns had delegated to magic. Donkeys still pulled the tillers, waterwheels turned the grain mills, and the idea of employing a wizard for such things was distasteful. Outsiders might have called it backwards. It was here that Metatrix was born and spent her early years. She never had occasion to question the town’s quirks, she simply called it Home.
“Papa, can you show me your armor from the great war? When I was ten, Momma said I could see it when I was twelve, and that was two winters ago.” Her dad took the hay bale she had just brought over and hoisted it into their cart.
“You’re getting so big, it might almost fit you! Sure.“ the bear of a man laughed and ruffled her hair. He hoisted her up and onto his shoulders and made for the barn.
“Come on, dad, don’t be silly! You’re huuuge.” She tugged at his hair as if it were a horse’s reins.
Inside, he swung her gently back to the ground. He opened a dusty wooden chest and produced what looked like a shirt made of interlocking metal plates, a thick patina of age dulling its shine. With a smirk, he lowered the platemail over Metatrix’s head. It was absurdly oversized on her, hanging from her shoulders almost to the ground.
“A gallant defender of the realm!” Her dad bowed.
“Be gone, foul brigand!” she replied and charged him, armor rattling as her running legs kicked the inside. He snatched up a small stick and playfully tapped it against the armor’s panels in mock swordplay, before she barreled into him and sent them both toppling to the ground in a giggling pile. After a time, her dad went to put the armor back.
“Huh, I’d forgotten about these.” He said as he stooped and extracted a tattered book and a thimble-sized milky crystal from the chest. He handed the book to Metatrix. “A young wizard I fought alongside gave me these at the end of the war.”
The cover read A Primer on the Basics of Magic.
“A wizard??” She replied in a hushed tone. “Those aren’t allowed here.”
“Well, then you better not tell anyone you have these,” he said, with a conspiratorial wink. He handed her the crystal. “Not sure what this is, but all our wizards had one.“
“Wow! Thanks daddy!” She gazed closely at the crystal. “I’ll make a necklace with it! And I’m going to read this book first thing tomorrow. I love them! And you.” She hugged him around the leg.
“I love you too, kiddo” he said with a smile. “But chores are first thing, then you can read it.”
The next morning, after her chores, Metatrix made quickly back to her room and sat crosslegged on the floor with the Primer.
The first and most critical rule of the magical arts is an adherence to our fundamental understanding of the basic elements: Air, Water, Stone, Metal, and Fire.
* * *
Metatrix slammed the door to the Enchantress’s office after her first week.
“I’m in class with six-year-olds, and I’m almost twenty — please just test me all the way into my cohort,” she pleaded.
“The magical establishment is very clear on the recommended pace of advancement. And remember, you’ll be skipping out of a year of study each week.”
”Has the establishment seen a new student as advanced as me?”
”…As advanced as you claim to be.” The Enchantress scolded as she scattered a handful of dust across the center of her broad oaken desk “Command the Air to blow this dust into a pile.” She placed a fist-sized hunk of milky crystal beside the dust. “You may use this Mind Crystal.”
Keeping her distaste for the simplicity of the task hidden, Metatrix willed the Air into a small vortex, neatly accumulating the dust into a pile.
* * *
Metatrix turned the page, after peering out the window to make sure none of her fellow villagers was walking by.
Primer, Chapter 1
The practice of magic involves exerting your will over the five elements, by picturing their essence clearly, and using a Mind Crystal as a fulcrum. If you can perfectly picture the essences as described in this book, you will go far in the world of magic.
To command Air, imagine the sphere of the world, and imagine the sphere of Air that surrounds it. Now imagine pulling those two spheres apart, you are forcing your will on that element.
She closed her eyes and imagined what the book described. A breeze on her face startled her. It worked! Something felt… off, though. The image felt coarse, making her lever against the element soft.
She grabbed a pencil and tried to capture a ‘refined’-feeling image in the book’s margin. She drew two pairs of thick dots, the first pair connected with three lines, the second pair with two lines.
A chemist in your world, dear reader, would immediately recognize these as Nitrogen and Oxygen respectively, actual elemental components of Air.
Picturing her sketch, she tried again. Wind whipped through the room, flipping pages in the Primer and twirling her hair about her face.
Over the next four years, she committed every spare moment to the book: Reading, re-interpreting, and sketching her own elemental structures in the book’s margins.
* * *
Metatrix paced the room as the Enchantress prepared to administer the week’s test. She stopped in front of a large portrait of an aged man in a blue cloak with three white concentric circles. It turned Metatrix’s stomach to even look at his face.
“Who’s this?” she asked, feigning ignorance.
“That’s Okloón, most advanced of the modern wizards, he achieved Rank Eight a decade ago, assuming the title of Sage.”
“Are there ranks beyond Sage?”
“There are ancient stories about wizards who claimed to have achieved Rank Nine, but the parts of the text that describe the criteria are obscured and unclear. They called themselves ‘Sorcerers’.”
“Were there lady Sorcerers? Do you plan to achieve Rank Eight?” Metatrix probed, hoping to hit a nerve with the Enchantress. She was unperturbed.
“Do you have a passing command of Stone, Acolyte?” Three shiny black stones sat in a line on the desk. Gesturing a second line a few inches parallel, “Move as many of these as you can.”
Two were clearly stones from a volcano, but the third… Metatrix probed through the Mind Crystal, and it was obvious the third was a softer, riverbed stone, coated with a glossy paint to visually match the others. Levering through the Mind Crystal, she pictured the essence of volcanic Stone and …nudged. The first stone rolled, awkwardly on its uneven surface, coming to rest along the required line. The Enchantress’s eyes narrowed. Metatrix repeated with the second stone, leaving it alongside the first.
”Does… disguising one type of Stone as another often trip up students?” She picked up the third, painted stone and snapped it in half with her hands. With the Mind Crystal, she ablated its structure, and it poured from her fingers as sand.
“…” the Enchantress gaped. Metatrix cut her off before she could speak.
“I’ll see you next week,” and left.
* * *
Her respect for the Primer waned and waxed over time, its lack of precision in describing the Elements’ essences grew increasingly ignorant with each chapter Air and Water were somewhat accurate; but she was impressed that the crude examples given for Stone, Metal, and Fire worked at all.
To command Stone, imagine a farmer tending their field, row after row of crops planted evenly.
She was trying to sketch a more accurate essence for Stone, but it required drawing a lattice of dots in three dimensions, which was difficult on the flat page. She was also wary of running out of margin space, as different types of Stone needed their own diagrams.
The door to her room slammed open. It was her father, breathing heavily and holding an axe.
“Run” he impelled. “Out to the hills. Hide. A drake has awoken in the mountains and headed this way… a big one this time. And the lookouts say there’s a wizard in pursuit… things may get ugly.”
She threw some items in a knapsack; drakes had a way of wreaking wholesale destruction when they were on a charge, rending human-made structures in their path into twigs. She stuffed the Primer in the knapsack last, tucked the Mind Crystal necklace under her shirt, and ran.
Thundering footfalls were nearly upon the town, and the clamor from the townspeople was everywhere; one half racing to attempt to stop the beast, the other, like herself, fleeing its path. She wove through the crowd, then through the woods until she had a vantage point to turn back with a view of the town.
The largest drake she’d ever seen was barreling towards town. Bursts of fire flashed around the beast, halting its charge not at all. A man on horseback wearing blue was in pursuit, in one hand, the reins, in the other, a staff topped with a Mind Crystal so large Metatrix was sure she could move an entire mountain with it…
“No! Nonononononno—“ the mountain aside the valley shifted unsettlingly. Metatrix’s stomach sank. “Stop! No!” she shouted, her voice completely lost among deafening sounds overlapping one another in the echoy valley. The face of the mountain became a rainbow of grey stones, arcing through the air and crashing atop the running drake, smashing the vicious creature into bits of bone and gristle. The beast was stopped. The sloping ground of the valley, though, wasn’t a stable spot for the newly fallen stones, and they rolled, bouncing, ricocheting off each other, gaining momentum, until they plowed into the line of villagers ready to fight the beast, leveled buildings, and buried Metatrix’s entire world beneath a blanket of scree. “Dad! Mom!” She impotently screamed, before devolving into sobs.
She ran full-bore through the dust and debris to intercept the wizard’s path.
“You monster!“ She screeched at him over her own ringing ears. “You destroyed my entire village!”
“Millions could have been killed if that drake had charged all the way down the valley into civilization — sometimes collateral damage is inherent in the execution of magic,” he opined unapologetically from atop his horse.
“Collateral damage!? This was my village! My family! Where am I supposed to live?”
“We can occasionally find ways to compensate those displaced in magical accidents. Take my card to either the Wizard’s Guild Hall or the Wizard’s Academy, they may be able to offer something.” He proffered a slip of paper. Metatrix snatched it from his hand, ripped it to shreds and threw the pieces to the ground.
The wizard rode off, skirting the destruction he’d wrought. The back of his robe sported three concentric white circles. Under her breath, she vowed revenge.
* * *
As Metatrix arrived for her third week of tests, the Enchantress was already opening the door to the office as she reached for the handle.
“You’re early, good. I’ve summoned Okloón from the Guild to oversee this week’s test. He has the authority to approve an accelerated testing schedule.” She opened the door the rest of the way, revealing an ancient man standing near the desk, holding a staff topped with a Mind Crystal and wearing blue robes emblazoned with three concentric white circles. Metatrix entered and sat down quietly, worried her plan would be upended.
He didn’t even recognize her.
The Enchantress opened a lidded bowl filled with white powder. Metatrix gently probed at it through her Mind Crystal. She would have diagrammed it as a hexagon attached to a pentagon.
“Table sugar?” She asked the pair, derisively. “Yeah, I bet this gives the magical orthodoxy trouble, doesn’t it — anything derived from plants or animals doesn’t particularly fit well into your five-element worldview.”
Okloón’s face furrowed.
“Enchantress, we can’t be suborning heretical…” he started. Metatrix stood and cut him off.
“Well there’s one thing you Wizards and the ‘heretical’ Alchemists have in common — neither of you actually understand how… any of this…” she willed up a gust of wind of such ferocity, it lifted her off the ground, and she alighted on the chair. “…actually works.” She vibrated the essence of the sugar until it melted into caramel.
The Enchantress pushed back from the desk.
“I’m ready to collect my compensation for the destruction of Duul. I’ll take it in the form of… the whole Academy.”
“Acolyte, please…” the Enchantress begged, suddenly frightened. A glimmer of recognition crossed Okloón’s face. Before he could react, Metatrix magically shook the particles within the wood of his staff until they burst into flame. Startled, he let go, and it fell to the floor, shattering his Mind Crystal.
“From here on out, you may call me Sorceress.”