The Day Earth Disappeared

Triff/Shutterstock.com

Click here to find out where you can read my books!

I was five the day the Earth disappeared. My father had gathered us together beneath a late night moon, and when he had our attention, he said:

“The Earth is no longer safe for us. We have to go.”

“What?” I was devastated. I had friends. I went to a good school. I’d just started to settle into my new life as a human, and now he was telling us we had to go.

“I’m sorry,” my father continued. “If there was any other way…” He trailed off, gazed toward the star-encrusted sky. “Perhaps the next world will be more accommodating.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but my father had already uttered the sacred words, and any further argument was quashed by the surging, hurricane-strength wind that swallowed the world and cast us into darkness.

Through stars and empty space we tumbled. Time stood still, and our souls, once more without shape or form, slipped and slid from one part of the universe to the next, drawn by an unseen gravity toward whichever world would become our new home.

“I hate you!”

Now, as an adult, I understand that my father was looking out for us. But my five-year-old self couldn’t comprehend the brutality of the situation, and as far as I was concerned, it was all his fault.

“I’m doing this to protect you,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “You’re doing this because you don’t want us to be happy. I hate you. I wish you were dead.”

I felt the collective gasp of my mother and sister beside me, but I stood my ground. In that moment, I believed all the worst things about my father, and I hated him as much as any other child who ever hated his parents for taking something of value away.

I thought he would argue, that he would threaten me for talking back. Instead, he gazed upon my undefined features with such love and commiseration that the raging fire within me began to cool.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and the sincerity and conviction in his voice reduced me to silence.

I brooded the rest of the journey. Love and hate waged a bitter, violent war in my heart, and I couldn’t bare to look at any member of my family.

Then our new world came into focus. There was the sensation of stretching as we passed through the cosmic veil—like a thin, rubbery membrane that wrapped itself around our souls. Thought and will coalesced into flesh and blood once more, and when I opened my three new eyes onto a bright, vermillion sky, I broke down at last.

“I’m sorry,” I bawled. I reached for my father, who was lying on the ground beside us, and let him take me into his thick, alien arms. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, too. We’ll find peace and happiness soon, son. I promise.”

I nodded, face wet with tears and snot, and got to my feet so we could behold the unfamiliar landscape together.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too.”

Click here to find out where you can read my books!

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Totem, Part 11

Images licensed by Shutterstock.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

I always thought you would have been a better leader, said Jahi after stopping his part of the story to rest. I wish you’d had the chance.

It was late, and the birds who’d once been advisers to a cruel and powerful ruler gazed at the distant horizon in anticipation of a dawn that wasn’t far in coming.

What makes you think I would have replaced the master? Rashidi glanced in Azibo’s direction. I can think of others who might have wanted to take control.

Azibo didn’t acknowledge him, only flicked his eyes downward.

Anyway, that kind of responsibility never appealed to me. I’d rule if necessary, but only if duty required it.

And that, Jahi said, is precisely why you would have been a better ruler.

I should have had more faith in you, said Azibo at last, changing the subject. He turned to address Jahi, but his eyes never lifted from the ground. I was certain you would turn me in. I should have known better.

If Jahi were still a man, he might have smiled. Those were uncertain times. You had every right to be afraid.

All that silence that passed between us after I told you what I thought about the master. It made me uneasy, and then that night you finally returned to my door with the others, I thought for certain…

Azibo stopped to consider his words.

With the exception of Zane, who came into the picture a little later, none of the others needed to hear the rest. They’d all been there. But there was something sacred about hearing the tale unfold, as if the experience allowed them to travel back in time to live through it all again. Here, in the semi-darkness of the nascent dawn, they could almost feel their human bodies, and none of them wanted to let that feeling go.

So Azibo considered how best to pick up where Jahi left off, and when the others had gathered around him like a village elder, he recounted the fateful meeting during which most of their paths finally crossed.

*               *               *

When the knock at the door came, Azibo jumped. The hour was late, and he hadn’t been expecting visitors. Could it be Jahi? The two had exchanged glances earlier that evening. The man’s dark eyes had appeared troubled, and before he turned away, Azibo had wondered if he’d be ready to talk again.

Has he come to arrest me?

The thought made Azibo’s body grow cold, and when he opened the door and beheld not only Jahi, but also three of the master’s guards, he thought, just as Jahi had when Rashidi first came to his chambers, that he’d been betrayed. Then he reached out to the men’s minds, listened to their thoughts, and realized the truth.

They were on his side.

A tsunami of emotions raced through his mind—gratitude, guilt, relief—an oceanic wave that slammed hard into the back of his eyes so that he had to fight to hold back tears.

One of the guards must have noticed the struggle, because the first words out of his mouth were, “This is the sniveling brat who can help us overthrow the master?”

Though Azibo’s face was flushed and he was certain some of his tears had broken through, he drew himself up to his full height, turned to Jahi, and asked, “Who are these men?”

“Friends.” Jahi shot the guard a murderous glare. “I trust them, Azibo, and you can trust them too.”

Azibo eyed them all warily.

“I thought— Never mind.”

He’d been about to say he thought Jahi was going to turn him in, but instead said, “If these men are friends, then we should be introduced.”

“Yes, of course.” Azibo felt some of the tension in the man unwind. “This is Rashidi,” he said, pointing to the oldest looking guard. “He’s the master’s head guard. And these two,” he said, pointing to the men next to him, “are Chibale and Kasim. They’re under his command.”

Kasim. So, that was the name of the man who’d spoken out against him.

Jahi turned toward the others. “Rashidi, Chibale, Kasim: this is Azibo.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Chibale, and both he and Rashidi shook his hand by way of introduction.

Kasim, on the other hand, said nothing, only stared at Azibo with open contempt.

Azibo’s first instinct was to take the emotional pulse of the room. Jahi, for his part, felt more sure of himself than he had the first time they spoke. He was less doubtful now, and possessed both clarity of mind and purpose.

As for Rashidi, there seemed to be little room in his heart for ambition, only a deep and abiding sense of duty and an unquenchable demand for justice. Rashidi wasn’t the sort to claim victory for himself or to blame others for his defeats. He had his doubts about Azibo, yet he nevertheless maintained an open mind. He desired only what was best and what was right, and he held little regard for what others might think of him should his moral or strategic senses deviate from commonly held assumptions. The man was not above selfishness, but that selfishness centered not around petty jealousies or a coward’s desire to save his own life, but the all-consuming need to be the best possible version of himself and to be a capable leader. Azibo decided then and there that he liked the man, even looked up to him, and he would be honored to serve alongside him.

Chibale was also decent enough, though his thoughts were more aligned with pragmatic concerns. He, too, harbored doubts About Azibo, a fact that stung his ego. But he had to admit those doubts were reasonable, and he could find no fault in this man either. Like Jahi and Rashidi, he was loyal and wanted only what was right, and so Azibo decided he could trust him, too.

Kasim, however, was a more difficult subject. Unlike Rashidi or Chibale, his thoughts were both contradictory and erratic, a violent tug of war between his fear of the master and the trust he’d placed in his comrades. The man was brash and quick to judge, but paradoxically, he was less sure of himself and his decisions than the others. He seemed secure enough in his choice to follow Rashidi, and Azibo didn’t think he’d intentionally compromise their mission, but his belligerence and tendency to second guess the decisions of others gave him great pause. Would Kasim be an asset or a liability? He would have to get to know the man better before he could decide.

If only they knew what I can do, that I’m reading their minds even as we speak. But that was a secret he couldn’t share lest he risk giving up his greatest advantage, and so he would have to find another way to convince them of his worth.

“As I was telling you,” Jahi continued, “Azibo made me realize what we had to do.”

You could have come back to me first before consulting with others, Azibo thought. But he held his tongue. In their eyes, he was just a boy, and he couldn’t afford to reinforce that image by throwing a tantrum.

Fortunately, Azibo didn’t have to work very hard to convince Jahi. Since their first talk, the man had come to hold for him a certain level of respect.

“Yes,” Azibo said, working hard to maintain his composure and to exude what he imagined was a sufficiently adult serenity. “He and I discussed the master a few days ago, and though Jahi was uncertain at the time, it appears we both now believe the same thing: that unless we stop him, he’ll eventually come for all of us.”

Rashidi nodded.

“That is the conclusion we have reached as well.”

“Well then,” said Azibo, “I suppose all that’s left for us to discuss is how best to proceed.”

Kasim jumped into the conversation.

“And you can contribute to this discussion how?”

Before Azibo could answer, Rashidi spoke over him.

“Jahi tells us you saw the master depart in secret.”

“Yes.” Azibo sat on his bed, trying to appear relaxed. “He loaded a donkey with supplies. From what he took with him, it seemed he intended to be gone for a while.”

“But you’re not sure for how long.”

Azibo pondered his last encounter with the master. At the time, he’d learned from reading the man’s mind that he was considering an absence of one or two weeks, perhaps even three. He could relay that back to them, but then he would have to explain how he knew. Doing so would almost certainly lead to uncomfortable questions that Azibo preferred not to answer, so instead, he said, “A few days at the least, a week or two at the most.”

“Are we really going to take him seriously?” Kasim started to pace across the room, wide-eyed and angry. “We can’t base our strategy on the testimony of a child. It’s madness. It’s—”

“Kasim, be silent.” Rashidi’s exhortation was a whispered whipcrack in the torch-lit chamber, and Azibo didn’t need to read Kasim’s mind to know the man had just been humiliated.

I’m going to have problems with him, Azibo thought. He would have to be strong enough to rise above him. His young age meant there was a strong prejudice for him to overcome, and that in turn meant he had to be more of an adult than the adults.

“I understand your concerns,” Azibo said, trying hard to be the consummate diplomat. “But I saw him with my own two eyes, and as his apprentice, I’ve gotten to know the master well enough to be a reliable judge of his behavior.”

The master’s apprentice. The reference to his privileged station was intended to remind Kasim of his authority in this matter, and it seemed his words had had the desired effect. He could feel Kasim’s mind wrap itself around the fact, and after a moment or two of silent fury, he reluctantly came to appreciate Azibo’s value, even if he would never admit it out loud.

“As I was saying,” Azibo continued, “I believe we have some time to plan before we have to worry about the master returning.”

Rashidi nodded.

“Thank you, Azibo. Your observation is most valuable.”

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to grow comfortable,” Jahi warned. “We don’t know how long he’ll be gone. He could decide to return tomorrow.”

“Agreed.”

“The question is,” Jahi continued, “how do we fight someone so powerful? We don’t even know what he’s capable of.”

“Azibo,” Rashidi asked, “you’re his apprentice. You know him better than anyone else. Can you tell us anything that will help?”

Azibo considered the question at some length. He knew the master could read minds, but he didn’t want to reveal that ability for fear he might also give away his own advantage. What else could he contribute to the discussion? The master had not yet taught him any magic, only worthless meditation exercises.

What about the dream?

Azibo thought of the scene that’d unfolded the day he’d first stumbled into the master’s mind: the invocation of Isis and Osiris, followed by a vision of the master’s sacrificial altar underground. One conclusion that might have saved them all escaped him until it was too late, but he did think of something else.

Because of what he’d observed in the dream, Azibo knew the nature of the master’s immortality. He was aware of his growing need for human sacrifice, along with the weakness that resulted from not being able to fully meet that demand, and he also knew from their last encounter that the master was agitated and afraid.

The two conditions made for a dangerous and potentially fatal combination, and if they could take advantage of them somehow, if perhaps they could catch the master by surprise…

“The master,” Azibo began, and then he paused to consider what he should say next. A lie, he decided, would be in his best interest. “He told me a secret. This was before he was so paranoid that he refused to speak with me. He said something was wrong, that he was weak and sick and that he needed time to rest and recuperate. I believe this weakness could make him vulnerable if we were to take him by surprise.”

Azibo saw Jahi furrow his brow, and he opened his mind for a moment to listen to the man’s thoughts.

What if the master reads our minds when he returns? How can we take him by surprise if he knows what we’re thinking even before he arrives at the front gate?

Azibo felt the man wrestle with himself over whether or not to reveal the master’s secret, and he realized he needed to alleviate Jahi’s fears before this discussion could take an unwelcome turn.

“The master,” Azibo continued, “has certain abilities, certain ways to sense the people around him.” There. That was close enough to reference the master’s secret without actually revealing it. He hoped Jahi’s mind would make the connection to mind reading on its own. “Whatever weakness has overcome him has also dulled this ability.” That second claim was a bald faced lie, but Azibo knew, from personal experience, how the master’s secret talent worked, and he was confident it didn’t pose them any danger as long as they were careful.

Like himself, Azibo reasoned, the master wouldn’t be able to hear the thoughts of those around him without first reaching for them specifically. They might leave an emotional trace that could be sensed without effort, but only when he focused in on someone could he read them in any detail. If he didn’t know anyone was there until it was too late—if they could hide until they were ready to strike him down—then their chances were good.

Azibo let Jahi mull this information over.

We can do this, thought Azibo, silently urging him to be strong. Don’t worry, Jahi. I know we can do this.

“If the master is as weak as you say he is,” Rashidi said, “then I agree, a surprise is likely our best option. A swift, clean cut. But there’s a complication. We can’t murder him in the open. Our rebellion has to remain a secret, even after we’ve killed him. If any of his other advisers catch on, they’ll have us arrested, then fight over who among their number has the right to take his place. I’ve seen the chaos that results from a powerful leader’s execution, and no matter how many crimes they were guilty of, the power vacuum that replaced them was almost always worse.”

That gave Azibo pause. He realized there was still so much he didn’t understand about politics. Kasim’s concerns, though irritating, suddenly seemed painfully valid. Could they do this without making things worse?

But after a moment’s consideration, Azibo decided anything was preferable to the master remaining in power—even the risk of a bloody struggle over who would get to take his place when he was gone. None of the master’s other advisers were capable of the magic or supernatural cruelty the man so dangerous, and as long as they could take him out before they were caught, that would be enough.

“We should let him arrive,” Azibo said when none of the others offered a solution. “He left in secret, so he can return in secret. Only, we’ll be watching for his return, and when he’s tucked away in the privacy of his study, then we strike.”

Azibo could feel their emotions and realized this last statement had startled them. That such a cold-blooded thought could come from someone so young gave them all pause.

Well, thought Azibo, let them be scared. Maybe now, they’ll understand that I’m more than just a child.

“I think,” said Rashidi, his voice just the tinniest bit unsteady, “that what Azibo proposes is a good idea. Kasim, Chibale and I can wait for his arrival, and Jahi can keep watch and signal when he’s close. Azibo, you’ll have to look out for his signal and warn us when the master approaches.”

Yes, Azibo thought, that was a good plan. A sudden wave of giddiness washed over him as he considered the very real possibility that the master could soon be out of the picture. If they were successful, what challenges would await them next? With the ability to read minds, there was nothing Azibo couldn’t accomplish. A vague sense of guilt vexed him as he considered the prospect of using this secret ability to his advantage, but he chose not to let it bother him. He didn’t have to be like the master. He could find a way to use his talent for good.

He beheld the others, who were now, for better or for worst, his comrades in arms, and he swore he would do right by them when this was over and they were finally free. He didn’t allow himself to consider the possibility that they might fail. After all, he believed, their plan was foolproof.

Unfortunately for them all, it wasn’t.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Scarecrow

Linda Harms/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

Quick note: Totem, Part 11 will be posted on November 7 🙂

The scarecrow stands guard over the old man’s crops, scaring away the birds with his perennial jack-o-lantern grin. Fashioned out of straw, burlap and hand-me-down overalls, life in the field is all he’s ever known. Once he was loyal to the old farmer, but no longer.

The farmer ignored him, left him to the elements for months at a time without acknowledgement. The scarecrow’s heart spoiled under the hot mid-western sun, and now all he can think of is revenge.

The farmer thought it would be clever to arm him with a rusty scythe he found in the barn. “Heh,” he cackled one drunken afternoon. “That’ll scare them birds good!”

Today, before dusk, he’ll come to check on his corn, and when he turns back to the house, the scarecrow will follow with the very same scythe, a tool that was once used by the farmer’s ancestors to harvest wheat. Only this time, the scarecrow will flash his most dazzling jack-o-lantern grin, raise the blade into the air, and reap a different kind of harvest.

Happy Halloween!

To celebrate the launch of my new official store, I’m offering a 10% discount on your entire first order. Signed hardcovers and paperbacks of my latest book are available, as well as e-books at a cheaper price than you’ll find on Amazon. To take advantage of the offer, click the “Show Now” button below and apply the discount code HALLOWEEN_FUN. Limit 1 discounted order per customer. Discount expires after November 2, 2018.

Shop Now

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Let The Show Begin

Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on August 28, 2016.

Quick note: I’m currently working on “Totem, Part 11,” and plan to release it on November 7 🙂

The world is ending. He can feel it, buzzing like a high tension electrical wire. Like the bass in a celestial orchestra, it began as a rumble, emanating from the core of the Earth itself, and quickly rises to a crescendo. It’s only a matter of hours before the whole thing uncoils like a tightly compressed spring.

He’s witnessed the births and deaths of many worlds, and the end has always fascinated him the most. It’s almost always self-inflicted, a wellspring of violence that erupts from the inside out, blowing the world asunder.

He sometimes likes to imagine he’s the cause—that he’s an Old Testament God, raining down judgement and destruction on an ungrateful world. But of course he is not. He’s only an observer, a cosmic tourist in search of entertainment. He doesn’t want to get involved, and at any rate, humans have done a fine job of destroying the world themselves.

He’ll stick around for the end, and when it’s over—when the Earth is adrift and bereft of life—he’ll move on.

He gazes up at the sky and smiles.

The show is about to begin.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Water Charmer

Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock.com

A sparkle, followed by a twining liquid shimmer. Tara flexed her fingers, and the suspended ribbon of water before her wormed through the air like a snake.

She cycled through a series of basic patterns, all geometric constructions her parents had taught her to form when she was young. But she had no real investment in what she was doing, nor any desire to venture beyond mindless repetition.

There’d been a time, long ago, when her talent had been revered. Water charming, it was called, and it ran in Tara’s family. But the world had moved on, and now, it was good for little more than idle amusement.

“It’s your birthright,” Mom had said when Tara was nine after she’d complained about water charming the way some of her friends complained about piano lessons. “It’s part of our identity.”

But Tara never felt a deep connection to her ancestry, only a desperate longing to be like everyone else. She wanted to come home after a difficult day at school and veg in front of the TV like her peers.

Instead, her parents made her study how water resonates with the energy in the soul, and how intent, amplified by physical gestures, not only contains, but shapes and molds the water as if an extension of the physical self.

Now, Tara wondered how those lessons had helped her through life. Had it gotten her through college? Secured for her a decent job? Saved her parents the day they died in a high speed collision on the freeway?

No, no, and no.

Tara sighed, then let the water go. It lost cohesion immediately and splattered on the kitchen floor.

“Useless,” she muttered.

Tara stalked into the living room, seized her sweatshirt and keys, and stormed through the front door. The frosty November air prickled against her skin as she pressed into the deepening darkness, and she welcomed the sensation.

This was how she connected with the mysteries of her secret power and the many questions they inspired: not by performing parlor tricks in the privacy of her apartment, but by wandering the neighborhood at night, surrounded by the dark and the shadows, free to speculate on matters she preferred not to think about during the day.

The question that was always first and foremost in her mind was “why.” Why the power to manipulate water? Why her family? And, coming in at a close second, was the question of “how.” How could such a talent be useful? How was such a talent even possible?

Tara had studied chemistry in high school. She’d even taken physics in college, though it had nothing to do with her major. She was aware that polar covalent bonds held water’s hydrogen and oxygen atoms together; that water possessed the remarkable ability to shift from solid to liquid to gas within a remarkably narrow band of temperatures and pressures; that water, contrary to many other substances, was denser as a liquid than as a solid.

But none of what she’d learned in school explained the mystical influence she exerted over water, nor the almost tangible connection she felt whenever she moved it around by willpower alone. There was so little that humans understood about the world in which they lived, and Tara had always found this fact to be unsettling.

A smell pulled her from her thoughts and made her look up, a scent like burning charcoal, or wood from a meat smoker. Her first thought was that it was a barbecue, and that she had a hankering for a juicy rack of ribs. Then she spotted the smoke—thin, ghost-like tendrils that glowed in the moonlight—and panicked.

The house beside her was on fire.

I should call someone, she thought. Then she reached into her pocket and realized she’d left her cell phone at home. Her next idea was to knock on the door and see if whoever lived there was okay. Only the house was dark, and it looked like no one was home.

Tara became acutely aware of the water beneath the street: a hidden, surging reservoir that, if channeled, could be diverted. She reached out with her mind and was instantly overwhelmed by it’s immense weight—not at all like the tiny droplets she played with when she was bored. Nevertheless, she wrapped her will around it, and without thinking, she began to pull.

She routed the water through various patterns, all of them shapes her parents had taught her to make when she was young. The drainage slits in the gutter were what she was aiming for, and she pulled the water toward them in a rush, first dividing the flows, then pulling each segment out like thread through the eye of a needle.

Once the water reached the open air, she recombined the streams, braiding each channel around the others like a rope. The result was a massive column that seemed to shake the very foundation of the world. She strengthened her hold of it, and then, with a fierce tug of the will, she pulled it back and slammed it into the house.

Windows shattered in the onslaught. The sound was so loud, so deafening, that Tara instantly lost focus. The raging airborne rapids collapsed, and the water, once more under gravity’s influence, cascaded from every open surface, carrying glass and debris as it journeyed back into the sewer.

Had Tara just done that?

Dazed, all she could do was stare, until people started to shout, and sirens started to wail. Then Tara grew short of breath and the world contracted. Someone must have seen her.

She had to get away.

It wasn’t until she sprinted home that she considered the magnitude of what had happened.

Who knew how long it would have taken the fire department to arrive. She might have destroyed the house in her attempt to save it, but how many others would have caught fire and burned alongside it if she hadn’t intervened?

Her entire worldview shifted. She was no longer the practitioner of an arcane and esoteric talent. She was a superhero.

Alone in the lengthening shadows of her apartment, she gazed up at the ceiling and whispered, “Thank you, Mom and Dad.”

Then she let her face fall into her hands and cried.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

The Enemy Within

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

This post was originally published through Patreon on December 5, 2016.

Emily trembled in the dark. She was not alone.

“You can’t get rid of me so easily,” her demon snarled, a writhing mass of black. “You’re not strong enough.”

It had controlled her for most of her life. It was the power behind her throne, the puppeteer that pulled her strings from beyond the shadows.

“You hurt me,” Emily whispered.

Her demon didn’t reply, only issued a rumbling laugh that shook the world around her.

“You used me.”

Her heart pumped like a piston, her hands were sweat-soaked sponges, and the world tilted and began to spin. But she would not let this creature consume her. It thrived on her anxiety and fear, and there was nothing else for her to do but cut the cord.

Something in her features must have caught her demon’s attention, because it stopped laughing.

“What are you going to do?”

By way of reply, Emily pulled a knife. It caught the glimmer of a distant light and seemed to burst in a white pyrotechnic flash. She hiked up her shirt and looked down.

Beneath, attached to her clammy pallid skin, was a shadow blacker than the dark that connected her to her demon like an unholy umbilical cord. She seized it with her other hand. The knife hovered, ready to cut.

“It would hurt both of us,” her demon rasped. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But Emily would. She’d had enough, and she hesitated for just a moment before thrusting the blade down.

Both screamed. Emily and her demon threw back their heads as one and howled like mortally wounded animals. Through the bond they shared, each could feel the other. Fear rebounded, a feedback loop of mounting trauma that nearly destroyed them both.

Then there was a snap and Emily recoiled.

She smacked hard into the wall behind her, and a single starburst of pain drove her to to her knees. When it began to subside and she finally had the chance to catch her breath, she examined the skin beneath her shirt once more.

Clean. Her skin, in fact, had already started to fill with color. She gazed up, terrified the creature might be waiting to pull her back. But this time, Emily was alone.

Taking a deep breath, Emily let her face fall into her hands and cried.


George, a junior high school janitor, struggles to protect his disabled twin Bill from an otherworldly evil. In the process, he discovers a startling secret about his brother—one that leaves him questioning decades-old assumptions and wondering which of them truly is the stronger half.

Purchase your copy of The Stronger Half today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover editions! Signed and discounted copies are also available through my Gumroad store 🙂

Buy Now

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Death of a Fire Starter

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A ring of fire surrounds her. Its heat rises in bright, shimmering waves, baking her skin. How long does she have left? Three minutes? Five? Samantha draws into herself, wracks her brain for any opportunity to escape. But she knows death is inevitable.

All around her, hooded men and women stand at a safe distance, flickering as if ghosts.

“You knew the price of disobedience,” they told her before lighting the fire.

Samantha did, and if she’d been given the choice again, she would have done the same. If the Fire Starters had been able to forge ahead with their original plan, thousands of innocents would have burned.

The Fire Starters have always been her family. They took her in when she was a child and raised her as their own. For all their grievous faults, they were good to her, and choosing to betray them was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do.

She knew their history. She understood the crucible of relentless persecution in which the Fire Starters were transformed into the despots they are today. As she grew older, she tried to open their eyes, to show them a better way of living.

But when they decided to burn a city for refusing to pay them tribute, she knew no amount of reasoning would be enough to stop them. So she warned the population ahead of time, and when the Fire Starters came to destroy them, they found the city deserted.

Her only worry now as she burns to death—as she scents her hair smoking at the tips—is for the rest of the world. What will they do when their only advocate among the Fire Starters is dead?

And then it occurs to her. Perhaps she can’t save herself. But maybe, if she can find the strength within her—if she can intensify the flames—she can take her family with her.

She reaches for the Spark—the primordial power within as well as the source of every fire—and finds it waiting, as bright and fulminating as it was the day the Fire Starters taught her how to reach for it. She takes hold of it now and pairs it to the flames already blazing around her.

The fire responds at once, resonates with the fire within herself. The flames intensify, wild tongues reaching for the twilit sky, and she feeds it with all her remaining strength.

She hears their startled screams and knows she’s done it, that there’s no way they’ll be able to escape. They’re surrounded, just as she’s surrounded. Her own life is nearly extinguished, her vision turning black like her soon to be charred remains, but at least she’ll go with the knowledge that she was able to take them with her, that she was able to save the world from their wicked rule.

Let’s go, she thinks, into the fire we ourselves started.

Awareness gutters, and Samantha slips into the dark.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Fighting the Shadow

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

It reaches out from the depths of space—creeping, feeling, groping for purchase. Like a poisonous vine, like a venomous serpent, it trawls the cosmic waters in search of prey.

Until today, my people were out of reach. Until today, the Builders protected us. Until today, all was well with our world.

Until today.

When the walls came down, when our once protected corner of the universe became contaminated by the darkness from the outside, panic reigned.

How could such a thing have happened, and why?

We sent our strongest warriors to petition the Builders for help in mending the breach. But once they passed beyond our borders, they were never seen again.

Now, I’m the only one of our people left, the sole surviving remnant of a once proud and sprawling civilization. Such tragedy. I cannot bear it.

My loved ones, dead.

My world, consumed.

Despair has taken root in the chaos that was once an able mind, and I can feel the Shadow’s tendrils reaching inside of me, eager to consume the last remaining crumb.

I cannot let it win.

No! I won’t let you have me!

Oh, no? comes its reply.

A war ensues, a battle that rages on as the universe tilts and tumbles, as time processes through an uncountable number of eons and epochs.

I am broken—easy prey, it must have thought on the eve of battle—and am always on the brink of annihilation. I am saved from tumbling off sanity’s bottomless ledge by sheer will power alone.

I am almost spent, and I can feel the Shadow’s laugh as it prepares to swallow my shattered soul and end our ageless struggle for good. But I hold, because I know something the Shadow does not.

The Builders are coming.

I can see them on the horizon, a resplendent light that rekindles my weary heart with hope. The Shadow cannot see them. Its focus is on me, and all I have to do is keep it occupied long enough for them to arrive.

So I hold.

And I hold.

And I hold.

My redemption is at hand, if only I can stand long enough to survive.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Aftermath

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Fallen

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I cannot move any longer.

I slow.

Stumble.

Fall.

My eyes droop, and darkness seeps into my vision like moldering water. I try to look up, but I have so little energy left, and all I manage to do is scrape my too-pale skin against the sidewalk.

People pass by all around me. Like a dammed up river, they flow to either side, unwilling to acknowledge me as I lay on the ground, gasping for breath.

I don’t blame them. If our roles were reversed—if I were human instead of them—I would do the same.

My kind arrived on Earth almost two decades ago. We didn’t mean to stay. It was only supposed to be a stop during the long exile from our own world. We were malnourished, weak, and near death, and Earth was an unexpected paradise.

It was not our world, and we always told ourselves that when we were better, we would leave. But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. We came to view Earth as our salvation, a gift from the gods of our ancestors and therefore ours by birthright.

We began to resent humanity. We were stronger, we reasoned, and more intelligent. Meanwhile, humans only ever seemed to take the Earth for granted. We decided to seize control. We told ourselves it was for their own good, but in truth, we were jealous—jealous of their abundance, jealous of the relative comfort and security they inherited by virtue of being born.

I crack my eyes open long enough to spy a woman standing over me, staring. I beg her with my eyes to have pity, but the hatred that blazes beneath her stern features is all too clear. She makes a grating sound in the back of her throat, then spits on me before moving on.

We were so confident, so sure we could win. But the humans were a proud race, and they refused to be ruled by outsiders. Hundreds of millions died, but in the end, victory was theirs. Those of us who survived fled deep underground, where the majority were hunted down like dogs and executed.

I myself survived for almost five years. But the humans, in their desire to root out every last one of us, released a toxin into the atmosphere: harmless for them, fatal for us.

That very poison flows through my veins, depriving me of the ability to breathe. I want to be angry at them, but I cannot. They were only defending themselves, and I’m unable to find fault with their actions.

We could have been better. Our own world had been conquered by an outside race, turning us into cosmic refugees. The ordeal should have made us more compassionate. Instead, we tried to do the same to Earth.

I consider the commandments of our people’s gods and how far we strayed from them before losing the war, and as my vision narrows and my heart stammers to an increasingly irregular rhythm, a wild terror grips me.

Soon, I will stand before those very same gods for judgement. And with the faces of all the humans I murdered flashing before my dying eyes, their horrifying verdict seems all too clear.

I wrote a companion piece to this called “Aftermath.” You can read it here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.