Deron laughed as Glen praised the dinner again.
“I think you had a better time than I did,” he said.
They were riding an auto-chariot back home, travelling along Greater Reid street into the south Welsprin district. Dinner had been extravagant, and the booth in the private section had offered luxuries they’d never see without sacrificing weeks of Deron’s pay. That alone was enough to have the night cement itself as an evening the two would never forget. They had followed up the outing with a visit to an inner ring club they liked and despite it being a week night the place had been packed. Between wine and dancing, the two were somewhere between completely energized and exhausted. Now it was nearing two am and they were heading home.
“Maybe,” Glen said. He was already pressed against Deron’s chest. His mind sat somewhere between the warmth of his partner and the flush feeling the wine from dinner gave him. Glen looked at Deron and leaned up, kissing him at first with a simple peck and then a deeper connection between their lips. Deron pulled back a second and gasped, smiling and laughing with warmth from the sudden deep exchange. He leaning down and cupping Glen’s cheek before kissing him back, taking in the moist lips and heated breath from his partner.
“Maybe,” Glen said again, this time between light pecks and the occasional squeeze and tug on Deron’s leg and stomach. “Maybe the night is still not done.”
Glen was already kissing Deron’s bare stomach with his partner was running fingers through his hair when the chariot chimed at them.
“Notice. Your destination is no longer available. Due to routine maintenance of the grid, your destination is not available at this time. Please select from the following options for new destination.”
“What?” Deron said, his mind somewhere lost in the fog of Glen’s touch and several glasses of wine still in his body.
“Notice. Your destination,” the chariot started to repeat.
“Yeah, we heard that,” Glen said. He huffed in annoyance, as his sexual desire now turned to frustration. The chariot had pulled up a projection window that he pulled over. It showed a large three dimensional rendering of New Castle and the part of town they were arriving in. Welsprin was dark on the map, as were a few other nearby neighborhoods. The destinations the chariot offered were far to the north of their home, but Glen could see a closer location two blocks to the west of their apartment, a street south of Lord and just inside the Iron Wall district.
“Looks like we can redirect there,” Deron said. “I don’t mind a little walk to get this baby weight off.”
“Oh you got a bit of a food baby?” Glen said playfully, reaching over to touch Deron’s still exposed belly. He had pushed his stomach out, to make himself more curved looking but when Glen touched him, he quickly found himself being tickled.
“Ack! No!” Deron said, playfully slapping Glen’s hand away. “No messing with the food baby!”
“Driver,” Glen said between light laughter, “Take us to this address.”
“There will be a charge for change of destination.”
“Bull. Connect me to your dispatch.”
The display switched almost immediately to the view of a Dwarven man sitting in a cubical. His eyes were thin and the smile he attempted seemed lost in his tired expression.
“New Castle Gold Chariot dispatch and customer service. We’re here to move you. I’m Lance, company ID ED0981. That’s ED as in East-Downs. and I’m here to help. What can I do for you?”
Glen took a deep breath to start to chew the guy out when Deron nudged him over. The similarities between their work spaces wasn’t lost on the gaijin office worker.
“Evening Lance. Sorry to bother you. I know it must be a rough night with maintenance going on like this,” Deron said, hoping to disarm Lance with sympathy.
Lance nodded on the screen. His thin eyes perked a bit, coming out of automatic response mode from Deron’s greeting.
“It’s been a doozy.”
“Yeah, must be getting a couple of calls. We’re in a bit of a trial here too. The chariot is saying our destination isn’t valid anymore because of south-east side maintenance but it isn’t letting us redirect to a much closer destination. At least, not without a fee. Can you give it a look?”
The dwarf had already started to type and shared windows were popping up around the display link to him.
“Ah yeah, I can see why you’d rather be there. The thing just doesn’t want to get off the ring as early as It’d need to. Give me a minute to talk to it.”
Glen had started to run his fingers over Deron’s back while he talked, and Deron playfully swatted him away. He had a feeling either the magician was going to pass out on him soon or neither of them would be getting any sleep tonight. Either way it was going to be quite a day dealing with the aftermath at work tomorrow.
“Destination updated,” the chariot said.
“And there we go,” Lance said, now with a smile on his face.
“Wonderful. Thank you so much, Lance. Hope we weren’t too much of a bother.”
“Nah, happy to help. And unless you need anything else, you two have a lovely evening.”
“Nope, all good.” Deron said. Lance nodded and the connection closed. The window left behind a message asking how employee ED0981 did, and Deron reached out to slide the marker to the five-star level. “Now then, where were we?”
The ride to Archer and Sullivan went by faster than either man wanted. Deron kept fighting to keep his shirt on while Glen did everything he could to touch as much of his lover as was possible in the cramped cabin. The chariot came to a halt in front of a Rose-Arms, the local convenience store Deron stopped at most morning for breakfast. The sight of it made his stomach grumble but the sexually charged lush kissing his neck distracted him from the thought.
“This way, sweetie,” Deron said, aiming them east along Archer. Although Sullivan marked the line between Iron Wall and Welsprin, the buildings here were more the style of the former district. Welsprin mostly relied on newer apartment complexes and renovated condos for the upper-middle class and well-to-do creators that made up the arts districts. This side of Welsprin kept the charm of the older parts of the city, relying on Iron Wall’s heavy brownstone city blocks. The ones in Welsprin where nicer and cleaner than the Iron Wall district, but the similarities between this area of town and Iron Wall couldn’t be missed.
Most of the buildings here had lights on the first floor but were darkened above street level. Lobby lights and street lamps brought a warmth to the shadows of the evening, and the occasional chariot passing flashed their lights along the avenue. There wasn’t any other foot traffic that Deron could see, so it was like the block belonged to the two of them this evening.
“Keep your head up, silly one,” Deron said. “We’re almost home.”
Glen had started to nod off a bit. He continued to try to reach for Deron but the long ride, the alcohol, and the weight of the day was starting to get to him.
“Come on, just a block.”
They had crossed past two apartment buildings when Deron stopped them. He wasn’t as attuned as Glen was but he was sure he felt something. It was like a muffled sound being held back by a strange pressure. He looked behind them and across the street but nothing seemed wrong or out of place. Just the distant sound of traffic and Glen’s light breathing.
He started them moving again, but with each step he felt something was wrong. He wished Glen was soberer so he could ask him what he felt. That might have been why when the shockwave of pressure came he was able to keep himself from being completely knocked over. Glen wasn’t so lucky, as he stumbled back towards the alley between two of the apartments. As the spell dissipated, Deron found himself caught on the side of one of the brownstones.
“Credit sticks, now,” a male voice said. Deron had caught himself on the wall, and was trying to look up at the speaker but his eyes locked on the slinger in their attacker’s hands. “Now!”
“Oh shit,” Deron said, and reached for his pocket. He’d never been mugged before, and his first instinct was to turn and run but he couldn’t see where Glen had gone. He wanted to look but he couldn’t take his eyes off the weapon aimed at him. He pulled at his pocket and found his credit stick was stuck. He cursed and yanked but instead of the stick coming out cleanly it flew from his pocket to the ground.
“You kahm-lovin’ idiot,” the mugger said. He took a step closer to Deron when a wheel of fire erupted in front of him. The surprise plasma knocked him off balance and he staggered back while trying to keep the gun in his hands.
“How dare you!” Glen screamed. He came out of the alley all fire and dragon-raged. His training in the theater and his years handling burning magic mixed with his alcohol laden mind, causing him to make the choice to attacker their mugger. Fire poured from his hands like angry claws and he shot forward as flames propelled him by his feet. The mugger tried to raise the Wagg-Otto short-slinger at him but Glen had already directed a wave of fire towards the man’s face. The onslaught wasn’t as intense or effective as a spell meant to actually harm but the illusion of the intensity of flame was enough to frighten their attacker away. Glen still sent waves of flame towards the man as he fled, but none of them connected, lacking the intent to truly do harm.
“Oh thank Khams,” Deron said, breathing a sigh of relief. He collected himself and picked up his credit stick before stepping over to check on Glen. His heart sank when he saw the aftermath of the magical display.
Tears were welling up in Glen’s eyes while his hands, blackened and smoking, where held out before him. Blisters that had long ago healed had welled up and were bursting, and pieces of his flesh sizzled from the heat of the heavy casting. The mastery Glen had used on stage had kept him from too sudden of an injury but this exertion while unfocused and drunk was too much.
“By the one on high, what have I done?”
The smile wasn’t fueled by knowing she was right. That helped, but it wasn’t the heart of the happiness. It was also being supporting by the magistrate. After ten years of sky calling, they had finally chosen Delia to be their spear. Today they had granted her captain status of The Anvil, the fastest combat vessel for the entire magistrate fleet, and she’d need that speed in the task assigned to her. In four hours The Anvil would be sent off to locate and find the rogue caller, Arana Forge, her sister.
“Captain on deck,” a young ensign said as she approached the birthing pod for The Anvil. The group of sailors pulling themselves into ranks and stood at attention, awaiting her approach. Their uniforms were sleek and black things, worn for armor protection but to also channel each of their natural abilities to manipulate gravity around them. The uniforms shared the same material of the hull of the magistrate’s ships, allowing a crew to keep a vessel aloft for days at a time if needed. Her own dress was informal, and designed more like the uniforms worn back in the day ships like The Anvil were designed. More elegant and wavy and less pressed and military. The style wasn’t preferred by the magistrate’s navy, but it helped her channel far more than the simple standardized uniforms.
“At ease,” she said, her voice carrying over the sounds of the maintenance and crews beyond the berth they stood in. Her crew lowered their arms and folded them behind their back in one quick motion. “Good,” she thought, “a seasoned crew.”
“At ten-hundred hours, The Anvil and crew will be departing Port Saint Georgette. We aim for the maelstrom colonies, southern coast. Our mission is the retrieval of the rogue clipper, His Open Trust. This ship is crewed by the rogue caller, Arana Forge. And yes, before any of you ask, that is my sister. We will aim to take her alive, but in the interest of the magistrate, her navy, and her people we will not settle for an escape of this rogue agent even if that means Arana’s death. Are we understood?”
“Yes sir,” the crew said in unison.
“Good. I want this ship sky worthy within two hours. Ensign?”
The same young man took a step forward then twisted on his heel to the gathered sailors.
The sailors broke ranks and moved back to their work posts. The ensign turned back to his captain.
“Captain, Ensign Karn Flown, we should have no problem having her sky worthy within the hour. Are you hoping to depart early, sir?”
“No,” Delia said. “I want the crew ready to go but I want us to share a meal before we go.”
“Sir?” the ensign said. Delia looked to his uniform.
“Consider it a family tradition handed to me from my parents. Before a long journey or an important event, they always fed us to comfort us. As this will be this crew’s first time hunting what was once a friendly vessel and possibly friends and for me family, it will be both a hard journey and a hard task to complete. Besides, warm food on a morning like this wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t you say, Ensign Flown?”
The ensign was writing something down but nodded. He looked up when he realized he was expected to answer.
“Oh, yes Captain Forge. Of course, sir.”
“What are you writing down?”
“Orders for the cook, sir. I assume you’re looking to have something a little special compared to our normal chow, so I’m preparing him an order for stock to pull from our berth’s store.”
“Ah, a sailor who thinks on the move and the future contents of his stomach. Excellent. Carry on then, I’ll be in my quarters. Dismissed.”
Ensign Flown saluted Delia, and hurried to a few men and women gathering supplies near the rear of the ship. The captain watched as they took and read the orders from the Ensign. From this distance it looked like they chuckled. She let it go and headed towards the boarding rope for the ship.
The Anvil rested in its berth, wings and arms held up by the large iron and steel beams of the warehouse. The ship was a sleek clipper, built to catch the wind while having her sky callers direct her. Most ships consisted of a set of large wings built to the sides of the vessel, and sails on the top and bottom of the vessel to catch the wind and help the callers on board guide the ship gently through the air. The anvil was different. She was built in segmented cones, each ending in a wide sail that could be fanned out to catch the wind but quickly pulled back under light armored plating. She wouldn’t be able to handle a heavy barrage, but she was designed to be fast enough to not have to. The weave of sky stone in her hull would let a team of skilled sky callers press her forward at incredible paces, although she could see immediately that long battles would be hard in the ship. It would demand much from her crew in combat, and require long periods of rest afterwards.
She took the boarding rope in hand and focused on her dress. The sky stone built into it begin to glow lightly as her natural talents fueled them. Escaping gravity, she used the rope to pull herself up. Traditional ships like her previous vessel, The Promise of Dawn, were decked ships, meaning they had large areas on the top or bottom of the ship that sailors could stand in the open air. The Anvil didn’t have such a space, at least not in the front or on the bulk of the ship. It was a sealed ship, with its hull coating all sides of the ship space and the only access points being hatches built every one-hundred-and-twenty degrees. The boarding rope was attached to one of these panels, and Captain Delia entered her new vessel for the first time.
I’m toying with this story. Unlike most of the flash fiction here, this piece has ended up in my serial fiction folder. The concept of the story sort of took off (pun intended), and I’d like to see what Captain Delia Forge does in the hunt for her rogue sister. I wonder if she can actually carry through with killing her or if family will win out over national loyalty. We’ll see. If I do end up exploring her fate, I’ll update this and future stories in the series as official serial fiction.
“Are you kidding me?” Ace said over the comms. We were travelling as quickly as the blades would let us, but the winged suits just couldn’t match the speed of the target. “How is it going so fast?”
“Something other than traditional propulsion?” Jeevan offered. “We’re going pretty fast ourselves.”
“Yes, but you’re wearing the latest in Iconica, Alpha-1,” Leoncio said back at the tower. “I’m not reading anything radioactive besides you three, so it’s not Praeter Hominum. Nothing tech either.”
“Don’t say it,” Ace said.
They were sweeping across the landscapes of central Yzamire. The land was uninhabited for the most part, and served as the wing’s current training and testing grounds. It was during one of these routine tests that Marina spotted the rainbow pattern in the distance. Leoncio confirmed the radar hit, but couldn’t confirm what it was. By then the three of them, Marina, Jeevan, and Ace, were in pursuit.
“Can you get the locals to scramble something our way?” Marina asked.
“Negative. They don’t want anything to do with our territory. Something about the feedback from you three screwing up their jets. Unless this thing started to become a problem to their citizens, they won’t touch it near us.”
“Great, ‘I’m sorry we took too long to help you, we figured the super heroes could handle something insane.’ That makes me feel comfortable,” Ace said. “I’m going to try to increase my burn. Jeevan, got my left?”
“I’ve got your left, Ace.”
“Ugh, I really wish you wouldn’t say super heroes,” Marina said. She had moved to the rear of them. Ace’s maneuver should bolt him forward as he pushed his energies into the wing suit. Jeevan’s projection would help with sling shooting him forward. It was the maneuver they had been practicing all week.
“Oh, get off it, Marina. They think anyone with powers is some sort of costume wearing idiot. Ours just happens to be para-military. Adjusting, now.”
Ace’s metal wings flared as his energy surged through the wings. Jeevan’s sleek form dived in behind him and a radiant shield started to form around her. Ace tilted, and the shield streaked out small tendrils of power against his wings. Both projections flared and the flying man zipped ahead.
“Alright, I’m gaining on the target. Leon, you have my feed?”
“Confirm, Alpha-2. I do. But you don’t want to hear what I’m reading, remember?” Leoncio said.
“I hate magic,” Marina said. “So unpredictable.”
The rainbow colored form grew larger as Ace approached it. They had already observed from a distance the object wasn’t flying right, but now Ace struggled to understand it’s flight at all. It wasn’t moving constantly, rather it was stopping then moving like a video that was buffering. It would stay still for a second then fling itself forward at an incredible pace. Its body wasn’t built for flight either, lacking wings, propeller, turbines, or anything else that enabled human flight. It was like it didn’t care that it should be falling.
“This thing is hurting my head,” Ace said.
“Alpha-2, let’s not approach any further,” Leoncio said. “If that’s something mystical, I’d want to get the Corporal on it.”
“The kid? You want the kid near this thing? I don’t think so,” Marina said.
“Can it, Marina. Leoncio, confirmed. I agree with your assessment. Ace, pull back.” Jeevan said.
“Sure thing, once you tell it to let me go.” He had felt the tug once he could see the strange square box properly. It was a flying a brick, with arcane carvings all over the surface. This was the source of the radiant light as most of the sigils glowed in different colors so bright they were visible in the mid-day sun. Its jaunts were getting slower and he could feel it pulling him too it faster and faster.
“Come again, Alpha-2?”
“I’ve been trying to slow down but my readings show I’m accelerating. I’m only putting enough energy into my wings to keep me aloft. I think the box is curious about me too.”
“Can you dive?” Jeevan asked.
“Let me try.”
It was like moving against a thick syrup. He shifted his wings down and pushed with as much energy as he could project into the wings. They flared as the lights on the ship also flared. An emotion of frustration and annoyance washed over him before he felt himself jerking away from the vessel. It accelerated it’s spacial skipping pace as he broke away. By the time he recovered, it was already a spec on the horizon.
“You okay?” Marina asked, flying close to him.
“Yeah, I am. I just wish I knew what they wanted with me.”
“Well, get ready, Alpha-2,” Leoncia said. “My readings show it’s turning around.”
“The elevator will just be a second, Miss Nejem,” the gaijin concierge said. She didn’t bother reading his name plate. The New Castle children were all the same boring clods, groomed to an ideal form of perfection that rang hollow and boring to her.
Husniya Aliyyah Nejem was here to meet with her master’s local spy master. It was a common practice amongst the wyrms to spy on rivals, and while local clutches often sought local talent such a trusting nature wasn’t always permitted for those beyond the misty boarders. Azial, her master, had been lacing cities like New Castle, Gar Raesa, and Greater Borrano for generations and in time these cities bore the fruit of skilled spies lying in wait.
The elevator came back down a minute later, absent the two poorly dressed men. The hume concierge seemed to be surprised when they were waiting for his return.
“My apologies, Miss Nejem,” he said, quickly rushing out of their way.
“Move Bakir, move,” her gaijin escort said. “Inform the host immediately, on foot.”
Aliyyah smiled as the hume ran off towards a stairwell. The gaijin concierge seemed to understand the insult against her, and was punishing his subordinate for her. At least New Castle had some manners.
The third floor of Ilahi was coated in a warm patches crimson and gold. Each table was a secluded nest with seating for up to ten in thick leather buckets. The tables were ringed with old world wood and the surface was smooth stone with a slight coating to reduce the sound of fine china brushing against it. The menus were made of slight projections that showed fully rendered versions of each dish, complete with chemical squirts for odor and flavor suggestion. The master chef here didn’t leave anything to chance, and if a patron received something they didn’t like it would ultimately be their own fault.
“This way, Miss Nejem.” He lead her towards the outer banks of tables, where the neighboring building obscured any pleasant views and the tables were outfitted with panels showing more pleasant vistas of New Castle and lands beyond. Most of the tables were unoccupied here, except one now containing the out of place men and their wide smiles. She caught a better glimpse of them as she passed, noticing the highland hume’s scared and bandaged hands. Was he a bodyguard? Unlikely. Too unobservant of her and their surroundings. Those were magical burns though, and the type caused by one’s own casting. Still, his mannerism indicated he didn’t belong here so didn’t come from money. Why was he here then?
“Madam Nejem,” said a large orc man as her escort brought her to their shared table. “It is a pleasure.” The spy master didn’t bother to rise for her, but instead kept his eyes on the aisle as she slid into the booth. He nodded to the escort and at once the gaijin vanished from their table. The orc glanced out once more then turned back to Aliyyah.
“Welcome to New Castle. I take it your flight was full?”
“Only in the head,” She said, responding to his requested phrase. The man relaxed a hair and nodded.
“Good, good. I’m glad to hear that. Pardon this though,” He said, as she felt a large foot brush against her leg. She stiffened in surprised but then gritted her teeth as she felt the connection spark.
“My apologies, Aliyyah, but this is the only truly secure link,” his voice echoed in her head.
“I think I’ll try a white tonight, what do you recommend for dinner?” She asked out loud.
“It is understood. Give your report.”
“If you are going with a white, I’d suggest one of the local specialties of fish,” he replied. He was a typical large New Castle resident. Though this spy master, his name unknown to her, was of the blood of Azial he looked bloated and fat compared to the men born and raised in the city-state of Etza. His orc heritage didn’t bother her as, like her gaijin blood, his lineage had been tempered in the years under the dragon. Unlike the other city states of the current era, Etza had long held Azial in high regard and it was only natural the dragon had taken over.
“They are here, but I fear they are in the hands of an enemy. A servant of one of the Duke’s Lords.”
“Do you know which Lord, which servant?” she asked. She idly flicked through the virtual menu until she found something that appealed to her pallet.
“His name is unknown, but he serves Deus, one of the more competitive of the Lord of New Castle.”
“We are familiar with the wyrm. Then it is likely Allaway. Ever has he been a thorn.” Roswell Uilleam Allaway was a name known to many of the collectors beyond New Castle. He was a fierce combatant with hands in many of the cities. She had personally seen fit to the destruction of his network of spies, The Daggers, that he had injected into Etza. For the agent of a lord and not a Duke, he was formidable.
“The fish it is,” Aliyyah said. “What are you having?”
“What you had,” he said with a sly smile.
“Then you have quite a task ahead of you. Ross is no easy quarry. But all is not lost, there may be a chance you can draw him out.”
“Oh?” She knew he wouldn’t bring the charms out in the open, and would unlikely wear them himself. They didn’t belong to Azial, but to one of Azial’s silent parents. In their slumber the charms and any other artifact would grant power to their users without the typical bonding curse, but Ross wouldn’t risk using them as that would exposure their imprint to the world.
“In a few weeks there is a gala event. The Winter Solstice next month is a favored holiday of Tyrant.”
Aliyyah chuckled in her head while she ordered the items from the menu.
“Tell me, does he bare himself in the open for such gatherings?”
“No, not him, but his lords do, briefly. And they often escorted by their loyalists.”
“Are you suggesting a direct assault against a dragon and his prize collector?”
“No, no, only that it will be a guaranteed time both collector and wyrm will be out of their lair.”
Aliyyah nodded, but paused as laughter broke from the nearby table.
“Do not panic, I have already identified those two. The unmared one is a simple clerk. The burned man is a performer. A magician alone.”
“A Magician you say? Tell me, do the lords of New Castle hold their own events before the grand gathering of their Duke?”
“I hope you’re right about this plan, Erik,” Ariel said.
“What? The Boxelites don’t like downing a two billion credit bird?” Erik said over the comm.
Ariel took a few still of the crash before heading towards the brush. The Weibs Schiff Class H Explorer, a “WeChe,” was shattered over the field below her. The WeChe had brought her here for the recon run Boxelites core wanted on Dunderite, but EI Division had already confirmed the Dunderites knew the recon was coming. Erik, her CO, knew any runner sent to scan the system was going to be shot down. This was their alternative plan.
“I’m still not sure they’re going to believe that flash body,” Ariel said.
“That’s only if they get the head,” Erik said. “Look, we put enough explosives into the cockpit and into the clone’s skull that they won’t get jack. Besides, the body belonged to a dead lady anyway. Even if they do clone her again to figure out who was on board that WeChe, it will take them at least a month.”
“I’m coming up on the ridge overwatch.” Dunderite was lower gravity, 0.85 earth normal, so she was made good time. “I’ve got at least two hot spots on scope. A scattering of bodies on the ground too.”
The base below was cloaked in darkness and without a moon to reflect ambient primary light from her low light scope was nearly useless too. Only thermal was showing anything, but her own heat might give her away as she approached. The suit concealed much of her heat, but the coils wrapped down her legs into her shoes was making her legs start to sweat. The cool ground she was crouched over was helping, but the suit could only compensate so much at once.
The base lit up as a third vehicle kicked to life. Several of the soldiers climbed inside and it and one of the original vehicles launched from the base towards her. She rolled to the side under some underbrush.
“They’re investigating. I’m heading down,” Ariel said
I could only hear the groans of the building. Whatever those things were they had given up trying to get to me. It had been four days. Four days of them pounding on the doors, hitting the walls, crawling over each of the boarded up windows but I had stuck it out. I guess that’s why the rest of the town had emptied out. They couldn’t handle it. I’ll admit there were times I almost opened the front door too, if for nothing else than to end the noise.
Nat had called them zombies but I don’t know if that was right. Zombies looked like decaying corpses right? These were different. They were dead, but not dead. Like something else was riding them. Some were bleeding, yeah, but they never seemed to stop. Just an endless spout of blood trailing in the streets.
That had been the first sign when we came into town, the streaks of blood. Nat, Otto, and me had come back from the campsite over on Dayton Point. We’d only been gone a week but the radio had stopped picking up signals not long after we got to the camp. Otto said it was the ridges but they had never blocked the signal before. We had to deal with seven days of DJ Nat on his god forsaken Apple. But the signal didn’t come back after we left the park. Didn’t see another vehicle either until we got near town and all of those were abandoned. Then we saw the streaks.
It looked like Mah Kali. I still think it had been her, at least before it became that. It was walking along the streets near the cinema, bare naked but covered in lesions. Otto had hooted at the nude flesh but screamed when he saw the blood pouring from her legs. We stopped, thinking the woman had been injured. She might have been but help isn’t what she wanted from us.
She killed Otto. It was so fast. He jumped from the truck and ran to her, touching her shoulder to halt her walking. She spun on him and sank her teeth into his neck before we had even got out of the truck. Nat said she had fangs, but I didn’t see them. I just pull my rifle and opened up on her. On it. Didn’t matter. It screamed at us and ran on all fours away, grabbing the side of the cinema’s building and hoisting itself over the roof.
Otto didn’t have a chance. Nat had checked him while I chased that thing off.
“She bit his head off,” he had said. Near as I could tell, he was right. “What are you doing?”
“Calling the police,” I said. I had pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911 but there was never a ring. Just a hiss that seemed to be getting louder.
“Paul?” Nat said.
“Hold on. Trying to figure out what the heck is going on with this thing.”
“Paulie!” Nat said, slapping my arm.
“What?” I said and looked up. He pointed to the cinema’s roof and I felt cold streak down to my jewels.
Whatever that thing was that looked like Mah Kali, there was more of it. I don’t mean more people that were injured and stripped like her. I mean her. There were at least seven of them, all looking like seventy-year-old ladies out of their skivvies with strong as a buck looking muscles bulging from their arms. Some were missing large sections of skin but they didn’t seem to mind. They looked at us with a hunger no living thing should have. I’ve been stalked by a cougar before. I’d rather have a pack of those staring at me than whatever these things were.
We ran. We ran as hard and as fast as we could. I don’t know if they got Nat. So many buildings were boarded up, I just looked for the first one I could find that had a front door that wasn’t blocked. That’s how I ended up in this place. They had found me quick enough, and started in on every door and window. I didn’t check the name on the outside but whoever the home belonged to had boarded her up quite well. I was safe, thankful for that, for now.
Four days later and they stopped banging. My phone still isn’t working but it’s still charged. Shouldn’t be. Normally I’d hook it to the flashlight crank back in my truck but it’s still kicking nearly a week since it’s last charge. Power in the house still working too, and there’s food. Waters an issue though. There was a full tub of tap water, but now anything coming through the pipes is black as tar. I don’t want to risk it.
I don’t know what to do. I can stay here till the water or food runs out, and then dehydrate or starve to death. Or I can leave. Maybe try to get back to my truck and drive out of here. I wish I knew if Nat was alive but part of me knows he isn’t. Part of me wishes I wasn’t either.
Maybe that’s why I’m stood in front of this door. Cause I want to die. Cause I’m gonna risk a run. I think I knew where I was in town, and that I could find my truck. I just had to hope those women didn’t find me first.
Today’s story is a bit inspired by concepts of stories like Silent Hill, Night of the Living Dead, and other horror pieces like that. I don’t particularly care for writing about “normal” zombies only because those have been done to death (pun intended). But I do dig the weird style of undead you get in things like Silent Hill or other horror games where the dead don’t follow a set of rules. Instead supernatural or psychotic themes play over the monsters. Something about that makes them seem more terrifying than just the dead rising and hunting the living, because when you know something just wants to kill you can almost understand the thinking of such a monster. When you don’t know what it wants, or how it plans on getting it, that fear of the unknown is far more terrifying.
“Glen, how did you get a Limo?” Deron said. Glen stood outside of Deron’s office, smiling wide as the chauffer held the rear door open. He was dressed in a sharp suit he saved for public events and appearances for the theater although he added a pair of gloves today.
“Limo’s just a Transit rental. They have those now,” Glen said. It was a large stretch chariot, with enough space for six to eight people to be comfortable. The chauffer smiled at the couple as Deron hugged Glen. “I’ve got some good news about tonight for you. We’re going to one of your dream spots.”
“The Garden on High? Clutch-Behrs? Ilahi?” Deron asked.
“The third one. Care of The Dragon,” Glen said while holding up the silver key. Deron squealed and Glen’s face turned a few shades of red darker.
“Oh yes! Did you bring me-“
“Jacket, yes. It’s in the chariot. Come on, let’s go!”
Deron waved his arms up in the air and stopped short of tackling the chauffer. She laughed as he hugged her. She gave him a pat on the shoulder and he jumped into the car. Glen smiled and shook his head as he headed after him.
“Easily pleased?” The chauffer asked.
“Oh no, but when you hit the right buttons,” Glen said. They both chuckled as she closed the door behind him.
The Limo ride was short, but Ilahi and Deron’s office were in the same parts of the shell, the inner part of New Castle where the downtown ring circled the biggest towers and the large dome structure the Duke laired in. Ilahi was located in the first four floors of Groom Street Central. The building was a fat spike stretching high into the sky. Some eighty floors of offices and private spaces that starting on the fortieth floor began to contract into a single point on the northwest side of the building. Ilahi held half of the building’s base on the four floors it occupied, and as Glen and Deron stepped into the lobby of Groom Street Central they could see the façade of the restaurant’s exterior. The bottom six floors of the building were a part of a large atrium separated into individual market spaces. The large wall of Ilahi depicted tile patterns and wrought metal designs in curves and cursive script. The colors varied but blue and whites dominated the patterns. It was like looking at a gallery rather than the entrance to a fashionable restaurant.
“Excuse me.” A hume male had stepped from the restaurant as they approached. He wore a smooth brown vest over a cream colored long sleeve shirt, with slightly darker slacks and dark brown shoes. His name tag read Bakir Kartal, Concierge. “Do you happen to bear a key?” He asked.
“Yes,” Glen said, pulling it from his pocket. The key’s tip was glowing a soft blue and when Bakri spotted it he smiled.
“Ah wonderful. Then you are guests tonight of Mr. Aitken?”
“Yes, he gave me the key earlier.”
“He presented it to you earlier today. The key itself is not a gift to keep nor can it be. We will be holding it for him after your meal today. Please, follow me this way,” the concierge said. Glen repressed a chuckle and Deron rolled his eyes.
The concierge lead them into the restaurant. They passed through the waiting lounge filled with couples and business types waited for tables. Past the main dining area that was bursting with movement of guests, wait staff, and food going to and from the first kitchen. He brought them to the lift in the back of this area where everyone dining could get a good view of who was riding up.
Built on four floors, Ilahi was really two restaurants, maybe three depending on what someone considered the top floor. The first two floors were the main seating area and a main kitchen. Normal patrons would eat here and enjoy the flavors and talents of Ilahi’s talented sous chef and the team he assembled. The third floor was for the key bearers, and here the menus lacked prices, money and data chits were never exchanged, and luxury was king. The head chef of Ilahi considered this her domain and worked wonders for the wealthy, the powerful, and the lucky. Ilahi enjoyed showing off these guests and the elevator in the back of the restaurant was built so that no one on the first floor could miss seeing whoever was above them.
The amber colored glass was distorted on the inside of the elevator and Glen and Deron missed the key bearer just entering the restaurant watching their ascent.
“I forgot my shoes,” Eric said. We had slide through the door with the wolves at our back. Jennifer was right. They can’t cross over. I don’t even know if they can see the doors. We didn’t wait to check as I slammed the panel behind us as quickly as we were over.
“I need my shoes,” Eric said in a low tone. The boy was distant, unsure, and I couldn’t really blame him. We had found him four doors ago, wandering here and there in mute confusion. Jennifer asked if we could leave him but Kathy had already started to approach him. It was good we did. He’d been the one who noticed the wolves before any of us although I wish he’d have more tack than to scream about them.
We had been in the water. I had already bathed and was sitting on the dock. Kathy, a mother before she ended up here, hadn’t been shy about getting Eric cleaned up. He had seemed oblivious to the nudity but I felt weird about it and Jennifer wasn’t even comfortable with me or Kathy around when she undressed. Kathy just took care of him with a mother’s hand.
He had screamed when he saw the wolves, and it had been enough warning for me and Jennifer to gather up Kathy’s and Eric’s things. She pulled Eric to the side of the water and started to get on her cloths while I shoved Eric’s shirt over his head. We had already known where the door was and so we bolted straight to it. Between the lake and the strange world hoping frame the two of them finished getting dressed, except for the pair of shoes Eric dropped.
“I think, I think we’re okay,” Jennifer said. She had the spear in hand again, holding it towards where the door had been. We each knew a little about how they worked. Whenever someone opened a door on one world, it appeared in the destination. Before then, there’s no sign of the exit. We had learned that one when Bradly tried to hunt us. He almost had, with that spear.
I paused a second while I thought about Oscar. Most of what we knew had come from him. Originally an old professor before this place, he had seen so much and been through everything before getting dumped here. He sacrificed himself against Bradly. Bradly had stabbed him, but Oscar still managed to get close enough to cut the mad boy with a knife. After the fight we found Bradly unconscious by another door, bleeding horribly from the wound. Jennifer used her own spear to gut him. I think that’s when she went cold.
“I need my shoes,” Eric said again.
“Shut up,” Jennifer spat. “Shut up about your damn shoes. Why the hell did you scream about the wolves? We could have gotten away faster if you had just come on shore first.”
“Are you joking?” Kathy said.
“What?” Jennifer asked.
“I said are you joking? You really think anyone would have kept quiet about seeing wolves bigger than a linebacker?”
“Especially an invalid,” I said.
“Don’t you dare,” Kathy said, pointing a finger at me. “He just needs attention.”
“He’s just going to get us killed,” Jennifer said. “He’ll just pull hunters onto us instead of being one. Why don’t we just take his essence now and be done with it?”
Kathy and I both stared in horror at her.
“I didn’t mean that,” Jennifer said. She let the spear’s tip lower down to the ground. “I’m sorry.”
“We don’t do that.” My words were deliberate and hard. “Never. I don’t care what the maesters want with us. I don’t care what they’re doing with us. We don’t kill unless we have to. Only for defense.”
“Oscar killed,” Jennifer said. “Not often but you know he did.”
I did. Of course I did. I had been the one to touch him first when he was down. When he died. His essence and the sixteen boys and girls he killed entered me. Jennifer had Bradly and the boys he killed, but only because he didn’t kill girl. “I like them; I like you,” he had said when he held the three of us at the end of his spear before the fight. The essence made us stronger, faster, keener. We could see things and experience them at a pace I had never experienced in my fifty-four years. Even when I was a developing teen, as the body I was in now expressed, I could never move like I do now.
I looked to Eric, “Eric. How did you see the wolves?”
“Right, new shoes. We’ll get you some new ones. I’d give you mine but your feet are too big for mine or any of the others.”
Eric looked down at my feet and nodded.
“Too small. Need to find new shoes.”
“I don’t know how he saw them,” Kathy said. “When he started screaming I had thought the soap had gotten into his eyes.” She rubbed her shoulder. “But he seemed to know. Just like how Oscar was nervous when Bradly was following us. Before we knew.”
“But I’ve got Oscar’s danger sense,” I said. “I didn’t feel a thing until I knew about them.”
“Maybe the beasts can take essence too,” Kathy said.
“And maybe his innate gift is, what? Ultra-danger sense?” Jennifer said. She had the spear back up but was looking around the forest we had found ourselves in.
“Well, I mean think about Oscar and me,” Kathy said. “I can see the other side of a closed door. Oscar could too but not as well. And Bradly could summon a weapon, but Jennifer, yours is far more impress of a weapon. Maybe if it’s your native gift.”
“It’s stronger. That makes sense,” I said. “Okay Eric, tell me, what do you see around us? Any shoes?”
Eric looked about the forest, and nodded.
“A bunch of shoes. Three pairs big enough for me. One pair your size, Izzy.”
“Three pairs? Four? Wait, is he saying we’re surrounded?” Jennifer asked just as my danger sense started to kick in.
Trying out some longer pieces. Not quite breaking out of Flash Fiction but getting closer.
The streetcar was coming close. I couldn’t see it in the fog but buried under the sound of cars and passing buses I could hear it sliding on the greased rails. I pulled my travel bag close, feeling the weight of it brushing against my leg. It was time to go, time to run, time to not look back. The rail would take me to the college campus, and there a bus that would take me across the lake. From there, I didn’t have any plans. It was just time to leave this city, this haunted place.
Time to leave him.
I think my hose might still have blood on them. I left so quickly I didn’t bother to change them. He’d come in drunk and I could feel his hot wet breath on my neck. I was working late to finish the piece that would fund the apartment and his drinking another month. He grabbed, I screamed, he struck, I swung my sketch tablet against him, and he screamed. He tried to grab for me and I hit him again. And again. And again. I broke the tablet. I broke him.
The streetcar was visible in the fog, inching closer and closer to the platform I waited on. It looked empty except for the driver. The rest of the sounds of the city seemed to fade as I watched it approach.
In my panic I packed my travel bag in a blind rush. With what, I don’t remember. I used his phone to dial 9-1-1 and left it next to him as I left. I don’t know if he was alive, but I don’t care. I just needed to go. To leave.
It screeched a little as the streetcar stopped nearly perfectly in front of me. The driver wasn’t what I expected. He was chubby, short, and his face looked pushed in like he’d have one too many broken noses. His head tilted to look at me, and I could feel his eyes look me up and down.
“You can’t escape; you know that right?” he said. I had reached for the railing to pull myself up but paused when he said that.
“No, it’s okay. You can get on. We’ll go. But you can’t escape that blood. It’ll come back.” He turned to look ahead of the streetcar, watching the fog covered streets.
“Where’s your fare box?” I asked.
“Don’t need one,” the driver said. “It gets paid.”
I swallowed and looked past the first seat to the rest of the vehicle. There were two other passengers. One was a man with his head leaned forward just below the seat line. The other was a woman doing everything she could to look away from the front of the car. I boarded and took a seat a few rows in front of the man, and two rows ahead and on the opposite side of the woman. The driver pushed the streetcar forward, and the rails screamed in protest.
My skin prickled when the scream sounded so much like his.
I know the picture isn’t from my home town, but something about streetcars always reminds me of New Orleans. Add in the fog and willowy looking trees and I’m replacing pieces of the picture with my own memories. Imagery is a powerful thing, and when it evokes memories it also tends to spark inspiration.
On a side note, I think this is the first story on the site that didn’t involve something genre based. I don’t write much outside of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or the multitude of micro-genres that exist within “genre” fiction. When I do, they tend to be closer to home. Seeing a picture of a foggy night enveloping a streetcar is quite the ticket to ride on that writing tram.
Just off of Lord, near where it crosses past Long Bridge, was the Avninder Theater. South Gaijin in design, with long sweeping roofs over each balcony decorated in a myriad of colors and wavy patterns. The exterior was mostly clean with a few spots here and there showing the age of the place. The inside had a large set of seats in a crescent around a raised dais some eighty feet wide. The house curtains were up and stored when he arrived, and three performers were practicing on stage. It was a dry a run with no energy, just movements. The fireguard stood off to the side, watching the performers while keeping an extinguisher at hand. Glen had seen performers get carried away in the rehearsals before and he appreciated the on call guard.
The Dragon was sitting center house. He was with the patron, Cameron Huntington, so Glen stood back watching the practicing trio. The piece they were rehearsing was one he knew by heart. It required physical strength to manage the lifting the two outer performers needed to do. The inner performer needed the dexterity to reach out and cap the shape the three of them would produce. All three needed perfect concentration to stretch their flames into a large seven pointed star. It wasn’t easy especially since two of the performers hands were tied up holding the third so the use of a leg each was required. Glen had been in all three roles at one point or another, and could feel the aches in his joints watching the two humans hoist up the shade woman.
The patron stepped away and Glen caught The Dragon’s eye. The director waved him over.
“Mr. Travis. I had not expected to see you today. I thought you had an appointment,” he said. The Dragon, Diarmad Aitken, was a fairly short orc but large compared to Glen. He smiled as Glen slide through the seats to the small worktable setup in the middle of the row. Glen could see the burns he had only noticed in passing before around The Dragon’s lips. It was the reason for his nickname, the fire breathing. Only now Glen wondered what troubles it had caused for his boss.
“I did, sir. This morning.”
“That does not sound like comfort when you say it that way, Glen. What is wrong?”
Glen rubbed his hand and brushed the blister. “Nothing good. Do you know what peripheral neuropathy is? And neuritis?”
“Oh no,” Diarmad said. “No, no, Glen. You are much too young for that.” He looked at Glens hands and moved to take one. Glen let him and the orc slide his fingers over the blisters, giving each of them a close look.
“A year, maybe, and then no more hands. I don’t know what to say.”
The dragon sighed and then turned Glen’s hand over and cupped it before giving it a gentle pat.
“Yours is an exceptional talent, but I see now that I was mistaken to push you as I did. Your displays are miracles to the eyes, but while some say preforming costs blood, sweat, and tears, I do not believe that is to be taken literal, do you not agree?”
Glen nodded as Diarmad let go of his hand.
“Glen, the theater doesn’t have much in terms of discretionary funds. You know we are paid performance to performance, but I cannot ask you to burden yourself and your health in order to continue your livelihood. Perhaps then, I would like your permission to host a fund raiser, in your honor.”
Diarmad grinned, and the scars around his mouth glistened in ways Glen didn’t realize he was becoming hyper aware to.
“I, I would be honored,” he said, shocked at the offer. “I’m touched. But, does this mean I can’t perform with the troupe?”
Diarmad’s expression turned into a pained look.
“No, I am afraid I cannot allow it. If you are already so injured that your specialist warns you against the task, I have to consider the other risks. While I know you would not think of it now, lawyers and hoard seekers might encourage you to stalk our coffers if we knowingly let you perform.”
The director paused as this sank into Glen, and he wished he waited before coming here now.
“Additionally, and this pains me to say it young man, but if you are so burned it means your manipulation is more reckless than I deem acceptable. I cannot have a man combust on me on stage.”
That was a slap. At least it felt that way to Glen. He understood the legality issues. He understood the health concerns. That, however, was a direct challenge to his ability in the performing arts. He felt himself heating up like he had when he left Dr. DeProspero’s office.
“Ah, I see I have said to much. My apologies, young mister Travis. Perhaps you may need to cool off with so many uncomfortable things of the day. I will have Miss Cranes sent to contact you regarding the fund raiser. Until then, we must prepare for tonight’s performance. If you would be so kind,” he said, offering up his hand. Glen took it and helped The Dragon up. “Thank you, Glen. Here, take this for tonight. Have a meal with that fine young man you brought to the last performance to take your mind off today’s worries.”
He had given Glen a small silver key. Glen recognized it immediately. The shape was ornamental, but it would serve the function it was designed after. It was an access token to a five-star restaurant called Ilahi, a place Glen wouldn’t be able to afford without spending a month’s of Deron’s salary. The key was more than just the ability to go to the restaurant. Anyone in a nice suit who called ahead could do that. It was a token directly tied to a tab at the restaurant. Maybe this was how The Dragon apologized for insulting him. If so, it was quite a first step.
He’d need to change. This would be more than just a simple night out.