Summons

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It came for me.

In the dark of night, it came for me.

A creature like a man, only its skin was porcelain white, a phantom wreathed in moonlight. It smiled with bloodless lips, and from the endless depths of the dark it bade me follow after it.

There was no running, no bargaining, no arguing my way to freedom. I’d seen its kind claim others, seen its feral, animalistic rage as it made short work of those who would not answer its call willingly.

So I hunched my shoulders, skin cold to the touch, and nodded.

The creature turned to make its way down the graveled walkway, and I followed in its wake, wondering what the purpose of its summons could be, wondering if I’d be alive to recount the tale by morning.

I could hear the steady, irregular rhythm of far-off cars, while all around, I was serenaded by a chorus of nearby crickets—a funeral dirge to lead the creature and I as we hiked across the street, then along the sidewalk on the other side.

A million questions surged through my head like an angry sea, but terror held my desiccated tongue and I remained silent.

We headed out toward a busier street, and I pondered what others would think if they saw the creature that walked in their midst. A ghost? A corpse in motion? No, likely just a man; perhaps a bit too bright in the glow of nearby headlights, but a man just the same. Most lack the training we possess and can’t perceive the darker proportions of the world with clarity.

At last we turned a corner and stepped up onto another house’s porch, haloed in bright gold light. The creature reached out with its too-thin fingers and knocked on the door.

When it opened, when the thing inside gestured for us to enter, my heart sank, for I was certain now I wouldn’t see the sunrise.

“I’ve been expecting you for a while,” its dry voice rasped.

I pressed forward, determined not to let my fear show.

The darkness of the house’s interior enveloped me.

The door closed.

Totem, Part 7

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Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

It started long before the master’s dream, before he even took me on as his apprentice. Azibo paused a moment, casting himself back into the past.

I could never actually read another’s thoughts, but there was always a sense of what the people around me were feeling. Sometimes, if someone thought about something hard enough, I might even catch a glimpse of it in my head, like a vision from the corner of my eye, there and gone before you even knew it was there. Growing up, I thought it was just intuition, the sort of thing everyone’s capable of to one degree or another. If I could tell that my parents were worried about their crops during the season of Shemu, or that my brothers and sisters were angry because they’d been caught doing something they were told not to do, what was so unusual about that?

Then as I got older, my talent started to grow. No longer would I catch just fleeting glimpses from those who spent a lot of time with me and my family. Soon, I could discern actual thoughts. The day I first remember being sure, I was with my parents at the market. They’d been haggling with a merchant over the price of a young goat. The man had told them a sack of wheat was as low as he could go, and my father, eager to be done with the day’s business, was about to agree. But I could sense the merchant was willing to go lower, that he was banking on my father’s weariness to reap a substantial profit. Though I thought it had to be my imagination, a part of me was convinced I should say something, and after a moment of awkward silence, I did.

Father,” I said, “Let’s go. There are still other merchants left who’re willing to trade, and I’m certain we can get a better price.”

While most parents would have balked at such an outburst from a child in public, mine received my words with patience. They wanted their children to learn the ways of the world, and what better way to do so than to be a part of the world’s business?

My son makes a good point,” my father said, and I could see the panic in the merchant’s eyes as he saw a profitable sale about to walk away. In the end, we got the goat for only a double barrel. That was the day I knew my talent was real.

The others stared at Azibo with almost reverential wonder. How could little Azibo, the youngest of their number, harbor such a startling secret?

But how did you go on for so long without the master catching on? Asked Rashidi. If you could read his mind, surely he could read yours.

I don’t know. If Azibo were still a human boy, he would have hunched his shoulders. I’m certain I could feel him trying, like an itch at the back of my head that’s impossible to scratch. He must have been able to read something, because if I’d been a blank slate to him, he probably would have suspected me straight away. But whenever I didn’t want him to know something, I’d just turn my thoughts to something else and hope he couldn’t hear it. I guess it worked.

Only one day, ventured Jahi, you discovered an unexpected aspect to your talent and found yourself inside the master’s head while he was asleep.

Azibo nodded.

Yes. A terrible day, for all of us, I think, at least in the end.

*                *                 *

Calm. Dark. Quiet.

Azibo floated through the infinite space behind closed eyelids, lost in meditation. His master had taught him the technique almost nine months ago, only a week and a half after he’d taken the boy under his wing with assurances to both his parents that with time he would mature into a cunning and powerful ruler.

“A still mind is a sharp mind,” his master had said, followed by the command that he practice at least three times each day for at least two hours per session.

“But I want to learn real magic,” Azibo had whined, “not relaxation techniques.”

“Focus first. The magic will follow.”

“Focus my ass.”

Three days had passed before Azibo could sit again.

He still didn’t see what was so important about meditation—So what if he could clear his mind? So what if he could concentrate? So what if he could control his emotions?—but it was a habit now, a state he could slip into almost immediately, and he hoped that once he demonstrated he was ready, he would learn the same arcane secrets that had made the master so powerful.

Now, Azibo drifted across a sea of endless black, detached from the world around him, deep in the waters of oblivion. There was peace here, a cosmic stillness of thought that Azibo would have a hard time letting go of when his meditation session was over.

Just dark and oblivion.

Dark and oblivion.

Dark and—

A flash of light. There and gone. Azibo would have been startled had he not detached himself so thoroughly.

There it was again. The light was back, growing now. Larger, brighter. It caught Azibo in its gravity and pulled him in.

Brighter.

Brighter.

Flash.

Azibo stood inside the arched entrance of a broad walled-off garden. The sun was bright overhead, casting its late afternoon light over a pond filled with purple lotus and papyrus. Across the water, against the far wall, stood two white marble statues: one a woman garbed in flowing, loose fitting robes, with wings that fell from her arms like sails, head angled toward the sky; the other a man, crown atop a narrow, regal head, dressed in a luxuriant style of clothing Azibo didn’t recognize, gripping the handles of a crook and a flail.

The master was there, kneeling before them like a penitent lost in prayer. Only prayer was the furthest thing from his mind. This Azibo knew, for the master’s thoughts permeated the air like fog rolling off the Nile River.

Power. Wealth. Immortality. Most importantly, immortality. The master did not know what awaited him on the other side of death, and he feared it like an ordinary person might fear an enraged cobra. He would do anything in his power to extend his life.

“Isis,” the master invoked, directing his attention to the female statue. The Goddess of Magic.

“Osiris,” he continued, this time turning to face the female statue’s mate. The God of Death and the Afterlife.

Only they weren’t gods, an understanding that materialized almost immediately from the ether of the master’s thoughts. Beings of great power, perhaps, but ones susceptible to certain weaknesses like anyone else, beings who could be bound and used, whose immense powers could be channeled like lightning through a metal rod. The master addressed them as subordinates, issuing commands as if they were his personal slaves.

Azibo’s surroundings flickered, wavered like a candle flame in a breeze. He was underground now, in a cavern whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in sacred symbols that would become known to the world outside thousands of years later as hieroglyphs. Though Azibo couldn’t read, he understood their meaning clearly.

Death. The underground chamber was pregnant with the stink of it. Thousands of people—men, women, and children—brutalized, tortured, lives magically preserved at the brink of death in a horrendous ritual only to be extinguished when their souls had nothing left to offer. The master was far older than any of his attendants and advisers had been lead to believe.

A sacrifice, Azibo understood, the lives of others exchanged so that the master’s life could continue. Only the longer he defied death, the longer he fed from the powers of Isis and Osiris to sustain the aging blood in his body, the more he had to murder in progressively gruesomer acts that made Azibo’s stomach want to toss up everything he’d eaten that afternoon.

Another thought, like a spot of dust surfing on a current of air. Azibo, viewed by the master with little more affection than one might show a stray dog, an apprentice kept only as a contingency in the unlikely case the master succumbed to the sting of death and needed someone to resurrect him—a disposable apprentice who could be murdered and replaced if found incapable, unworthy, or unwilling.

All of this came to Azibo in the time it took for him to blink. Then he was back in the garden, the sun bright against his eyes, the lotus and papyrus swaying to the beat of a gentle wind, belying the torrential madness rampaging through the master’s mind.

“Isis, Osiris: Hear me. Heed me.”

Power, unseen, flowing from the two statues into the master.

Then fear, the sudden feeling one experiences when rounding a corner only to face an unseen enemy.

The master’s head whipped back in Azibo’s direction.

Terrified, the boy turned to flee.

There was that familiar flash of light.

Then the darkness of an empty mind.

Then Azibo was coming awake with a start.

A dream, he decided. Just a dream. He’d been meditating, had perhaps allowed himself to become a bit too comfortable, and had nodded off without realizing it. Only he knew that wasn’t true, knew the way one knows the sun is bright and the sky is blue. Not a dream, but a glimpse into the master’s cruel and dangerous mind.

And that was when Azibo realized there was only one thing he could do. He had to get away—had to get far, far away. Only that wasn’t possible as long as the master was interested in him—and even less so if his interest waned.

I have to depose him.

There was no questioning the logic of the decision, only the how and when.

*                *                 *

For a long time, the others didn’t speak. Aside from Jahi, none of them had truly understood how evil the master had been. They’d known he was cruel, that he would seize power through whatever means necessary, but hadn’t all the world’s leaders done the same during that time? Even in light of their punishment—of their transformation into immortal birds, cursed to soar the skies until the end of time—they hadn’t comprehended the depth of the man’s evil.

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere? asked Zane, breaking the silence.

Unlikely, answered Chibale. You saw the condition of the master’s estate when we finally returned.

But he could have found a way. A man as powerful as that doesn’t just disappear.

Without frequent human sacrifice on a massive scale, said Jahi, I don’t think he could have survived for long.

What makes you think he didn’t establish himself somewhere else? Zane. Just because the old estate was in ruins doesn’t mean he didn’t find someplace new to continue his former way of life.

A worry for another day, said Rashidi, closing that line of inquiry for the time being. What I want to know more about is how this dovetails into Jahi’s story. Jahi, you were the one who got us all together and convinced us to take a stand against the master, and Azibo, I suppose it was you who convinced him. But I want to know how you got to working together and why.

The two looked at each other, and the silent question of who should speak first passed between them. Finally, Azibo took the initiative.

I didn’t know what to do. With so little regard even for his apprentice’s life, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would lose his favor. I’d like to say I was driven to avenge the people he murdered underground in secret, that I felt the uncontrollable urge to defend my homeland from that monster made flesh. But in truth, I had only fear and self interest at heart.

And with that, Azibo continued his story.

The World is Ours

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He sits on a rusty park bench, brushes dirt from his one button suit jacket, and pulls out a copy of the Los Angeles Times. The paper is smooth and uncreased and smells of fresh carbon black. He unties the plastic ribbon that binds the pages together, winds it into a tiny, tightly packed ball, and tosses it into the trash can beside him.

He opens to the front page and begins to read.

The playground behind him is quiet, empty, like an old western ghost town. The kids are in school, and the adults are packed away like rare collectible action figures in neatly trimmed cubicles. He treasures these moments of silence, and he looks forward to tomorrow, when the absence of human activity will become more or less a permanent fixture.

He scans through all the articles in the paper, even the celebrity gossip columns and the sports pages. He finds these humans to be fascinating creatures, with their almost manic obsession over trivial, mundane matters. In a world so cold and chaotic, perhaps it’s their only way to feel as if they’re somehow in control, as if the cosmic rumblings of the universe are of little consequence when compared to the ability to extol a home run by one’s favorite baseball team or to sully a public figure’s reputation.

Like beatles atop a dunghill, he thinks, believing themselves for centuries to be the center of a human-focused cosmos. Tomorrow, when the Earth is wiped clean, when his kind finally reclaim what has always been theirs by birthright, they will be little more than a footnote in the history of the world.

Scattered through the newspaper like rare and precious diamonds are articles that offer brief glimpses of what humanity could become if allowed more time to mature. Op-eds that call for unity in the face of arbitrary political divisions. Scientific columns urging people to become better stewards of the environment. Even news about progress made in the exploration of other worlds.

But tomorrow, none of it will matter. Tomorrow, the slate will be wiped clean, and he and his kind will walk the world in the open once more. The humans had a good run, all things considered, but now it’s time for the Earth’s true masters to take their place on high.

He reaches the ads at the very back, then tosses the paper into the trash and rises to his feet. A meeting will soon take place between himself and others of his species, and he does not wish to be late.

“Enjoy the day, my little dung beatles.” The words come out a dry whisper. “Treasure your remaining hours, because tomorrow, the world is ours.”

He turns from the park and walks away.

Answering the Call

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I.

Shining.

Resplendent.

A world of white sand and endless palms, of navy blue skies and shimmering otherworldly horizons.

You belong. You are one of us.

It calls to me. In the dark and endless night, it calls to me.

Come. Be one with us.

But I can’t. Not yet. The tether that binds me to my Earthly life holds fast; I cannot escape.

Oh, but that other world: It calls to me, and every day, it gets harder to turn away.

II.

A dream.

I am floating. Soaring through the clouds. Riding a jet stream through endless blue.

Not clouds anymore but foam, like the froth from a just opened bottle of champagne. And water, sparkling like a bed of polished sapphires.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

I am ache and need. I know no other purpose, no other destiny than to answer this ancient, unyielding call.

A hand, reaching from beyond to carry me away. I stretch to grasp it with my own. But it’s so far away, so very far away…

I come awake beneath the dim and silver light of the moon.

A spark kindles in my chest—a smoldering ember of pain and desire that I realize now will never die—and I lie awake until the sun’s first rays pierce my bedroom window with their sickly, comatose light.

III.

Pain.

I turn my weathered, pockmarked face toward a gray and ashen sky and cringe when the worn out joints in my knees issue a loud, crackling pop.

I behold the world from the other side of time, as an old man who’s ascended the golden ladder of life, only to discover it was never actually gold, only worthless, tarnished brass.

The spark that erupted in my chest long ago has transformed into a fire. I am immolation and desolation made flesh—consumed by hurt and heartbreak, and ravaged by broken promises, I am cast adrift.

Come.

For years, I’ve ignored that other world’s call. It was just noise, I told myself, a foolish fancy with no real-world significance. Only now, my “real-world” life is useless to me.

Old and infirm, I can no longer work, and those I once loved are dead. The Earth, rich in promises, has gifted me with rags.

Now, I strain at last to hear that other world’s voice—Come. You belong. You are one of us.—and bring it into focus once more.

I know now where my true home lies, and I turn away from my former life to follow after it.

IV.

A threshold.

Beyond: blue skies, white sand, and endless sparkling ocean. Behind: gray clouds, desolation, and endless darkness. It’s a wonder I remained for as long as I did.

The entrance to that other world is ringed in fire, but I do not hesitate.

I walk forward.

Forward into the fire.

Forward into love.

Forward into the light.

V.

A flash.

Pain.

I cry out, hold fast to that other world’s call as my old self is burned away.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

Suddenly, the pain is gone.

I am a new creation.

Love envelopes me.

I am home at last.

In Hiding

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Rhonda stood at the edge of a prim, neatly trimmed lawn. Watched the man who lived there go outside at precisely 7:45 a.m. to retrieve his copy of the Orange County Register. Gazed at him as if from a distance while he peered in her direction from only five feet away with unseeing eyes, holding a newspaper she knew he would never read.

It had been seven years since she left her husband to go into hiding, since she donned the glamour of invisibility to protect a dangerous secret. Seven years, and the loss still hurt, still burned deep inside her chest—a merciless, unquenchable fire that only intensified with time.

“I love you,” she whispered. The air in her lungs rattled as she choked back a sob.

The people she was hiding from would do whatever it took to steal her secret. She couldn’t let him be a part of that.

And yet…

Even now, seven years after her disappearance, he still hadn’t remarried, still hadn’t removed the gold wedding ring from his finger.

She could go to him now. She could explain what had happened and why she’d had to leave. She could tell him she still loved him, tell him she was sorry and that she would never leave again.

So many ifs and coulds. So many missed opportunities. Why hadn’t she returned? He would have wanted to share this burden with her. He would have risked his life if it meant remaining a part of hers. So why the hell had she not gone back already?

Why the hell not?

Hope kindled in her chest, momentarily smothering the fire that had burned there these past seven years. She would charge up the concrete walk, knock on the door, and when her faithful, loyal husband answered, she would let the invisible barrier fall from her figure like rain and take him into her arms as she had so long ago.

*               *               *

When Sam opened the door, there was no one there.

“Hello?”

He scanned the porch, the mailbox, the street at the end of the walk.

Alone.

Just some kids playing a prank, he thought, yet something stirred deep inside, something he hadn’t felt since Rhonda disappeared.

He hesitated a moment longer, then receded back into the shadows, closing the door behind him.

He didn’t see the woman fleeing down the street, though she’d been standing right in front of him.

I’ll Send You a Signed Hardcover Copy of “Snapshots”

Snapshots: The Collected Flash Fiction of Jeff Coleman, Volume 1.

Over time, people have asked me if I would ever publish a print collection of the flash fiction I write for my blog. Last year, I finally decided to act on that idea, and in February, though I never made a formal announcement, I finally released the book, which is now available from most online bookstores.

Periodically, I offer my readers a hardcover book in exchange for a monthly pledge on Patreon that goes toward helping me build a full-time career around my art. This month, I want to offer you my flash fiction collection, Snapshots: The Collected Flash Fiction of Jeff Coleman, Volume 1.

If you pledge to my Patreon campaign at the $2 level or above, I’ll send you a signed hardcover copy.

Please note that this offer is only available to new patrons. Unfortunately, former patrons aren’t eligible. If you’re an existing $5 or $10 patron, don’t worry: you’re going to get a copy 🙂 To my existing $2 patrons, I can’t afford to send you one for free (I really wanted to), but I do plan to offer the book to you guys at cost in a few months when I return to the States to visit family and can order and sign more copies, so stay tuned.

Please note that Patreon pledges are recurring monthly charges. I post four paid pieces of flash fiction on the platform per month, which means a $2 pledge amounts to $8 per month. If that’s too much, you can make a $2 pledge, then set a lower monthly limit so you won’t go over your budget.

If you don’t want to become a patron, don’t worry: I’ll provide information at a later date about how to order a normal non-signed copy (paperback or hardcover) through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I had to order and sign a limited number of books in California before returning to my wife in the Philippines, so there are only 10 copies available.

That means if you want one, you should act soon 😉 When I do these promotions, it usually takes me two days to give away 10-15 books.

Books will ship out May 7, 2018, after the first round of pledges have been processed.

Your first pledge must process successfully in order to receive the book, but after that, you’re free to cancel for any reason, no questions asked.

Here are the rules (there are only three.)

1. You must have a shipping address in the United States. I try to make these offers available in other countries, but because this is my own book that I’ll be mailing out from a US address, I have to be more selective. A huge apology to my international friends 🙁

2. You must become a patron at or above the $2 level on or before Tuesday, April 24, 2018, 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time, and your first pledge at the beginning of May must process successfully before I can ship out the book. After that, you’re free to cancel, no questions asked.

3. This offer is only available to new patrons. Unfortunately, former patrons aren’t eligible.

That’s it!

Once you become a patron, I’ll send you an email to request your shipping address. Then, once your first pledge clears at the beginning of May, I’ll ship out your signed book.

To become a patron and receive your signed hardcover copy of Snapshots: The Collected Flash Fiction of Jeff Coleman, Volume 1, click the “Become a patron” button below.

Totem, Part 6

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Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The master, Jahi began, had an unusual ability. No one knew of it, not even myself until he entrusted me with the secret later. Haven‘t you ever wondered how he amassed so much power and influence? He was strong, yes, but even a powerful magician such as he would have had a hard time bending the world to his will. But he had an advantage, one he believed to be his alone, and there came a morning, just as I returned home to the master’s estate, when he told me what that advantage was.

*               *               *

“I can read minds,” he said before sitting back into a dark brown chair and waiting for Jahi to react.

But Jahi didn’t reply, for the statement had flown right over his head. He’d understood the words, but not their meaning. He’d just arrived from a long and tiring meeting with a group of influential priests who held the Pharaoh’s ear. It was now early in the morning, and he’d slept little during the late night journey back. He hadn’t known what to expect when he answered the master’s summons, but certainly not this.

“I intend no double meaning,” the master said when Jahi didn’t speak. “I can read minds. Forgive me for being so abrupt, but I need your help, and I believe you to be loyal.”

True enough. Jahi had cast his lot with the man years ago. He’d always believed the master to be, if not exactly a good man, at least an effective ruler—one who relied not on fancy clothes or public recognition, but on the strength of an iron will and an unshakable resolve. He had come, with time, to be the unseen glue that held much of civilization together, and Jahi admired him greatly for it. At the master’s side, he’d flourished as a skilled diplomat and negotiator. He’d brokered more than his fair share of deals with some of the world’s most powerful leaders, facilitating the master’s consolidation of power these past several years, and for Jahi, this shared accomplishment was a source of intense and ferocious pride.

“Sit,” said the master.

Jahi pulled up to the empty chair before him and did as he was told.

“The others can’t know of what I’m about to tell you. Not Rashidi, Chibale, Zane, Kasim, no one. It stays between you and me. Swear it.”

“I swear.”

“Good.” The master relaxed a little, sinking further into his chair, and Jahi thought he’d never seen the man look so vulnerable. “I find myself troubled, and I don’t know where to turn.”

Jahi gazed up at him, all harsh lines and wrinkles, and thought he looked unwell. Once more, he didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing.

“There’s a talent,” the master began, “one I thought had died along with the rest of my family long ago. Imagine, with only a thought, that you could leave your body to inhabit the minds of others, that you could feel their happiness, their joy, their sorrow, their grief—that you could hear every passing thought, every fleeting desire that courses through their heads as if it were your own. My mother and father used that ability long ago to negotiate peace between rival families and tribes, but I always had loftier aspirations.”

He paused, considered.

“Anyway, all that is to say my talent has played no small part in my success.”

Could this be true? Jahi reeled with the possibility. With the power to read minds, the master could do almost anything. Politics thrived on misdirection and deceit, and one’s skill at reading his enemies was tantamount to one’s success. If the master could peer inside the heads of those he competed with for power, if he could read their true intentions as easily as words written on a scroll…

“Then I could do almost anything I wished. Yes, Jahi, you’re right. Which is why I’ve always kept it a secret.”

Jahi felt his face turn cold. How long had he and the master worked together? How many of Jahi’s secrets did he know?

“Enough to know you’re not a threat to me.” The master said this in the affectionate tone normally reserved for pets and small children. “The others would rise up against me if they could—particularly my young apprentice, Azibo, who’ll take my place in the fullness of time anyway. But not you. You know yourself too well. You understand that your power has always been greatest when placed at the service of mine. I know I can trust you, which is why I’ve shared such a startling secret.”

“But why tell me this now?”

“Because something is amiss, and I need your help to set it right.”

“Of course, I’ll do whatever you ask, but…”

“Just listen, Jahi. As I said, until now, I’ve always believed myself to be the exclusive steward of this particular ability. But yesterday, while I was napping in my chambers, someone appeared to me in a dream. Not a part of my imagination, but someone real, someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Like me, they were able to cast themself into my mind, though I have the feeling it was an accident, an early manifestation of a nascent power as of yet unexplored. I tried to catch a glimpse of their face, but they’d fled before I could discover who it was.”

“What can I do?”

“Keep your eyes open. See if anyone appears unusually perceptive, if anyone seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it, that sort of thing. I suspect the guilty party is close, maybe even one of my other advisers. Will you do this for me, Jahi?”

“If you can read my mind, then you already know the answer.”

The man nodded.

“I knew I could count on you.”

So dismissed, Jahi stood, knelt, and exited the master’s study.

*               *               *

It was Azibo, wasn‘t it? Rashidi turned his dark glassy eyes toward the both of them. The one who entered the master‘s dream.

Yes. But as I‘ve already told Azibo, he hid himself well. I had my suspicions, but never any firm evidence I felt comfortable sharing with the master. He never told me what he had planned for his potential rival, but I didn’t think their fate would be a pleasant one.

And you kept this from us until now? barked Kasim.

I couldn‘t tell you before. The master might have seen it in your minds, and then he would have known I’d broken his promise.

What about after he turned us into birds? Couldn‘t you have told us then?

What would it have mattered? How would it have changed anything?

No one answered.

Then Zane barged into the conversation.

Azibo, that was how you knew the master would be gone the day we planned to depose him! He wanted his absence to be a secret, but you read his mind, and when you realized he was leaving, that he would be gone for the next two weeks, you and Jahi convinced us to try and take control of his affairs.

Azibo nodded.

But Jahi, the master saw in your mind that you were loyal to him, which means it must‘ve been true. What changed?

I got to know the master‘s true nature. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was forced to acknowledge his true nature. I should have seen it from the beginning, but I’d accomplished so much at his side that I didn’t want to admit he was a monster. Only after he grew increasingly paranoid and prone to suspicion did I realize, with enough time, not even I would be safe.

The others were silent for a while. Like Jahi, they remembered all too well the master’s cruel and increasingly erratic behavior in those last days.

I want to hear more about Azibo‘s part in this, said Rashidi. Will you tell us, Azibo?

But the youth only drew back into the lengthening shadows of the night, unable or unwilling to speak.

You might as well, said Jahi, not unkindly. No harm can come to you now. Our only worry is the bracelet, and the more we understand about your talent, the better. Maybe we can use it to communicate with the girl.

Azibo hesitated, then nodded.

Yes, you‘re right. It’s been a long time. It’s just that I had to keep myself hidden for so long… Azibo paused, then nodded again. Fine. I‘m ready to tell my story.

And after a moment of silent brooding, Azibo did.

Read part 7 here.

Homecoming

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An almost volcanic heat rose from the dark green lake in heavy, steaming clouds, while the sun, smoky and dim, lent the day a faded, dusky cast. Andrea peered up at the thick, leathery trees, which clung to the perimeter of the water like towering ancient sentries, then back at the squat, vine-encrusted hut where she and her husband, Zemon, had lived for the past seven years.

A strange world, with little that resembled the home she’d grown up in. But Zemon was a native, and she’d decided to follow him back. It had been a difficult adjustment, and even now, she couldn’t say she loved this world. The days were intolerably hot, the locals could be private and standoffish, and while beautiful, the alien plants and wildlife, along with the brilliant emerald green oceans that covered ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface, were irreconcilably different from her world of bright sun and blue skies.

But today, things were going to change. Today, they were going to pass through the Iron Gate and move back home to her family.

Ready, Andrea?

Her husband’s words unfurled inside her mind without sound. After all these years, the experience still sent a shuddering thrill across her body.

Soon, dear.

He came up behind her, his eyes reflecting back the dim, uneven light from above, and encompassed her in his lithe, silvery arms. She could sense his sadness. He tried to mask it, but she knew him too well, and it was impossible for him to be anything but himself with her.

Andrea reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

It’ll be all right. We’ll only be gone a few years, and then you’ll be home again.

It was the compromise they’d struck the day they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Seven years in his world, followed by seven years in hers.

Zemon nodded.

A curious combination of anticipation and guilt fluttered in her chest as she conjured a mental image of her hometown in Iowa. She thought of her parents, her grandmother, her nieces and nephews, all living together under a single roof. She thought of fresh baked bread, biscuits and pie. Most of all, she thought of endless corn fields and navy blue skies, all priceless treasures of an ordinary life she hadn’t appreciated until after she’d gone away.

Now I know how you felt when you gave up part of your life for me.

At least there’ll be cornbread, she replied.

Zemon’s eyes lit up, a bright yellow rush of avaricious desire.

Yes, cornbread.

And grits.

Yes, he agreed. And grits.

Once more, Andrea would be the native and Zemon would be the foreigner. But he loved her as much as she loved him, and through that love, they would forge a path through the next seven years.

Come.

They clasped hands, and together they set off for the Iron Gate.

Totem, Part 5

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Deep inside the dappled light of a tall oak tree, the six blackbirds kept watch. They’d followed the girl to this location, a two-story house in the suburbs, and had spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating how best to proceed. When they’d first arrived, the sun had still been bright overhead. Now it was a dull, burnished copper, slipping fast beneath the roofs of the other houses.

She hasn’t been outside since she got home, remarked one, a slim creature who in another life had gone by the name of Zane. A boring one, she. He took a moment to preen himself with his beak.

She’s troubled. That from Rashidi, their leader. You saw the way she fled from us.

A hopeless cause, argued Kasim, another of the six. Millennia of endless flight, just for it to end like this.

Not hopeless, said Jahi. He’d been so quiet that, until now, they’d forgotten he was there. His voice was elegant, stately, bellying his many years of experience as a diplomat. No cause is hopeless as long as one maintains hope.

A worthless platitude, spat Kasim.

And one, said Rashidi, that I happen to believe is true.

Well, barked Kasim. What do you think, Chibale?

I think, came the creature’s reply, that we should stop arguing and focus on the girl.

He’s right. Rashidi addressed them each in turn. Let us consider the task at hand.

Kasim offered his bitterest telepathic grumble, but did not reply.

Azibo, the last of their number, was staring into the sky and didnt say a word. The youngest of the six, he’d only been a teenager when he was changed. He rarely spoke and spent much of his time peering into the endless world with longing. Rashidi felt for him, for he also felt the weight of his own punishment and could only guess how much more it must affect the boy.

An Egyptian magician had set it all into motion over two thousand years ago. A man history no longer remembered, yet a man who’d once been the most powerful person in the known world, for although he was mighty in deed and strength, he preferred to rule from a distance.

“Better to be the power behind the throne,” the cruel old man proclaimed when Rashidi was still his most favored servant. “Let the Pharaoh enjoy his pomp and ceremony. True power lies in obscurity.”

And the man had been wise, for he’d sat on his throne for centuries, until a plan set in motion by Rashidi and the others almost toppled him.

After their failed mutiny and subsequent transformation, they’d taken to the skies. They dwelled among the Babylonians and the Assyrians, then traveled Northeast into Persia, then farther East still toward the Huns and the Mongols. When enough time had passed to hope their master had forgotten them, they circled back in search of the bracelet, wishing to destroy it and undo the spell that bound them.

But when they’d returned, they’d found their old master’s estate in ruins, neither he nor the bracelet to be found. Farther West, a vague interior sense whispered. Farther West is where you’ll find the bracelet. So they took to the skies once more, wandering the world in a futile search, that sense of the bracelet’s proximity moving almost as fast as they themselves moved, until finally it drew them toward the North American continent on the other side of the world.

Now, Rashidi began to pace along the tree branch. We must find a way to communicate with her.

We could get into the house ourselves, offered Chibale. Sneak in through an open window when no one’s watching.

And then what? scoffed Kasim. How do we break the bracelet? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re birds. Unless they make hammers and chisels for our delicate size and shape.

Kasim, said Rashidi, be calm.

He’s right though. Jahi jumped in once more. We’ll need her help.

Azibo? Rashidi pulled up behind him. What do you think?

No reply.

Azibo? Rashidi came toward him and tapped him with his beak.

With agonizing slowness, the boy finally turned. But his eyes were blank, as if he had no idea where he was.

Help us. If Azibo’s words had come out as sound, they would have been the faintest of whispers.

The others were all looking at him now. He’d always been quiet, but never this strange.

Help who, Azibo? Once more Rashidi tapped him with his beak.

Please, help us.

Who’s he talking to? asked Kasim, all his characteristic bitterness and sarcasm gone.

I don’t know, Rashidi answered. Azibo, who are you talking to? What’s wrong?

And then, just like that, the youth’s eyes blazed to life. Startled, he tottered back almost to the edge of the branch.

Azibo! What’s wrong?

The boy’s head twittered, and he stepped to the side, ruffling his jet black feathers.

I felt the girl.

What do you mean? Chibale.

A pause while Azibo collected his thoughts. I don’t know. I was gazing into the sky, daydreaming. Then I was a wizard, and a girl came to seek my wisdom. A different girl, yet the same.

Azibo shook his head.

I was in her head, I think, like we were sharing a dream. I asked her for help, and I could feel that she understood me. Then she was gone, and I was back here with you—

Again, Azibo shook his head.

How can this be? asked Rashidi. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

They began to argue. Rashidi and Chibale asserted that Azibo should rest, while Zane and Kasim insisted he’d gone mad. Finally, Jahi broke in.

I have.

Reduced to silence, they all turned to face him at once, an unspoken question burning in their eyes like hot, black stars.

I don’t think he’s mad, continued Jahi, and I don’t think he was dreaming. Azibo, this has happened before, hasn’t it?

The boy didn’t answer, only put his head down and refused to meet Jahi’s eyes.

Azibo?

Still no reply.

It’s okay, Azibo. The master is dead. He can’t hurt you now.

Still the boy hesitated, until at last Jahi sidled over and gave him a gentle nudge with his beak.

You can tell us, Azibo. You’re among friends.

After more prodding, the boy looked up and said, maybe.

Jahi nodded, while the others looked at both of them aghast.

I thought so. You hid yourself well. The master would have killed you if he’d known.

Would one of you please explain what’s going on? It was the first time in centuries that any of them could remember Rashidi losing his patience.

And with Azibo’s silent assent, Jahi told them a story.

Read part 6 here.

I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of déjà vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.