Leaves in the Wind

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A dry rustle makes Nicholson turn. Leaves, caught up in a breeze, gliding lazily across the sidewalk before settling back to the ground. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Just leaves. Relax.

He turns and continues down the street.

Not a big deal, he thinks, though he’s started to walk faster. It happens every October. The leaves fall, dry like shed snakeskins, and are blown about by the wind along the street.

Once more, he can hear them behind him, skidding across the concrete, a hollow rattling whisper.

Nicholson turns again. The wind is still gusting, and the leaves, suspended in the air, twirl and dance as if alive.

As if alive.

Nicholson bolts. This is silly, he thinks even as he picks up speed. The spirit he encountered all those years ago is long gone, a forgotten phantom that Nicholson escaped decades ago.

Only it isn’t silly. He has too much experience with his old nemesis to think it’s a coincidence.

The leaves stop and he glances back. It’s toying with him, playing on his fears. He slows, then stops, gasping as he catches his breath. Running, he decides, won’t do him any good. His only defense all these years has been to keep a low profile, and now that defense has been shot to Hell. Nothing left to do but face it head on.

“Nicholson.” The voice comes out a dry dusty whisper. “I told you you couldn’t avoid me forever.”

The wind kicks up around him, forming an invisible wall, tugging at his shirt sleeves, tousling his short sandy hair.

“How did you find me?” Nicholson asks.

Leaves dance around him in delighted autumnal laughter.

“I am the wind. I am everywhere.” The breeze grows louder, stronger. “You are free because I let you go, not because you could have escaped me on your own.”

“Then why did you let me go?” Nicholson tries to sound defiant, but can only manage a strangled croak.

The wind has become a tornado.

“Because I enjoyed watching you run, because you were always looking over your shoulder, terrified of every breeze, every rustling leaf. But I’m tired now, and hungry, and in the end, even amusing prey is just prey.”

Nicholson’s shirt brushes against that spinning wall of air and the fabric tears, yanked away to become part of the raging tempest.

Nicholson’s eyes open in wide, preternatural terror.

“Goodbye, Nicholson.”

The wall closes in.

Nicholson screams.

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The Dokash

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I am not a madman.

The doctors all say the same thing, those small minded men and women in their white lab coats and sterile, condescending smiles. They assert that I’m delusional, that I’m a danger to myself and others. Do not believe them. I’ve come not to do violence, but to warn of the violence yet to come.

I am their emissary. I herald their arrival, the rightful heirs of your world, the Great Masters who were here long before you were even a dollop of goo in the primordial soup. To you, I issue fair warning. Turn from me all you like. Your refusal to listen will not save you when they come.

You, who mill about in your suits and ties like ants before a mound of sand; you, who believe yourselves the sole sovereign masters of nature; you, who gaze up at the vastness of the universe and conclude that all of it was made for you; prepare yourselves.

They’re coming. From beyond the cosmos, from beyond space and time, they’re coming. They’ll remake the Earth in their image. Oceans will boil. Fields will blaze. Heaven and Hell will pass away. Skin will burn. Flesh will melt. And your souls, stripped of their mortal coils, will serve the Dokash.

Mind your place, do them homage and you will be rewarded. But do not obey, do not pay tribute and you’ll be punished, made to crawl on all fours like dogs, tongues lolling, while the Dokash regard you as children who delight in pouring salt on worms and snails, so that you would rather wish for the kind of death in which there is nothing at all.

Hear my words and prepare yourselves. The life you know is coming to an end.

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The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.

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King of the Crows

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Max dumped the contents of his lunch onto an outdoor wrought iron table—a six-inch turkey on wheat with lettuce, onion, bell pepper and olives—and gazed out into the parking lot, watching strangers as they wandered off toward shops and restaurants.

Among them stood a solitary crow, hopping from one spot to the next as it avoided the humans who surrounded it in that not quite trusting, not quite frightened manner that was so common in urban environments. It trundled up to his table, paused, and sounded a shrill cry before hopping up and perching on the chair across from him.

Max sighed, glanced down at his sandwich, then back up at the bird. A moment later, he tore off a piece of bread and threw it on the ground. The crow dove after it, head twitching from side to side like a junkie going through withdrawals, and on a whim, Max tossed more tiny morsels of bread, taking small bites in-between.

Two other crows followed, and when there were no more crumbs they perched once more, staring at Max with glass beads for eyes.

With a childish smirk, Max fancied himself a king. He imagined the birds were his loyal subjects, that they could hear his thoughts and awaited his orders.

Fly, he ordered the crow in the middle, and to Max’s amusement it jerked its head sideways and took off as if heeding his command.

Max turned his attention toward the others.

Perch on the chair next to me. They sidled right a step, then fluttered across the table in unison and landed on the chair next to him.

That took him aback. He tried to think what the odds might be that the crows would do his bidding twice in a row. Anyway, no matter how unlikely, it was only a coincidence. Still, it was fun to pretend.

Look at me. I’m King of the Crows.

Max decided to up the ante. He closed his eyes, and in his mind he visualized dozens of birds descending from the sky like an Old Testament plague, dive bombing the people around him.

Attack, boomed the voice of his imagination. Show no mercy! Max smirked. A ridiculous idea.

Then a woman screamed. Max opened his eyes.

Behind him, an elderly woman had backed into a wall. “Shoo!” she cried, swinging at a crow with her purse. The bird landed on the ground, backed away, then launched into the air for a second assault. When it clamped onto her head with its talons and began to peck at her hair, she screamed and swatted at it again.

Others began shouting too, and in the span of a heartbeat the food court had erupted in a flurry of feathers and upturned tables. Some sought refuge in shops and restaurants, darting through doors and slamming them shut just as flying avian projectiles smashed into them.

Max observed the melee unscathed. A storm had kicked up in his head, battering against the invisible boundary between fantasy and reality. Immobilized, Max could only stare.

Two voices in his head shouted at the same time.

You made them do this. Now stop them, said one.

It’s just a coincidence. Birds don’t read minds, said the other.

The voices grew incrementally louder, each trying to subdue the other, and before long, they were hurling insults at each other like a couple of elderly senators. Max slapped his hands against his ears and closed his eyes.

Just stop, he cried inside his head. No more.

And then it was over. The few birds that still remained in the air, poised for attack, floated to the ground, puffing themselves up in a mass of ruffled jet-black feathers. Some pecked at crumbs and half-eaten food that had toppled over during the attack (to Max’s left, a pair of crows waged war over an abandoned doughnut.)

The people in the food court hesitated before slowly emerging from makeshift sanctuaries. They stared down at the birds on the ground, eyeing them like venomous snakes, and tiptoed around them as if the smallest misstep might rouse their ire once more.

A breeze stirred, followed by disbelieving whispers.

“Have you ever seen anything like—?”

“—just like The Birds! I—”

“—scared the shit out of me!”

“What was—”

“Are you okay?”

Max withdrew into himself.

What did I do?

He’d never wanted to hurt anyone.

If that was the case, why did you imagine hurting people?

Terror and self-revulsion wracked him in waves.

But how can any of this be my fault?

There was no way he could be responsible for what had happened. It’d only been an act of the imagination, unless birds could somehow read a person’s thoughts.

Could they?

Of course not, and he dared any crow to tell him otherwise.

One of the birds vaulted up onto the chair opposite him. It stared, piercing him with its dark glassy eyes. Max gazed at the creature for one breathless moment, then rose to his feet and bounded off into the parking lot.

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