Friday. Chuck Wendig. Flash Fiction. If you don’t already know what this means, click here.

Today’s challenge is to pick one of the winning ‘last lines’ of a story, and make it into the first line of a flash fiction piece. Mine’s actually a tiny excerpt from a long-time WIP that’ll probably never amount to anything because I have a billion other things I’m working on and like better. But I hope you enjoy this anyway!

(For the record, I say it’s an excerpt, but it’s only ever been in my head until now. This ‘excerpt’ was supposed to be a part of the second book which will never materialise, and hasn’t been committed to word processor until this moment)

Sullivan’s Ark

        She closed the book and watched as it turned to dust. A piece of ancient history, now nothing more than crumbs of paper. Very little from The Before lasted long. All she and her people had of that time, now, was stories. Words which were spoken could never crumble.

        Genna left the cold metal table, and returned to the hole she’d found which had granted her access to this place. She crawled back through the dark tunnel, retracing her short chthonic journey to her own home. As she poked her head out of the hole, the merry blue-domed sky of Ark greeted her, and she checked the position of the sun. It was visible through the dome as a disc of orange which tracked unerringly through the sky, and right now it was about an hour off over-head. She had time, yet, before her parents would expect her back.

        Leaving the rolling fields and crystal clear springs of Ark once more, she crawled back through the tunnel, conscious of how much colder it was when she hauled herself out on the other side. Colder, and darker. If it wasn’t for her nightstick, she doubted she would have seen much of anything, and she definitely would have missed the book.

        For six weeks she had been coming here, exploring this place, but she had yet to find anything of interest. The stories of her people said that this had once been the heart of Ark, the place where the dome got all its power from. What that meant, Genna did not know. This place had been buried by earth long ago; the result of a land-movement, perhaps?

        She followed a yellow line on the wall into a room she’d never visited before. It was empty, save for a large rectangle, and she stood on her tiptoes, placing her hands on the top of it to try and pull herself up. That’s when something happened. The rectangle became bright, like the sun, and light filled the room from small circles in the ceiling above. A humming sound started which hurt her ears, and she dropped her nightstick so she could cover her ears with her hands.

        Mist, of all things, began to spill forth from the rectangle, which was separating into two halves, and a body became visible. As the mist parted, the body opened its eyes and the rectangle moved of its own accord, tilting onto its end. A man looked around the room, then stepped out of the tomb-like structure.

        Genna gasped. She had never seen the man before, but she had seen his likeness. He was the Sullivan, the creator! His image was cast in stone in the very centre of her village, but nobody had known exactly who he was, where he had come from, or where he had gone. The Sullivan’s hair was white, his face a crater-valley of wisdom-lines, and his eyes, milky-blue, focused on Genna. She bowed her head.

        “Forgive me, Sullivan, for intruding on your resting place,” she said.

        The Sullivan chuckled. “Resting place? Sounds rather grim. No need to apologise. I assume the situation’s dire, otherwise you wouldn’t have woken me. Is it that damned generator? Adam warned me the Mark III might not be up to the job, but I have higher hopes.”

        “I’m sorry, Sullivan,” she replied, head still bowed in fear and deference, “but I do not know any Adam or Mark.”

        “What’s your name, girl?”

        “Genna.”

        “Well, Genna, how can you not know who Adam is? Adam Burgess. He designed the nuclear generator which runs this ark.”

        “There is a man named Burgess at the village.” She dared to look up at the Sullivan. “But his name is Tenvar.”

        “Tenvar? What the hell kind of name is that? Sounds Indian.”

        “I don’t know what Indian is,” she admitted.

        “Huh.” The Sullivan scratched at his craggy chin. His body looked rather small, now that she’d gotten used to it. Sort of… frail. In an elderly way. “Well, I suppose the stasis unit did its job. This Tenvar chap must be a grandson of Adam, perhaps. Tell me, Genna, have the communications teams managed to establish contact yet with the other arks?”

        “Other arks?” she asked, completely confused. What did he mean?

        “Ah, I see. Perhaps you should take me to an adult.” Genna nodded. Yes, that sounded for the best. “Before we leave, though, tell me; what year is it?”

        “I don’t understand,” she admitted. What was ‘year’? All she knew was Ark. Everything was the same, in Ark. Each day like the one before it, and the one which would follow it.

        The Sullivan shook his head. “Kids today. VAL, what date is it?”

        A woman’s voice spoke up from nowhere, and Genna cowered in fear. “The year is 3056, Professor Sullivan.”

        The Sullivan sank to the ground, his face almost as white as his hair. His mouth moved, but no words came out.

        “Sullivan!” Genna ran to his side. “Are you ill?”

        “A thousand years.” His words were a whisper. “It’s been over a thousand years since I stepped into this stasis unit. Everybody I know… the scientists, the best and brightest minds of our time… gone.” He grabbed at her arm, his grip painfully tight. “What went wrong? The volcano erupted; we all saw it on TV. The computer was supposed to let us know when conditions outside the arks became habitable once more. The generator was never supposed to last this long!”

        Genna shook her head. Her people’s ancient stories told of a volcano, and a man named Sullivan who had built the Ark to save them. But that was all she knew, and none of Ark’s two-thousand people had ever been outside the dome. To leave the dome was death. Everybody knew that.

        “Come on,” she said, helping Sullivan to his feet. “I’ll take you to my father. He’ll know what to do.”

Aka, Ramadan! Good luck to all you human beans out there who’ll be spending the next month fasting.

Friday is my favourite day of the week. End of the working week, start of the weekend, and a chance to write a piece of flash fiction without having to come up with my own topic! Yes, it’s time for another of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges.

This week’s challenge involved using an RNG (in lieu of a d10/d20) to pick some stuff from some lists. What I came away with was:

Genre mash-up: Magical Realism and Erotica  (argh!)

Must include: A locked door, and A key made of bone.

Fate, right? I randomly generated a locked door and the key for it? Pretty weird!

So, my story. The protagonist is actually a character I made up for a fan-fiction I’m currently writing. Or, should I say, she made herself up and beat me over the head until I promised to put her in a story. I gave her two chapters out of nine, which she was quite happy with, but I thought I’d bring her out of semi-retirement to appear in this little piece. As you can probably tell, I don’t normally write erotica. Or romance. I’m pretty crap at writing anything like that, which probably means I need to write more of it to get better. But anyway, enough ramble. Story. 999 words.

Talon

 A shroud of thick white mist had descended upon Washington D.C., cloaking the city in a moist, chilly blanket. Men turned up the collars of their coats as they hurried through the streets. It was a night perfect for clandestine meetings, for secret-sharing and exchanges—the fog was a screen, hiding individuals from the prying eyes of others.

The moisture clung to Talon’s skin, hair and black figure-hugging clothes, but she ignored it, her concentration focused on the front door of the building across the street. Even before the fog had rolled in, she’d been in a grim mood. She hated coming here, to America—too many memories for comfort—but she had no say in the matter. She went where MI6 sent her, and today they’d seen fit to send their frog across the pond.

A black sedan rolled up through the fog, coming to a stop in front of the building. Talon stopped slouching against the alley wall, stood up straighter, her eyes straining through the mist to pick up every scrap of detail. A suited man got out of the car, hurried towards the building’s front door, and was admitted by the heavy guarding the entrance.

The car pulled away, disappearing into the white night, and Talon left her watching place in the mouth of the alley. Her footsteps as she crossed the road were quiet, and as she reached the sidewalk she reached out with her mind, touching the thoughts of the door guard. Into his brain she implanted an image; an empty street, nothing to be seen or heard. Withdrawing her mind, she reached for the handle, opened the door, and slipped inside.

The pulsing sound of soft music filtered into her ears, at the same that her nose was assaulted by the floral scent of perfume. She sneezed, and mentally cursed the bloody stuff. Why some women saw fit to drown themselves in perfume, she had no idea; hadn’t they heard of bathing?

Her footfalls were silent as she walked down the carpeted corridors, following the route she’d memorised from the schematics given to her by her handler. As expected, she found herself entering a large open-plan room, and felt a moment of revulsion over the decadence of it.

The sofas peppered around the room were finished in the finest velvet, the tables which held crystal glasses all fine, rich oak, and the single chandelier seemed to be cut from flawless diamonds. Candles in sconces around the room didn’t illuminate, as much as soften the contours of all within. The women wore very little clothing, but what they did wear was sheer silk and satins, exposing maximum flesh and leaving very little to the imagination. Disgusting, thought Talon, but honest. There was only one thing on sale here, and both the girls and their clients knew it. There were no hidden agendas, no thoughts of back-stabbing or blackmailing, no political scheming; just men who wanted pleasure, and women who were paid handsomely to provide it.

A few people noticed her, her black outfit which covered every part of her body except her head marking her clearly as an outside, but before they could speak out in surprise, she insinuated images into their minds, transforming herself within their thoughts into one of the nubile barely-dressed beauties. Men and women alike fell for the illusion, and Talon was free to move around the room at her leisure.

The schematics had been accurate; she found the alcove easily, though it was obscured by a long blue velvet curtain, and tried the door handle. It didn’t budge, of course, but she’d come prepared for that. From a small pouch attached to her belt she took out a small white key, one that had been carved from bone. Human bone. She had no idea where her handler had got it, and she didn’t particularly want to know. The key slid into the lock, and when she turned it, there was a quiet click. Talon smiled, and stepped through the door, closing it behind her.

The back rooms. The music was louder, here, all sensual melodies winding around steady pulsing beats. A strange contradiction; the walls of each room were sound-proof, but the doors were mere wood. Every door she walked past brought a new pair—or sometimes, trio—of voices, of the sound of giggles and slapped flesh, moans of pleasure mounting in volume and speed, each groan and laboured grunt adding to the crescendo of sexual excitement that followed the tempo of the music.

Twenty years’ worth of telepathic training was only barely enough to keep out the thoughts and feelings which assaulted Talon’s mind. Her mental barriers were stressed to their limits as she pushed out the feelings of unrestrained pleasure, the thoughts of what men were doing—and how much more they wanted to do. She focused on her mission, on her objective, on the feeling of the sharp bone key digging into her skin as she closed her fist around it.

It helped.

Finally, she found the room she’d been searching for; the master suite. Tensing, she kicked the door, flinging it open, but nobody heard. Everybody here was too wrapped up in their own gratification. Even the pair inside the room took thirty seconds to cease their coitus, their sweaty, pounding bodies stilling as they realised they were no longer alone. The woman, shock marring her painted Jezebel face, pulled away from the man, covering herself with a blanket. Her partner leapt to his feet, not even bothering to hide his still-hard erection.

“What the devil do you think you’re doing in here?” he demanded.

“The devil didn’t send me, Senator, but please give him my regards when you see him.”

She drew her gun from its holster, and pulled the trigger.

* * * * *

 Three days later, Talon bought a paper from a street-seller, and glanced at the headline. ‘Murder Suicide; Prostitute Kills Prominent Senator, Then Self.’

She smiled, and set off to the airport.

 

It’s Friday Sunday and time for another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge! This week’s topic: Bad Dads.

Not something I have experience with, so a little outside my regular zone, but I would just like to add, for any Marvel employees reading this, it is totally a work of my own creation and absolutely not inspired in any way by any psychotic anti-hero origin stories. Please don’t sue me.

Her Dying Wish

         Wayne Milton laughed, a happy, unrestrained sound, as musical as the glass which shattered and fell tinkling to the hard concrete ground. The laughter was infectious; it spread from him to Two-Knives Tommy—eldest of the gang at seventeen, and its de-facto leader since he’d kicked the shit out of Mincey (aka, Michael Mincer) three months ago—to little Johnno, the twelve year old baby of the gang, and from there to the rest of the young men who comprised the South Side Skrimmers. None of them knew what a skrimmer was, except that it sounded cool.

         “Betcha can’t hit that top one!” said Two-Knives, pointing at the highest window in the abandoned factory; the only one untouched.

         “Yeah? Watch!” Wayne said, a grin creeping across his face. He looked around for the right sort of rock. Not all rocks were good for throwing; they had to be the right size, shape and weight to travel any distance. Finally, he found one, and he knew it was the right rock for the job by the way it fit so well into his hand, like it belonged there. He pulled his arm back, moving the balance of his body to one leg, then launched his arm forward, releasing his crude missile. It seemed to fly on wings… but fell several feet short of its mark.

         “Haha, crap shot!” Two-Knives mocked, though he himself had never come that close to smashing the window.

         “It’s ‘cos my arm’s tired from throwing rocks all day,” said Wayne. “I’ll do it tomorra, before school.”

         Two-Knives pulled his face. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen, and fallen off the grid. Social workers didn’t bother going to his family’s house anymore; even when his parents were home, they were too hung over to function. “Let’s see what’s goin’ on at the park,” he suggested.

         Wayne nodded. There was usually something to see at the playground. Or at least, usually somebody to antagonise. He liked the feeling that came with making other kids cry, enjoyed seeing them run to their parents with soil in their hair or grazes on their knees. It was vindication for all the times he’d cried himself to sleep alone in his room, his aching sobs going unheeded.

         As they walked, the rest of the group fell in line behind Two-Knives and Wayne. The leader produced a bottle of vodka from his bag, taking a swig before passing it on, whilst Wayne pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and sparked up, enjoying the taste of tobacco as he took a long drag. This was the group way; they shared their spoils of war, things they’d stolen from shops and supermarkets, and Wayne knew how lucky he was to have found such good friends. Military families moved around a lot, and he’d only been here five months. Making friends was difficult, but the Skrimmers had accepted him easily enough. Probably helped that he had quick fingers, and a mean left-hook.

         By the time they reached the park, Wayne’s mind was buzzing in a warm alcoholic haze, and half the smokes had gone. Two-Knives elbowed him, and nodded at a teenage girl playing with her fluffy white dog near the jungle-gym. Wayne smiled and nodded. A game of keep-away sounded like fun.

         “WAYNE MILTON!”

         Halfway across the park, Wayne froze in terror. That voice. The Skrimmers stopped and looked back, and Wayne risked a glance over his shoulder. His father was storming across the green grass, his face all dark, furious thunderclouds. He was still wearing his USAF uniform, which meant he’d only just got back from work. Trying his best to surpress the terror, Wayne attempted to pocket the packet of smokes, but only succeeded in dropping them on the floor.

         The Skrimmers scattered, and Wayne remained frozen on the spot. Even if he’d not been too terrified to move, he wouldn’t have run. He knew that running would have made his father angrier. It was better to stand still and accept what was to come.

         “I told you to stay in the house, Wayne,” his father said, bending down and picking up the packet, pushing it angrily against Wayne’s chest. “Instead you steal my cigarettes and spend the afternoon playing truant? Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been doing, and—is that alcohol on your breath? Have you been drinking, boy?”

         Wayne shook his head, but his father grabbed his collar and hauled him out of the playground, frog-marching him down familiar streets. The neighbours stopped and stared, and Wayne was forced to listen to a familiar tirade. So disappointed in you. Irresponsible. Ruin your future. Bring shame to your family name. Vandalism, drinking… ought to call the police.

         They reached home, and Wayne was slammed into the front door, winded. Then he was slammed into the wall. He didn’t know at what point the walls became fists; he closed his eyes and tried to block out the pain. His father wanted a response, but Wayne wouldn’t give him one. No response he could ever give would be good enough for Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Milton.

* * * * *

         Brad Milton put the flowers on the grave, and crouched down in front of the tombstone. Every time he failed his family, he came here to beg for forgiveness.

         “I’m sorry, Mary.” Unshed tears moistened his eyes. “I promised I’d raise our son to be a good man, but every day, I feel like I’m losing a little more of him. I can’t talk to him, I can’t make him see sense… I don’t know what else to do. I wish you were here. You made a better mother than I do a father. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better… next time.”

         He kissed his fingertips, touched them to the tombstone, then left. Back home, his son was waiting for him, a living reminder of his greatest challenge, and his greatest failure.

Mirror Image

Today’s Friday Flash-Fiction challenge by Chuck Wendig. 20 ‘psychic’ powers were listed, random number generator picked me number 14: Aura Reading.

I admit, I went slightly over the 1000 word limit, but it feels like the shortest piece I’ve ever written. It’s a rough excerpt of a fiction novel idea I’ve been throwing around inside my head for the last couple of years (slightly tweaked to fit the Aura Reading requirement). I don’t know why, but this piece makes me feel sorta grey inside. I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know your thoughts.

 

Mirror Image

 Langley Brooks followed the police officer through the bustling halls of the precinct. Business was booming today; the whole building was filled with cops escorting people around, some of them cuffed, some of them drunk, some of them sobbing. It hurt Langley’s eyes to see them all. Vibrant auras danced around them, some held close to the bodies like a mother holding a child to her bosom, other auras expanding out to a distance of a foot or more. Each one was a miniature sun of swirling, ever-changing colour, coming from some unknown source within every person. It was enough to make Langley wish he’d brought his protective dark-glasses, and he cast his eyes down at the floor in an attempt to protect his vision from the aural assault.

        This floor was no different to any other police station floor. Tiled. Grey and white alternate stone flags. The cleaners did their best, but the brown patches on the white tiles told a thousand stories. Over here, a drunk had bled from a gash on his head taken when he’d fallen over. Over there, a girl—prostitute, probably, high on coke or heroine—had fought against her restraints which had cut into her skin, showering the floor in crimson drops. In the corner two boys had stood slumped against the wall, sullen and defeated as blood dripped from half a dozen shallow cuts—their knife-fight had not been serious enough to warrant a visit to the hospital.

        At least, that was how Langley imagined the brown stains had got there. The yellow ones were easier to judge; vomit. Drunks, most of it. Some of the stains fresher than others. Just like every other station.

        He was led by the officer to a door, which had ‘observation room 3’ written on in wonky lettering. Only two other officers were inside that room, plus Langley’s guide, which was a blessed relief. Their auras were smaller, held close, but spikey. That was cops all over; the more experienced they got, the better they became at not showing their auras. The spikes were like tree-rings; one for every year of service. One for every year of seeing the worst in humanity. One for every year working with the no-life drunks, the child-abusers, the drug dealers, the gang-members, the prostitutes and their pimps… the list went on.

        The man who approached Langley was familiar to him, and he had the smallest aura, and more spikes, than anyone else in the precinct. His age-lined face looked particularly haggard today, but there was a tiny, fervent light in his brown eyes.

        “Langley. Glad to see they sent someone I know.”

        “Chief Norton,” Langley replied, a small nod of his head to show his respect. “What have you got?”

        Norton turned and looked through the large one-way glass panel. A man was sitting cuffed to the chair in the interrogation room. Langley observed the suspect for a moment; clean-shaven. Well-dressed. His shirt buttoned to the top, but no tie; that, of course, would have been taken by the officers upon his arrest. None of this mattered. It wasn’t what Langley had been brought here for. There was only one thing Norton wanted from him.

        “Wife-killer,” Norton said. It was only because his aura had twenty or so spikes in it that he was able to say that without emotion. The colour did shift slightly, though; from dark purple to dark red. His anger was understandable; Norton was a family-man. “He denies it, of course. We have enough evidence to lock him up for life.”

        “That won’t be necessary,” Langley replied, glancing at the prisoner one last time before turning his attention to the chief. “You were right to call me. Not a single sign of an aura around him. Nothing at all; not a hint of fear, nor a single thought of regret. He’s an Antipath alright.”

        “I knew it!” Those three words were filled with righteous vindication. Norton turned to his lieutenant. “Go and fetch me an X26 form, and alert the on-call doctor. Tell him to bring the injection kit, and then inform the coroner. I’m sure he’ll want to remove the brain for study before the body is incinerated.”

        The lieutenant left, as eager to see justice dispensed as his superior officer. Silence reigned for several moments inside the observation room, and then Norton turned to Langley.

        “How do you think they do it?” the chief asked him. “How do they slip through the net?”

        “I don’t know,” Langley said. The testing of children on their fifteenth birthday was the best method of weeding out the Antipaths—known in previous decades as Psychopaths and Sociopaths—but there were always a few who escaped detection, proving that no system was perfect.

        “Well, however they do it, we’ll have one less to worry about after today, thanks to you.”

        “May I use your bathroom?” Langley asked.

        “Sure, my friend. You know the way.”

        Langley left, his body moving on autopilot. The brown stains were a blur as his feet carried him down the cold tiled corridor, to the men’s bathroom. He made it just as a sweat broke out across his brow, and he steadied himself against one of the sinks, glad that the bathroom was devoid of people and their auras.

        He turned on the tap and splashed cool water on his face, letting it wash away the sweat. Looking up into the mirror he saw his own empty blue eyes looking back. No aura danced around his body, no nimbus of colours which spoke of his mood. He, like the Antipath he had just condemned to death, was devoid of that spark of humanity.

        Where would he be now, he wondered, if the tests administered to him on his fifteenth birthday hadn’t picked up his own Antipathic tendencies? If he hadn’t undergone the rigorous years of training to help him develop and hone his latent Seer ability? Would Norton still call him ‘friend’ if he knew that Langley, too, was an Antipath? Would the ‘normals’ turn on those like Langley, if they learnt that every single Seer was merely an Antipath lucky enough to have been found young enough to train, by the tests?

        He didn’t know, and he hoped he never would. With a last look in the mirror, he wiped the water from his face and returned to the observation room. He couldn’t protect a murderer, but he could at least watch as justice was administered to the nameless man. It was a debt Langley owed to him; to all of them. If not for the grace of God and the Antipath Testing Bureau, death by lethal injection might have been his own fate.

 

Friday again, and time for another Chuck Wendig Flash-Fiction challenge. This week we visited a fantasy character generator and selected one of the five sentences generated to base a story on. I decided to be contrary and incorporated elements of all five into a single 996-word story.

The sentences:

  • A youthful native is trying to prove himself to his unrequited love.
  • A diseased grandmother is trying to kill a dragon to acquire its treasure.
  • A brave savage is trying to prove himself to his unrequited love.
  • A clever sorcerer is being assaulted and pursued by mysterious, demonic spirits.
  • A thoughtful thief is seeking the Labyrinth of Insanity.
  •  

    And as for the story, I give you:

    Why Grandma, What A Big Mace You Have

     The heat was intense. I could feel my skin blistering, the fire building inside my plate-mail armour. Though I couldn’t see my hair, I knew from the acrid smell filtering down through my helm that it wasn’t faring any better than my skin.

            “We’ll halt here for five minutes, take a breather and have a drink.”

            I stopped walking immediately, casting my silent mental thanks at the old lady who led us. Her cheeks were a mixture of red from the heat and black from crawling through narrow tunnels, her curly dark grey hair was frazzled and dry, and her blue eyes—a milky cataract film covering them—were beginning to water. But there was still a spring in her step which I admired; she alone seemed unphased by the toil of this quest.

            With unspoken relief I removed my heavy steel helm, relishing the freshness of the hot air. Grandma—for that was the only name she had furnished us with—grinned at me. She put down the heavy mace she carried easily over one shoulder, resting it against the tunnel wall, and rapped on my chest-plate with her gnarled, arthritic knuckles.

            “Bet you wish you hadn’t brought that along with you, eh, tin-man? You look like a baked potato… almost as wrinkled as me!” She cackled at her own joke.

    I didn’t dignify that with a response, because she was right. This was my first adventure, and I knew, just as everybody knew, that a knight who goes on a quest to fight a dragon has to go wearing full armour and riding a gleaming white horse.

            My gleaming white horse had died of colic two days into our journey, and inside the confines of the dragon’s lair, heated by its deep, heavy breaths, my armour was acting as a sort of mobile aga. In fact, I probably would have been more comfortable in an aga; none of the stories about knights and dragons ever mentioned the fact that plate-mail weighed about a hundred and eighty pounds and it chafed something dreadful.

            I took out my canteen and took a few sips of warm water which tasted suspiciously of sulphur. And as I drank, I glanced around at my companions, all of us hired by Grandma to help her complete her quest. Nyla, despite being a thief, was surprisingly honest about her motives. She wasn’t here for dragon-treasure or glory; this was merely a waypoint on her true quest to find the Labyrinth of Insanity. It was the ultimate proving ground for a person looking to take the title of Master Thief, which was currently held by a man named Moffat. He’d gone into the labyrinth thirty years earlier and come out gibbering about flying squirrels. He hadn’t been right in the head ever since, but Nyla was more confident about her own chances.

            The situation between Uther, the burly, loin-cloth wearing barbarian from the Black-foot clan, and Brevik, his young warrior-in-training, was a little more complex. They were both here to prove themselves to their desired mate. What they didn’t realise was that they both wanted the same woman – Rilva, chieftan-daughter of the Red-fox tribe. I foresaw violence in both men’s future, when they found out. Hopefully that wouldn’t be until we were on our way home.

            Last was Kiran’Timal’Plox, a brilliant sorcerer from the faraway land of Minn. Spirits from the demon-realm walked in his footprints, hounding him constantly, trying to lure him over to ‘their side.’ It was only through sheer force of will and strength of character that he was able to keep them from touching him and claiming his soul.

            We’d had another companion, early in our quest. William had been a plain and simple wood-cutter, and was Grandma’s unofficial protector. He’d died three days ago, sacrificing himself to the hungry mountain-giants so the rest of us could escape into the dragon’s lair.

            I heard footsteps approach, and looked up to see Nyla standing in front of Grandma, a determined expression on her delicate face.

            “I need to know,” she said firmly. “Why?”

            I felt the whole group hold its breath. One of the terms of our employment with Grandma was that we didn’t ask why she was so determined to undertake this insane quest. In fact, it was the prime rule. And Nyla had just broken it.

            Grandma merely looked at Nyla in silence for a moment. And when the moment began to stretch out, Nyla shifted uncomfortably, her dark eyes glancing from side to side as she checked her escape routes. Unfortunately for her, there were none.

            “Do you know how I got this?” Grandma asked softly, gesturing to her wolf-hide jerkin. Nyla shook her head. “I had a granddaughter, once. Red was her name. And the fool girl led a wolf to my house.” She patted the mace as it leant against the cave wall. “Luckily, I was prepared. You don’t raise six daughters and two sons without knowing how to take care of yourself and your family. But from that moment, I got the bug.”

            “The bug?” Uther asked, deference in his voice. He’d seen Grandma use her mace to split ork-skulls barely a week hence.

            “The hunting bug!” she old woman said. “Wolves, mountain lions, forest-eagles… even slew myself a manticore, six months ago. But I’m not as young as I used to be. I have a sickness which is slowly killing me, and I know my time grows short. This is to be my last hunt. A dragon-head will look nice mounted on my cottage wall, pride of place above the mantle, and the treasure-hoard will see my family right for generations.”

            She picked up her mace, hefting it over her shoulder, and rapped on my armour again.

            “Come on, tin-man.” Her nick-name for me, but she meant it fondly; since William’s sacrifice, she’d nominated me her new protector. “We’ve got a dragon to meet.”

     

    Another Friday, another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge! This week, Smashing Sub-Genres. My RNU gave me 5 and 9, corresponding to “Space Opera” and “Sword & Sorcery.” I love these genres, and I’m pleased with my story. 994 words. Hope you enjoy.

    The Final Push

    Rodan Zal was a dead man.

            He’d known it from the moment Kiyani Mirazola Tunnanathia, Empress of the Three Suns, Heir to the Krezara Throne, High Sorceress of the Miradon Mage Circle, had glanced at him across the marble-floored grand hall, conveying a heated ‘come-hither’ stare with her violet-hued eyes.

            Within a week he’d been made her Chief Protector—a glorified title for a personal bodyguard. He was expected to die for her. And the instant he’d made his vow, swearing upon the blood of the sons of the Empire that he would lay down his life to keep his empress safe, he’d known that not only would he die for  her, but because of her.

            “The moment you begin to bore me, I will have you executed,” she’d told him, in the sumptuous confines of her personal chambers. “I suggest you make your best efforts to entertain and please me.” She had allowed him no objections as she’d made the meaning of her words clear. The silk dress had simply slipped from her body as she stepped towards him, flowing across the extravagant rancar-skin rug which decorated the cold marble floor with all the grace of a hunting cat; and one pleased with its catch.

            He’d backed away, hypnotised by the flames dancing in the depths of her eyes, until he could back up no further. Then she had pounced, pushing him over to be caught in the embrace of the silk-covered bed. Silk was the only material she would allow to touch her skin, so she’d used her magic, the deep purple glow of the energy enveloping her naked body, wreathing her in an amaranthine nimbus, to pull the clothes from his body and hold him in place. There she had used him again and again until he was completely spent, leaving him to wonder if this was how her last Chief Protector had died.

            Now, as he was flung back against the wall, disturbing the tapestries which hung there, he knew the time of his death was upon him. His eyes flickered to the rancar-skin rug, where lay the lifeless body of the unfortunate messenger, his neck twisted at an impossible angle.

            His empress stalked back and forth, ignoring the body. She hadn’t liked the news he’d brought, and once somebody had displeased her, she never let them live to make the same mistake twice. No longer was she a cat pleased with its catch; had she a tail, it would have been lashing in irritation to match the flickering flames of anger which were growing in her eyes. The halo of magic energy coalesced around her body; he knew she used it as a blanket, from which she drew comfort.

            “I should have been there!” she growled more to herself than to Rodan.

            He repeated the words that had gotten him flung against the wall in the first place. “You could not have changed anything, Empress. You would have died, too.”

            “I am the High Sorceress of Miradon Mages!” she hissed angrily.

            “You’re also the last Heir to the Krezara throne,” he pointed out calmly. He’d learnt, over the past year, that the only way to survive her anger was to not show fear, to appear unflappable. “You must survive.”

            “Over ninety percent of our fleet destroyed. The entire Circle wiped out. My father’s flagship captured.” The nimbus around her body intensified as she fed her own anger, working herself up.

            “Empress, the Lorgun fleet will be here soon. We should regroup at a safer location.”

            “I will not flee!” She lashed out with magic, and he felt an intangible force constrict around his chest, making it difficult to breathe. “I am not a coward! Let them come! I will tear them apart!”

    Rodan didn’t want to die. Over the course of the year he’d survived the Empress and managed to keep their indiscretion from becoming public knowledge, saving himself a painful execution—it was the punishment inflicted upon a common-man who touched a member of the royal family, except to save their life. He’d be damned if he was going to be killed now by some filthy Lorgun invader.

            “Kiyani,” he gasped. “The Empire has fallen. If we are to resist, and make our enemies suffer, we need you to lead us. To throw your life away now would be to hand complete victory to the Lorgun barbarians.”

            There was a cessation of pressure on his chest. A thoughtful look replaced the flames in her eyes. “Perhaps you’re right. I could lead a rebellion. What’s left of our people will follow me.”

            “They will flock to you, moths to your candle,” he told her, because despite all of her titles she was still only nineteen years old, and a naïve romantic beneath her volatile nymphomaniac façade. “Your presence will buoy their broken spirits, and they will bask in your radiance.”

            She smiled, cold, calculating, and approached him, running her fingers along his clean-shaven cheek. “And you will be there, by my side, to advise me? To keep me warm during the cold nights filled with fear and despair?”

            “Yes, of course.” Right then, he would have agreed to anything.

            “We’ll have to be married immediately. Now that I lead our people, I must lead by example. I cannot live in sin. Besides, our children must have a legitimate father.”

            Images whirled around his head, visions of daughters who ordered him around, and beleaguered sons hard put-upon, each of them with the royal, violet eyes of their mother. There would be no escaping such a fate, but at least he would live for another day.

            “As it should be,” he said calmly.

            “Good!” She grabbed a silk blanket from the bed, wrapped it around herself. “Summon the servants. Have them bring my rancar-skin and meet us at the ship. It will have to suffice as our bed for now. And be quick about it; I’m starting to get bored.”

     

    This is a story I wrote for a no-prizes flash-fic contest. The topic was “the old wooden ship.” I am rubbish at titles.

    1000 words exactly.

    The Ship


    Triumph. A four-rigged, square-mast English galleon built in 1562, she’d been the pride of the fleet during the battle of the Spanish Armada. Condemned in 1618, Triumph had been dragged ashore and stripped of her planking, and there she had lain for centuries, her skeleton exposed to the animals and the elements. Seagulls nested in the remains of her keel, and what was left of her barnacle-covered hull had been colonised by crabs, limpets and urchins.

            When Captain Thomas O’Malley had seen her scarred shell lying in the salty tide-pools, he’d fallen in love immediately. He didn’t just see her as she was now, broken and moss-covered, painted grey by centuries of seagull droppings; he saw her as she had been, tall and proud at the head of the English fleet, her square-rigged sales open to the wind’s kiss. And at that moment, he’d formulated The Plan.

            There had been doubters, of course. When he’d spoken to other captains, they’d laughed openly at him. You’re crazy! they said. What’s left of that ship isn’t worth salvaging! Her rotten bones will crumble to tinder the moment you try to move her! But O’Malley had proven them wrong. He’d saved what little of the wood he could, and built around it. At her heart, Triumph was the remains of the old warship she’d been during the prime of her life. But the flesh surrounding that ancient heart was new; Triumph had been reborn.

            Fine English oak, hard and durable, had been used for her keel. Pine, imported from Norway and purposed specifically for her, became her masts and yards. For the hull and decking, teak had been brought over from India, a fine hardwood ideal for boat construction. The interior of the ship had been decorated with mahogany and cherry, chosen for their warm, rich colours, which contrasted wonderfully against the silver-foil ornamentation. Truly, Triumph was a multinational vessel.

            The other captains had laughed at her construction materials, and O’Malley’s desire to keep her authentic. A wooden ship! they’d scoffed. It will leak. You and your crew will be killed five minutes after you unfurl the sails. And where are you going to put all the navigational equipment? Everything will be too unbalanced; the moment you hit turbulence, or an eddy, you’ll go spinning out of control.

            Again, O’Malley had shown just what a determined mind was capable of. A small cargo-hold just below the aftcastle had provided an excellent place to locate the navigational equipment—out of sight and easy to protect during storms. Two dozen of his crewmembers took time to familiarise themselves with the old style equipment, learning how to use the ship’s wheel to steer, how to man the rudder, how to unfurl the sails—though the latter action, O’Malley decided, would be automated, to provide faster response times.

            Once she’d been built in the dry-dock, and given a thorough look-over, the captain and his crew had taken her on her first shake-down. He’d felt a little awkward at first, not unlike a young man courting his first woman, each of them unsure of the other, each exploring their own limits, dancing around each other with coy smiles. It had taken two or three short journeys for both O’Malley and his crew to become accustomed to Triumph’s motion—the pitch and list of her body, the way her sails reacted to the winds, how she handled in the currents detected by the navigation computer—but they finally worked out the kinks and had her running as smooth as any modern ship.

            Now she stood tall and proud once more, moored to the dock, ready for her maiden voyage. She had something modern ships did not; personality. No cold, clinical metal hull for her, no iron steps and railings, no name painted in harsh black lettering above the keel. She alone amongst the ships at dock was a beautiful gem against the backdrop of the stars which twinkled from their own blanket of black velvet space. Her name was emblazoned in white paint and fancy lettering at the back of her aftcastle, and observers watching from the dock pointed and stared at the novelty of the ancient wooden ship.

            Standing on the deck, just fore of the wheel, Captain O’Malley watched as the last of his guests climbed aboard, smiling at the traditional wooden gangplank. Some of the women were fearful, grasping at the hands of their husbands as if they feared the ship might list just as they prepared to board, but Triumph behaved as beautifully as a well-mannered filly, holding steady and true.

            The moment arrived. His passengers were aboard and some had taken up observation positions where the cannons would formerly have been mounted, so eager to begin their cruise. O’Malley glanced over to his first-mate, and smiled.

            “Signal the harbour master. Anchors aweigh.”

            The moorings were released. As soon as Triumph was freed her shackles, she began to dance gently, and the small tug-vessel at the front of the ship took up the slack, pulling her away from the dock before she could dance her way back towards it. Finally, when the ship was clear, the tug released its tow-line and Triumph was truly free.

            “Easy does it,” O’Malley said calmly to his helmsman. “Navigation, how are we looking?” he asked into his lapel communicator.

            “Detecting a current on our port-side, Captain,” the navigator reported. “Transferring information to helm.”

            “Very good. All hands… prepare to enter slip-stream. Unfurl the solar-sails. Maintain power to the atmospheric shields.”

            There was a soft rocking motion as the sails came down and caught the solar-winds, then another as the ship entered the river of solar energy. The Earth became a blur as Triumph sped away from it, dancing in the solar-current.

            “Slip-stream entry successful, Captain,” helm reported with a grin.

            “I told them we’d do it. Well done, old girl!” He patted the ship’s rail and smiled. “Now, helm… set our destination co-ordinates. They’re waiting to welcome us on Jupiter.”

    Another fine flash-fiction challenge courtesy of Mr Chuck Wendig. He gave us five sentences to include in a story. The one I chose was “The shape fights the motionless ink.” Because why the hell not?

    I hope you enjoy!

    Rorschach Redux

    The inmates whispered quietly to each other as Simon Attwood was led down the narrow, cell-lined aisle.

            “There he is,” they mouthed to each other, their words coming out as hissed breaths. And each time Simon took a step forward, the metallic jingle of the chains which bound his legs to each other, and his hands to his legs, were an oddly musical accompaniment to the muted whispers. “They say he killed his wife and two kids. Butchered them with a kitchen knife. Kept stabbing and hacking long after they’d gone. He’ll probably fry.”

            The other inmates looked on with disapproval in their eyes. Most of them had killed, but few of them had killed family. Some lines you just didn’t cross. For that reason, Simon was kept apart from the other prisoners. He was put in a cell, released from his chains, told to sit on the bunk and wait.

            For an eternity, Simon waited. He coped by living inside his own head. He was dimly aware that things happened in the prison; he was brought food and drink, his dry-pan toilet was removed once a day for cleaning, other prisoners shouted at each other and on occasion they fought, incurring the wrath of the guards. But he was apart from it all, wrapped inside a protective mental cocoon of happier memories, like Christmas with his parents when he was eight years old, and the time he and his college buddies had drunkenly trashed their rivals’ frat house.

            Things began to change when the guards brought him out of his cell and took him to a small white room, which had in it a small white desk behind which sat a small white man wearing a long white coat. In his hands he held a clipboard, which itself held sheets of white paper. It was all very sterile, very clinical, and when the guard sat Simon down in the chair at the front of the desk, he did not object.

            “Good morning, Simon,” the small white man in the long white coat said. “My name is Doctor Hart. Do you know why you are here?”

            Simon nodded, mumbling because he hadn’t spoken since the conviction, and the words tasted strange in his mouth. “They think I murdered my family.”

            “That’s right.” Hart looked down at his white paper. “I understand that your legal rep claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of mental instability. That you believe monsters killed your family?”

            Simon nodded.

            “Can you tell me a little about the monsters?”

            With a shiver, Simon began.  It had sounded so strange, the first time he’d explained this. By now, he’d said it so many times that it was more than familiar, but the memory of what he had seen still left him cold.

            “They’re shadow-men. They live in the shadows where darkness meets light and they come out to kill the people you love.”

            “And you saw these shadow-men?”

            Another nod.

            “Can you describe them for me?” Hart asked.

            “Their faces…” Simon closed his eyes briefly as a horrible memory flashed through his head. “They’re like a liquid, always moving, their eyes and their mouths flowing around their heads. Their hands end in terrible dark fingers, like shadows of knives—”

            “It’s okay, Simon,” Hart said quickly. “I’d like you to think now about a place that makes you happy. A place where you feel safe and comfortable.”

            The guard, Walt, waiting patiently beside the door, released his hold on his truncheon as the prisoner stopped rocking back and forth and uncurled his fingers from the fists he’d subconsciously made. Walt gave a small shake of his head as Hart continued to take Attwood to a happier place; no doubt at all this one was a nutjob.

            After two or three sessions, Simon was transferred to a mental institution. The other inmates watched him go, whispering to each other across the narrow aisle.

            “There he goes. Definitely loco. Did you see the emptiness in his eyes? Those are a dead man’s eyes. Man, I’m glad he’s gone.”

            The institution was nice. It had airy rooms and toilets which actually flushed, and even gardens in which patients could walk to aid their recovery. But Simon wasn’t allowed in the gardens, and he was kept away from the other patients. Perhaps, Dr Hart said, once they’d gotten his medication dosage right, Simon could go outside and sit in the sunshine for a while.

            Dr Hart’s therapy continued. One day, Simon was led into Hart’s office and seated at the now-familiar oak table. Hart smiled at him, and held up a piece of white paper with an angry-looking black blob in the middle of it. Simon froze, barely even registering Hart’s words.

            “Today I’d like to try something different. Please tell me what you see.”

            The blob began to ooze its way across the paper, a swirling maelstrom of tar-like liquid, and a monstrous face began to form. A white smile split the lower half, of the face-blob, a cold and malicious grin aimed directly at him. Hello again, Simon, said a voice inside his head. In response, Simon screamed.

            Two hours later, Dr Hart stood with his colleague, Dr Windle. Their attention was focused on the tiny window in the door. On the other side of the door, Simon Attwood lay still on the soft floor, watching the soft white walls in a drug-induced stupor. A single sentence spilled over and over again from his lips, whispered but just about audible; “The shape fights the motionless ink.”

            “Another shadow-men?” Windle asked casually, and Hart nodded. “Hmm. Good job. How many does that make now?”

            “Six institutionalised, four suicides and nine imprisoned or executed. Three on the run, but we’ll pick those up later.”

            “The human mind is a fascinating place,” said Windle. He closed the flap on the door’s window and turned to Hart with a cheerful smile. “So, what should we make the next group see?”

    Another Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge! I must admit, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the last one. I struggled to think of anything to write for any of the titles. This is my final product, not quite up to my usual standard.

     

    Grave Deeds

    How far will a sane man go to die?

            It was a question I asked myself as I crawled prone through the narrow dirt tunnel, conscious of how little oxygen there was down here, worried about ploughing over random worms and giving myself a shit-load of negative karma.

            At the time, it had seemed like such a good idea. In life I had been too big, too powerful, too successful. I had three prices on my head, each one of them larger than the last, and no idea which gangs had put them there. There’s only so long a chief of police can operate under those conditions. The solution had been simple; I’d needed to die.

            The corruption within the government ran so deep that I could trust nobody with my plan. First had been the problem of death itself. For that I’d hired the services of a coroner willing to sign a death certificate with my name on it. Then I’d paid a chemist in Baltimore a princely sum for a substance that would put me in a state so close to death that only God himself would be able to tell the difference—or so he assured me. That had been the easy part.

            Clearly, only my persona could stay dead. I myself had to come back, to continue my work. Unfortunately, being buried alive in a coffin is not exactly conducive to living. Even if I’d managed to bust my way out of it and crawl up into open air, I could see the headlines in my mind’s eye; “Recently deceased chief of police returns as zombie: mass panic ensues!”

            No, crawling up from my grave was a terrible idea. But what if I could crawl underneath it? Inspired by Steve “Hilts” McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’ I decided to create a tunnel. Only, it wasn’t Nazis I was escaping from, but the prison of my own success.

            I’d paid the undertaker handsomely to reserve me a plot. I’d hired a couple of local men to spend weeks digging an escape tunnel from beneath the grave to the tree line some distance away. They masked the entrance to the tunnel using thin dirt-covered sheets of chipboard. Then I paid for new lives for them on the other side of the country.

            My coffin had needed to be unique. I’d bought it from a stage-set production company, claiming to be the director of some indie horror film. A small lever hidden within the velvet of the coffin lining allowed the bottom to open. My weight would cause the chip-board to break, and I’d land in the tunnel ready and raring to go.

            The plan, of course, was best-case scenario. I hadn’t counted on waking from my near-death experience to darkness and a panic attack. How was I supposed to know I had an irrational fear of pitch-black coffin interiors? It’s not as if I’d ever been buried alive before.

            After I’d finally calmed down, I remembered the lever. Finding it wasn’t easy, because my muscles were all stiff and my fingers didn’t want to work immediately. A little voice in my head told me I was rapidly running out of oxygen. I had another panic attack before I found the lever.

            The door opened, I fell through, landed on the chipboard which quickly broke, and then I was in the tunnel, landing badly and choking on a mouthful of dirt that I’d somehow scooped up on the way down.

            Another thing I hadn’t been expecting was the smell. I had no idea why I stank of formaldehyde, and I didn’t particularly care to think on it too much. In addition, the tunnel smelled of old, mulchy, musty earth, like soil, only more… soily. So there I was, lying aching and bruised in a tunnel, retching at the smell of formaldehyde and dank earth, panicked almost out of my wits because I was convinced I had only minutes’ worth of oxygen left, and in complete darkness.

            In hindsight, I realise I should have requested to be buried with a torch. But I’d never had to plan my own death before, much less my own resurrection. Live and learn; next time I’d know better.

            I’ll tell you honestly; I have no idea how far a sane man will go to die. But then again, sanity was never one of my strongest points. And perhaps, if I ever make it out of this tunnel, I’ll be able to give you an answer.