This is Little Wonders, our collection episodes featuring flash fiction and poetry centered around a theme. This episode we bring you a trio of stories where enjoying the way you get somewhere is more important than your ultimate destination. Welcome to “The Journey”.
The Treasure Hunter
by Alexandra Grunberg
“Don’t let him get away!”
Pan heard the pounding feet of the guards racing after him as he sped down the spiral stairs from the tower. He clutched a plain brown bag in one hand. The contents cracked against each other, a constant point of reference for Pan’s pursuers. In his other hand he grasped a solid gold necklace. It was not what he had come here for, but how could he resist? He was already a thief, one more treasure would not hurt. His full pack slapped against his back.
The stairs opened out into a long hall. Pan slid on the smooth stone floor, trying not to give up speed for stability. He scanned the room for an exit. Through the high windows he could barely see the night sky and the tops of strange trees. He was unfamiliar with this world, but he doubted that the ground would offer a soft landing from this height. He had already travelled to a world with a plush surface, and he doubted he would be that lucky twice. His only hope was the archway at the far end of the hall.
“There he is!”
Pan glanced behind him. There were five armored men, much more familiar with the slippery floor than he was, and they were gaining on him. Pan picked up his pace, chancing another look behind him.
He hit the railing hard.
The archway had opened out into a balcony. Pan looked down. It was dark out, but the building seemed to be in the middle of a lake. The water churned with the movement of a large creature whose spines disturbed the top of the murky water. Jumping was definitely not an option.
“Turn around slowly, boy, and hand over the goods.”
Pan turned around slowly, smiling, but he had no intention of handing over the goods. As one of the guards lunged at him, Pan reached into the brown bag and pulled out a small glass ball. He flung it at his feet and it shattered. A pool formed beneath him, sucking him in.
“What the –“
Pan did not get to hear the end of the guard’s cry as he was swept away.
There was a flash of light and Pan landed softly in what felt like sand. The world grew out from beneath his feet, slowly filling the void around him with form and light. The whole world was fully materialized within five minutes.
It was sandy, a desert land, though he seemed to be in the middle of a garden. The trees growing out of the arid ground were covered in fruit. Pan picked one of the fruits and bit into it. It was sweet and the juice dripped on his hands. He was sure people back home would pay generously for a plant that could survive in this environment.
Pan scraped the seeds out of the fruit and shoved them into his backpack, followed by the golden necklace. They joined the other treasures he had gathered while hopping between worlds. Perhaps unnecessary spoils, perhaps more trouble than they were worth. But Pan was willing to bet that they were worth an awful lot.
He kneeled in the sand and opened the plain brown bag, still filled with the glass portals. He had already broken dozens, but there must have been hundreds still to sort through. Maybe now he would have time to find the one that led back home.
“What are you doing in the master’s gardens?”
Pan looked up to see a large man holding two equally large knives. The man looked at Pan’s hands, stained purple with the juice of the fruit.
“Have you picked the sacred fruit?”
Pan grabbed his bag with a sigh and started running. It probably was not the best idea to steal in a strange world, but hey, he was already a thief. How could he resist?
The Eye of Reason
by S. R. Algernon
Geoffrey Wilcox inspected the latest contender in his class’s annual Magic Fair–in this case a few wilted stalks protruding from an otherwise bare tray of dirt. The poster next to it read PLOT A: 2 SPROUTS / PLOT B: 1 SPROUT. NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE. Nancy Foster stared glumly at the gymnasium floor, awaiting judgment.
“Good job, Miss Foster. I mean that.”
Nancy’s growth charm hadn’t done a thing for her bean sprouts, but she took the time to control for seed quality, soil composition, and hours of sunlight. Some apprentice wizards could not manage that much.
Wilcox wanted to tell her how many years he had to spend on his geomancy before he had earned his pointy hat, but the other students clamoured for his attention. Ella waved her divining rod eagerly, and Jerome showed off a handful of pennies that he had transmuted into gold.
“Ella, put that down. You’re not going to find water under the floorboards unless there’s another leak. Jerome, your father’s reputation as a manufacturer of philosopher’s stones is secure. I don’t need to see any more of his handiwork.”
While Jerome sulked, a hum and a sudden burst of chatter at the end of the row caught Wilcox’s attention. James Cunningham and his pint-sized entourage had that table, and the thought made Wilcox queasy.
“What’s going on here?” asked Wilcox, as he pushed his way through the crowd.
A cylinder about the size of a student, topped with a metal sphere, stood beside the table. The table itself sported a gaudy diorama emblazoned with the words VAN DE GRAAFF GENERATOR.
Heidi Braun smiled and her friends giggled while she held her hand to the sphere. Her Rumpelstiltskin hair floated above her like an aura.
“My turn,” said Ella. She poked at the sphere with her divining rod. The sphere emitted a crackling spark.
“Why can’t we do this in class?” said Heidi.
“Get away from that,” said Wilcox. “Out of the room, all of you. Now. Except you, James. I want a word with you.”
“But,” said James, “I haven’t told you how it works yet. Positive charges build up on the sphere, and negative charges build up on the wand. Then when they get close enough, the charges equalize. Crack!”
This was my fault, thought Wilcox. He had let James try to explain his pseudo-magic in class when any other teacher would have made him stand in the corner and wear the tri-cornered Coulomb’s Cap. Debate was important. Students had to see why wrong ideas were wrong, not just accept them.
“Charge is real,” said James. “You can pull it right out of the air. My uncle said–”
“Did your uncle build this?”
“No, but he showed me how to scry for it, to order the parts. There’s a workshop in Cambridge where–”
“I’ve heard enough. Go wait in the hall with the others.”
“It is real,” said James, as he stalked off. “You just saw. Everybody just saw. Even Ben Franklin built lightning rods, and he was a genius.”
Wilcox winced at the thought of Franklin as a would-be phlebotomist, bleeding the air of its unbalanced humours with a giant needle. The primers on lightning usually glossed over that historical footnote.
Once James was out of sight, Wilcox found some rubber gloves in the closet and a piece of chalk from one of the boards. He moved a few of the student presentations out of the way and drew a pentagram ward on the gymnasium floor. It would do, for now.
Wilcox took his Snell sphere out of his pocket and dusted it off. He wished he could make this plain glass sphere as interesting as that “lightning rod” and “atomic power” nonsense, but would the students listen? Would they care about the hours that Snellius had spent tinkering with glass and candles until he discovered the principle of sympathetic optic entanglement? Would they care about the delicate spirits that give their lifeblood every time they flip a light switch or open the fridge?
The janitor’s face appeared within the glass.
“I think I know,” said Wilcox, “why the lights in the auditorium went out this morning. I need your help in the gymnasium. Bring a cart.”
Wilcox lifted the metal dome. Blue light flickered in the cylinder beneath it.
“Better get the Faraday cage, too.”
“There you go,” said Wilcox. “Easy now.”
“It’s jittery,” said the janitor, as the lightning spirit leapt onto the wire mesh, “and who can blame it after what that kid put him through?”
“Best to let it go. It will come back when it’s ready.”
The children watched in silence as Wilcox wheeled the Faraday cage through the double doors. The lightning spirit–a small one, thankfully–flitted from bar to bar, disoriented by the intersecting lines of metal. Heidi’s hair floated again, and she gasped.
“It’s all right,” said Wilcox. “We’re just bringing it outside. Listen to the wind. A storm is coming.”
The sky had grown ominous, as it had been on the day when Benjamin Franklin lifted that wayward spark up on his kite string and sent it back to its mother.
“There,” said Wilcox, as he opened the cage. The spirit danced on the metal and shot skyward with a thunderclap.
“Alright, class,” said Wilcox, shouting over the rain. “I am giving James’s project low marks. Can anyone tell me why?”
“Van de Graaff was wrong,” said Ella. “There’s no such thing as positive and negative electric charge.”
“Faraday was wrong about that too, but astrapomancers around the world owe their lives to the cage he developed. That’s not quite it.”
“It wasn’t right to keep a lightning spirit cooped up like that,” said Heidi.
“We’ll assume James didn’t know it was in there,” said Wilcox. “You didn’t, did you boy?”
James shook his head. His cheeks glistened with tears. He’d been shamed enough for today, but Wilcox didn’t want to end the lesson on that note.
“James thought he understood the machine,” said Nancy, as she looked off into the clouds, “just because he could get it to work. He never thought to find out for himself what was inside.”
In this case, thought Wilcox, it was a blessing that he did not go poking around. He smiled, nonetheless. Nancy might not have much future as a gardener, he thought, but someday she’d be a first-rate wizard.
by Shane Halbach
Hades sat in his office, high atop his dark tower. He put the finishing touches on his black painted finger nails and held his hand up to the light to inspect his work. Perfect. The shade of black exactly matched his hair, his eyes, and his coordinating shirt and pants. Only his pale white skin contrasted the darkness of his appearance. He was just about to complete the look with some dark eye shadow, when he heard a knock. Hades looked up quickly. No one ever dared to disturb him in his tower.
“Enter!” he commanded and the door swung open.
Occupying the entire doorway was a huge man, resplendent in a white tank top and extremely short, red, running shorts. Muscles bulged everywhere. He even had soft red wrist bands and a matching sweat band around his head. Hades rolled his eyes.
“Playing up the jock look a little much, aren’t we Zeus?” asked Hades. He waved Zeus toward a chair. “Come in, come in. Can I get you something to drink? I don’t get much company here.”
“Pluto…” Zeus began and Hades arched an eyebrow.
“What’s with the formal name? You’d think two gods who go back as far as we do could use common names amongst ourselves.”
“Well,” said Zeus uncomfortably. “I think we’d better stick with the formality for now.”
“Very well, Jupiter, what can I do for you?” asked Pluto.
“Well…it’s just that…” stammered Jupiter. “Well, I’m just going to come out with it. We’re going to have to let you go.”
“What?” roared Pluto, and he came halfway out of his chair. “I am Hades, Lord of the Underworld! I bring death and despair! Mothers frighten their children with me; strong men refuse to speak my name lest it draw my attention!”
“Used to lad, used to,” said Jupiter. “It’s just that…well, people aren’t afraid of the underworld anymore. It just doesn’t have a place these days. And it’s been quite a while since people were afraid to speak your name.”
Pluto flopped back into his chair, deflated.
“Look,” Jupiter began. “It’s been hard on us all, the way things have been lately. Not much worship to go around. Something had to give.” There was a long, silent pause into which Jupiter added, “You have to admit, you’ve always been a little…out there.”
Pluto’s head sank into his hands, his elbows resting on his desk.
“You can’t do this to me!” he whimpered. I’ve been a god for over two millennia. I don’t know how to do anything else.”
“Now, now,” said Jupiter. “It’s not the end of the world, just a little downsizing. Plenty of time to start a new career. How about mining? You’ve always had a thing for precious metals. Why, I bet with a resume like yours, you’d make supervisor in no time!”
Pluto slumped down until his forehead was resting on his arms, burying his face.
“What am I going to do?” he moaned.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I suppose you could always try a petition,” suggested Jupiter. “A little self promotion? Drum up some interest? Get you back on the map?”
Pluto let out a low sob.
“Very well, I’ll leave you to it then,” said Jupiter, standing to leave. Sudden inspiration struck and he added magnanimously, “Why don’t you keep the tower for a while? Just until you get back on your feet. Of course…we will have to take the planet back.”
When Pluto didn’t answer, Jupiter backed out of the room and closed the door quietly. With the door safely closed behind him, Jupiter let out a long breath. That had been hard. Pluto had been a god for a long time, he was almost like family. Well, in fact, he was family; he was Jupiter’s brother. Nasty business. Jupiter paused a moment longer and then began descending the long staircase. What he needed was some exercise; something to clear the head.
“Perhaps I’ll go toss some lightning,” he thought, “or maybe play some racquetball.”
Jupiter exited the tower, closing the door behind him, and walked off into the night.