Hallow the Ground

He pivoted left letting the blade pass harmlessly a breath from his ribs and felt their rage and terror pour into him. Tass peeled his lips back from his teeth. “Storms take the dead,” He hissed.  The knife blade came again and Tass parried it away with his own, grinning at the scarred monk desperately trying to stop him.

Their feet slid on the blood-soaked grass as they fought. The scarred man was the first to stand against him. The devotees, weaponless and resting within the sacred grove, had not suspected the danger. Now, their corpses floated in the grove’s sparkling pools.

The monk charged him.

Tass scored a deep cut to the monk’s side as the scarred man rushed forward but was knocked to the ground under the charge. Tass struggled beneath the monk’s weight, his sword arm pinned between them. Around them, a few remaining devotees shivered at the violence, so common outside, but unheard of under the sacred grove’s fiery autumn leaves. They didn’t know what to do. Tass grunted, and then wheezed a laugh, “As useless as the dead you worship, I’ll send you to them!”

Their glaring fear and offense were worth withstanding the solemn still air of the place. Worth the scarred monk’s snarl an inch from his face as they stared at each other across knife blades.  Worth the growing murmurs of power around him–

Tass shoved the bleeding monk off and sprung to his feet, flipping the knife in his hands. Someone had joined the devotees ringing the clearing, a girl dressed in muddy yellow. She faced him with firmly-planted bare feet on the bloody ground, a shallow vessel of clean water cradled in her arms. The air did not feel still anymore.

Around her, the devotees had stopped quavering. They stared at Tass, calm hate grounding their stance. Tass felt his glee wash away like summer dust in the season’s first rainfall.

“What are you doing?” Tass demanded of the girl, advancing. “Stop it.”

The girl met his eyes and raised the cistern to her lips. He stalked forward, intending to knock the water away and slip the knife deep into her unprotected side. Unshaken by his sudden threat, she didn’t move. The air thickened and the smell of a storm grew.

Tass hesitated at the sudden change. The moment cost him. A scarred arm wrapped around his throat, a callused hand caught his wrist, a knife pressed itself to his kidney. The scarred monk dragged Tass back and the girl’s devotees surged forward to help.

Through all this, she drank from the vessel, eyes locked on his and pure water dribbling down her chin. Tass tried to struggle, to scream, but he could not find the sound or the rage to fuel it. The sun above the crimson leaves was warm, the smell of a brewing rainstorm lay heavy in the air, the afternoon bells from the distant market chimed with a sweet harmony. He felt–calm.

He met the girl’s eyes, pleading, as they pulled him away. She did not relent and the  sudden peace smothered him.

I stole this line from The Gate in the Wood as part of the Legal Theft Project. See the original here, and the rest here. A thief is rarely content with condoned thievery and so I have borrowed the scarred monk from More than 1/2 Mad as well. 

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Smoke and Stock

“So, after all that, you don’t care?” Calico dabbed at the gooey blood matting his boss’s mangled eyebrow. The eyesocket, red and swollen now, would be an ugly purple tomorrow. Laid out on the floor, Proper’s messy hair fanned around his face in a dark halo. He stared dully at the sagging ceiling beams and Calico shifted nervously next to him, glass crunching under his knees.

“Not very much, no,” Proper said after a minute of numb silence.

Calico breathed out in relief as Proper pushed himself up from the floor. A fresh rush of bright red dribbled out of Proper’s crookedly broken nose. He snatched the dingy rag from Calico and pressed it to his face.

“Someone’ll have take stock.” Proper mumbled through the rag. He looked around and realized he and Calico were the only people left to do so. Proper stood, swaying when his vision narrowed.

The air was smoky, but the haze carried the earthy smell of campfire instead of the sweet caustic scents that normally filled his establishment. Even his regulars, usually deadened to most in the world, had bolted when the windows shattered, kicked in by boots and guns. A week of profits, as well as the powders, herbs, and thick syrups the den plied were long gone, vanished with the roar of motorcycles.

“You seemed to care a lot, talking back to Blues like that.” Calico ducked behind their makeshift, and now splintered bar. “Storms, she took everything, even the hooch. Proper?”

His boss, half up the narrow stairs, had stopped on a charred step. The top level of the gambling den, which housed Proper’s quarters and personal collections, was a blackened mess. From his vantage point below, he could make out the destroyed bookshelves. Not all the volumes had been lost to flame, others had been shredded by hand. Proper bent to pick up a singed page.  The downstairs hadn’t been burned, only looted.

Calico looked up at Proper from the bottom of the stairs. “Blues might have left all that alone if you hadn’t given the lip.”

Proper turned slowly, staring down his last remaining employee. “Get out Calico.”

“What? Proper, I’m the one that stayed to make sure you didn’t choke on your own blood.” Calico protested.

“I don’t care, get out,” Proper said and continued up the landing. Calico swore at the now empty stairs, grabbed a half-crushed twist of herb from the carpet, and stalked out of the ruined den.

This week’s first line has been stolen from Bek as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Gargoyles and Gunmetal

He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. The new morning sun shone off the buckles and rings that adorned his chest, flashing as he moved from foot to foot and then hand to hand, untroubled by the reluctant audience below.

One particular spectator kept the glinting metal cornered in her vision. His bright display was unusual within the bleak walls and thick stone buildings she’d slowly come to call her home. He was manic as the sun in summer, piercing the cold and burning up the clouds. Still, she refused to stare, lest he thought his stalking presence cowed her like the common laborers.

She did stiffen when he stopped his odd patrol to neatly perch over one of the settlement gates. There, he tilted his head down so his diamond-patterned mask grinned at those who sought to pass through the arch into or out of the holding. She pulled up the tattered swath of gray cloth already looped around her shoulders, covering her head and casting her own mask in shadow. Only then did she approach the gate.

On the heels of a departing merchant wagon, she took cover behind the shoulders of those anxious for an early start. Layers of mottled black and charcoal cloth blended her adolescent frame into the cold stone and drab crowd. She did not know if above the gargoyle of a man noticed her passing, but she took note of the shudder that passed through her fellow travelers.

Beneath her own gunmetal mask, pale lips twitched. She didn’t shiver with the herd around her, but could appreciate the effect.

A thief always, but a thief in good company now. Having stolen a first line from More than 1/2 Mad‘s post, I’ve written my own with it. Perhaps others have as well. See them at the Legal Theft Project

The Right Machinery

He’d gotten the idea staring into the pod’s green glass. Its exterior was only mildly reflective; his dark image on its surface seemed to stare out from within like a ghost trapped inside. The plan had formed from there, changing from hope to scheme to design. Until it had become an untested prototype in the corner of his workshop.

Taller than himself, wrapped in burlap and protective plastic, the pod was ready for the next fog. His fingers ached any time he walked past.

It’d taken the better part of a year to find the materials in decent condition, months after that to trace the scintillating wires and their arcane purposes, more time still to turn the emerging machine it to his own purposes. Created long ago to hold people and keep them alive, most of the pods had broken at the end of the golden age and failed their occupants, turning them wraiths. Now lashed to the world only by memory, these ghosts emerged from the fog that formed them, inscrutable, untouchable, and miserable.

He’d seen a potential in his reflection on the glass. Containment was the answer. If he could hold the wraiths, study their memories, question their seemingly ceaseless mourning, then maybe he could understand how they’d come to be. It was not their deaths that intrigued him. Death was easy to explain. Bodies broke, insides malfunctioned, only so many things could be replaced.

Death didn’t interest him, it was final. But suffering? Suffering he could work with, suffering could be tinkered with, inspected, and potentially fixed with the right machinery.

In his experience, you learned things from pain.

He intended to learn from theirs.

Reflecting Flame

Some folk turn savage. The world steps on them enough and their eyes get weird, dull or too bright. Others though, they come out crying and bloody that way. Whatever the thing was that kept most souls from swearing, stealing, and killing whenever the mood struck,  these people were not blessed or cursed with it. Everyone knew early, she was one of those that was missing it.

Not even four years alive, finally sure-footed on dirt scuffed legs, she pushed over a barrel of fish and stomped until guts squelched between her toes.  She wailed when they grabbed her away from the stinking carnage. Her village went hungry that night.

In her seventh year, she destroyed a fishing boat as it bobbed on the dock. After tossing a pilfered gas can and a smidge of burning peat into an unattended vessel, fire filled the hull and the little boat bobbed helplessly in the river. When they caught her in silhouette before the flames, she could not wrench her eyes away from the slowly drowning fire.

A decade on the earth, she was set to tasks of cleaning the catch and repairing nets with the other children. She was lazier than some, less than others, but the fishers never scolded her when she snuck away to stomp ant hills or throw rocks at trees. Better the ants and the squirrels than their nets, fish, or own little ones.

Fourteen brought curves to her hips and lit sparks in her eyes. The men of the village took note, and the boys stopped thinking in straight lines around her.  Eventually, one of them tried to force a particular crooked thought. They found him with caved in skull and her with bloody boots. She laughed at their open mouths and offered them the lit twist of herb she’d taken from his pocket.

Those with tastes for flame, bloody boots, and whatever they felt like taking in the moment are welcome in few places. Somewhere around her sixteenth year when the hooch went missing and the village elder’s eye was purple from her fist, everyone with a say convened to discuss what was to be done. They could run her out and risk a flame-filled return. They could apologize to her mum and poison her fish. They could hand her a spear and point upriver at the holder they suspected of cutting their nets. Savagery had its place and its uses.

Little was decided and few left the discussion pleased. The elders needn’t have worried. They wouldn’t have to contend with her budding brutality long.

Had the fishers been out on the river, the sound would have scattered the fish. As it was, everyone woke from their mats as the roar of machines and gleeful bedlam filled the village.

The bandits’ bikes belched exhaust and rolls of smokey fire stretching from the shack roofs into the sky. With little to loot besides reeking fish, the bandits sated themselves with destruction and the few people they could grab. The unlucky were slung over the backs of their bikes.

She was one of them, carried off into the night in a chorus of obscene cheers and guttural engine roaring. As quickly as they’d descended, they left to the next hapless place that had things to take and people to brutalize. Back at the riverside, the survivors picked themselves up and began the slow process of burying the dead and naming the gone. Her mother whispered her name into the wet river sand.

Only later, once the fish returned and the boats bobbed in the water again, people began to talk. Speaking behind their hands, they whispered that she’d not been taken. Instead, she had climbed willingly on to one of the terrible machines with the light of the burning village in her eyes.  Most did not believe it, but everyone remembered the way her eyes reflected flame so well.

It was my turn to pick the music for this week’s challenge, and I chose Franz Ferdinand’s The Fallen. Check out what Raw Rambles wrote with this song in mind. I started with the song and ended up far away. 

Flash Fiction: The Hocus

Usually, Momo didn’t have to press her way through a crowd. Carrying a gleaming, sometimes bloody, machete typically cleared a quick path. No elbowing necessary. But the rolling sea of unwashed bodies around Momo did not shy from the metal covering her face, or the wrapped blade on her back.

Someone bumped hard into her shoulder, Momo snarled beneath her mask and lashed out. The offender left a grimy blood stain across her pauldron but continued their gape-mouthed stumble forward, wheezing and transfixed on the distant stage. Momo blinked. She was unused to this kind of invisibility.

No one recoiled or winced or refused to look at the twisted metal obscuring her features, she was just another person to shove as everyone pressed themselves forward against the makeshift stage. Any fear was gone, replaced with a blind and growing fervor for whatever was about to appear on the cobbled-together stage.

A group of hooded people finally broke from the crowd. The bottoms of their pale robes were heavy with mud as they climbed the stage. From their ranks, a short woman emerged. The crowd surged with a collective inhale, breathing out mutters of Always.

White cloth draped off the shelf of her breasts and clung to the wide arches of her hips. This woman, called Always if the chanting of the crowd could be trusted, raised her hands to the sky. She kept her eyes locked across the swelling crowd at her feet though, gazing down at the crowd like a mother at her precocious children. Some of the masses reached grimy hands towards the pristine hem ruffling her brown toes. They were kicked back by the woman’s hooded handmaidens.

“We have a guest tonight.” At Always’ words, silence bound the crowd. The white drapped woman breathed in the hush, a smile unrolling in her curved lips. “From Haven. From the wolves.”

Always lowered an arm to point through the crowd, drawing a line between herself and Momo. The crowd parted from that line, spreading space between them. Always smiled. Momo’s eyes darted behind her mask, searching for a break in the crowd that didn’t lead to the stage.

“Welcome Momo. ” Always’ leaned forward and swept a look over the crowd, weighing their shifting unease and its potential. Her eyes locked back to the sockets on Momo’s mask. “Grab her.”

Legal Theft: Momo

He probably won’t actually kill me until after dinner. I stared down at my plate, taking stock. Green things and dead meaty things for sure, maybe poisoned things. But I was hungry, if I was going to die, I wanted a full belly.

“Child, what are you called?”

I jerked my head up. The man called Uncle watched me from across the table, his knife poised above his own food. He is not actually my uncle, his jaw is square, mine is sharp. Uncle is just what he is called.

I’m called a lot of things. Child. Brat. Oi you. Girl. Nothing had stuck yet.

I mumbled one of those things and looked back to the plate. Poison didn’t make sense anyway. When Uncle’s soldiers crushed my father’s skull and kicked his body until it didn’t even look like him, they didn’t use poison. If Uncle wanted to, he could just tell his soldiers to crush my skull and kick my body.  Besides, he looked like someone who didn’t like ruining dinners.  I speared a bit of green and ate it.

“You’ll need something better, child”  Uncle said.

I frowned at Uncle when he wasn’t looking and started eating quickly in case the crushing and kicking came sooner than I expected.  My brother called me sister, and my mother never called me anything. But, according to my dead father when he’d still been able to talk, they were far away and of no concern to us. But I don’t like being called child.

“Momo.” A nonsense sound, repeated twice. And simple, like me.

“Hmm.” He made the sound deep in his throat. “Childish, but alright, Momo.” I didn’t care if he liked it or not. If he was going to kill me, he was waiting until after dinner, and that was good enough for me. Momo.

A victim-less crime at the moment, I stole the first line of this post for the Legal Theft Project.