Nicholas hates driving through the Midwest. The palette of pleasant yellows, blues, and greens is stretched so thin over the cornfields and isolated pockets of forest that it loses all meaning in the monotony. Mountains are towering, forests are mysterious, but the endless fields of rural Ohio? They’re just exhausting.
He has to sit ramrod straight in his seat just to stay awake and attentive, his hands unmoving at ten and two on roads that never turn or curve. The decaying beasts of industry watch him as he passes: abandoned factories, boarded-up homes, cars left for scraps on the sides of the road. It all leaves his nerves fried and the tip of his tongue aching for caffeine to shake off his drowsiness.
The tire warning light comes on, but he doesn’t notice until his car drags to the right and vibrates uncomfortably. Nicholas swears colorfully to no one, slumping in his seat, defeated. A flat tire, out here? When he’s hours from the nearest town with no spare tire on hand?
“It’s best to just get it over with,” he tells himself, coming to a stop on the side of the road.
A rusted silo looms over him as Nicholas steps out of his car. The surrounding cornfield is flooded with brackish water that toes the asphalt like a predator probing for weaknesses. The road is nearly empty, save for a few scattered vehicles passing him by, stinking of gasoline and exhaust.
The ritual is so routine to him that he prepares for it the same way he does the laundry every week or brushes his teeth in the morning. Nicholas opens the trunk to retrieve his things: a small metal bucket scorched with soot, some half-congealed oil, and a patchwork silk robe. He picks it up, letting the primarily-crimson fabric flutter in the wind before putting it on. The checkerboard of flannel, denim, and cotton patches is a testament to the robe’s long line of previous owners. Supposedly, the ritual worked better when the robe had a history. Like using your parent’s rewards points for a flight.
He sets the bucket next to the flat and pours some oil inside. Then he begins the chant. The words matter less than the intention, so he tries not to worry too much when he flubs every other word of the Old Speech. All he needs to get right is the name.
Nicholas fishes his wallet out of his pocket and holds it over the bucket. A passing car slows down to gape at him in his robe. He does his best to ignore it.
“Sootfather,” he murmurs, “I sacrifice my wallet, which will sow for you several hours of boredom at the DMV to replace my license and another to get my credit card replaced at the bank. May it satiate you and inspire your goodwill.”
The oil in the bucket ignites with a dim, pale flame. It smells like copper— so thick that it’s heavy on his tongue. He swallows and drops the wallet into the fire. They shift from white to black, sending flakes of ash into the air that drift and swirl without falling. Sootfather is waiting, is the unspoken message.
“I… request that you fix my flat.” He hesitates to speak. Asking an all-powerful, ancient god to do auto repair feels strange.
For a moment, nothing happens, as if the Sootfather himself is shocked at Nicholas’s audacity. Then there’s a creaking of shuddering metal as his car straightens, its tire refilling and sealing. When the fire fades, the car is fixed, and all that is left of his wallet is soot.
Nicholas smiles and picks up the bucket. “Thanks for the help.”
The god makes for a strange friend, but it’s much better than facing the lonely roads alone. Especially when you don’t know how to change a tire.
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