A Drift of Quills put their heads together and came up with a flash of inspiration. Fiction! Good for you, good for us. So we headed over to the Department of Stories, picked a picture to serve as our topic (subject to interpretation!), and got to work. Writing to a random theme is challenging. So is keeping the tale to a particular word count.
The marvelous (subject to opinion) picture we wrote to is called “Long Walk,” by the talented Jonathan Bach. There is some great artwork to see on his site. I wish there was more! Be sure to check it out.
Let the stories begin…
Flash #1: Sixes
by Robin Lythgoe
The mages—along with the history books and a dozen or so scouts—had professed their absolute certainty that the Shaddar Needles no longer held any power.
Either they lied, or the maggots had figured a way to put them back in operation. Cleaved nearly in half, my flitter wrapped around the base of one pitch black, sword-like spire. Shock chased after shock. First came the shattering of the sky like a thousand shards of lightning. Struck, I hurtled earthward, out of control. Glass jangled and metal shrieked. Unimaginable pressure and the sensation of tearing preceded the remainder of my flight—without the benefit of the flitter. I met the sand with ferocious force. Finally, and most astounding of all, came the realization that I still drew breath. Each inhalation burned like a hot poker, but by all rights, I should be dead.
Sprawled in the needle’s dubious shade, I processed the fact that I’d been thrown clear before my little flying machine slid down the length of the spire to smash to splinters against the ground. If I died, who would stop the poison spreading from the decaying city?
~ ~ ~
“You should not have sworn you would never go back,” Ailynn says, handing me six globes, one by one. As big as my fist, they are smooth and cold to the touch. Blue as the sky. Utterly lethal. Six is a blessed number, or so I am told. Six gods. Six realms of magic. I place each gently into the case prepared for them. It is lined with goose down, magic spells, and priestly blessings.
“It is only a visit,” I remind her. “It’s not home anymore. It never really was. I shan’t stay.”
“Do not make another promise you cannot keep.” Her sharp tone ill suits her. She is soft, sweet as nectar, and blessed with a sunny disposition. She is also a mage. Only third tier, but talented, I am told. I am proud of her and tell her so often.
I open my mouth to reassure her, but never is a promise I am already breaking. “You and the twins are the light of my life, the beat of my heart.” I want to take her in my arms, kiss her, and smell the scent of her thick black hair, but we have already said our goodbyes. Instead, I take her hand in mine and marvel all over again at the contrast between her dusky skin and the bone white of my own.
“You could stay,” she suggests in a low voice, not meeting my eyes.
“Who else could go? I am the last.”
She grips a handful of my pale hair, hard. “Be the last,” she hisses. “Forever. For me.”
~ ~ ~
The Needles trail across the desert to Shaddar City like a long, spiky tail. Their original use was anyone’s guess. Some thought defense, others communication. Still others suggested they’d powered smaller towns. If that were true, and those towns lay buried under the sands, the height of the needles must have been boggling. My curiosity only extended as far as using them to estimate distance and avoiding further energy bolts. I am a flyer and a traitor, not a student of the sciences. I only needed to follow the Needles to my destination and avoid roaming war parties.
I couldn’t afford contact that might lead to violence. I had to protect the globes at all cost, and the damage my insides suffered precluded combat.
The food and water in my kit would last a few days. Ailynn, with her perpetual determination to put more meat on my frame, had packed for me. There would be plenty. I took my weapons, too, and the flitter’s energy device. I siphoned some of the magic to sustain me, to augment my speed and strength. A minor offense, given the stakes, but if I could not fly, I would have to run. It was a chancy plan, but all I had now.
Near-death experiences and long treks brought out a philosophical bent in me. If one lived their dream each and every day, was it fulfilled or still in progress? Not a minute of my life went by that I didn’t marvel at my supreme good fortune. I had survived my youth, the desert, language and culture barriers. And I had thrived. Against all expectation and tradition, I married, became a father, engaged in a worthy career. I was a good flyer; the best in all the country of Rhendira. A spare stature and swift reflexes gave me advantages my compatriots didn’t possess, and I worked hard. So hard… I alone of the six of us who’d dared to flee the wasteland still lived. Was it all for this moment? This purpose? Was there such a thing as fate?
~ ~ ~
The other mages come, robbing us of privacy. One checks the case before he stows it away.
Another produces a heavy chain. A vial hangs from it, filled with the blood of a Shaddar maggot. The trigger to set off the globes. Ornate leather wrapping protects it. “There is only enough for a capful over each globe,” he reminds me yet again.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
When he hesitates, I slip on the fitted cloth hat that covers my hair. Despite the proof of years of service, suspicion survives.
The mage inclines his head in acknowledgment and the chain settles around my neck. He touches the vial to murmur another warding spell. I am not allowed to use them, but I know the words well. My life—my real life—has been spent in the service of these men and women.
I secure myself in the flitter’s seat. As the mages bring to life the energy that will propel my little vessel, I fill my eyes with Ailynn. Always and forever, I mouth, tapping my fist over my heart.
Her lips tremble, but she presses her hand to her own heart, and then I am skyborne.
~ ~ ~
The plan was to land the flitter atop one of arching bones of Shaddar’s corpse. Anointing the globes, I would drop them into the queen’s nest and beat a hasty retreat.
Sometimes one must improvise.
Shaddar’s inhabitants were not actually maggots, though they were bone pale like maggots. They better resembled flies—black garbed, jittery, eyes darting every which way. The desert no longer protected Rhendira from them. They spread like a disease now, threatening everything I held dear.
The bloated and grotesque queen reeked of death. She eyed me for a long time. “You smell of the green lands.”
“Yes.” There was no point in dissembling. “I have brought a gift.” I laid out the globes. Two were cracked. They were already ice cold. The only way to destroy the maggot’s nest was to boil or freeze it. Such was the constitution and magic of the race.
“What is it, my child?” she inquired.
I detached the vial from its chain. The leather gave. It was soft. Too soft. Stickiness coated my fingers. There was no blood left; no blood but mine. “Well, this is unexpected.” I would not be able to fling the vial’s contents over the globes with one hand while I drew upon the flitter’s energy with the other. It was unlikely I’d have gone far with my broken body, but I would have tried.
“Is something amiss?” The queen dragged herself closer.
I did not answer right away. The old adage that one can never go home was both the truth and a lie. I thought about Ailynn and our little ones, so bright, so full of energy and imagination. I had a good life. I could give them the opportunity for one, too.
The glass from the broken vial was sharp. “Six is a blessed number. I am the sixth. I am the last.”
Flash #2: Her Golden Hair
by PATRICIA REDING
Author of the Oathtaker Series
I had no choice. I had to leave her behind. Still, the ugly hands of guilt and grief, like the twin jaws of a vise, squeezed my heart.
I couldn’t count the times she’d saved me. I could only hope I’d prove as faithful. She deserved that … and so much more.
How could I have been so reckless? I’d heard the rumors of pirates having invaded the area—all from highly reputable sources, no less. Still I’d insisted on doing things my way. I alone was responsible for my foolhardy pride, my selfish desire to be the first to arrive, my rash behavior.
Flash #3: The Prophet and the Assassin
by P.S. BROADDUS
Author of A Hero’s Curse (The Unseen Chronicles Book 1)
Landships are usually a safe way to travel the dunes. Unless it’s a “clanker,” built from parts of the old combustible engines. They can’t go high enough to escape the desert sands that come out of the South like a solid wall of death. But it wasn’t the time of year for storms.
I’ve dreamed of starting over. I’ve dreamed of a fresh slate. It’s a myth. You can’t start over. The memories remain. The command remains.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We had SUCH fun doing this. I hope you enjoyed reading our flash fiction as much as we enjoyed writing it! We’re thinking of doing it again. Have you got a title or a picture to inspire us?