The soil of the floating mountain of Summit was bountifully fertile. Some of the bright minds at the College of Agriculture believed it was due to floating above the Crystal Horizon—out of reach of the miasma polluting the rest of Axia’s sky. A common thought in the local horticultural community was that the minerals of the mountain were a special blend that reacted positively to whatever you grew, providing just the right combination of nutrients in the soil. If you looked down from the very peak of the mountain, Sparkstone, you would see the farms terracing outwards from the mountain’s centre, each growing an immaculate harvest season-in and season-out. All this to say, it was the perfect location to grow vegetables, making it a very lucky place to be a donkey.
As far as beasts of burden go, Buster was particularly blessed. His owners—Pavina and her niece Aetona Brightling—were incredibly kind, never taking the whip to his hindquarters and asking that he carry only the odd invention of theirs (fortunately their self-propelled cart did most of the work). Plus, living and working with them provided excellent benefits, the greatest of which was their garden, humble but wild.
Tomatoes hung from the fence posts. Earthy potatoes nestled just below the ground still held the warmth of the soil when plucked. Crisp heads of lettuce glistened in the sunlight, offering a wonderful crunch that was about the only thing that broke the reserved quiet of Buster’s life.
On those occasions he was asked to assist the Brightlings with transporting something up the mountain, Buster would be loaded up with goods and guided through the thicket of trees and underbrush to the nearby road. On one particularly warm day, the path had become especially busy, as the Festival of Sparks would soon commence, and vendors of all sorts carried their wares up the mountain—beautiful beaded veils, carefully stacked pastries, magical boondoggles for children, decorative shields, refined liquors, affordably crafted lutes, and all manners and shapes and colours of object that Buster purveyed but took no real interest in. Aetona and Pavina took a leisurely pace ahead of Buster on a routine trip up the mountain to barter for parts to bring back to their workshop. Buster was left alone with his thoughts until his cart was jostled by largest Cloningshem horse Buster had ever seen. The horse gave no recognition that Buster had even been there. Buster eyed the horse’s cart: nearly five times the size of his own, and without a self-propelling system. Buster sped up, matching the horse on the trail, and stretched his neck to its full height (he was still a few inches short of reaching even the horse’s haunches). The horse paid no heed, only dragging his cart with a single-minded horse determination. Buster clopped as quick as he could, finally getting a nose ahead, and brayed at his supremacy. Then he hit a rock and lost his footing and nearly tipped his load onto the dirt path. The horse whinnied under its breath.
“Poor Buster,” Pavina said. “This is the most activity he’s had in a month. Let’s unbridle him for a break and see if we can find a shorter route up the mountain.” Buster brayed in protest (but not that much protest) and was released of his burden as the horse moved on ahead. It was then Buster saw the load that the horse had been toiling under, and it was a cargo that captured Buster’s interests. And once ensnared in, he could not escape.
A mountain of cucumbers rested on the back of the wagon, spilling over its edges. They ranged from straight to curved, bumpy to smooth, each sparkling like emeralds pulled from sacred mines. And on the back of this wagon, nestled amongst its commoner brothers, sat the King of ‘Cumbers, the Prince of Pickles, the Duke of Cukes.
Now, it would be a horrible waste to even attempt a description as to what made this particular cucumber so fetching. Because you see, to those such as us who have the joys of ripe cheese, crusty bread, sharp mustard, bitter chocolate, floral wine, tart sorbet, flakey honeycakes, marbled steak, salted toffee, crisp rib-ends, fiery sausage, roasted nuts and the like, a cucumber is but a trifle. But to a donkey, its joys are manifold.
There’s the crunch as you first break the skin. The flavour, so subtle it defies description. The texture that satisfies both hunger and thirst. After running your tongue across the salt lick, a cucumber becomes an almost transcendent experience.
Compared to the royalty before him, the cucumbers that grew in the Brightling garden were but humble things. So it’s of little wonder that when Buster—an animal that hardly lifted his feet to even walk—saw this specimen, he stumbled with the grace of a poorly stuffed pillow falling down a staircase, and upon recovering, took after the wagon with a singular purpose.
As can be expected of a work animal whose work is done for him, Buster had trouble keeping pace. But still he tread forward—over sticks and roots and pebbles, all manner of obstructions. He would not be deterred. He would taste his prize if it took even a slightly higher incline, at a temperature even warmer but relatively close to what it already was, with even a delicate breeze pressing against him. However, despite his bravery, his poorly tuned donkey body failed him, and but a moment later he collapsed, overtaken by a nap. His eyes dimmed as the cucumber wagon continued its ascent, and Buster was dragged by a deep exhaustion—as potent as can be felt by a farm animal—into a dark land of sleep.
Buster snapped awake. He found himself amongst a crowd of animals, all passed out like him in front of a veterinary hospital in the city of Cloudbreak. Some kind soul had likely thought Buster had been ill and dragged the poor animal to the city to be resuscitated. And in the midst of preparations for a carnival! What a good egg, what selfless hero, what kind-hearted—
“There! That’s the beast,” said a merchant who appeared in the doorway of the veterinary clinic, the vet standing close beside. “Never seen anything like it: he followed my cart while sleeping and chewed through six pounds of zucchini off the back. I want that menace put down!”
Of course, Buster could not understand what the man had said, but the way he said it was more than enough. Buster jumped over the nearest feverish goose and took off into the market. It was a few steps in before he fully understood how much he had eaten in his sleep (his owners, the Brightlings, were well aware of this odd show of consumptive somnambulism, and always made sure there was either a few carrots near his straw mat or at least a tough piece of leather to chew on), causing him to wobble between the many visitors who filled the streets of Cloudbreak.
“Stop that ass!” cried the merchant, leading Buster to trot at a pace he had never before achieved. He needled his way through the tapestry of people, bumping them into stands of hot soup, knocking over displays of fine pottery, trampling over heirloom rugs, and bringing about destruction in just about every way possible. Also, as he had started to digest the zucchini, his stomach had found need to release the pressure, and while the crowd was panicked to see him coming, they found no relief in his going either. He left a cloud of flatulence behind him with every step. Either the relief from his stomach sped him up or the impenetrable fog he created followed choked the merchant to a standstill, but soon Buster was free of pursuit. He wandered at this pace for some time, down further into the abandoned streets of the poor section of the city, then pulled into an alley to reorient himself. He had eluded death, but was still far from home, and without a hero’s prize with which to return triumphantly to his paddock. He laid down. An hour passed as he contemplated where he was and what he could do. The setting sun turned the white cobblestones a brilliant orange, and the clouds were a brilliant mix of vermillion, purple and blue, but this was a cold comfort to a donkey with a broken heart.
Not a few moments later, a stray child walked past the alley holding a cucumber. Behind him, several more followed. Buster shot up and walked in the direction from which they came.
“Out! Get out of here!” yelled a pubescent voice from around the corner. A torrent of laughing children ran out, each giggling to themselves holding a cucumber of their own. Buster bit at one of the passing children but missed his crunchy prize entirely, nipping the child’s shoulder and sending her off screaming. When the last child had gone, Buster peeked his head around and saw the cart, not as mountainous as it once was but still piled high with cucumbers, though his darling seemed to be missing. A man in a purple robe—the uniform of the local magic enforcement troop, the Riftkeepers—dug through the pile, breathed a sigh of relief, then again covered what he had just revealed. He peered around, then pulled a hood over his receding hairline and bulbous nose and walked into a nearby door.
“Well, Pendleton?” came another voice from within. “Where you caught? Does anyone suspect?”
The pubescent voice lost the bravery it possessed when it was being used to yell at children. “Not one look. Some urchins stole my cover. I can’t afford to lose any more.”
With every word, Buster inched closer to the cart. Soon he was standing over a treasure trove of cucumbers, each laying in wait for a noble steed such as he to dine on their crispy innards.
“The rest of the ‘Keepers can’t know we’re smuggling in—” CRONCH SLURP SHLAK “—or we’ll be removed without trial.”
“We wouldn’t need to do this if we were paid our share. And we’re not the only ones the higher-ups have to worry about. I’ve heard—” MUNCH PLERSH SMAK “—is about to rebel from within, and many are looking to join him.”
“Well, we don’t have any need to worry. I received a new job from—” CHOMP “—that if we help them kill that inventor—” SMERSH KRINCH “—we’ll be welcomed into the new fold quite happily. We can take care of it once we have enough money from selling the—”
The two Riftkeepers stepped outside to find a donkey, a cart, a strange mechanism that they would have preferred stay hidden, and an insufficient number of cucumbers. In the same moment, the child Buster had bitten rounded the corner, holding the hand of a man twice the size of either the Riftkeepers. His deep voice shook the doorframe in which they stood. “This donkey belong to you two?! It almost took her arm! What kind of owner…” He stopped when he saw the mechanism laid bare on the cart. “Is… is that…”
“Get it out of here!” shouted the elder Riftkeeper. He traced a finger through the air, cutting the space before him. It cracked and then shattered into a portal, and after stepping through he disappeared from sight. The younger Riftkeeper, Pendleton, hopped up onto the cart, grabbed the mechanism, and less confidently than his confidant, started to trace the same shape.
It was then Buster noticed his prize at Pendleton’s feet—the cucumber that he would journey up any hill for, through any animal clinic, and bite any child to taste. Without so much as a thought, Buster jumped up onto the cart, and ran headlong into Pendleton, forcing them both through the half-constructed rift.
As can be expected, creating a rift is both science and art. Only the most senior Riftkeepers are capable of conjuring a rift at a moment’s notice, and Pendleton was far from manifesting a well-crafted rift at whim. However, the mind can do miraculous thing when fuelled with equal parts fear and panic. As such, Pendleton fell from a rift atop a balcony just down the street, but caught in his robes was Buster, searching and snapping for his cucumber. Pendleton opened another rift trying to escape, but Buster continued to follow, as though the two were conjoined. Without any thought for direction, Pendleton apparated and then evaporated as quickly as possible, moving towards the festival kicking off in Cloudbreak’s city square. Before he could understand what was going on, he was opening and closing rifts amongst the throngs as they waited for the sun to set and the festival to start.
To the crowd, this was a very strange sight: a man appearing and disappearing through shimmering portals, dressed in the robes of a Riftkeeper, his hindquarters appearing to be the legs of a donkey. It takes little to then understand why they began to cheer and applaud. This then set off the other performers, thinking they had missed their cue to join in on the festivities, and subsequently music and lights exploded from every corner of the city square. Bringing down the festivities somewhat was the recurrence of Buster’s gas (as he had just eaten a cart of cucumbers), now being spread in handfuls every time Pendleton appeared and disappeared. Still the crowd cheered, and few could remember a more exciting start to a festival in recent memory. All culminated in the explosion of fireworks, dressing the clouds already coloured from the sunset in more brilliant greens and blues, until they sparkled with the brilliance of opals.
Pendleton continued to rift beyond the city, behind the backstreets, and down the mountain. After what seemed like an eternity of falling through open door after open door, after the sun finally set, the two crashed into a small garden—the Brightling garden—and were separated into two heaps.
Buster was the first to come to his feet. He looked around feverishly for the cucumber. He nuzzled his way through the Riftkeeper’s cloak until he found it—smashed in the landing. It was then Pendleton punched Buster in the side of the head, doing little damage but knocking our heroic steed onto his side.
“You! You beast! You mongrel! I’ll— I’ll carve your skin from your rump and make a rucksack! I’ll turn your hooves into doorstoppers! I’ll— I’ll—”
“Buster!” came a voice from the nearby house. Buster got up and galloped toward the doorway, and when he arrived, Pavina Brightling stood there: tall, her leather gloves greased with oil, her hair tied back, her forehead glazed with a hard-day’s work. “Buster, what’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you… well I’ve never seen you move hardly at all. Where have you been? What has you so spooked?”
Buster was prepared to defend Pavina from the Riftkeeper, but he turned to find the paddock empty, save for a strange lump of something on the ground. Pavina walked toward it, kneeled down and picked up a strange mechanism.
“This is sciontic craftsmanship,” she said, turning it over in her hand.” I’d thought the Riftkeepers had stolen most of what was left in the Droneworks.” She looked to her left and to her right, then pocketed the find and returned to the house.
A softly murmured “dammit, dammit, dammit!” issued from a nearby bush, followed by the crackling of an open rift, and the pop of its closing.
“This will just be between us,” Pavina said as she petted Buster’s mane, and went into the house. Buster collapsed in a heap, now knowing he was out of danger, but also mourning his lost prize. He would never know the sweetest taste, the crunchiest texture, the watery fullness of that cucumber. And in the back of his mind was the Riftkeeper’s conversation. Though he couldn’t comprehend what he had heard, he had the feeling of danger, of something ominous, something that could tear the very mountain asunder. If only he could…
“I worked so hard today I forgot to feed you,” Pavina said, carrying something from around the corner. “I got you a treat from one of the passing carts. Should make up for a day’s worth of missed meals.” She placed in the dirt a pumpkin the size of Buster’s gut.
And you must understand, dear reader, that if there is one thing that could put a cucumber out of the mind of a donkey, it is a pumpkin. For the tough flesh of a pumpkin holds an immaculate sweetness, one that can’t be compared. And the delicious seeds that get stuck in ones back molars to be enjoyed later, the autumnal flavour, and that brilliant colour. Oh, that he could eat one every day and never have to know fullness again, that he would journey up the mountain both ways to…
Story by Caleb Caswell.
Art by Toma Feizo Gas