This month’s /r/fantasywriters competition entry: the brief was to write a comic story about magic getting out of control from fellow WordPress blogger and fantasy author WordsWithSharpEdges:
I love me some serious, thoughtful fantasy… but sometimes it’s fun to let your characters go on a romp and do something ridiculous like undermine the fabric of reality to impress a date or accidentally unleash eldritch horrors on the world while researching where missing socks go. In 2,000 words or less, write a funny short story where magic goes horribly wrong (or horribly right).
It’s also another adventure featuring Zbigniew ‘Zbych’ Piech, the captain depicted in my short story, The Orderly, available free from Smashwords via the link above.
“Can’t let them get away with it, the murderous bastards.”
“What by Pierun the fleet was doing sailing away from Velikoryb at the time I don’t know.”
“Why you here then?”
“Well…s’appened now, ain’t it?”
“They’re evacuating Achava. Why aren’t they shipping us off? We’re closer than they are…”
“They’d ’ave to cross the Middle Mountains to get to us. They’d go for the Salvats first – the road’s wide open and Podhalensko’s just a coal-heap. Pile of slag’s not going to stop ’em if they’ve already got two cities of ours.”
Zbych passed through the outer office on his way into the receiving room. The first posters had gone up yesterday, the ink still wet from the printers; the first advertisements had been placed in the newspapers that day. The first refugees were arriving in Krovt, soaked to the bone with autumn rain.
And the first people were grousing about the Empire’s stupidity in moving that damn fleet back to Glasberg, even as they had come to volunteer to defend it.
As the clock struck nine hours, he was greeted by the press of bodies, and a queue that snaked all the way round the side of the Military Hospital in Krovt, several deep. Nothing like the thought that they were only a hundred and fifty versts away from the front to mobilise a city’s population.
“Here, guv’nor – you taking everyone?” a young man chirped as he gave the captain a playful shove.
“Most people, yes. If you can walk and hold a gun, you can fight. Stand aside.”
There was a little more to it than that, and this should have been done three months ago when the Lenks were first rattling their sabres. It could have been more orderly, and mobilisation might have discouraged them from landing on the dockside and attacking tenements full of ordinary people.
Zbych squeezed into the office where the recruiting sergeant was pushing back men from the table. “Any trouble, Vasya?”
At that point, one enthusiastic volunteer almost took the sergeant’s spectacles off with his copy of the illustrated journal Okno k Miru, Window on the World, a special edition with the army’s begging letter on its front cover.
Zbych shook his head and sat down, opening up another line. “Calm down,” he barked. “You’ll all get served.”
The room hushed.
The sergeant turned his eyes back to his own group of men. “You must be a wonder on the parade ground, captain,” he said as he handed the beetle-browed young man in front of him a card and told him to take himself to the medical officer. “You’re going to need it with this lot.” His lips had formed the word rabble, but he had thought better of it.
“It helps, Vasya.”
“You don’t sound too convinced,” the sergeant replied.
“I’m afraid you’re too old, sir,” Zbych said, looking up into the eyes of a besuited man with sagging cheeks, fiddling with his watch-chain. “We only take those under forty.”
“I’m thirty-nine,” the man asserted. “I’ve not yet turned forty and I was…” He tapped the pamphlet he carried. “Look here: ‘18-40 year olds’. You’ve got to let me join up. I was born in Syevirmetyevo. Those are my relatives, sir…It’ll be short! Over by Yule, they’re saying! The Empire can’t possibly allow the beasts to take two cities without repercussions.”
Zbych took the pamphlet. Normal recruitment was up to the age of 35, but with the enemy pouring onto Krovot and Salvat soil like ants, forty was permissible. There were some men who looked to be in their late thirties in the corridor pushing their snouts into the room in quiet anxiety that by the time they got their uniforms it would be over. Zbych fixed the man with a stare.
It hit him right before the eyes. The man had only just turned forty-one. In fact, Zbych could read his exact date and time of birth. It came to him in a flash of light and a whirling of calendar dates, like the spinning numbers on his desk back at the barracks. 13 Sierpien, 1,930th year of the Insulan Calendar; in other words, 13 Sickle, the eighth month of the year. This was the end of Vieriesien, Heather, the ninth month.
“You’ve been forty-one for six weeks, haven’t you?” Zbych said.
The man, who had been nervously fingering his watch-fob and had his eyes cast down, nodded.
“You do realise you’d have had to show your papers at some point,” the captain said. “No getting away with it.”
“But you said…”
“We’re also at the mercy of the doctors,” Zbych said, cursing his simplistic statement earlier on. “If they don’t pass you fit, you won’t be going. If you want to help, the war office will need people. A good reference from your employer and you can help fill a younger man’s place at the stavka. But I suggest you remain in your current position. If the Middle Mountains are crossed or Podhalensko falls, we’ll be reassessing the situation. For now, Krovt is safer than you think. The trains out are packed enough as it is.”
Zbych had known of his talent for ordering people about, and been wary about misusing it; no-one liked a bully. But this new ability seemed to have little consequence for his reputation. He checked everyone. He had to do it consciously, but for most people the dates fell in the right place and he waved people through. After a while, the vision of a spinning calendar disappeared, and he only saw the numerals.
Some he turned down pleaded that they were terrifically fit for forty, having followed this-or-that physical culture correspondence course. Some were old soldiers themselves, decorated the last time the Lenks had been restless and had to be put in their place, but Zbych noted that one man was even carrying a cane and trying to pass himself off as fit. He got a few pugnacious women try to pretend to be boys, but recommended that they seek employment in munitions factories further south if they could leave the city.
By the end of the day there were still people waiting, but he was permitted to clock off and hand over to another shift of officers. He walked down the line towards the entrance to the officers’ mess, looking at them through these new lenses and sending a few of the too-old and too-young packing. The sergeants were normally accommodated elsewhere, but he invited Vasya to the commissioned men’s refectory as a reward for his hard work. They sat down at a table, and Zbych produced a case of cigarillos. “Better than those papirosy.”
“Yup,” Vasya said.
Zbych lit a smoke, leaned back and relaxed. As his mind unravelled from the day’s stress, he suddenly blinked in surprise. Each person around him now wore their date of birth on their sleeve. The mess stewards. The orderly cleaning the floor and emptying the bins. A woman draped over the arm of her aristocratic lover, who was flouting the rules and had brought her in from outside, though no-one cared. Vasya himself.
He rubbed his eyes.
Then it seemed as if everything had a birth-date. The chairs and tablecloths, the food arriving on the table. The curtains delicately screening the continuing clamour of the new recruits from view.
The mess was plastered and painted in fresh colours, but he could see the date on which that paint was applied, not that long ago according the long string of numbers unfolding across the wall. The glass on the window beyond the curtains was etched with another date, and the ceilings bore their own stamp. He gripped the table as if the room was spinning.
Vasya had his hand on Zbych’s arm. “We need a glass of water,” the sergeant begged of the steward who had already brought them their meal.
“17 Travien,” Zbych said, nodding. He frowned.
“What? What has my birthday to do with anything?” Vasya asked.
“29 Sychen.” Cutting-month.
“Is that your birthday?”
Zbych shook his head and put his hand up to his mouth, as if he had just breathed fire.
Vasya chortled. “Come on, sir, enough of this. You’ve been doing this all day, telling people when they were born. Let it go.”
“Flower-month? What’s got into you?”
“25 Zhovtien!” Yellow-month.
“Knock it off, captain. You’ve had your joke.”
Zbych put his head in his hands and tried to articulate what he thought was happening, but each time he opened his mouth, a random date came out.
The sergeant stood up and called over a steward. “Get Doctor Chislenko. He knows magic when he sees it. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”
Zbych took a drink of water, hoping that this might solve the problem, but it didn’t. He stood up and ran out of the room.
Doctor Arvid Chislenko stood over Zbych in the private consulting room. “Bit of an embarrassing problem, eh, Piech?”
Zbych nodded, dumbly. He could still see all the dates on which everything was made; the room’s equipment was brand new, the bedlinen, the stethoscope, even Chislenko’s chair. The Osipovo hospital had recently been upgraded at vast expense. A couple of friends had complained that the money had gone to the army rather than the shabby public infirmary in Krasnaya Polyana. In amongst his fear at the runaway talent, he was curious as to what he’d see there if he dared look.
“Well, don’t worry about this being permanent,” the doctor said in his pinched voice. “You’re not mad. Just under the influence, so to speak, of what happens when we forget magic is a tool rather than a crutch.”
Zbych smirked and coughed.
“It’ll wear off overnight. I could put you out with valeriate if you want.”
The captain opened his mouth, and then realised what might happen if he spoke. So he reached for a scrap of paper on the doctor’s desk, manufactured on the 9 Sierpien the previous year. 4 Krasien 12 Bieriesien 6 Liutiy he wrote.
“Nice handwriting,” Chislenko observed.
Zbych flung the pencil across the room.
“Temper, temper. You’re a grown man, not a little boy. Nod for yes, shake your head for no. Now, would you like to go to sleep now? To save yourself from further humiliation?”
Doctor Chislenko gave a cold smile and mixed up a glass of sedative. “Go and get ready for bed, and for goodness sake don’t try and communicate with anyone. I’ll let the brass know what’s happened.”
“Will I be able to do that again?” Zbych asked the doctor a few days later, the next time they ran into each other in the mess. The recruitment surge continued, and men were awaiting dispatch to the front. The regular army was holding Podhalensko, but the Lenks had reached the Kila at Paszynsko in Salvatka, eighty versts from Krovt, where an artillery battalion had held the Krovot bank making use of an old fort and prevented the enemy from crossing the river.
“You mean determine someone’s age just from looking at them?”
Zbych nodded. As Chislenko had prophesied, the night’s sleep had done him good and he had been hoarse but speaking properly in the morning.
“You still have that ability, but a magician must keep control of his talents,” Chislenko said with a curt nod. “There’s a reason you don’t like to bark orders at people, isn’t there?”
“I want people to love and respect me. I read about how Bulovkin cultivated his regiment and gained their loyalty through kindness rather than fear.”
“But they won’t if you make a fool or a bully of yourself. Am I right?”
Zbych took a drink of his tea. “You’re right.”
“Good man,” Chislenko said, with a smile, warmer this time.