… a free short story from R.A. Gregory…
Seeing as I’m a day late with my usual blog, here’s a free short story about Wizards, High Magic and Information Technology to keep you amused. Happy reading!
THE WIZARD by R.A. Gregory
Deep inside the enchanted forest, a solitary butterfly leapt from the branch it was resting on, flapped its wings and began to make its way through the dense undergrowth, turning this way and that as it zig-zagged crazily beneath the familiar canopy that was its home. After a short while, the trees began to thin and the butterfly found itself in a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a dilapidated cottage with a thick, thatched roof and a single, cracked window, whose tiny panes were so stained by dirt and grime that it was hard to imagine they allowed any light to penetrate at all.
Despite its condition, the cottage somehow managed to achieve a squat and unusually solid appearance, which suggested that all was not as it seemed. Indeed, as the butterfly flitted casually past the far wall of the building, its form shimmered and changed for a moment, growing into something far larger and far more fearsome than one would expect. Then, once past the cottage, it resumed its normal shape and completely unperturbed, as far as one can tell where butterflies are concerned, continued on its journey into the forest. Had anyone been watching closely at the time, they would have wondered about two things. Firstly, that the time taken for the butterfly to cross the wall of the cottage seemed far longer than was strictly necessary and secondly, that just for the briefest of seconds, the cottage appeared to take on the form of a tiny fortress, with blue granite walls and a flag the same colour flying from its ramparts.
Inside the cottage, darkness prevailed, except for a dim glow in the centre of the room. There, illuminated from below, the Wizard stood hunched over a large wooden table, alternating his gaze between the cauldron before him, swirling with a glowing, unfathomable suspension of ever-changing crystals and six short rows of small, wooden glyphs, their symbols hinting at arcane and potentially dangerous possibilities, especially in the hands of the uninitiated. Next to them lay the wizard’s wand; a short, squat affair, not unlike the cottage itself, which had, over the years worn itself into a shape that perfectly fitted the wizard’s hand. Rolling his head, as if to relieve the discomfort of craning his neck over the sizzling cauldron, the wizard ran a bony hand through his stringy and thinning hair. The coming night would be a difficult one, he thought, as he sombrely stroked his straggly whiskers. Possibly his toughest challenge yet. Everyone’s toughest challenge, in fact. He’d felt it earlier in the day when he’d connected himself to the magical web of Wizards, Witches and Warlocks, which covered every corner of the known world. Everyone had been talking about it. The entire network was buzzing with rumours about the coming attack by the Dark One, the fearsome rogue Enchanter known as Hakkor.
The Wizard knew that he was only one small part of the collective defence against Hakkor, a solitary node if you like, yet he felt himself to be solely responsible for the defence of the realm and knew that many others like himself felt the same way. Consequently, he had spent most of the day updating his spells and charms, trying to anticipate the nature of Hakkor’s attack, without knowing exactly what form it would take. Now, with nightfall fast approaching, all he could do was to wait.
Staring deep into the cauldron, mesmerised by the gently swirling, multi-coloured pattern within, the Wizard repeated his favourite mantra over and over again, as if to reassure himself before battle commenced. “My Chi is stronger than your Chi,” he intoned, the words echoing ominously off the grime-ridden walls. He didn’t know where or when he had first heard the invocation, but the words held power and it was unbidden that he found himself slowly rolling his hands over each other in a mystical circular sweeping motion.
Then, without warning, Hakkor’s assault began. The swirling colours inside the cauldron suddenly vanished, to be replaced instead by a seamless, jet-black sheen, with a single spot of iridescent green in its centre, which quickly grew into a shimmering line of strangely twisting symbols. As it did so, the Wizard sprang into action, his fingers passing rapidly over the wooden glyphs on his table, as he activated a firewall. Outside, a sheet of flame thirty feet high appeared in a ring around the cottage and began to flare as Hakkor’s foot soldiers threw themselves helplessly against it. Inside, the Wizard smiled grimly to himself. Bots, he thought. Hakkor is using bots. What an amateur. The poor, hapless things would just keep on doing what they were told until they ran out of steam or were destroyed by the firewall. They were no threat and certainly not what Hakkor normally used. Maybe he was just testing the line; playing games until he began his proper attack.
As the lumbering bots continued to perish in unthinking droves against the fearsomely blazing firewall, the Wizard swept his fingers over the wooden glyphs once again, summoning a spell that would begin actively looking for incoming threats. After a few moments, a new pattern of symbols appeared on the cauldron’s liquid face. The Wizard’s brows furrowed as he tried to decipher the symbols and then he nodded subconsciously to himself in recognition. Crawlers. About three minutes away and approaching fast. This was more like it. Although crawlers were similar to bots, in that they were essentially unthinking, their method of attack was far more subtle. Rather than trying to overwhelm an opponent’s defences by sheer force of numbers, crawlers would instead meticulously probe them, looking for any weakness that they could exploit, literally crawling along the defensive line, as their name suggested. Well, thought the Wizard, with a hollow, raspy chuckle, they would find no holes in his firewall that was for sure. He’d checked the incantations a dozen times that morning and set the wall up to be impervious to this kind of attack, so, for the time being, he was safe. Nonetheless, he would make absolutely certain that nothing got through. Waving a hand across the ever-patient glyphs, he brought forth a mirroring enchantment and placed an exact copy of the cottage, firewall and all, a mile further into the forest. With a few more passes of his hands, he weakened the copies’ firewall slightly, making it an easier target for the approaching crawlers. Being relatively simple creatures, the duplicate cottage should distract them for a little while at least, he reasoned, as he continued to stare fixedly at the cauldron.
As the crawlers began to seek their new target and the firewall held fast, the Wizard turned his attention to the network. It would be prudent to check on the others, just to ensure that they were alright, he mused. With a quick tap of his wand, the pattern in the cauldron changed once again, this time revealing a map of sorts, with a spiderweb of lines connecting a series of disjointed dots. After studying the map for a few moments, the Wizard closed his eyes and allowed himself to join the network. At first, all he could see was darkness. Then, one figure after another resolved themselves before him. To his surprise and dismay, some of the faces he had been expecting to see were absent. Malvern the Dragon Slayer wasn’t there for one. Neither was Pookie Ninewon, Protector of the North. Without waiting to talk to the others, the Wizard abruptly broke contact and opened his eyes again. Looking more closely at the cauldron, sure enough, both Malvern and Pookie’s dots had turned a worrying shade of red, which could signify only one thing: that their defences had been breached and they had fallen. It was both stupid and a shame, he reflected sadly, to be beaten by a pack of simple bots and crawlers. Obviously, neither of them had updated their spells before the attack and with them gone and the magical web weakened as a result, it would be up to himself and the others to take up the slack.
The Wizard had no further time to mourn the loss of his fellow Mages because at that moment, the cauldron’s contents turned bright orange and a series of highly alarming black symbols appeared on its oily surface. In response, the Wizard passed his hands over the wooden glyphs in a complex sequence and did his best to beat back the latest threat; a barrage of spoolers and worms that had crept up on him unnoticed while he’d been communing with the others. The worms were bad enough. They had the ability to burrow beneath the firewall and attack from within, but it was the spoolers that really worried the Wizard. He almost felt the force of their impact as they swept out of the darkness, arms flailing wildly as they flung bits of themselves against the flaming wall in an incoherent rage. If the bots were the magical equivalent of throwing rocks then the spoolers were the equivalent of throwing knives. Extremely sharp knives. If either they or the worms managed to get past the firewall, then all of his secrets would be exposed to Hakkor, who would mercilessly exploit them to the detriment of the entire network and the realm beyond. In desperation, the Wizard cried out: “My Chi is stronger than your Chi!” and gripping his wand tightly, slammed it down hard onto the table. In response, outside the cottage, the air turned blue with sparks of magic as the firewall blazed even hotter and tongues of white-hot flame burst out from it, incinerating the spoolers where they stood and baking the worms into the ground below, as they tried to burrow underneath it.
No sooner had the attack been thwarted than the Wizard was momentarily distracted by a new message floating on the cauldron’s surface. Absentmindedly wiping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his robe, he saw who the message was apparently from and then smiled to himself, before letting go another grim chuckle. So, that was Hakkor’s plan, he thought. Start off with a really simple, blunt force attack to try and weed out the unprepared and then build it up in successive layers with more and more complex manifestations, until we’re overrun and then, at that very moment, throw in a seemingly helpful communication from an old friend, which we read and then find ourselves beaten. Well, my friend, this is one Wizard that’s not going to fall for your trick. I’ll bet that there’s a Troyana hidden inside that message and I’m going to find it. You should have done your homework more thoroughly, Hakkor. ‘Old friend’ is right. You sent me a message from Passquay the Lockmaker, but he’s no longer with us, you fool, he spat, as he summoned a cleaner from his cache of spells and sent it out to collect the message.
The cleaner scooted straight through the wall of the cottage and up to the edge of the still blazing firewall, where it opened a portal to allow the suspect communication through. No sooner was the message inside than the cleaner scooped it up and quarantined it in a separate mini-firewall. No matter how hard the message tried to escape, it was held fast by the cleaner, which, with all the delicacy of a trainee barber-surgeon, proceeded to tear the message apart until it found the Troyana, along with an Executor spell, hidden deep inside. Both the Troyana and the Executor retreated as far within the shredded message as they could, alternately huddling together for safety and hissing like cornered cats, as the cleaner relentlessly approached. Finally, when the grisly autopsy was completed, the cleaner forced what remained of them through the mini-firewall, leaving a pile of charred remains on the ground and returned to the cottage, where it dumped its findings into the cauldron, for future examination.
Satisfied that the immediate threat had been dealt with, the Wizard was just about to check once more on the rest of the wizarding network, when he froze in shock. There, before his very eyes, the cauldron had changed colour yet again, this time adopting a blood-red hue, with angry yellow symbols floating on its surface. As he studied the characters, his face paled and he began trembling with rage and despair. “Hakkor, you evil, crafty, malicious son of a dead dog’s afterbirth,” he muttered between gritted teeth. “So that was your real plan, eh? Wait until I’d captured your suspect missive and then use the portal that my cleaner opened up against me? Threads? I hate threads!” And sure enough, outside the cottage, over a thousand threads had begun opening up in the firewall, turning it from a solid barrier of flame into little more than fancy Swiss cheese. They were tiny and innocuous looking things, little more than lengths of white cotton in appearance, but once they had penetrated the firewall they would be unstoppable. And suddenly it dawned on the Wizard, what Hakkor really wanted. Yes, control of the magical web and the subsequent ability to pervert the realm were still his main aims, but to do this he was going to try and capture the Kernel.
The Wizard glanced over his shoulder into the far corner of the cottage. There, suspended between two intricately woven walnut poles, bridging the gap between floor and ceiling was the Kernel: the source and very heart of every Sorcerer’s power. Normally, it just glowed a faint green colour, as it endlessly cycled through an infinity of spells, collecting the resultant magical energy for future use. Now, however, as a result of the battle raging beyond, it flared and swirled even more brightly and alarmingly than the cauldron had done. As such, it would be an easy target for the encroaching threads and once they reached it they would spawn so many handles that the Kernel would be smothered and rendered useless to any who tried to use it.
Realising that he had but seconds to act, the Wizard turned back to his wooden glyphs and made the one pattern that he feared most of all: all portals closed. With a sigh of relief, he watched the cauldron as one by one, in quick succession, it closed every portal that had been opened in the firewall, stopping the deadly attack of the threads in their stead. Effectively cut off from the rest of his fellow fighters, the Wizard quickly renewed his firewall enchantments and began carefully re-opening portals, one at a time, waiting with baited breath for the attack to resume, but no further challenge came. Outside the raging inferno, the remaining bots, crawlers, spoolers, worms and the dreaded threads, howled and wailed in mounting fury, all searching for a way past the barrier, but finding none open to them. Finally, the task was complete and with a tap of his wand, the Wizard consulted the map of the network once more. It didn’t take him long to realise that Hakkor’s assault had dealt a heavy blow to the magical web. More than half of the spots that were visible to him were the same ominous red colour as Malvern and Pookie’s, and the Wizard had no doubt that many more, which he could not see, were the same. With no time to waste, he closed his eyes and re-joined the network, recoiling slightly at the lack of faces that appeared before him. Ignoring all of the standard wizarding protocols, he simply broadcast his findings across the network, commanding all of the remaining Wizards, Witches and Warlocks to perform an ‘all portals closed’ spell and open only those that were absolutely necessary for them to communicate with each other.
Over the following hour and with the sun just beginning to poke its head above the forest canopy, the Wizard began receiving reports from grateful sorcerers around the land and beyond that the order had been a success and that Hakkor’s brutal offensive had been repelled. With a deep sigh of gratitude to those who watch over magical folk, the Wizard allowed himself to stand fully erect for the first time since the battle had begun and after disarming his firewall spells, made his way slowly across the now silent cottage to his enchanted cooling box, where he withdrew a slice of cold bread, covered with tomato sauce, cheese and some sort of undefined sausage, as well as a bottle of invigorating potion; the one with the scarlet cows on it and collapsed, exhausted into a musty smelling chair, stuffed with old horse hair. It had, indeed, been a tough night, he reflected, as he gulped the potion down and began stuffing the food into his half-starved gullet. And one that had seen more than a few of his friends forever wiped from the landscape. Still, it was worth it, he reasoned. For the time being at least, all of the magical beings within the realm that he helped to protect, including the Fairies, Goblins and even the little Draklings, who would one day, no doubt, be as big a problem as Hakkor, could get on with their existences in peace, blissfully ignorant of the threat that lay beyond their fairytale world. And with that, as the food and drink began to slosh around in his now satiated belly, the Wizard closed his eyes and set to preparing for the next encounter, the mantra: “My Chi is stronger than your Chi,” silently reverberating around his head and somewhat strangely echoing around the walls of the cottage as well.
Outside, the sun was high in the sky and the day was taking on the hazy sheen of mid-summer. All around the cottage peace reigned supreme. To a casual observer, the cottage appeared just like any other rundown rural dwelling, nestled within a small clearing scratched out of the surrounding woodland. However, just for a moment, a fox running past the cottage door was transformed into something huge and quite utterly ferocious, without apparently noticing it at all. And that is the kind of cottage that it would be a very good idea to keep away from.
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