The Crow of Nine-World came from a flash fiction challenge hosted by Chuck Wendig. I’ve decided to start doing his challenges, to keep my writing tools sharp and remember to have fun with words.
The Crow of Nine-World
The Crow strode through the departure hall, keeping his cloak from flapping in the slight breeze. Other passengers gabbed and chattered around him, a cacophony made worse from the high, multi-colored glass ceiling creating a dense echo. He grit his teeth, trying to still the panic rising in his throat. One misplaced caw and he’d be hustled through the airport to a government-controlled car, where some bigwigs would likely try to strong-arm him into doing their dirty work. The Crow snorted under his breath, side-stepping a harried young mother pushing a pink stroller. The child stretched out a hand, her blue eyes shiny with curiosity. No, that wouldn’t be good.
Terminal E5 loomed before him, multi-colored banners hung from the portal gate, swinging like laundry in the breeze. A portal attendant lazed at her desk, flipping magazine pages with practiced standoffishness. His own face glowered at him from the front of the magazine, a “swoon-worthy dark scowl from Nine-World’s greatest magicker!” The Crow grimaced remembering the camera; the tabloid’s sleazy intern had snapped the picture right after stepping on his tail feathers. His backside throbbed in remembrance. A blank paper screamed for his attention at the gate, black ink surfacing as he approached it. Gate times, spaced fifteen minutes apart, swam before the Crow’s eyes. The gate was on a cooling-break and wouldn’t be active for another hour. Shooting a glance at the attendant (she had yet to notice he’d arrived), he strode away from the gate, changing the front of the magazine to become a science journal. No point looking at his face unless there was a mirror involved. A family of eight straggled to the gate platform, sticky fingers smearing the polished gate surface. The father slapped the kids’ hands away, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. The Crow pulled his hood lower; heading for the food court. He felt a bit peckish.
The food court was a mistake, the Crow decided. His stomach roiled against the too-spicy burrito, the greasy chips, and the neon green fizzy drink he’d been coerced into buying. Curse his inability to say no. Curse it all, he burped, to Four-World and back. The Crow ambled over to his chair at the gate, narrowly missing one of the sticky children from before as he raced past, face covered in jelly.
“Cuh-caw,” came a breathy whisper, brushing his ears. A touch lighter than dust skimmed across his shoulders; the Crow whirled around, pulling his feathers close. “Cat,” he spat.
She gave a predatory grin, all teeth. A thick ermine stole was wrapped snugly around her shoulders, dark curls spilling over. Her pupils were slit like a cat’s; Crow knew they weren’t contacts. No, they were entirely too real.
“Crow,” she cooed. “Fancy seeing you in Eight World’s spiffiest portal transport.”
“Yeah,” the Crow muttered. “Fancy.”
“Oh, Crow, don’t be like that,” Cat pleaded, toying the tie on his chest. It tightened uncomfortably against his throat, the way her hands had in Three-World years ago.
“Sod off, Cat,” he said, brushing her aside. “I’m here on business and you’re not part of it.”
She smirked. “I remember when nothing about our relationship could be called business.” Cat winked; Crow stared at the outline of a gun in her pocket. No one would even dream of searching her, the infamous Night Cat, assassin extraordinaire. One of the brightest minds in surveillance and…disposal, wasted through contract killings from billionaires with too much spare time.
Crow fought the emotions surging to the surface, their time together etched into his memory like a tattoo on skin. It was all colored red—red with passion, red with anger. He huffed out a sigh, back to Cat. Her heels tapped out a staccato beat on the faux-marble terminal floor.
“I very well remember that,” Crow said as tonelessly as possible. “I wish I didn’t.” Cat spun him around, a fake pout on her lips. Crow tugged out of her grasp, stalking back to the food court. Possibly he could trick her into eating one of the toxic burritos. It might stall her long enough to let him get back to work.
“Don’t you dare walk away from me,” Cat hissed, heels tapping furiously behind him. He lengthened his stride, a smile playing on his lips. He furiously erased it.
Don’t think about her, he chided himself. Remember what happened the last time. No amateur mistakes.
His arms ached remembering that time. It was dreadfully cold when Crow first met her, clinging to the side of a mountain on First World, in a place called Nepal. Crow shivered; it had been cold enough to freeze his feathers for weeks after. She’d scaled the mountain without even a shadow on the new-fallen snow. His magick hadn’t detected her until she’d stolen the Imperial Seal (a great barking thing, blubbery and stinkier than a swamp) with several cases of refined, thousand-year wine retrieved from Shangri-La in the Older Days.
She was right behind him, breath warm on his cheek; Crow fidgeted. He was not a high-contact person. It was one of the deciding factors that had turned their relationship into pure business, nothing else. A ghost of what was. “Enough playing, I think,” she whispered. “Time for the chase.” She shoved him away, and he darted into a crowd of new arrivals still dizzy from travelling through the portal. Cat vaulted off a foodstand selling overpriced tacos, darting away among hanging art and thick, colored glass panels that served little to no purpose except to distract.
Crow’s adrenaline spiked, a feather drifting to the floor. He grimaced; no time to pick it up. Cat was likely on his trail already. A feather or two would make no difference. He’d rely on speed and magickal advantage. His fingers tingled with suppressed magickal energy; the Crow let go in one burst, feather cape coming to life and forming two wings, like the people of Fifth-World. Cat’s ermine stole thudded to the ground; her black, lithe tail twitched and disappeared as she rushed to catch up to Crow. His wings, while not the prettiest, were the fastest around. And the Crow knew it. A laugh threatened to bubble out of him, but silence was the objective. Stuffy terminal air became fresh as Crow flew higher, darting between glass panels and relishing the wind’s attempts to tear his feathers out. His orders flapped in his jacket pocket, the words useless now. Crow patted the orders once, twice. Good old government secrets; they made life that much more exciting.
He landed before a nondescript stall, keeping his wings enchanted for a little while yet; Cat favored sneak attacks, especially when they were involved in the same affair—no matter the side. He leaned against the stall, idly plucking a newspaper from a stand and opening it to the middle. Only the usual—diplomats failing at their jobs and Worlds dramatically declaring war, only to be placated through money-heaving gift-giving. Frivolous.
A standard business official approached the stand, picking up a paper as well and burying his rather long nose in it. A shiny, overlarge watch glinted on his wrist and Crow squashed the desire to yank up the man’s sleeve and hide it. Cat never failed to notice (and covet) sparkly, often valuable things.
“Crane,” Crow murmured out of the side of his mouth, surreptitiously scanning for Cat’s tail.
The business man dipped his chin ever so slightly, seeming to be reading the latest article on a celebrity scandal in Seven-World. “Crow.”
“How’s Marjorie?” Crow shifted his paper to hide his face. Nothing spotted yet, though Cat could be biding her time. She was good at that.
“Good, good. She asked me to give you a letter,” Crane said, pulling a creamy white envelope from his suit pocket. Crow quirked a smile; Marjorie was the best known person in Nine-World’s surveillance agency—she was purely fictional, named after a parakeet the Boss had when he was nine. She’d been a number of things—wife, sister, daughter, mass murderer. Anything the crew needed a name for. His own passport claimed he was from Marjorie, a supposed city on Nine-World’s edge.
“Ah, thank you.” Crow slipped it into the hidden pocket of his cloak, double-warding it against theft. He checked a non-existent watch. The E5 terminal would be charged by now. He’d better leave. Yet where was Cat?
Probably got distracted by a gift shop full of tiny, shiny things, Crow laughed to himself. He folded the newspaper, then quickly dodged to the side as a black knife embedded itself hilt deep beside his shoulder. He dove for Crane, yet only grazed his coworker’s hair as Cat whisked him away, smirking her sharp, sharp smile. She shot him a wink and dove into the nearest portal, blasting past a sullen gate attendant and outraged cries from other passengers. Cat and Crane vanished in a flash of colorless, tasteless magickal light.
So that was how she wanted to play it, then.