A piece I wrote for a 48-hour short story contest, based on the following prompt:
Write a science fiction or fantasy story about the marginally successful construction of new technology or the researching of new lore. The process of inventing something often involves false starts or other unforeseen difficulties (and budget overruns). The widget (or spell, or potion) kind-of works, mostly, until...
First published in the Fall 2009 edition of the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Enjoy!
Albert Woodler had been poring over ancient volumes of text for nearly three days when he finally found what he was looking for.
It was almost dusk, and the dusty light that filtered through the workroom window pooled on the long worktable as Albert thumbed through the heavy books before him. His vision was beginning to blur even with the help of reading glasses, and he paused to rub his eyes and glance over at Julia, who was once again settled on her perch with her head tucked under her wing. Lucky bird, Albert thought. He sighed and took a swig from his water bottle, managing to slop a sizable amount down his shirt and jeans in the process.
“I have a drinking problem,” he announced to his sleeping familiar, looking ruefully at the dark stain spreading across his crotch. Julia didn’t move. Hopefully, his pants would be dry soon---for now, at least, there was nobody there to see. He stretched his arms above his head and then behind his back, cracked every joint he could think of, and returned to the open book.
It was as he was settling back into a reading posture, perched on his stool with his chin in his hands, that he saw it. The runes were inked beneath an illustration of a man with his hands raised in a gesture of summoning. Before the man was a wooden oval like a picture frame, and within it, a human face. To the untrained eye, it looked like a picture of a medieval lord showing off his favorite portrait, but Albert’s stomach gave an unnatural swoop when he saw it. Was this it? He silently mouthed the runes, testing the sounds in his mouth but not daring to say them aloud. The sensible part of his brain that wasn’t yet swimming with adrenaline was protesting that he couldn’t know for sure, that he hadn’t even translated them yet. Nevertheless, no logic could overrule this feeling in his bones that he had found the object of his search.
The paragraph accompanying the illustration was in Occitan, and he could read most of that easily. His heart pounding faster with each line, Albert skimmed through the text, then grabbed a bit of paper and hastily copied the runes on to it.
Under different circumstances, Albert probably would have exercised more caution; he was not a rash person by nature. Normally, he would have double-checked and cross-referenced and asked for a second opinion, just to be sure, but after three days of nothing but musty books and the company of an ill-tempered African Grey Parrot, he was desperate for a bit of excitement and some tangible results. He slid down to the far end of the worktable where the spell lay, essentially finished, but not yet working. Julia woke up at the sound of the metal stool scraping against flagstones.
“Must you be so loud?” she muttered irritably. “Some of us are trying to sleep here.”
She shoved her head back under her wing. Albert paused for a moment and considered whether or not he should ask Julia for help. If he kept her awake now, she’d be more annoyed than usual and would probably insist on doing a lot of research before she allowed him to try anything. That was a disheartening prospect. Yet, it really would be best to have an extra pair of eyes. He sighed, running his fingers through his rumpled hair, and then stood up and walked over to Julia’s perch.
“Hey,” he said. When she didn’t move, he poked her gently with a fingertip. Without un-tucking her head, Julia scooted down her perch away from him. “Jules, I need your help.”
She ruffled her feathers...well, at least he knew she was listening.
“Julia, I’m going to...try something.” There was a pause as Julia slowly swiveled her head to regard him with one shrewd yellow eye. “Nothing big or important,” he lied hastily. “It’s just sort of an...adjunct spell. And I need an extra pair of eyes.”
She cocked her head at him, unblinking. Finally, she turned and flapped over to her worktable perch. “Wake me when you’re ready,” she said, and her head disappeared under her wing.
Albert finished sketching the lines of the spell on the worktable, outlining them with powdered mandrake root, and set the large oval frame in place, propping it upright. He also, as subtly as possible, added a containment charm, marking the necessary characters on tiny scraps of paper and pasting them at various points around the spell. Hopefully, Julia wouldn’t look too closely---if she saw a containment charm, she might easily guess that this was no mere adjunct spell. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, he thought. Last but not least, he took the paper with the new runes on it and carefully added it to the spellboard. He stepped back and surveyed his work.
“Jules,” he said. He turned and saw that she was already awake, standing on one foot with her head tucked between half-fluffed shoulders, her eyes glazed and sleepy.
“Well?” she demanded.
Albert turned back to the worktable, rolled up his sleeves, and taking a deep breath, flicked his fingers to set the spell in motion.