London Bridge Is Falling Down

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He boarded the train from Brighton Station at two forty-five, clutching a black leather briefcase. The car was crowded, but he found a seat at the back and made his way toward it. He sat down next to an elderly woman, who glanced up and smiled. He returned the gesture, and idly wondered if she would be alive tomorrow.

An artificial female voice came over the loudspeaker, notifying the passengers that they were on the Southern service to London Bridge and that their next stop would be Preston Park. It would take an hour for him to reach the last station. He settled into his seat, gazing outside as the train pulled away from the platform with a dull electric hum.

He could remember when the trains had run on steam and not electricity. They’d been much louder then, always hissing like angry spirits just before leaving the station. But that was a long time ago.

He heard the voice of a child and turned. It was a boy of six or seven, telling his mother what he’d done in school. The woman beside him smiled listlessly in most of the right places. He wondered if she would have appreciated the moment more if she knew it might be their last.

Humans were curious creatures. They always took what they had for granted, until it was snatched away. They were like spoiled children, capricious and short sighted, and every so often they needed a catastrophe to wake them up and remind them of how fragile “ordinary” life truly was.

He and his companions had been working in the shadows since the Earth was a flaming ball of molten rock. Always they would wait for humanity to reach a certain level of sophistication, then tear civilization down and watch as they scattered like frightened ants, scrambling to rebuild.

Sometimes they directly intervened, sparking natural disasters like the one that cast Atlantis into the sea. More often they would simply plant seeds of discord during brittle moments in history and let nature take its course. Such had been the case during the Fall of Rome, the Sacking of Constantinople, the Holocaust, even the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

He glanced at the suitcase by his feet. If only the passengers in the car with him could see what it contained. The item inside would raze civilization to the ground, plunging the world into a second Dark Age.

When at last he reached the station, he caught himself humming the tune of London Bridge Is Falling Down. He smiled when he considered just how true that was going to be.

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Precious Stones

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Ainsley plunged his hands into the icy water, scraped the ground beneath until they were filled with stones, and pulled them above the surface. He examined each one, cursed when he didn’t find what he was looking for, and chucked the entire load back into the water.

Behind him, the rocky shore rattled like a string of beads as the tide pulled out.

The beach here was composed wholly of stones, stones of all shapes, sizes and colors. Once, when the world was new, they’d all been a dazzling white, each saturated with the wild unformed magic of creation. But most had surrendered their magic eons ago, had used their nearly limitless power to manufacture the world. Now, the majority were worthless trinkets.

The majority, but not all.

Ainsley reeled in another handful. Examined it. Tossed it back and tried again.

There were a few albinos left, cosmic leftovers scattered like flecks of diamond in a desert sand. Those precious few were still filled with the raw power of creation, a magic orders of magnitude stronger than anything magicians could wield today.

The water was cold, and Ainsley shivered.

Once, he’d thought he could avoid the ocean, that he could restrict his search to the rocks he saw on the shore. After all, he’d reasoned, it was equally likely that he’d discover an albino on land as he would in the water. But further research in the dustier corners of the Archives had indicated this was not the case, that searching outside the sea would have been a waste of time. The type of object he sought was drawn to the water like a magnet was drawn to iron. So he continued to sift the shallow ocean floor, cold and tired and alone.

A shuddering gasp as he mined the bottom again. More worthless rocks. They plopped back into the water with all the rest.

The beach where Ainsley had spent his life searching was a special place, hidden in a forgotten corner of the world where few ventured and from which fewer returned. It had taken him ages to find it, and his search for even a single stone had consumed double that amount of time.

Long ago, he’d been an influential magician himself, had fundamentally changed theory as well as its application with his groundbreaking research. For a time, he’d even served as one of the Tower’s Council of Nine. But then his research had lead him down an unorthodox path, and before he knew what had happened he’d been exiled by his colleagues, who were convinced he’d made a mockery of their field. The day they sent him away, they called him a lunatic. But he knew better, and he would prove them wrong.

More rocks. Worthless. Dump. Repeat.

He was tired, had turned into a feeble old man while his back was turned, and from time to time he worried he’d die a failure, that his life’s work would be in vain. The years he’d traveled back and forth between the layers of the world to get to this place had taken their toll, and though he was only forty-seven, he looked and felt like a man of eighty.

He closed his eyes. Scooped up more rocks. Opened his eyes. Looked down. Gray and orange, red and black, but no white. He tossed them one by one, watched as they landed with tiny as well as not so tiny ripples.

Then he stopped. There, tucked beneath a larger stone in the palm of his hand, a tiny white pebble. His breath caught in his throat. He picked it up with his other hand, let the rest fall back into the water forgotten. Here, this was what he’d spent his life searching for.

In that single pebble was more energy than a thousand men could wield in a lifetime. The power to level mountains. The power to raise new ones. He could feel it, humming just beneath the surface like a high tension electrical wire.

A smile bloomed on the man’s salt-parched lips as he thought of his former colleagues. Wouldn’t they be surprised.

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The Man

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This piece of flash fiction is an adaptation of a chapter that appears in a novel I’m writing.

George pressed into the late afternoon with his twin brother Bill at the forefront, a crippled knight mounted on his stainless steel steed. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded futilely. His neighborhood in Anaheim was not particularly nice, nor was it all that safe, but he hadn’t had any problems in the six or seven years since they’d been living there.

Bill had been in a bad car accident when they were kids, and George had been taking care of him in one capacity or another ever since.

A low bass groan emanated from deep inside Bill’s throat, quiet and plaintive.

“I’m fine,” said George. “Just thinking.”

He wondered sometimes how he would continue to take care of his brother on his meager salary. Their inheritance had eased the burden some, but that source of income had almost run dry, and when it was gone George didn’t know what he’d do. He could have finished school, could have become an accountant like his father and made much more than he was making now. But he’d dropped out to help Mom care for Bill.

They rounded a corner and George spotted the man, standing by an empty bus stop. He wore a black fedora and suit jacket, and was smoking and peering up and down the sidewalk as if he’d lost something. George watched him. The man often did that, seemed to search for something just out of reach. It used to creep him out as a kid.

He’d started seeing him shortly after Bill’s accident. He and his brother would be out at the mall and he would catch the man sitting on a bench. Then they would be at the store and he would spot the man standing by the magazines. Sometimes he’d even spotted the man in their parents’s yard, ambling about along the grass as if lost. He thought it odd, seeing the same man in so many places. He’d asked Mom about him once, but when she started eyeing him askance and asking if he was pulling her leg, he decided to keep the matter to himself.

The man had become an inevitability, like death and taxes. Sometimes George wondered if he was crazy, if he was seeing someone no one else could see because no one was actually there. Once, he’d sat down next to the man and tried to start a conversation. But the man had just looked on, as if George didn’t exist.

Bill groaned again.

“Are you okay? Want me to take you home?”

More groaning, an ululating plea.

Then the man gazed in his direction and went rigid.

George’s veins turned to ice. The man had acknowledged him, something that had never happened before. And with the acknowledgment, the world around George seemed to lose definition, making the man stand out in harsh relief to his surroundings.

He closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he whispered under his breath. “Go away, you’re not real.”

When he opened his eyes the man was gone.

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His Domain

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A gust of frigid night air blew past James as he wound through the park, making him shiver. Like a dream, only he knew he wasn’t asleep. The world was unnaturally quiet and still. There was only the wind, sighing like a mournful spirit.

Orange lamps lit the edges of an asphalt path, but the dim illumination only seemed to hint at all the things it refused to reveal. So many dark corners and hidden shadows. Anything could be out there, watching, waiting, hunting.

The most distressing thing was that he couldn’t remember why he was here. Memory was a vague thing, a thin mist that parted and evaporated whenever he reached for it.

James’s eyes flitted from one shadow to the next. He licked his lips. They felt cold and dry. The wind was blowing harder now, trees swaying back and forth in a harsh rhythm. Leaves and branches played a haunting tune, a dry rasping sound.

James caught movement on his right. He whirled, strained to hear. But there was nothing. More movement to his left, the slightest flicker on the edge of vision. Again he whirled, and again there was nothing.

James ran. Lamps and trees streaked by in a blur until his side ached and his breath started to come in ragged puffs. He had no idea where he was going, no idea what he was running from, only that he couldn’t stop, that stopping meant dying.

It seemed the trees and asphalt went on forever. He could make out buildings on the horizon, a smattering of yellow-orange windows like distant stars, but running never seemed to bring him any closer.

James’s heart pounded, until it had become a high frequency beat that made him feel lightheaded. Eventually he stopped, and when he couldn’t catch his breath he fell to his knees, gulping for air. He wanted to keep running, but when he tried to scramble to his feet he only succeeded in falling to his hands and knees once again.

“Why do you run from me?”

James froze. He tried to discern the source of the voice, but it moaned and whistled with the wind so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“They all do, you know. They all believe they can escape. They think that if they run fast enough, that if they run long enough, they can get away, that they can cheat me out of what’s always been mine.”

The wind was now whipping at James’s hair and clothes in a violent gale.

A figure emerged from the shadows, not from a place of hiding but from the shadows themselves. It loomed over him, wearing the blackness like a cloak.

James wanted to scream, to summon anyone who might be close enough to help. But whatever sound he’d wanted to make had gotten caught in his throat. Finally, in a hoarse whisper, he croaked, “Who are you?”

“Yes,” the figure mused in that same elemental voice, “and they always ask me the same thing. Who am I? Why have I come? And you know, they all know the answer before they even ask. Deep down, they’ve always known the answer.”

The figure knelt before him, and as he leaned in with a face that was shrouded in darkness, the air grew colder. “Have you figured out who I am yet?”

James had lost most of his body’s warmth. He shuddered, hugged himself with shaking arms. “Death.”

“Yes.”

James’s vision blurred around the edges.

“You’ve come to take me,” said James. “Because I’m yours.”

“Yes, you are.”

The blackness enfolded him, blinded him.

A breeze grazed the surface of his left ear like a kiss. “Death is my domain.”

A flicker of consciousness, like a sputtering flame, and then James went to join Death in the dark.

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