Month: June 2018

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 room.

The small space 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 once sat in to meditate stood against the other.

Azibo didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to sit in the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress and proceeded to stare at the diplomat until the man began to fidget.

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 more than once and knew the man was just as concerned about the master as he was, one wrong move might send Jahi scrambling to report him. He had to tread carefully.

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

How long? Jahi thought. How long before the master comes for me, too? He’s crazy. 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 in nature and not aimed toward himself. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master manipulated everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered all those innocent people in a selfish bid to extend his own life? 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 his 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 picked up was that the man had been stunned by his last statement, which had so closely mirrored Jahi’s own thoughts.

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

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t take me prisoner 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 struggled to maintain his composure. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a little longer.

“What do you think we should do?”

Jahi’s mind began to turn.

What can anyone do? My whole career in service to the master, 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 missing already. Will I be next? And what about the boy?

Jahi’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Azibo 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 my thoughts. What if he’s listening right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. He considered telling the man his own secret, but decided against it. Right now, it was his only advantage, and if the secret got out, the advantage would be lost. 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 the 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 have 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 ignored them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans to anyone, not even to one of his most favored servants.

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

Jahi sagged with relief. If the master was away, Azibo felt him reason, that meant he didn’t know about the conversation they were having now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he fought to suppress a smile. What a marvelous power. 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, trod the same dangerous 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 that power this one time to get Jahi on my side. Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a prolonged 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 about magic. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he decides to get 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 was more of a question than a statement, and Azibo didn’t need to hear Jahi’s thoughts to know the man understood his precarious fate. Now, Azibo just had to make it clear 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 overthrow 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 into 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 all be over.

The nerve, thought Jahi. The master’s own apprentice! He was right to be paranoid. Except, haven’t I been considering the same thing? Wouldn’t anyone, when every day in the master’s service 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, and with his heart lodged firmly in the back of his throat, Azibo watched the man push past him and out the door.

*               *               *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d just met him 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, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and let it happen anyway. You were right. The master needed to be overthrown, and a part of me knew that even then.

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

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

Jahi, Rashidi continued, why did you decide to help him? You might have saved yourself by reporting him.

I couldn’t do that, Jahi replied. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was searching for—the one who’d entered his dream by accident. But that didn’t justify his 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 the rest of us?

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.

Read part 10 here.

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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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