Friday, March 30, 2018

Flash Fiction #296: Humans First

Perhaps it was a dream, she thought.  Perhaps if she pinched herself, she would wake up.  But she wanted to stay in this dream world where the plagues and wars had ended, and the world knew peace -- even if it came from the aliens.

Too many people disagreed with her. New graffiti was starting to turn up everywhere:  Human World, Human Lives, Human Rules.

"As though we've ever done so well on our own," Lily said with a wave of her hand to the words scrawled across the underpass.

"Careful," Tom whispered, though they were alone in the pod.  "You don't want any of the Humans First followers to hear you."

Lily glanced his way, noting how he held tight to his valise, his fingers white-knuckled and his face pale, as though he feared someone had slipped into the pod with them.  It wasn't the aliens who frightened him.

"We are our own worse enemies," Lily said but no more for his sake.  Instead, she watched the broken world, from the fallen buildings to the muck and mud that had risen up from the old sewers and choked the air.  Oh yes, humans first, because they had always been so good at handling problems.

She had no sympathy for humans in general, though she did appreciate that the aliens had stepped in to help them recover.  She hoped the Humans First group wasn't so widespread that they would drive the help away.  They were a long ways from recovery from the war.

The aliens were their only hope of survival.

That afternoon, everything changed.

Lily had her daily meeting with the three aliens who came to the building where she had been one of the last executives remaining when they arrived, five years ago.  The science of the place had drawn them, one of the few establishments still trying to do the old work.

"The humans couldn't cooperate," Gray 1 said.  His bulbous, single-eyed head gave a nod. They'd picked up human mannerisms, which had made it easier to deal with them.  "So we made a plan, the three of us.  We created something to give the humans a push to work together again."
"Created," she said.  She usually had no trouble understand their statements, despite the distortion of the words.  These three had always spoken like scientists.  She had appreciated it.

There was a moment when the three looked at each other, and the other two nodded.

Gray 1 pulled his head off.  She could see the electrodes that overlapped and created a bit of a glow -- a power grid that would interfere with any scanning.  With a start, she realized that before everything fell apart, she had even worked on the basic design of that device.

The young man behind the mask had been her student before everything went to hell.  Aubrey.  Brilliant, if a bit eccentric. Faked the videos, of course. They'd done one or two prank videos for parties back before ... before they obviously took the prank one step farther.

"What the hell?" she finally said.

The other two were taking off their heads as well.  Karen and Alan.

"We thought about it for a long time," Aubrey explained.  He didn't look as cocky as he had all those years ago.  "We knew it would be easy enough for the three of us just to wander off and to give everyone time to forget the sound of our voices, the cadence of our words.  We'd already started building the shells in the old abandoned C building -- that's where we've been living, mostly."

"Why did you come to me now?" I asked, still too stunned to make any real sense of it.

"The work started out well," Aubrey said. The others just sat back and let him do all the talking.  It was what he'd always been good at.  "Everything we offered as aliens was really what humans should have been doing from the start.  Oh, we came up with a couple new tools, but really they were modifications of human science.  We knew humans wouldn't work with other humans -- everyone blamed a different group for what had happened at the fall, and they were not going to join forces with the enemy.  So we gave them an outside force that hinted at how bad things could go if they did not cooperate with us."

"Yes," Lily said.  Her mind was trying to batter everything around into logical connections.  What they'd done had been brilliant in some ways.  A masterwork of technology, actually. She'd want to know about how they'd created the hologram of the ship, how they'd hooked into enough video connections at the time to make it look real -- how they had built the suits they wore which did not appear to be earth-made at all --

"We still have things to do, Dr. Lily," Aubrey said and sounded surprisingly like the young man who had worked under her.  "But now we're afraid that the Humans First party is going to kill us before we can finish the work.  We need your help.  We need you to make the Humans First group believe that we are the best hope humans have and we don't know how to do it."

She sat there in silence for a moment and then smiled in a way that seemed to make Aubrey nervous.  "We do it by being even crazier."

By the time the last battle between the Grays and another race from the stars had been played out in the area between the earth and the moon, the Grays were already heralded as the saviors of the world.  Lily got to play one of the Grays, plus a cameo role as a growling blob of an enemy commander.  If technology had not already fallen so far, none of it would have worked, of course.  It did, though -- maybe because others wanted answers.

They saved the earth, just not in the way the humans believed.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Flash Fiction #295: Honor Among Thieves/8

"That table was irreplaceable," I shouted.

"Kill him!  Kill them both!" Kimlin ordered.

The orcs moved forward.  They swung table legs which looked like dainty clubs in their hands. The one on the right, opposite Darkin, made a sudden and surprising leap forward.

I shouted as I spun to help Darkin -- and that was when my orc darted forward.  I knocked Darkin down and fell as well --

My orc hit Darkin's orc straight across the face and it fell like a bag of rocks.

"I planned that," I said as I rolled off of Darkin and got back on my feet.

"You are an idiot ... but a lucky one."

We only had one orc left. Then there was Kimlin, though he didn't seem to be rushing into battle to help his orcs.  I didn't want to think about the others with Kimlin, but at least they hadn't made any moves yet.

I could hear loud sounds from the battle between the Demon Lord and Lady Yeti, but a glance showed only a wall of black beyond our room.  I had no idea how she might be doing, but I didn't pretend that rushing to her aid was going to do any help there. 

So back to our orc.  Darkin raised his left hand and gave me an old signal -- one we'd used when we had to deal with a city guard.  It was a simple enough ploy.  A single guard, even with weapons, was no match for the two of us.

Orcs, I hoped, wouldn't be any worse.

I went to the left and started to fall, while Darkin moved to the right.  My fall caught the orc's attention as he sensed weaker prey, and turned my way for just that single breath that Darkin needed to grab the table leg and swing it with all the force he had against the orc's startled face.

The orc tottered.  Darkin hit again and the wooden leg splintered.

The orc fell.

On me.

Kimlin gave a cry of despair as I gave a grunt of pain.  Darkin cursed and grabbed the orc's leg, trying to yank him off of me.  The others moved forward, and Darkin spun on them, but they only mumbled a few things and helped grab the orc.  Cooperation.  There was hope for the Guild.  I could rebuild from this dozen members.

If we survived.  As the others manhandled the orc off of me, I looked at Kimlin.  He'd started by yelling and then began to panic.  Panic was worse.  I saw him reach inside his shirt and pull out something on a chain.  It glowed.

Anything that glowed was a real problem.  Unfortunately, I still had orc on me and couldn't breathe to get enough air to yell, and I couldn't move my arms.

"Ki --" I hissed.  "Ki -- m --"

Darkin realized the problem just as they rolled the orc off of me.  He spun, but Kimlin was ready for my friend to attack.

Kimlin was not ready for me.

I knew I couldn't stand.  I still had trouble breathing as well.  I could, however, roll over and grab Kimlin's leg as he took a step forward.

I hadn't paid attention to what he'd been doing.  I knew there was a glow of power and that the others began scattering.  When I grabbed him, he fell backward, and a bolt of something far more potent than lightning shot straight up through all the floors of the building and made a hole right out into the sky.

We all stared for a moment.  Then Darkin kicked Kimlin so hard that I heard the bones in his hand break and the object went flying.  It landed by me.  I gingerly took it by the chain.  It didn't glow now, but I still didn't like the feel of it.

"What now?" Ram asked with a worried stare at the two unconscious orcs and the whimpering Kimlin.

"Wait -- see what they do --" I said with a wave toward the still black door.  "Make whatever deal we can."

The battle beyond our room had gone oddly quiet.  Then I heard something unexpected.

Laughter, both from Lady Yeti and the Demon Lord.  That worried me.  I let Darkin get me to my feet and hold me there.  I couldn't be sure of broken bones from the orc falling on me, but I hurt everywhere again.

The black parted like a thick cloth, and the two were still where they had been, both looking like adversaries ready for battle -- but the tension of moments before had disappeared.

"Then I go," the Demon Lord said with a bow of his head.  "And I take back some of my own that you have stolen."

"Only borrowed," she said and waved a hand.  A dozen spots of shadows darted over to the Demon Lord.

I stared in disbelief.  Was this done?  A bit of laughter and a handing over of hostages?

"What is going on?" I dared to ask, though Darkin hissed at the words. Silence might have been better.

"We will not fight the war this time," the Demon Lord replied.  "You would want a different answer?"

"Think about it," Lady Yeti warned with a kind of smile that made her look unworldly.  "Think about your myths."

The dozen times darkness and fire had beaten down humanity, and we'd had to climb back out of the abyss again.  Oh yes, I knew the myths.

Or were they history?

"I am grateful that you will not fight," I said with a bow of my head to both of them.

So they left.  We gave Kimlin over to the guard, and none of us went to see him hanged for killing the mayor.  We fixed the Guild House and repaired the table, though it has a crack across the middle, one odd leg, and a new legend attached to it.  We went back to work.

So did Lady Yeti, going back to her little home.

I try not to worry.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flash Fiction #294: Honor Among Thieves/7


No one moved except that I turned to Darkin and gave a little shrug. This was far more than I had expected.  I had the feeling that maybe Lady Yeti had used me to get here and face Kimlin.

No, not Kimlin. She wanted something far more powerful, and I really didn't want to be here when --

Kimlin gave a frantic look to the orcs, but they were backing away.  Lady Yeti took another step closer, and I decided it was probably safest to remain close to her.  Darkin moved with me, but he didn't look happy.

"Shadow demons do not belong in this world," Lady Yeti said.  "Not the demons who can do real harm.  It has been using you, Kimlin.  You know it."

Kimlin nodded agreement, but then he smiled.  "But it also gave me what I wanted.  The Demon isn't interested in ruling the humans, you know.  They will be in my care."

"What about the Guild," I asked.

He laughed.  "Why would I need the Thieves' Guild when everything is mine?"

I oped others heard that one, though I supposed they already knew that Kimlin was more trouble than they'd thought.

Why wasn't Yeti doing anything?

Oh, I knew the answer.  She was waiting for some one -- some thing -- to arrive.  I had the feeling that once that happened, the rest of us wouldn't matter much at all.  I started looking for the best way out, which unfortunately was the other side of Kimlin.  That wouldn't have been much of a problem except for the orcs who had backed up, but not left.

I put a hand on Darkin's shoulder and gave him a nod as though I knew what I was doing.  I can't say he looked relieved, but that might have been because he knew me so well.

Something began to change.  I a tingle and then realized that everything seemed to be going darker -- at least until Lady Yeti's fire and chain blazed brighter.

A shape stood behind Kimlin that hadn't been there before.  Tall, dark -- not a shadow as I would have expected it to be.  This one had form and a face.

"No one told me about you," the demon said.  I couldn't tell a gender if such things had them.

"No one knew," Yeti answered.

"Had you not already come so fully weaponed, we might have made some deal.  Kimlin got me into this realm, but he has not been the best help since then."

I smirked.  Unintentional, but the change drew the Shadow Demon's attention, which I really didn't want.

"I thought you were dead," the thing said.  Not words I liked to hear since they clearly indicated that it knew me.

"Go back to your realm, demon," Lady Yeti said.  Her voice did not betray any emotion.  She might have been talking to a robin sitting on her windowsill.  "You don't really want to face me, do you?"
"I have committed a great deal to this enterprise."

Lady Yeti gave a little flick of her wrist, and the chain and fire symbol moved from the air to the ground and spread out between the two groups.

Kimlin stepped back. The orcs retreated behind the Shadow Demon.  I decided to brave it out and stay with Lady Yeti.  I had the feeling I couldn't get away fast enough, and one step back was not going to help.

I felt bad about Darkin, though -- until I actually looked at him.  He wasn't nearly as upset as I would have expected.  In fact, he appeared far more intrigued than me --

Things happened fast.

Darkness rolled across the room like a wave of ink.  I grabbed hold of Darkin just before the darkness took away all light -- but worse, all air as well.  I had thought it only a shadow, but we were suffocating --

Light sprang up and shoved the black away, at least by a few feet.  Lady Yeti had found us.  I did not expect her bright grin.

"This is going to be more fun than I expected," she said.

"You -- crazy," I replied, still gasping for breath.  Darkin made a sound of warning.  Yeah, maybe I didn't want to annoy the woman who was keeping us alive.

She only laughed, though, and sent a wave of light out through the ink.  The darkness fizzled and smoked with a bit of an acidic scent.  I tried not to breathe too much of it in.  Lady Yeti had already turned back to fight the Shadow Demon, and I wasn't certain what Darkin, and I should do --

Until I saw Kimlin and the orcs trying to get away through a side door.  I nodded that way and Darkin agreed.  We slid along the wall, remaining within Lady Yeti's cleared area.  She and the Demon Lord appeared to be exchanging insults now.  I had the odd impression of enemies who rather enjoyed the occasional bout with each other.

But where did that leave the rest of us?

Kimlin and his companions were something we could at least face, if not defeat.  I'd never fought an orc, but I would rather face it than the Shadow Demon.

We didn't throw ourselves into the room.  The dining hall, which had lots of furniture --

Something huge broke.  I had the feeling the orcs didn't much like the table. That annoyed me.  The thing had been ancient and stolen from a prince's castle -- not exactly an easy feat.  Those orcs were destroying our heritage and history.

I snarled and raced into the room.

Darkin shouted a curse of his own and followed me.  I'm not sure why he joined me in my insanity, except that it was still probably better than facing the darkness on the other side of the door.

The orcs had broken the table in two and tore off two legs, holding them ready to attack.  Kimlin cowered behind them.

And behind him stood another dozen of the guild.

Well, damn.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Flash Fiction # 293: Honor Among Thieves/6

Heading into the building the same way  I had escaped was foolhardy. Some might even have considered it downright stupid.  Kimlin would have set up traps.

Darkin and I had been eluding traps all our lives, and Kimlin was never good at setting them.

We only found one, just a few steps from the door to the room where I had escaped.  I had the distinct impression Kimlin had never dared go farther on the stairs.

"I'd feared he might have someone helping him with these," I said as I lifted the wire from an obvious explosive.  Darkin took the device apart.  You never knew when you might need a few of these things.  "Maybe even his Shadow Demon --"

"No," Lady Yeti said.  "A Shadow Demon doesn't have much of a solid form.  He might understand about killing someone like the mayor, but setting traps would not be in his mindset."

"It also means he's not won over any member of the Guild who could do this for him," Darkin pointed out.
"Or he doesn't trust anyone else with the knowledge of this secret passage," I pointed out.  "We can't count on him having driven away anyone."

"I don't know.  After today, I'm willing to bet that Kimlin has fewer people today."  Darkin reached over and caught my arm when I started to slip on one of the steps.  "Sinton?"

"He's still not fully recovered," Lady Yeti warned from behind us.  "But we dared not wait any longer.  The Shadow Demon is aware.  He will only grow stronger."

Darkin nodded, made sure I was steady, and then we moved on to the door.  There was a trap on it as well, but as quickly put aside.

We stepped into the room.  Dusty.  Dark.  I knew my way around without any light.  I had no trouble reaching the door, and I waited there, ear to the crack.  The other two remained silent.

"No one else is on this floor," I said.  Then I rethought that line.  "Well, no human."

"I do not sense anything close," Lady Yeti said.  She created a small blue light that barely lit the area around her and Darkin.  He looked startled, but then gave a nod of appreciation.  "There is a sense of powers below, but that might be residual from the Shadow Demon."

"Good."  I had stayed by the door, giving the room one quick look.  There wasn't much out of place, but it was evident that Kimlin had gone through all the drawers and cupboards.  Well, except for my special secret ones.  Did the fool really think that someone who spent his life as a thief was going to leave anything of value where it could be easily found?

The more I thought about Kimlin, the more I realized that he had never really taken to the life he'd chosen.  Or maybe he had been aiming at something else all along?

Not that it mattered to me.  I just liked to have a good idea of what I faced.  We were not going to spend much more time here in the room.  I wasn't really ready for this fight, but I knew we wouldn't have a better chance.  I had to trust that Lady Yeti and Darkin were not going to get killed here with me.

So we went out of the room and headed down the stairs.

Yeah, that drew a stir from those below.  I heard our names running like a wind through the building.

Then Kimlin appeared, and he was not alone.

I noted a couple interesting things as he opened the guarded door to the right.  First was that he was not alone, but he didn't have humans with him.  Half a dozen magical creatures came out of the room at his back, including two orcs, two goblins, and two Shadow Demons.

The second thing I realized as the three of us took a step backward was that I could not see a single member of the guild who was not equally shocked by Kimlin's companions.


"You stepped over the line today, Kimlin," I said as I took another step down, forcing myself to stay steady.  "And then I learned who is really behind your rise in power.  Where is the Shadow Demon who has med you his pet?"

Kimlin gave an inarticulate shout and a wave of his hand.  His companions started forward, but Lady Yeti came to my side and lifted her hand.  The little blue light she had been carrying grew in size and brightness, and she whispered a few words in a language I didn't understand.  Even the sound of those words made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

The creatures who understood what she said took it far worse.  The orcs appeared to be caught between screaming in fear or attacking without mercy.  The smaller things had backed away, though, and Kimlin didn't look happy about losing his companions.

"Shall I finish?" Yeti suddenly spoke. She had a deceptively sweet voice and smile.  "One more line and I send everyone before me to Elvern's Hell."

I took a quick step backward, just to be safe.

"You wouldn't," Kimlin said and suddenly sounded far too assured.  "I know how magic works.  If you opened a gate to Elvern's Hell or any other realm you would owe the soul of that realm a debt, and it would not be an easy price."

"Would I?" she said.  Her fingers spread out and she made a small circle in the air.  Or perhaps it is Elvron who owes me the debt."

A symbol formed before her and one even I could interpret.  The flames of Elvern's Hell, but encircled by the symbol that hung on Lady Yeti's door that I had always taken to be something like a daisy chain.

It was a very different sort of chain, and she was far more powerful than I could have imagined.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Flash Fiction # 292: Honor Among Thieves/5

Knowing what we faced was not only unstable Kimlin but also a Shadow Demon with plans for humanity made this trouble a bit more than my revenge.

The truth was that I didn't care if I took over the Thieves Guild again.  I'd done it the first time so that the others didn't kill me.  If someone else wanted to take over, I don't think I would have fought hard, as long as it wasn't Kimlin and his dark companion.

Or someone just as bad.

Yeti taught me about the demons we would face and the allies that they might have brought along.  She also introduced me to some of our partners.  I'd never thought to find myself so so caught up in magic.  This was not the path I'd taken in life.

Then, unexpectedly, Yeti came into the room on a late afternoon and told me we would be making our move that night.

"Tonight," I repeated as though I didn't quite understand the word.

"Kimlin's shadow demon has left the realm," she reported and was already grabbing a few things from the wall. She threw me a jacket.  "We won't have a better chance -- unless you want to give up this quest?"

She stopped and looked at me as she said those words.  I could see no judgment either way in her face.

"We go," I said and stood.  I pulled on the jacket.

Yeti grinned brightly.  I'd made the right choice.  Besides, I was curious to see if some of the things Yeti had been teaching me would work.  Not magic -- well, not much -- but work with potions and powders.  I thought Kimlin would be surprised.

Providing we could get to him.  Just because he didn't have his Shadow Demon with him didn't mean he was without protection.  I counted fifteen guards around the mansion and on the roof, and from the shadows that moved against the windows, I suspected at least that many inside as well.

The streets were uncommonly quiet tonight, and the guards out in large numbers, though none around the mansion.  I didn't like the feel of it, and Yeti looked much the same.

More guards took up positions outside the building.

"Paranoid, isn't he?" Yeti asked.  We stood a block away, invisible at the moment.  That was handy -- but I did not ask her to teach me.  Besides, she'd already pointed out that my reserve of magic was not very much.  I wasn't meant to use magic.  I didn't mind.  Magic has uses, but there are so many traps set for it that a thief is better off just doing the work the old-fashioned way.

"So, you don't think he found the exit out of the room?" I said softly.  "I would have thought Kimlin would have torn the room apart looking for it."

"From what I heard, he sealed the room off and moved into a more secure part of the house," she said.  "One where he can escape more easily."

"Bottom floor," I said and began looking the building over a little more carefully.  "That makes sense.  He also doesn't realize that the hidden staircase has doors at other places."

"Dangerous going that way," she said, but already began backing away, a hand on my arm.  "But less so than trying to get in through the guards, I think.  At the very least, we can find the opening that leads from the stream to the building and see if we think it has been used."

It had been in use, but whatever animal had spread those gnarled bones about gave a low rumble of a growl when they neared.

"This could be a problem," I said and took a step back --

"Sinton!" a voice shouted from inside the cave, echoing too loudly. 

Damn!  For all the care we'd taken, we had set off some trap after all.  I half turned to Yeti to warn her away --

And a body collided with mine.  We both went down.

"I thought you were dead!"

I was on my back, winded, and staring into a shadowed face -- but one I knew too well.

"Darkin," I said and shoved him off.  "You scared the hell out of me!"

We both stood and embraced like brothers.  Yeti looked pleased.  So was I.

"I camped out here hoping you would show up," Darkin said.  He kicked aside some bones and led us inside.  "When you didn't, I couldn't find a good reason to move on, especially since King Kimlin has had everyone out looking for me.  I thought about trying your place, Lady Yeti, but I didn't want to draw anyone to you."

"I wish you had sent word somehow," I said.  "I tried to believe that you were not dead, but...."

"The same with me," I said.

We went into the cave.  Darkin had created a remarkably nice little room back from the opening.  Yeti filled him in on everything that had happened while I sat down and rested for a bit.  No, I was not fully recovered yet, and Darkin obviously knew it from the frown he gave me.

"Tonight then," he said when she finished.  "I'm not happy with the idea of Shadow Demons on either side, but I'm willing to go along with it.  This does explain about Kimlin.  You might have missed it, but a few hours ago he killed the mayor."

"What?" we chorused.

"Yes.  Went to the speech the man was giving and walked up and shoved a knife into his heart.  The guards began fighting each other, and he just walked away."

"And then his Shadow Demon left to go home so that he could recover strength," Yeti said with a nod.  "Well, this is going to play hell with the city.  The sooner we get Kimlin out of the way, the faster we can repair the mess he created."

"Then let's go," Darkin said. 

Off to save the world....