Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 24
Once upon a time, there lived a powerful enchantress. But though her strong magic sustained her for a long, long time, there came a day when she began to grow old. She knew that it was time to choose an apprentice to someday succeed her, and so she called upon her two most promising students.
Aegorath was of noble blood, born under the Dragon Moon, and saw through the world’s veil as through a still pool. Yet where others of noble birth counted upon name alone, and others with special gifts relied upon those over study, Aegorath worked hard, far more proficient as an acolyte than many masters.
Thilo too worked hard, but the seers had found him in a nameless village, far away, and he had therefore begun his studies later than the others his age. His efforts had been spent first in gaining an equal footing with the others, and later in compensation for the fact that his gaze pierced the veil no more clearly than the others.
“The ways of our order dictate that I must decide upon an apprentice,” said the enchantress, “and I have decided that it will be one of you. However, the final choice will be by way of a challenge.”
Aegorath and Thilo trembled to hear it: Thilo with fear, Aegorath with anticipation.
“I have placed two chalices in two caves: one two days to the east, the other two days to the west. Whoever first returns with what I have sent you out to find shall be the victor.”
“I choose the path to the east,” announced Aegorath, without hesitation.
“Very well,” said the enchantress.
Thilo cursed inwardly. The path to the east was straight and flat, while the path to the west wound through the mountains.
“Take whatever you need for the journey and go when you are ready. Prepare well: the road is not the only obstacle I have placed before you. Your challenge begins now.”
Immediately, Aegorath ran for the door, with Thilo close behind him. Here, Thilo hoped he might win back some advantage—out of necessity he was used to journeying on foot, while Aegorath’s noble family owned a carriage—but still he thought carefully about how to prepare. His extra stamina would do little good if he could not overcome whatever other challenges lay in store.
Thilo packed quickly and was soon at the top of the first ridge. He squinted over his shoulder into the morning sun. Aegorath, no doubt, was already far ahead.
Halfway through the first day’s travel, Thilo found his path blocked by a hideous beast: it was an alchemic construct, poisonous and quivering, set here to await him.
The beast spoke with the enchantress’ voice: “If you are not prepared to face me, turn back now. I will kill you if I can.”
But Thilo had brought a pouch of salt, with which to draw a circle of protection should the need arise. Taking the merest handful from the bag, he cast it at the creature, which bubbled and screamed. It was not the use he had expected, but still the salt had served him well.
Halfway through the second day’s travel, Thilo found his path blocked by a glorious angel wreathed in flame.
This creature too spoke with the enchantress’ voice: “If you are not prepared to face me, turn back now. I will kill you if I can.”
But in preparation for storms and wildfires, Thilo had enchanted his cloak: it was interwoven with a magic impervious to both water and flame. This he cast over the angel, and so extinguished it. It was not the use he had expected, but still the cloak had served him well.
At last, Thilo reached the cave, and here he saw the chalice. It was a wondrous thing—bright gold and glittering jewels—but it was held within a magic mirror.
The creature in the glass was neither hideous nor glorious, and the voice it spoke with was his own: “I will not kill you,” said his own reflected image, “but I will end your quest if I can.”
Thilo took a deep breath, and began his appraisal of the mirror. His reflection appraised him in turn. He tried to take the chalice, to will away the glass. He even lifted the mirror itself from the wall, to see if there was some compartment hidden just behind. At last, for want of any other options, he cast a stone at its surface, but the missile stopped dead against the glass and tumbled to the floor.
Finally, fearful that the day was drawing on too long, Thilo summoned the strongest of his magic. He placed his hands against the surface of the mirror, and with all the will he could muster transmuted the thick glass into thin parchment. With a simple knife, he cut through and claimed his prize.
Yet it was not his prize.
Jewels still glittered, but they were now set in a cup of pitted lead. His magic had not served him well.
For two days Thilo carried the false chalice home, its weight a constant reminder of his disgrace. Yet when he came to the final ridge, the sun at his back, he saw clearly Aegorath walking down the eastern road. Determined to at least return first, Thilo sprinted down the final slope. But Aegorath must have seen him running, for he was right behind Thilo as he threw open the door.
Inside, the enchantress waited. “Show me what you have brought.”
Stepping forth, Aegorath held aloft the golden chalice.
The enchantress looked to Thilo. “And you?”
Slowly, Thilo brought the lead cup from his pack.
“Do not be ashamed. It took great wisdom and great courage to return with the chalice in such a state.”
This only made Thilo feel worse. That was, until the enchantress spoke once more.
“After all, Aegorath might have won had he not stopped to turn my lead cup into gold.”
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
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