Free Fantasy Feature September 2021 | The Unclean: A Fantasy Short Story

An appointment with the Mage-Lord.

Jared can sense the fulfillment of his destiny approaching as he rushes through the cobbled streets with his blue mage robes flapping behind him. The kingdom of Galdavia prizes the mage gift above all others.

And Jared takes pride in his abilities. He knows he belongs at the Mage-Lord’s side.

Nothing can come between him and his rightful place.

A stand-alone dark fantasy story and winning entry of the Writers’ Journal Fiction Contest (2010) by the author of the World of Lasniniar series, Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Rubicon Short Story Collection.

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The Unclean: A Fantasy Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

Jared was late. He cursed as he weaved his way through the back streets of the city, hoping the shortcut would get him to his destination in time. He dodged a cart filled with fish, pushed by a swarthy man from the docks. The man stumbled, overturning his wares onto the cobblestones. Jared hiked up his blue mage robes to step around the slimy mess, dead fish eyes staring up at him. He tried his best to breathe through his mouth. The air reeked of fish and garbage. The man shook his raised fist and yelled after him. Jared ignored him and ran on.

An appointment with the Mage-Lord! It was every young mage’s dream. After graduating first in his class at the academy, one of his instructors had pulled him aside to let him know his hard work had caught the Mage-Lord’s attention. Jared couldn’t believe it. He had already risen higher than he had ever dared hope. The youngest of five children, he was the only member of his family to be born with the mage gift. Oh, certainly his mother had a gift for weather-witchery, and his sister, Charlotte, could speak to animals, but the mage gift was something different. In a kingdom like Galdavia, where the king himself was a mage, those who could command such power shaped the fates of those under their protection, and could rise above their base-born status. And to work for the Mage-Lord was the most coveted position in all the city. Jared couldn’t wait to tell his family. They would be so proud.

A mangy dog leaped from the shadows of an alley to stand bristling and growling at Jared’s feet, nearly causing him to jump out of his skin. He gave a flick of his wrist, releasing a mere whisper of his power upon the creature. It gave a startled yelp and ran. Jared regretted the waste of energy, but he didn’t have time to deal with the sorry animal. He looked back over his shoulder to make certain he wasn’t being followed. It wouldn’t do for him to draw any more attention.

Although most of the people who lived in the city of Marat respected and revered the Mage-Lord, there were always those who would wish him harm. Jared didn’t understand how anyone could be so horrible. If not for the Mage-Lord, the city would be overrun by the Unclean. It was through his wisdom and guidance that the city was segregated to keep the rest of the populace safe from their taint. With the number of mages in the city dwindling while the Unclean seemed to multiply, it was becoming an increasingly difficult task to keep the foul things under control. Soon it might be Jared’s job to help the Mage-Lord deal with the situation. He felt a surge of pride.

As though summoned by his thoughts, a shadowed figure detached itself from the stone wall Jared was passing to clutch at his billowing sleeve with grimy hands.

“Mage,” the filthy man croaked, his rank breath hot on Jared’s face. Jared gagged, twisting his arm in an effort to free himself from the man’s grip.

“Get away from me you Unclean beast!” he spat. “The Mage-Lord will hear of this!” The man suddenly let go to claw at his own dirty face and tangled hair.

“Don’t!”

Jared sighed, resisting the urge to lash out at the creature with his magic. The man could do nothing to stop him. Unlike the other people of Galdavia, who all had at least a spark of magic within them, the Unclean were barren and soulless, not to mention mad. But the Mage-Lord counselled tolerance toward the wretched urchins, and so they were merely kept separate from the rest of the populace rather than being slaughtered outright like the diseased animals they were.

Jared looked around, but there were no Segregators to be seen. Pity. The Mage-Lord’s enforcers clearly weren’t doing their job.

He turned away from the man and began running once more. He spared a single, backward glance to make certain the beast didn’t follow. The Unclean man was waving both arms wildly in the air.

“Don’t!”

His broken voice faded into the distance as Jared left him behind.

Jared skidded around the corner onto the street that led to the Mage-Lord’s home. He was back among civilized society once more. The streets were clean and traveled by well-dressed nobles. He took a moment to straighten his rucked robes and ran his fingers through his golden-brown curls to erase any evidence of his haste. He sucked in several deep breaths in an effort to slow his breathing and allow the blood to flow from his flushed face. The early spring day was cool enough that he hadn’t broken into a sweat.

Once he had calmed himself, he inspected his reflection in a nearby window. A proud-looking young mage with gray eyes stared back. Satisfied, Jared nodded to himself and walked the last block at an even pace.

The Mage-Lord’s manor loomed before him, a single structure of gray stone, surrounded by smaller outbuildings. Jared had been asked to arrive by the side entrance. He grasped the iron knocker and rapped it against the oaken door. Moments later, it opened inward on well-oiled hinges to reveal one of the Mage-Lord’s servants. He was a forgettable man, neither young nor old, of middling height and stature. He had no discerning physical characteristics of any kind. Jared knew if someone were to ask him later on what the man looked like, he would be unable to say.

“Welcome,” the servant said in a bland tone. “The Mage-Lord awaits you in the parlor. This way.”

He led Jared down a bare marble hallway to a welcoming room with elegant sofas and chairs, and high windows that let the sun pour in.

“The mage Jared to see you, my lord,” the servant said.

The Mage-Lord rose from his seat on a silk-lined chair and set aside the scroll he had been reading. “Thank you.” The servant bowed and left.

“Welcome, Jared.” The Mage-Lord turned the full force of his presence upon his guest and smiled.

Jared resisted the urge to kneel. Mage-Lord Oberon was the most powerful mage the city had ever known. It radiated from him in a tangible wave. Although he had been born during Jared’s grandparents’ time, he stood tall and erect in his purple silk robes. His clean-shaven, aquiline features were unlined. His dark hair was combed back into a neat tail at the nape of his neck and his startling blue eyes held both wisdom and secrets within their depths.

With great reluctance, Jared pulled his own eyes away. He made a deep bow. “My lord.”

“Please, have a seat.” The Mage-Lord indicated a plush chair across from where he had been sitting as he returned to his own place. “Thank you for coming. We have much to discuss. I trust you kept our appointment secret.” He gave Jared a pointed look.

“Yes, my lord!”

“Good.” The Mage-Lord sighed. “It is unfortunate I must take such precautions, but even I am not as universally loved as I would like. Did you have any trouble getting here?”

The servant returned, bearing a tray of tea and sweets. He set it down on the low table between them before retreating once more.

“Well…” Jared found himself hesitating, but the Mage-Lord’s eyes urged him to continue. “I was delayed by one of the professors at the academy, so I had to take a shortcut through some of the back streets in order to get here on time.” He felt himself flush. “One of the Unclean accosted me along the way. He backed off as soon as I mentioned your name though.”

“Ah, that is good, but it wounds me to hear it. Such unfortunate people. I do my best to keep them safe and secure, but they are their own worst enemy, I fear. I will have someone look into the incident. Please, have some tea.” He poured a cup for Jared and himself. “I had it imported from the capital. It’s quite good.”

Jared took a sip. It was a little bitter for his taste, but he didn’t dare say anything.

The man smiled as Jared took another sip. “So, I am told you are the most powerful mage at the academy.”

Jared did his best to look modest. “Yes, my lord.” He took a long swallow from the porcelain cup.

“I’ve been looking for someone like you.” The Mage-Lord gave him a white smile, his hypnotic eyes flashing. “Yes, I think we will do great things together, you and I.”

* * *

Jared opened his eyes. His lashes were stuck together with some sort of gummy fluid. He realized he was lying down, but couldn’t remember doing so. He raised a hand to his face to rub his eyes clear. The effort was exhausting. His arm felt like lead.

The ground beneath him was cold and hard. The room was dark. The only sliver of light came from under an iron door. The smell of human waste assaulted his nostrils. He could make out a bucket in the corner. It was a chamber pot. His chamber pot. The only sound was the scrabbling of a rat somewhere nearby.

What had happened? How did he get here? He couldn’t seem to remember. The Mage-Lord… Something about the Mage-Lord.

Jared forced himself onto his hands and knees before rising on unsteady feet. He took a step toward the door. The world lurched and his legs gave way. He fell, his head hitting the stone floor. Darkness followed.

* * *

It was Jared’s thirst that woke him. His mouth and throat were parched. He opened his bleary eyes and licked his cracked lips, blinking in the unusual light. The iron door was open. He lay still, listening. Even the rats were silent.

This time he stayed on his hands and knees. His blue robes were soiled and tattered. One of his sandals was broken. He shuffled on the unforgiving floor until he reached the open door. He poked his head outside, looking in both directions. There was no one to be seen. He was in a long hallway of cells like his own. There was a large, wooden door at the end.

Jared pulled himself to his feet, using the wall to help him. He stumbled toward the wooden door, keeping one hand on the wall for support and waiting for someone to stop him.

No one came.

It seemed to take forever for him to reach his goal. But suddenly the door was before him and still no one had arrived. He turned the brass knob. It gave way beneath his trembling hand. The door was unlocked. Jared pushed it open and ducked outside.

The sights and sounds of the streets overwhelmed him. He clapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. When he was ready, he slowly lowered his hands and allowed his eyes to open, blinking rapidly. He was back in the fish merchants’ quarters. The salty brine of the sea and the stench of fish and offal surrounded him. He turned back to inspect the door. It was plain and unadorned, set in a gray, stone wall. Jared looked up, shading his eyes. The wall was a part of the back buildings of the Mage-Lord’s manor.

How long had he been there? His stomach felt as if it were wrapped around his spine. He looked down at his own grimy hands. There was dirt under his fingernails, which were broken and bloody. The flesh on his hands and wrists seemed shrunken, his robes ridiculously large for his frame. He felt the back of his head where he had hit it on the floor. The wound was already almost healed, his hair a matted, scabby mess.

How had this happened? He had jumbled memories of meeting the Mage-Lord, followed by torture. He remembered screaming until he was hoarse. The Mage-Lord had wanted something from him. The pain had been unbearable. His insides had felt as though they were on fire while his mind writhed in agony until he had blacked out.

Jared realized his parents must be worried sick. At the Mage-Lord’s instructions, he had told no one of the secret meeting. His family was probably looking high and low for him by now.

Unless they had been told a story to explain his absence.

Jared got a sinking feeling in the pit of his empty stomach. The Mage-Lord was hardly stupid. He would have covered his tracks. His parents had probably been told that he had been summoned to perform some kind of secret work on behalf of the city and been killed in the countryside, or perhaps a tale of a magical experiment gone fatally wrong. It didn’t matter. He had been lured by the Mage-Lord, captured, and tortured, only to be set free.

Jared suspected it was no accident that his cell had been left open and the outside door left unlocked. It was obvious the Mage-Lord intended for him to escape, which meant he already had what he wanted and wasn’t afraid of Jared being free.

Which meant Jared wasn’t really free at all.

With his sudden disappearance explained, it would be as if he no longer existed. But what was to stop him from returning to his parents and telling them what had happened? They would be shocked to hear such unthinkable accusations against the honored Mage-Lord at first, but Jared was an honest young man and his current condition would lend credence to his story.

Something wasn’t right. It didn’t make any sense. His eyes darted left and right, searching the passers-by for someone from the Mage-Lord’s household. He had lingered too long on the doorstep of his prison. Filled with a fresh bout of paranoia, he began to run at a shambling pace, his body no longer familiar.

People gave him strange looks as he passed, making sure to stay well out of his path. Who were they to judge him? No doubt he looked terrible, but he was the most powerful mage at the academy! Jared ignored their stares and stumbled on.

His breathing became ragged. His legs threatened to give way. He looked behind him. He had only managed to run a single block. No one appeared to be coming after him. He decided to take a moment to catch his breath before moving on. He leaned up against a dirty wall.

He saw a young man in fine mage robes walking down the street at a brisk pace in his direction. Jared felt a thrill of fear go through him. Then he realized the young man wasn’t even looking at his surroundings. He only had eyes for the manor down the block. He was going to see the Mage-Lord. What else would a well-dressed young mage be doing in this part of the city?

Jared knew what fate awaited the other mage. He had to warn him! He reached out to grab the man’s sleeve as he passed.

“Get your filthy hands off of me!” The mage tried to pull his sleeve free. “I have an appointment and I’m already late.”

Jared saw disgust in the other mage’s hazel eyes and became indignant. He would let the man know just who he was talking to. No one spoke to him that way! His dry mouth worked as he formed the words.

“Mage,” he managed to gasp, his tongue swollen and awkward.

“Yes, and you’re very lucky the Mage-Lord frowns upon us using our power against your kind. Now let me go, or I might happen to forget and attack you anyway.” The young man’s expression turned menacing.

How dare he! Jared had only been trying to help and this was how he was repaid? He would show this arrogant whelp a thing or two. He couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise when the boy realized who he was dealing with. Jared reached for his magic…

Only to find emptiness where its vital spark had once been.

It was gone. He looked into the other man’s eyes and was struck with the realization of what he had become.

He was one of them.

Suddenly it all made sense. The Mage-Lord wasn’t protecting the people from the Unclean. He was creating them. He had spent the last two generations luring the best and brightest mages of Marat to his manor, where he stripped them of their magic before throwing them back onto the street. He kept them separate from the rest of the populace to keep the secret from getting out. He didn’t have them killed because the magic he had stolen was linked to their life force. If he killed them, his source of power would be gone.

It explained both his formidable abilities and why he never seemed to age. It also explained why the numbers of the Unclean kept increasing, while the mages seemed to dwindle. He was the source of all Marat’s problems. And the people welcomed him with open arms. Jared knew he had been played for a fool.

He let go of the sleeve.

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” the young man said with a smirk before turning to walk away.

Jared had to stop him. There was still a chance for this mage to be spared. Jared called after him, trying to articulate a warning.

“Don’t!” It was the only word that would come out. The mage gave him a backward glance of contempt before walking away. Jared tried to shuffle after him, but his legs refused to obey.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here? You shouldn’t be in this part of the city.” Jared looked up to see several tough-looking men with cudgels surrounding him, wearing the Mage-Lord’s colors. His eyes went wide.

Segregators. Jared scrambled into a defensive crouch, eyeing the men warily.

“We’d best get you back where you belong, among your own filthy kind,” one of the men leered. Jared remained frozen with fear, unable to believe what was happening.

“Come on now, we haven’t got all day!” The man loomed over him, reaching for his arm.

Jared raked the man’s face with dull fingernails and turned to run. A cudgel connected with his side, sending a wave of pain exploding through him as his sprawling body hit the cobblestones. He tasted his own blood.

He ignored the pain, writhing to his feet among the grabbing arms, scratching and biting like a feral beast. Another blow landed on his kidneys from behind. But a rush of adrenaline surged through him, giving him renewed strength. He struggled free for a moment, spotting the young mage’s retreating back on the streets ahead. He took a deep breath and screamed.

“Don’t!”

The mage ignored him. He rounded the corner that led to the Mage-Lord’s manor and was gone.

The Segregators reached for Jared, their cudgels raining blows from all sides. It was over. Jared knelt on the cobblestones and wept.

* * *

The Unclean: A Fantasy Short Story

Copyright © 2021 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Tupungato/Dreamstime

 

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