Flash Fiction Challenge: River’s Mask

This story is brought to you by FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: Chose your title and write at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. This takes place in the same universe as the story I posted last week, but it takes place a few years before. These are all set pieces for a fantasy trilogy kicking around in my head. Hope you like it! –FY

Leena Catilyna ran her gloved hand over the skewered rodent Sergeant Twinnings prepared for her. A moment of focus and the Tatter bound to her otherwise useless finger pulsed and heat poured from her hand, cooking the meat evenly. A few months ago and she might have burned their dinner, but long stretches in the field taught her enough basic meal preparation to keep her soldiers happy. No one doubted the effect of a hot meal on moral, especially when sneaking through a damp wood underneath clouds thick with snow. To a Weaver, nothing mattered more than the moral of her troops.

She passed the lightly charred meat down the line, taking one skewer after another until every member of her squad had something to eat. She then traveled from soldier to soldier, drying their hair and clothes, trying to give them warmth to remember as they prepared to sleep in the chill night air.

Leena occasionally wondered if the trade had been worth it. Most Weavers only interacted with Tatters floating free in the air. Few knew how to bind one of the ethereal creatures and fewer still attempted a binding. Her glove covered a finger little more than sticky ash and dry bone. Pain constantly nipped at her mind. On the other hand, she could survive without an army, without soldiers powering her. Strip away everything else and she remained armed and able to defend herself. Even if she never found herself in that terrible situation again, the symbiont allowed her to keep her soldiers warm and well fed when they couldn’t risk a fire. She occasionally wondered if the trade had been worth it, but never once regretted her choice to pair with the Tatter.

“Captain Catilyna”

Leena eyed the man approaching from the forest’s edge. He wore the mottled green of Byron’s trackers. She knew his face from the general’s staff meetings.

“Corporal Noval?”

“Yes, ma’am. General Graves sends word. The battle goes well. The Halixtacians engaged his soldiers completely. The scouts saw no sign of any soldiers left to defend the citadel. Even if they suspect something, they’ll be unable to return with a force of any size in less than five days.”

“Good. I’ll have the artifact in his tent in three.”

Novel’s eyebrow lifted, but he said nothing else. With a bow, he took two steps backwards and vanished into the night. The tracking life attracted the silent type. Leena stepped through the sleeping soldiers until she located her sergeant.

“Twinnings, who was on watch tonight?”

“Brighton and Duval, ma’am.”

Leena felt her teeth grinding. “Brighton was assigned to the north side of camp?”

“Yes, Captain.” Twinnings sighed. “Another messenger.”

Leena nodded. “Wake Sanders. She’ll take the north watch for the rest of the night. Inform Private Brighton he’ll be on Support tonight, giving his eyes, ears, and legs.”

“All three? Is that safe?”

Leena locked eyes with Twinnings. The only sound between them was the grinding of her teeth.

“I… Yes, Captain. I’ll let him know.”

Leena returned to her small tent as Twinnings moved to carry out her orders. She knew she should get some rest in the scant hours before moonrise, but no matter how long she lay with her eyes closed, sleep eluded her.

She found herself wandering the edge of camp, frozen blades of grass crunching under the toes of her boots.

“Can’t sleep, Captain?”

Leena kept herself from jumping. Private Caroline Sanders leaned against the trunk of an ancient tree, motionless, almost completely indistinguishable from the bark.

Leena shook her head.

“Don’t worry, happens to lots of folks. All that excitement before a battle, no good for sleeping.”

“If all goes according to plan, there won’t be a battle.”

“Battle, mission, all the same in the end. Though I wouldn’t count on everything going according to plan.”

The private gave Leena a comforting smile. Leena fought down a wave of irritation. She knew the older woman meant well, but it grated to be constantly reminded how little experience she had, that Byron only gave her this command because of her freakish abilities and not her talents as a leader.

“That’s what they say, isn’t it? A battle plan is only good until the first arrow is fired.”

“Yes Captain.”

Leena could feel the devotion pouring off Sanders. Stoke those fires and she’d be a tremendous source of power someday. “No matter how the plan goes awry, I’ll feel safer knowing that you’re here watching over my Support.”

Sanders flushed. “Thank you ma’am. For everything.”

Leena patted her on the shoulder as she returned to the center of the camp. Moonrise approached faster than she expected, and she had preparations to make. She woke the sleeping squad and gently bound half a dozen Tatters floating in the air to the soldiers in their bedrolls.

The Tatters pulsed with the energy the soldier’s sacrificed, temporarily drained so Leena could redistribute it. She sent one of the ethereal creatures winding to each end of the camp, locking on to Sanders and Duval, giving them the sight and hearing of four men. The rest she bound to herself, feeling her muscles bulge with borrowed strength, her reflexes sharpen, her body grow hale. With a quick bow to Sanders, she took off, a streak bound for the citadel.

The heavy stone building towered over the rain soaked forest. Ancient had a different meaning when most buildings toppled fifty years ago when the world tore asunder, but Byron told her this building predated the quakes by lifetimes.

Leena circled twice, using her enhanced senses to verify no sentries hid in the shadows. She watched the patter of the Tatters, visible only to a Weaver, looking for any deviation from their natural ebb and flow through the air, any sign another of her kind lurked deep within. The occupying army left no one behind, expending all resources trying to destroy their tribal enemy.

Leena confidently strode through the entryway, no longer attempting any pretense of stealth. Only a warning burst of flame from her hand and her enhanced reflexes saved her from the dart flying through the air. Poisoned, if she had to guess. In the shadows of the great hall she spotted bodies bloated with toxin. Those that made it too far for their allies to pull their corpses free. No wonder the Halixtacians abandoned this outpost.

Pain arced up her arm as she slowly stepped forward. She drew back, stepping this time towards a stone diagonal from where she stood. The pain eased. She put her foot down and tensed, ready to dodge another dart. Nothing happened. She took another step, and another, trusting the pain and the creature bound to her arm to guide her through safely.

Flashing blades filled the next room, leaping through the air through means Leena couldn’t understand. The floating Tatters guided her here too, leading her through a precise dance that narrowly avoided the implements of death and destruction, Next came a climbing puzzle, then a room full of carnivorous ivy, and another filled with animated golems.

Finally, she stood less than thirty feet away from her prize. She could see it perched on a pedestal, dimly lit by the wreath of fire surrounding her clenched fist. The River’s Mask. Byron showed her a the picture in an old book. The grayish metal flickered red with reflected fire light. Two large tears etched in the mask’s cheeks matched the drawing exactly.

A slow clapping filled the air. Leena drew her blades and spun. She should herself face to face with a figure about her size and shape, clad in black plate armor.

“Who’s there?”

“Relax, child. I mean you no harm.” The other’s voice was feminine, rich, throaty, and regal. “I only wanted to congratulate you on making it this far.”

“Stay back!”

Leena staggered away, swinging wildly at the air in front of her. The other woman sighed. Leena realized she wore blades similar to her own. The figure removed her obsidian helm, fingers brushing the two tears etched into the face plate. The other woman had short cropped, graying hair, a bright tattoo extending down her neck. Though tanned and lined with age, Leena recognized the other’s face as one she saw anytime she looked in a mirror.

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Empress. Others call me Tyrant. I am the Lady Tatterborne.” The woman smiled as flames danced around her gauntleted fist. “You may know me by another name.”

“You’re me? How?”

The woman’s smile grew. “I am a possibility. I am a road less traveled. I exist in a moment, for this moment, until a decision is made.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to. You just need to choose.”

“To take the mask or to leave it?”

“Don’t be a fool. There exists no timeline where you don’t leave with your trophy. You choose the wearer.”

“I’m doing this for Byron. The mask is his.”

Sadness intruded in the other woman’s eyes. “Byron Graves. Very well. I can only pray he has the strength for what’s to come.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman’s eyes grew cold. “Foolish child. Do you think the world broke on it’s own? Do you think the Tatters came of their own free will? Let us hope that Byron Graves can do what it takes to stop them.”

“This mask gives power over water?”

Her smile returned. “Rivers of blood, tides of armies, the flow and ebb of time. Anyone seeking to control a body of water would be sorely disappointed.”

Leena traced the mask with her fingers. Legendary power for whoever wielded it. She thought of Byron. She thought of the mistakes he let slide, the aggressions he endured, the opportunities he passed up. His weakness.

“If I take it, do I save the world?”

“If you take it for yourself, you start the road to becoming me. That is all I can say.”

“What does it cost?” Nothing touched by the Tatters came without a price.

The older woman looked down, all traces of levity gone from her face. “Everything.”

Leena gripped the mask in her hands. “Is it worth it?”

“Of course.”

Leena pressed the edges of the mask against her face. The world went black.

Leena drifted. Alone. In darkness. In silence. She was nothing. She was everything.

“Captain Catilyna! Are you alright?”

Leena opened her eyes to find Private Sanders standing over her, her face surrounded by trees.

“Where? When?”

“Just outside the campsite, ma’am. It’s midday. You’ve been gone since last night. What happened to you?”

Leena pushed herself to a sitting position.

“The citadel, there were defenses we didn’t expect.”

Sanders helped her to her feet. “What did I tell you? Nothing ever goes to plan. What of the artifact?”

Leena’s hands grasped at her own face. Nothing but her skin. She looked down at her chest. In the center of her tunic, barely visible, two teardrops were into the leather.

“It’s gone.”

The other woman shrugged. “Damned Halixtacians probably took it with them. Don’t worry, Captain, General Graves is sure to forgive you.”

“I’m sure he will.” Leena felt a cruel smile spread across her lips. “I’ll have to make it up to him by dealing with the Halixtacians once and for all.”


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