In A Flash: The Emissary

The leaves on the trees were all turning yellow and red as Jhern of Norne headed into the river valley. He took no pleasure in their gorgeous splendor, or the feeling of them beneath his feet, how they spun into the air as his boots struck them. The sound of the leaves meant anyone in the river would hear him coming—a dangerous enough proposition at home. Here in the Duke of Auzurn’s territories, he might pay for it with his life. And their changing colors signaled the arrival of colder nights and stiff, miserable mornings, to say nothing of the fact that soon enough winter would be here.

It would be nearing winter by the time he arrived at his intended destination, assuming he made it there. Perhaps it would already have arrived, for he had heard that winter came early in Allemar, that fearsome place of bearded warriors. Before he reached that land, long before winter came, he first had to cross the Duke’s territories and survive the Pass of Ghosts, which so few had managed to cross. And if he made it that far, there were the fiendish Skeletal Swamps, which it was said swallowed men whole and stole the souls of those who survived.

It was essential that Jhern do all this, risk life and limb for his Prince. The fate of his people, the fate of all Norne, depended upon it. The seas were rising and they would swallow their cities soon. Only the Allemar, with their magic, could spare them the terrible fate that awaited them.

And Jhern, emissary of his Prince, was the one entrusted to bring that word. Along with his companions, but they were gone. Had all died so early upon this journey, to ensure that he would survive, that the message he carried, would be delivered. He had so far to go that it seemed impossible, but he knew he would have to. There was no other choice.

As he came to river’s edge, he saw the narrow bridge ahead that the road he was on led to. He stood and looked it over cautiously, to see if there was any movement. This valley was home to woodcutters and the odd shepherd, but few others. The Auzurn authority barely extended here and Jhern did not expect to encounter any of the Duke’s men. But one could never be too careful. There was too much at stake.

When he was satisfied that there was no one waiting for him, he started forward again, moving at a quick pace, not wanting to linger on the bridge or in the open for long. As he did, he was certain he saw a flash of movement across the river. It might have been a trick of light, but he thought not. He paused for an instant before continuing on, his hand straying to his belt to confirm that his sword and dagger were handy. He felt sure they would be necessary.

The bridge was a narrow, flimsy thing, strung across with rope and layered with boards. It swung slightly in the wind, the rope creaking in a way that made Jhern wonder how ancient it was. How many shepherds and woodcutters had made their way across it?

That was not his immediate concern though. More important was what awaited him on the other side.

He did not have to wait long to find out. Before he was even halfway across, a figure emerged from amidst the trees to block the way on the bridge’s far end. It was a towering man, dressed in the Duke’s colors, with a long broadsword at his side. Even from this distance, Jhern could see the ugly scar that ran from his eye down his cheek, disappearing beneath the armor. He paused for a moment to gather himself, drawing a deep breath.

Across from him the giant crossed his arms, a thin smile spreading on his face. “I know who you are little one. You are the Emissary of Norne.”

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In A Flash: Midnight

Midnight was the what they called her, although she was calico colored with splotches of orange and white fur intermingled with the black. Black was the predominant color within that swirl, and she was often invisible, seeming to appear only when she chose, as if she moved within a perpetual night, so the name seemed fitting. Her every movement had a calculated wariness, as though she expected the universe to bare its claws at any moment.

When it did, she would reply in kind. They all could recall the day the neighbor’s dog took it into his head to attack her. He charged, fangs bared, as she emerged from under the step. Though they expected her to disappear back under where he couldn’t reach her, Midnight stood her ground, not even flinching as the dog approached. Just as he arrived, looking to snap his muzzle into her neck, she struck, one quick paw, barbed with claws, on his snout. He scurried away whimpering, and seemed reluctant to look in her direction again, while she went upon her way.

There were harder things in the world than her, though she refused to bend toward them. One day, as the weather turned crisp and leaves began to change their colors, she left the step and her four kittens, crossing over through the garden, under the fence and into the haystacks. These were always teeming with mice, which she would catch with ease. Some she would take back to the kittens to play with and to learn the lessons they needed to learn.

As she stalked one mouse through the maze of of hay bales, intent on its scurrying form, she failed to notice the coyote. It was there as both she and the mouse burst out from the bales, staring at them as if it had expected her all along. With a snap of its jaws the mouse was dead. Midnight came to a sudden halt and glared, while the coyote snarled at her.

Another cat might have fled immediately, but Midnight knew better. She hissed, her hair standing up on end, even as she crouched lower to the ground. The coyote froze in turn—for only a second—unsure what to make of this cat, pondering whether it would be more trouble than it was worth. That was all the time Midnight needed. She was gone, fleeing into the bales and beyond, back to the yard and the trees that surrounded it. She was halfway up one before the coyote even realized where she had gone.

Who knew how many such near misses she had. She never counted them. It was simply another day on the knife’s edge of life and death. And she had dealt out enough death to have no illusions of what would come for her someday. But not that day, and not for so many that followed.

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In A Flash: In Time

The woman had close-cropped, dark hair in an unfamiliar style. But Dez rarely recognized styles, be they clothing, hair or make-up anymore. It was the marker of all the time that passed while he was in-ship. That was its own time, both faster and slower than the time for those outside it. He lived his days normally, as any other, and on these worlds decades, sometimes even centuries passed.

So much changed that he often experienced a sense of vertigo when he emerged to see what there was of the universe. What did not change, what was constant as the stars themselves, was the urge. It was quiet in-ship, biding its time, knowing that its moment would come. But once he stepped onto these teeming planets, ripe with possibility, it could not be denied.

The woman did not notice him slipping into the flow of the crowd to follow her down the street. This city had streets, open to the elements, as Dez’s own home had. He could remember so little specific about it now. Somehow in-ship had become his default environment, what he associated normal with. Off it, the assault of color and noise, the press of people, the endless space extending on through vast constructions, was all foreign and other.

Most of those who went in-ship did so on one way voyages. They had their reasons. Others, a select few, such as Dez, lived in-ship, going from port to port, letting the centuries drift past. They would grow old in-ship and die there, a thousand years or more after their birth. It was a kind of immortality, though a meager .

And a sequestered one, for most could not stomach more than brief visits while in port to the worlds and what they held. Some drink and some companionship, though even those basic needs could become complicated by several centuries of cultural detritus, were all they were looking for. Most of his shipmates avoided it, staying aboard and interacting only with those on the docks, where they were treated as a kind of bizarre nobility. Dez always availed himself of the opportunities to stretch his legs and see what there was to be seen. As claustrophobic and nauseous as it was, there were things he had to see to.

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In A Flash: The Inspectors

The gas giant hid secrets, long buried, or so they hoped. Tlan Garsh and Yzal Bey, the lead inspectors for the Exalted Gerent, who ruled this miserable portion of the galaxy, had come looking for the one who had betrayed him. They had followed a trail, intermittent and well-disguised, and the evidence had brought them here to this abandoned system, with only this massive gas giant left unharvested for resources by the Gerent’s Marauders.

For months and months, as the Marauders laid waste to the feeble forces of Sborz system, intending to enslave the population and extract what was usable from its planets and habitats, there had been problems. These had been tiny and insignificant, hardly worth reporting to the Exalted Gerent—though a failure to do so would, if discovered, result in a horrible and inventive punishment. The delays to the Marauders ultimate conquest of the system were minimal, but, all the same, however inconsequential the issue, it had to be resolved.

The Exalted Gerent did not countenance betrayal of any sort, and there could be no doubt that this was a betrayal of his mandate. Tlan and Yzal had established that to everyone’s satisfaction. Someone within the ranks of the Marauders, or worse—and this did not really bear thinking about, for the consequences would be dire for anyone even tangentially involved—within the Gerent’s inner circle. This was why Tlan and Yzal had been directed, by the Exalted Gerent himself, to find whoever it was who was daring to defy him and see justice done.

Their ship informed them that the system was empty as they passed out of the portal, the only remnant of the worlds that had once existed here. This was to be expected and neither one paid it any mind. Tlan directed the vessel toward the gas giant, the coordinates of which had been broadcast from ships within the Marauder fleet on each occasion when the double agent had sent information to their enemies. The coordinates, they had discovered, contained information packets, cleverly concealed, that revealed the position of the Marauder fleet, it’s planned movements, and its numbers, among other things.

The ship ran any number of scans of the gas giant and sent in a few probes. All revealed the same thing: this was gas giant, like any other gas giant. There was nothing remarkable about it.

Tlan looked at Yzal with a wordless question: What now?

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