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The following is a Hell Hollows world short entered in Sterling and Stone’s Pity Par-Tay Flash Fiction Mash Up Contest. It’s a contest held for those of us not lucky enough to get a ticket to the 2017 Smarter Artist Summit in Austin, TX. My selected mash up words were: giant bugs, an explosion.

Hell Hollows – The Broker

by Regina Richards

 

Stunned by the fall, Daargus lay on his back blinking at the jagged opening above. The shadowy forest light that drew the mouth of the hole was suddenly blocked by multiple heads. Their green faces split into toothy grins as they looked down at him.

“Shall I put an arrow in him?” One of Puutros’s men reached for his quiver.

The warrior beside him grunted. “Why waste an arrow? Hole’s deep as a well. No way up.” The man sniffed. “And from the smell, he’s not alone. He’ll tell no tales. Let’s get back before the raiding party leaves. Otherwise, we’ll get no share of gains.”

The heads disappeared. Daargus sat up. The earth walls around him spun into brown soup. Yet true to his merchant-broker soul, and despite his aching brain, he took inventory.

His desperate flight from Puutros Hold into the Hell Hollows forest to escape the warrior-merchants who’d discovered him listening to their plans, had ended at the bottom of this hole. And, as head-jarring as the fall had been, it had saved his life.

Daargus nursed no illusions. A respected member of the merchant class, he was a man of facts and figures, dealing and dunning. First Broker for the river-merchant hold of Maargolli. He had skills. But he was no merchant-warrior. Had Puutros’s warriors caught him, he’d have shared the fate of the men he’d come seeking, the merchant-collectors he’d sent to dun Puutros when his balance sheets had begun to alarm him.

The earthen walls were looking solid again. Yet the noise he’d assumed was part of the pain in his head continued. Rapid pops, like fistfuls of pebbles hurled violently against metal. That sound, combined with the scent of burning flesh, set Daargus’s heart pounding. He scrambled to his knees and turned. The spinning in his head stopped as abruptly as if his brain had slammed into a stone wall.

Four paces away a quoomoo sprawled, antlered head lolled at an impossible angle, eyes frozen in hopeless acceptance. Hundreds of rootless plants, thin foot-length twigs with appendage-like leaves and red-berried plumes, danced around the quoomoo, cocking and snapping their trunks to hurl berries at the body. The berries exploded in white-hot bursts, blowing chunks of flesh from the animal which were then snatched mid-air by the twigs’ leaves. The leaves curled over the meat and sickly-smelling steam piped from their ends as the trunks cocked once more.

This macabre dining dance registered only briefly in Daargus’s brain. His attention was riveted by the giant bug crouched at the quoomoo’s neck. Spider-like legs wrapped the animal’s throat. An orb-shaped torso glowed eerie red as if lit from within by phosphorus fluid. Above the red orb sat a second clear one. Beneath its transparent membrane writhed a dozen red offspring, hand-sized replicas of the parent they rode. The parent’s eyes stared at Daargus with anticipatory greed. Its black tube-tongue shot out, stabbing the quoomoo’s jugular. The tongue rippled as it sucked the quoomoo’s blood, and the bodies of both parent and womb-encased offspring glowed a more luminous red.

Daargus scrambled to his feet, backing away so rapidly his back slammed the wall, sending a gritty shower down his neck into his leather jerkin. He fumbled behind him, stripping from its backsheath his only weapon, a hand scythe. His hand tightened on the cold metal. He’d get only get one swipe before the bug overwhelmed him.

“She’s not going to suck your blood.”

Daargus tore his gaze from the half-man-sized bug and squinted at the ground. Near his feet, a single twig swayed, red berries bobbing merrily.

“What?”

“The jimshe,” the plant said.

Daargus was fluent in the bark-clicking language of trees. A necessary skill for a broker dealing for edibles and medicines.

Daargus glanced at the jimshe. Animal and insect languages were forbidden. In the Hell Hollows there was no barter with such creatures. It was simply kill and be killed. The jimshe continued to suck blood, eyes on Daargus.

“She won’t suck your blood,” Twig said. “She’ll reserve you for her hatchlings. Too bad. You look moist. But she always takes more than her share, sucking every fall-dinner dry, leaving us withered meat.”

“How long before the hatching?” Daargus asked.

“Hours.” A hatchling leg pierced the transparent womb, wiggling in the air above its parent’s head. The jimshe stuffed her offspring back into her womb. “Or maybe just minutes.” Twig shrugged.

“And your kind?” Daargus waved his scythe at the dancing, dining, sizzling plants.

“You are safe from us…as long as you’re still mostly alive.”

Daargus relaxed his grip on the scythe. A little. The twig had just given him a broker’s treasure: time to negotiate. And negotiate he would. The lives of all of Maargolli depended on it. If Puutros’s surprise attack succeeded, by morning there would be no Maargolli. Daargus would not allow that to happen.

He squatted, face-to-plume with Twig, and smiled his best broker smile.

**

It took time to convince Twig; more for Twig to convince the jimshe; mere seconds for the twigs to intertwine and create a ladder out of the hole; time again to demand the twigs form two barrel-tubes, since Daargus refused to ride with the pregnant bug and her soon-to-be-thirsty offspring; and time for the barrel-tubes to speed-roll through the forest.

Now Daargus stood on a cliff above the river with his odd army. Below, Maargolli’s windows were dark, but the sister moons shimmered over water lapping its peaceful docks. They’d beaten Puutros here.

A leaf slapped his calf. Daargus looked down.

“Scouts rolled in. Raiders ten minutes away,” Twig said.

“That’s not enough time to get down the cliff path and wake the Hold. We’ll be overrun before we can arm.”

Twig shrugged. “Deal was dead for dining. Theirs or yours. Makes no difference. Jimshe can’t suck them all dry. Moist dining tonight!” Twig rubbed his leaves together. Then seeing Daargus’s expression mumbled, “Least of what you’re happier not knowing.”

“Tell me,” Daargus growled.

“Hatchlings arrived.”

“To drink the blood of Puutros.”

“Yes, they’ll drink. And grow.”

“Grow?”

“Drink more, grow bigger. Feasting will have them your size in minutes.”

“My size!”

“They’ll dine until no dining is left. It’ll be weeks before they fit into our hole-home. But they’ll return.” Twig sighed. “Greedy jimshe. Now many, not one. Twigs must enjoy tonight’s moist meal; we’ll never have another.”

Daargus’s heart staggered. “Our deal was for the jimshe to save Maargolli, not devour it!”

“Agreed to stop raiders. And dine. No promise not to also enjoy the moist of Maargolli.”

Daargus thrust aside rage. There was no time for it. He was First Broker of Maargolli. He squatted to Twig’s level. “Let’s deal.”

**

Convincing the jimshe to remain on the cliff-top wasn’t easy. But Daargus wouldn’t allow them nearer Maargolli. They agreed, probably because herding “the moist” to the river suited them. They loaded rocks into the catapult formed by the twigs. By the time rocks showered the alarm on the slumbering river-city, the jimshe were in the forest eliciting screams from the arriving raiders, giving the twigs time to reform.

Half the plants wove into thin carpets, laying at intervals along the narrow path that was the only access down the cliff. The rest stacked on the cliff edge, exploding berries in a white-hot message to the city below. Raiders!

Pursued by ever-growing jimshe, Puutros warriors stampeded from the forest and down the cliff path. At the precise points Daargus had instructed, the twig carpets rose to dump them into the river below. The raiders floated away, unharmed.

Daargus was a broker. Puutros still owed Maargolli. Dead men couldn’t pay.

Those who made it past the twigs surrendered gratefully to the awoken city and the twigs went into the forest seeking what dining the bugs had left.

Daargus stood at the edge of the cliff, empty now save for the remaining twigs, and giant, enraged bugs.

“Goodbye,” Twig said near his ankle. Daargus kept his eyes on Maargolli, and waited.

The jimshe struck. Spider-legs wrapped him. Tube-tongues pierced him. He counted as they entered. He was a broker. Counting was important.

At thirteen, he flung himself over the cliff.

The impact against the cliffside exploded two blood-bloated jimshe, drenching him. Their tongue-tubes slipped from his body as they fell to the rocks below. Twig’s grip tightened around his ankles. The twig-formed rope from which he hung popped with celebratory explosions as they cocked themselves again, using him as a pendulum to burst jimshe against the cliff wall.

Tongue-tubes slipped away, one after another. Daargus expected to be battered against rock. But the twigs were precise engineers. When the last jimshe was dead, they reeled Daargus back to the clifftop.

Twig released his ankles. “Jimshe didn’t suck all your moist. Your people are coming. You will live. No raiders for you. No dry dining for me. Good deal, Broker.”

“Yes,” Daargus said as Twig followed his kind into the forest. “Very good deal.”

 

 

© copyright 2017 Regina Richards

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