Shades of Loss – a #FlashFriday story

Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons

Strange, rusted shapes crunched beneath Mantaj’s feet as she approached the ruins, holy book clasped in her hand. When she was young, she and the other children had come here often, rummaging through the rubble in search of these ancient artefacts from before the dark time. This place of excitement was now one of terror, for her even more than for the other villagers. But they were not priests, and so the exorcism fell to her.

With trembling steps she walked through the high doorway, the flames of her torch making shadows dance around the hall within. A fresh pile of rubble lay ahead of her, a dark stain at its edge. The stain of her mother’s blood.

As she approached the rubble, a ghostly figure appeared in the air further down the hall. Terrible, wrenching loss at the sight of her mother’s face was replaced by fear for her life. This was the unnatural thing that had sent others running, a spirit from the beyond. It was said that the walking dead could devour your soul, and the fear of the beyond that had led Mantaj to become a priest now made her feet falter.

“It’s all so beautiful.” The ghost smiled, then looked up in alarm. Some invisible force struck it to the ground, head caved in just as her mother’s had been. A moment later it was upright again. “It’s all so beautiful.”

As she watched her mother die over and over, Mantaj’s fear was replaced by guilt. She had been fearing for herself, not mourning her mother’s loss. The feelings twisted up together, freezing her in place.

“I shall make shadows out of loss,” she said, reciting her favourite scripture for reassurance.  “Angels shall become demons at my hand, and demons shall become angels.”

She walked with trembling steps across the hall, forcing herself not to flee as the invisible rubble crushed her mother and the roof creaked overhead. Her duty was to keep the village safe, and to help her mother move on.

A hiss came from the side of the hall, a feral cat prowling through the ruins. For a moment it seemed to glow, and the ghostly image was broken by the animal’s silhouette. Behind the cat, something glowed.

She turned and walked toward that point of light. One foot sank into a hole in the floor. Yelping, she fell to the ground.

As she pulled herself back to her feet, her mother’s voice was replaced by an echo of that yelp.

Mantaj looked back. The ghost no longer took her mother’s form. Now it looked like Mantaj herself, caught over and over in the act of tripping at that hole, crying out again and again in alarm.

She trembled with fear. If that was her ghost, then what had happened to her body? Had she fallen and cracked her head open? Was she now just a remnant waiting to pass on, her mortal flesh lying dead on the ground? She forced herself to look down, to face the terrible reality of her fate.

There was no body. Only the hole, the ground, and Mantaj standing on it.

Relief lifted her spirits, and she walked more confidently toward the glowing light.

“Demons shall become angels,” she said, holding the book out in front of her like a talisman. No-one trained village priests to perform exorcisms, but she knew that holy words could drive out unholy spirits. “Demons shall become angels.”

“Demons shall become angels.” The ghost echoed her voice, and as she glanced back she saw that it too walked confidently forward, though without moving from its spot.

Approaching the wall, she saw that the light was coming from an ancient device embedded in the base of the wall. It was dirty and rusted, and a lump of rock had recently fallen against it, pressing on two protrusions that glowed like fine gemstones, one blue and one red. Was it some sort of trap, confining the spirits that haunted this place? A blue gem to display benevolent spirits and a red one to trap demons, as she had heard of in legends?

She lifted away the rock at its base. Both gems ceased their glowing, and the light went out. Behind her, the ghost fell silent.

Mantaj was surprised to feel a surge of sadness. She had lost so much with her mother’s death, and the transformation of that spirit from an image of death to a message of scripture had given her hope. For a moment she had believed that death was not the end, not for good things.

She stroked the blue gemstone, and the lighted flashed again. Leaning the rock against the gem, she saw it resume its soft glow and heard her own voice coming from behind her.

“Demons shall become angels,” the ghost said again.

“Thank you.” Mantaj bowed her head to the spirit trap, and turned to leave.

“Demons shall become angels.” The voice followed her out through the hall. “Demons shall become angels.”

* * *

This story is a return to the world I set up in ‘Pale Wings’, one where advanced technology has come to be seen as magic. That original idea came from Ben Moxon, while this story came about because Steve Hartline said he would like to see more of this world. Mantaj is named after a friend of mine, who this week gave me some of the best writing feedback I’ve ever had – I wanted to provide some sort of tribute.

If you enjoyed this story then you can find links to many more of my flash fiction pieces here, read more in my books, and even get a free copy of my short story collection Riding the Mainspring by signing up to my mailing list.

And as always, if you’d like to leave any feedback or an idea for a future story then please leave a comment below.

Sweetpeas – a #FlashFriday story

rosesToby Goodwin’s eyes watered at the thick scent of sweetpeas in bloom. From the safety of her doorstep Bridget Levsky glared disapprovingly up at him, wire-frame glasses glinting beneath her grey curls.

“Young man, Professor Levsky and I spent forty years perfecting our White Supremes. I’m not going to leave them to die because some oaf can’t steer straight.”

“Mrs Levsky, I work for the council.” Toby flashed his ID for the third time, then pointed at the tanker crashed across the road, police officers busily taping it off. The driver’s body lay beside it, blood and a few green tendrils creeping out from beneath the white sheet. “That man’s chest exploded minutes after the crash. Whatever was in the tanker, it’s not safe for you to stay here.”

“It’s Dr Levsky to you.” She pointed at the tracks the lorry had left on her lawn. “What’s the council going to do about this mess, that’s what I’d like to know. Now get off my garden or I’ll set the dog on you.”

A bedraggled mongrel yipped half-heartedly from the floor.

“That goes for you too, Thomas Bell!” Dr Levsky shouted as a small boy shot through the flowerbeds on a BMX. As he stopped to stick out his tongue the wind changed. His face went white, eyes widening as he gagged on the greenery shooting from his throat. Police rushed to his aid, but Toby could only stare in horror.

#

There was something reassuring about the thick rubber seals of the biohazard suit. It kept out the pollen as well as whatever had been in the tanker, helping Toby to breath more easily.

Dr Levsky’s skin looked different looked paler through the condensation inside the mask.

“Have you died your hair?” he asked.

“It’s no good buttering me up.” She declared patted her brown locks. “I wasn’t going yesterday, and I’m not going today.”

“Everyone else has.” It hadn’t been hard to convince them – half the neighbourhood had seen little Tommy reduced to red lumps and squirming roots. Even Toby, who had never met the boy, felt sick at the thought.

“I’m not everyone else,” the old lady declared.

“Neither is Albert Brooks anymore.” Toby pointed to the empty house two doors down.

“Serves him right,” Mrs Levsky said. “Letting his nasty dog dig up people’s gardens. You don’t do that, do you Ruffles?”

Joints clicking, she bent to scratch the mongrel’s head, and Toby saw past her into the hallway. At the far end a door stood ajar, revealing rows of seedlings in tall test-tubes, spiralling glass pipes feeding dark liquid to their roots.  The seedlings were moving, stems turning towards Toby as if caught by a gentle breeze.

An uneasy feeling tickled at his mind.

“What did you think of Mr Hardbottom from next door?” he asked.

“Interfering old so-and-so.” Dr Levsky frowned. “Kept threatening to cut back my Restormels.”

“Janet Stevens?”

“Nosey cow.”

“The postman?”

Dr Levsky listed the failings of one casualty after another. As he listened, Toby’s uneasy feeling grew.

#

Toby felt a little ridiculous as he scrambled down the fence and into the shadow strewn back garden. Not as ridiculous as he’d felt in the police station, trying to explain to the desk sergeant why they should investigate the little old lady with the lovely flowers, and not the contents of the tanker crash. The police had treated his theory with contempt, but he still believed there was something wrong. Someone had to investigate.

His nose tingled feverishly as he brushed past the sweetpeas, pale petals glowing in the moonlight. He wished he still had the biohazard suit, but the fire brigade wouldn’t let him keep it overnight.

Carefully opening the back door, he tip-toed into a hallway that smelt of old boots and compost. At the far end Bridget Levsky stood alone in her kitchen, muttering to rows of seedlings. Her hair was ginger now, fingers and nose more pointed.

“You’ll keep the nasty men away, won’t you precious?” She caressed a plant and its fronds stroked her wrinkled hand.  Tendrils like those that had burst from poor Tommy Bell turned towards Toby.

Heart pounding he backed away through a thick curtain.  His nose twitched again, and he turned to see row upon row of lush, green leaves swaying in the glare of industrial lights.  In their midst stood two more Bridget Levskys, a bottle blonde and a fading brunette. Between them half-a-dozen more near-identical old ladies lay in a pool of thick yellow liquid, each a little sturdier, a fraction less wrinkled than the last.

The blonde pursed her lips and whistled. At the sound, a cluster of fragile purple flowers turned towards Toby, spraying pollen into his face. His allergies went into overdrive as something squirmed in his nostrils. He gave an almighty sneeze and fine green fragments rocketed from his nose, sailing across the room and hitting the women. Those fragments erupted in to a web of roots and crawlers, sprawling across their bodies and into the bubbling vat. Green veins throbbed as the plants guzzled the thick goo, burying the two Bridget Levskys in a mound of trailers as they expanded at an ever-increasing rate beneath the glow of the industrial bulbs.

Toby stumbled through the door and out into the road, the mongrel dog yapping at his heels. Greenery burst from every orifice of the house, smashing windows and doors, stretching out in search of sunlight. With one last, desperate thrust towards the pale moon, the vines over-reached and collapsed amidst a cloud of softly scented petals, all perfectly lovely and perfectly dead.

A wrinkled hand pushed out of the greenery, and then flopped and hung still.

It seemed Toby wouldn’t need to evacuate Dr Levsky after all.

 

* * *

Having discussed plants as villains a few posts back, it seemed like a good time for this story. It was also an experiment in editing, digging out a piece I abandoned years ago to see if I could turn it into something worth reading. Was it worth the effort? You judge.

As always, you can read more of my fiction for free on my Flash Friday page, or by signing up to my mailing list and receiving a free copy of my ebook Riding the Mainspring.

Holes Through the World – a #FlashFriday story

Shivering despite layers of jumpers and a thermal jacket, Tod trudged on through the snow drift. Each step was a struggle, as if he was having to push holes through the world just so he could keep moving. But it would be worth it. The snow was deep enough, the conditions bleak enough to draw out his prey.

This was the day he would finally photograph sasquatch, and prove Angleby’s magic monkey shaman theory was crap.

Despite the cold he became giddy with excitement as he saw another set of ape-like paw prints. Just like before, three long strides and then nothing. How did it do that, hiding most of its trail so perfectly? Why then did it leave these tracks at all?

Just one more mystery whose unravelling would make him famous. Let Angleby laugh at him then.

Excitement turned to alarm as the snow gave way beneath him and he went tumbling into a ditch and landed with a crack.

Rolling over, he realised with alarm that he’d broken his camera. The lens was smashed and the casing split open, letting in the same icy water that now seeping into his cloths. Cursing and sneezing, he staggered to his feet and pulled out his phone.

“No signal,” the screen announced. Who cared about signal? What mattered was…

Yes, the phone camera was working. He might still manage this.

Stuffing the phone back in his pocket, Tod tried to climb out of the ditch. But the sides were slippery and steep. Every time he tried to grip them he just brought more snow down upon himself.

The snow covering him was melting, little by little soaking through his clothes. He shivered. His arms and legs were going numb. The sky was turning an ominous grey.

This was bad. His teeth chattered, toes tingled with pain. He looked up, hoping to see something he could grab hold of.

Then he saw it. A magnificent beast, seven feet high and with long fur hanging around its wise, gentle face.

Sasquatch was looking down at him.

Tod’s heart raced. He didn’t want to look away, didn’t want to miss a moment of this. With cold-deadened fingers he fumbled the phone from his pocket. But as he held it up a wave of dizziness overcame him.

He fell back in the ditch.

The edges of his vision grew dark and the cold crept further in, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was just too sleepy.

The snow crunched beside him, and he was lifted by a coarsely furred arm. The warmth and the earthy smell of the sasquatch’s body revived him just enough to look up as it reached out with its other arm. Tod knew he must be hallucinating, because the creature seemed to fold the snow-scattered landscape around itself, revealing something else beyond. Then it took three long strides and suddenly they were surrounded by warmth and sunlight.

The sasquatch lowered Tod onto a beach of soft sand, peeled open his wet jacket and let the warmth in. Slowly, Tod felt warmth and life return to his body.

With it came an awareness of how terribly close to death he had come.

“Thank you.” He looked up at the sasquatch, which grunted and nodded its head.

Something cold and hard still sat in Tod’s hand. He lifted the phone and pointed the camera at the sasquatch. It covered its head with its arms, wailing in distress, but made no move to leave him.

Tod lowered the phone. Who cared about reputation compared with what this magnificent creature had done for him? It wasn’t like he could prove Angleby’s magic ape theory wrong. Not honestly, after what he’d seen.

He rose and put an arm around the sasquatch.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Could we maybe have a selfie, here on the beach, just for me?”

The sasquatch nodded, smiled and pointed a finger at itself.

“You want a copy too?” Tod shrugged. “OK then.”

It wasn’t like he could share the picture with anyone else. Sasquatch on a beach – who’d ever believe that?

Wait, that's it? But I wanted to build a snowman!
Wait, that’s it? But I wanted to build a snowman!

#

Today’s story was inspired by a random tangent during an editorial conversation, in which we managed to get from the future of prison transport to “a holographic sasquatch that folds space with his squatch fingers,” and hearing about the several feet of snow that hit parts of the US this week. And to think I was excited at the thin layer of cold white stuff you can see making my garden pretty in the picture.

Got an idea for a Flash Friday story? Tell me and I’ll add it to my list. Or you could go read more of these stories, though not all of them feature sasquatch.

And if you enjoyed this story then please share it – words are meant to read, they get antsy if we don’t share them around.

Broken Phones and Empty Bellies – a #FlashFriday story

415400769_f29c6e81f8_oThe bottom of the air barge opened, spewing thousands of tons of abandoned technology across the empty wasteland. Even before the broken computers and old phones had stopped falling, Mei dashed out to start rummaging through the heaps, one of hundreds of children hoping to scavenge enough metal to feed themselves for one more day.

Mei at least had one advantage over the other zinc monkeys. Before she ran away, Lok had replaced her middle finger with a scanning pen that flashed different colours depending on the metal content of the rubbish. She still remembered the pain of the rusty sheers slicing through her finger, but she was grateful for the scanner.

With swift, practiced movements she cast aside the useless items, dropping the more valuable ones into her sack. A circuit board here, a battery there, anything with enough precious metal to make it worth melting down. She ignored the numbness of her feet and the desperate hunger in her belly, just kept on digging.

A tablet flashed as she pulled it from the heap. In surprise, Mei tapped the cracked screen and watched it flare into life. The battery was nearly dead, but it had enough energy to show her that it was still full of files, the former owner having forgotten to purge it. There were accounts here, and what looked like a diary.

Hastily, Mei thrust the tablet through her belt and pulled her shirt over it. Her breath quickened in excitement. Data was worth more than all the gold and zinc she’d ever gathered. If she took it to Lok he could identify the owner through the DNA with which rich people marked their property. He might use the accounts to raid their funds, blackmail them with the diary, even get them to pay to have their own data back. And Lok was never as vengeful as he was greedy – he would pay well for this, and not beat her much.

The sound of helicopters made her look up. Figures with guns were descending on ropes all around the heap of discarded electronics, their armoured masks creating a faceless ring surrounding the zinc monkeys.

“This land has been re-zoned as a municipal dump site,” a metallic voice announced from speakers under the helicopters. “All refuse will be processed by the Ryu-Bok Corporation. You will be searched and escorted off the site.”

Mei cursed. The Corporation were getting quicker. They must have had the re-zoning writ on the mayor’s desk before the refuse had landed, again claiming all the resources under their government contract.

Abandoning her sack, Mei raced toward the edge of the heap, the tablet still pressed against her stomach. If the guards were busy she might get through a gap. They couldn’t catch everyone, could they?

A mercenary appeared around a heap six feet ahead of Mei. He raised his gun.

Mei twisted on the spot and dashed back among the heaps. Pain jolted her arm as a rubber bullet clipped her, but she kept going, weaving between the piles of rubbish and the other panicking children.

As she ran she kept glancing at her surroundings, desperately searching for anything that might help. She couldn’t outrun the guards, but how else could she keep the tablet? And without getting something from this drop, how could she feed herself?

She scrambled up a heap of broken mainframes. Her clumsy scanning finger caught on a metal edge and she winced as its rough connectors dug into her flesh. Behind her, someone else was coming up the heap.

At the top she stopped, looking around for the best way to run. A Ryu-Bok guard was clambering up behind her, a government inspector in a grey suit coming from the other direction. She was trapped.

She glanced back at the guard, and then at the inspector. The inspector might arrest her if he found her carrying the tablet, while the guard would surely beat her. Which was worse? How many years’ freedom were broken bones worth?

Pressing her hand against her belly, she felt the cold, flat surface of the tablet. Tears welled up inside her. She had come so close to something precious, only to have it snatched away. It could have been hers, just as it had belonged to whoever’s DNA it was marked with.

She gasped as a desperate hope glimmered inside her. The guard and the inspector had almost reached her. She only had seconds.

Closing her teeth around the scanning finger, she wrenched her hand away as hard as she could. There was a moment of agonising pain as the scanner separated from her flesh, and then blood poured from the empty finger socket. With her other hand she pulled out the tablet, then wiped the wound all across its surface, covering it in blood.

Her pursuers reached the top of the heap and stood staring at her.

“This is mine.” She held up the tablet. “It is marked with my DNA.”

“That can’t be legal.” The guard’s voice was muffled and inhuman.

“Probably not.” There was doubt in the inspector’s voice. “But do you want to cause the test case?”

“Not for what I get paid,” the guard said. “Not for the sake of a broken old tablet.”

“Come on, kid.” The inspector shook his head. “You’re not allowed here.”

Mei followed him down the heap.

“Can you take me to a hospital?” She felt wobbly, like she might fall over at any moment, and blood was still running from her hand. But she clutched the tablet tight. For the next month, she would not go hungry.

 

#

This story was inspired by my friend Dan, who challenged me to write some cyberpunk, and provided suitable music to write it to. He also provided me with three things to include:

You can see for yourselves how that led to this story.

Please feel free to provide prompts for my future Flash Friday stories – it’s always fun to try to write to someone’s specifications.

If you enjoyed this then you might also enjoy my other free-to-read Flash Friday fiction and my collection of science fiction stories Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

 

Photo by Anna via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Gorgon’s Gaze – a #FlashFriday story

5362011195_6eaf95c8eb_z“You said there’d only be one gorgon!” Myrrine yelled as she fled down the torch lit tunnel, sandals slapping against the cold stone. Behind her, the sound of many slithering bodies pursued them through the darkness.

“That’s what Herodotus told me.” Korinna’s armour glinted in the flickering light, mirrored shield flashing as the Amazon glanced back over her shoulder. A bag slapped against her leg, blood seeping from the severed head inside, a single strand of snake hair flapping about as it poked out the top. “Useless bloody historians.”

They rounded the corner and saw Ampelios scratching his head as he tried to remember which of two tunnels they’d come down an hour before. The Spartan had the muscles of a bull, but sadly the brains to match.

“Go left!” Korinna yelled just as Ampelios headed down the right-hand tunnel. “No! That’s the-“

There was a sharp snap and a bellow of pain. Ampelios staggered back out of the tunnel, blood spurting from what remained of his left leg.

“There’s a trap,” he said, dull-eyed as ever.

“I know,” Korinna said. “We built it.”

Ampelios fell to the floor, staring up at Myrrine as she rushed to his side.

“Good thing we brought a physician, eh?” he said.

“Good thing indeed.” Myrrine clamped Ampelios’s hands around the wound, getting him to staunch the blood flow as best he could. Any other man would have passed out by now, but then this was the way with Spartans. “We need to close this fast or you’ll die of blood loss.”

She rummaged in her bag, looked up in frustration.

“Where are my bandages?” she asked.

“Used them to make the gorgon net,” Korinna replied, looking anxiously back down the tunnel.

“What about my Vesuvian iron?” Myrrine asked. “It’s enchanted to cauterise wounds.”

“Black rock the size of my fist?” Ampelios asked.

“That’s right.”

“Threw it at the gorgon.”

Myrrine screamed. It wasn’t as cathartic as she’d hoped.

“Why in Hades did you bring me,” she said, panic making her voice rise, “if you weren’t going to let me keep my tools?”

“Thought we’d need a doctor if we got turned to stone,” Korinna said. “Hurry, they’re nearly here.”

“Turned to stone?” Myrrine exclaimed. “I don’t know how to turn someone back from stone!”

“What sort of doctor are you?”

“The stupid sort, if I ever work with you again.”

Ampelios was starting to look pale, his fingers loosening around the stump, letting out even more blood.

The slithering of pursuit grew louder. Something flickered down the tunnel.

“We have to move.” Korinna dragged Ampelios to his feet, thrust him towards Myrrine. “You help him run.”

“But he’s twice my size!” Myrrine staggered beneath his weight, blood starting to soak the bottom of her toga.

“Then you’ll have to run quickly.” Korinna shoved them towards the left hand tunnel, holding her shield up the way they had come. A moment later she turned and dashed after them. One of her feet clattered heavily against the ground.

“What happened?” Myrrine asked.

Glancing back, she saw that one of Korinna’s feet had turned stiff and grey, and the warrior was grimacing as she ran.

“Foot’s stone,” Korinna said. “Must have just caught me with the gaze.”

“I didn’t think that was how-”

“Well it is,” Korinna snapped. “Now keep running, or Ampelios won’t be the only one dying.”

They ran on up the tunnels, but the one-legged Ampelios was slowing them down, the more so because he was bent over, futilely trying to stem the bleeding. Myrrine glanced from him to Korinna. Inspiration struck. It was a desperate, probably futile sort of inspiration, but it was all she had.

“Give me the head,” she said.

“Oh yes,” Korinna snapped. “Let’s turn someone else to stone, maybe lose the head too and miss out on the bounty.”

Myrrine could hardly fight Korinna for what she needed, and she could still hear the gorgons approaching. In desperation she swung around, hurling Ampelios at the Amazon. Korinna’s sword clattered to the ground as she grabbed him with both hands.

Desperation lending her speed, Myrrine snatched up the sword and sliced open the bottom of the bag. She grabbed the gorgon’s head as it fell out, averting its gaze before it could hit her, then directing it onto Ampelios’s ruined leg. The air tingled with power, and the stump stopped bleeding as it turned stone grey. He pulled his hands from it and stood up straight, leaning on the more secure support of Korinna.

Myrrine thrust the head into her empty medical bag. At least that was good for something.

“Come on!” she yelled. “Now we can really run.”

 

*

This story was inspired by a conversation in a comment thread with H. Anthe Davis – I know this isn’t exactly a fantasy medical drama, but it’s a start, so thanks for the inspiration H.

If you enjoyed this you might also like my other Flash Friday stories, a growing collection of very short fiction. And for more fantasy stories, check out my ebook By Sword, Stave or Stylus.

 

Picture by takomabibelot via Flickr creative commons.

Stay With Me – a Flash Friday story

7953444098_b59d5abce7_zElena Dubrass sipped her tea and stared across the plantation. From here on the porch she could see fields of snappers, their verdant heads bobbing to catch the frogs that occasionally hopped across their roots, while grey-faced gilgar labourers worked their way along the lines, draining the sap.

A cloud was appearing over the jungle, like a wave creeping up a beach.

She heard their butler Stiviss approaching. He had an eery elegance, his scales glistening above an impeccable tailcoat. And though his features were ill-suited to smiling, there was a warmth in his voice that she seldom heard from Harald, whose long absences were not what she had hoped for in a husband.

‘If I may, mistress.’ He placed the cake stand on the table. ‘You might wish to join Mister Dubrass in town.’

He looked as happy as she felt at the prospect of her going to Harald. This life must be lonely for Stiviss too, separated from his kin by a higher station.

She leaned back in her chair, layered skirts rustling. There was a lonely beauty to this place, with its scarlet frogs and its hungry plants, its snake-faced natives and its golden sunsets.

‘Why go to town?’ she asked, taking a honey wafer. He had been harping on this issue for days.

‘The frogs.’ He held her gaze a moment, then turned abruptly away. ‘There are few left, and they are turning brown early – an ill sign.’

‘Nonsense.’ She would rather stay here with Stiviss than be chased by superstition towards Harald.

A cry rose from the plantation, and then another. Gilgar were running out of the fields and into the jungle. Elena stared the way they had come, towards the dark shape she had taken for a cloud. She could hear the buzz of razor locusts descending to devour the snappers. She had witnessed small swarms before, felt a thrill of fear as she shuttered the house against them, but never so many, and never so fierce.

‘Mistress, the balance has tipped,’ Stiviss said. ‘They will devour us all.’

She gazed enraptured at the approaching swarm. She had known this place was beautiful, but outside of the jungle it had felt safe. Now it was a dark thing that made her heart race.

‘Into the house,’ she said, pulling herself away from the sight.

Stiviss shook his head and pointed at the mansion’s upper floors. Already locusts were swarming across one corner of the roof. A window cracked and then shattered beneath the weight of the swarm, a shutter falling free with a crack of flying nails.

‘You were right, Stiviss,’ she said. ‘We must go into town.’

She began to hurry round the house, realised that he was not following. She turned and saw him standing, gaze shifting between her and the jungle, face full of doubt.

‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand. ‘If I’m losing this place then I can’t lose you too.’

His hand tightened round hers and they ran for the barn.

The buggy was out and they leapt aboard as the bulk of the swarm reached the fields. Jasmine, the old brown mare, snorted in panic as the buzzing grew.

Stiviss helped Elena up, those ridiculous skirts getting in her way. She cracked the reins and they jolted off down the dirt track, stray razor locusts slashing at them with sharp, narrow legs.

Jasmine raced with all the fuel of fear, but the swarm was faster. Elena felt them slashing at her arms, saw blood run pale down Stiviss’s face. The creatures seemed to have more taste for him, and for Jasmine, whose flanks were soon raw and seeping. The horse stumbled and fell, the buggy grinding to a halt as she panted out her last.

‘Quickly!’ Elena leapt in terror from the carriage, began running up the road. Behind her, Stiviss slid to the ground with a thump and lay groaning in the dirt.

She ran back, winged bodies battering her face, and put an arm around him.

‘Stay with me,’ she said. ‘We have to get to town.’

‘This is just a warning.’ He shook his head. ‘Just the beginning. Too many snappers, eating all the frogs. Nothing left to eat locust eggs. The balance has tipped. The jungle will devour your fine colony.’

‘And you?’ she asked with growing horror.

‘My people will be safe,’ he said. ‘We are part of the jungle.’

‘But you… this…’ She gestured at his wounds, then at the buzzing swarm.

His wheezing laugh turned into a wince.

She stared in horror at the ruin of the buggy, at the red mess that had been her fine horse, at the pain across Stiviss’s face. And then she looked at the jungle, the swarm thinner near its foliage. A place full of beauty and terror, full of the unknown. Could it be safe? Could she ever become one with that?

She should run for town, flee all of this with Harald. But what if she took a risk, for all that beauty?

And for Stiviss.

She lifted him in her arms, struggling under the weight and her own pain. She had never had to carry a person before, but between his kindly face and the locusts’ assault she somehow found the strength.

‘Stay with me,’ she said as she ran from the road, locusts slashing her all the way.

‘Stay with me,’ she groaned as she stumbled into the trees, the creatures still buzzing around her head.

‘Stay with me,’ she murmured as she collapsed into the undergrowth.

Now the swarm no longer reached her, held off by the thick greenery and the easier prey that small birds made.

She turned her head, saw Stiviss smiling back at her. The jungle was lush around them, frogs croaking, birds singing, the scent of sweet, strange flowers on every breath. And through the pain, through the buzz of the swarm vanishing into the distance, she felt freedom.

 

*

If you liked this story then you can find links to the rest of my Flash Friday stories here. You might also enjoy my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus. And check out the #FlashFriday tag on twitter, which seems to get used for a bunch of things, including other authors posting their flash stories.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of NaNoWriMo, in which I descend into the pits of madness trying to keep on top of my own word count as well as my freelance writing work. If you’re also doing NaNo you can find me on the website as gibbondemon, feel free to add me as a buddy and we can egg each other on through the insanity.

 

Picture by tvnewsbadge via Flickr Creative Commons.