Glitch dropped his saddlebag in front of Priestess Chiore Fredeen. He didn’t want to risk getting the dust from the Gem Wastes on her white riding leathers. “Greens, a couple of Ambers. Thanks for loaning me your horse.” Behind him, another meteor screamed over head, but it fractured too high in the atmosphere for any gems to survive impacting the hard ground of The Wastes. He hated gem-fall season, when they passed through the meteor belt that was the source of all magic.
“Thank you,” Chiore said as a soldier picked up his pack. Her voice was soft and he appreciated the genuineness. He stared at the blue gem topping her staff. A bond-gem was a thing of beauty. But it was a beauty he would never know. He was Glitch. He wasn’t allowed magic, something about him ruined magic. “Glitch” was the kindest of the names he’d been called.
He nodded and walked Choire’s horse to where freshly boiled water cooled in the shade by the cliff face. Nothing in The Wastes was ever cool enough to be truly refreshing, but it tasted good all the same. He filled a small bucket and poured the water over himself then shook his head, trying get the dust and ash off his curly hair. A small yelp of surprise came from behind him as the water from his hair splashed her.
“Priestess. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there.” She still had that beautiful blue bond-gem and he realized he was gawking at it.
“Call me Choire, please.”
“Careful with him,” Commander Mahavony called out. “You cast anything around him and, well…” He arched his body and let out a strangled noise, making it look like he was suffocating.
Glitch dipped his hands in the water and splashed it on his face trying to hide his flush of embarrassment.
“What’s your name?”
Glitch stared at Choire. Could she be that stupid?
“I mean your real name. Not what they call you.”
“Glitch,” he said dryly.
“All right, then what was your birth name?”
“Doesn’t have one of those, does he?” Mahavony laughed and Glitch blushed again.
“Everyone has a birth name,” Chiore said. “What does your mother call you?”
“She calls me Glitch too.”
“What?” Choire said with the skepticism he expected. She sounded like she wanted to say more, but another meteor streaked through the sky and exploded in a brilliant flash. They watched silently as the gems fell to the surface, twinkling in the daylight.
“A Clear,” Glitch said, watching a multi-colored sparkle fall to the surface. The impact set up a plume of dust that shimmered with a multitude of colors as fractured chips of gem reflected the sunlight. “A Clear. That’s a Clear.”
A clear gem. As rare and radiant as cold spring water in the sun and twice as valuable. But only if it survived the impact and if he could get to it before the other gem hunters.
“Can you make it?” Choire asked.
“Watch me,” he said, running to his horse, Catediin. It was a mile to the Clear and she was as fast as any horse in The Wastes. Once the Clear was safely in his sack, then by law the gem would be his. At least it was his until he handed it over to the priestess. After all, he was Glitch. Glitch the cursed. Glitch the magic killer. He wouldn’t even be allowed to watch the magic from a distance.
“If it isn’t Glitch the useless.” Ixoro Padhin rode up from Glitch’s left as they searched the Wastes.
“Shut it, Ixoro.”
Both men pulled out their gem-scoops, Glitch noting that Ixoro’s scoop was bonded with a Purple. Of course Ixoro was gem-bound. He spotted a glinting in the sun and turned Catediin while Ixoro was looking the other way. It was intact, and he scooped it up in a long practiced stroke.
Chiore looked both excited and afraid as he returned to camp. She took the gem from him and turned immediately to perform her magic far away from him.
“Get yourself a fresh horse so you don’t run that one to death,” Mahavony ordered.
“I’m bone tired.”
“Then let me re-phrase myself.” Mahavony stepped toward him with eyes full of anger. “I won’t risk you mucking up the Priestess’ spell. Go away.”
“Yes, Sir.” Glitch dismounted and did as told while everyone else went to watch Chiore magically seal the Clear inside a cask of Ferrofluid. It was so unfair. He found a Clear. A Clear. Nobody had found a Clear in twenty years. And they dismissed him without even a thank you.
Two hours later he was certain Chiore’s ritual would be over so he headed back towards camp with a bag full of Reds. Anyone else would be a celebrated hero. But he was Glitch the loser. Glitch the unwelcome. Glitch the cursed.
On the outskirts of the camp lay three dead Padhin riders. He looked up to the supply wagon, the storage vat of Ferrofluid had tipped over. Closest to the vat, Ixoro Padhin lay encased in the oily fluid as it sought to cover every open surface of the bond-gem. He had suffocated when it entered his nose and moved down into his lungs. Mahavony and two others were trying to wipe away the fluid climbing up the cook, it had already reached his waist, where an Amber bond gem hung from his belt. Next to him, Chiore had Ferrofluid reaching from the her staff, up her arm all the way to her shoulder. She held her head as far away from the growing slick as she could.
“You!” Mahavony shouted at him. “Get out of here! The last thing we need is you making it worse.”
“What happened? Glitch threw his pack down and backed his horse away. The gems, laden with metals from the meteor attracted the Ferrofluid within seconds and the liquid slithered on the ground toward it as if alive.
“What do you think happened you idiot? The Padhin decided they wanted our Clear.”
“They want us all dead, too.” The cook grunted as the liquid moved farther up his body. It had already covered the Amber, and Glitch knew he would soon join Ixoro. The same would be true of Chiore. The soldiers would pay with their lives as well, it was already climbing up their disaster boots. Within the hour, he would be the only survivor.
He got down from his horse but kept his distance. There was nothing he could do. He was Glitch, and trying to help would only kill them sooner. Better to keep his distance. It was better to leave before the Padhins came after him. They would not want witnesses.
But he couldn’t move and he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like any of them were his friends. He took aim at the sack of Reds and kicked it just before the Ferrofluid reached it. There was a large Red in it, and he hoped it would break his toe. He needed physical pain to break the mental anguish of watching people die.
But the pack rolled away from him and into the Ferrofluid. He stared at it, and instead of a hard rock he saw a dissolving sack.
“Glitch,” the cook screamed at him. “Get your sorry butt over-” his words trailed off as the Ferrofluid moved up his rib cage and began to cut off his breath.
Glitch ran over to them, sloshing his way through Ferrofluid as he went. He tried to slow down, but he slipped and slid into Mahavony, who fell into the cook who then fell over into Choire and the others like a child throwing a tantrum around his dominoes.
They fell and they gasped freely for breath as the Ferrofluid went inert. Glitch the klutz, Glitch the useless. Glitch the magic killer saved lives by doing what he does best. He glitched the magic and it died.
That night, a quiet group of gem hunters sat around a new camp fire. Some distance away, another man sat staring at his own fire. “Hi,” Choire said quietly.
“Dinner is ready. Would you join us?”
He looked up to see Choire’s Blue at the top of her staff dancing in the firelight. “I’m good here.”
“We would be dead if it weren’t for you.”
“You already apologized and thanked me about twenty times. You all have.”
She stepped closer to the fire the Blue danced even brighter. “I know you’re angry. I can’t even imagine how hard your life must be. But you have a remarkable gift.”
He laughed. “What gift is that, Priestess?”
“You care. When people treat you badly, you still care.”
The man stood up and poured the contents of his water pot over his fire.
Chiore smiled and held out her hand for him.
“Joran. My name is Joran.”
In late 2019 I saw an ad for a February 2020 writing conference that included two of my favorite authors, Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells. I could not sign up fast enough. Mary Robinette Kowal writes stories that rips my heart out and makes me think. Dan Wells is just awesome eighty five times over.
To be able to attend, I had to submit a 1500 word writing sample. Rather than just submit a partial chapter I decided to make it a full story showing beginning, middle, and end. This is the result in 1489 words. As you’ve heard be say before, that conference was a rough one for me. My confidence in my abilities sank faster than the titanic. I lucked out with Dan Wells as my mentor, he had the right advice for me at the right time and that advice eventually got me back on my feet.
This story is part of my larger world of Yethlea, which is a moon around a ringed planet. It has a magic system that is controlled by different colors of gems that fall out of the ring system and into the moon. At least it was when I wrote this. I haven’t done much with this world since that conference which was February of last year, where I was criticized for having a fantasy setting on a moon. Apparently moons belong solidly to the realm of sci-fi? I may have to challenge that.