Just Doing His Job

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 30, 2016.

He slipped inside the church, unseen; sat down in a nearby pew and waited.

It was an old stone cathedral, erected in the Philippines by Spanish Catholics during the 1600s. He paused to admire the architecture and took a mental snapshot. He’d never been to the Philippines before, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be going back.

Every now and then he turned to peer at one of the three broad double doors. He was waiting for someone.

Ten or fifteen minutes of contemplative silence. Then he spotted an elderly woman in a faded blue blouse. He watched closely as she knelt to pray and, after a brief appraisal, his suspicions were confirmed.

It was subtle, something that most people either couldn’t see or didn’t bother to notice. A slight ripple, a liquid shimmer in the air, like a mirage in the distance on a hot summer day. In her presence, things would change in almost imperceptible ways, a brief tweaking of probabilities and outcomes. Some things would become a little more likely, others a little bit less.

Such individuals had effected profound changes in the course of human events, small alterations to reality that rippled outward into space and time, having an increasingly heavy impact on the world and beyond. Most had no idea what they were capable of and, of those who did, rarer still were those who could control it. It was simply a part of their nature, a manifestation of their existence.

Now that she was praying, her influence had grown strong. He could see it swirling all around her.

He got to his feet and quietly approached her from behind. It was best to avoid a confrontation, to avoid getting caught in her web of influence.

He reached into a coat pocket and produced a small pen-like object and pad of paper. Then he positioned the pen-like object so that it was pointed at the woman’s neck. Finally he pushed down on a spring-loaded button. An instant later, the woman swatted at her neck.

When she turned to investigate the source of the sting, he smiled and pretended to scribble words into his notebook. Confused, she returned his smile with one of her own and turned back to face the tabernacle and continue praying.

The sting would have been benign. She would have forgotten about it even before she turned back toward the front of the church. She would go home after mass, have dinner with her family, fall asleep at the end of the day, and, by morning, her family would be planning her funeral.

He punctuated an empty page, placed the pen-like object back into his pocket along with the notebook, and exited the church. The humid heat of Bacolod embraced him.

He had just been doing his job, and this one was done. Tomorrow, he would board a morning flight for Manila; an hour later, he would be flying out to California.

He had another job to do.

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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 🙂

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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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