Jeff Coleman

Jeff Coleman is a writer who finds himself drawn to the dark and the mysterious, and to all the extraordinary things that regularly hide in the shadow of ordinary life.

Simon’s Demon

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This post was originally published through Patreon on October 31, 2018.

Simon viewed the blacktopped parking lot as if it were an ocean. He breathed, a deep bone-weary sigh, then began the long trek back to his car.

Only twenty feet to go.

He gritted his teeth, pushed his failing legs harder.

Fifteen feet.

Panting for breath, Simon engaged in a futile effort to catch his breath, all the while reflecting on how different life had been when he was young. To think that back then, he could have walked the entire two and a half miles home without stopping. Now, he might as well hike to the moon.

Ten feet.

Sweat beaded across his forehead like semi-precious gems. He leaned into his cane and continued shuffling forward.

Five feet.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

At last, Simon reached the car. He could feel the breakfast he’d just eaten rolling in his stomach, and he knew if he wasn’t careful, it would all come surging out of him in a flash flood. So he waited, resting against the chrome surface of the car, and slowly, too slowly, his nausea subsided.

When at last Simon opened the door and fell into the driver’s seat, he counted it a victory.

“Very good,” called a dry, familiar voice from the backseat. “For a second, I thought you might not make it.”

Simon cast an irritated glance backward, and the emaciated demon stared back, impassive.

“I take my victories where I can get them.”

“And what will you do in December when you have to renew your license at the DMV? They’ll take it away, you know, and then how will you maintain your independence?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

The demon made a disgusted sound but didn’t answer.

Simon threw his cane onto the passenger seat, and after taking a few more moments to steady his breathing, he started the car and backed out.

“Simon the Great, they once called you. Now you’re just Simon the Geriatric.”

Simon mulled over possible comebacks, but ultimately held his tongue. The demon was trying to rile him, trying to frighten him into making a decision he knew he would regret later. So he pulled into traffic in silence and ignored the creature just as he had for the past thirty-seven years.

He squinted behind a pair of brass-rimmed bifocals as he drove, always maintaining a speed below 40 even though the speed limit was 55. He knew it annoyed the drivers in back of him—”Yes,” he sometimes wanted to shout back at them, “I am slow. Thank you for noticing.”—but safety was paramount, and his eyes and reflexes weren’t what they used to be. Last month, he’d almost hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk. The close call had left him shaken, and he’d vowed to be more careful going forward.

The demon in the backseat grew increasingly agitated.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” it said when it couldn’t contain itself any longer. “I could give you your youth back. You could be Simon the Great again.”

“And I suppose,” Simon replied, “that all I’d have to do in return is grant you your freedom.”

The demon threw back its angular head and loosed a vicious, fire-and-brimstone howl. Simon rolled his eyes and continued driving.

The creature had been terrorizing a remote South American village when first he captured it. A vile being, that demon, a being who whiled away its hours feasting on the village’s children.

Simon, still young back then, still powerful, had bound it to himself in order to save the people. The binding meant that when he died, so too would the demon. Simon didn’t doubt that it would keep its word if he asked, that it really would make him young again. But it would demand to be released in return, and he couldn’t let a creature like that back into the world.

“A small price to pay for youth,” the demon said, and Simon laughed.

“And what would youth buy me, another thirty or forty years? Even a thousand years, stacked against the backdrop of infinity, is meaningless. I would live a little longer, and then I would die anyway.”

“I could give you Sara again.”

That was a low blow, and Simon grew cold.

“You leave her out of this.”

“She loved you, once upon a time, and you loved her. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a couple again?”

The two of them had stopped at a red light, and Simon was trying very hard not to reach back and throttle the creature’s neck.

“A shame she died so young. So many years you lived alone. I could have saved her then, and I still can. All you have to do is ask.”

For a moment, in the stillness of a single heartbeat, Simon considered the demon’s offer. Someone in the world might suffer if he gave in, but so what? At least he would have Sara back. Perhaps, this time, they might even get to start a family…

“No!”

Something snapped inside, and a power Simon hadn’t felt for more than a decade bolted through him once more. The air in the car darkened, and for a wonder, the creature actually fell silent, perhaps afraid of what Simon could do in such a state. It was, after all, the very same power Simon had conjured the day he’d bound the demon to himself.

Simon held onto the magic for a while, relishing its presence and the way it seemed to fill all the pieces of himself that had broken or gone missing. But the energy’s flow through his shriveled veins and ancient, brittle bones would burn him to a cinder if he wasn’t careful—he wasn’t thirty anymore, after all—so he let it go, and soon enough, all the aches and pains that had faded into the background years ago flared to life once more.

“I’m going to die,” Simon announced, “and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I suggest you make peace with your mortality, because when I go, you’re going with me.”

The demon said nothing, only brooded and followed Simon home in silence.

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Totem, Part 12

Images licensed by Shutterstock.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

For the next two weeks, Azibo, Jahi, Rashidi, Chibale, and Kasim kept watch over the estate in anticipation of the master’s return. Each weekend, tensions would rise as they considered the prospect of his arrival, then ebb as more days followed in his absence.

Like a well-oiled machine, the estate functioned remarkably well without him—if anything, general morale had improved now that people were no longer disappearing—and Azibo found himself wondering if much would change once they finally disposed of him for good.

The key was not to get caught, and for everyone else on the estate to remain ignorant of their leader’s fate until long after they’d solidified their hold over his land and his people. If they could pull that off, the future would be bright, and Azibo could live out the rest of his days secretly charting the limits of his telepathic abilities in peace.

Whatever happens, thought Azibo, I can’t let myself become like the master.

But in truth, he found himself worrying about that less and less. Having a particular talent didn’t automatically make one evil, he’d reasoned, and what harm was there in leveraging one’s abilities to their own advantage? So tantalizing were the possibilities that it wasn’t until hundreds of years into his timeless exile in the skies that Azibo would realize just how like the master he might have become had their plan succeeded.

In fact, so intoxicated was Azibo by the prospect of power that he found himself looking forward to his inevitable confrontation with the master. Jahi and the others were wound up as tight as springs, but he’d grown increasingly optimistic, convinced that together they could do no wrong, and there were days he found himself wandering the far reaching halls of the estate not because he was anxious or afraid, but because he was eager to explore all the wonders that would soon be under his control.

*               *               *

It was during one of his frequent outings that Azibo finally met Zane, a young prince sent by the king of Kerma as an offering of good faith. Unlike the Pharaoh himself, the Kerman king knew where the true power in Egypt lay, and in the wake of growing hostilities between their peoples and fears that Egypt might one day march against them, he’d hoped to smoothen relations, maybe even open a formal dialog and trade negotiations.

The young prince had been with them for more than a month, but by that time, Azibo was already seeing little of the master, and without a reason to talk to one another, the two had gone about their lives without ever crossing paths.

“Nice day,” Azibo said, looking up into a bright blue sky. He’d been standing on the edge of a long colonnade, lost in thought, when he sensed the young prince’s approach.

Zane didn’t reply, only stepped onto the edge a few feet away and joined him in his contemplation of the sky.

Out of habit, Azibo peered into the emotional cloud surrounding him, looking to catch a glimpse of what the prince was thinking.

Terror. Total abject terror. The percussive force of the unexpected emotion shocked him. Most of the master’s entourage had begun to breathe a collective sigh of relief, but Zane was different. The master’s erratic behavior in the days leading up to his secret journey had apparently left a strong impression on the prince’s mind, and though the rumor mill was no longer quite as heated as it had been a couple weeks ago, Zane was still obsessing over the possibility that he might soon be the next to disappear.

Any day now, Zane thought. Any day now, the master’s going to have me arrested. Maybe that was his plan all along. Maybe he’ll hold me ransom and use me as insurance to get whatever he wants from my father.

Zane’s mind took one dark turn after another, taking him on a tour of all the worst possible outcomes. The incessant worry reminded Azibo so much of himself a few weeks ago that he felt a small stab of pity.

Don’t worry, he thought. When I’m the master, you’ll have nothing to fear.

“Zane, is it?”

Startled, the prince acknowledged him at last.

“Yes. Prince Zane. And you are?”

“Azibo, the master’s apprentice.”

The prince paled. He dropped his gaze to the ground at once and extended a hand to his forehead by way of salute.

“Forgive me for the informal greeting,” Zane stammered. “I meant no disrespect.”

“No offense was taken.” Azibo tried to calm him, but he only shrank away further, as if Azibo’s touch were as venomous as the bite of a sand viper.

“Are you all right?” Azibo asked, but Zane continued to back away, hand to forehead, like a supplicant before a king.

The other hand had wandered almost imperceptibly toward the smooth linen shenti at his waist, but Azibo wouldn’t think about that until later.

Guilt nibbled at the edges of his conscience—I didn’t mean to scare him away—but a dark interior whisper followed close on its heels about how good, how right it was that even a noble such as Zane should fear him.

I am, after all, a powerful man. Azibo pictured the way the prince had bowed and scraped. When I’m in charge, I’ll rule with benevolence. The thought made him smile.

He lingering for a moment longer in his silent study of the sky, then stepped away from the columns and continued his walk.

*               *               *

It wasn’t until the fourth weekend came and passed that some of Azibo’s good humor dimmed.

The master should be back by now.

While honing his mind reading ability, he’d grown accustomed to anticipating the future. In the master’s absence, however, there was no way to predict what might happen next, and that uncertainty was unsettling.

Rashidi and the others, for their part, were downright terrified.

“Where is he?” Kasim almost shouted once, eliciting a sharp command from Rashidi that he keep his voice down. The five co-conspirators had taken to meeting every other night in Azibo’s chambers, mostly to compare notes and discuss strategies for when the master returned, and the extended absence had apparently been too much for Kasim to handle. “Where is he, Azibo? You said he would be back in a couple of weeks, so where is he?

“Quiet,” said Rashidi, but the man ignored him, never mind that Rashidi was his commanding officer and might as well have issued an order.

“We should have known better than to listen to you. You’re going to get us killed.”

“Enough!” It seemed that Rashidi’s patience had run out, and the whispered command cut through the dark like a knife. “You shame yourself.”

Kasim’s face turned red, and his mouth formed a tight, bloodless line that boasted of thinly concealed rage. But to his credit, he did stop talking, and when things cooled down, Rashidi spoke of something else.

“Kasim, Chibale, and I have been keeping an eye on the entrances and exits. No sign of the master yet, though it’s possible there are other ways in we don’t know about.”

“Could he have sneaked by disguised as someone else?” asked Jahi. Daily life on the estate required the regular influx and outflux of servants, and it was an effective point of entry for a man who wanted to return in secret.

“We’ve been stopping everyone in and out under the pretext of security. Unless the master can change more than just his clothes, I don’t think he’s been here.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what he did,” Azibo ventured. “He’s a powerful man. We have no idea what he can do.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think he knows about our plan?” Kasim glanced over his shoulder, as if the master might already be waiting there to take him into custody.

Nobody had an answer to that question, or at least nobody had an answer they felt comfortable sharing, and when they finally broke up for the night, no words passed between them, only half-hearted shrugs and frightened, uneasy glances.

*               *               *

Azibo paused the story there, and the other birds, still lost in their collective memories of the past, remained silent. Beneath the oak where they’d perched on a branch outside the girl’s house, the world slumbered unaware. At some point, the small suburban street had emptied of cars, the last few straggling workaholics having slipped into bed beside husbands and wives, and the only sounds to be heard were the faint hum of distant traffic and the shrill chorus of nearby crickets.

Azibo, said Kasim in the soundless telepathic voice only the other birds could hear, I… But there was nothing to say, and he trailed off instead. Azibo’s retelling had reminded him of his childish behavior during those long ago days, and he could think of no good way to express his embarrassment.

Azibo, for his part, had no trouble sensing his compatriot’s shame. Once upon a time, he would have delighted in Kasim’s inner-conflict. Now, however, he was an entirely different creature.

You were right, you know. I was a child. A foolish, arrogant child. I shudder to think what I might have become if I’d taken control of the estate.

No one contradicted him. What had started as a simple discussion about the girl and the totem she wore about her wrist had turned into a night of shared truths, a time to confront not only the misfortunes that had lead to their timeless exile in the skies but the mistakes they’d all made and the private darknesses that, for thousands of years, had lain hidden in each of their hearts.

Zane had hopped over to the edge of the branch and was now staring down at the brightly lit city below.

It was my fault, he said without looking up. If I hadn’t gotten involved—

Then the master would have dealt with us sooner, said Azibo. You were there. You know what happened. The Fates made up their minds about us the moment we started plotting against him. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. If I’d had the foresight to realize—

It was nobody’s fault. Rashidi. We all did the best we could given the circumstances, and unless one of us is able to travel through time and warn our past selves, there’s no way we could have known.

Azibo, asked Jahi, would you mind finishing the story? We already know what happened, but the telling feels right. It feels…necessary.

Of course. Azibo didn’t need to ask Jahi what he meant, because he felt it, too. Revisiting the past had become a purifying experience, and like a Catholic holed up in the confessional, a means of absolution. He would have finished whether or not he’d been asked.

That night, Azibo said, I had trouble sleeping. I was worried. My mind kept running in circles. What if the master knew about our plans? What if he wanted to beat us at our own game and catch us by surprise?

I tossed and turned, slipped in and out of bad dreams. Then I heard a sound in the hall outside and came fully awake. For a moment, I thought…

*               *               *

…the master was outside, that he would barge in and arrest him now that everyone else had gone to sleep. And in the shadowy darkness of his room, the lunatic fantasy seemed horrifyingly real. Azibo couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. The master was coming, and there was nothing he could do, nowhere he could run.

Footsteps, muffled but clear, echoed through the tiled hall.

Azibo lay in helpless silence and tried to regulate his breathing, which had just resumed in short chuffing gasps for air. He trained his ears on the sound, and in the midst of his terror, he focused on its rhythm, a steady forward and back that, after a few moments, didn’t seem to have gotten any closer to his door.

In small, almost imperceptible increments, terror gave way to curiosity. Who’s out there? He found himself needing to know the answer, and though it felt reckless—what if that really is the master outside—he closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, hoping to identify the individual by their thoughts.

Unfortunately, the door between them seemed to have muted his ability, and it was impossible for him to get an accurate reading. He could sense only one thing for sure.

Whoever was out there was afraid.

Just like that, the last of Azibo’s own fear dissipated.

Carefully, silently, he set the covers aside and got to his feet. He didn’t want to scare the person away before he got a good look. He crept close to the door, pulled up on the latch—slowly, so as not to make a sound—and when the footsteps seemed closest, only then did he throw the door open and step out.

There, in the middle of the hall, face half shrouded in shadow, was Zane. The young prince had frozen the instant the door opened, and his hand had once more moved to the shenti at his waist.

“Zane?”

The space was illuminated by a single distant torch, and the low light gave the gaunt prince the haunting visage of a ghost. The hand at his waist opened and closed, as if trying to grasp a tool that only he could see, and for a moment the two just stared at one another, neither of them able or willing to turn away.

“What are you doing up so late?”

Still, no answer. But Azibo didn’t need the prince’s words. He again reached out with his mind, and this time, with no door set between them, Zane’s thoughts snapped into focus.

Only, what Azibo heard in the manic stylings of the frightened prince’s psyche could hardly be classified as thoughts. Zane hadn’t expected to be sighted, and one part of his mind scrambled for a way to explain his presence outside Azibo’s chambers while another screamed that he should run away.

…caught…have to get away…will hurt me…won’t believe…have to go…will he do to me?

“It’s okay,” said Azibo, trying to exude a calm and steady composure. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

The hand at Zane’s waist tightened, and was there something hidden there beneath the fabric of his clothes?

The master…if he knows I’ve been wandering the halls at night, if he see this…

The image of a knife flashed through the prince’s thoughts, and at last, Azibo made the connection to the hand at his waist.

Why does he carry a knife?

But the answer seemed obvious enough that he felt no need to probe the prince’s mind further. Clearly, Zane was afraid of what the master might do to him and believed the weapon offered him an edge should he suddenly need to defend himself. If Zane had known the master could read minds, he would have realized the futility of the gesture. Azibo did not voice this fact, however. Instead, he stood in the night-darkened hallway, wondering if the prince would ever speak.

I have an opportunity, he thought. If I can get through to him, if I can make him understand I truly mean no harm, that I’m on his side… Having the heir of another kingdom as an ally would be a huge advantage when Egypt passed into Azibo’s hands.

What should I say next?

Zane wouldn’t be won over in a single night, surely. But this was a crucial juncture, a time of fear and shared vulnerability that might either become the seed of future trust and cooperation or the catalyst that codified Zane’s fear of Azibo forever.

“I sometimes take walks at night myself,” said Azibo after considerable thought. The comment was meant to supply Zane with a plausible explanation for his presence outside Azibo’s chambers. “The master is demanding, sometimes cruel, and after a long day of training, I’m sometimes unable to sleep.”

Still, Zane didn’t speak. But Azibo sensed his words were having an effect, and for a very brief moment, a spark of something like empathy flashed before the prince’s mind. Azibo considered that a victory and decided it was best not to overdo it.

There will be time for us to bond later.

“Well,” he said, feigning exhaustion, “I have a busy day tomorrow and should go back to sleep. I’ll leave you to your walk.” He nodded to let the prince know he’d been dismissed and, without waiting for a reply, turned and closed the door behind him.

*               *               *

The next day, Azibo was busy indeed, though probably not for the reasons Zane would have suspected. The master’s failure to arrive had gotten under his skin at last, and though the notion seemed mad—the others were keeping watch, after all, and would let him know if the man returned—he resolved to search every inch of the estate himself. If the master wasn’t hiding out there already, then at least they could be sure, and if he was…well, then they would cross that bridge when they got there.

Starting with the rooms closest to his chambers, Azibo set out, inwardly noting every empty space. At first, inspecting the sleeping quarters of the servants in secret proved tricky. But Azibo quickly realized he could use his talent to determine whether or not a room was occupied, and if so, return at a later time. Not once did he feel guilty for violating the privacy of others—servants have no privacy—and by midday, he’d sorted through them all.

No sign of the master so far. The search continued.

Azibo inspected the dining hall, the kitchens, the meeting rooms, even the narrow service passages. Still, nothing. He crossed the courtyard outside and entered the barracks, where he ran into Kasim, who only grunted at Azibo’s greeting.

After the barracks, he passed a pair of guards he didn’t know and descended into the dungeon. He’d never been down there before, and the damp, moldering odor that assailed his nostrils the moment the stone walls closed around him made him shudder.

Even worse than the smell was the despair, a thick, cloying miasma that hung thick in the air like fog. He hadn’t been prepared for that poisonous atmosphere, and it took every ounce of his resolve to get to the bottom of the stairs.

There are far too many people down here.

A few had heard the door outside open, and all at once they started shouting. The sound, half mad with longing and desolation, made Azibo want to throw up.

“Please,” said a desperate slat-ribbed woman in rags behind a row of rusty iron bars. “I’ll do anything if you let me out. Anything.

Azibo shuddered and said nothing.

Is this where the arrested servants were taken? Azibo wondered if they, too, would become sacrificial offerings to ward off the master’s death and decided he didn’t want to know.

The smell, the despair, the endless shouting were too much for him, and he moved quickly, making only a cursory examination of each cell. He held a hand over his nose the entire time to block the smell, and when he was satisfied the master wasn’t there, he bolted up the stairs two at a time and vomited in the yard outside.

*               *               *

Only when he’d been everywhere else did Azibo finally turn his attention to the master’s study. After his harrowing experience in the dungeon, he was reticent to violate the sanctity of the off-limits room. Even now, he quailed before the thick red door. But the sun was already hanging low in the sky, bloated and sickly like rotten fruit, and he knew if he didn’t go now, he never would.

He looked up and down the hall twice, licking his lips, then knocked.

“Master, are you in there? It’s me, Azibo.”

On the off chance he was there, Azibo hoped the greeting would spare him the man’s wrath for his uninvited presence.

“I need to talk to you, if it’s all right. If I could just—”

Startled, Azibo realized he did in fact sense something. There was no reply, of course—he hadn’t really expected one—but he’d felt the vague outline of a presence on the other side of the door that made him sick with fear.

The master?

“Sir, I—”

But there was nothing else to say. He had to see who or what was on the other side of that door, even if he got in trouble, even if… Azibo pushed that line of thinking aside. If the man was there, he could read Azibo’s thoughts, and Azibo didn’t want him to know he was afraid.

He paused for a moment to steady his breathing, to calm the troubled waters of his mind. Then, at last, when he was calm and collected, he opened the door.

Azibo started.

The room was empty. Whoever or whatever he’d felt across the threshold was nowhere to be seen. Had he imagined it? He was anxious, stressed, and likely to jump at the faintest of shadows. But that presence, however vague and ill-defined, had certainly felt real.

Azibo hesitated before stepping inside.

He circled the study three times, but all he saw was an empty desk with two brown chairs, shelved books, instruments he didn’t recognize, and a set of miniature marble figurines.

I really am alone.

The sense that someone was there had gone, dispersed like a thin morning mist, and Azibo concluded with a heavy sigh of relief that it must really have been just nerves. He paused by the master’s empty chair for a moment, reflecting on the cold, calculating way the man had regarded him during their last meeting, then exited the room feeling ten pounds lighter.

*               *               *

That night, Azibo and the others gathered for a meeting.

“He’s not here,” he said when everyone arrived. There was no need to say who he was. “I’ve searched the entire estate.”

The door to Azibo’s room was closed, and if not for the torch mounted on the wall, the spartan space would have been pitch black.

“Is it possible he’s fled?” asked Rashidi. “Maybe he isn’t coming back.”

“I find that unlikely,” said Jahi. “You don’t know him the way I do. I’ve served him for years. I’ve watched him scheme and manipulate his way into positions of great power. There’s no way he’d give all that up now.”

“Maybe he’s sick. Maybe his paranoia was the symptom of a degenerative disease that’s run its course.”

“Maybe,” said Jahi, “but again, unlikely.”

Azibo had been following the course of their conversation when he’d sensed…something—an almost imperceptible change in the atmosphere, a subtle shift in the energies that surrounded them—and abruptly lost focus. He lashed out with his mind, hoping to catch whatever it was by surprise, and for a moment, like a dim flash in the dark, he could almost see it. But it was gone so quickly that Azibo was left wondering if he might be chasing phantoms. He considered the feeling a moment longer, uneasy, then put it out of his mind.

“I’m tired of standing around,” he said when the next lull in the conversation arrived. “How long are we going to sit here waiting for the master to return? We need to do something.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Jahi.

All eyes were on him now. Azibo hefted the thoughts and feelings of the room in his mind, and to his surprise, he realized they took him seriously—even Kasim—and that they were willing to consider what he had to say.

I can do this, he thought. I can be their leader.

“I say we forget about the master. He might return, or he might not. We can continue to cower in the dark like mewling infants, or we can take charge by virtue of his absence.

“Jahi, Rashidi, you and I already enjoy some measure of authority. With the master gone, we’re more or less in charge already. If he doesn’t return, we inherit the estate by default. If he does… Well, then we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Either way, I’m done being scared.”

For the first time in their entire conspiracy, there were no political motives underpinning Azibo’s words. What he’d said had been a statement of pure and simple truth. He was tired of being afraid, and he would be afraid no longer.

The words seemed to resonate with the others, and he could feel their dawning realization that he was right, that, for the time being at least, they already had all the power they needed. Azibo had immersed himself in their thoughts, wondering how to begin the long and arduous task of bending them to his will, when the door crashed open and the master sauntered in.

To be continued…

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“Totem, Part 12” Coming Next Week!

On Wednesdays, I ordinarily post a piece of flash fiction. This week, however, I’ve been busy preparing for the release of Totem, Part 12. It’s going up next Wednesday morning, so be sure to look out for it! 🙂

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