In a Foreboding Tower, Glowing with Portent or Possibly Pollen
Many moons ago in a principality far, far away, a hirsute lady slept in a tower that was covered in thorns. In general, such an occurrence would not be considered worthy of note, for people slept in towers all the time regardless of their current level of hair growth.
But in this particular case, it was not just the lady who slept. Almost everyone in the castle was magically sleeping, including the earl and countess and even Oxnard the guard, sitting in the kitchen with his mouth open, eyes closed in bliss, forever eating a piece of cherry pie, thereby creating with each passing minute a new world record for extended pie eating. Dogs, horses, children, knights, the bathing woman with soap in her eyes—everyone stood or sat or lay as if frozen in midaction, even when such actions were wildly inopportune.
The sole exception to the rule was the owner of a lonesome, warbling voice that could be heard every so often singing songs about remembered conversations, and how awfully quiet sleeping people tended to be, and how if someone didn’t arrive with groceries soon, a certain someone would go to sleep and wake up dead, because Oxnard the guard didn’t have the keys to the tower door on him and they were nowhere to be found, plus the door itself had turned into solid stone, and all the other exits and castle walls were likewise impossible to manage and food was getting rather scarce, especially cheese.
There was little else of note besides the roses peeping out from the thick blanket of vines. The plush fuchsia blossoms were as beautiful as the thorns were sharp, and there was an abundance of them both, together with a cloying scent of attar and some dizzy, happy bees that seemed to possess a particularly charmed ability to not succumb to sleep and thereby patter to the ground like furry grapes.
There was also an abundance of portent swaddled about the place. Oodles of it. A surfeit, even.
Something would go down there soon.
But for now, the lady slept.
And drooled a little, probably.
In a Squalid Barnyard in Borix, Redolent of Feces and Angst
The very worst part about drudgery, Worstley thought, was all the blasted drudging one had to do. Nothing joyful or fun or frolicsome around the corner for a lowly farm boy like him to look forward to. Just more drudgery of a mind-sapping, soul-sucking nature—and on a good day, no cause for involuntary upchuckery.
At least he’d become somewhat accustomed to cleaning up the barnyard after his older brother, Bestley, had been stabbed in the heart by Lord Ergot for being too handsome. Some said barnyard duties were a step up from scrubbing the chimney, but Worstley wasn’t so sure. It had been almost nine months since he’d last vomited at the smell of assorted animal dung, but it was a constant struggle. It was still his least favorite chore, and he had to do it every other day: walk out there with a shovel and a sack among the goats and the pigs and the chickens and those dratted geese that goosed him whenever they could and scoop up whatever foul turds they had excreted since the last time he’d cleaned up. And after that, the stables awaited the same routine. Only then could he have a sad waffle with no syrup on it for breakfast. He didn’t think his mother made them properly: rumor in the village had it that waffles weren’t supposed to be gray.
Like most cheerless days in Borix, the sky was the color of his mother’s waffles. Worstley sighed at the clouds, exasperated. “Would it kill you to let the sun shine through every once in a while?” he said.
The demon geese honked at the sound of his voice and waddled his way, hissing, wings extended in a threat display. Worstley raised his shovel in front of him protectively. “Go on, now. Shoo!” he said.
As he fenced with their snapping beaks for a few seconds, he couldn’t help muttering, “There’s got to be a better way to live than this.”
Had he been in a musical, he thought, right then would have been the perfect time to sing a sad song about his woeful lot in life while emphasizing his eternal optimism and plucky heart. Although he’d been born in this very barnyard—right there by the bucket of lumpy slop—he’d always felt that he was meant for greater things, for some important purpose in the larger world. But there wasn’t so much as a gap-toothed troubadour around to strike an obliging opening chord rhapsodizing about his shining future. Lord Ergot had hanged them all for singing a little ditty about his poky short sword on his wedding day.
The geese fended off, Worstley checked the position of the black billy goat that occasionally found it amusing to ram him from the blind side and bleat a laugh as he clutched his back and winced. So far the goat was staying still—Gus was his name—but he was watching Worstley carefully from the other side of the barnyard near the fence. Or at least Worstley thought Gus was watching him; it was hard to tell. The goat’s eyes never seemed to point in the same direction.
“Don’t even think it, Gus,” Worstley called.
Gus bleated, lifted his tail, and ejected a fresh pile of pellets out his backside.
“Oh, great. Why do people think animals are cute?” Worstley wondered aloud. “They’re just nasty.”
“Aw, you got it easy, kid,” a voice called from the fence to the right of the billy goat. Worstley’s eyes slid in that direction and spied a diminutive form perched on a post. “Goats ain’t nothing. You want a dangerous pile of poop, wait until you get a load of dragon dump. It’s hot and sulfurous and will burn the hairs right out of your nose.”
“Who are you?” Worstley asked. “Better yet, what are you?”
“C’mere, kid. We gotta talk.”
Keeping a wary eye out for attacks from geese and goat, Worstley drew closer to the fence to get a better look at the speaker.
Whoever she was, she had a set of double wings like a dragonfly’s branching from her back, thin and translucent and veined with iridescent colors. They were the most beautiful things Worstley had ever seen. But the owner of said wings wasn’t precisely the image of a proper fairy. A rather large mole with three stiff and proud hairs sprouting from it was rooted on the side of her left nostril. She had two black holes where teeth should’ve been, and the three remaining molars were capped with gold. A single eyebrow not unlike a furry caterpillar wriggled about on her forehead.
Worstley would’ve expected a glittering dress, dainty as a flower, but such was not in the offing. She wore a shirt that looked more like a used handkerchief, possibly swiped from someone with the plague. Her dull red pants ballooned over the thighs with the right leg bunched at the knee, revealing one blue threadbare sock. Her left pants leg fell to her ankle, but that foot was sadly sockless. Dirt rimmed her toenails, and she radiated a powerful funk that might’ve been fungal in origin.
In short, she resembled a fairy about as much as Worstley looked like a prince.
“Are you all right?” Worstley said.
“Of course I am. I mean, apart from it being too blasted early, I’m fine.” She belched robustly. “Ah, that’s better.”
Worstley blinked. “Right. It’s just that you don’t look—”
“Like what? You’d better not say a fairy, kid,” she said, pointing a warning finger at him. The finger appeared to have a booger affixed to the tip. “I’m a pixie. Name’s Staph.”
“That’s what I said. I’m here to change your life, so we should probably get on with it so I can do something more productive with my day than talking to some scrawny cheesehole.”
Worstley took a step back and looked around, suspicious. He’d always dreamed of seeing a fairy, but never one that smelled quite so terrible. “Is this a joke? You can’t be a pixie.”
Staph blanched and looked over her shoulder to make sure she still had wings. The motion made her wobble unsteadily on the fence post. “Wings are still there. I’m a pixie. What the puck else would I be? A bogie?” She waggled her booger-tipped finger threateningly at him and cackled.
“Are you drunk?”
“Not as much as I’d like to be. Now look, kid, I’m here to tell you something important. The good news and the bad news is that you’re the Chosen One. You have a destiny, and I’m here to bless you with it. Or curse you, whatever. Anoint you, let’s say.”
“This has definitely got to be a joke. Who put you up to this?”
The pixie rolled her eyes. “Gahh, enough with that, all right? Nobody cares enough to play a joke on you, farm boy. This is destiny, all gen-u-wine and bona fide. What’s so hard to believe?”
“I thought pixies were supposed to be named Butterblossom or something, and they’re, like, I don’t know . . . clean.”
Staph’s eyes bulged, and she held up her boogery index finger to scold Worstley. “First, Butterblossom is a no-talent harpy who invades homes at night and eats little kids’ pet hamsters.” She held up another finger. “Second, clean people have no fun and they only bathe because they can’t think of anything better to do. But me, I’ve seen some right bloody business and I know things.”
Worstley shrugged and sighed and shouldered his shovel as if to say that if he had to deal with someone else’s crap in the barnyard, it should at least be the physical rather than the metaphorical kind.
“Don’t believe me? Okay, I’ll prove it to you.” The pixie hawked up a loogie and spat it at his feet. “I’ve got more magic juice than a poisoned apple orchard in Chumpspittle. That’s an ordinary goat over there, right?” Staph pointed at Gus.
“He’s kind of annoying, but otherwise, yeah.”
“Watch this.” Staph glared at the goat and thrust out a hand in a clawed gesture. The billy goat rocked back as if struck and began to choke and spit, its yellow eyes rolling back in its head. The pixie produced a tiny wand and added some extra oomph to whatever she was doing, and the goat fell over.
Worstley dropped the shovel. “Hey, what are you doing to Gus? Stop it!”
“Already done,” Staph said as she lowered her hands and put the wand away.
Kneeling by the fallen and unbreathing billy, Worstley was unsure how to give mouth-to-mouth to someone with such thin, filthy lips full of such snuggled yellow teeth. Fortunately, Gus’s round belly puffed up with air, and he rolled over and onto his callused knees, coughing.
“You okay, Gus? C’mon, buddy. If you’re dead, Mom’ll kill me. Or, actually, that might save me a step . . .”
“My name,” said the goat, newly gifted with speech, “is Gustave, not Gus. Get it straight, Pooboy.” His voice was more cultured than Worstley’s and filled the boy with rage that only made him sound more the bumpkin.
“What did you—?”
“That’s your name, genius. Pooboy. As in the boy who scoops up my poo.”
Worstley bristled and said, “That’s so juvenile, you—” but Staph cut him off before he could finish.
“Look, will you forget the goat and listen to me now? He’s not important, but I’m for real, and I’m telling you that you’re the Chosen One. You have a special destiny. You’re going to do great things.”
“Hey, it wasn’t me that chose you, okay? I just got sent here to do the deed. If I’m gonna choose a hero, you can be darned sure it’s not gonna be some whiny, pathetic punk named Pooboy.”
“That’s not my name! It’s Worstley!”
“Whatever. Like that’s any better. Anyway, you’re hereby anointed, so get to it, will ya?”
“Get to what?”
“Saving the world. Or changing it. Or both. The aura kind of takes care of everything, and it’s not my problem anymore. All’s I need is a drink and the occasional night of debauchery at the local halfling bar and I’m good. But you’re not good, right? You’re a pooboy named Worstley living in the most wretched earldom in Pell. Time to move on, don’t you think? Find your destiny, get some songs written about you. Do something worth singing about.”
Staph turned to go, and Worstley yelped and reached out a hand, although he chickened out of actually touching her. They were short on soap around the farm, after all.
“Wait, that’s it? I mean, what have I been chosen to do?”
“Gadzooks, boy. Or zounds. I don’t know which is more appropriate in this case, and I get them mixed up.”
“Me, too,” Worstley admitted.
“But I do know one thing: you gotta figure out your destiny your own dang self.”
“But I’m really new to all this. Don’t you have a suggestion about where to begin?”
The pixie shrugged, scratched idly at her belly, and pointed vaguely to the southeast. “If you amble along that way a while on the road to Tenebruss, you’ll come across the earl’s tower. His castle, too, but the tower’s the thing.”
Staph blew out a frustrated sigh. “So people don’t go to the trouble of building a tower unless they want to protect something they think is valuable inside it. Odds are you’ll find some treasure in there. Either that or the patriarchal son of a nun is trying to protect the virtue of his daughter. She’ll probably be clean and boring, in which case I bet you’ll take a shine to her. Go thou, verily, forsooth, swear by your troth or something. Or just do your chores here in the muck for the rest of your life. Doesn’t tweak my tuppence either way. I’m done here.” She turned her back on Worstley, blasted him with a powerful if squeaky fart, giggled, and flew away in an unsteady looping trajectory, leaving a trail of dull glitter in her wake.
“Wow. Did that just happen?” Worstley gagged, trying to wave away the pixie’s parting gift.
“Sure did,” the billy goat said. “Say, why don’t you begin your quest to change the world by giving me something good to eat for a change. Go in the house and fetch your father’s boots. They smell delicious.”
At the sound of the goat’s voice, Worstley whipped his head around so fast that he heard something pop in his neck. “So I wasn’t imagining it. You really can talk now.”
“Boots, Pooboy. Now. Read my lips.”
“Your lips don’t match your words very well.”
Copyright © 2018 by Kevin Hearne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.