Ley Lines Finalist: “Lantern Festival” by Jeff Quick
The snow was piled a human’s height this year, taller in some places. “Baba Yaga hides fresh secrets this winter,” went the saying.
And so the Lantern Festival was invested with an unusual fervor in Urdengard this year (and in most of Domovogrod). Everyone was ready for spring’s triumphant return.
Every torch, lantern, and flaming branch was pressed into service for the parade. A flotilla of candles was released on the lake. Magical floating lights were prepared en masse to ascend to Khors’s threshold.
It was just the sort of desperate hope that gave Clattermap a warm feeling in his coin purse. Selling magical and clockwork lights to soulworn fishermen was the best business he’d found in a year. People were hungry enough for comfort that they’d even buy from a gnome, selling from a rickety booth on a side street. And they paid well for his clever treasures.
A woman approached Clattermap’s booth. She wore silver rings braided into her long auburn hair and smelled faintly of sulfur. “I need to do something about this darkness,” she said.
“Good lady, I have just the thing,” he said. His smile contained perhaps two too many teeth. “This clockwork robin’s breast shines when you sing. When the dawn hymns are sung, it changes from red to yellow, signifying the—”
“Not saying I want the darkness gone,” she purred. Now Clattermap saw dainty horns peeking through her bangs.
“Ah. A customer of more discerning palate. Perhaps…,” he said pleasantly as a young couple approached his stand, “…you would return to my humble booth when the sun sets. I have other customers to attend to now. Hello, my lovelies! You are here for something a little brighter than a mere torch, I wager? Heard of Clattermap’s wonders? See here, this shuttered lantern casts beams in the shape of Lada’s own holy symbol….”
The woman averted her gaze and sauntered away.
When daylight began to fade, Clattermap packed away his remaining wares. Among them was a parchment note he had not noticed before. Written in an elegant hand it read, “Find me in the alley two streets down. Tz”
Clattermap crumpled the note. Urdengard was not a large town. There were few opportunities for skulduggery in the alleys, especially with all the lights hung around town tonight, the night of the parade.
He brought two lanterns just to be safe.
He needed them both by the time he found the alley. Night came on quickly this time of year. The sun was almost gone, and the cold waning moon would not be bright enough to illuminate his path for another hour, at least.
Nonetheless, the tiefling with silver rings in her hair waited for him next to a wooden box turned on its side. “You’ve probably got a lot of room on your wagon after your week of sales,” she said. “I was thinking you might want to trade for a little something I’ve got. Even littler than you.” She made a shush gesture and opened the side of the box gently. The form of a sleeping child lay within.
The gnome’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I am not certain what you are suggesting lady,” he said with a quizzical face. “Is there something… behind the child in the box you want to show me?”
She leaned gently on the box and smiled. “You may have whatever innocent thing you desire in this box. In exchange, I want your very best light.”
Clattermap again wore a look of befuddlement. “Would you mean my mooncaster lantern? I have but one left, and it is already promised. I must hurry back soon. The buyer will come for it, I’m sure….” He turned to leave.
“I mean the lantern you keep in your magic cage,” she said. “The archon.”
The gnome’s innocent face fell away.
“Oh… you’re tricksy,” he said. “You know things you shouldn’t.” The sun was gone now, the alley enshrouded. In the distance, the parade was beginning.
“I know things I wish I didn’t,” she said. “Now before one of us double crosses the other, let’s make our deal. I know how your kind loves a good deal.”
“Very well,” he said, “devil-stock to devil-stuck. Show me the contents of your box in the lantern light and I’ll show you true Lantern Light.”
“You have business sense, Clattermap. I like you.”
Then, from above, a stark white light pierced the night above the bargainers. It was too bright, too soon to be the parade. A happy cry went up in the distance at the sight of it, but up close a different mood arose.
Both bargainers looked up to see a celestial being–of some kind… too hard to make out in the light. Amid the luminous glory, all that was clearly visible was a sword aflame and matching eyes. It spoke: “Behold, I, Gavriil-of-Seven-Bells come on a mission of mercy and righteous vengeance! Cease and fall prostrate before me that you may live!”
For the first time, the gnome’s face showed a true emotion: terror. He darted out of the alley in a shadowy puff, his lanterns rattling on the mortared stones.
Meanwhile, the tiefling stared up into the light, defiant, fists balled in anger. “Gavriil? Gavriil! I will douse you in oil!”
A halfling head poked out of the box. He craned his face up and shielded his eyes from the glare, child no more. “What? What happened? Did the patron saint of getting-the-fuck-in-our-way show up?”
“Hold me not accountable for the failure of your umbrageous undertakings, Coriander Wanderwoods,” spake Gavriil-of-Seven-Bells. “Righteousness yields not to perfidy. Twilight presages no dawn.”
“I do not ever know what this rope of centaurshit is saying.” Coriander clambered out of the box and spat on the ground. “Do you know Tzananda? Is he even talking a known language?”
“Talking’s all I’ve ever known Seven-Smells to do,” she said. “Talking and showing up at the wrong time.”
She looked to the sky again. “There was no danger, Gavriil. I know, lost children are your lookout, but I was just going to give him Wanderwoods. The devils wouldn’t have him anyway. I’ve tried sacrificing him. It never takes.”
“That rat bastard is halfway back to Neimheim by now, you shining oaf,” said Coriander. “Great. Fucking. Work. Gavriil. We plan for three weeks, I spend an hour freezing my hairy ass off in this box, and you blow the whole thing in under 10 seconds. First prize work, cocksucker. Gold medallions all around.”
“Coriander Wanderwoods, your heart is fair, but your words are foul. Have care that one besmirches not the other.”
The halfling was beyond cursing now. He glared. He glared at everything.
Tzananda sighed. “Look, we lost him, Wanderwoods. But the boldest child smuggler on the Rothenian Plain doesn’t stay loose forever. We’ll find him again. He’s off his game for at least a week now.”
“A week longer than he should be.” Coriander pouted.
“You also seem to have precious little concern for our stolen brother, Philaret, may his lantern shine Ten Thousand Thousand Mornings.”
“We were getting him in the deal, Gavriil,” Tzananda said, “We were….” She ran her fingers through her hair, took a deep breath, and blew it back out her nostrils. “Look… you’re usually too uptight to be petulant. I’m sure you’ve been working hard too. Go… go meditate on effulgence or whatever you do to feel better. We’ll get him. Just, look closer next time, right? You could have seen us if you’d looked a little harder.”
“Right ends through wrong means never ends rightly,” Gavriil said, finally sheathing his flaming sword.
“Okay, thanks for the moralizing, Gav. We’ll write that one down,” said Coriander. “Now go fluff a cloud.”
Gavriil looked down on the halfling and tiefling once more. His radiant countenance shone with impervious righteousness. Then he was gone.
Tzananda and Coriander blinked in unison, eyes readjusting to the dark. Cori scratched his head.
Finally Tzananda said, “Hey, Clattermap left us two lanterns. Come on, let’s join the parade; pray for Spring’s quick return.” she picked up the discarded lanterns, still burning, and handed one to Coriander.
The halfling took it. “Saint Vadim, hear our prayer to carry on,” he said.
“We won’t find him tonight anyway,” he continued. “Not now. And he’s not literally halfway to Neimheim, I guess. Hey, let’s stop by his booth. We’ll see whether fear or greed drives him more.”
“That’s the tracker I know,” Tzananda said. She aimed her lantern into the dark city street and led them toward the parade lights.