My entry in the January r/fantasywriters challenge. I suggested the prompt this month: a funny story in which magic goes horribly wrong.
Edwin climbed into the unicorn-drawn carriage. When the tour guide had his back turned, he rubbed his slushy boots all over its upholstery and put dirty fingerprints on the window. He looked to Priscilla for approval, but she simply raised an eyebrow.
“Not many take the fall tour after snowfall,” said the guide, “but, if you ask me, it’s the best time of year for a romantic carriage ride. You’re just in time to see the roc’s molting.”
“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” said Priscilla.
Edwin sprawled on the carriage seat, taking up two cushions. When his arm brushed Priscilla’s fur coat, he recoiled against the window. With a schoolhouse posture, hands clasped in his lap, he eyed the tethered unicorns.
The guide took out a map slate and inked a route. “To avoid unnecessary reality destruction, please keep your hands within the spell bubble at all times.”
The carriage jerked into motion, and a road unfolded before their eyes, snow melting beneath the unicorns’ cloven hooves. Yet when Edwin turned back to see where they had gone, the snow was undisturbed behind them.
“What did you say this spell was called?” said Priscilla.
“I didn’t,” said the guide sheepishly. “I’m afraid I can’t say.”
Priscilla smiled. “Ah, Direvale’s fabled security. Say no more.”
“Like a prison,” muttered Edwin.
The carriage veered towards an enclosure, but before they could collide with the fence, its wood warped into a gate and swung open.
The guide whistled. A pack of collared direwolves shook themselves free from the snow and trailed warily after the carriage. One strayed too close and yelped as a spark of magic singed its nose.
“They dig in for the night.” The guide tossed smokey red pellets, which reeked of counterfeit bacon.
“Sounds cozy,” said Priscilla.
The wolves lined up like regimented soldiers, taking turns with the pellets.
“We’re the number one exporter of direwolves in the kingdom,” said the guide. “See the collars? It’s a new compliance spell. If you know the right words, they train up as good as pups, without all the hassle.”
Edwin sighed. “Such majestic creatures.”
“Who do you sell them to?” said Priscilla.
“Mainly fighting arenas. A few petty lords buy them to stock their haunted forests. Puts the fear of God into the peasantry, if you know what I mean. Keeps poachers out. Gives long-lost heirs something to test their magic swords on before they discover their true heritage.” The guide shot Edwin a nervous glance. “Are you all right, sir?”
“Fine, fine.” Edwin wiped a tear off his cheek. “I’m just so… inspired.”
The carriage warped its way into another pen, where dozens of sullen sheep pressed together for warmth. Their wool was spotted with colour like a tie-dye shirt.
“Rainbow sheep?” said Priscilla.
“A side project of ours.” The guide flipped up a display showing a cheerful cartoon sheep wearing a sweater. “Their wool is used exclusively to make rainbow toe socks.”
“The kind that feel weird between the toes?”
“The very same.”
They passed a pond that was fixed in summer, though a layer of ice formed on its surface as the carriage spell scraped against its enchantment. Little chimeras circled the water like crocodiles.
“They’re called platypus,” said the guide. “Their venom is a potent ingredient in all the best assassination spells.”
Edwin stood in his seat, pointing to a barn roof showing over the next hill. “What’s that?”
“That’s nothing.” The guide clucked his tongue and the unicorns trotted. “A shed where we keep some equipment.”
“If it’s nothing, then I suppose I’ll sit down.”
“Subtle,” mouthed Priscilla.
The guide cleared his throat. “If you’ll look to your right, you’ll see our wishing well. I think you’ll agree that an investment in Direvale Farm is an investment in the kingdom…”
“Do you have to wear that coat?”
“Not anymore,” said Priscilla cheerfully.
“It’s one thing to use it for cover, but…”
“To be honest, I just like the look on your face.”
“Whenever you say ‘to be honest,’ I know you’re about to say something horrible,” muttered Edwin.
“Part of my charm.”
Direvale Farm looked like a scene from a woodcut. The snow on its rolling hills was freshly-fallen, its cheerful workers wore crisp buttoned uniforms, and its farmhouse was a cozy family dwelling, only two-storeys, despite the scale of their operations. At night, its roads were lit by an imitation full moon that never set.
But, up close, Priscilla could make out the seams, the magical stitching, that held the scene together. As they neared the gate, she tugged on a strand of magic, working at it like she was unraveling a frayed cloth, until a rift opened in the illusion. Inside, the snow was spotted yellow, and the air reeked of wet fur. A sign read, ‘DON’T BE A PASSIVE PETE. REPORT ALL DUNG THEFT IMMEDIATELY.’
“Typical,” said Priscilla.
The gate appeared to be nothing more than a cattle grid bordered by a wooden fence, but it was charmed with one of the oldest spells in the book: laxative magic.
She sniffed. “After you.”
Edwin held his breath as he crossed the threshold, but the fake ID badge pinned to his vest held up to the spell’s scrutiny. Only then did Priscilla follow. Wherever she stepped, snow hissed and melted down to the dead grass beneath it. An enchanted bramble patch sprang out of the new ground, but Edwin tamed it by summoning a hedge-clipper. Soon enough, Direvale settled down into an ordinary farm, though its false moon gave everything a double-shadow.
Edwin fidgeted as they skulked between buildings. “It’s just that the coat is a bit against our mission statement, if you know what I mean.”
“You should see my living room rug.”
“Why did you even join the Society?”
“To be honest—”
“Never mind. I don’t think I want to know.”
Her eyes gleamed. “For the challenge.”
A security guard emerged from the farmhouse, took a swig out of a bottle, and strolled towards them.
“Pris! He’ll see.”
“Have some faith.”
The guard hiccuped. “C’mere, kitties.”
Priscilla elbowed Edwin.
He held his ground. “Meow?”
The guard pursed his lips and made a beckoning noise, but when neither of them moved closer, he turned away. “Didn’t want to pet you anyway. Mangy cats.”
“And that,” said Priscilla, “is why I kept the fur coat.”
“Let’s see this so-called ‘equipment shed,’” said Edwin, with zeal.
He had stopped to summon a bucket of paint, sized up the barn’s wall, and splashed up the Society of Creature Kindness logo: a doe-eyed baby dragon perched on a crescent moon.
Priscilla grinned. “You know what your real logo should be?”
“Don’t say it.”
“For the last time, it’s SCK.”
“As a proud member of SOCK, I think my vote counts just as much as yours.”
Edwin threw open the barn door and gasped. He had expected a slaughterhouse and found… an art studio. A litter of direwolf puppies wearing doll-clothes romped around a playpen. A puppy draped in rainbow sheep’s wool had been left standing, statue-still, before an easel bearing an unfinished painting. The puppy’s control collar buzzed when she turned her head.
“Image magic?” muttered Priscilla.
Finished paintings were stacked against the wall. She turned one over, revealing a portrait of a direwolf pup posed like a peasant, dressed in rags, tending a field of cabbages. It was captioned: ‘but i don’t even likes cabbages.‘ Another painting read ‘do you has some dragons?‘ above a platypus wearing tinfoil armour.
“Oh god. So this is where memetic paintings come from.”
“Those bastards,” spat Edwin.
Priscilla stomped out of the barn. She threw off her coat, soaking it in a mixture of perfume and spices, and lit it on fire. As it burned, she bellowed:
“Let all those held in bondage, part or whole,
Of the mind, of the body, or the soul,
Shrug off their chains, release their nature true.
Let no master’s spell ensnare, hold, or subdue!”
The coat burned into a pile of pungent ash. Inside the barn, the playpen’s fence rumbled. Its latch sprung open and, as their control collars loosened, the puppies wriggled free. The gate was no match for the combined weight of a half-dozen determined puppies. They ran howling into the snow.
“I suppose we should escape,” said Priscilla. She looked over her shoulder. “Ed?”
And then out came Edwin, wearing nothing but his frilly vest and a pair of boxer shorts. “Today, I take a bold stand against the tyranny of pants!”
Priscilla shrugged. “K.”
“You’re not surprised?”
“You’re an activist. It was bound to happen eventually.”
“Must’ve been the spell’s wording. Should’ve been more precise.” Priscilla chewed her thumb. “Was it the ‘part or whole’ bit?”
Edwin sniffled. “It’s beautiful.”
A subterranean facility had burst open, belching smoke and fumes, and direwolves escaped by the hundreds, pausing to gnaw on the bones of the unfortunate rainbow sheep herd. Judging by the scars and bald patches on the wolves’ backs, and the hungry gleam in their eyes, Priscilla had a feeling that a certain local village was going to have an interesting night.
“Such spirit,” said Edwin. Tears streamed down his face.
“If you say ‘wow,’ I’m going to leave you here.”
At first, Priscilla had thought that her skulking spell was still working, until she recalled that she had burned the fur coat. She tried a concealment charm, but the words died on her lips. She cursed. Of course, it failed. Image magic worked by muddling the will of other creatures.
But the wolves parted around them, brushing so close that they left rank tufts of fur on Edwin’s buckled shoes. It was if they knew who had freed them.
“If you look to your left, you’ll witness my grisly demise,” said the tour guide.
Priscilla winced. Two dozen direwolves had descended on the guide, and had made short work of converting his legs into meat.
“Is it painful?” said Edwin dreamily.
“Extremely. But you can’t fault them,” he said, as a pair of wolves fought over his femur. “They’re just doing what wolves do.”
Edwin beamed. “Right?”
“A bit inspiring, actually. I was thinking I should march down to my boss’s office and tell him what a shit he is. But, well, you know.”
Priscilla dragged Edwin towards the gate. “We’re going to go now.”
“I respect that.”
“Shouldn’t have said ‘true nature,’” muttered Priscilla.
The next meeting of the Society was understandably a bit awkward, but Edwin thought they had done a good job of justifying themselves. At the very least, public opinion had turned sharply against factory-farmed direwolves, and society enrollment had doubled now that everyone was afraid of them. The rented meeting hall was so crowded that they’d had to borrow some chairs from the brothel across the street. They were a bit sticky, but a chair was a chair.
Priscilla stood before the assembly. “Mistakes were made. I won’t deny it. There are always a few kinks in a new spell.” She looked at the back of her hand. “But if you consider what we set out to do, I think you’ll agree that we succeeded.”
“I don’t understand.” The Society’s elderly mistress shook her head. “Surely, he’ll start wearing pants again soon?”
Edwin stood on his chair. “Never!”
“Probably not,” Priscilla admitted.
The mistress scowled over her spectacles. “And I suppose the spell changed you too?”
“Nah. I stumbled on a cure for social inhibitions long ago.”