Eight epic fantasy stories that have a common theme—failure. Sometimes dark but often funny, these tales paint other worlds where things didn’t work out the way the main character planned.
- A Lesson in Summoning—an apprentice learns how summon Shrong demons.
- A Boy with No Name on a Horse Called Spot—a young man must earn his adult name.
- Cheating Death—an untrustworthy Greek wizard finds a way to live forever.
- The Loneliness Drug—a new drug hits the market with side effects.
- Of Mycenaean Men: an ancient foible—a Monty Pythonesque spoof of the Odyssey.
- Native Intelligence—a teenaged Indian learns magic from his grandfather.
- Agents of Fortune—an Appalachian witch helps people by listening to the right voice.
- Zaboath Must Die—a post-apocalypse where one person’s heaven is another’s hell.
Young Burl was not cut out for the life of getting up with the roosters, mucking stalls, and milking cows. Since he was the seventh child and knew he would never inherit, he apprenticed himself to a tradesman as soon as possible.
However, Burl was horribly bored as an apprentice furniture maker. Sweeping the floors and fetching water was not how he envisioned spending his teen years. Learning to read had been interesting, but his favorite times were when the pieces of wood spoke to him and told him what they wanted to be. This wonderful communion caused no end of trouble. When his master wanted a chair back, the wood wished to become a backpack. The time his teacher wanted a table leg, the yew wanted to be an elaborately carved walking stick. The time and money spent on such projects came out of Burl’s hide and added to the length of his indenture.
One particularly miserable day, the master joiner had asked for a cutting board, and Burl had presented him with a fine bowl and spoon set. After the beating, he lay face down in bed, and prayed to the gods of the ancient woods to show him hope. That night he had the life-changing dream. He saw the old oak in the clearing struck by lightning, and one branch blazed with angry fire. In exchange for cutting off the offending flame, the oak spirit promised to show him how to make the branch into wands. Burl ran immediately out into the rain with his master’s best saw to save the tree.
Hours of fevered work later, he had five white wands and the expensive, iron saw was beginning to rust. The fuming master was going to cane Burl until he saw that the tips of the wands still glowed. “How is this possible?” asked the craftsman.
“The wood remembers the fire. The small one still recalls the lightning,” Burl explained.
Master Joiner immediately sent the boy on his way with every cursed thing he had made since his apprenticeship had begun. As he packed Burl realized that it was all travel gear. The ancient forest had been preparing him all along. The boy set off to visit the well-known wizard that lived five days’ walk to the north. Everything would be different now; people would finally show him some respect.
Renthew the Great was tall, thin, dressed in regal blue, and older than any man Burl had ever met. Presented with the gift of wands, Renthew accepted the boy into apprenticeship immediately. The boy even got to keep the smallest, non-matching wand for himself.
The woods around the wizard’s tower were full of mountain ash, skinny and withdrawn—not a true ash at all—but Burl enjoyed the harmony of their group song each morning at dawn. It made the day go by easier, as he fetched water and performed other menial tasks for his new master, the wizard. Unfortunately, Renthew already had four other apprentices. As there was only space in the summoning circle for five people, Burl would need to fulfill other duties until one of the others graduated. In addition to normal apprentice duties, now he had to fetch, cook, and carry for the senior boys as well.
The other apprentices were rich, spoiled, and frankly accident-prone. Burl frequently had to clean up their mistakes: burning curtains, flesh-eating slime that crawled out of beakers, and the highly acidic excrement of metal-eating insects. Burl made the best of it, using the incidents as an excuse to search the master’s books for instructions about how to build useful tools like acid-proof boots and fire-proof gloves.
While he was sweeping during the weekly summoning lesson, Burl overheard the mysteries Renthew told the others. “Any hedge wizard can weave the forces of magic. A truly great wizard harnesses the magic of other creatures to do his bidding, much like more mundane men will use a plow horse. The first step in elevating yourself is to study the notebooks of the great wizards who came before you.”
Renthew had many such books under lock and key, but he only shared a snippet at time, usually so he did not have to draw or write something himself. While fixing a wobbling table, Burl heard, “Today, we begin our study of the rare Codex of Shrong the Summoner.” The wizard passed a drawing around the circle of students in the tower’s great room. It was a crude sketch that showed a froglike creature walking hunched over.
“Shrong demons are all about dominance. They fight often among themselves, the larger and crueler ruling the smaller and weaker. They’re vicious bullies, but if you can cow one of them, it will serve you faithfully for the rest of its life. Every meeting with them is a contest of wills that you must be certain you can win before it begins. They use two whip-like tentacles on the tops of their heads to make the weaker creatures submit. The tips of these tentacles cause great pain.”
“Then how can we possibly subdue them?” asked the oldest boy, Clavier, who was fond of wrestling with the other apprentices until they cried Uncle.
Renthew saw this as a perfect chance to lecture. “We use our wands from a distance the way they use their whips. If you use their name and a commanding voice while administering pain to the sensitive points marked in red on this chart, you can overcome. You will start by practicing with small imps and build up as you gain confidence. I will provide you with the name of a demon from my list.” The list of secret names was the true treasure of any wizard. Like the hand-drawn sea charts of a sailor, it represented a lifetime of effort, and his advantage over the competition.
“Never fear, I will be nearby to assist. It is with good reason they know and fear my name in the nether realms. The circle of protection binds their arms and legs to the center, but make sure that the protective circle is wider than their whips are long. For today, one stride across should be enough, but we’re only bringing across a tiny messenger imp. Should your circle be uneven or the demon exceptionally large, he may be able to lash at you with a tentacle tip. If this occurs, close the gate and send the demon home immediately as described in chapter seven.”
The youngest apprentice, Numus, was nervous. “What if it manages to wrap the tentacle around our wand hand or something?”
Renthew was grim. “Because they hail from another realm, demons can only be harmed by magic. Each of you carries with him a small, enchanted dagger for a reason. If you ever get caught by a tentacle, try to cut through it and escape. If there are other wizards nearby, protocol demands that you warn them of any breach, as per the Uncontrolled Summoning rules in chapter eight. This is why we all wear the same ceremonial robes and masks. If an escaped demon were to meet us on the street, he wouldn’t be able to pick us out of a crowd and get revenge on his summoner. Shrong demons in particular are very revenge driven.”
The oldest pupil, Clavier, asked, “What if we can’t sever the limb?”
Renthew shuddered. “Use the dagger on yourself. Summoners who are captured by the nether folk are tormented for a very long time. Sometimes when we open a gate, we can hear the failures begging to be killed.”
When Renthew sent him on a mission to put more firewood in the stove, Burl missed the good parts. The boy sighed as he obeyed. It appeared he would never chance to see the drawing of the circle or the opening of the door into the demon realms.
Burl contented himself with crumbs of knowledge. He even carved his own frightful, wooden face mask in the shape of the snarling fiend he’d seen in a picture, and hung it in the kitchen. After the first snowfall, the mountain ash no longer sang him awake, and his duties doubled. Now he had to shovel the paths clear of snow, find firewood, and heat bricks for the beds of the others. For months, Burl had gathered wood the way he did before, using storm fall, and asking the trees for use of their dead limbs. Oaks were quite generous in this regard, but the ash lacked enlightened self-interest. When Burl refused to chop down a living tree for firewood, Renthew had him kicked and beaten by each of the other boys in turn while Claviel held him tight. The exercise excited Claviel immensely. Summoners learned to use cruelty as a tool.
As Burl lay in face down on his straw mattress in the kitchen, aching, he once more prayed to the gods of the ancient wood for relief.
In answer, Renthew ordered, “Fix my dinner by the end of this lesson, or I shall beat you worse, boy.”
Burl limped to obey. The small kitchen was open to the round great room so that the heat of the stove could flow freely into the common area. Burl could still peek over the bag of turnips he was preparing in order to watch the class because the center of the great room was only four yards away.
The summoning began as usual. Numus, small and nimble, locked and barred all the outside doors so they would not be disturbed, as per the protocols in chapter one. While everyone else donned their black robes and smooth, featureless, white masks, Burl put on his brown, linen apron, and wooden mask of horror.
Portnoy, the barrel-chested boy with a huge stomach, drew the circle of protection in the center of the room, exactly the way he had seen his master do several times before. While Burl scrubbed turnips in a wash basin, Mirius, with the snide, nasal voice, piled wood on the braziers. Renthew gave his oldest apprentice a quick glimpse at the lowest name on the secret list, and hid the parchment once more in the pocket of his robe.
At last, Claviel was set to perform his first Opening of the Way. If he succeeded, Claviel could travel to the guild hall and take the test for journeyman mage. His departure would finally open a position in the circle for Burl.
The portal opened on the floor on the third try. “A little big perhaps, and oblong,” commented Renthew. The room sounded like a rumbling grain mill rather than the smooth, musical hum they were accustomed to. “The harmonics are unbalanced, but serviceable. Now, name the imp.”
Claviel was shaking from nerves. “In the name of Renthew, I call forth . . . er . . . Nevid . . . um . . . who? Yeah, Nevidiak.” He then tossed the offering onto the flames, using the whole wad of goat entrails for the week, not just the little dollop intended. “Nevidiak Hersum!” he proclaimed more loudly.
The edges of the gate rippled yellow and a tiny imp crawled forth from the hole. Normally, demons began by complaining. They threatened, you threatened back, and then you fought for mastery. This one shrieked in his own language, “Make way for the mighty Ur Nevidum Hooyeh!”
Burl vaguely recalled that
Ur meant Overlord or
Prince in the demon tongue. Nevidum was the name of one of the infernal
kingdoms. Each demon must be addressed by his place in the hierarchy before its
personal name. This scrawny toady was supposed to be a court-messenger imp, not
“Close enough. Now make your demand of the vile creature,” said Master Renthew in a bored tone.
Burl could see ripples in his pot of water. The ground beneath the tower was trembling.
The immobilized imp was frantic, making sounds like the death scream of a rabbit.
Claviel just grinned and zapped the imp with his wand to silence it. “I want you to make me a purse that refills with silver every day.”
The edges of the gate began to glow with the blue hue of the hottest coal.
Burl shouted, “I don’t think—”
Renthew turned to glare at the cook, turning his back to the circle. “Do not interrupt your betters!”
Suddenly, seeking the sound, a tentacle lashed out of the gate blindly and wrapped around Renthew’s throat. The wizard could not speak; instead, he could only make rasping sounds as he sank to his knees in agony. The apprentices were stunned into silence as the hole slowly gave birth. The demon prince was a giant tiger salamander whose spots flowed into one another in a hypnotic pattern. The room began shaking so hard that books and pots fell off their shelves. Renthew dropped the great Codex to the floor as he flailed for his emergency dagger. The salamander demon towered nearly fifteen feet tall. Having emerged fully, the prince’s tremendous weight crushed the life out of the first imp.
The sickening sound of the tentacle snapping their master’s neck finally broke the spell, allowing the apprentices to leap into action. Hidden behind the demon, Burl grabbed the Codex of Shrong and hopped back out of the vile creature’s reach. As he flipped pages, he mumbled, “Chapter seven, where is bleeding chapter seven?”
Numus the nimble screamed and ran up the stairs along the inner wall in an attempt to escape. A second tentacle lashed out fifteen feet and snared his ankle.
“Use your dagger!” shouted Claviel, blasting away with his fire-tipped wand at every sensitive spot he knew of on the creature. The other two began to join in. Dust fell from the rafters as the beast roared in pain and anger.
“It can’t cross our wands. We’re controlling it!” shouted the distinctive voice of Mirius.
By way of answer, the demon’s tentacle jerked Numus backward and then released him. The teenager’s body fell through the air to crush Mirius. Both apprentices lay unmoving.
At last, Burl found the critical chapter. “Repeat the opening incantation from chapter five in reverse order.” Burl held back an expletive at the poor emergency instructions and started to flip backward to the summoning words.
Still, the two apprentices with wands seemed to be winning. A raw wound had appeared on the beast’s neck, and the pair hammered the injury with focused precision. So focused were their red blasts that they did not see the demon’s long, pointed tail flip the burning brazier in Claviel’s direction. The apprentice’s hair and clothing caught fire as he ran bellowing around the room. He was not coherent enough to unlock the door and reach the snow. Instead, the unseeing Claviel ran across the open Codex, catching it on fire. Burl struggled to put out the book with his fireproof gloves, shouting, “Someone knock him down!”
The demon obliged with another flick of its tail, rolling Claviel far enough that it dowsed his flames, but hard enough that he was silenced indefinitely.
The Prince turned to face Portnoy, its wounds already healing from the death energy of four humans, and bared its many sharp teeth. “Bow, servant,” it ordered, the spots on its skin merging and separating. The rotund apprentice sank to one knee. “Now break the circle and free me to enter my new realm.”
Burl took out his wand. The tip glowed white with his anger, just like the lightning that had formed it. He blasted Portnoy in the behind with a feeble crackle. “Back to the kitchen, servant! If my dinner is late, you will envy these others.”
Portnoy yelped, but free of the thrall spell, he seized the distraction and fled.
Burl concentrated on the floor, standing just out of reach of the Prince’s tentacles. “Prince Ur Nevidum Hooyeh, I’m ashamed of your manners. I would think even you have heard of what Renthew the Great does to rude, little devils.”
Just a little longer than the tentacles, the salamander demon’s tail snaked around the corner to sneak up on him. Burl used every ounce of will and magic he had to blast the threat. The searing explosion etched a purple streak in his vision and burned a tiny hole through the end of the tail. Afterward, Burl nearly collapsed from exhaustion. The demon whimpered and stuck the singed end of the tail in his mouth.
“You’re not like the others,” said the prince, observing his clothing. “You must be the leader.”
Burl sat further back on the chair he had recently repaired, trying to sound casual. “I made these wands. The ancient spirits listen to my voice. The others were misbehaving apprentices. They played with something they weren’t supposed to and got their lesson. I’m willing to let you go with only token exchange.”
“Why should I?” demanded the demon.
Burl pointed to the tail with the tip of his wand. “That could have been an eye. You’re out of idiot apprentices to throw, and I’m probably the first person you’ve met who could wade through your ichor without getting his socks dirty.”
The demon shuffled nervously. “What sort of exchange?”
“You don’t want wizards bothering you anymore, right? This disaster has made me consider retirement. I can burn any paper with demon names on it, and promise never to summon one of your subjects again. You can tell your king that you slew the Great Renthew. I’d even be willing to spread that rumor here. It’s not like that’s my real name. In exchange, I need certain items to ease my retirement: a way to fill my water bucket, gather edible vegetables, nuts and berries, and keep my house warm without bothering the trees.”
“What, no maid service?”
Burl thumbed toward Portnoy. “That’s what he’s for. It’s a fair trade, simple nature magic, seventy years’ duration, a snap for you. Then I can free you.”
“Burn the names first,” demanded the demon.
Burl tossed an empty bucket and burlap sack toward the circle. “First the never-ending, edible-food sack. Then I burn the instructions. Next the self-contained, house-heating brazier, and I will destroy the list of names. Finally, make the bucket fill to the rim with clean, drinkable water each time it is emptied, and I let you leave in peace, never to be bothered again.”
“What about money or power?” tempted the Salamander.
Realizing that the wizard’s tower and all the treasure within belonged to him if he survived, Burl dismissed the offer. “I’ve got those already; they’re overrated.”
“What about the apprentices?” it asked, hoping for a morsel or two.
“I’m confiscating their wands. Be glad I’m not making you clean up the stains off my floor.”
The demon smoldered and then growled. Eventually, it conceded. After the terms were fulfilled on both sides, Burl said, “I release you to leave in peace in the name of Renthew.” Usually the summoner added the condition, “and come again when I call”; however, Burl closed with, “and visit this place no more.” The giant salamander vanished, taking the hole with it.
Burl became the new master of the tower, studied its many secrets, and spent his years fashioning clever magical devices out of freely-offered wood. He was best known, however, for his definitive work, A Safety Guide to the Supernatural, now required reading for all magical colleges.
The guide begins with, “Listening to the old gods can get you beaten senseless. There are far more tragically dead wizards than rich ones. If this is not enough to dissuade you, there are a few precautions you will need to take if you want to survive your first year.”