I’ve been posting a monthly flash fiction story on this blog since December 2017. I’ve had loads of fun learning how to cram extremely short stories into less than 1000 words (one of them was even under 300 words!) while still ensuring that there are both character development and an intriguing plot in these pieces. You can read all the stories here.
However, I’ve decided to make my monthly flash fiction piece subscriber-only content from now on. After all, my subscribers are my biggest supporters and I believe they need some special treatment and a little extra fun in their inboxes each month.
So if you’ve been reading along and enjoying the stories, but you’re not a subscriber yet, then do consider signing up for my mailing list. Not only will you get a monthly short read straight to your inbox, you’ll also get a free copy of KEEPER OF EXOTIC ANIMALS thrown in as well. You can always unsubscribe later on if you realise my stories aren’t really for you, but I’ll hope you stay, of course.
I’m still thinking of a replacement for this series of regular posts. Perhaps a list of book recommendations or reviews? What would you be interested in? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
A thousand hearth fires winked at him from the valley below, like stars in the endless sky above.
Regan glared down at his erstwhile home. Ten years. And look how they’ve grown. Flourished. While he had been banished to walk the wilds, living from hand to mouth, killing to survive, surviving to kill, his little village had grown into a city.
His right hand itched towards the jagged blade strapped to his waist. He longed to hear the rasp of steel on steel, to feel the warm spurt of blood as it ripped through bone and entrails alike, to see the life leaving his enemy’s gaze. And he had many enemies down there.
He stepped forward and swore as his body barrelled into the barrier, invisible, yet solid as a stone wall. They had not forgotten about him, either, it would seem.
Time changes everything, and a man does not survive for so long without learning many new skills.
Regan shed his clothes as a snake sheds its skin. Naked, he howled, first in rage, then in pain, as his body contorted. Limbs elongated, claws ripped through fur-covered paws, fangs ruptured from his upper jaw. Where once a man stood, a monstrous mountain lion now prowled the perimeter.
Tentatively, the feline tested the barrier. Nothing. Its lips parted in a snarl. With a powerful leap, the beast jumped through the invisible wall and bounded down the hill.
Jenna opened her eyes and coughed, spluttering as she inhaled some of the water threatening to drown her. She was lying on her side in the wet sand, white foam from the gentle breakers lapping against her face. Grimacing, she spat the salty water out and rolled over onto her back. A palm tree swayed in the breeze as she stared at the azure sky above. It took her a moment to remember what had happened.
She picked herself up from the sand, wincing as she climbed to her feet. The sea must have been rough last night. It felt like she’d been pummelled nearly to death, although she remembered nothing after diving from the plank. Her boots were gone, of course, and so was her hat, but her thick knee-length coat still clung to her wet body. Her breeches and white cotton shirt were caked with sand and scratched unpleasantly against her skin as she stumbled towards the shade of the tree.
She smiled when she saw a coconut lying on the ground, and flinched as her bottom lip split. Water, she needed water fast. She smashed the coconut husk open with a large rock, cracked the outer shell and gulped the warm liquid down, rivulets of juice running down the sides of her mouth and making her hands sticky. The fruit’s flesh was bland, but it patched the hole in her rumbling belly.
With her immediate needs satiated, she suddenly remembered why she no longer had a crew.
She stood up and looked about. She knew this beach. She followed the curve of the sand until her eyes could just make out the town walls in the distance, squinting against the morning sun’s glare. She’d have to hurry if she hoped to warn them in time.
Jenna hesitated just outside the town gate. Stepping foot inside these walls could spell disaster for her. She glanced towards the ocean, shimmering in the late afternoon glow. Time was limited. She needed to act now.
The guards at the gate stopped her immediately.
“You have some nerve,” the first man said as he blocked her way with his musket.
“I need to speak to the Governor. Immediately,” Jenna demanded.
“Oh, you’ll speak to him, alright,” the second guard sneered as he clapped a pair of manacles around her wrists.
Leaving their post unattended, they hauled her off towards the town square, where a large white mansion sat looking out over the bay. Jenna kept her gaze towards the ground, but she heard people whispering her name as the guards bundled her through the large oak doors and up the grand staircase.
A frown creased the Governor’s face as he looked up from a stack of papers at the interruption. Recognition turned the frown into a scowl.
“I warned you never to come back here.”
Jenna wrenched her arms free of her captors’ grips and squared her shoulders as she looked into the Governor’s eyes. “They’re coming.”
The man’s face paled visibly and he pressed his lips into a thin line. “And we’ll be ready for them. But you brought this upon yourself.” He nodded curtly at the guards. The men grabbed her arms again and dragged her from the Governor’s office.
A crowd was already gathered in the square, where the gallows waited for her. Jenna lifted her head as the hangman placed the noose around her neck. The sky glowed orange, the sun hanging low over the seemingly blood-red waters of the turbulent ocean waves. In the distance, she could see a black-sailed ship approaching.
She turned towards the Governor, her gaze pleading. “Brother,” her lips formed the word, but no sound escaped them.
The Governor averted his gaze and lifted his hand.
Keisha scanned the horizon. Nothing but sand and relentless sun as far as the eye could see. Heat waves rolled across the dunes, leaving shimmering trails of cooler air in their wake. A warm gust blew tendrils of black hair across her face and Keisha wiped the strands irritably from her bronze skin. She idly drew a finger across her chapped bottom lip. Perhaps they could spare a swallow of water before the diviner arrived.
Turning her back to the dunes, she stepped from the rocky outcropping on which she had stood watch and walked the few short strides towards the little pond she had liberated a week ago.
She unhooked the empty flask hanging from the sash tied around her waist and unscrewed the lid. Bending down on one knee, she leaned and scooped water into the little vessel, careful not to spill any drops onto the desert sand. The water was lukewarm, sun-baked, but it tasted like heaven as the liquid slid down her throat. She licked the last droplets from the lid before replacing it. No point in wasting something so precious.
Keisha resumed her post on the rock. Squinting into the sun, she noticed black dots circling in the sky not too far away. Vultures. They must have found the body. Good.
Her eyes were drawn to a trail of dust muddling the blue expanse in the distance. Finally.
They were moving her way rapidly, much faster than she expected and much faster than a camel was capable of. As the figures drew closer, Keisha loosened the scimitar in the scabbard hanging from her hip. There were too many men in this caravan. She had expected two, at most. She counted five. And they were on horseback.
Steel rasped as Keisha pulled the scimitar loose.
Dust enveloped her as the horses closed in, their riders halting them in a crescent moon around her. Keisha held her breath until the dirt had settled down again. The horses smelled of sweat and fear, the men upon them stank of violence and greed.
“Move aside, woman,” one of the men commanded. His voice was harsh and guttural, like the blade of a knife scraping on a whetstone.
“No,” Keisha said.
“Move aside or we will ride you down,” the man warned. His tone brooked no further argument.
Keisha squared her shoulders and lifted the scimitar threateningly. “If you want it, come and claim it.”
She clenched the fist of her free hand. The ground started shaking, sending tremors through the sand. The riders’ horses bucked, their eyes rolling wildly, foam flecking their upturned lips. The ground rumbled and a crack in the dry earth erupted under the horses’ hooves.
One of the riders, struggling to control his mount, turned towards Keisha, his eyes as large as the full moon. “Demon!” he screamed, pointing at her. He kicked his horse in its side and the animal sped off, away from Keisha. Horses rearing, his companions turned tail and raced after him.
All but the leader fled. In the confusion, the man’s horse had thrown him off. He picked himself up, his face a mask of rage. Shouting a wordless battle cry, the brute flung himself at Keisha.
She ducked, rolling to the ground and was back on her feet just in time to parry a swipe from his curved sword. Sparks flew as their weapons met. His sheer strength pushed her to one knee. The man loomed in, his face close enough that she could smell his rancid breath.
“The water is mine, witch,” he growled.
Without warning, Keisha pulled back, falling to the ground. The man lost his balance and tumbled after her. She rolled aside just in time, pulling a knife from her boot. The metallic tang of blood filled the air as red liquid squirted from the slit in the thug’s throat.
Keisha climbed to her feet and prodded the dying man with her foot. He lay slumped, unmoving. As his eyes glazed over, she turned her back on him and walked towards the pond, wiping her grime-covered knife on her sand-encrusted pants.
She dropped to her knees in front of the water, taking a deep breath. Her hands were shaking.
“You are safe, my friend,” she whispered.
The water rippled in the still air. “Thank you,” it murmured in response.
Bethany knuckled the small of her back, dropping the mop into the pail of murky water. She wiped her brow with the corner of her rough homespun tunic, frowning at the stretch of corridor that still lay ahead of her.
“Every day,” she mumbled as her calloused hand wrapped around the handle of the mop again. With a yelp she tossed it aside, capsizing the bucket and spilling water all across the stone floor. She sucked at the splinter embedded in her palm, glaring at the rivulets running away from her. Her eyes widened. The princess stood at the end of the hallway, holding her pale silk skirts up out of harm’s way.
Heat infused Bethany’s cheeks and she lowered her gaze as the princess tiptoed past her. She glimpsed soaked silken slippers as the scent of lavender wafted by.
Bethany clutched at her skirts. It was suddenly all she could do not to kick the upturned bucket across the corridor. The woman smelled like lavender! And here she was, up to her arms in muck and sweat and tears, and that woman’s slippers had water stains on them. They were probably ruined now! She was going to tiptoe in her ruined slippers right into the arms of a prince who would sweep her off her feet and give her a hundred pairs of new silken slippers, adorned with gold and jewels and heaven knows what else princesses wear on their feet. She would spend her days lounging on a divan, sewing and gossiping and keeping her pretty little hands soft and fit for nothing but playing the harp. Oh, how Bethany envied the princess her life of comfort!
She sighed wistfully. Then, ignoring the pain shooting down her aching back, she retrieved the mop and the now-empty bucket. Muttering about the injustice of it all, Bethany trudged down to the courtyard to refill her pail at the well.
Elinoire examined the portrait of her betrothed, a small frown creasing her forehead. He was so… old. Thirty years old, to be precise, twice a lifetime to her. And he was king of Trotus. A fine match, her mother insisted. But it meant she had to leave her country, her home, for a cold, rainy, miserable little island up north. To marry a man she had never met.
She placed the sketch on the seat next to her and pulled her knees up to her chest, heedless of the wrinkles pressing into her silken gown, wiggling her toes in her damp slippers. Her gaze wandered out the window. It was a lovely day outside and the sun shone brightly in the bustling courtyard below. Elinoire’s lips twitched into a smile as she watched two women laughing raucously. One spilled her pail of water and the other dropped her handkerchief down the well. They laughed so hard Elinoire saw tears rolling down their cheeks.
A deep sadness threatened to overwhelm Elinoire as she watched the women’s antics from her perch high above them. What she wouldn’t give for such a carefree afternoon, for a good friend to laugh and cry with, for the weight of her future to be lifted from her shoulders, if only for a little while. Oh, how she envied them their freedom!
She sighed wistfully. Then, she turned her gaze from the window and back towards the portrait. She would do her duty. She would marry this man and secure an ally for her kingdom. She would keep her people safe.
Resolved, Elinoire marched out of her room in search of her mother, her chin held high, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.
The clash of weapons reverberates through the air, humid and hot and heavy with the stench of sweat and blood and ash. A moan escapes the lips of the man before me and I pull my sword out of his stomach as his eyes glaze over, his gaze already drawn past the scorched walls of this great city and towards the Elysian fields, forsaking this mortal body with its gaping wound and its insides spilling out.
An arrow flies past my head. I duck instinctively and roll to avoid the stab of an enemy spear. I am back on my feet before the soldier recovers from his thrust. Surprise flickers across his face, perhaps only now noticing the curvature of my body underneath the boiled leather harness, or from the shock of my knife entering the exposed spot in his bronze breastplate and penetrating his armpit. I cannot tell. It doesn’t matter. Blood gurgles from his mouth.
I move on. Death follows in my wake.
Just as I can no longer stand the stench, my mouth foul with the taste of rising bile and my hands spattered red, the wind changes and fresh air tickles across my face. For a moment, the carnage surrounding me diminishes as if it were an evil dream, and memories of home flash across my mind’s eye.
Memories of the verdant steppes stretching out as far as the sun reaches, of riding bareback on powerful steeds, the wind whipping my long hair behind me. I see Themiscyra shining brightly in the moonlight reflecting off the calm waters of the lake beside it. I see hands stretched out in worship towards the goddess, moon mother, mother of all, life-giver. I see warriors training for battle. I see her, nodding with approval as my arrow hits its mark. I see her hand stretched out to me as she helps me to my feet again, my backside and my ego bruised by her prowess.
And then I see her, no longer a vision but flesh and blood, crumpling to the ground.
A scream rips the air apart, silence trailing behind it. My throat burns.
The world is me and her and the man who looms over her body. A tall warrior, gleaming in bronze armour, muscles slick with sweat, a red plume trailing from his helmet. A hero.
He bends over her, his murderous hands remove her helmet. Blonde hair spills across her already-pale face. A smile plays across his lips.
White hot rage. A wordless roar.
The man looks up, startled, his eyes locking with mine.
Adrenaline pushes me forward.
He picks up a spear. Muscles ripple with the powerful throw.
The impact sends me sprawling.
I lie on my back, remembering the wind, the open sky, freedom. A beautiful woman’s smile, a young man’s obsession, and a wooden horse. So dies all that I hold dear.
The light fades. With my last breath, I turn my head to look at her. My fingers tremble as I try to reach for her, but my strength has fled.
She stared at the blank wall in front of her as if her gaze could punch a hole through it. Trapped in a room without any other exits apart from the corridor she had just run through, Nancy was out of options. A quick glance at her P228 handgun confirmed the worst: only two rounds left. Footsteps echoed behind her.
Nancy spun around to confront her assailants. Quick headcount: four attackers, all sporting heavier weaponry than her little pistol, blocked her escape. Hell, one of them had a MAC-10 sub-machine gun. Even if the guy couldn’t shoot to save his life, she was in for a bad time ambushed in this little space.
She wondered if the rest of her team were dead. No comms were incoming. Nancy weighed her options. There weren’t any. Surrender or die in a blaze of glory. Well, she wasn’t about to surrender.
Nancy had just enough warning to duck sideways before the flash-bang grenade exploded. She opened her eyes again, shaking her head, trying to discern the enemy through the smoke obscuring her vision, ignoring the ringing in her ears. There! She fired a shot and a silhouette went down hard. Three left.
But as the smoke cleared, she could see four people still moving. Nancy’s heart lurched into her throat and she ducked just in time to avoid a round of bullets aimed at her. Instinct and adrenaline fuelled her aim: two shots rang out and two bodies fell to the ground.
“What the..?” Nancy said aloud. Only one of those shots had been hers. Never mind, not important, she reminded herself. Two guys left, but now she was out of ammo.
She drew her knife. It had come down to this.
Another shot rang out and an attacker crumpled to the ground.
A text message scrolled across her communications tab:
HOTSTUD45: Ur welcome, babe. No need 4 thx 4 saving ur hot a$$.
Nancy’s cheeks flushed. She responded:
G4M3RGRL: Didn’t need help from a n00b like you.
Then the message “YOU WIN. GAME OVER” flashed across her screen and she was transported back to the loading screen.
Nancy plucked her noise-cancelling headphones off and stood up, stretching the ache out of her legs. She scanned the arena: the organised chaos of cables, monitors, and flashing computer boxes, geeks in sweaty hoodies, discarded coffee cups, half-empty boxes of pizza. It was a mess. She loved it. Too bad she drew so much attention whenever she moved. Being the only female around a horde of socially inept guys did have its disadvantages.
She had handed in a token and was watching the barista pour a large cup of coffee when someone behind her said: “You know, most guys won’t appreciate being called a noob when they’d just saved someone’s ass.”
“Let me guess – Hot Stud Forty-Five?” Nancy turned to see if his handle was as advertised. She was pleasantly surprised. He was somewhat taller than her, not as greasy or as odorous as she had expected, with a shock of blond hair falling across his face. Nice eyes, she thought as she looked him over. He grinned confidently at her. Perhaps he needed to be taken down a peg or two.
“Most girls don’t appreciate references to how hot their asses are either.”
“Noted,” he replied smoothly. “But in my defence, not a lot of Gamer Girls are actually, you know, girls.”
“So you make a habit of flirting with female avatars even though chances are there’s a guy on the other end?” Nancy smiled at the barista handing her a steaming cup of coffee. Then she reached for the sugar but paused as Hot Stud held three sachets out at her.
“Two,” she said. His fingers brushed hers as she took the sugar from him. A spark ran up her arm and then all the way down her spine. Surprised, she glanced up at his face again. He was still grinning.
He shrugged. “Was bound to get lucky at some point. How about I get you your next cup of coffee?”
“I tell you what, hotshot, how about we each go back to our seats and get back to the game?”
Finally, the smile faltered. He rubbed a hand through his hair, casting his eyes to the floor. When he looked up again, his expression was serious. “Look,” he said, all traces of the player gone now. “We may have started off on the wrong foot. I think you’re a great gamer. The way you handled that situation, that took guts. I’d like to get to know you better. IRL.”
Nancy considered. He wanted to get to know her in real life? Maybe. He did have really nice eyes. And although she wasn’t about to admit it, he had gotten her out of a sticky situation back then.
“Alright, how about this? We keep teaming up, and if we win the competition, coffee’s on me.”
The grin was ear to ear now. “Game on,” was all he said.
Alanna grabbed Kael’s shoulder, wrenching him backwards. “Stop!” she hissed, pointing at the spot where he was about to step. The warrior looked down, his face paling visibly as he noticed the slightly raised edge of a round disk on the elaborately carved floor.
“Trigger trap,” he confirmed. “Better keep a close eye on the floor too from now on.” He proceeded carefully, plated greaves clinking softly with each step.
“Do you think we can risk more light?” Alanna asked. Kael nodded. A nimbus of soft light surrounded her left hand, and she drew in a breath as the shadows around them retreated. They were in a great hall that stretched out as far as they could see. Alanna’s eyes widened as she tried to take it all in at once. The walls were covered in fine stucco engravings, the light casting strange intricate shapes that seemed to dance around the two explorers. Semi-precious stones glittered from the lofty ceiling, stars in a forgotten sky now buried deep beneath the ground. Tall pillars guided the way to a raised dais at the very end of their field of vision.
“The god-king’s throne room,” Kael said, breathless with wonder. He looked up at the ceiling. “Just a handful of these gems and we could retire to the Isles of Amara until the end of our days.”
“If the stories are true, then the biggest prize waits for us at the end of this hall.”
Kael grunted. “If the stories were true, we’d be dead by now. Let’s grab what we can and get out of here.”
Alanna leveled a gaze at her companion. They had worked too hard, searched too long, to give up now. No one had set foot in the lost city of Bataar-Ilan for centuries, until now. “You know why we’re here.”
“I hope you know what you’re getting us into, Alanna,” Kael said as he renewed his slow advance. “This book you’re after had better be worth it.”
“The entire city’s population died to protect it, and then the god-king buried this place under a mountain,” she reminded him. “It’s worth it.”
A faint click was all warning they had. Alanna reacted instinctively, surrounding the two of them in a protective shield of energy. The smell of burning wood tickled her nose as a volley of arrows sizzled to ash and fell at their feet.
Kael shot her a sheepish grin. “Didn’t see that one.”
Carefully, oh so slowly, they advanced towards the dais. While Kael’s gaze swept the darkness around them, searching for hidden traps and other unknown threats, Alanna’s thoughts were bent upon the prize. For years everyone had believed it a myth, but she had known it was real. It had to be real, and it had to be here.
“There it is,” she said almost reverently. Relief washed through her, she had been right all along. The legendary Book of the Dead rested upon a golden plinth next to the throne at the top of the dais. The power of immortality lay within her reach.
“Careful,” Kael warned as she ascended, but Alanna scarcely heard him. She reached out for the book.
“It’s… empty.” Alanna flicked through the blank pages, disappointment burning like bile in her throat. “All this way for nothing!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Startled, Alanna and Kael spun around. A man stepped out of the darkness. He was dressed in a long golden robe, skin as pale as moonlight, black eyes cold as obsidian. He was so thin he seemed almost skeletal.
“It’s been a while since someone has come in search of the book. But, finally, you are here.”
Kael leveled his sword at the man. “Who are you?”
“You know who I am,” the man replied.
Alanna inhaled sharply as realization dawned. “The god-king.”
The man inclined his head slightly, a sardonic smile playing across is lips.
“It’s a trap,” Alanna said as she descended the steps to stand beside Kael. “There is no Book of the Dead.”
“Of course not. Immortality belongs to the gods, not mere mortals such as yourselves.”
“Even gods must feed.”
Kael swore loudly. He charged at the god-king, his wordless roar echoing through the cavernous hall. The man side-stepped him deftly and then effortlessly swatted the huge broadsword from his grip. He pushed Kael over as if he were a small child, then drove his foot into the warrior’s chest. Kael grunted.
Fire shot from Alanna’s hands. It hit the god-king in the back and sent him sprawling, giving Kael the chance to regain his feet. Alanna grabbed him by the hand and pulled him behind her.
“We can’t win this,” she hissed as they ran. “He’s a god.”
“What are we going to do?”
Alanna risked a glance behind her. The god-king was on his feet, smoke smoldering from his golden robe. His face was contorted with rage.
“The only thing we can.” A faint rumbling sounded and the ground shook. Pebbles fell from the ceiling.
“You’re bringing the mountain down again,” Kael said, understanding lighting up his eyes.
They dashed through the hall, heedless of traps, dodging arrows flying past. The entranceway collapsed just as they sprinted through it. A great bellow, louder even than the roar of the mountain, sounded behind them.
“Immortality might be overrated,” Kael quipped as he evaded another trap.
“Hurry!” Alanna urged, pointing at the exit. Rubble had covered almost half of their escape. They scrambled over fallen rocks and tumbled out into the blinding sunlight. They stopped a safe distance from the entrance and turned to watch the mountain envelop the ruins of Bataar-Ilan once more.
“Isles of Amara, Alanna,” Kael said as the riches of the lost city was buried again.
“I know, I’m sorry,” she replied. She grinned impishly at him. “Maybe next time.”