#AtoZChallenge: Sweetest Sound

Sonmore High School was quiet at midday, quieter than it had ever been.

Most of the students were in class.

A small group was hiding under the bleachers out by the football field. One of them had a packet of cigarettes, stolen from his mother.

A couple of young lovebirds had snuck into one of the supply closets to fool around.

Ms. Tanner was writing out an equation on the board. Her chalk slid along the slate surface without making a sound. Her students looked at each other in confusion.

Mr. Patrick’s class had been giggling about his odd haircut mere moments ago. Their grins turned to shocked stares as their voices died in their throats.

Stacy Hicks had been reading aloud from MacBeth in English class. She continued sounding out the words, looking around the room for any signs that the others heard her, growing more frantic as she saw the fear on their faces.

The boy by the football field dropped his cigarettes when he could no longer hear his friends joking amongst each other.

The couple in the supply closet screamed when their loving moans died away, but nobody heard them.

Not a sound was heard anywhere in the school. No talking. No yelling. No laughter. No droning lectures. No footsteps. No heartbeats.

Ms. Sybil walked into the library with a smile on her face. Silence at last. Just the way she liked it.

#AtoZChallenge: Quantum Dislocation, or The Assassin Who Brought No Spare Pants

Quentin was stuck and couldn’t see any way out. When he had woken up that morning to the chiming melody of his holo-alarm, he couldn’t possibly have guessed that mere hours later, he’d be sinking in quicksand. Yet there he was. Life could be funny sometimes. Not funny like a good joke, but you get the point.

He was sinking fast and had not time for a flashback, but Quentin would be damned if he didn’t get some exposition in before dying.

Quentin Fiddleswitch was what they called a ‘ghost’. Not in the sense that he was dead, but more in the sense that he could phase between dimensions at will. He could, for example, exit the dimension of this story and enter the world where you’re sitting at your computer reading this. Or at least, he could if he still had his phase disruptor with him. Alas, he did not. All he had was a very sinking feeling and an aversion to bad puns.

I should also probably mention that he was an assassin. That’s important for the next part of the story.

Quentin had been hired by The Organization (a secret society so secretive that they didn’t even have a real name) to eliminate a high-ranking government official, because who would bother paying him for one of the low-ranking officials? Or an intern? Could you imagine a man such as Quentin Fiddleswitch being hired to kill an intern? Hardly.

The official was a member of the Council for Inter-Dimensional Regulation and Safety Against Interlopers From Other Dimensions, which, aside from being a terribly impractical name, also meant bad news for Quentin and his ilk. So he set out on his task, gathering intel on his target and working out the best way to kill him and make it look like an accident. When you’re a shadowy and ominous group like The Organization, it seems you would just kill people and not worry about your PR, but they were very finicky about hiding their involvement in these things. It didn’t really matter to Quentin as long as he got paid.

At last he had the perfect plan. The official was going on a jungle expedition in a parallel universe. Some sort of inter-dimensional political maneuver, but basically a paid vacation and photo-op. Quentin knew exactly what he had to do. It involved an irate crocodile (though on further examination, he was certain it was an alligator), a poison dart, two cans of whipped cream and a pit of quicksand. It was inspired. A true work of art. A plan so ingenious that it would be pointless to explain it as you lot wouldn’t comprehend its sublime intricacies anyway.

No offense to you.

But it was a good plan.

However, as you’ve probably figured out from reading the introductory paragraph, things did not go to plan. Of course you did. I never doubted your intelligence for a second.

Through a series of rather improbable and frankly ludicrous events, Quentin ended up accidentally phasing into his own trap. The alligator ran off with his disruptor belt, the official escaped unharmed (and with several lovely pictures of his expedition to have as keepsakes or to share with strangers on the webbosphere) and all Quentin had left was a half empty can of whipped cream. It was of no use to him at all, so he threw it away.

He was struggling to escape and regretting the little detour into the past. Instead of narrating previous events, I could have been talking about how he got out of his perilous situation. But then how would you have caught up on what’s happened? It’s not like there’s a pamphlet accompanying this story or anything.

As he sank another inch, Quentin realized there was only one way out of this. He needed a deus ex machina. An author-devised solution that would save him from the most impossible odds. Fortunately, he had one. An improbable series of events that led to Quentin being pulled out of the quicksand by the very same alligator that had put him there. Call it irony, providence or contrived drivel, it did the trick. Quentin was out. Unfortunately, he was also naked and watched the collar of his shirt disappeared into the pit with a sorry gloop.

After a grueling gator-wrestling session, Quentin retrieved his phase disruptor belt. Since he had failed in his mission, he needed to get away and lay low for a while. The governments of several dimensions would be displeased about the attempted assassination and The Organization didn’t forgive failure. Though honestly, it wouldn’t be much of an evil society if it did.

So Quentin strapped on his belt and piloted a course for the one dimension where he could be safe for a while. I can’t really tell you where he went,of course, but it’s a place where The Organization’s influence doesn’t extend. Not yet, anyway, but that would be a story for another time.

So that’s it then, the tale of Quentin Fiddleswitch and his failed assassination attempt. You can move along and get back to your daily lives. Writing biographies or shopping for new hats or whatever it is people do in their spare time. And if you happen to see a naked little man wearing a strange belt run past, don’t be alarmed.

Just find him some pants.

#AtoZChallenge: Peacekeepers

Pavel tapped his staff against the ground. He had already been waiting for fifteen minutes and old age hadn’t build up his patience much. He scanned the sky again, but it was still clear. He was on the outskirts of the city, standing outside a makeshift hut in the ruins that existed at the edge of the desert. It was a good place to think and to discuss matters of importance, away from the prying eyes and ears of the faction leaders.

It also gave him a good view of the city skyline and the low surrounding buildings made it easy to spot anyone, or anything, coming by air. So far, he hadn’t seen anything other than a few scout drones. Then a dot appeared on the horizon. Pavel drove his staff into the ground and stood up on shaky knees. Pallas had arrived.

She swooped low over the half-demolished buildings, circling one before landing a few feet away from the old man. She was tall, towering over his hunched form easily. Her golden armor had a dull sheen to it, and the gilded wings on her back were wide enough to shade him completely. As she strode toward him, the wings retracted into a small pack on her back. The visor of her flight helmet pulled back to reveal an angular face with skin the color of burnished bronze, a few strands of silvery hair peeking out from under the helmet’s rim.

“Pallas,” he said, standing as tall as he could but still having to look up at her. “What tidings do you bring? Has a decision been reached?”

“They’ve agreed to a truce.”

Pallas had been sent to negotiate peace between the Monduti and the Revain, two of the most powerful clans in the city. They each controlled several territories and had alliances with many of the other factions, but it was never enough. They were ready to rip the entire place apart if neither of them could control it. Pavel and his Peacekeepers had to step in to prevent that from happening. They were the official arbitrators of the city, tasked with keeping it in harmony by masters who had long been forgotten.

It hadn’t been easy getting the Monduti and the Revain into the same room without causing a bloodbath, but Pallas had a knack for persuasion. She wasn’t the Captain of the Peace for nothing. She had managed to broker an agreement between them.

“But there are conditions,” she said,  “And if even one is not met, the whole thing collapses into chaos again.”

“I see.” Pavel turned away from her, his shoulders drooping. “It can never be easy, can it?” He ran a hand through his matted gray beard. “But it’s a start, at least.”

“Yes. It is.”

Maintaining the peace between warring factions was an uphill task, and as more factions splintered, forming their own groups and coming into conflict with each other, it was only going to become more of a challenge. Pavel couldn’t afford to lose control of any of them.

“What are the conditions of the truce?”

Pallas pressed a plate on one of her gauntlets, causing it to project a small holographic screen. “The Monduti had a spy in the ranks of the Revain. The Revain want the spy executed in public to discourage any such betrayals in the future.”

“And what do the Monduti want?”

“Control of one of the Revain’s smaller territories.”

“Sounds simple enough.”

“The Revain are willing to hand over control, but the territory chief isn’t being cooperative. He’s prepared to fight. That could upend everything we’ve done so far.”

Pavel considered that for a moment. “And if he surrenders, will that satisfy them? Will it put an end to this war?”

Pallas inclined her head. “For now.”

“It will have to do. Very well. Convince the chief to surrender. If he’s still feeling stubborn, kill him swiftly.” He locked eyes with Pallas. “Do not give him any opportunity to fight.”

“Understood. And the execution?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Just ask them not to turn it into a celebration. We’re satisfying basic conditions, nothing more.”

Pallas nodded. Her wings extended themselves again and flapped once, sending up a cloud of dust. She took off, headed back to the city.

Pavel shuffled over to his hut and sat down on a wooden crate, feeling it creak under his weight. The factions enjoyed testing the limits of his tolerance. But if it helped him maintain the peace, he could live with it. The occasional bloodshed was a small price to pay for the larger goal.

#AtoZChallenge: Nemesis

It was another quiet afternoon in the neighborhood and Neville Bartson was looking forward to a warm cup of tea while sitting out on his lawn. He was growing accustomed to retirement, to hours spent without worrying about tasks that needed to be completed, and naps that weren’t interrupted by crisis. It had been two years since he moved into the neighborhood looking for a change of pace, and he’d certainly found it. He had no family to speak of, though he had come to know his neighbors quite well. Neville was truly enjoying his golden years.

He went out to the little garden that he had started tending. A few buds were starting to sprout; it wouldn’t be long before the flower bed would be a bloom of colors. Satisfied, Neville was about to walk back inside when he saw someone standing on the sidewalk, watching him.

The figure was covered from head to toe in copper-colored armor, with little touches of black and steel gray to break up the color. A dark cloak was slung around one shoulder and he wore a helm on his head with two curving bull-like horns and a slot through which baleful eyes glared. A scabbard hung from his left hip with a sword that might have been half the length of his body.

“Hello there,” Neville said, with a small wave. “Are you looking for someone?”

The mysterious figure raised one gloved hand, each finger covered by several overlapping armored segments. He pointed right at Neville.

“It is you I seek, Neville Bartson!” His voice was like thunder booming in an auditorium. “I have traveled many leagues on a journey of many days to find you. Long have I awaited our meeting. ”

Neville’s forehead wrinkled. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I know you.”

The figure thrust its armored chest out and loomed over him. “I am Glomdar the Misfortuner, Terror of the Saltlands and Scourge of Fenhall!”

“Glomdar…” Neville thought for a moment. “Hold on, are you the Gillings’ boy from across the street? I always thought your name was Kevin. You work in insurance, don’t you?”

“I know not of this Kevin! I am Glomdar of the Ravenspit! Despair is my helm and Devastation my cloak!”

“And that pays well, does it? Sounds more exciting than insurance.”

Glomdar gawked at him in disbelief. “Enough of this!” he roared, waving one hand in a loud, clanking gesture. “I have not come here to speak of insurance! I have come for you, Neville Bartson! I am your nemesis!”

“You are?” Neville scratched his nose. “Odd…I don’t remember hiring one. Very well then, you may be a nemesis if you like. I’m not reimbursing you for meals, though.”

Glomdar stiffened. “What?”

“Look, I don’t fully understand the terms of our contract, but if you’re going to be my nemesis you’ll have to cover your own expenses.”

Glomdar was trying to assess the situation, his dark eyes darting around furiously behind his helmet. “I had not expected this. I was told that you were a formidable foe, Neville Bartson. But you are just…just…”

“Old?” Neville smiled. “You may mock me now, young man, but one day, you’ll have aching joints to worry about too. Rather soon, I expect, with all that heavy armor jangling about.”

The both of them stood where they were in silence. A car passed by, slowing momentarily as the driver did a double take. A bird chirped somewhere above them.

“Would you like some tea?” Neville said.

Glomdar was dumbstruck. He clenched and unclenched one fist, considering this unexpected proposal. He nodded.

“Come on in then.”

Neville got out his most elegant tea cups, white porcelain with a floral design along one side. They had always been reserved for guests, but Neville didn’t have too many people coming around of late. He filled them with boiling water, put tea leaves in two strainers (Neville never used tea bags) and let them steep for a few moments. Glomdar was sitting at the small round table in the kitchen, shifting and adjusting his armor.

Neville placed the cups on a tray and brought them to the table.

“I’m sorry, I should have asked if you wanted any sugar.”

Glomdar shook his head. “Sweetness does not suit me, Neville Bartson.”

“You can just call me Neville, you know. No need for such formality.”

“Very well. Neville.”

The little china teacup looked even more dainty in Glomdar’s giant hands, as if he were cradling a newly hatched bird. He took a sip, taking care not to scratch the cup against the sharp edges of his helmet.

“How do you like it?”

‘It pales in comparison to the nectar of the Dire Gods, but it is quite nice.”

“It’s chamomile.”

“Ah.”

Glomdar placed the cup gently back on its saucer with a soft clink.

“I am grateful that you invited me into your home, Neville. But I must fulfill my purpose. As your nemesis, I have come to challenge you to a duel from which only one of us can emerge victorious. Prepare yourself for battle. I will give you fifteen mi – ”

Glomdar paused then, and his eyes widened as he looked at Neville. Both hands clutched at his throat.

“You cheated!” he croaked, before toppling to the floor in a clanking heap.

Neville finished his tea, put the cups away and walked up to his attic. Soft cooing sounds greeted him. He smiled at the white pigeon that sat in a small coop by the window, its feathers tinged with silver. There was a desk near the coop with a sheaf of parchments. Neville took a parchment and scrawled a message on it, then went to the coop and tied it around one of the pigeon’s legs.

“Godspeed, Cloudpiercer.”

The pigeon fluttered out of his hands, circled around the neighborhood twice, then disappeared into the clear spring sky. Neville went back down and set about removing Glomdar’s armor. He had given up the old ways so long ago. He didn’t think anyone still remembered his name anymore. It was flattering to think that some young upstart should consider him worth of a challenge, but he was well past the age of dueling.

Neville preferred to kill his enemies with kindness. A little cobra venom didn’t hurt either.

#AtoZChallenge: Kindness of Strangers

It was another rainy afternoon in the city and Kate, stuck without an umbrella, wasn’t looking forward to splashing through the streets to get back home. She stayed put in the comfort of the little cafe that she always visited after work. If the weather didn’t let up, she’d probably end up staying for dinner. Kate took a seat by the window, sipping her coffee and willing the rain to stop, just until she was back in her apartment.

“Excuse me, miss?”

She turned around to see an older gentleman standing by her table. His silver hair was cut short and neatly parted, and a neatly trimmed beard wrapped itself around his lined face. He was holding a small black umbrella.

“Perhaps you’ll need this,” he said, his face cracking into a warm smile.

Kate was taken aback. “Oh…umm..thank you.” She looked from the man to the umbrella, puzzled. “Don’t you need it, though? To go back out there?” She gestured toward the window.

“Oh, it’s no worry. I’m meeting a friend here and then we’ll be leaving in his car. And besides, I’ve no shortage of umbrellas. Please,” he said, presenting the umbrella to her, “You’ll get home quicker this way.”

Kate cocked her head. “How did you..?”

“Oh, how silly of me to assume,” the man said, looking sheepish. “I suppose you could be headed anywhere.”

“Yes…I suppose so…” Kate gave him an awkward smile and accepted the umbrella. “Thank you. Really. That’s very kind.”

The man nodded. “It’s no trouble at all, my dear.”

Kate walked home mostly dry. Her shoes were soaking wet and her pant legs couldn’t escape the weather, but she was glad to have the umbrella in her hand. How lucky, she thought, and then turned her mind to other matters.


 

“Hey! Taxi!”

Another cab whizzed past, ignoring Kate and her frantic waving. She cursed under her breath and scanned the road. It was surprisingly empty for a weekday afternoon. She spotted the familiar lit up sign and waved her hand again. And yet another taxi took no notice. She was getting late and getting frustrated.

She had half a mind to just walk to the restaurant and was about to turn around when a car pulled up alongside her. It was a tiny little thing, round and pastel colored. An old woman peered out the passenger side window.

“Are you going somewhere, young lady?”

Kate took a step back. She was wary of getting into cars with strangers, but then again, how dangerous could that sweet old woman be?

“I have a date, actually, ” she said.

The old woman clapped her hands together. “Oooh, how exciting! Well, we can’t be late for an occasion like that, now can we? Hop in, hop in! I’ll drop you there in a jiffy!”

Kate hesitated again. “But you don’t even know how far I’m going.”

“If it’s close enough to get by taxi, I’m sure I can manage!” the woman chirped.

She was clearly out of her mind, but oddly enough, there was something reassuring about her voice. Kate couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but the woman seemed familiar.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?” she asked.

“No, but now’s as good a time as any to change that, eh?”

Kate laughed and got into the car. Fifteen minutes later, she was outside the restaurant. She thanked the old woman, who smiled and drove off. This date could have started off on a bad note, Kate thought, watching the car disappear into the horizon. But it didn’t.

Over the past year, Kate realized, whenever she found herself in a bad situation, some stranger always came by to help her out. She’d never experienced that sort of generosity in the city before. It was really strange.

It all happened after the accident. Kate pursed her lips as she remembered that day and how it changed her life forever. But, she reminded herself, things were better now. And if her odd streak of luck continued, things would keep getting better.

She took a deep breath, cleared her head and walked inside.


 

It was quiet in the little diner. No one was there except for the old man. He had a plate of half eaten eggs and sausages in front of him, and was taking generous swigs from a stained coffee mug.

The old woman walked in and was greeted by a waitress who seemed to materialize out of thin air. The woman waved her a cheery hello and walked over to the booth where the old man was.

“Running a bit late today,” he remarked with a twinkle in his eye.

The woman plopped down on the seat across from him. “Ooh yes, sorry about that. I was dropping Kate off.” She leaned forward and dropped her voice to an excited whisper. “She’s on a date!”

The old man’s eyebrows flew up. “A date? With whom? Did you see the boy? He’s not a beatnik, is he?”

The woman dismissed his questions with a wave of her hand. “Oh, Horace, you’re such a worrywart. I’m sure he’s a nice young man. And if he isn’t, Kate can take care of herself.”

“I know,” Horace sighed. “But its hard not to worry. What if she needs our help again, Minerva?”

“Then we’ll help her, just as we’ve done so far.

I’m just so glad to see her out and about. After the accident, after she…lost us, I didn’t think I would ever see her smile again.” Tears were forming in the corners of Minerva’s eyes; one of them rolled down her cheek and dropped on to the placemat in front of her. Horace reached out and put his hand over hers.

“There, there, dearest. She didn’t lose us for long, did she? We’re still around. Whether she realizes it or not.”

“True, ” Minerva said, with a sniffle. “We’ll always take care of our little girl.”

“Yes, we will.” Horace was smiling, though his eyes were damp too. “Now, how about some coffee? Unless you’d prefer something stronger, of course.”

Minerva laughed. “Coffee will be just fine, you old lush!”

Horace broke into a grin and signaled the waitress.

“So, ” he said, leaning forward. “Just what does this young man do?”

“Oh, Horace!”

#AtoZChallenge: Irritation

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

The sound went on and on, boring itself into Ilomen’s skull. Would there be no end to his torment?

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

Ilomen gnashed his teeth. It didn’t help. He couldn’t believe he had to endure this torture. He was descended from the most fearsome archdemons in the Under Realms. He deserved better than this.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

Nobody else was saying anything. Why weren’t they saying anything? Were they all such spineless fools that none of them would silence this monster? It was unacceptable.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

The last strands of Ilomen’s patience snapped. He had to end it. At once.

Click. Clack. Click –

“Grrahh!”

Unleashing a mighty roar, Ilomen raised his hammerlike fist into the air and brought it down with stunning force. A splintering noise was followed by a loud howl. Bits of plastic and ink splattered in every direction.

“Ilomen! What have I told you about disrupting my classrom?” Ms. Grodsworth was livid. Some of the other students were giggling. Others stifled their laughter. Wozer, the subject of Ilomen’s wrath, rubbed his throbbing paw, his snout streaked with ink.

“Sorry, ma’am.” Ilomen slumped down in his seat. He was most likely going to get detention for this. Perhaps his father, the Dread Lord Ilmana, would be summoned for a talk with the principal again.

But at least he didn’t have to listen to that blasted clicking any longer.

#AtoZChallenge: Horseplay

“Hey, slow down!”

Helia laughed as she raced past her brother. She had left him trailing in her wake since they had first learned to walk. Now that the twins were fast approaching adulthood, she was the fastest runner in the family and poor Hadros could only lag behind.

“Come, on Helia! It’s not fair!”

“The gods aren’t fair, Hadros! No one ever asks Hermes to slow down!” She grinned and picked up her pace. Her brother’s panting breaths were lost to the wind as she flew through the forest, darting over large rocks and fallen logs. It was the most amazing feeling in the world to run without limits, without boundaries. Trees became a blur of green and sounds of birdsong ebbed and flowed like the river’s tide.

Poor Hadros. He’d never catch up to her. Helia decided to take pity on her brother and stopped, waiting for him by a clearing. He was nowhere to be seen. She couldn’t even hear his steps any longer. She craned her neck and looked around, getting impatient and a bit worried. Even Hadros wasn’t that slow. He should have come into view by now. Where was he?

As Helia was peering into the depths of the forest in an attempt to see some sign of her brother, she heard the sound of a twig snapping from somewhere to her left. She turned her head just in time for a shadowy figure to lunge at her, knocking her out of breath as they both tumbled to the ground. She struggled to stand up, pushing the other figure off her, but it was relentless in its attack.

“Hadros?!”

Helia couldn’t believe it. He’d snuck up on her! Her brother burst out laughing.

“You should have seen your face! Who would have thought that ‘Helia the Swift’ could be ambushed, huh?”

He laughed again, but was cut off by Helia headbutting him in the chest. They both fell to the ground, grappling with each other and kicking up clumps of dirt.

“That’s enough!”

The siblings almost jumped at the sound of their father’s voice. Haeron was standing at the edge of the clearing, arms crossed over his chest and one forehoof pawing the ground. Their mother Hali stood next to him, failing to hide her amusement.

“It doesn’t matter how old you grow,” she said, “You’ll always behave like foals.”

Helia and Hadros stood up, tails drooping. “We’re sorry.”

Their father shook his head, his stern expression giving way to a wry smile. “Alright you two. I think you’ve had more play time than you can handle. It’s almost time for supper.”

“Alright,” they said, in unison.

Helia looked over at Hadros, a sly twinkle in her eye. “Race you!”

With that, she galloped off back the way they had come.

“Hey!” Hadros charged after her.

Haeron sighed. Hali laughed and patted him on the back as they trotted along behind their children.