And welcome, readers, to the end of the month and the Final Week Fable! The time when I force myself to keep my writer’s muscles in practice by banging out a short story based on an image in my collection.
What tale awaits us this time? What adventures lie in store? Well, for starters, our hint for this month is:
Yes, another fantasy story. What a surprise. Deal with it! And be prepared to learn why Magic Is Friendship!
Magic Is Friendship
The rogue warily stalked through the forsaken valleys. He kept to the shadows, kept low, hugged cover, treading only where he dared.
“Oh gods,” he whimpered, “oh gods.”
Even though the whole valley seemed desolate, even though his party had given their lives to distract that deranged cult so that he could sneak away unnoticed, even though his years of experience told him there was nothing here, he still walked as if he were trying to avoid breaking eggshells. Even then, the whisper of his leather armour sliding against the air and his body, padded and enchanted for as little sound as possible, felt all too loud.
But no, he found not a soul. He had been creeping by for an hour, and only because he was being so careful. And if hearsay was to be believed (which, in this case, it totally was), the ultimate treasure lay at the heart of this region. A treasure beyond price.
The scoundrel within him thought with black humour: And I won’t have to split it.
But the adventurer within him felt only shame. Shame and grief.
Diomedes wanted to restore his god’s temple.
He fell last, telling the rogue to go on for all their sakes while he fought off a fanatical minotaur. In the end, it risked being impaled upon his blade to get him in a death grip.
Sharra was trying to pay for her family’s freedom.
She fell first, caught by a wild beast’s ambush, crushed beneath its plated bulk as it burst forth from the earth. He didn’t even know that bulettes ranged this far into this region.
Gunnar only wanted to know the truth of the treasure.
He fell second, dragged off and pinned down by a gang of madmen who walked with a zombie’s shuffling gait, beseeching them to join them. He’d carved through a dozen, human, elf, gnome, half-orc, goblin, before his clan’s axe got stuck in one.
And all he wanted was money. Maybe glory, if it would bed another tavern wench. He blinked back tears, wiped his eyes, caught his breath so that he wouldn’t reveal himself by crying.
If I make it out with it, I’m doing what they set out to do. Please let me make it out.
He’d never been a praying being before, having lived off the land and his wits all his life. But after all he’d been through, the traps, monsters, and mad cults they’d faced, he couldn’t help but whisper a prayer to the Sunfather in his heart.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he found it.
He had ventured inwards, going on little more than his own sense of direction, his own instincts for navigating dungeons. Inwards, into the heart of the storm, the calm in the dungeon, where the treasure lay undisturbed by the legions of madmen and monsters outside. He had walked the valleys, the roads leading down, down, and down, until the surrounding cult camps were no longer in sight.
And at what he guessed was the center, there was…a chest.
“Gods be good,” he gasped, “is this it? Is this…?”
Carefully, with all the cowardice an adventurer has with suspicious chests (whether suspiciously important, suspiciously unimportant, suspiciously outstanding, or suspiciously nondescript), he strode towards the chest, drawing a dagger while he turned to keep an eye on his surroundings. Still no one else.
Simple wood, with an iron lock running along the middle. It would probably have fit under his arm. He tested it in every way he knew: Threw ball-bearings, pixie dust, tapped, prodded, poked, checked for hidden traps, switches, or compartments. Then he checked his surroundings for anything of the sort, in case that was the key.
Nothing. As far as he knew, the single chest three adventurers had given their lives for…was just a chest. Even the lock was undone, only clasped closed to hold it in place, not locked.
But…that was impossible. He held the chest, and there was a weight to it. It wasn’t empty; so why wasn’t it locked? He considered that perhaps someone found it, unlocked it, and decided it was too horrific to take. But then why leave the lock undone? Perhaps it was a spell, now broken and unable to be affixed?
But ultimately, he was forced to yield to the simplest facts: He had come here against all odds. He had no wizards or clerics to study the thing. And if he did nothing, he would simply die and let all their efforts go to waste.
He literally had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And so, steeling himself to steady the shaking of his hands and wipe the sweat from his brow, he flung the chest open.
A brilliant ruby flash splashed across the canyon walls in shades of orange and red, like a sky painted by the most brilliant sunset, almost blinded him as he recoiled and shielded his eyes.
“AH! FIENDS OF HELL!”
Warmth. A rush of air. That feeling of the hairs of his back standing on end, what he recognised as magic. And…a sense of welcome relief?
The light faded, and the wind rushed in the opposite direction. He heard the chest clatter shut again. As his eyes grew accustomed to the glow, he glanced again at the chest’s direction. The wind and the light which had blown outwards had somehow drawn themselves back inwards, concentrating into a single point.
And laughter. He didn’t HEAR laughter, but he FELT it in his soul, like the ringing of a thousand, thousand little bells. And before he knew it, he was reminded of earlier days. Better days. Jokes and songs in taverns and around campfires.
Amidst all this, he saw…the most peculiar thing.
It looked like a bird the size of a raven, except it had a long, wavy crest and a mouthless snout as opposed to a beak. Its plumage seemed less like feathers on a body and more like its whole body was made of feathers. It was red like the richest ruby, but unlike the unliving stones, it pulsed in waves of dimming and brightening light, each flare coming at intervals like the beat of a heart. And oddest of all, its magnificent wings were three times its size while its tail, a singular plume of what seemed like living fire, was four times larger than its whole body.
It had a curious, guileless look in its deep eyes, and right away the rogue knew there was the spark of intelligence there. And the first thing that ran through the rogue’s mind was: How long was this poor thing stuck down here?
That surprised him. Every cute non-sentient thing they ran into almost always ended up in the pot or on the spit, both times over a hot fire. Unless it was poisonous. Or spiritual.
Perhaps it was that lack of a mouth which made him feel surprised when he heard a loud, high, squeaky “HELLO!” echoing in his head, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once like both a shout in a crowd as well as a whisper.
He looked around instinctively, cursing his foolishness in thinking that voice could have come from this adorable little thing.
Then he cursed how he was being doubly foolish: They were the only beings around here.
Once again, there was only one way out of this: Forward.
“What…What in the nine hells ARE you?” the rogue stammered, tightening his grip on his dagger. He almost hoped that he was wrong, that he was speaking to a mindless animal.
But then he felt the most profound (and profoundly involuntary) feeling of happiness wash over him, almost eclipsing the grief and fear he suffered through this dungeon. Almost.
And when he heard that voice in his head, somehow hearing it warble “I’m your new best friend!” from the odd birdlike creature in front of him, he knew that he wasn’t wrong.
It looked so innocent. So curious. It filled him with the impulse Sharra always felt, always wanting to take in foundlings and snuggle with dragon whelps (to the dismay of the party when the mothers would discover them). And it was an entirely alien impulse for the likes of him.
He slapped himself to get back to reality. His eyes darted from the creature to the chest, back and forth. The creature, for its part, hovered to match his gaze between its initial position and the lone foreign object in the vicinity.
“What…What in the…” the rogue sputtered in disbelief. “Were you…in the chest???”
The poor thing. And why would he feel such pity for a thing he just met? Especially since his life and livelihood were meant to be his top concerns.
“That’s right,” it giggled with all the delight of a child having their riddle solved, “and you found me!”
The rogue was at a loss for words, but he didn’t loosen his hold of his dagger. Perhaps this spirit was one of those sorts that messed with your feelings just by EXISTING.
Such naked cheer should have irked him after all the losses he had suffered…yet it didn’t. And part of him welcomed that. The other part of him, of course, was a seasoned adventurer with a healthy level of paranoia.
But with nothing else to do but learn, the rogue asked “What…well, alright…do you have a name?”
“Friend!” the spirit creature chirped. The rogue sighed. It was like talking with a child.
“No, that…friend isn’t a name…”
“It’s what I am! Who I am! All I am!” it chanted. It might have been meaningless, but it was said with such certainty, such clarity, such harmony, as if it was the most profound cosmic revelation of its nature. It regarded him with its tiny eyes and asked: “Will you be my new friend?”
Had to admit, the thing was potent. Its squeaky voice and petite physique were frolicking in his head next to memories of mangled corpses and stolen souls. But he had to push through it, had to stay focused.
“Alright,” he halfheartedly remarked, “but…where’s the treasure?”
The thing tilted its head in confusion and its voice chimed questioningly: “Treasure?”
The rogue gestured to the valley all around them.
“This whole place. Word is there’s a great treasure here, left behind by a circle of wizards. Been eatin’ up adventurers for years.”
And we were foolish and desperate enough to go despite that.
The spirit straightened its head and widened its eyes, squeaking “Ohhhh. That. Yeah, I know them.”
The rogue’s jaw dropped. The story was real? And this thing lived through it?
“So the treasure’s REAL?” he asked, his mind racing with possibilities for where and how it would be hidden.
“They weren’t very nice,” the spirit grumbled discontentedly.
“Yes, but is it REAL?” the rogue snapped. There was hope, as well as hunger. Having lost the closest thing he had to a family, he thought he was well and truly justified.
“Locked me in a box and sent me down here,” it sighed wistfully, “that wasn’t very nice at all.”
“Listen, will you just tell me-”
The rogue stopped. And a horrific realisation dawned upon him.
His legs gave out and he crawled, like an animal, to the chest the creature came from.
“No. Nononono. This can’t be, this can’t…It can’t just…It…”
He prodded it. Examined every line, every space between the lines. Pressed every embellishment, every bit of warped wood which looked like a compartment. He checked the walls, the stones, searching high and low for a symbol of magic, or even the telltale shimmering of air marking a concealing spell. All while trying to ignore the tiny spirit.
It giggled preciously and spoke, once again borrowing a child’s condescension over adults missing the obvious: “There’s no hidden doors or portals here, New Friend.”
“-treasure, it has to be here, there has to be SOMETHING.”
“But don’t you realise?” it asked with genuine astonishment.
The rogue tried to shut his ears, will himself into oblivion, so he would not have to hear what he dreaded-
“The real treasure is FRIENDSHIP!”
That was the last straw.
“Nononononono, it can’t be you, it can’t be,” the rogue babbled to both the spirit and himself, “I REFUSE to believe that we gave up everything, weathered traps, monsters, and madmen, DIED, only to learn that the ‘treasure’ is-”
Diomedes. Sharra. Gunnar. Years of hardship and trials, developing a bond. Years spent overcoming their prejudices and distrust. Years spent in pursuit of a goal. Years for their partnership to evolve.
All for friendship.
He would have broken down, either crying or laughing. Their lives’ work, all for a spirit spouting a cliche. And yet somehow, he felt like there was, impossibly, a bright side. Fond recollections clashing with his spite.
And the spirit kept talking.
“I’ve seen ALL sorts of friends. Seen enough to know that FRIENDSHIP is what truly endures in this life! True friends, fair weather friends, platonic friends, enemies forging friendship through trials-”
He pinched himself. Had to focus. Focus on the treasure. Treasure wasn’t emotional, neither was greed. What did he have? What was the loot?
The box. It can’t be worth much; whatever was used to keep the spirit in has long since been neutralised.
“-‘just’ friends, frienemies, more-than-friends-but-not-quite-lovers, bronies, pegasisters-”
The spirit. All that was left of this treasure chamber. All that was left of his expedition. Abandoned by wizards.
Abandoned by wizards.
Fighting back both his nostalgia and his bitterness, he forced himself to smile, looking up with his best ‘I see the error of my ways’ look (practiced with Diomedes) and saying “R…Right. You’re right. All we really needed was friendship.”
This thing gave off strong feelings. He could feel those. Maybe he could use it to get out.
“But…I can hardly make any friends here. Think you could get me out?”
And if he just played along, perhaps a different circle of wizards would pay good coin for-
“That’s not very nice, New Friend.”
That brought his plans screeching to a shocking halt. He looked at the spirit with alarm, but it had no mouth with which to express itself. Could it read his thoughts?
“Friends shouldn’t sell each other out,” it said with pity and reproach, “figuratively OR literally.”
Shit. It COULD read his thoughts.
Don’t think about using it to get out and then finding a wizard to buy it.
Crap. Did he just think THAT?
“Oh well. I TRIED being nice.”
Its defeated tone set off alarms in the rogue’s mind.
“What? What do you-”
Then he realised what it said: It had SEEN all kinds of friends.
Down here in the bottom of this dungeon.
The spirit flashed brighter than ever, like a sun of ruby. The first wave of euphoria, of joy, of contentment, of wanting to connect, to love, to laugh, struck him as he reached another realisation.
Those madmen. Cultists of every species.
They weren’t trying to kill them.
They were trying to HUG them.
“GODS! AHAHAHAHA!” he laughed in dismay and joy. “NO! NO!”
“Let’s be FRIENDS!”
A second wave of sheer friendship filled him, sending him crawling on the floor. Drove the rogue into blissful visions of his late friends, of the times they shared. The time he drank Gunnar under the table. The time he and Diomedes finally connected. Helping Sharra uncover the first clue of her family’s whereabouts. All these and hundreds of little moments, each as vivid as if he were living in each of them. Each with the true feelings he felt deep down.
He was drowning in his friendships. He tried to crush it with every bit of spite in him, his indignation at his fate, the treasure, the wizards who caused all of this. But it was a losing battle, against all his own history arrayed against him.
“AHAHAHAHA! AHAHA! OH YOU’RE ADORABLENO! NONONO!”
In his spasms, he slammed his head against one of the valley’s stone walls. The pain brought a moment of clarity, and he seized upon it. Tried smashing his head into the wall again. THUD. And again. THUD. And again. But it was weaker the last time, for he was now overcome with a sudden desire to live for his friends.
With his last ounce of strength, he gripped his dagger and tried turning it upon his neck. But a strong feeling within him stopped as the tip pricked his flesh, a sharp pinprick and a droplet of blood spilling upon its edge. He was very much at war with himself. He tried willing himself to fall on his own blade, but found he didn’t want to.
“Trying to leave this mortal coil?” the voice asked again, full of concern and care. “Friends don’t let friends do that!”
He was losing it. Already he was starting to wonder why he ever wanted to kill himself. He imagined that doing so would greatly sadden his friends and he couldn’t bear to do that, even though they were already dead. And more and more, the promise of all-encompassing, all-embracing friendship was looking more and more attractive. No sadness, no conflict, no thought.
But the treasure hunter in him was still trying to stay afloat. With one last breach of the seas of emotions, one last burst of air from his lungs, he tried to fight.
“GET…GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
All while the spirit looked at him calmly, understandingly, welcomingly.
“Doooon’t worry,” it cooed, “we’ll work through these issues together. As FRIENDS. Then you’ll make new ones!”
And with that…the rogue sheathed his dagger. With the memory of his friends and hope for the future, he smiled and walked out serenely.
It was time to make new friends.
The spirit had no lips, but it felt joy. More friends were always good. More hearts and minds connected. Already, it could hear the choir of its friends rejoice as one at this lost sheep joining their flock.
“One day,” it declared optimistically, “everyone will be beeeeeest friiiiiiieeeeeends.”