Written for NYC Midnight‘s Flash Fiction Challenge 2016, round 1.
Prompt: Fantasy / a garbage dump / a pack of cigarettes
Summary: A young woman goes into enemy territory, seeking a way to restore her people’s magic.
When Lux was small, she thought Heliots were beautiful. She loved their colourful auras and longed for them to show her how to get one of her own.
She knew better now.
“… mostly broken.”
The head archaeologist’s voice brought Lux back to the present. She turned and discovered pieces of ancient Phaloxian pottery floating between them. When she touched one, magic danced from its cool surface to her skin, making her shiver.
“Clay shards can last forever in ancient dumps,” Dalan explained, “preserved by the layers of refuse.”
Lux nodded, pretending this was new information. “Is this why you requested an interpreter? To put the pieces together?”
“No,” Dalan replied, letting the pieces float down. “You’re here for something much more important. Years ago, I heard of a secret cache, hidden during the War of Expansion. We’re here to find it.”
So much for the hope that they’d chosen this site by coincidence. “And have you?”
He nodded. “I believe so. We’ll know for sure once we decide the best way to open it. Until then, you should wait in your tent. I’ll escort you back.”
As they walked, Lux studied Dalan. His aura was a mix of green and orange, outlined by red. All Haliots had red in them, the colour of destruction. Just as once all Phaloxian auras were purple, the sign of scholars – until the Haliot Empire stripped them away.
The tent prepared for Lux was on the far side of the camp, small and isolated. A lone guard stood by it. Lux wondered what he had done to warrant this unlucky assignment. Still, he was the only person other than Dalan who spoke with her. Everyone else stared, not used to seeing a “colourless.”
Of course, there were reasons for this friendliness. Once Dalan had left, the guard turned to her. “Got more of those cigarettes?”
Lux reached for the satchel strapped to her side. “Of course,” she told him, pulling out two. “Will you light them?”
With a snap of his fingers, the guard created a small spark. He inhaled deeply, then sighed. “And you make these?”
“I do,” she said, taking her own drag, “with herbs from my garden.”
As they stood there, a cloud of sweet smoke around them, Lux almost felt comfortable. But only almost. The guard was still a conqueror, even if he was polite about it.
Several hours passed before Dalan returned, leading her to another tent. Inside a crowd stood around a stone chest. At first, it seemed ancient but Lux could see modern markings upon the lid. It was true then: this was the hidden cache.
And, she realized as the Haliots lifted their arms, Dalan was about to break it.
A loud crack interrupted her, and Lux coughed as dust filled the room. When it cleared, debris was scattered on the floor and the Haliots were sifting through it. One of them called Dalan over, handing something to him.
“Lux,” he said, holding up an ornate sword, “do you know what it is?”
She only had a moment to choose the most important words of her life. “It must be the Great Sword of Phalox. They say it can channel all colours into red magic.”
Immediately the Haliots forgot everything else, focusing entirely on the sword. With them distracted, Lux knelt and began to search herself. She had to find the book. But when she did, she realized it could hardly be called a book anymore. She picked up the tattered leather cover, which now contained only a bookmark, which hung on stubbornly by a thread. The pages were gone, blown to pieces by the Haliots’ magic.
“How unfortunate,” Dalan said, now standing over her. “I suppose that is the price we’ve paid to recover the sword.”
“So it would seem,” she murmured, putting the ruined thing down. All that knowledge, gone in an instant. But she found herself unable to mourn its loss, for as she stood up, she felt magic flowing from the bookmark that was now hidden in her clenched right hand. As hours past without it being discovered, Lux began to think that the gods were still with her people, despite what so many believed after generations of imperial rule.
It was dark when she returned to her tent. As she drew near, she reached into her satchel and tucked the bookmark inside. Then she removed two cigarettes, one wrapped in white paper, the other in red. She handed the red one to the guard and placed the white one between her lips. A snap and a spark later, they were lit and smoking. After that, it only took a minute or two before the guard stumbled, then collapsed on the ground.
Lux stood still for a moment, listening to see if anyone would raise an alarm. Nothing. She smiled for the first time all day and went inside.
She took the bookmark out and held it before her face. Carefully, she moved the cigarette to the other side, letting its light shine through. Her smile grew as a word became visible, written in her native language.
The bookmark began to glow, a brilliant light that quickly spread to her fingers, down her arm, then engulfed her whole body. It felt as if she was on fire, but the pain felt good, as a part of her realized it was alive.
When the burning subsided, the whole world was purple – Phaloxian purple, her purple. Lux looked at the bookmark and held it close, never wanting to let go. This was the key, hidden all those years before, the key that could change the world.
She finally let herself laugh at Dalan’s foolishness. Of course a Haliot would assume that their greatest treasure would be a sword. He may claim to be an archaeologist but he knew nothing of Phalox and its culture. He would regret his arrogance, for today she was free.
And soon, her people would be too.