McCullough and his goons pointed their guns at me, but I was cool enough to call their bluff. They were the ones who invited me into their shithole of a den, and they weren’t dumb enough to think that popping a few slugs in the dome of Boston’s favorite scrapper was a good idea. No way I was budging until they quadrupled my cut.
“We’ll meet you halfway at a million dollars,” McCollough said. You shoulda heard his stupid voicebox creak in pain at the thought of losing that much moolah. Only thing better than hearing a cyber in pain is feeling it firsthand through your knuckles. I was ready to seal that deal, but he had more to say. “You lose in the fifth round.”
Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the rules, but that’s an odd round. Odd means chess, and chess means I ain’t losing to a cyber. Fuckers these days in full mech can take more shots to the dome than me, so I got no problems faking a KO. But they still got the same gray shit behind the eyes. The Fisher don’t get checkmated by some undercard chump, and I don’t give a shit if his name is Deep Fucking Blue Balls.
Yeah, I agreed anyway. You don’t say no to a million, no matter how fucking dumb your pride is.
Nobody told me just how stupid this kid was. With a name like Mephisto, I assumed he was worth his weight in something. The idiot lumbered into the ring like a three legged elephant after happy hour. I’ve seen better armor jobs on cop cars in the south end of Chinatown. Any wins this guy got must have been during amateur hour.
His opening? Fuck me, that was the first time I’d seen some idiot move a rook pawn since I got out of diapers. I wanted to mess this guy up in three minutes flat, just stick a fork in him like a Thanksgiving bird. You have no idea how tough it is to throw a chess game to a chump of this order without looking like you’re doing shotput. Whatever. Just play it cool and slow, make one or two mistakes. Don’t take his rook the second he pulls its unprotected ass out into the front lines. Resisting that one was hard, let me tell you.
When the bell rang for round two, I was ready to take it all out on this idiot. I didn’t plan on killing the guy or nothing. Just, with how much steel he had welded together, I figured he could take a shot or two from me.
Okay, the thing I haven’t told you is that my arms ain’t exactly street legal. It looks like construction grade stuff, but a few mods by a clever mechanic and they’re just short of military strength. But as long as I’m only busting craniums in the ring, ain’t nobody checking my regs. I’m all flesh other than these babies, and you got no idea how many full cybers I’ve smashed to scrap metal with them. I call the lefty X3D and the righty…
Fine, I’ll get on with it.
So I went in with a one-two, just working off some steam. Wouldn’t you know it, the dumbfuck leans into my cross, like he was gonna headbutt my fist off. Remember what I told you about how bad that weld job was? His noseguard went right through the back of his head, taking out a big chunk of his brain with it. I mean big comparatively, because this guy couldn’t have had much to begin with. I fucking blew it, but shit! Taking down a cyber in one hit like that feels like being king of the world. Crowd must’ve agreed too, because they started screaming their heads off.
Nah, they were good screams. I knew, because once McCullough and his goons opened fire, they were bad screams. Now, I’m a thug who beats people for money, but McCullough’s boys will shoot whoever the fuck. I would’ve thought that being center stage with all the lights made me an easy target, but I guess McCullough didn’t hire those guys for their brains. I picked up that sorry excuse of a dying chess-boxer and draped him over my shoulder when I bolted. Hey, the guy was already on his way to the grave, what the fuck do I care if he takes a few more bullets on the way?
They still ain’t found me yet. Like I said, McCullough don’t hire for brains. And here I am, to testify that McCullough went down with extortion, gambling, and mass murder. So what do you say about offering me that witness protection program?
Wait, it’s still homicide if the guy is full cyber? Shit.
Do I get to keep the arms?
Fine, Henrietta thought. He only would have made things easier. She did not need him, strictly speaking. Pacing in a circle, she surveyed her environment. A sofa, a coffee table, an ottoman - they were all platforms to carry her to her goal. Another day, she would have been in the mood to make it a game, but the feline wanted her nap now. The stool, the drawing board, and then the windowsill. That was her quickest path.
The leap always strained Henrietta’s legs. Not that they were short, but the stool’s seat stood far off the floor. Hopping first onto the nightstand would have been all together easier, but the cat was already next to the stool. She hesitated a few moments, ensuring she had the right distance and trajectory. Her front paws stretched towards the goal a few times in a warm-up exercise. Confident her estimates were good enough, she took the jump.
Only her front legs made it over the seat’s edge, but her claws dug in for a good grip. She continued to pull herself up until her rear legs made it to solid ground. Henrietta struggled to yank her claws free from the quilted fabric. Maybe this path would prove more hassle than she had thought, but it was too late now. If she could hop onto the drawing board, then the windowsill was mere moments away. With her heart already excited, she took no precautions. The stool to the drawing board was an effortless jump, executed dozens of times without trouble. The trick was the soft cork, perfect material for a clawhold in spite of the face’s sharp angle.
In her haste, Henrietta never noticed the stool was a few inches further from the drawing board than usual. Neither did she notice her target zone being covered with drafting paper. Not until she botched the landing.
Instead of sinking into cork with a firm grip, Henrietta’s claws tore right through the paper. Her hind paws, already unstable on the edge, skittered as they lost their footing and dangled in the air. Scraps of paper littered the air as she scrabbled for her life, paws shredding the false surface. The windowsill was getting farther and farther away while Henrietta was sliding closer and closer to the floor. The paper was endless. No matter how much the cat ripped apart, there was another sheet ready to refuse a good grip.
When the only parts of her body still on the board where her chin and her paws, Henrietta made one last grab. Stretching her with her left foreleg, she reached as far as she could and sunk her claws as deep as they would go.
They sunk into cork. Henrietta stopped falling.
She tried again with her other front paw. The first try was no good, scratching up another strip of paper. One more time and she found cork again. Now it was just like the stool. All she had to do was pull until she got her hind legs back onto the drawing board.
When she was on all fours again, Henrietta looked behind her. Good, the big guy was there. He would have been furious if he had seen the mess she’d made. But he didn’t, and she was innocent now. All that stood before her was a short hop over the high edge of the desk, and she had the sunny windowsill all to herself.
Curled into a crescent, Henrietta enjoyed the sun’s glow on her orange and black coat. Frightening as it was, the fight made the goal all the more rewarding. With a purr loud enough to fill the entire room, Henrietta let the sunlight stroke her to sleep, until the big guy would wake her up with a scratch behind her ears.
“Submit, and I will allow your archers to join mine, Petro.” Ivan said. He crossed his arms.
“You think you can bluff me? My bows number in the hundreds, and I know you have barely a dozen.” Petro looked back at his army, like he needed to ensure they were still there. The dozens of bodyguards that clung to him like a shadow stood at attention. One command, and they would stick Ivan like an elk. “Go ahead and raise ten thousand spears. My arrows will always win.”
“Always stuck in the past.” Ivan’s grin possessed enough force to make Petro stumble back a few steps. “You have arrows, but I have thunder.”
Not allowing Petro a moment to retort, Ivan stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. The low rumble of thunder filled the plains, quickly drowning the echoes of his signal. Petro and his men all crouched and looked to the sky. Not a cloud in sight; the weather was as clear as Petro’s cowardice.
“He’s lying!” The vibrations in the ground must have been stronger than Ivan realized, the way they reverberated all the way up to Petro’s voice. “It’s all a trick, no man can control the skies!” Less than a minute had lapsed when Petro and his bodyguards found their spines, but it was too late. All of them turned white as bone when they witnessed the incoming thunder on the horizon. Some fumbled to draw an arrow while others discarded their weapons and ran. Petro was the only one to curl into a ball on the ground. Petro’s archers were already broken, but Ivan’s cavalry smashed them to dust.
Grass bowed before the incoming breeze. Hooves trampled some men while charging spears impaled others. Most ran away, unwilling to face the terror of a man atop a horse. Screams of violence, pain, and bloodshed melted together into one vocal massacre. Broken bodies littered the steppes, dyeing the green with red. As quickly as the horses had stampeded in, it was over. Just enough time for Ivan to have one hearty laugh.
“What do you think?” Ivan said as he grabbed Petro by the neck and lifted him off his feet. Ivan’s soldiers trotted around, forming a rank behind their leader. Petro choked, and it was not from the force of Ivan’s hands. “You may have mastered arrows, but I have mastered nature.”
“I submit.” Even with only his toes barely touching the ground, the tremors were still in Petro’s voice.
“You submit, chief.”
“I submit, Chief Ivan.”
mckinneycantspeak said: WRITE, BITCH! WRITE RIGHT NOW!
Doing a novella instead of a novel this month. 500 - 750 words per day.
Eleven days. It had been eleven days since Joseph had known safety. Eleven days on the road, eleven days tending to this infant. Joseph knew the baby was starving. He only wished he could do something.
“What’s your child’s name?”
“He’s not mine,” Joseph said. The soldier by his side leaned over and smiled at the infant in his arms. Joseph jerked away, waking the baby. The baby’s wails reached every pair of ears in the convoy. These days it was hard to trust anyone in uniform. Though, nobody in this unit did anything abhorrent yet. Joseph let the soldier have a look. “I just found him-”
“On the street, in his dead mother’s arms, as you were fleeing the city, right?” The soldier tried tickling the child’s nose. The iron on his finger on scratched the delicate skin, escalating the child’s protests. “Sorry,” the soldier said. Joseph was too busy rocking the boy back and forth to hear. He shuffled away from the soldier. Toxic, all of them.
The soldier fished for something in his pouches. He retrieved a banana, a bit misshapen from the days of marching. “Here.”
“You think he can eat this?”
“It’s for both of you. If he can’t eat it, you need the strength.” The soldier forced it into Joseph’s hands. “The name’s Morgans. Trooper Morgans. Don’t worry, we’ll be at Hillcrest by the evening. Promise. Imperial honor.”
Joseph snatched the fruit away from Morgans’ hands. As little as Joseph trusted him, soldiers had easier ways to kill a refugee. Joseph tried to play a game, waving the banana through the air like a toy and landing it in the baby’s mouth. The only metaphor he could craft was a spear sailing towards its target. How grisly.
Dozens of iron-clad bodies rattled at once. Morgans’ too, standing at attention in an instant. Joseph had no time to think. He gasped, feeling a cold hand grab him by the wrist. Something else cold was shoved into his hand.
“Defend yourself if necessary.” As Joseph looked down at the knife he held as a spear sailed by his head. Joseph did the only thing a sane man could do. Throwing himself at the ground, he kept his head low. Shrieks from the baby’s lungs complemented the battle cries of dying soldiers. War was in the air, and all Joseph could do was wait for it to end.
Something heavy fell on top of his back. With a grunt, Joseph tried to take his mind away. Maybe he could act like a real father and comfort the baby. In a hushed voice, he tried singing the only song he knew.
“Listen children, to a story
That was written long ago
Of the kingdom on a mountain
And the valley folk below
On the mountain was a treasure
Buried deep beneath a stone
And the valley people swore
They’d have it for their very own”
Blood oozed down the sides of his face. Trying to ignore the corpse on top of him, he kept singing. The spears repeatedly jabbing into whatever body was shielding him made that difficult. At least the baby’s cries became laughter, like the rocking of their bodies was some kind of game. As he nearly finished his song, another voice cut off the last line.
“We’ve secured the hostages,” it yelled across the plains. With the sounds of fighting no longer in his ears, Joseph wanted to move. He could barely budge with the armored body pinning him down. Eventually, something threw the weight off his back and Joseph rolled over.
“Arming civilians, to make us think they’re combatants. The insurgents will stoop to anything,” the new soldier grumbled as he snatched the knife by Joseph’s side. The soldier’s hands pulled Joseph to his feet. Joseph could only look to the body, face down and punctured with a hundred holes, wondering if that was Morgans who tried to save him. He’d never know.
“You’re safe now,” the soldier said. His accent was thick, but Joseph could still understand most of the words. “The insurgent army won’t be hiding behind you anymore.” Without asking, the soldier’s armored hands beat at Joseph’s rags, trying to shake off the dirt. “We’ll get you to the nearest refugee camp, and you’ll be absolutely safe there. Promise. Imperial honor.”
“How far is Hillcrest?” Maybe this one’s second opinion would bring better news, Joseph reasoned. The soldier’s answer brought no hope.
“No, Hillcrest is held by the insurgents. They’ll use you as a hostage there. We need to march to Shield’s Valley.” The man wasn’t even looking at Joseph anymore. He looked back and forth, barking the occasional order at his fellow soldiers.
“How long…” Joseph trailed off. Somehow, he knew he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Eleven days. Nine, if we make good time.” The soldier spouted off the words like it was no big deal. It probably wasn’t to him. To Joseph, it may as well have been an eternity. The soldier leaned in towards Joseph’s body, smiling at the infant in his arms. “What’s his name?” the soldier asked with a chuckle. He held out his hand. “You can call me Lieutenant Morgans.”
“Get away from me.” Joseph cradled his son as he leered back.
Eleven days. Another eleven days before Joseph could be safe again.
"You leave your back to me. Do you trust me?" Her voice had a certain lilt to it. Her melody sang through Captain Han’s body, easing his muscles. No, he exposed his back because he knew cowardly elves loved to attack from behind. The moment she advanced, he’d turn and snap her neck. She had no chance. "I see you in our dreams too, Syae Han."
"What? How do you know my name?" Han’s gaze whipped around. Raelnefirdoa stood three paces closer. Shit, how did she sneak up without his hearing? "I know your name too, Rael Who Breathes The Life Giving Flame." For an instant, Han thought he’d lost control of his body. The words spilled from his mouth before he could comprehend them. "I never knew your humanic was so good."
"And I, too. Your elvish is perfect." As Han dragged his feet around, facing his mark, he realized he’d never studied a word of elvish in his life. When he finally had a full view of her, Han could see that Rael was… No, she was an elf. He could never imagine such things about an elf. "Ever since we met at Rynnlann, I see you every night. You see me too, I know it now."
Han wanted to reach for his sword. Every voice in his head barked and ordered him to do it, except for that one. Rael’s. He stood straight, ready to salute, forced to keep his face as emotionless as possible. “I don’t care what you think,” he said through clenched teeth. “You are the Red Dragon General, and I will kill you.”
"I too am devoted to slaying you. For the sake of my people." Her hand, slender and bony, ran down Han’s cheek. "Are we not the same in our purpose?"
Han knew Rael at that moment. Both of them wanted to throw away their titles, their duties, their cares. They saw each other’s desire to embrace and forget the rest of the world. Neither of them could do it, for honor always superseded passion. And for that moment, Han knew that humans and elves were not so different after all.
"Next time, I will kill you," Han whispered into her pointed ear, soft as silk.
"And I, you," she echoed back.
Janet was like an e-cig. He craved her presence, and every night with her was enjoyable but altogether unsatisfactory at the same time. Every breath he drew from her sent tingles through his lips, a buzz on the bridge of his nose, and a fuzzy wash over his brain. But it was just a little off, in a way that he could never quite pin down. Janet was healthier, more agreeable, and just plain safer. After every day, he left full of guilt. He could have truly loved Janet, if only he had met her first. The way Fate had played its cards though, his heart was with Janice, and always would be.
Janet cried, choking through a yes when she saw the ring. Almost every part of him smiled. Almost, except for his heart, still cradled in Janice’s arms. They remained six feet under, right where he had left them. He coughed, feeling a hole in his chest expand. It would be easy enough to chalk that one up to nervousness.
Just like the drills, Masen told herself. The trick was to not think about moving at all. Jessica’s voice whispered in Masen’s ear, telling her to pretend that she’s part of the underbrush. It seemed silly back then, but the way the inquisitor’s team swept right by her showed that it was working. Waiting for that fateful moment when the inquisitor’s silver-laced boots stomped by her, Masen flipped her blade into her hands.
The acolyte barely had a chance to scream before the sword rammed through his skull.
Inquisitor Falegg’s unit turned at once. Their faces were all the more familiar this time. Each one wore that same expression of shock and horror that she had when they murdered every single soldier in her command. The captain tore her weapon free, flicking a trail of blood against their satin robes. Falegg began screaming commands, ordering everyone to surround her. Captain Masen was alone and Inquisitor Falegg had an entire squad with him.
The difference was, this time, Masen had steel.