Flash Fiction: The Watch

Time ground on. It chipped down on the country of Eristae, its memory, its anger. As the years flowed through them, people forgot their anger at the imperial ships and new rules. They grew familiar with the tithes and the soldiers on street corners. Their daughters married those street corner soldiers, and their grandchildren left for foreign schools. The next generation returned to the ancient dukedoms and quiet fiefs with hard accents, soft hands, and voracious intentions. They abandoned the country groves and seaside villages of their birth to build up cities in the image of imperial metropolises.

And a century after the first imperial fleet landed on their southern banks, with a foreign official in every office, dean’s seat, and city council, the peoples flocked into the streets to celebrate their newfound dependence. Parades and floats coursed through the main cities, streaming banners that snapped in-time to the peoples’ cheers. The empire unfolded its arms and took ancient Eristae into its progressive embrace.

Cole tried to keep to himself that night. While the city of Kallais streamed around him, broiling with dance, drink, and music, he glowered his way into a corner of the most unpopular tavern he could find.

It worked for a time, well into Cole’s fourth ale. But the streets eventually poured their way in to the dirty little bar. Cole shouldered open the tavern door before he broke the nose of a loud patriot. Though he shoved a few shoulders in the process, Cole got into the night air without starting a brawl.

The streets were strewn with the aftermath of the celebrations, but the air was clean and growing quieter by the hour. Cole left the stuffy taverns to the new imperial citizens and used the sound of waves to guide him. He walked, using the winding streets and narrow staircases running the city to burn the alcohol from his veins. Beneath the foot of the bay wall, Cole looked up. The thick stone walls curled around the city protectively, solid and wide enough for three armored men to walk abreast.

Cole climbed a stair and flashed an ancient badge. The old design and crest should have had him stopped and questioned, had the watchman been sober enough to protest. But the outdated token got Cole to the top of the wall, where he set elbows against stone and watched the city settle. As the dark deepened in the sky and then eventually began to glow in the east, the last of the imperial chants and cheers died entirely. The city could have been his again, as it had been before, stretching out at the end of a long graveyard shift.

Flags would come and go, as would the people who sat behind desks and on thrones, but Cole knew he would always come here, to watch over his city, his country.

Terribly late, this thief ran off with More than 1/2 Mad‘s line to serve the Legal Theft Project. This is the result of that heist, prompt, and challenge. 

Advertisements

A Host Privilege

His soldiers leaned in with interest as he passed through the small camp. Some teetered, stumbling a step before they found balance on unfamiliar legs. Xantos grumbled, watching their heads loll. Acclimating to vessels of bone, meat, and viscous organs was one thing, swiftly mastering a host took age and practice. But the soldiers’ bloated bellies, reddened eyes, and thick movements told Xantos that they were acclimating to mortal drink, powders, and food with more haste.

It was hard to be too upset. Their little conquest was successful. The small contingent of human soldiers had drowned under Xantos’ wave, their bodies either destroyed or taken. But calling this mess a camp stretched the term. The only tents and campfires were those leftover from its previous occupants. His kin had torn apart the supplies, eager to taste, feel, and consume in ways their base forms did not. The hem of his cloak brushed the singed ground as he surveyed the task ahead of him, say what would about humans, but at least they knew how to dig a latrine. .

More troubling were the unused bodies that had expired before they could be put to proper use as hosts. Instead of being disposed of, burned or buried, whatever the humans’ particular custom was here, they’d been put to other… perhaps more creative, but alarming uses.

Xantos saw a few going into cookpots, he turned those over barking orders. The hosts would get sick eating their own. Other corpses had been dragged closer to the fires and were being laid upon, used for pillows and chairs. It was already starting to smell of rot, and Xantos snapped his fingers towards the pits where the dead humans could be placed. Their new hosts would get sick around the dead.  These were rules the young had to learn, not just to maintain their new bodies, but to keep them.

Humans for all their blindness to the roiling black beneath their feet, were fairly perceptive when it came to the small social niceties and trivialities they exchanged. Discovery in such early stages would be disastrous.

Xantos stopped at a particular ring of soldiers. All looked up at his trimmed and straight backed countenance, their new eyes not yet knowing how to show the quavering deference they would normally give an elder. One of the blinking soldiers drew Xantos’ glare. Red human blood covered his shirtfront from several knives stuck in his chest and black oozed at the wound, sucking at the knife blades.

“Explain this to me.” Xantos pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Figured I might need them later, so I left them in,” the soldier said with a thick tongue and a shrug. He looked almost fondly down at the knives protruding from his new body.

Xantos closed his eyes and let himself broil internally. When Xantos opened his eyes, he leaned down and ripped the first knife free with an angry slurping sound. The second caused the soldier to gasp, black dripping tentacles flailing from the chest while his eyes rolled back into his head white and sightless.

Xantos stepped back, drew his sword and cut the head from the body with a lazy swing. The body crumpled forward as the head bounced away, leaving black shuddering splotches as it rolled. Black jelly poured from the neck wound, rising up in futile little tentacles that waved at the air in pain. The puddle of demon screamed, exposed and grasping at Xantos boots.

“There is going to be a discussion on the proper storage practices for knives; mainly that leaving them in people is not a good plan. A host is a privilege, one that can be taken away. Understood?” He addressed the remaining soldiers. Shied and stumbled back in horror, they had enough control to nod.

The dead demon at his feet was already dissolving into black dust, mingling with the dirt and drifting into the air. Xantos cleaned his sword, sheathed it, and walked away to continue the camp inspection.

A thief, but also a cheat this week. I stole CC‘s first line and changed it slightly to make my own story as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Flash Fiction: Sticky Fire

Flames danced up her sleeve, and she sighed as she put them out. Or tried to, the sickly green fire clung to Sen’s fingers like spiderweb. From there they rushed angrily across her golden skin and up her other sleeve. “Oh bother,” Sen sighed again, this time with real frustration as the top of her gown shriveled away.

The battle still flowed, screams and metal all flashing bright beneath the sunlight. Red had only begun to soak the ground. But she’d collected and stilled a small audience of both enemy and friendly soldiers.

Sen broke her belt with a jerk and tore the remains of the dress away from her skin. The fabric still burned in her fingers, the acrid flames fighting helplessly to gain purchase on flesh that would not burn. She threw the smoldering garment to the ground and looked up, now naked and very annoyed.

The man who’d broken the vial across her arm was shaking his head with dumb denial. She raised her chin to his towering height, stalked forward, reached up, and snapped his neck with her unblemished hand. The circle of soldiers jerked back with a uniform cry.

Sen smiled at them and all, hers and the other side’s, backed away slowly from the naked goddess. The battle offered other, less disconcerting, ways to die. Sen purred with pleasure and carved her own way through the chaos, skin bared.

Another week, another successful heist. I stole the first line from a certain librarian as part of the Legal Theft Project. Check out the original here. 

Rules and Opportunity

Maj flew into the room, thin arms tensed like steel cables. She stopped on the rug, torn between throwing herself on the bed or shattering the vanity’s ornate mirror. She didn’t get a chance for either as Desri hurried in after her.

“So,” Desri started and reached tentatively for her half-sisters shoulder. “That could have gone better.”

“Could have gone better? It couldn’t have gone worse.” Maj ducked her shoulder like a cat that didn’t want to be pet. She stepped back and faced Desri, trembling. “You were there, you heard them. I have no talent. That’s it.”

“Maj you’re brilliant, it’s not it.” Desri persisted, catching Maj’s delicate hand. She was stronger than her petite half-sister and able to pull her close into an embrace. Maj’s curls tickled her nose but Desri held on until Maj slumped and gave an ugly sob. “Shh, you’ve gotten top marks in everything else, what are they going to do?” Desri hummed.

The answer came the next morning when Maj’s things were packed for her. Her crisp plain frocks were folded into suitcases, but the servant left any evening gowns and dancing slippers in the closet. She was told to change into sensibly-soled boots, as her soft embroidered shoes would not survive the mud and damp of the lower districts.

After five years in her father’s home, Maj was escorted to a carriage that would take her down to her mother’s house. Desri watched her go from the upstairs window, round eyes helplessly trying to catch Maj’s gaze. The carriage door shut and the horses started their clopping pace down the drive. Desri’s harsh sigh fogged the window.

“Don’t sulk,” Desri’s mother said from the study’s chair behind her. “We gave Maj more opportunity than most in her position ever have in their lives. She couldn’t stay here as anything other than a servant. Could you imagine wounding her pride so?”

“This has nothing to do with your pride?” Desri asked, not turning from the window.  Maj had never given much respect towards Desri’s mother, the woman who’d overlooked her husband’s indiscretion to let a bastard girl learn alongside her own daughter. But even the best books and tutors the city offered could not force magic aptitude and its protections. Still, banishment seemed harsh to Desri, even if Maj had been born and grown in the lower districts.

“No. This has to do with rules.” The whisper of skirt on rug indicated her mother leaving the room. Desri closed the curtains and left as well. She took the stairs down towards the their house’s great library. Her own examinations were upcoming, and she had almost as much to lose as Maj.

This is a post for Legal Theft as I have stolen the line “That could have gone better.” from More Than 1/2 Mad. 

The Duke’s Cat

Beneath the clockwork streets of Trinity lay the city’s bones. The countless building projects, infrastructure updates, and new efficiency standards that modernized the empire’s illustrious capitol turned its underworld into a twisting warren of rigorously maintained sewer systems, ancient alleyways, and built-upon history.

Here, below the streets and between crumbling stone and plaster, sharp-eyed men and women met to discuss the future of Trinity. They jabbed fingers at maps and argued over buzzing surveyors lamps. Their rumbling discontent never boiled past low tones. No one really knew how the empire’s god-kings seemed to hear and see so much.

Most of the rebels were barrel-built with thick limbs. They bore the rough hands and occasional scars of the empire least valued peoples, the laborers, farmers, and unskilled craftsman. Of the rebels though, a few were nimble-minded students with soft palms and monologues of hegemony, subversion, and moral imperative. The rebels suffered these lofty words for the heavy purses and family fortunes that came attached. A rebellion only lasted as long as rebels could eat.

Of the students, Ari was the most recent addition to the movement. He spoke less and listened far more than the others, prone to jest and the occasional game of dice. This endeared the willowy youth to most, but not all.

It was over one of these games, as Ari teased out a bitter life story from an ex-farmer, that Rolf, one of the laborers who’d never liked Ari’s wide-eyed inquisitiveness,  interrupted with a growl. The farmer stopped before she could explain the manner and location to which she’d been conscripted, and Ari blinked at Rolf.

“Shut up,” Rolf’s glare grew when it shifted from her to Ari. It stayed fixed on the student, twisted in the ugly yellow lamps they used to light the tunnels. “No need to blather when you don’t need to. Never know who could be listening.”

“Just me really,” Ari said and collected his dice for the next throw. The farmer spooked, gathered her winnings and left with an excuse about checking dinner. Ari shrugged and offered the dice to Rolf.

Rolf twisted the side of his nose and drew out a thick-bladed knife from his belt. The larger man began to oil the blade, a rag wrapped around his knobbed fingers. Ari put away his dice. “Who do you think is listening?” Ari asked.

“You’ve heard of the Chosen.” Rolf stated and flicked his eyes up to catch Ari’s expression and found it casually curious. “They are the god-kings’ generals, their apprentices, their spies.” Rolf rolled the last word of his tongue into the stale air. “They’re immortal, can’t be killed, immune to pain. Demons.”   

“And you think–”

“Don’t lead my words.” Rolf snapped again, looking for support from the others. Many of the camp were looking at them now.  Rolf raised his voice, bolstered by the serious expressions. “We have a spy. We all know it. The guards have swept these tunnels three times this week. We need to cut this spy out, even if it’s one of them.” Rolf gestured with the blade.

“But, like, with actual knives.” Ari snorted at the brandished weapon. Around them the tension broke with a few smiles. “I thought they were immortal.”

“They are. The Warlord’s jewel, the Duke’s iron dog, the Mage’s bird. There’s others. You see them around if you work in this infernal city long enough. They don’t die, don’t age. Makes it easier to pick them out if you’ve seen them before.” Rolf hadn’t let his eyes off Ari as he spoke, tracing the lines of Ari’s delicate jaw and crooked nose. Rolf’s mouth grew so tight it trembled. “And I’ve been in this gilt city a long time.”

Rolf shattered a lamp when he lunged at Ari. The student yelped and fell backwards in his chair, only to have his shirtfront caught by Rolf’s rough hands. Rolf jerked the thick-bladed knife deep into Ari’s belly. The youth gasped without breath, eyes white around their edges as he hung, bug-eyed, in Rolf’s grasp.

Rolf threw the Ari down and watched Ari clutch at his stomach with growing confusion. Ari twitched a final spasm, spat blood, and then went glassy-eyed on the crumbling floor.

Agast students and Rolf’s stony faced companions stared at the grisly scene. Rolf gestured at Ari’s corpse with the knife, “I saw him, this one, when I was little, he was as smarmy and smirking then as he–” Rolf stammered, gaze darting between the rebels and his victim. A pool of blood spread from Ari’s body, cast yellow like dark oil in the surveyors lamps.

The farmer who’d told Ari her story earlier shook her head. “Chosen are immortal, you just killed some kid who was trying to help us.” She and the other rebels shared a glance. The remaining students who were beginning to flinch towards the exits.

The rebels left Ari’s body to the pests and scavengers that lived in the undercity. It was a sad thing, but Rolf was half-frantic and they had work to do. All were nervous about the frayed whispering among the students and the hateful looks sent towards Rolf’s back.

Once the clanking of packs and the light of the surveyor’s lamps had vanished down the old tunnels, darkness fell over the abandoned camp. Ari’s body spasmed and breathed again with a bloody gasp that sounded like, “ta-da.”

“You did not mean to do that.” The voice of the Duke thrummed in his head with the pulse of his own, now renewed, heartbeat.

“I did. Planned the whole thing.” He murmured to the plaster digging into his cheek and the god-king inside his head. The man who’d recently been called Ari folded himself into a fetal position and waited for the agony in his gut to subside.

The Duke’s presence hovered dryly concerned until his Chosen could push himself onto his knees. The god-king’s magic kept his body working, but Ari pressed a hand to his stomach as he stood and looked blankly into the dark. “Dissent sowed, rebels dissolving. Now how do I get out of here?”

“Planned the whole thing?” 

Ari ignored the voice, flicking his head to clear the hair that had fallen over his eyes. He started down the tunnel, going slowly on uneven footsteps.

“Go left.” 

Ari’s mouth flickered with a smile and did as the Duke instructed.

A thief this week, as I am most weeks. Thanks to the Legal Theft Project and CC’s dialogue line “But, like, with actual knives.”, I managed to write a bit this round. See CC’s original here.  

Yellow Lanterns

“Don’t bother the manor folk.” His mother tugged Alex out the vine choked gate, her hand tightly curled around his small one. Alex dug his heels into the muddy path and flopped his entire six-year-old self back with rag-doll dissent.

“Why?” Alex howled the mournful word into the evening sky as he was dragged down the towards the proper village paths. The mismatched arches, needle-spires, and squat sides of the strange house vanished behind the steep hillocks.

Alex’s mother heaved him up with arms thick from harvest work. “Hush, they don’t want any of your nonsense,” she scolded into his hair. Alex turned over her shoulder, round eyes fixed back the way they’d come. Below them, the village’s yellow lanterns began to show one by one in the valley.

******

“We aren’t supposed to bother the manor folk–” Zak’s said distantly, as if half-remembering the rule. Alex blew out a breath in response. Both of them watched the manor’s window between its soft blue curtains. From outside, bellies pressed to the evening’s wet grass of the nearest hill, they could see shapes move within the steam.

At twelve-years old, with wiry limbs and unreliable voices that faltered when they needed them most, all they had was their bravado. That, and the stolen glances of immortal golden skin they’d trade later with the other village boys. Alex slipped words into his friend’s ear. “We’re just looking, not bothering anyone.”

Zak nodded satisfied, “how old do you think they really are?” His eyes locked themselves on the open window and the promising darkness within. They stole every splash of water, soft laugh, and glossy sheen on dark hair for themselves.

Alex didn’t get a chance to guess. A massive hand closed on his shoulder and hauled him up and onto his feet. Two manor folk loomed over Alex and Zak both bullishly built and frowning. Under the darkening evening, the two boys were marched back towards the yellow lights of the village, Alex spinning innocence as they went.

******

“Keep out of the way and don’t bother the manor folk,” The sailor snapped at Alex and pushed him to a section of railing. The small crew avoided the prow. There the brothers from the manor house looked out over the water. The shorter brother rolled his angular shoulders and the wind crashed down on the ship.

In his eighteen years living in the village that sat beneath and served the strange house, Alex had learned their names and habits. He knew who courted whom, who visited the village to fix fences and help harvest, who brought small festival gifts for the children, and who never left the strange mismatched place. The larger brother was Cole, broad of shoulder, jaw, and judging looks. The shorter was Aren, fair haired, who spoke and dressed with precision. Alex knew they didn’t know his name, none of them did.

The rigging creaked, the full sails cracked, and the entire sea seemed to beat at Alex’s skull as they darted forward into the open ocean. His knuckles were white on the rail, gripped tight lest the ship pitch him into the sea and the razor bits of rock hidden just beneath the water. Alex closed his eyes and imagined the yellow lanterns, lit one by one beyond the sharp island mountains.

*****

“And the manor folk? Do they really live forever?” The six-year-old asked Alex, a small finger tracing the pastel pictures in the book between them.

“Well,” Alex said, looking down at the curly mess of his son’s head and catching the inquisitive green eyes they shared. “I think so. The young ladies certainly stayed all dewy and bright like spring mornings. The men never stopped their brash pecking around like peacocks.”

His son chortled in the crook of Alex’s arm, attention darting between the stories on page and the ones hanging in the air.  The laugh was interrupted by a yawn and Alex drew up the blankets. “Why did you leave?” His son asked, sleepy and distracted by the illustrations of a fiery, armored woman next to her black-cowled, snow-haired sister. The boy turned the page to a verdant scene where a young druid wandered a forest path.

“Sometimes the island felt like a prison.” The honestly spoiled the air and Alex sighed. He quickly smiled and stood before his son could make anything more of the words. Alex bent forward, taking the book and tucking the six-year old into the blankets.  “There was no room for me there, an island so full of other people’s stories, I wanted to make my own. And so I have.” Alex tapped the tip of his son’s nose, causing the boy to snort.

Alex set the book aside. As his son yawned and turned over, Alex reached up to light the lantern hung in the window. With the soft yellow light keeping watch and the worst of the darkness away, Alex left his son’s room with a smile.

Perpetually late as usual, but not a thief this time. The line Sometimes the island felt like a prison. was taken by a few larcenous writers as part of the Legal Theft Project. See them below. 

A Mad Writer….Legal Theft Project: Practiced Escapes

An Animal Lover…. Favors

A Librarian … The Sea Serpent 

Or A Morning…

Dawn called, and he wasn’t going to answer. James watched her smiling face agitate his phone’s screen silently for the obligated twenty seconds. He looked up at the tap of footsteps.

“Avoiding someone?” The waitress said when she placed his fruit speckled oatmeal down with silverware. She flicked attentive eyes around the table, her gaze lingering on the phone, the protein shake from the place down the street, his journal.

She didn’t leave and James felt the response pulled from him. “She’s my cousin.”

“So you don’t get along? My family is the same.” The waitress cocked a hip and set a hand on an empty chair back, settling in. James eyes widened in alarm as her fingers curled comfortably over the metal. He was the only customer on the restaurants patio, there was no one to call her away .

James held his breath through a forced smile. “No, we get along. Dawn is just– talkative.” When this didn’t seem to satisfy the waitresses desire for conversation, he pressed the point, “I like my family. But I also like time to myself.”

“I’m the same way,” She said. James’ distrust intensified. He twitched his fingers towards his pen and unfinished thought waiting on the journal page. The waitress spoke to the air, eyes cast distantly to the other side of the restaurant’s low, ivy-covered gate, “Sometimes you just need those nights, all by yourself, a show to binge. Totally get it.”

“Or a morning.” James said.

The waitress nodded like a woodpecker until the smile slid off her lips. She hummed a quick sound in her throat and turned away from him. Her footsteps safety tapping away, James shook his head and returned to his journal.

I’ve stolen the first line from The Gate in the Wood‘s original adorable piece and did something else with it. All part of the Legal Theft Project.