Read Totem, Part 10 a week early!

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Totem, Part 10 isn’t going live on the blog until August 22. But on Tuesday, August 14 at 4:30 p.m. PST / 7:30 p.m. EST, I’m going to tweet the entire installment under the hashtag #TotemPartTen 🙂

To read it before everyone else, all you have to do is follow me on Twitter by clicking the button below:

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Fighting the Storm

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Backward.

The Storm was pulling Beth backward, and if she didn’t plant her feet in the ground and make her stand soon, she would die.

All around her, the cosmos spun and reeled, a fiery explosion that transformed the ordinarily calm night sky into an apocalyptic inferno. A tempest of such magnitude and strength had not visited the Earth for more than a thousand years, and Beth felt powerless beneath the weight of its world-shattering influence.

She reached into the void outside space—the staging ground of reality itself—not with her arms but with her mind. The damage was extensive, and Beth didn’t know if she could fix it.

What would Grandma do?

The woman had been the fiercest Guardian Beth had ever known, and she’d defended the Earth from the Storm for more than three centuries before passing the role on to her.

“You’re stronger than you believe,” Grandma had said on her deathbed. “You have to accept that, or the Storm will win.”

But how could she accept an idea that was so patently absurd? The Storm was cosmic in scale and all-consuming. How could a lowly human like herself, gifted though she was, stand against it?

The wind intensified, and Beth slipped further. Falling back, she was dragged through the ravaged street, asphalt tearing her windswept clothes and opening wounds along her arms and legs.

The Storm was winning, and it was going to be Beth’s fault when the world was swept away.

All at once, a silence fell before her. The Storm was still close, but in another dimension of sensation it was suddenly far away. Here, in this inner depth she’d never explored before, she felt an incredible source of power rooted to the very cosmos itself, humming to the rhythm of her beating heart. Here, she thought, was the power Grandma had passed on to her. It was immense, an entire celestial ocean, and in its awe-inducing presence, Beth knew for certain at last.

She could do this.

She touched it, hesitantly at first, like a child tasting something hot, then drew it into herself in a single draught. It was like ice. Like fire. Like liquid lightning. It surged and throbbed and thrummed inside her, so that the Storm now seemed an inconsequential thing.

When her eyes snapped open, she got to her feet at once, as if she hadn’t just been dragged across yards and yards of asphalt. She turned her gaze to the sky, and she felt the Storm quail against the fury of her newly discovered power.

“Go”, she commanded. “Go, and trouble the world no more.”

The Storm raged against her in reply, but Beth’s will now carried the force of a law older than the cosmos itself, and they both knew it was bound to obey.

“Go,” she repeated. “Leave this place now.”

And the Storm left.

One by one, the stars returned to the sky. Beth released the power only when she was sure the Storm was gone, and when she did, its energy drained from her body at once. She sank to her knees, exhausted. But she was no longer afraid, no longer worried she wasn’t capable like Grandma. She knew now that she had everything she would ever need and more, and she would be ready to defend the world when the Storm returned.

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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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Elemental

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In the end, it was the wind that betrayed him. It had seen him make his way across the mountains, seen him hike for seven days and seven nights through the dark and the cold and the hail and the rain, and when he faced them down one by one and prevailed, the wind had swooped in to put a stop to what he was doing before it was too late.

The Elementals were cruel, wicked masters, and they lorded their dominion of the world over humanity with a singularly vicious resolve. Stretching across land and sea, these incorporeal entities of Fire, Earth, Water and Air punished any who defied them. Their message was clear: The world belonged to them.

Only now, Simon stood up to challenge their authority.

The entrance to the Eiolin Cave stood not a hundred feet away, yet the wind rose up all around him in a deadly column of air to cut off access. Now that it had him in its grip, it would never let him go.

But Simon maintained hope.

“Did you actually think you could win?”

The wind’s thunderous voice boomed through him, swirling, howling, whistling as it let him feel the full force of its apocalyptic power.

“Stupid human. You’ve forgotten your place, and now I’ll have to teach you what happens when you cross an Elemental.”

The wind transformed, taking on the form of a massive tornado.

Simon had never before felt his limitations so keenly. It was like being swallowed by the Earth itself. But he held himself from the brink of despair by that single, silent thread of hope that continued to burn in his mind like a solar flare. He understood that he himself would never witness mankind’s deliverance, but what did that matter? He was old and tired, and as long as he accomplished what he’d set out to do, it would be enough.

His answer to the wind’s statement came slowly.

“I don’t know about winning,” said Simon. “All I intended was to do my best.”

He thought the gale around him changed in some imperceptible way. Now, it seemed tinged with a malicious, bloodlusty mirth.

“Your best?” the wind replied. “Your best couldn’t possibly be good enough.”

He stole a look at the cave’s entrance. Inside, deep underground, was the source of the Elementals’ power. Even now, surrounded by the wind, he prayed he wasn’t too late.

Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain.

“Maybe not,” Simon said and shrugged his shoulders. “But we humans are a stubborn lot. We value freedom over life itself. Better to die free than to live in servitude.”

A piercing flute of air slapped his back, and he bit back a strangled cry. No, he would not give this wretched being the pleasure of watching him sob like a child. He would go out a man, tall, proud, and one hundred percent in control of himself.

The wind drew more injuries. It wouldn’t let him die quickly, oh no, but that was all right—all for the better, in fact. With each blow, with each letting of fresh, cherry-hued blood, Simon snuck more furtive glances at the cave’s entrance.

Just a moment or two longer, he hoped. And as if the prayer were a cue, the wind stopped beating him.

“What are you looking at?” It was curious now, and there was something else in the tone of its voice, too, something Simon had never heard from its kind before. “I feel strange, weak, like—” And then it fell silent, and Simon, understanding now that his mission had been a success, angled his head toward the clouds and uttered his thanks to the Good Steward above.

Jerome had made it! Simon was never meant to go inside, of course. But Jerome, silent and invisible Jerome (made so by a glamour Simon devised himself) had shadowed him the entire journey.

Alone, the Elementals might have seen through the glamour, invisibility or no invisibility. But because Simon had gone along with the boy in plain sight, the Elementals would have only seen him, a foolish old man on a suicidal journey to the fabled Eiolin Cave.

If the wind had had eyes, Simon was sure they would have gone wide with realization.

“You weren’t alone,” it bellowed. “You weren’t alone!”

The shriek  that followed made Simon’s ears ring until the terrible ghost sense was so loud, so Earth-shatteringly complete, that he knew he’d gone deaf.

That was all right. Once more, he remembered that he’d never intended to complete the journey. The world belonged to Jerome’s generation now, as well as their descendants. Would they build a better place for themselves when the Elementals were gone? He didn’t know—the wind had been right about one thing: humans were stupid—but he could hope.

“Freedom,” Simon muttered, not hearing the sound of his voice, only feeling the shapes of the word on his lips.

As the wind used the rest of its waning power to usher him into the next life, Simon turned his head upward once more and asked the Good Steward to guide him home.

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Sand Castle

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This post was originally published through Patreon on July 12, 2016.

Cindy sat on the beach, her back to the ocean. She was digging, extracting large scoops of dark wet sand with her hands to form the gate towers of a lopsided castle.

She’d been alone for almost two days. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, but she continued working, first sculpting the basic structure, then patting it down so that it was smooth and seamless. Beyond, the waves crashed into the rocks piled along the shore.

Her parents had died in that ocean, victims of a devastating shipwreck, and Cindy was the only survivor. The tears that breached her eyes threatened to usher in massive racking sobs, but she held them back.

She had to be strong if she wanted to get home.

When the castle was finished, she dug a shallow ring around the perimeter, followed by a jagged line that connected it to the shore. When the next wave washed in, it flooded the tiny rivulet, and when the mote around the castle was full she swiped her hand through the makeshift canal, cutting off the water’s path back to sea.

She rose to her feet to survey the structure with a critical eye. Close. It lacked only one thing. She bent down once more to carve her family’s crest into each of the four walls.

Finished.

Cindy touched the castle with her right hand and closed her eyes, waiting until the sand grew warm against her skin. Soon, her ears could resolve the clangs of blacksmiths at the forge, the clopping of horses’ hooves, the chatter of stable workers, soldiers and serfs. She smiled despite the tears that stung her eyes. It was working.

She reached farther, through the castle walls, through the keep, into where her aunt and uncle sat on the throne. She called out to them, and they heard her distant cry at once.

A breeze brushed back a strand of Cindy’s hair. There was a whoosh, a pull, and when Cindy opened her eyes again, she was home.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on an empty uncharted shore, there stood an abandoned sand castle. Elegant, intricate, a master work of magic and engineering. But like Cindy’s parents, it would soon be swept away by the sea.

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Putting On the Mask

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After three centuries of endless searching, his quest has reached its end.

The object he requires stands before him now, sparkling beneath a glass case atop a plain wooden stand that belies its incredible power. He glances about before returning his eyes to the display. He knows there are cameras recording every angle of the room—the world has advanced considerably over the course of his unnaturally long life—and though he’s sure the glamour he learned during his exile is still working, he’s paranoid. Things can’t go wrong now, not when he’s inches away from the thing that will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the world forever.

When the white men butchered his people, including, eventually, his wife and children; when they planted their flags in the blood-soaked fields and claimed their land in the name of a foreign crown and an equally foreign god; when they obliterated all traces of his once proud and affluent culture, leaving his homeland in ruins; he thought his life was over. But there was one thing that kept him going, one thing that kept the withered heart in his desiccated chest beating long after it should have stopped along with those of his people.

The mask.

The priests, having foretold their own destruction more than a thousand years before the invaders came, saw fit to pass it down from one generation to the next, not under heavy guard or behind the locked doors of a fortified structure, but through a secret succession of descendants that even he, as their king, was not allowed to know.

The priests, in their wisdom, had understood a vital truth: that the greatest security sometimes lies in obscurity. A guard or a temple would have advertised the mask’s importance and would have surely fallen. But a simple family heirloom? No matter how zealously or how violently the invaders sought to stamp out their heathen practices, there was no way for them to reach everyone—no way for them to know that somewhere, in a simple fisherman’s village, in a quiet bamboo beach house, the future restoration of their people abided in peace.

Unfortunately, the priests were slain, and with them their secret.

He searched long and hard, trudged through creeping rainforests and windswept mountains. But he never found it, and the history of his people soon faded and was lost.

Then a miracle: a report in the Los Angeles Times. An archaeological exhibit had come to the Getty Museum, and among the artifacts on display was a peculiar wooden mask.

The mask.

Now, he hesitates with arms outstretched. He knows the instant he lifts the glass, an alarm will ring. But, of course, once he puts on the mask, that won’t matter. Once he puts on the mask—once he dons the vengeful spirits of his people like a shield—nothing will be able to stop him.

He removes the glass.

An alarm bell rings.

When he places the mask over his face, a dark energy swirls before his eyes like motes of electrified dust.

The guards arrive a minute later, and he turns to greet them, face twisted in a rictus of supernatural ecstasy. Let them come, he thinks. Let them bear witness to his revenge.

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Buried Alive

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 24, 2016.

They said it was for the common good. They said it had to be done, that there was no other way. Eventually, no justification was needed. They were too great a liability. It was too dangerous for them to live among society and there was nothing that could be done to improve their condition.

So in the end, thousands of men, women, and children were rounded up like cattle and buried alive. Polite society did its best to ignore their shocked and disbelieving cries, their futile pleas for mercy and redemption.

It was necessary.

It was for the common good.

When it was over, the truth was buried along with the victims. Thousands of years passed, and society almost forgot. But the truth refused to remain buried.

Now, in an open field far from the city, in a barren patch of earth that’s remained empty to this day, a dark energy stirs. The ground rumbles, a deep bellowing groan.

They’re coming, and they want revenge.

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Totem, Part 9

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

“What about the master?” asked Jahi when he and Azibo had sequestered themselves in the boy’s chambers.

The small room was spartan, windowless, and would have been pitch black if Azibo hadn’t used one of the torches outside to light some candles. A low bed stood against one of the far walls—a simple wood furnishing with feline paws for legs, a woolen mattress, and linen sheets—while the straight-backed chair Azibo had sat in during his meditation exercises stood against the other.

Azibo, didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to take the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress, then proceeded to stare at Jahi until the man fidgeted in his seat.

He’s just as frightened as I am, thought Azibo. But still, he was afraid to speak. He’d seen fear do strange things to people, and though he’d peered into Jahi’s mind on more than one occasion and knew he was just as concerned about the master as Azibo was, one wrong move might send him scrambling to report him. He had to tread carefully.

Azibo opened his mind for a moment, hoping to use whatever the man was thinking as a launching point for their conversation.

How long? Jahi thought. How long before the master comes for me, too? The man is mad. I served him faithfully for years, and still, he suspects me as much as anyone else.

The master was suspicious of Jahi? That was a revelation. A guilty hope sparked within Azibo. If that was true, it meant the master’s suspicions were more general and not aimed toward the boy specifically. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master must have been manipulating everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered so many innocent people? Azibo wrestled with himself for a moment before tossing the thought aside.

It’s for a good cause.

And yet, he wondered if there’d been a point in the master’s life when he’d told himself the same thing.

“The master hasn’t been himself,” Azibo said at last, considering his words carefully. Like a politician, he thought. “Aren’t you worried he might come after you just like he’s come after so many of the other servants?”

A fire kindled in Jahi’s eyes. Azibo had struck a cord, all right, but was it the right one?

Azibo tried to read him again, but all he could pick up on was that the man had been stunned by his last statement, which had so closely mirrored Jahi’s own thoughts.

Careful, thought Azibo. Go slow. Don’t rush this. Don’t scare the man away.

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t come after me next? I don’t know what to do.”

Jahi took a deep breath and was silent for a while. Once more, Azibo listened to his thoughts.

Is not even this boy safe from that mad man? All these years with the master, and I feel like I don’t know him at all.

At last Jahi spoke.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

Azibo’s pulse quickened. If he asked Jahi to help him overthrow the master now, would he say yes? He had to fight with himself to maintain patience. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a bit further.

“What do you think we should do?”

Jahi’s mind began to turn.

What can anyone do? My whole career at the master’s service, and even that isn’t enough to place me above suspicion. I gave him everything, and now I can’t say for sure if I’ll live through the week. So many servants and advisers missing already. Will I be next? And what about the boy?

Jahi’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the boy more closely.

When the master and I first met, he told me even Azibo would plot against him if he could. Is that what this is? Is the boy asking me to help him overthrow the master? And what would I say if he asked?

Jahi shuddered.

Dangerous thoughts. Mutinous thoughts. If the master knew…

And then Jahi turned white with fear.

The master. He can read our thoughts. What if he’s doing so right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. For a moment, he considered telling the man his own secret, then decided against it. Right now, his secret was his advantage. If that secret got out, the advantage would disappear along with it. And who was to say Jahi wouldn’t turn against him and report him to the master after all? He didn’t think Jahi was that kind of man, but he wasn’t willing to take a chance.

At any rate, Azibo thought now would be a good time to interject.

“What if I told you the master was away? What if I told you that, for the time being at least, we had the estate to ourselves?”

“What?” Jahi sounded surprised. “No, he would have told me if he’d left.”

Then Azibo heard Jahi think better of himself. Paranoid and trusting no one, the master had been ignoring them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans even to two of his once favored servants.

“I saw him,” Azibo lied. “Last night. I couldn’t sleep. I was wandering the halls, restless, and I caught sight of the master outside, loading a donkey before riding off into the night.”

Jahi sagged with a certain measure of relief. If the master was away, Azibo felt him reason, that meant he didn’t know about their conversation now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he had to fight to suppress an unexpected smile. What a power, he thought. With it, he could do almost anything. With the master out of the way, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Maybe, with time, he could even…

No!

With frightening clarity, Azibo was certain the master had, once upon a time, walked the same path; that his willingness to use this special power had transformed him into the monster he was today. Azibo had no desire to be like him.

I just have to use it this one time to get Jahi on my side.

Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a period of silence, “the master is away. What does that have to do with me?”

The man’s voice was level, calm. But inside, Azibo sensed a mounting tension. The man was scared of what the master might do to him if he did nothing; he was also scared of what the master might do to him if he did. He was caught between two equally dangerous choices, an impossible position unless Azibo could tilt the scales in favor of the choice he wanted Jahi to make.

“I’m afraid,” said Azibo, “that when the master returns, he’ll decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. He’s already stopped teaching me what he knows. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he gets rid of me. And you…” Azibo shrugged. “Well, maybe you’re safe. After all, you’ve been faithful to him for years. Surely he still has use for you.”

That last sentence came out as more of a question than a statement, and Azibo didn’t need Jahi’s thoughts to know the man understood what his true fate would likely be. Now, Azibo just had to make it clear that there was a viable alternative. Then, he hoped, Jahi would side with him.

“Of course, if we were to prepare, if we were to take the master by surprise when he returns…”

Jahi shot to his feet, face red.

“Then we could depose him. That’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it? Take the master out before he can take us out?”

The outburst startled Azibo, and he sank back toward the wall without realizing it. Had he pushed too hard? Had he gotten to the point too quickly? A lump formed in the back of his throat, and he found it difficult to swallow. Jahi could call the guards and have him arrested. He could tell the master what had transpired between them as soon as he returned, and then it would be all over.

The nerve, thought Jahi. The master’s own apprentice! He was right to be paranoid. Except, haven’t I been considering the same solution? Wouldn’t anyone, when every day might be their last? Dammit, what am I supposed to do now?

“Jahi—”

“Leave me alone. I have to think.”

“Jahi, please—”

“I said leave me alone!”

Stunned, Azibo could only watch as the man pushed past him and out the door.

*                *                 *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d met the boy for the first time. So much plotting and calculation from one so young. What other secrets did the youth possess? The sun had set a while ago, but the sky, lit by hundreds of streetlights below, glowed a dull, burnished copper.

Jahi was the first to break the silence between them.

I feel like I should be angry, he said, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and let it happen. You were right. The master needed to be deposed.

Little Azibo, mused Zane, who could think of nothing else to say.

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

So it’s your fault the master transformed us into birds. That from Kasim.

What’s done is done, came Rashidi’s reply. He was just doing what he needed to do to protect himself. Who among the rest of us would not have done the same?

Kasim grumbled but offered no reply.

Jahi, Rashidi continued, why did you decide to help him? You might have saved yourself if you’d reported him.

I couldn’t do that. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was looking for—the one who’d entered his dream by accident, setting off the entire chain of events that lead us to where we are today—but that didn’t justify the master’s response. So many servants disappeared for no more reason than the master was paranoid, and how long would it have been before he decided to come after me, too?

And he was already suspicious of me. Never mind that I was faithful, that only recently he’d entrusted me with his secret because he wanted me to help him find the other person who could read minds like himself. Only a couple days prior to my conversation with Azibo, he’d called me into his study and, perhaps because he knew I had my doubts, he asked me if I, too, would betray him if given the opportunity. Before I could argue that I was loyal, he turned me away and didn’t send for me again.

The others listened in silence, attentive as Jahi picked up his part of the story.

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You Choose What I Write

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Every time I post a piece of flash fiction on the blog, I receive private messages and emails from people who want to know if I’m going to turn it into a longer story. Sometimes, I do. Examples include Caleb (a novel in progress and a rough draft I’m already sharing on Patreon), Dying Breath (now a short story released on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and Barnes & Noble), and Totem (now an ongoing flash fiction serial.) Other times, I don’t. My flash fiction is a way for me to explore new ideas, and unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to turn all of them into something bigger.

However, if you were absolutely enthralled by a piece you read on the blog and need to read more, there is a way to get what you want.

In exchange for a $5 pledge on Patreon, I’ll turn the flash fiction piece of your choice into a longer story.

This is how Dying Breath got its start. Though it was only a piece of flash fiction when I originally wrote it, a generous patron at the $5 level asked me for more. I loved the result so much that I ended up releasing it to the world.

It’s an amazing deal for both of us. You get more of the story you love and I get closer to making a living writing fiction.

I’ve shared in the past how I operate at a significant loss. I make roughly $300 per month from my stories (mostly thanks to my amazing patrons), but spend almost $2,000 per month on advertising and hosting. This doesn’t include the one-off costs required to pay for editors and illustrators when I release new books. I’ll continue to do this for as long as I can, because I love what I do, and because I’m thrilled to have touched so many hearts through my stories. But I would give anything to be a full-time writer, and if I could narrow the gap between what I make and what I spend each month, I would be well on my way to meeting that goal, which means more books released more often.

If you can’t afford to support me at the $5 level, there are other less expensive rewards. For example, the $2 level entitles you to a free digital copy of every book I write for as long as you’re a patron. You also get to read rough drafts of every story I write before it’s published (I’ve already shared a ton of drafts on Patreon that haven’t been released to the public yet) and will have your name placed in the acknowledgments of every book I publish.

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The Blight

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Imagine: Green, all-encompassing, ever reaching. A place of endless spring. A place of fertile hopes and breathless wonders. A billowing canopy of shimmering translucent leaves, casting a bright and verdant glow over the forest floor below.

Such had been the nature of the world before the Blight.

Now the light that loomed over Angeline was faint, a sickly, mottled soup of barren browns and grays. A forest of dead things, covered from ground to canopy in a dark, cloying mold first discovered in their sacred woods almost three hundred years ago.

Angeline’s heart broke to see her home in such a state, for she was old enough to remember the Age before it. That’s why she was here now, to fight back, to reclaim what was hers and her people’s by birthright.

She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out to the trees. “Andre? Are you there?”

A branch snapped behind her, heralding his arrival.

The man who faced her when she turned was dark, skin festooned with mold and scabs. He wore no clothes. Clothes were an invention of civilization, and the forest had not seen civilization for quite some time.

“Angeline.” The man bowed.

“There’s no place for formalities here,” she said, but the corners of her mouth had already curled into the barest flicker of a smile.

Andre was a good man and loyal to a fault, so much so that he’d stayed behind to take care of the forest long after the rest of their people had fled into the mountains on the coast.

The Blight would, of course, extend even that far in time. Every year, the nauseating mold crept closer, penning them into an ever shrinking perimeter. But for now, at least, they were safe.

When Angeline had asked Andre why he’d chosen to remain, he’d only said, “The forest is my home. I can’t leave.”

Angeline admired the man’s courage, and it was the reason why she herself hadn’t given up, the reason why she’d returned every day to battle the Blight that had made their forest uninhabitable.

“Shall we go?” she asked. Her voice was just as regal, just as serene as it had been when she was queen.

Andre nodded, and together they set off into the thickening trees.

“So much death,” the man lamented, and Angeline placed a comforting hand over his weathered shoulders.

“That’s why we’re here,” she reminded him. “To reverse the damage so the forest might live again.”

The forest grew darker as they delved deeper into its heart. The light that filtered through the skeletal branches never changed. Rather, the darkness of the Blight itself radiated from the forest’s center like a fever.

“I hate coming here,” said Andre.

So did Angeline, but she didn’t say so. The man looked up to her. He’d never stopped seeing the queen she’d been centuries ago.

“You’re a hero,” she said. “Someday, our people will sing songs of your bravery.”

“I don’t care about that. I just want our home to be what it once was. I want future generations to know life and light, not this…” He gestured helplessly at the bare trees. “This nightmare.”

“And that is exactly why you’ll succeed—why both of us will succeed—because we don’t work for accolades but for a world we love and refuse to let die.”

They halted before a massive, world-sized trunk. It towered well above the other trees, its own leafless branches soaring high into the clouds. As thick as it was tall, the part closest to the ground resembled a wall more than a tree, its massive curves lost to the horizon.

There was almost no light left here, only a soupy, cloying black that covered every inch of the bark in thick ropy webs that held the entirety of the forest in a fatal chokehold.

“Disgusting,” Andre spat.

“And yet,” Angeline replied, “I sense life still. Faint, guttering, but stronger than the last time we were here. Our work has accomplished something. It has not been in vain.”

“Right.” Andre edged closer, repelled by the rot and corruption but determined to face it in battle. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

Angeline and Andre placed their hands over the craggy surface of the bark. Both of them recoiled as the Blight reached out and tried to take hold of them, as the Blight tried to squeeze out their own lives as it had squeezed out the lives of the surrounding trees. But one warning glare from Angeline was all it took to send those dark feelers reeling back.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the soul she sensed inside the tree, the heart of their world and the source of their people’s strength. It hunkered against the dark, hanging on by only the faintest of breaths. Angeline called out to it and shared with it her ancient song.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

A moment later, Andre joined her.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

The Blight wrapped itself tighter around the forest, dimming what little light remained. But Andre and Angeline refused to be intimidated, and instead sang even louder.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:

Have strength.

They finished together, their voices a joyful alloy of faith and hope that they knew the Blight would find repulsive.

Now that their song was finished, the momentum that had been building between them surged into the tree like lightning. The Blight staggered, reeled, and for a moment the soul inside the tree flared with new light.

Together, they opened their eyes.

“Look,” said Angeline, pointing to a tiny shoot of green at the tree’s base. It was the first new growth either of them had seen since the Blight had first taken hold. The mold reached out and tried to smother it, but the scion only shook it off like a spot of dirt.

“Will it be enough?” Andre asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I believe it will. If not, then what are we doing here, and what else is there but despair?”

Andre nodded.

“Then I, too, believe.”

With those last words shared between them, they turned and made their way back to the forest’s perimeter.

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