Month: November 2018

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 made a better leader, said Jahi after stopping 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 leader.

I should have had more faith in you, Azibo said, 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 and considered what to say next.

With the exception of Zane, who’d come 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 once more, and none of them were willing to let that feeling go just yet.

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

*               *               *

When the knock at Azibo’s door came, the boy 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 looked troubled, and before turning away, Azibo had wondered when they would talk again.

Has he come to arrest me?

The thought made Azibo’s body turn cold, and when he opened the door and beheld not only Jahi but three of the master’s guards, he thought, just as Jahi had when Rashidi first came to his door, that he had, in fact, been betrayed. Then he peered into their minds and discovered they were on his side.

A tsunami of emotions raced through his mind all at once—gratitude, guilt, and relief—a titanic wave that slammed hard into the backs of his eyes so that he had to fight a sudden surge of tears.

One of the guards must have noticed his emotional 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 flushed and he could feel trace amounts of the aforementioned tears christen the corners of his eyes, 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 warily.

“I thought— Never mind.”

He’d been about to say he thought Jahi would turn him in. Instead, he said, “If these men are friends, then you should introduce us.”

“Of course.” Azibo felt some of the tension in the man unwind. “This is Rashidi,” Jahi said, pointing to the oldest looking guard. “He commands the other guards. And these two,” he said, pointing to the men next to him, “are Chibale and Kasim.”

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

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

“Nice to meet you,” said Chibale, and both he and Rashidi shook Azibo’s hand.

Kasim, on the other hand, said nothing, only stared at the boy 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 a 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, along with 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, but 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 him, even looked up to him, and that he would be honored to serve alongside him.

Chibale also seemed decent, 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 Azibo 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 was the one who first made me consider the possibility of rebellion.”

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 him in a certain measure of esteem.

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

Rashidi nodded.

“That is the conclusion we’ve reached as well.”

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

Kasim jumped in at once.

“And you can contribute to this discussion how?”

Before Azibo could answer, Rashidi spoke over him.

“Jahi tells us you saw the master depart the estate.”

“Yes.” Azibo sat on his bed and tried 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 exact time frame back to them, but then he would have to explain how he knew for sure. Doing so would almost certainly lead to uncomfortable questions that Azibo preferred not to answer. Instead, he pretended to guess. “A week at least, based on the supplies he took with him. Two or three at the most.”

“Are we really going to take him seriously?” Kasim paced across the room, wide-eyed and angry. “We can’t build 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 suffered a humiliating blow to his ego.

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

“I understand your concerns,” Azibo said, trying hard to play the part of the 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 smoldering fury, he reluctantly acknowledged that Azibo might offer them some 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 his return.”

Rashidi nodded.

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

“We shouldn’t get too comfortable,” Jahi warned. “We still don’t know for sure how long he’ll be gone. He could even 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. Can you tell us anything that might 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 that 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 had 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 that dream, Azibo understood the root of the master’s immortality. He was aware of the man’s 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 it somehow, if, perhaps, they could catch the master by surprise…

“The master,” Azibo began, and then he paused to consider what to 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 further. He said something was wrong, that he was weak, that he was sick. He told me he would need time to 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 himself 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 Jahi wrestle with himself over whether or not to reveal the master’s secret, and he realized he needed to alleviate his fears before this discussion entered unwelcome territory.

“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 what it was. 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 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. Their thoughts might leave behind an emotional residue that he could sense without much effort, but only when the master focused on someone could he read them in any detail. If he didn’t know anyone was coming for him until it was too late—if they could hide until they were ready to strike—then he believed they had a fighting chance.

Azibo let Jahi mull this information over in silence.

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 anyone else catches on, they’ll have us arrested, then fight over who 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, and he realized there was still so much he didn’t know about politics. Kasim’s concerns about his boyhood and lack of life experience, though irritating, suddenly seemed painfully valid, and he wondered, could they do this without making things worse?

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

“We should wait for him to return,” Azibo said when none of the others offered a more detailed solution. “He left in secret, so he’ll likely return in secret. We should keep a close watch on the parts of the estate he frequents, and when we’re sure he’s alone, perhaps tucked away in the privacy of his study, then we’ll strike.”

Azibo polled their emotions and realized that his last statement had startled them. The fact that such a cold-blooded idea had come from someone so young gave them great 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 only the tinniest bit unsteady, “that what Azibo proposes is a good idea. Kasim, Chibale, and I can keep a look out, perhaps wait until he’s asleep, and then—”

They all knew what came next.

Yes, thought Azibo, that was a good plan. A sudden wave of giddiness washed over him as he considered the very real possibility that the master would 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 had finally gained their freedom. He didn’t allow himself to consider the possibility that they might fail. After all, he believed, there was no way their plan could go wrong.

Unfortunately for all of them, he was wrong.

Part 11 will be posted on September 18, 2019.

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