This is the first time I've entered one of Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenges, though I've read the work of many who have and am more than a little intimidated.
The challenge was to choose one of 14 opening lines and write a short story for it that was no more than 1,000 words long.
The opening line I chose: "Once James accepted that he had no choice but to burn the books, the question became which to burn first." Valerie Valdes
Gasping for air, James' thin frame shuddered as he hauled himself up on his good leg, his crushed right arm impotently bound to his bloody side with the reminants of his shirt. He set his jaw, his grey eyes turned inward, fixed on the memory of his precious Winnie. He would not let her death be in vain.
Digging the lighter from his pants pocket he couldn't help but grin. Winnie had nagged him to quit smoking, she'd even threatened to leave him once. Now it just might save the galaxy.
Who'd have thunk? He giggled.
Punchy, getting punchy ...
James slapped himself and for a second or two stared at the lighter trying to remember what it was doing in his hand.
Then he remembered. He had to burn the library to prevent the Chaos Walkers finding The Book of Ascension. If only he knew which book it was he could spare the library but the monks had died to keep their secret.
The door groaned and cracked under heavy blows. "Come out and we'll let you live." He didn't recognize the voice, but its mechanical pitch belied the presence of a Chaos Walker.
Yeah, sure, they'd let him live, let him live as one of them. But that wasn't living. He knew, he'd tried it.
And Winnie had saved him.
Breathing a plea for forgiveness to whatever deities might care, James held the flame under the nearest book. They were all hundreds of years old, brittle and dry, and would burn like tinder. This would become his pyre.
He smiled. Soon he would be with Winnie.
But the book didn't catch fire. It didn't even discolor. James swore and threw the lighter across the room where it bounced harmlessly off one of the thousands of books lining the walls. Before they were massacred the monks must have bespelled them.
The small exertion cost him and James coughed, a fine red spray filling the air. He staggered and nearly fell.
With a scream of rent wood and bending iron Chaos Walkers tore the door from its hinges and swarmed into the library, surrounding James.
Calvin, the High Lord's son, strutted through the fractured doorway, his black cape fell from narrow congenitally stooping shoulders and swept the floor, picking up splinters of dead wood and metal at its hem.
Calvin turned to James, his face barren of any emotion except scorn, his dead, cruel eyes reveling in James' fall from grace.
James stared at the floor determined not to give his brother the satisfaction of seeing him afraid. "You didn't think you could destroy the books did you?" Calvin's upper lip curled. "I didn't think you were that big a fool."
James' sight blurred. Blood still seeped from the deep knife wound in his leg despite his hastily devised tourniquet. He blinked to clear his vision and willed himself to stand tall. "Think me a fool if it pleases you. I would do anything to keep a monster such as you from possessing the power of an ascended being."
Legend said the power of an ascended being was enormous. A whole army could be laid low with only a word. If any of the Chaos Walkers were able to ascend they would have the ability to remake the galaxy in their image. The image of death.
James' legs gave out and he toppled onto a nearby stack of dusty tomes. As he moved, his leg sent shards of pain slicing up his spine. At least he wouldn't live to see the galaxy destroyed, but that was small comfort.
Clinging to the books for support, James looked around the room and wished Calvin wasn't the last thing he'd see. If only he could be with Winnie and look into her beautiful eyes as he died. James' legs gave out and he slid to the floor.
Calvin grinned, his eyes dead, and said something but James couldn't hear the words. He was cold. So cold. So this was death.
James didn't mind dying; his only regret was that he hadn't been able to destroy The Book. If only he'd been brighter, been able to figure out which book to destroy and been fast enough to do it before the soldiers broke in.
The light was fading, casting everything in shades of twilight. James' faltering gaze fell on a glowing white shape beside Calvin that hadn't been there a moment before.
James smiled. "Winnie," he said. Or tried to say. His lips were heavy and refused to move. He tried to smile at his dead love but his muscles rebelled.
Winnie looked at him, her lips trembling as she took in his mangled body. Tears filled her eyes. She mouthed something. He thought she said, "My love, the galaxy is safe."
James frowned and tried to shake his head. "If they find the book ...," he tried to say, but he was too weak to form the words.
Winnie knelt over him and said something but he couldn't understand her. He thought she said, "There is no book. The secret is the library."
He didn't understand what she meant but that didn't matter. Winnie was with him, and his love was the last thing he would see. James sighed, content, and felt himself slipping, spilling out of his mortal shell.
The secret is the library. Winnie's words crept sluggishly through his dying brain and then, the moment before he breathed his last, he understood.
-- S --
The Chaos Walkers read every book in the library countless times but never discovered The Book of Ascension. As they read, some of them remembered what it was to be human.
The monks had understood knowledge held power and that the library could transform, if not bodies, then hearts and minds.
-- The End --
If you read my story, thank you! I hope you enjoyed it. :-)
Photo credit: "Trinity College Library (1 of 2)" by Brett Jordan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.