The Day Earth Disappeared

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I was five the day the Earth disappeared. My father had gathered us together beneath a late night moon, and when he had our attention, he said:

“The Earth is no longer safe for us. We have to go.”

“What?” I was devastated. I had friends. I went to a good school. I’d just started to settle into my new life as a human, and now he was telling us we had to go.

“I’m sorry,” my father continued. “If there was any other way…” He trailed off, gazed toward the star-encrusted sky. “Perhaps the next world will be more accommodating.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but my father had already uttered the sacred words, and any further argument was quashed by the surging, hurricane-strength wind that swallowed the world and cast us into darkness.

Through stars and empty space we tumbled. Time stood still, and our souls, once more without shape or form, slipped and slid from one part of the universe to the next, drawn by an unseen gravity toward whichever world would become our new home.

“I hate you!”

Now, as an adult, I understand that my father was looking out for us. But my five-year-old self couldn’t comprehend the brutality of the situation, and as far as I was concerned, it was all his fault.

“I’m doing this to protect you,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “You’re doing this because you don’t want us to be happy. I hate you. I wish you were dead.”

I felt the collective gasp of my mother and sister beside me, but I stood my ground. In that moment, I believed all the worst things about my father, and I hated him as much as any other child who ever hated his parents for taking something of value away.

I thought he would argue, that he would threaten me for talking back. Instead, he gazed upon my undefined features with such love and commiseration that the raging fire within me began to cool.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and the sincerity and conviction in his voice reduced me to silence.

I brooded the rest of the journey. Love and hate waged a bitter, violent war in my heart, and I couldn’t bare to look at any member of my family.

Then our new world came into focus. There was the sensation of stretching as we passed through the cosmic veil—like a thin, rubbery membrane that wrapped itself around our souls. Thought and will coalesced into flesh and blood once more, and when I opened my three new eyes onto a bright, vermillion sky, I broke down at last.

“I’m sorry,” I bawled. I reached for my father, who was lying on the ground beside us, and let him take me into his thick, alien arms. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, too. We’ll find peace and happiness soon, son. I promise.”

I nodded, face wet with tears and snot, and got to my feet so we could behold the unfamiliar landscape together.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too.”

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Totem, Part 11

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

I always thought you would have been a better leader, said Jahi after stopping his part of the story to rest. I wish you’d had the chance.

It was late, and the birds who’d once been advisers to a cruel and powerful ruler gazed at the distant horizon in anticipation of a dawn that wasn’t far in coming.

What makes you think I would have replaced the master? Rashidi glanced in Azibo’s direction. I can think of others who might have wanted to take control.

Azibo didn’t acknowledge him, only flicked his eyes downward.

Anyway, that kind of responsibility never appealed to me. I’d rule if necessary, but only if duty required it.

And that, Jahi said, is precisely why you would have been a better ruler.

I should have had more faith in you, said Azibo at last, changing the subject. He turned to address Jahi, but his eyes never lifted from the ground. I was certain you would turn me in. I should have known better.

If Jahi were still a man, he might have smiled. Those were uncertain times. You had every right to be afraid.

All that silence that passed between us after I told you what I thought about the master. It made me uneasy, and then that night you finally returned to my door with the others, I thought for certain…

Azibo stopped to consider his words.

With the exception of Zane, who came into the picture a little later, none of the others needed to hear the rest. They’d all been there. But there was something sacred about hearing the tale unfold, as if the experience allowed them to travel back in time to live through it all again. Here, in the semi-darkness of the nascent dawn, they could almost feel their human bodies, and none of them wanted to let that feeling go.

So Azibo considered how best to pick up where Jahi left off, and when the others had gathered around him like a village elder, he recounted the fateful meeting during which most of their paths finally crossed.

*               *               *

When the knock at the door came, Azibo jumped. The hour was late, and he hadn’t been expecting visitors. Could it be Jahi? The two had exchanged glances earlier that evening. The man’s dark eyes had appeared troubled, and before he turned away, Azibo had wondered if he’d be ready to talk again.

Has he come to arrest me?

The thought made Azibo’s body grow cold, and when he opened the door and beheld not only Jahi, but also three of the master’s guards, he thought, just as Jahi had when Rashidi first came to his chambers, that he’d been betrayed. Then he reached out to the men’s minds, listened to their thoughts, and realized the truth.

They were on his side.

A tsunami of emotions raced through his mind—gratitude, guilt, relief—an oceanic wave that slammed hard into the back of his eyes so that he had to fight to hold back tears.

One of the guards must have noticed the struggle, because the first words out of his mouth were, “This is the sniveling brat who can help us overthrow the master?”

Though Azibo’s face was flushed and he was certain some of his tears had broken through, he drew himself up to his full height, turned to Jahi, and asked, “Who are these men?”

“Friends.” Jahi shot the guard a murderous glare. “I trust them, Azibo, and you can trust them too.”

Azibo eyed them all warily.

“I thought— Never mind.”

He’d been about to say he thought Jahi was going to turn him in, but instead said, “If these men are friends, then we should be introduced.”

“Yes, of course.” Azibo felt some of the tension in the man unwind. “This is Rashidi,” he said, pointing to the oldest looking guard. “He’s the master’s head guard. And these two,” he said, pointing to the men next to him, “are Chibale and Kasim. They’re under his command.”

Kasim. So, that was the name of the man who’d spoken out against him.

Jahi turned toward the others. “Rashidi, Chibale, Kasim: this is Azibo.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Chibale, and both he and Rashidi shook his hand by way of introduction.

Kasim, on the other hand, said nothing, only stared at Azibo with open contempt.

Azibo’s first instinct was to take the emotional pulse of the room. Jahi, for his part, felt more sure of himself than he had the first time they spoke. He was less doubtful now, and possessed both clarity of mind and purpose.

As for Rashidi, there seemed to be little room in his heart for ambition, only a deep and abiding sense of duty and an unquenchable demand for justice. Rashidi wasn’t the sort to claim victory for himself or to blame others for his defeats. He had his doubts about Azibo, yet he nevertheless maintained an open mind. He desired only what was best and what was right, and he held little regard for what others might think of him should his moral or strategic senses deviate from commonly held assumptions. The man was not above selfishness, but that selfishness centered not around petty jealousies or a coward’s desire to save his own life, but the all-consuming need to be the best possible version of himself and to be a capable leader. Azibo decided then and there that he liked the man, even looked up to him, and he would be honored to serve alongside him.

Chibale was also decent enough, though his thoughts were more aligned with pragmatic concerns. He, too, harbored doubts About Azibo, a fact that stung his ego. But he had to admit those doubts were reasonable, and he could find no fault in this man either. Like Jahi and Rashidi, he was loyal and wanted only what was right, and so Azibo decided he could trust him, too.

Kasim, however, was a more difficult subject. Unlike Rashidi or Chibale, his thoughts were both contradictory and erratic, a violent tug of war between his fear of the master and the trust he’d placed in his comrades. The man was brash and quick to judge, but paradoxically, he was less sure of himself and his decisions than the others. He seemed secure enough in his choice to follow Rashidi, and Azibo didn’t think he’d intentionally compromise their mission, but his belligerence and tendency to second guess the decisions of others gave him great pause. Would Kasim be an asset or a liability? He would have to get to know the man better before he could decide.

If only they knew what I can do, that I’m reading their minds even as we speak. But that was a secret he couldn’t share lest he risk giving up his greatest advantage, and so he would have to find another way to convince them of his worth.

“As I was telling you,” Jahi continued, “Azibo made me realize what we had to do.”

You could have come back to me first before consulting with others, Azibo thought. But he held his tongue. In their eyes, he was just a boy, and he couldn’t afford to reinforce that image by throwing a tantrum.

Fortunately, Azibo didn’t have to work very hard to convince Jahi. Since their first talk, the man had come to hold for him a certain level of respect.

“Yes,” Azibo said, working hard to maintain his composure and to exude what he imagined was a sufficiently adult serenity. “He and I discussed the master a few days ago, and though Jahi was uncertain at the time, it appears we both now believe the same thing: that unless we stop him, he’ll eventually come for all of us.”

Rashidi nodded.

“That is the conclusion we have reached as well.”

“Well then,” said Azibo, “I suppose all that’s left for us to discuss is how best to proceed.”

Kasim jumped into the conversation.

“And you can contribute to this discussion how?”

Before Azibo could answer, Rashidi spoke over him.

“Jahi tells us you saw the master depart in secret.”

“Yes.” Azibo sat on his bed, trying to appear relaxed. “He loaded a donkey with supplies. From what he took with him, it seemed he intended to be gone for a while.”

“But you’re not sure for how long.”

Azibo pondered his last encounter with the master. At the time, he’d learned from reading the man’s mind that he was considering an absence of one or two weeks, perhaps even three. He could relay that back to them, but then he would have to explain how he knew. Doing so would almost certainly lead to uncomfortable questions that Azibo preferred not to answer, so instead, he said, “A few days at the least, a week or two at the most.”

“Are we really going to take him seriously?” Kasim started to pace across the room, wide-eyed and angry. “We can’t base our strategy on the testimony of a child. It’s madness. It’s—”

“Kasim, be silent.” Rashidi’s exhortation was a whispered whipcrack in the torch-lit chamber, and Azibo didn’t need to read Kasim’s mind to know the man had just been humiliated.

I’m going to have problems with him, Azibo thought. He would have to be strong enough to rise above him. His young age meant there was a strong prejudice for him to overcome, and that in turn meant he had to be more of an adult than the adults.

“I understand your concerns,” Azibo said, trying hard to be the consummate diplomat. “But I saw him with my own two eyes, and as his apprentice, I’ve gotten to know the master well enough to be a reliable judge of his behavior.”

The master’s apprentice. The reference to his privileged station was intended to remind Kasim of his authority in this matter, and it seemed his words had had the desired effect. He could feel Kasim’s mind wrap itself around the fact, and after a moment or two of silent fury, he reluctantly came to appreciate Azibo’s value, even if he would never admit it out loud.

“As I was saying,” Azibo continued, “I believe we have some time to plan before we have to worry about the master returning.”

Rashidi nodded.

“Thank you, Azibo. Your observation is most valuable.”

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to grow comfortable,” Jahi warned. “We don’t know how long he’ll be gone. He could decide to return tomorrow.”

“Agreed.”

“The question is,” Jahi continued, “how do we fight someone so powerful? We don’t even know what he’s capable of.”

“Azibo,” Rashidi asked, “you’re his apprentice. You know him better than anyone else. Can you tell us anything that will help?”

Azibo considered the question at some length. He knew the master could read minds, but he didn’t want to reveal that ability for fear he might also give away his own advantage. What else could he contribute to the discussion? The master had not yet taught him any magic, only worthless meditation exercises.

What about the dream?

Azibo thought of the scene that’d unfolded the day he’d first stumbled into the master’s mind: the invocation of Isis and Osiris, followed by a vision of the master’s sacrificial altar underground. One conclusion that might have saved them all escaped him until it was too late, but he did think of something else.

Because of what he’d observed in the dream, Azibo knew the nature of the master’s immortality. He was aware of his growing need for human sacrifice, along with the weakness that resulted from not being able to fully meet that demand, and he also knew from their last encounter that the master was agitated and afraid.

The two conditions made for a dangerous and potentially fatal combination, and if they could take advantage of them somehow, if perhaps they could catch the master by surprise…

“The master,” Azibo began, and then he paused to consider what he should say next. A lie, he decided, would be in his best interest. “He told me a secret. This was before he was so paranoid that he refused to speak with me. He said something was wrong, that he was weak and sick and that he needed time to rest and recuperate. I believe this weakness could make him vulnerable if we were to take him by surprise.”

Azibo saw Jahi furrow his brow, and he opened his mind for a moment to listen to the man’s thoughts.

What if the master reads our minds when he returns? How can we take him by surprise if he knows what we’re thinking even before he arrives at the front gate?

Azibo felt the man wrestle with himself over whether or not to reveal the master’s secret, and he realized he needed to alleviate Jahi’s fears before this discussion could take an unwelcome turn.

“The master,” Azibo continued, “has certain abilities, certain ways to sense the people around him.” There. That was close enough to reference the master’s secret without actually revealing it. He hoped Jahi’s mind would make the connection to mind reading on its own. “Whatever weakness has overcome him has also dulled this ability.” That second claim was a bald faced lie, but Azibo knew, from personal experience, how the master’s secret talent worked, and he was confident it didn’t pose them any danger as long as they were careful.

Like himself, Azibo reasoned, the master wouldn’t be able to hear the thoughts of those around him without first reaching for them specifically. They might leave an emotional trace that could be sensed without effort, but only when he focused in on someone could he read them in any detail. If he didn’t know anyone was there until it was too late—if they could hide until they were ready to strike him down—then their chances were good.

Azibo let Jahi mull this information over.

We can do this, thought Azibo, silently urging him to be strong. Don’t worry, Jahi. I know we can do this.

“If the master is as weak as you say he is,” Rashidi said, “then I agree, a surprise is likely our best option. A swift, clean cut. But there’s a complication. We can’t murder him in the open. Our rebellion has to remain a secret, even after we’ve killed him. If any of his other advisers catch on, they’ll have us arrested, then fight over who among their number has the right to take his place. I’ve seen the chaos that results from a powerful leader’s execution, and no matter how many crimes they were guilty of, the power vacuum that replaced them was almost always worse.”

That gave Azibo pause. He realized there was still so much he didn’t understand about politics. Kasim’s concerns, though irritating, suddenly seemed painfully valid. Could they do this without making things worse?

But after a moment’s consideration, Azibo decided anything was preferable to the master remaining in power—even the risk of a bloody struggle over who would get to take his place when he was gone. None of the master’s other advisers were capable of the magic or supernatural cruelty the man so dangerous, and as long as they could take him out before they were caught, that would be enough.

“We should let him arrive,” Azibo said when none of the others offered a solution. “He left in secret, so he can return in secret. Only, we’ll be watching for his return, and when he’s tucked away in the privacy of his study, then we strike.”

Azibo could feel their emotions and realized this last statement had startled them. That such a cold-blooded thought could come from someone so young gave them all pause.

Well, thought Azibo, let them be scared. Maybe now, they’ll understand that I’m more than just a child.

“I think,” said Rashidi, his voice just the tinniest bit unsteady, “that what Azibo proposes is a good idea. Kasim, Chibale and I can wait for his arrival, and Jahi can keep watch and signal when he’s close. Azibo, you’ll have to look out for his signal and warn us when the master approaches.”

Yes, Azibo thought, that was a good plan. A sudden wave of giddiness washed over him as he considered the very real possibility that the master could soon be out of the picture. If they were successful, what challenges would await them next? With the ability to read minds, there was nothing Azibo couldn’t accomplish. A vague sense of guilt vexed him as he considered the prospect of using this secret ability to his advantage, but he chose not to let it bother him. He didn’t have to be like the master. He could find a way to use his talent for good.

He beheld the others, who were now, for better or for worst, his comrades in arms, and he swore he would do right by them when this was over and they were finally free. He didn’t allow himself to consider the possibility that they might fail. After all, he believed, their plan was foolproof.

Unfortunately for them all, it wasn’t.

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