Tools and Weapons

monk22
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
         “Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
         “Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
         Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
         “Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
         Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.

         As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
         “Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
         Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
         “Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
         Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.

         “How long does it take?” Zion asked.
         Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
         “How long does what take?” Solas growled.
         “How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
         “For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
         Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
         “Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
         Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.

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Assassins’ Academy II

Aconitum_napellus-6

This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.

         Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”

         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.

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photo

Assassins’ Academy II

         When the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palpable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls. Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”
         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other, minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long. Zion knew he was lying, had seen the tremor that ran through Calver’s hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. He knew Calver lied and he knew why.
         Brother Calver was afraid of him.

Assassins’ Academy

This is part of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning so you won’t be confused.

         Zion sat on one of the narrow cots that ran the length of the infirmary, gritting his teeth as he carefully stitched up the thin slices on his arms and legs. One of the first lessons he learned was stitching his own wounds. Brother Garth handed him a bowl filled with a thick brown paste and he smeared the healing ointment over the gashes before stitching them. Brother Garth treated the Brotherhood for serious wounds and illnesses when they arose, though most brothers could equal his skill in healing more minor complaints. Zion wondered if Garth knew of Brother Solas’s penchant for Redheart. It was unlikely. If he knew, he’d be forced to bring it before Mendic and the other Elder Brothers. Garth was silent as he worked with his herbs and salves; the knife that took his tongue left him with no other speech than the sign language of the Brotherhood. Zion finished his stitching and sat for a moment, enjoying the cool quiet of the Infirmary.
        The noises of sparring outside were muffled and the smell of fresh herbs and ungents was soothing.  Zion had imagined once that the building where assassins trained would be dark and dank, but the sandstone floors were always swept clean and the walls freshly whitewashed each spring. The different training arenas–most of which ran underground–were more suited to his imaginings. He shut his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall and letting his mind empty. It was the first lesson the Brothers taught them–to seek the quietest corner of their own mind and enfold themselves in it. Calm and control were the marks of a focused mind and only with that focus could they perform their duties for the Order. It was difficult to believe five years had passed. Sometimes it felt like only moments, other days he could hardly remember his life before Solas and the Order. The nights when he woke bathed in a cold sweat after dreaming that Rael had found him and planned to gut him like the fish he used to steal from nets at the docks came rarely. Zion couldn’t decide which was worse–the nightmares about Rael or the nights he dreamed about his mother and sisters, dreams that left a strange ache beneath his ribs that no amount of food or distraction could erase. He tried to regain the void, but his mind was filled with his most recent past time–imagining Rael’s face when he killed him. He focused instead on the gentle rustling as Garth sorted herbs and folded bandages.

         When he first met Garth, he did not understand how Garth maintained his cheerful silence. Now, he sometimes wondered if he would forget to speak.  So many of the interactions between the brothers in the Order were silent–not merely the hand-talk they used almost without thinking, but the body language and facial expressions. They studied these as well. Knowing someone’s thoughts was as easy as reading their face, the way they walked, what they did with their hands. Change your face, your walk, your gestures, and you could become anyone. Zion had learned that lesson more quickly than the other boys in his year–not only because it built on the skills he learned with Rael, but because he soon found that the circumstances in which he came to the Order were unusual and brought a level of notice from the other boys he could have happily gone without.  Most boys came to the Order well before their thirteenth years. Zion had been old for a novice. Brother Calver insisted he be placed with the seven and eight year olds and fought against moving him up to train with the older boys for months, despite his quick advancement. Solas finally stepped in one afternoon during Zion’s third month with the order. He was sparring with the younger boys and barely containing his anger. It had been a long day and fighting with boys half his size and age was wearing on him.
         “You could have killed them all,” Solas had said after calling a halt to the hand-to-hand fighting.
         The younger boys were sprawled, panting, around the training yard. Many were nursing bruises and aching heads and one boy was still cross-eyed from the minutes he spent unconscious.
         The next day, he was moved into the room where the fourteen-year-olds lived. Brother Calver’s expression at breakfast when he sat with his new year almost made the three months of humiliation worth it. Training was more challenging but he also endured months of taunts, of finding his clothing stolen or soaked with water or urine, of having his food snatched away from him. He knew fighting them would only make the tormenting increase, and it was no worse than what he had experienced from Rael and the sewer rats in the catacombs. Eventually the pranks ceased as the training drove all else from their minds and they fell into bed too exhausted to even mock one another. In addition to the individual trials, which took place every few months, they began group trials. These pitted all the boys in one age group against each other and were meant to weed out the unfit before the individual trials. In the first few years of training, boys often died in the trials. As they grew older, those who failed but survived were ejected from the Order. When the time came for his first group trial with the older boys, there were only ten including Zion, left in the fourteens.  The group trials were less likely to end in death or serious injury, but, as the Brothers always reminded them, the trials were still meant to test them to the breaking point.

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It’s Good to be King

Friday Fictioneers is short and sweet: one photo plus 100 words equals a complete story. As always, we are led by Rochelle. This week’s photo courtesy of Marie Gail Stratford.

chopsticks

         Chaz lounged in his newly-acquired throne, entirely made of tiny ivory sticks, and watched his subjects clear the battle rubble from the room. One body left a deep red smear across the floor as a white-faced man dragged him out by his feet. Three women began scrubbing at the viscous pool. He looked up at the hulking beast that crouched behind his throne. Its yellow eyes followed the bodies out the door.
         “Go on, then,” Chaz said and the beast rumbled away in the wake of the carrion. It’s good to be the Supreme Emperor, he thought with a grin.

I went a little abstract on this one with the chopsticks and Siracha, and less abstract with the idea of superiority.

Bonus story: a sci-fi short about a rebel alliance planning to rebel against a tyrant.

Chosen

This is a continuation of short serial story that is told here, here, and here. Without the first parts, this will make little sense.

         Shadowmen. Zion didn’t realize he’d spoken the word aloud until Solas grinned.
         “I knew you were quick, boy,” the assassin said, leaning back in his chair. The coin on the table had ceased its frantic spinning and lay flat, looking innocuous once again. Zion felt like he’d swallowed a mouthful of sand and licked his lips several times before he could answer.
         “What do you want with me?” he asked, proud that his voice did not shake.
         Solas hesitated, looking down at his hands. Zion could see the tracery of scars—lighter lines and scores against his weathered skin. There was a lifetime of stories in those scars. A tally of kills. He shuddered at the thought.
         “Once our numbers were many—a Brotherhood that attracted those who sought justice and the return of balance, the punishment of the wicked and the redemption of the innocent. But the years and wars and the diminishing of the faithful have taken their toll. Our order dwindles and few men take the journey to the Broken Tower to take part in the trials.” Solas steepled his long-fingered hands under his chin. “Few remember we exist at all and those that do,” he smiled mirthlessly, “are in no hurry to join our ranks.”
         Solas refilled Zion’s wine goblet and slid it across the table towards him. Zion’s head already felt furred from his first glass but he took a sip, not wanting to refuse the assassin. Solas did not seem quick to anger, but Zion could sense in him something akin to the darkness that burned in Rael. Such men could keep irritation slowly simmering but when it boiled without warning it scalded anything in its way.
         “Some men are born into it—my father and his before him and on through the ages until the beginning—they were all members of the Brotherhood. Others are chosen.”
         Zion took another sip of the wine and set the glass back down unsteadily. He didn’t understand the beggars that stank of the stuff, it made his head feel foggy and Solas’ face swam before his eyes. The assassin was watching him shrewdly, the candlelight playing across his high cheekbones and high, thin forehead. The room tilted suddenly and Zion barely saw Solas move, only felt the strong hands catch him before he tumbled to the floor. Hoisting him like he weighed no more than a child, the assassin laid him gently on the low couch in the corner.
         “I am sorry, child,” Solas said, his voice seeming to come from miles away, echoing like dripping water in the catacombs. “It may be of some comfort to you one day to know that you were meant for this. Il Avior ak’shur. God wills it.”
         Zion tried to struggle against the heavy sleep that tugged at him, tried to speak, to ask what Solas meant, what he had done. But the assassin seemed to read the question in his eyes.
         “Valerian in the wine—one day you’ll learn to recognize the scent. You will learn many other things.”
         Before the drugged sleep pulled him under, he thought he saw regret on Solas’ face, but it was not enough. Zion fixed a burning hate in his heart, searing the assassin’s face in his mind as darkness consumed him.

 

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Shadows

This is a continuation of an on-going (as yet untitled serial story) the first two posts are here and here.

         “Sit down.” Solas gestured to the empty chair in front of the cold hearth. There was a small table with a tray of food waiting and Zion tried not to stare, perching on the edge of the seat.
        “Eat. I know what it is to have a boy’s hunger. Eat,” Solas urged.
        Zion reached for a piece of bread that still steamed, marveling at the soft, fragrant center. He could not remember the last time he ate fresh bread. Once he finished the half-loaf, he wolfed down the soft, white cheese, salty olives, and sticky-sweet dates. There was wine in the goblet and he drank it sparingly, unused to the taste.
        “That wine is from my home. Do you like it?” Solas asked when Zion relaxed into his chair, he had remained silent while Zion ate, dark eyes watchful.
        Zion swallowed the last mouthful of cheese and wine and nodded.
        “You do not ask where I am from,” Solas said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and Zion noticed his clothing for the first time. He was no longer dressed in the boiled leather and drab rough spun cloak of a guard. His trousers were dusky blue and the tunic he wore over his shirt was embroidered with bright red at the neck.
        “You spoke the tongue of my people today in the Market. There are not many who know it,” Zion answered, feeling the sheathe knife in his sleeve press reassuringly against his forearm.
        “True enough.” Solas looked pleased. “How long have you been here, Zion.”
        Zion shrugged and tried not to look longingly at the empty plate, wishing he had savored the olives more slowly. “I came with my mother and sisters before they closed the gates to refugees.”
        “That was over four years ago,” Solas said, almost to himself. “How old are you?”
        “Ten-and-four, I think,” Zion said. “I lost track of the days after the fire.”

        Solas nodded and Zion found himself telling his strange benefactor about his mother and three older sisters. Tall Sacha, clever Anak, and Maial, the one everyone called the little beauty. They had escaped the flames that ravaged the ramshackle wooden shacks near the docks where they were living at the time, but he lost hold of Sacha’s hand and fell into the water during their flight. She tried to turn back to find him, but the panicked mob swept on. They did not stop to worry about what they trampled beneath their feet. He did not remember who fished him out of the briny water where he bobbed alongside fish heads and other floating detritus. Rael caught Zion trying ot pick his pockets a week later and, instead of calling the guards of taking a finger and a thumb for the crime, he took Zion down to the catacombs. Once there, Rael fed him, clothed him, and began to teach him the craft of thievery. Solas’s eyes narrowed at Rael’s name but he did not speak until Zion had concluded his two years spent working for the Thief Master. Zion looked up at Solas at the end of his tale.
        “I stole from you master today. I cannot return what I took.”
        To his surprise, Solas laughed. “That man is but one of many masters I have served. I am certain he will not miss what you took.”
        “You are not his servant, then?” Zion asked.
        “Do you still have the coin I gave you?”
        Zion withdrew it from his tunic and placed it on the table. Solas did not pick it up but touched the face that stared towards Zion with one flat eye.
        “Do you know what this is?”
        Zion shook his head.
        “The man on this coin was once a great ruler—like our beloved Emperor.” Solas’s lips twisted bitterly. “He thought so highly of himself that he demanded his face be placed on both sides of the coin, rather than just one. This angered the priests—for the opposite side of the coin was always used to honor the gods, thus preventing their disfavor. The emperor then demanded that the faces of the gods and honored warriors in the murals and mosaics and etchings be destroyed, along with any statues that were not created in his likeness. He said that none would be honored in stone or clay but him. So the stone masons and painters and sculptors—weeping over their brushes and mallets—destroyed their masterpieces. Before this edict, the great ruler’s city was known as the most beautiful in the land. Soon, it was rumored that the king would order the temples themselves torn down, that their stones and gold be used to create the grandest temple the world had ever seen. What god would be celebrated in this edifice? the people wondered.”
        “The great king,” Zion interrupted in spite of himself.
        Solas nodded and continued, “Once the priests and the people realized what he intended, they were outraged. A mob formed at the gates of his palace and his guards began to prepare for a bloody battle. However, that night, the king fell terribly ill and was dead by morning. The gods had shown their vengeance, the priests said, and raised up another king in his place—a wise, gentle man who respected the gods.”
        Zion curled his lip at the conclusion to the tale. “There are no gods.”
        “You believe in nothing?” Solas asked, picking up the copper coin and turning it so the lamplight burned along its edges.
        “A true god, a powerful god, would not sit silently in a temple made by the hands of slaves to serve the needs of the rich.” Zion met Solas’s gaze squarely. “I believe in taking what you can and in life and in death.”

        A smile spread across Solas’s face and he held the coin up between his thumb and forefinger. “The priests sought to destroy these coins after the death of the arrogant king—the coins were blasphemous, they said. But there were those who liked the idea of being ruled by the priests little better than they liked the first king. These same men were the ones who banded together to carry out judgment on that arrogant king—to send his immortal soul to the darkness while he slept.”
        Solas put the coin’s edge on the table and spun it like a top.
        “Men like me.”
        Zion’s heart was threatening to crawl into his throat. Solas was an assassin–that much did not surprise him. He had to be more than a simple mercenary, Zion had decided before he came to the Broken Staff. But this man was not just an assassin. The legends and whispers he’d heard fell into place—men who killed and left strange coins on the eyes of their victims. Coins no one had seen or used for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Shadowmen.

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Street Rats Part II

Read Part I first

         Zion knelt with the thirteen other boys that picked pockets for the Thief Master. Rael himself looked over the piles of gemstones, coins, and jewelry that sat in front of each boy as they crouched on the damp stone floor, heads down. Sometimes, Zion saw the cracks in the floor when he closed his eyes at night, but he kept his eyes down until Rael’s hand landed lightly on his head. Rael nudged the pile in front of Zion with his boot, his thin lips squirming in a smile.
         “This is all?”
         Zion dug his bare feet into the stone and looked Rael in the eyes. “Yes, Rael.”
         “A little mouse saw you talking with a Great Merchant in the bazaar,” Rael said.
         Zion fought the urge to look down the line of boys. He trusted no one in the catacombs—another lesson hard earned at the hands of the Thief Master. Rael’s moods and favorites shifted more quickly than torchlight in a draught and the disfavored always sought ways to change their lot.
         “I spoke to his guardsman after the Merchant surprised me. I did not want to lose a hand,” Zion said.
         “Why would the guard of a Grand Merchant speak to the likes of you? My little mouse said it was a lengthy conversation.”
         Zion wondered—not for the first time—where Rael came from. His accent and words were cultured, even though he spoke the gutter-tongue of thieves and beggars to his boys.
         “He felt sorry for the refugees and asked if I got enough to eat. I think he might have offered me food or coin, but his master pulled him away,” Zion said.
         He hoped Rael could not see the way his heart hammered under his tunic or the way Solas’ coin seemed to burn into his chest. Rael grabbed a handful of Zion’s hair and tilted his head back until the tendons in his neck threatened to pop.
         “Are you lying, little Zion?” Rael’s breath caressed his cheek, smelling of the cloves he chewed. “I always know when you lie.”
         “I swear it is the truth on my immortal soul,” Zion said, gratified by the flicker in Rael’s eyes. To swear such an oath on a lie would doom his immortal soul to the darkness. If one believed such things.
         Rael released him and smoothed his hair down flat again. “But of course. You learned your lesson about carrying false tales, didn’t you? Next time you bring in so little, little Zion, I shall not be so benevolent.”
         Rael flicked Zion’s cheek and Zion tried not to flinch. He looked back down at the ground, knowing that Rael would see the hatred burning in his eyes even in the uncertain torchlight. The next boy was questioned about his earnings and Zion turned his head away at the sharp sound of flesh striking flesh and the boy’s pained yelp. He thought of his meeting with Solas and tried to gauge the time. It was always night in the catacombs. He would need to run if he was to meet Solas at the Broken Staff before moonrise. When the boys were finally released, they rose with sore knees and stiff backs and each boy received a silver coin and five coppers for dinner before they scattered like rats. Zion made his way back up to the surface in time to hear the final bells of the evening prayers sing their bronze dirge over the darkening city. Zion tucked his coins into several different pockets. He had lost many a night’s earning when he first joined Rael—the older boys waited outside the entrances and exits to the catacombs, ready to beat the weaker ones bloody for their few coppers. Anything they found that a boy held back from Rael would win favor for weeks. Zion learned his own ways in and out of Rael’s domain, abandoning them and finding new ones if he were ever discovered.
         He waited until any watching eyes would be hard-pressed to follow him before breaking into a run towards the Broken Staff. He ignored the moans of the huddled beggars and grunting pairs in the shadows. The whores had begun their nightly work as well. Panting, he finally slowed his pace several streets from the inn. It would not do to arrive out of breath. There was a small fountain in the circle formed where three streets met. At its center, a woman with one arm and no hand held a pitcher from which a stream of lukewarm, brackish water fell into the shallow, moss-greened basin. Zion thrust his hands under the stream and splashed the water onto his face and legs, trying to clean the worst of the dust from his feet. The Broken Staff was familiar with beggars, but a boy alone would be noticed. He felt for the coin; strangely cool despite the heat of the night and the warmth of his skin. When he reached the street where the Broken Staff leaned against similar establishments, he hesitated just outside the pool of light. Although the man spoke kindly—and in his mother tongue—it did not prove he meant well by Zion. Rael had once seemed protector and father. Zion straightened and moved Solas’ coin into a pocket in his sleeve where it would be easier to access. He was not a child as he had been when Rael found him. There were more than coins hidden in the pockets in his sleeves.

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Street Rats Part I

Hi, hello, in case you’ve been worried, I’m still here–one semester of graduate school done and finally remembering my poor, neglected blog. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’re new, thank you as well! It’s not Friday, and this challenge of Chuck Wendig’s was from months ago, but I liked both the challenge and the story that came from it. In this challenge, we picked 5 words from a list. My words will be at the end so you’re not on a scavenger hunt for them throughout the story. If you like this, check out more Flash Fiction Challenges I’ve done, especially Circus. As always, comments and suggestions are encouraged!

©Hannah Sears

©Hannah Sears

          “You know why we have so many gods?” The beggar’s sightless eyes gazed to the left of where Zion stood, his face pocked as by disease or acid. “There’s a god fit for everyone. The Emperor and his like have their Warrior and Virgin in their golden temples.”
          “Who listens to your prayers, old man?” Zion asked, squinting towards the market.
          “The Hermit’s the only one for the likes of us’ns.” The blind man tilted his head, shaking his tin cup hopefully.
          “There are no gods,” Zion said. “And if there were, they wouldn’t care for us.”

          He turned and trotted down the dusty alley, feeling the stones grow warm beneath his callused feet as he approached the sun-drenched square. The cacophony of sounds assaulted his ears, yells of merchants and hawkers speaking a variety of languages, squawking chickens and bleating sheep, and the chime of the bells sounding midday prayers from the temple on the hilltop. He slunk between merchants; one of hundreds of orphans skulking hopefully around food carts and begging on corners. He thought of what the beggar had said and curled his lip. He’d seen paintings of the Hermit and puppets dressed in his gray rags, often carrying a shuttered lantern. Old men in rags were not gods, he thought. He turned away as the fat man whose pocket he was picking halted in front of a stall. Gold coins disappeared from Zion’s skinny, bronzed fingers into various pockets in his loose tunic and the shirt beneath. He looked innocently up at the merchant and held out a cupped palm, murmuring for a copper or two for some bread and mimicked the coarse, broken beggar tongue spoken by thousands in the city.
          The man sneered down at him, pulling his robes away as though Zion was infectious, “Away, street scum.”
          Zion turned his face towards the merchant’s guard. He was as different from his elephantine master as two men could be. He was tall and thin—but Zion could see that his wiry arms were muscular beneath his shirt and leather vest. Two swords hilts showed above his shoulders and Zion poised himself to disappear, flexing his bare toes against the sandy stones that paved the square, as the guard looked him over.
          “What’s your name, boy?” he asked.
          Zion stared at him. The guard had spoken Zion’s language, one none of the cityfolk knew, and spoken by only a handful of refugees.
          “Zion,” he answered finally.
          A smile plucked at the corner of the tall man’s lips and he reached into the leather pouch at his belt, pulling out a flat copper disk. He grabbed Zion’s wrist and turned his palm to face the blazing sky. Zion was too surprised to struggle and the man released his arm after laying the disk in Zion’s hand. The fat merchant was staring, his fleshy mouth parted in confusion.
          “Come to the Inn of the Broken Staff tonight, after the evening prayers, and bring this with you,” he said, closing Zion’s fingers over the metal circle.
          “A friend of yours, Solas?” the merchant asked.
          Zion saw the look of hatred that flashed across the strange man’s face before he turned back to his master and gestured that they should move on. Zion ghosted through the square, not bothering to pick another pocket, feeling the copper disk growing warm in his fingers. When he reached the safety of a shadowed doorway down another alley, he opened his hand and looked at the piece of metal in his cupped palm. It was much larger than a coin, but it had a face carved on each side like some of the foreign coins he had seen. He tried to bend the thing, it was little thicker than his thumbnail, but stronger than it looked. The face carved in profile was not one he recognized. There were statues of the Grand Merchants and the Emperor everywhere but this face was different—harsher, somehow. The way a wolf looks beside a hound. Zion slipped it carefully into an inner pocket sewn into the breast of his tunic. The tall man would not expect him for hours, but Rael would not be pleased if he arrived later than dusk.

          He jogged through the warren of streets, skirting the refuse on the ground and narrowly avoided being splashed by the contents of a chamber pot as it was upended from a third floor window. No matter the shade of your skin or the amount of coin in your pocket, everyone shits the same, Rael always said. Zion doubted the Grand Merchants would appreciate the sentiment. There were more beggars the farther he went from the grand bazaar but fewer bothered him. They knew he was one of Rael’s boys. Everyone in the beggar world knew of Rael—though few would ever be unlucky enough to see him. Zion ran a hand over the pockets beneath his clothes. He had done well today at the market, but he could have done better. He reached the grate in the side of the old temple and glanced around. The only one to witness his actions was a scrawny dog that had trailed him hopefully for several streets. Zion knew better than to encourage the dog to linger by feeding him. When he first joined Rael, he had smuggled a kitten down to the catacombs and fed it milk-soaked bread and fish heads. He still remembered the kitten: black as oily smoke from the torches in the catacombs and glowing, yellow topaz eyes. When he cuddled it next to him at night it purred so hard both their bones seemed to rattle, When Rael found the kitten, he had snapped its neck and cast it onto the refuse pile, daring Zion to remove it, to show any emotion for the little thing. Zion slid the grate aside and ducked through it. In the darkness, time ceased to have meaning, but Rael would know if he was late.

          Somehow, Rael always knew.

Words: Hermit, Acid, Orphan, Hound, Topaz

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Faded

Last Friday’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig had us randomly choose two items and make sure we include them in our story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Chuck Wendig puts a prompt up on his blog every Friday and you have a week to write (usually 1,000 words). I ended up with (1) a distant outpost and (2) an ancient tree. I haven’t written fantasy in a while because my professors will refuse to read it, I got out of the habit, and I realized my longer fantasy pieces some of my weakest characters. That said, I’m working on flexing my fantasy fingers again. 

         Khaleb pulled the dust-scarf back over his nose and mouth and recorked his water sack. The sloshing was louder than before, the sack now three quarters filled with air. His guide, Ano, waited patiently, only his dark eyes visible. Khaleb nodded and his silent guide pressed his horse forward, the black beast stepping delicately over the corroded road. There were cracks and fissures in the surface that he would have thought came from mere age and weathering–a natural assumption this deep in the Outlands. On the first day of their journey, Khaleb swore as his own horse staggered for the hundredth time on their first day. He damned the road and everyone who toiled on it, provoked by his guide’s reticence.
         “Age cannot touch the Draha,” Ano said tonelessly, invoking the ancient name for the road. “It was not the years that did this.”
         Khaleb had tried to get more information from Ano, but the man retreated back into unyielding silence and Khaleb was forced to bite his tongue as his horse tripped again. He had made the mistake of staring at the road as they travelled; convinced it was the heat that made the crevices in the rock shimmer and writhe. He had not realized how long he had been hypnotized by the gaps until Ano rapped him on the top of the head with the wooden handle of his riding crop.
         “Nearly there,” Ano said over his shoulder.
         Khaleb rubbed the knot on his head in remembrance and jerked his eyes back up from the road. He didn’t need another bruise from Ano and his overactive imagination. Almost there, he thought, and even his horse’s ears pricked up in interest. The Ghan-mar Outpost was a lost cause. He knew it and his superiors knew it. If it wasn’t for a minor misunderstanding between him and the General’s daughter, Khaleb never would have been in the Outlands seeking answers from the men at Ghan-mar. There had been no answer to messages for weeks. Thieves, rapists, and a murderer or two. Those were the Ghan-mar elite. The rest of the outpost was manned by deserters and debtors serving out their time in service to His Supreme Eminence in the most godsforsaken corner of this godforsaken country. Khaleb thought longingly of the tavern by the oasis, of soft flatbread dripping with honey, of salted olives, of chilled wine, and of the buxom serving girls. He had no desire to traipse across the desert finding out why the scum of the realm was acting, predictably, like scum. He should be back in Caireb with General Logan’s daughter on his arm. Or in his bed. Miss Audra Logan, the virtuous flower from the Homeland, transplanted in the desert by her distinguished father. He grinned to himself. Audra was neither virtuous, nor anything like the fragile Homeland flower her father proclaimed. Neither of these facts kept him from being packed off to the Outlands and Ghan-mar on this godsdamned mission.
         Ano let out a wordless cry and his horse squealed, prancing backwards and nearly knocking Khaleb out of the saddle.
         “What in the name of–” Khaleb broke off as he saw what had startled the guide and his horse.
         A gnarled tree was sprouting out of the center of the road–in a place where grass could not even grow, in the middle of a sunbaked desert. Khaleb stared in awe at the tree, its trunk was wider than he could wrap his arms around and the twisting branches stabbed towards the lidless burning eye above them. The wood was gray and looked brittle but there were great round fruits hanging from the branches. He squinted against the heat haze and realized as his stomach heaved, that there were eyes staring back at him from bloated skulls. Not eyes–empty sockets that gazed blackly at him, still weeping tears of dried blood. Ano was praying breathlessly and if Khaleb hadn’t been so desperate to conserve what little water was in his body, he would have vomited. He swallowed against the bile in his throat and tore his eyes away from the faces, digging his heels into his horse until the beast took a few reluctant steps forward. He could see the hunched sand-colored outpost in the distance, blurred by the heat. There were stakes driven into the ground beside the road every twenty paces. The headless corpses slouched on their poles, grotesque sentries.
         “Who did this?” Khaleb demanded turning towards Ano. He could see the whites of his companion’s eyes in his dark face. “What barbarism is this?”
         “We’ll never escape,” Ano mumbled. “We have come too far, too far now.”
         “Escape? Escape what?” Khaleb whirled around, scanning the horizon.          There was nothing but the desiccated corpses and the unnatural tree.
         “They should not have built it here. We told them, when they first came, ‘build no house of man in the Greylands.’ We told them, ‘it is forbidden.’”
         “The Greylands?” Khaleb knew the phrase from a cursory reading of badly translated folk stories, he had never heard anyone use it in reference to a real place.
         Ano nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the faces in the tree. “It is from the Greylands that they come. The Faded Ones.”
         “The who?” Khaleb felt a modicum of relief. If Ano was babbling about ghost stories and this was all some superstitious nonsense, then he could go back to his superiors, tell them that the crazies in Ghan-mar finally offed each other and spend the rest of the evening playing the perfect gentleman to that minx Audra.
         “The Faded Ones,” Ano’s voice was barely above a whisper. “They come from the cracks that run between realms. They do not like those that do not respect their ways. That travel the Draha. That think they can tame these lands.
         “Ano, those stories are folklore.”
         Ano looked at him blankly, eyes wide.
         Khaleb repeated, “They’re just stories.”
         Ano shook his head. “They are coming.”
         As Ano spoke, a high keening wail rose. It sounded at first like the cry of a hawk but Khaleb knew it was coming from the heads on the tree. Khaleb drove his heels into his horse’s flanks and wrenched the animal’s head around. He didn’t care if Ano followed, didn’t care that he did not know the way back through the desert, that the road could well be covered by sand. He did not know how the heads could be wailing if their bloated tongues made no movement, but he lay on his stallion’s neck and urged the animal on with his spurs and his crop and his voice. The dirge filled his ears and he yelled to drown it out. He could hear Ano screaming and the dull thud of his horse’s hooves as the guide followed. Something splashed against his face and he tasted salt and rust. Ano was not screaming any longer.
         Khaleb closed his eyes as a hot wind rose in front of him, driving sand into his exposed hands and eyes like shards of glass. His horse balked and he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He dug in his heels and the horse reared, sending him to the ground before he could scramble for a better grip. He saw its dark tail fan out as the frightened beast disappeared in a cloud of powdery dust. He couldn’t breathe. Sand coated his tongue and his side where Ano’s blood clung to his robes. He refused to look back, trying to stand; he fell onto his hands and knees, trembling legs refusing to hold his body. He felt dizzy, there was a sharp pain in his side and he could not catch his breath. He stared at his hands on the road, at the silver-black fissures. There was a sound like a wind chime or pieces of glass being shaken in a dustpan.
         He looked to the side and saw a column of sand twirling slowly beside the road. It sparkled in the overpowering sun and he could not help but stare at it as it revolved. It spun faster and faster until it coalesced into a shape. The hooded figure shook once with a little shiver like a cat and sand fell from it like water. Khaleb was rooted to the road. He tried to force himself to crawl but, when he looked at his hands again, he saw that they had disappeared past the wrist, held in the vice of one of the gleaming cracks. The figure knelt beside him and he looked into its face. The face reminded him of the statues on the pagan temples in Caireb, their carven features indistinct, blurred by wind and scoured by sand. It reached out a hand the color of sun-bleached bone and touched his cheek. Its fingers burned like live coals and he tried to pull away. The other hand lifted to his face. It gripped his skull between its hands and pulled.