Vareck was running late. Again.
He increased his pace along the trail, boots grinding upon the scuffed stone between the towering rock formations. One hand clutched the face of a battered pocket watch. Balls―it was already mid-afternoon, and he was over ten minutes behind. He had to reach the candidate before she noticed the smoke, or he’d lose his chance for contact.
Odds were it was another difficult one. His supervisor always gave him the worst assignments, but he couldn’t afford to botch this. Not with that probationary label still attached to his file.
Vareck sprinted over patches of barren soil and withered deciduous trees. There were areas like this all over the continent. World K6C3-C9G0’s resident Dark Entity continued to extend its reach.
He paused for breath, palms on his knees. Maybe it was time to cut back on the street market foods while visiting all these worlds. But an oracle’s work was always easier on a full stomach.
A dark-haired young woman in a long tunic stood alone in the middle of an emergent clearing. She crouched in a ready pose, her back facing him, the shaft of a soldier’s spear in her hands. The steel tip sliced through the air in a sequence of slashes and thrusts.
Vareck pulled his vest down over his protruding gut. He swapped the pocket watch for a tiny notebook and flipped through the pages. Time to get started.
He snapped his fingers. A floating orb the size of his head shimmered into focus, its translucent surface crackling with a radiant light. Vareck hurried into the clearing, the orb trailing behind him.
The young woman lowered her spear and wiped her brow with one sleeve. She looked up and blinked.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Priya,” he said.
The woman leveled her spear at him. Or the orb. Whatever.
“We aren’t enemies.” Vareck glanced between the notebook and the orb. Seemed like he was still invisible, though it wouldn’t be the first time he’d bungled such a simple illusion. “Your world continues to wither, and years of drought across these far-reaching lands is only the beginning. The power of the…” He peered at a crinkled page. “…Scourge King cannot be underestimated.”
What a stupid name for an Entity. Who had written this prophecy, anyway? Completely lacking in imagination. If only his supervisor would give him another chance to take the scribe’s exam―he could craft something far better.
Priya still hadn’t moved her spear. “What are you? Some kind of lost spirit? How do you know my name?”
Vareck pursed his lips. Best stick to the prophecy’s script. No need to get another reprimand for improvising. “To the south, beyond the reaches of the Ash Forest, lies a structure of crystalline glass. You must embark on a journey there and obtain the power to save your world.” Such drivel.
“You mean…the Celestial Temple?” Priya suppressed a snicker. “Like in those ridiculous old stories―”
“They’re far more than that. Your village has been preparing for the Scourge King’s arrival for a thousand years.” Balls. Always the same number with these prophecies. Must be some kind of scribe shorthand. “All that knowledge and training has led up to this moment. Your moment.”
“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.” Priya gestured over her shoulder. “Try speaking with my mother or our village elders…”
Vareck shook his head. Now came the hardest part of the job. “Look behind you.”
“I don’t take orders from wandering spirits.”
“Just turn around, you cursed―” So much for sticking to the script. “Please, Priya.”
She scoffed, neck craning in a half turn. “Is this some kind of―” Priya gasped, the spear clattering to the ground. A plume of smoke soared into the sky.
“Whoever did that was after you, probably under the Scourge King’s orders.” Armed fanatics. He’d wager a week’s worth of suckling pork on it. “Your village must’ve elected resistance over surrendering your location.”
She brushed past him, but Vareck snapped his fingers. Priya froze mid-stride.
“It’s not safe to go back, Priya. I’m sorry.”
Her gaze remained fixed upon the rising black cloud. They were too far from the village to hear anything but silence. No crackle of flames devouring wood, no screams of the dying…
But if Priya returned home, he didn’t have the authorization to stop her. It wouldn’t be the first time a candidate had thrown their life away before even beginning their journey.
“You must go on for their sake.” He continued to scan the notebook. “Remember your loved ones in your heart, and head south toward the nearby city of Sanctuary.”
So many moving pieces required to take these candidates where they needed to go, and countless more potentials still waiting across the infinite spheres. At least it kept him and the other celestials occupied. And employed.
Vareck snapped his fingers again. Priya staggered several steps forward.
“The route to the Temple’s gates will be arduous,” he said. “But this is what you were chosen to do. Fulfill the hero’s prophecy and save your world.”
Horse hooves thundered in the distance. Priya’s face paled.
“Go! Hurry!” Vareck dismissed the orb. Priya stared through him before picking up her spear and scrambling down the stone path. Whether back to her village or bound for Sanctuary―it was impossible to say.
And no longer his concern. She hadn’t been so bad, as far as Temple candidates went. Hopefully she’d be all right.
Vareck glanced at his pocket watch. The meeting had taken longer than expected. His stomach growled, but there wasn’t time to stop by any of the local cities in World K6C3-C9G0, even for a quick nibble.
He sighed. Another step closer to digging himself out of this probationary limbo and to making that second attempt at the scribe’s exam. A few months more, perhaps. If he was lucky.
Vareck returned the pocket watch to his vest. His next assignment was already waiting.
He was running late. Again.
Christopher A. Jos is a teacher currently living in Alberta, Canada, and is a self-professed fantasy junkie going back to his early teenage years. When not writing or working, Christopher likes to unwind by playing his guitar and spending time in the great outdoors photographing wildlife. You can visit him at his website or follow him on Twitter @ChristopheAJos.