Flash: Apollo’s Fall

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Apollo finally approached close enough to make out the sentry guarding the bridge across the Cut. Surprisingly, it was a girl, well, woman full grown but without armor or reasonable weapons. Clothed only in colorful gaze she leaned on a walking stick thin enough her slight weight bent it, although when he came within shouting distance, she lifted it to hold it sideways, completely blocking the rough wooden bridge behind her.

Her stance mimicked that of a fighter, with the confidence of one expecting to win.

The mercenary searched the barren sandy wasteland either side of the Cut for the source of the confidence. Flat land, little thorny shrubs, and one woman and one bridge among a whole lot of nothing.

“Papers please,” a pleasant alto asked, once he was within easy speaking range, holding out one hand.

That was one thing Apollo’s employers could not provide, because papers, the type capable of passing the scrutiny of the Gorge Centettes, required official governmental approval and what he needed to do on the Leopard Horde side of the Cut could never be officially noticed. He passed her paper denominations marked in Elven Leaves instead, worth more than his initial downpayment for his task, though not as much as he would receive upon completion.

The sentry raised an eyebrow, fanning the paper with one hand before tucking the money into a pocket in her flowing skirts. Apollo took a step forward, but she put out her hand again, this time with a smirk, “Papers please.”

“I just gave—”

“A donation, for which we thank you, but crossing here requires papers from the Elfwives or the Spotted Khan. Our oath before our gods requires obedience to the contract.”

“I don’t have any damn papers.” Apollo growled. “That money could have bought a dozen perfect counterfeits. Just step aside before I got to hurt you.”

She laughed, resting her staff once more on the sand right before the first wooden plank.

If he rushed her, she would fall the mile into the Cut.

“One, no counterfeit ever works here.” Her beautiful features hardened as she regripped her thin wooden staff with her left hand. “Two, fuck around and find out.” With her right, she waved toward the unseen Middle Sea. “Might I recommend the Horn route? If you need water to help with the journey, I can provide two-days worth which should get you to Fire Falls without issue.”

He had started in a seaport, but going around the Horn took over a month, especially considering where the nearest port was to his final destination, whereas jumping the Cut at the Diplomatic Shake Crossing would only take four days, the first three already used.

“Ah hell,” Apollo drew his hand and a half sword. Forty inches of steel lethality.

The sentry smiled, dragging her comically thin quarterstaff in a line in the sand from one support rail of the narrow bridge to the other, stepping aside once she completed the mark. “Well, if you insist.” Now using her right hand, she waved him over the bridge.

He narrowed his eyes. “I do.” Was all this posturing? Did the Centettes, supposedly the world’s most elite force who lived in caves within the Gorge, really just bluff their way through everything? He stepped on the wooden bridge, then turned to face her. She could push him off as easily has he could have pushed her.

He slowly backed across the bridge. No raised sides or hand rails meant the hot winds rising from the red blood of the world wound a mile below made the action tricky. She remained on the Elfwives United Paths side of the bridge. Once he was half-way, just as he was about to turn and run the rest of the way across, the sentry raised her hand. That was it. She just raised her hand.

He turned around and discovered three women with crossbows rising from the barren wasteland, sand rolling in waves off their cloaks. Apollo was dead before he hit the lava.

(words 676, first published 6/4/2023)

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