FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: THE FOUR-PART STORY- The Hand That Wields part 2

This flash fiction piece was written in response to a four-part challenge placed by Chuck Wendig. Matthew Gomez wrote part 1 and you can find it here https://mxgomez.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/the-hand-that-wields-a-chuck-wendig-challenge-in-four-parts/

For ease of read, I have copied and pasted his part of the story here.

The Hand That Wields

By Matthew Gomez

“Wake up Otto! Visitor here to see you.”

Otto rolled over on his pallet, cracking one reddened eye open. “Why would anyone come see me?” he mumbled, his tongue heavy from sleep. Sitting up, he opened his other eye and scratched at his tangled beard.

The guard shrugged. “They don’t tell me these things. All I know is the magistrate said to let them see you. So I’m letting them.”

Otto grinned through the iron bars of his cell, revealing teeth filed to points. “Some days I’m surprised to find anyone even remembers I’m down here.”

“Yes, well.” The guard shifted from one foot to the other, his hand dropping to the cudgel slipped through his belt. Someone that Otto couldn’t see cleared their throat. “Ah, right. This is the prisoner you wanted to see.”

Otto didn’t recognize the people once they came into the torch light, but from their fine, rich clothes and the way they held bits of cloth up to their nose to block out the stench, he figured they must be important somehow.

“This is the prisoner, then?” The speaker was older, and Otto could tell he used to be large and muscular, but too many soft years had turned muscle to flab. His eyes though were cold and blue as an iceberg. His companion was younger, his daughter maybe, and her hair was red-gold in the torchlight. Otto felt a familiar stir under his ratty pants. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman.

Otto looked around dramatically. “Who me? No, I’m the King of Rats. Welcome to my kingdom!” He chuckled. “Yes, I’m the prisoner. Excuse me if I don’t rise to my feet.”

“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.

Otto shook his head. “Someone important. More important than the magistrate at any rate.” He cocked his head to one side. “You want something done, but you can’t be seen doing it, isn’t that right?” He scratched at his head, and finding a louse, squeezed it between his finger and thumb. “I’m not sure how much I can help you down here.” Otto sprang up, and grasped the bars in his hands, straining against them until the veins in arms popped, his eyes wide. “As you can see, they’ve made sure I’m not going anywhere.” As he sat down, he made sure to rattle the chain attached to his ankle.

“What if I told you that I could have you released?”

“You’d have to be the Jarl himself to make that happen.” Otto sighed and lay back down on his pallet, rolling so his back was to his visitors. “Now if there isn’t anything else, you’re interrupting my morning nap.”

“Not the Jarl.”

Otto cracked his eyes back open. The girl had spoken, her voice soft as velvet. “Who then?”

“His daughter.”

Otto grunted. “There’d be trouble for her if the Jarl found out she was the one that let me go.”

The girl sniffed. “If my father cared, I wouldn’t have to be down here in the first place.”

“Carolina, this man is no more than a beast, we should-”

“Who do you want killed?” Otto sat up, hands on his knees. His eyes were bright and alert, and a predatory grin split his mouth like a cut from an axe.

The chaperone stepped forward. “That is none of your concern-”

“My betrothed,” Carolina replied. “No, that’s not right. The man who was to be my husband. He broke off the betrayal, shaming me and my family. Only his family is too important, and has too many allies, so my father refuses to go to war on my behalf. And if my father was to be found to have anything to do with his death…”

“You’d be stomped back into the mud,” Otto finished for her. “So you came all the way down here to look for me? I’m flattered. What’s to say though that I don’t disappear as soon as I’m out of this cell? Are you sure you can trust me?” Otto’s grin grew wider.

“No,” Carolina replied. “You’d disappear into the woodwork like the rat you are. That’s why he has accompanied me.”

Otto narrowed his eyes and looked closer at Carolina’s chaperone. Despite his finery, he looked harder than most of the nobility Otto had dealt with. Deep creases lined his face, and Otto would bet good coin there were the callouses of a fighter on his hands. “He’s to accompany me?”

Carolina nodded once, a short sharp gesture that reminded Otto of a bird. “That’s right. Bjorn will make sure you don’t stray from your path.”

Otto leaned back, the grin vanishing all together. “Assuming I agree, there are a few things I’ll be needing.”

“We already have your belongings gathered,” Bjorn said. “A well-worn axe, a suit of mended mail, three daggers, a silver chain, and a satchel filled with various herbs. Do you require anything else?”

Otto shook his head, his eyes bright. “So what’s the name of the soon to be deceased?”

Part II

 His name was Rattenberg,  Egil Rattenberg. Otto had been in that hole for a long time now but even he knew who that was. Or at least, whose family he was connected to. The Rattenbergs were the oldest, most powerful family in the Kingdom; more powerful that the Jarl himself. It was no wonder the Great Baron did not wish to ruffle their feathers. If suitably provoked, the Rattenbergs could squash the ruling family and its patriarch like bugs.  Otto looked at the girl, a reluctant sense of respect gnawing at him. Damn! Pretty ballsy of such a willow of a girl, he thought, to go after the two most powerful families in the land.

“When do we leave?” he asked, eyeing his belongings through the prison bars with longing.

“Right now!” the girl said, her voice incongruously authoritarian for such a young one. “Will you accept the mission?”

Otto threw his head back in laughter. “No, I prefer to lay here with the rats. Of course, I will take it.”

The odd pair took Otto to a hovel on the edge of town where they obviously expected him to set up shop. “Hell, no palace for me then?” he quipped, dropping his few belonging on the dirt floor by the door.

“This will be your home until such time you have completed your task,” Carolina explained, holding her kerchief to her nose in distaste. “Bjorn will stay with you through the whole thing. Don’t stray and do not betray us or he will make sure you sorely regret it.” Otto did not doubt for a moment that she meant it. There was something almost sinister about that girl. Coming from someone like him this was high praise indeed.

Left alone with Bjorn, who immediately started cleaning up a corner for his own use, Otto opened his satchel and scanned its contents. His yellowish bark-like face lit up at the discovery of an old friend; he rolled the herb in his fingers, stuffed it into the mouth of an old wooden pipe and lit it up with a great puff. His body slid down the wall until his legs were stretched out in front of him as the effects of the hallucinogenic herb took control of his body in waves of pleasure. It’s been too long.

Sometime during his drug-induced stupor, Otto watched Bjorn as he transformed from an obviously rich nobleman to a non-descript street bum; no-one would give him the benefit of a second-look now. Brilliant, Otto thought before drifting off again.

By the time, the drug effects had made their way through and out of his body and mind, his chaperone was waiting, non too-patiently, a mean looking dagger in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Are you done?” he asked, not really expecting or wanting an answer. “It’s dark outside. We have to go.”

Otto shook himself like a wet dog, slipped the mail suit over his head, and examined his battle-axe. The last one was a mere precaution; not exactly what he liked to use in his victims. He was a more hands-on type of criminal, literally. Weapons were all nice and dandy but there was nothing like a kill brought on by your own hands, tasted in your tongue… Otto shivered in anticipation. Killing made him feel alive.  As he walked through the filthy town streets heading toward the Rattenberg’s house, no attempt at conversation was made from him or his partner-in-crime.

The Rattenberg’s family house was a fortified manor, strategically built hovering over the highest hill in town like a giant crow hovering over the carcass of a dead animal. Otto had the nagging suspicion that his usual way of gaining access to people’s houses was not going to work here. Even from a distance he could guess several armed guards keeping watch from different spots behind the battlements. They would be soon spotted if they didn’t take some kind of evasive moves. Surveying the ground around him, Otto found a ditch of some kind that ran almost all the way up the hill. Closely followed by Bjorn, he sprinted to the edge to examine it closer. It was about five feet deep even though there was no way of knowing for sure. The bottom was covered in a murky foul smelling mud that may or may not be camouflaging a much deeper dip.

Not stopping to analyze the situation to deeply, Otto jumped in. The murk came up to his shins, adding another foot to his original estimate, an unexpected boon to better hide their approach. After waving the other man in, he started making his way up the hill. The ditch meandered up and down the hill, which was frustrating but they made their way up steadily and unobserved. The path ended just a few yards away from one of the side walls. Climbing out of it, they both stooped and ran silently until they could count on the solid protection of the wall. There, there rested for a few minutes, winded and thirsty.

“How are we getting in?” Bjorn finally whispered, curiosity winning over the fear of detection earning a look of disapproval from his partner.

Otto nodded his head toward the right where a small gate broke the monotony of the dark stone wall. It was most certainly the kitchen door and at this time of night, there shouldn’t be too many creatures stirring in there. They moved, their bodies hugging the wall, until they were right by the wooden entry. Surprising the harden criminal, Bjorn fiddled with the lock and was able to open it without as much as a squeak. As Otto had predicted no one was moving in the kitchen. A few sleeping figures punctuated the hay-covered floor here and there but they were able to enter the manor unchallenged. It didn’t take long to make their silent way to the upper floor and Egil’s private quarters.

“You stay here and guard the door while I take care of our man,” Otto muttered. In reality, he had quite an intricate plan in mind as to how to take care of him. Much like an artist, Otto took great pleasure in a job well-done and took great care with details, liking his killings to be slow and painful. Bjorn would probably not approve of his methods so it was best if he didn’t get to watch.

The other man picked the lock with amazing ease, again and Otto slipped inside being careful to close the door behind him. The only light in the room emanated from the great fire in the hearth. Otto felt his pointy teeth with his tongue in anticipation of the kill and scanned the room for the nobleman. The bed was empty and it took him another scan to realize that someone was sitting in front of the fire.

“So you found me,” he heard a male voice say from the chair. “Sit yourself down. You may want to hear what I have to tell you.”

The Cloud Gatherers- Flash Fiction

My cloud was looking spent like she had ran a 5K without the chance for a breather. I could almost hear little sputters here and there as her energy fizzled away as fast as the carbonation on the can of coke I had left opened on the kitchen counter earlier that day. I had been looking for Jacob for most of the day, a day which had proved to be oh-so-very-hot-and-humid. My hair had long lost its curl in favor of something akin to a dust bunny and my poor cloud was not doing any better with her belly full of water drops. I could feel her shuddering below me, aching to let it all out.

“You have to wait a little longer, Talaya,” I said, gently patting her fluffy top. “We have to find Jacob before it’s too late.”  It wasn’t the first time Jacob performed a disappearance act; in fact, he was famous among our people and had earned himself the dubious honor of being known as the Cloud Gathering Houdini. The truth was that if you are a cloud gatherer, you don’t want to vanish, you want to be visible and present at all times, otherwise your clouds go –well, un-gathered.  I had to find him or his butt was fried. This was the fourth time this month he had done this and the Chief Gatherer was not amused. If I couldn’t find him soon and help him bring in his assigned clouds, he may end up being demoted to cloud milkman; milking clouds was tedious and not a well-respected profession albeit very necessary. Clouds (like Talaya right now) who were too full of moisture on days and places where the Gods of Weather (also known as the Weathermen) did not want any rain, needed to be carefully “milked” into the oceans or lakes on a daily base.

We were an ancient people even though no history book ever mentioned us. Cloud gatherers were there during WWI when soldiers on both sides died in trenches of unseasonably cold weather, rain, and snow. Even Alexander the Great had benefited (or not) from the actions of my ancestors. However, due to the nature of work we did, we were also a people resigned to be forever ignored in history.

Jacob, the Space Cadet (another nickname he had earned from his peers), where could he have gone? I often wondered what made  him do that, disappear without a trace for hours on end only to show up at the end of the day with a silly smile on his face and no clouds in tow other than his. Jacob often had a faraway look on his face, eyes clouded and cheeks flushed pink. At one point, I had thought he had fallen in love but I had long given up on that theory because he always seemed to be alone with his cloud, Maia. One of these days I would find out what it was that made him wander so frequently and gave him that dreamy look of utter happiness.

With a great sigh, I accepted the fact that I was not going to find him today (not in time to save him from a major headache) and prepared to turn Talaya around back to headquarters, also known as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A small movement caught my attention just to the right of my line of sight. I abruptly stopped a very annoyed Talaya and turned around to check it out. At a distance, I could discern a human figure straddling a small, rather unsubstantial cloud. They were not moving; in fact, it seemed from afar that they were the product of some lunatic, creative sculptor. It had to be Jacob and by the looks of it, he had allowed Maia to relieve herself before going back to NOAA. I took off at lightning speed (in cloud terms) toward the lone figures.

“Jacob!” I exclaimed when I got close enough for him to hear me while reining in Talaya (who was, by now, getting very dark and static – not a good thing in a cloud). “What are you doing? You were due back a long time ago.” I quickly scoped the area looking for (rather hopelessly) the other clouds, the ones he was supposed to have gathered. “Where is your cloud crop? And why is Maia so thin? Did you let her rain without permission?”

Jacob looked at me a little surprised but then, his face lit up in that big goofy smile of his. “Oops, I guess I must have lost track of time,” he said.

“Again!” I added a little frustrated. “You are going to be in so much trouble, Jacob. We have to come up with some kind of explanantion.”

Jacob was not listening or worried apparently. He had turned his eyes back to earth with a blissful expression on his face. What was he looking at? He looked at me and pointed down to earth laughing, “Have you ever seen anything this beautiful?”

My eyes followed his pointing finger toward land and my heart skipped a beat. Jacob was hovering over a park, a large grassy area delineated by tall elegant trees. On the lawn, thin exquisite human figures were moving- no, floating in a heartbreaking flow that belied their human nature. Music wafted up to our clouds giving the whole scene a magical, almost mystical essence. “What is this?” I asked him in a whisper.

“They are dancers,” he said. “They have been coming here every day for the past couple months to practice their routines.”

I had to admit, it was beautiful, flawless. However, Jacob had a job to accomplish and watching beautiful, elegant dancers was not in his job description. “Jacob, you have not gathered any clouds today,” I stated the obvious. “And it’s not the first time! You are going to end up milking clouds instead of gathering them. Is this worth the risk?”

Jacob turned his eyes to me quizzically. “Of course it is!” he answered with no doubt in his voice. “I am putting in a request for dismissal.”

I almost fell off Talaya! “What?” I yelled, forgetting for a minute our directive not to be seen or heard by common humans. I threw a worried glance at the dancers below but they continued their dances without pause. “What do you mean dismissal???”

“I don’t want to be a cloud gatherer anymore,” he declared like it was a simple and obvious choice. “I want to be a dancer. I want to create beauty with the movements of my body and tell stories without words. Make people happy like I feel whenever I watch them dance.”

In the whole history of cloud gatherers I couldn’t think of one instance when this had happened. You don’t choose to be a gatherer, you just are.  You were born into it, it was not a choice. I had no idea what would happen when Jacob brought this up at the next staff meeting at NOAA but I had a very bad feeling about it.

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: THE FOUR-PART STORY (PART ONE)

Here’s my “beginning” in honor of Valentine’s Day:

Holy crap! It’s him, I heard my inner voice yell out. I was sitting in a small booth in my favorite coffee shop doing what I do best; drinking coffee and reading. As my eyes wondered from the pages of the book to the crowd gathering by the registers I saw him. He hadn’t changed much in the last twenty years. If anything he seemed to have improved like a good wine. I noticed that he was even taller than the last time I had seen him all those years ago. Thick blondish curly hair still framed his handsome face and his slanted almond-shaped eyes looked just like I remembered them. Not the skinny, slightly awkward young man he had been at 18, his well-toned arms and chest now stretched the black plain t-shirt he was wearing. He had obviously just come from the gym, sweatpants hanging low on his tight hips and sneakers on his feet. A smile crept up to my lips; I remembered him saying that his mom used to tell him that when he died he would die standing up because of his giant feet. God! I remembered our conversations as it was only yesterday.

My eyes went to his hands, big and masculine, and a shiver went through me. I remember well the feeling of those hands on my body. I was so young back then. Still, I was about two years older than him, an “older woman”. For all sense of purpose I was an adult but I still fell hard for the young man he was then. The first time I laid eyes on him, walking across the hotel atrium, I was lost. My heart fluttered every time I saw him and my legs turned to Jell-O every time we spoke. Ours was a whirlwind romance that lasted a few days but left a soft spot in my heart for 20 years. I always thought of James as the one who got away. And now, there he was, a mere few feet away from me, and my heart was doing that familiar flip-floppy thing it had always done in his presence. What was he doing here? More to the point; what was I going to do?

The Magic Book (flash fiction)

The Magic Book

With a flurry of pages, the book fell from his shriveled hands and dropped to the dirty floor. Gin followed the book with his eyes, worried for a moment it would fall in the puddle of vomit collected by the wrinkled old man dying on the chair. He knew he should feel sorry for the frail old gentleman meeting his maker right before his eyes but he wasn’t; he couldn’t. That was no frail old man dying an agonizing slow death on that chair. That was the diabolic man who had kept Gin imprisoned for 10 years.

Gin had woken up that morning with no plans, no direction. His life as a slave did not afford him any illusions or time to make plans of any kind. He got up before the sun was up and by the time the majestic star made its daily appearance in the skies, Gin would have already milked the cow, baked bread, and swept all the floors of the mansion where he lived with his master. The old man was prone to fickle moods and Gin did not want to risk being the one to lead him to one of his darkest ones. At times when his master blamed him for his dark moods, Gin almost always got beaten to a pulp and left in a corner of the kitchen to lick his own wounds. The boy had gotten smarter with the passage of the years and treaded very carefully around the old master.

That morning the master had woken up in a foul mood and Gin had done his best to appease him by serving him warm fresh bread with molten butter, delicious hot tea sweetened with the sweetest of honeys, and a bowl full of the freshest ripe fruit the master so liked. Yet, nothing had swayed the old man from his mean streak, his cruel demeanor. By lunchtime Gin had a broken tooth and a bleeding gash on his forehead. “Lunch better be to my liking, boy,” the decrepit old man yelled at him, “or you are in for a very bad afternoon.”

Now, hearing the gurgling sound of white foam collecting in his master’s throat, Gin smiled. He was still not sure where he had gathered the courage to do it but it was done indeed; the poison he had saved from a rat’s hunt a few months before had proven invaluable as the special spice in the cruel man’s supper. Watching the evil man die slowly and painfully, something on the floor caught the boy’s eye. There was a glow coming from the book his master had dropped.

Strange, Gin thought stepping over the vomit to retrieve the volume. It had fallen open and the boy noticed with a start that the words on the page were moving around the pictures inside. He stared fascinated, forgetting the dying man for a moment. “What kind of magic is this?” he asked out loud to no-one in particular. Looking at it closer, he saw the comic figures moving around within the confines of their cels. His head tilted to the side and if he was really quiet he could hear sounds coming from the pages of the book.

The boy looked up at his master, inches away from death and frowned. “What have you been hiding old fart?” he said. The old man made a sound that may have been an attempt at a reply but could just as easily been a random sound. “You could have treated me with kindness. You wouldn’t be burning inside right now.” The man’s eyes closed and his heart stopped beating. For him it was the end of an agonizing death but for Gin, the young man who had been spirited from his crib into slavery and abject poverty it was just the beginning of everything. This magic book could be the source of income he needed to start his life anew.

Examining the book even more closely he couldn’t see anything that would explain the moving figures or the sounds he could hear. At first glance it was just an ordinary book. He tried to poke it and that’s when it happened; his finger went through the pages. He felt a chill crawling from his finger into his hand and frightened, he pulled the hand back. “What is this?” he exclaimed, shaking like a leaf on an autumn tree.

The book was glowing brighter now as beckoning him and he couldn’t resist; he tried again. This time his hand went in farther, up to his elbow, the tingling chill invading him one cell at a time. Still scared, he pulled out once again.

What would happen if he stepped on the book? Did he dare try it? Was he brave enough or adventurous enough to attempt it? What exactly was holding him up? Hadn’t he dreamt of adventure and excitement his whole life? This was his chance.

He placed the book on the floor, opened and inviting. Gingerly he stepped forward until his bare toes were touching the pages. Gin took a deep breath and hopped on top of the book and fell…he fell down an empty space, cold and uninviting and he kept falling as if there was no end to the abyss. Eventually, he did reach the soft bottom with a great thump and a giant cloud of dust.

Gathering his wits, the boy jumped to his feet and realized he was in a room not much different than the one he had just come from. A squeak told him he was not alone. He turned around slowly, afraid of what he may find.

“So, you thought you had got rid of me?” said the cruel old man, sitting on a chair much like the one Gin had just seen him die on. How was this possible? “Don’t bother trying to understand it. The book you jumped in is a gateway to a world where I live forever and from which there is no escape. You, my nasty little boy, just condemned yourself to eternity with me. Now, go fetch me my lunch!”