A mage's calculations backfire.
Magrev opened his eyes to complete darkness. If he had not known better, he might have thought that this was death. But, even in that moment of waking, he was aware that this was to be expected. It was just another stage in the plan.
He moved a hand upwards and touched the roof that had to be above him. Wood, polished by the feel of it, finely carved at the edges. Good, things were working as intended. The hand moved to the side and felt the wall. Yes, there was no doubt about it.
His mind was fully alert now and he became distracted by cobwebs covering his face. The hand came up to clear them away and met a tangled mess that seemed to be everywhere. Hair. It was hair. Of course, he had heard that hair didn’t stop growing. There was a lot of this, however, and it took him a while to clear it off his face. There would be time to consider how the hair had managed to grow so long, so quickly.
Right now, he should check to see that they’d placed the orb in the coffin with him. His hand moved to his side again and began to feel about the confines of his prison. And there it was, a hard sphere in the blackness, cold to the touch and dormant. It seemed that his trust in Urd and Regar was not misplaced. His hand closed about the comforting shape.
Carefully, he lifted the orb until he held it above his chest, just below the lid of the coffin. For a moment there was a surge of panic as he searched for the incantation in his mind. The first word came to him and he spoke it out. It was like the first link in a chain, each word pulling the next behind it until they lay in the darkness above him, an energy palpable in the atmosphere.
The orb began to glow, emitting a faint, sickly light so that Magrev could at last see the wooden panel above him. Strange letters were lighting up in the air surrounding the orb, reflecting the light produced by the orb. With his chin on his chest, the mage could read the inscription. It was all according to the plan.
Steeling himself now, he read aloud the words formed by the letters. It was the tongue of the ancients, so rarely spoken these days that the sound of it alone had power. But it was the meaning that Magrev was counting on. As he enunciated the words and felt the power growing in the air and the wood and the earth about him, he could feel the orb beginning to vibrate. Its light grew stronger until it became so bright that he was forced to close his eyes.
There was rumbling now, deep growling from the depths of the earth and the coffin began to shake. The mage was knocked from side to side by the disturbances but he held on grimly to the orb. He could feel it growing hotter as the noise from the outside increased.
When the sensations had become more than he could bear and he was about to drop the orb, the noise reached a crescendo and the world exploded outwards, blasting the walls of the coffin into space, heaving the earth upwards into a great belch of foulness and stench as the dead rose in pieces from their resting places. Magrev was flung like a doll from his grave and then held in the air by the orb as the explosion melted away, its concentration of power released and its purpose fulfilled.
In the dark, beyond the light of the ebbing but still glowing orb, came the sound of soil, skulls and bones falling back to earth. Magrev was released gently from the orb’s grip and he landed softly amongst the dark ruin of the graveyard. He was alive and free, just as he had intended
.For a few moments he stood there, recovering from the shock of the explosion that had radiated from the orb. This was what he had trusted his life to, this globe of stored power that would keep him safe in his simulated death, supplying the air for his faint breaths to continue below ground and preparing for the great release of energy that would propel it and the mage holding it, up through the escaping earth to the world above. And all this to ensure his survival through the ravages of the great khan’s approaching horde, the dreaded enactors of a vengeful and bloodthirsty god, whose famed exterminations of whole tribes and cities spread before them like wildfire. This had been guaranteed by the baron’s decision to fight, rather than to beg for mercy with a swift surrender.
Of course, it all depended on the loyalty of his servants, Urd and Regar, in seeing that he had proper burial with the orb secure by his side. And they had performed exactly as ordered, for he stood there now, shaken but alert and unhurt, a survivor of the khan’s ravages through the baron’s lands.
But where were his servants? They were to wait in the graveyard for his predicted release but there was no sign of them yet. Had they fallen victim to the general slaughter that followed every victory of the khan’s rampage through the earth? He looked round at the surrounding darkness, seeing no waiting attendants and no light from a shaded lantern. It seemed that Magrev was alone and would need to make his own way into whatever remained of the world he had known.
He took a step forward but his legs became entangled with the flowing hair that seemed to entangle him from head to foot. This was unexpected, that he would be underground long enough for his hair to reach such ridiculous lengths. How long had he been down there anyway? It must have been way longer than intended, if his hair had grown to such extremes.
That must be his first task, to cut away the hair that ensnared him and so enable him to move without interference. His hand fell to his belt and felt the handle of the short blade he carried there. Quickly, he tore it from the scabbard and started to hack away at the locks of long hair, gathering it in handfuls that could be cut through for release. It was a long job and there was no method in his assault on the hair but, eventually, it was done. He stood like a strange statue in a pile of hair like writhing eels with his jagged locks now reaching only his shoulders.
Unbound a second time from the chains of his long sleep, Magrev set forth to discover his new world. Overhead the sky was lightening with the dawn and, as he came to the end of the graveyard, he could see the surrounding lands quite clearly. A few hundred yards away, the village stood, silent and grey, apparently deserted. He walked down the track to the first houses.
The houses were empty, clearly uninhabited for a long time, with nothing but grey ash covering everything inside. There was no sign of life, though he searched through the village in hope.
This was going to be difficult, he realised. If the khan had wiped out the population, Magrev would have to walk to the lands of the neighbouring baron, a journey that would take several days. Already he felt a raging thirst and knew that he must find water or die in this desolate place.
There was a well in the market square, he remembered that. Finding his way carefully through the destruction around him, he made his way to the open space in the middle of the village. There was the well, stone walls still standing but the winch and its bucket mere skeletons clawing at the atmosphere.
As he came closer, Magrev could see that the well was filled with briars, choked to the brim and overflowing on to the cobblestones of the square. There would be no water for him there.
But briars, that didn’t seem right. How long would it take for briars to find root in the well and then grow to cascade into the square? Surely much longer than the period he had intended to be in his grave. He had reckoned on the horde passing on within a few days of their massacre of the people, adding a week to be sure. But that was nowhere near enough for a tangle of thorns and brambles to grow sufficiently to strangle a well.
Once again he wondered how long he had been underground. It must have been months, maybe years. How had that happened? He went through his calculations in his head, wondering where he had gone wrong. But there was nothing. It must be an error in the incantations taught by the old master, he reasoned. Some minor slip in the time calculation that had kept him underground for much longer than he expected.
No wonder Urd and Regar were nowhere to be found. It was as likely that they were dead from old age rather than the rampage of the khan. But he had no time to waste upon such thoughts. He must find water now, before the irony of dying of thirst caught up with him.
He turned and made his way out of the village, taking the southbound road in hope. Reaching a crossroad, he came upon a signpost that leaned drunkenly to one side and pointed to the sky. Magrev discerned the letters fighting to be seen through the dust that covered everything. There was just a single word scrawled across the sign.
“Chernobyl” it read.
Word Count: 1,635
For Short Shots: Official WDC Contest, October 2020
Prompt: As per illustration.