Balthor

Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on November 29, 2017.

It calls itself Balthor.

A being of indeterminate form, a fleshless apparition that stalks the cosmos like a wraith. Where, how, or when the name came about, it cannot remember, nor does it care. It has only one desire, a single driving force that’s guided its malignant actions from the moment time began.

Prey.

Like a poisonous vine, it sends out runners, undulating fibers of energy that crisscross the universe in an intricate network of overlapping threads. Reaching. Searching. Probing for life.

Earth.

It’s one of the many worlds Balthor has encountered over the course of its ancient life, and it teems with organisms of every sort. Balthor quivers with desire. Long has it been since Balthor has fed. Hunger ravages its incorporeal shell. Now, at last, it has found a world filled with light, with hope, with love—with all the things it lacks in itself, yet requires in order to survive.

Its runners close around the glowing planet until its light begins to dim. Slow at first, Earth’s inhabitants don’t notice anything is wrong. Yet their trust in each other fades. Love ebbs, and in the spreading darkness, selfishness and insecurity take root.

Soon, Earth has grown accustomed to the darkness, and Balthor, no longer needing to take it slow, gorges. It drains the Earth of every good; like a cosmic vampire, it leaves behind only a cold and empty vacuum in its wake.

Earth cannot survive for long, but what does Balthor care? It will feed, and when Earth has withered and died, it will move on, just as it always has.

Such has always been its nature, and such will its nature remain.

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The Patron

Joseph/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on May 15, 2016.

The patron watches his young artist paint, follows the brush with his eyes as it whisks back and forth, back and forth over the canvas in the dim light of a one-room studio. It brings him joy to see his artist so wrapped up in his work.

It means that he can feed.

When people think of vampires, they invariably imagine sharp-fanged creatures of the night who prowl the Earth in search of human blood. And that is certainly one type. But vampires are a diverse group, similar only in their universal need to feed. Some dine on emotion. Others on ambition and greed. Still others on strength and vitality.

The patron is unique. His staple is creativity.

He lures frustrated artists to his tiny studio apartment with promises of patronage and recognition. Over the centuries, he’s learned just the right strings to pull: a subtle combination of inspiration, desperation, and urgency that always gets humans banging down his door, begging for his help. He lays at their feet the tools they require for their work, and he watches while they offer themselves up as a living sacrifice for their art.

He hovers over them unseen, imbibes the creative energies that flow from their bodies like rivers of milk and honey. All the while, they grow more intense in their study, more focused, until the effort finally kills them.

The pieces his victims produce are always masterpieces, works of rare genius that in other hands might change the world. But the patron throws them all away. He has no use for such things.

Now, sweat pops from the forehead of his latest acquisition like drops of dew. The artist’s eyes go wide as he labors to get a single feather stroke of the brush just right. He reaches out, arms rigid, hands shaking, then gasps and topples head-first into the canvas.

It is in the wake of the artist’s final sacrifice that his patron climaxes. He tosses back his head, shuts his eyes, and lets wave after wave of pleasure overtake him.

A timeless moment passes in the throes of the artist’s dying passion. Then the patron approaches his lifeless body. He’ll dispose of the dead painter and his work, sleep for a decade or two, then look for someone new.

It won’t be hard. The world is full of frustrated artists.

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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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Scarecrow

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This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

Quick note: Totem, Part 11 will be posted on November 7 🙂

The scarecrow stands guard over the old man’s crops, scaring away the birds with his perennial jack-o-lantern grin. Fashioned out of straw, burlap and hand-me-down overalls, life in the field is all he’s ever known. Once he was loyal to the old farmer, but no longer.

The farmer ignored him, left him to the elements for months at a time without acknowledgement. The scarecrow’s heart spoiled under the hot mid-western sun, and now all he can think of is revenge.

The farmer thought it would be clever to arm him with a rusty scythe he found in the barn. “Heh,” he cackled one drunken afternoon. “That’ll scare them birds good!”

Today, before dusk, he’ll come to check on his corn, and when he turns back to the house, the scarecrow will follow with the very same scythe, a tool that was once used by the farmer’s ancestors to harvest wheat. Only this time, the scarecrow will flash his most dazzling jack-o-lantern grin, raise the blade into the air, and reap a different kind of harvest.

Happy Halloween!

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The Enemy Within

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This post was originally published through Patreon on December 5, 2016.

Emily trembled in the dark. She was not alone.

“You can’t get rid of me so easily,” her demon snarled, a writhing mass of black. “You’re not strong enough.”

It had controlled her for most of her life. It was the power behind her throne, the puppeteer that pulled her strings from beyond the shadows.

“You hurt me,” Emily whispered.

Her demon didn’t reply, only issued a rumbling laugh that shook the world around her.

“You used me.”

Her heart pumped like a piston, her hands were sweat-soaked sponges, and the world tilted and began to spin. But she would not let this creature consume her. It thrived on her anxiety and fear, and there was nothing else for her to do but cut the cord.

Something in her features must have caught her demon’s attention, because it stopped laughing.

“What are you going to do?”

By way of reply, Emily pulled a knife. It caught the glimmer of a distant light and seemed to burst in a white pyrotechnic flash. She hiked up her shirt and looked down.

Beneath, attached to her clammy pallid skin, was a shadow blacker than the dark that connected her to her demon like an unholy umbilical cord. She seized it with her other hand. The knife hovered, ready to cut.

“It would hurt both of us,” her demon rasped. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But Emily would. She’d had enough, and she hesitated for just a moment before thrusting the blade down.

Both screamed. Emily and her demon threw back their heads as one and howled like mortally wounded animals. Through the bond they shared, each could feel the other. Fear rebounded, a feedback loop of mounting trauma that nearly destroyed them both.

Then there was a snap and Emily recoiled.

She smacked hard into the wall behind her, and a single starburst of pain drove her to to her knees. When it began to subside and she finally had the chance to catch her breath, she examined the skin beneath her shirt once more.

Clean. Her skin, in fact, had already started to fill with color. She gazed up, terrified the creature might be waiting to pull her back. But this time, Emily was alone.

Taking a deep breath, Emily let her face fall into her hands and cried.


George, a junior high school janitor, struggles to protect his disabled twin Bill from an otherworldly evil. In the process, he discovers a startling secret about his brother—one that leaves him questioning decades-old assumptions and wondering which of them truly is the stronger half.

Purchase your copy of The Stronger Half today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover editions! Signed and discounted copies are also available through my Gumroad store 🙂

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Death of a Fire Starter

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A ring of fire surrounds her. Its heat rises in bright, shimmering waves, baking her skin. How long does she have left? Three minutes? Five? Samantha draws into herself, wracks her brain for any opportunity to escape. But she knows death is inevitable.

All around her, hooded men and women stand at a safe distance, flickering as if ghosts.

“You knew the price of disobedience,” they told her before lighting the fire.

Samantha did, and if she’d been given the choice again, she would have done the same. If the Fire Starters had been able to forge ahead with their original plan, thousands of innocents would have burned.

The Fire Starters have always been her family. They took her in when she was a child and raised her as their own. For all their grievous faults, they were good to her, and choosing to betray them was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do.

She knew their history. She understood the crucible of relentless persecution in which the Fire Starters were transformed into the despots they are today. As she grew older, she tried to open their eyes, to show them a better way of living.

But when they decided to burn a city for refusing to pay them tribute, she knew no amount of reasoning would be enough to stop them. So she warned the population ahead of time, and when the Fire Starters came to destroy them, they found the city deserted.

Her only worry now as she burns to death—as she scents her hair smoking at the tips—is for the rest of the world. What will they do when their only advocate among the Fire Starters is dead?

And then it occurs to her. Perhaps she can’t save herself. But maybe, if she can find the strength within her—if she can intensify the flames—she can take her family with her.

She reaches for the Spark—the primordial power within as well as the source of every fire—and finds it waiting, as bright and fulminating as it was the day the Fire Starters taught her how to reach for it. She takes hold of it now and pairs it to the flames already blazing around her.

The fire responds at once, resonates with the fire within herself. The flames intensify, wild tongues reaching for the twilit sky, and she feeds it with all her remaining strength.

She hears their startled screams and knows she’s done it, that there’s no way they’ll be able to escape. They’re surrounded, just as she’s surrounded. Her own life is nearly extinguished, her vision turning black like her soon to be charred remains, but at least she’ll go with the knowledge that she was able to take them with her, that she was able to save the world from their wicked rule.

Let’s go, she thinks, into the fire we ourselves started.

Awareness gutters, and Samantha slips into the dark.

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Fighting the Shadow

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It reaches out from the depths of space—creeping, feeling, groping for purchase. Like a poisonous vine, like a venomous serpent, it trawls the cosmic waters in search of prey.

Until today, my people were out of reach. Until today, the Builders protected us. Until today, all was well with our world.

Until today.

When the walls came down, when our once protected corner of the universe became contaminated by the darkness from the outside, panic reigned.

How could such a thing have happened, and why?

We sent our strongest warriors to petition the Builders for help in mending the breach. But once they passed beyond our borders, they were never seen again.

Now, I’m the only one of our people left, the sole surviving remnant of a once proud and sprawling civilization. Such tragedy. I cannot bear it.

My loved ones, dead.

My world, consumed.

Despair has taken root in the chaos that was once an able mind, and I can feel the Shadow’s tendrils reaching inside of me, eager to consume the last remaining crumb.

I cannot let it win.

No! I won’t let you have me!

Oh, no? comes its reply.

A war ensues, a battle that rages on as the universe tilts and tumbles, as time processes through an uncountable number of eons and epochs.

I am broken—easy prey, it must have thought on the eve of battle—and am always on the brink of annihilation. I am saved from tumbling off sanity’s bottomless ledge by sheer will power alone.

I am almost spent, and I can feel the Shadow’s laugh as it prepares to swallow my shattered soul and end our ageless struggle for good. But I hold, because I know something the Shadow does not.

The Builders are coming.

I can see them on the horizon, a resplendent light that rekindles my weary heart with hope. The Shadow cannot see them. Its focus is on me, and all I have to do is keep it occupied long enough for them to arrive.

So I hold.

And I hold.

And I hold.

My redemption is at hand, if only I can stand long enough to survive.

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Cycle’s End

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The sun: so bright, so warm against Tolvar’s skin. It feels good, feels right. To think, it’s been a thousand years since he saw it last. The world has changed since then. Where it was once covered in grassy knolls and sprawling forests, it now sprouts towering glass buildings and endless asphalt roads. A glittering cosmic jewel, the Earth, yet a jewel with a significant flaw.

Tolvar’s seen the news. He understands what so many others do not, that humanity is just as petty, just as tribalistic as it was a thousand years ago. He can sense the constant animosity and tension as if they’re a noxious gas poisoning the atmosphere, and he knows the well being of the world hangs by a single thread.

Well, what’s the modern saying Tolvar’s become so fond of? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course, things won’t remain the same once he’s had his way with the world.

Oh no.

He almost succeeded the last time, and if Andric hadn’t intervened, the world would have burned.

“Give them time,” Andric said, and Tolvar couldn’t argue, for his cycle had come to an end and it was his brother’s turn to rule. Well, now the reign of Andric—of saintly, human-loving Andric—is over, and Tolvar’s restoration is at hand.

He approaches a small white house in a quiet neighborhood and knocks on the door. A moment later, an old man answers.

“Is it time already?” The old man (Andric) sighs.

“Yes, brother.”

“Be kind to them.”

“Of course.”

But both men know there will be no peace until the cycle starts anew.

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The Dance

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This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

They came from beyond the horizon, endless columns of armored soldiers backed by billowing plumes of dark gray soot. Rusted helmets and breast plates gleamed beneath a sky of blood, while moth-ridden flesh festered in great open wounds. Brandishing shield and sword, they pressed forward, forming an impenetrable wall.

Meanwhile, the last remnant of humanity stood atop a ledge of stone, an elderly man donning a flowing robe of dazzling white. His face was a warren of dried up lines where the tears had etched his skin. Blue eyes glistened when he spied the advancing army in the distance. There was some distance left for them to close, yet he could already feel their dead eyes upon him, eager for his own demise, eager for an end to the dominion of men.

The sound of marching boots boomed with increasing volume, and when they finally stopped, an eerie silence descended on the desert below. The man stood defiantly before them, and they glared back up at him with a hatred for everything that lived. He heaved a slow, weary sigh, peered into the heavens, and began to dance.

Hands outstretched, he pulled at unseen strings, arms swooping in and out, forward and back as he moved with agile grace along the ledge. Below, the land rose and fell in waves, undead soldiers scrambling out of formation as great pillars of stone rose and fell beneath their feet. Some were impaled. Others were tossed against the rocks.

He began to twirl, his robe gently stroking the ledge, and the air below began to moan, coalescing into a storm of sand and dust. He thrust his arms forward, and the billowing wind charged into the mass of remaining soldiers. Stones and debris pelted down on them, knocking them backward, their sun-bleached bones crashing into the walls and bursting into clouds of dust.

He leaped into the air, pushing down as he landed, and below the earth began to quake. He moved his arms up and out, and below the earth split in two, tearing open along a jagged seam. Bodies tipped and fell, smashing into the ground below.

He finished with a pirouette, swept his arms outward with his head held low, and below flames erupted from the ground, scorching everything that remained.

He opened his eyes, looked down, and gazed at the battered bones and smoldering flesh. Humanity was saved. He made a formal bow, spared the carnage below a final parting glance, and turned back the way he’d come.

The dance was done.

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Totem, Part 10

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

The question Jahi had asked himself in the boy’s chambers returned to him as he stalked through the empty hallway to his own room.

What am I supposed to do now?

The entire world had turned on its head, and Jahi no longer knew right from wrong. Hadn’t he taken an oath to serve the master, and hadn’t he accomplished spectacular things at his side? All of Egypt was now mostly under their control, with the Pharaoh its ruler more or less in name only, and Jahi had been an instrumental part of that success. Even some of the surrounding lands had begun to accede to the master’s will, at least in small matters. One of these other nations had even sent a dignitary as a show of good will: a young prince named Zane.

Was it good that the master had consolidated so much power? This was a question Jahi had asked himself before, and until today, he’d believed the answer was yes. A world united was a world in order, after all, and a world in order was a world that prospered.

Now he wondered.

If the way the master treated his servants and advisers when he was afraid—with cruelty and suspicion—was any indication of how he would treat humanity as a whole, then the world was headed for catastrophe. And to think, all those years of earned trust hadn’t saved him from the man’s suspicions.

“Would you betray me, too?” the master had asked a couple days ago, eyes wild, lips turned up in a vicious sneer. This, when only some months prior, he’d entrusted Jahi with his secret—that he could read minds—and had tasked him with helping discover who it was who shared this ability and was thus a rival to his power. Jahi had been harboring doubts already, and the master had surely sensed them in his thoughts. Yet he should have also been able to see that, even then, Jahi remained a loyal man. But the master had dismissed him without a second thought, as if he were nothing but a lowly slave, unworthy of the honor and dignity once shown to him. “Go!” the master spat. “Get out of my sight.” The curt dismissal had stung like a slap.

Jahi’s thoughts following the incident had turned almost mutinous. Yet still he’d hesitated. It wasn’t just that a part of him still felt he owed the master fealty. There was also the practical matter that was impossible to ignore: that the master held all the cards; that the master, as powerful as he was, could not be removed from power so easily.

And what of little Azibo? So young, yet Jahi saw in him a younger version of the same cruel leader. The same cunning, the same calculation. Crude, perhaps, and unrefined, but traits that might well bloom in his adult years. And the way the boy had seemed to anticipate everything Jahi was thinking…

“Keep your eyes open,” the master had told him when he revealed his hidden talent. “See if anyone appears unusually perceptive, if anyone seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it. I suspect the guilty party is close, maybe even one of my advisers.”

Had the master come to suspect Azibo? In light of their discussion, Jahi had his own suspicions.

He came to a stop before the entrance to his room, the flickering light of a nearby torch projecting furtive shadows on the night-darkened walls.

What am I supposed to do now?

Jahi entered his room, the question heavy in the air around him, and closed the door.

*               *               *

Rashidi.

It was Jahi’s first thought when he awoke the following morning, just as Jahi had been Azibo’s first thought a day prior. The man was a friend. They’d journeyed many times together at the master’s behest and had gotten to know each other well over the years. He was an honorable man—a good man—and Jahi believed that even in times of great distress, if push came to shove, he would pursue the most noble path. He was someone Jahi felt he could confide in, and that was important right now, because his head was spinning so fast he couldn’t make heads or tails of anything.

And there was another reason Rashidi might be the ideal person to speak to right now: He was in charge of the master’s guards. Once he’d been a soldier, but the master had offered him better pay and more luxurious accommodations in exchange for his allegiance. If Rashidi was the kind of man Jahi thought him to be, then he might be an ally should Jahi choose to join forces with Azibo.

But he couldn’t come right out and say so. To do so—to acknowledge any doubt about the master whatsoever without first having a clear insight into Rashidi’s intentions—would be to court disaster. These were uncertain times, and who knew how he might react? Hadn’t Jahi himself considered reporting Azibo, and might not Rashidi consider the same? If Azibo could indeed read minds, then Jahi envied him.

No, he couldn’t afford to lay all his cards on the table just yet. He shook his head, as if doing so might clear the fog that clouded his mind. He would proceed cautiously, and if the matter did come up—if Jahi had an opportunity to speak his mind—he would have to pray the man was as honorable and upright as he believed.

*               *               *

For the next two days, Jahi did exactly that: proceeded cautiously. He would sit with the man for a drink, or stop to greet him whenever they passed each other in the halls. Each time they had a chance to talk, he would say little things to try and gauge his reaction, to try and anticipate how Rashidi might respond if he were to ask the man for his help. It felt as if he were already conspiring with Azibo, even though, strictly speaking, he hadn’t yet decided.

Only he realized, after further reflection, that this wasn’t precisely true. In fact, he’d decided the moment he chose not to turn in Azibo, which already placed him at odds with the master’s command that he report any suspicious activity immediately. Though the master was away for the time being and wouldn’t yet know of Jahi’s treachery, he would certainly peer into his mind and learn of it when he returned.

Rashidi, for his part, sensed that something was wrong at once, and he seemed keen to uncover Jahi’s true intentions. There was a reason the master had placed him in charge. He was perceptive, and whenever Jahi let something slip, he could feel Rashidi weighing his words, searching for the hidden meaning behind them. Their frequent encounters had become almost a dance, a back and forth exchange of small talk and idle ramblings that never quite hinted at deeper motives but never quite ruled them out. A vague curiosity here, a mildly troubling statement there. Until the third day, when the two sat down over a drink to unwind.

Things moved quickly after that.

*               *               *

“Something’s troubling you, and I want you to tell me what it is.”

Jahi and Rashidi were sitting on the steps of the main house’s back entrance, passing a wineskin filled with beer back and forth as the sun crept closer to the horizon. The statement had been so direct that Jahi didn’t understand its meaning right away.

“What do you mean?” He lifted the wineskin to his lips and took a long, deep swig.

Rashidi peered at him sideways. “We’ve worked together a long time. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Just like that, Jahi’s heart jumped into his throat. This was the conversation he’d been working up his courage for, the conversation he’d been waiting for. Why wasn’t he relieved it was finally happening? Because he wasn’t ready, that was why.

Oh Rashidi, don’t ask me about this yet.

But if they didn’t talk now, then when? Tomorrow? Next week? The longer they waited, the more likely it was that the master would return, and then it would be too late. He had to be strong and get through this. Still, he couldn’t come right out and say it. He had to be cautious.

“I’m fine.”

Another swig of beer.

The patronizing gaze Rashidi turned on him in reply—as if Jahi were a child trying to convince his parents he hadn’t just broken all the dishes in the kitchen, even though he was standing on the shelf with busted pottery shards at his feet—made Jahi’s cheeks redden.

“Please. I’m not stupid.”

“No,” Jahi agreed. “You’re certainly not that.”

So, this was it: a test, both of their friendship and of Rashidi’s good nature. Please, thought Jahi. Please, be a good man. For all our sakes, be a good man.

Jahi took one last swig of beer, then sat for a moment in silence beside his friend as the dusky orange light of the setting sun ushered in the night.

“You’re a good man,” Jahi said, hoping his words had the power to make it true. “I trust you. Do you trust me?”

Rashidi’s brows furrowed.

“Trust you? Of course, Jahi. How many years have we served together? I’ve always known you to be truthful and honorable. I would trust you with my life.”

Jahi nodded. He wanted to believe it was safe to pour his heart out to Rashidi, that he could unburden himself without fear of reprisal. If Jahi told him he no longer trusted the master, would Rashidi still trust him?

“You see…” Jahi paused to weigh his words before continuing. “Do you trust the master?” There it was. He was laying all the cards on the table, regardless of the consequences.

Even by torchlight, it seemed Rashidi’s face paled, and for a moment, Jahi was sure he’d miscalculated, that the man would clap him in irons at once. The two sat beneath the rapidly darkening sky, both afraid to speak for some time after.

Finally, Rashidi broke the silence.

“Elaborate.”

And elaborate Jahi did. He told Rashidi everything, or almost everything. He left out the part about the master’s ability to read minds—absurdly, he was still afraid to violate that secret, never mind that he was openly plotting against the master now. But he spoke at length of how Azibo had approached him, and of how he himself had already harbored his own doubts, not just of the master’s intentions but also of his sanity. He was terrified to reveal this to Rashidi without knowing how the man would react, but once it started coming out, it all surged out of his mouth in a rush. Like the Nile river after a catastrophic flood, the words flowed out of him so fast, he scarcely had time to think about what he was saying.

Finally, he got to the part where he’d considered talking to Rashidi. Jahi pointed out that while he trusted him, he was still afraid to voice his concerns for fear that Rashidi might do his duty and turn him in. A slow, thin smile bloomed across the man’s mouth: a grim, conspiratorial gesture that told Jahi even before Rashidi spoke that the man was on his side.

“You were smart to be afraid,” Rashidi said when Jahi finished his story. “But I’m glad you told me.”

“And what do you think now that you know?” The empty wineskin began to tremble in Jahi’s hands, and no amount of steadying could keep it still.

The man glanced back to see if anyone was listening, then replied, “You said the master’s away?”

Jahi nodded.

“Then We’ll talk tonight in your chambers after everyone’s asleep.”

Jahi didn’t know how to feel—if he should be reassured or terrified now that things were set in motion that could no longer be stopped. Rashidi clapped him on the shoulder as he so often did at the end of a shared mission, then disappeared inside, leaving Jahi alone to brood in the blossoming darkness.

*               *               *

Jahi sat atop his bed that night, propped at an angle and carved in the same feline style of Azibo’s. Speaking of the boy, he’d spotted him that evening. The two had been avoiding each other since Azibo’s plea for an alliance, and when they made eye contact across the hall, the awkward silence that followed made them each turn their separate ways. Jahi would have to talk to him soon and make things right. But first, he had to meet with Rashidi.

As if the thought were a summons, there came a muffled knock at the door. Jahi’s heart climbed into his throat once more. What if Rashidi had just been humoring him so he could make a quiet arrest later when no one was around to witness it? He didn’t think Rashidi would lie, but even now, he couldn’t say for sure.

When he opened the door and saw not only Rashidi, but two other men beside him, each holding shining shields and spears, he was certain this was precisely what would happen.

Rashidi, how could you betray me?

But then the man in question nodded, and when Jahi threw him a questioning look, Rashidi turned to each of the two men and said, “They’re with us. You can trust them.”

And trust them Jahi did, because he trusted Rashidi, and Rashidi was not a man for whom trust came easily.

Jahi invited them to take a seat on the bed, then paced across the dark stone floor. A torch flickered in an iron sconce embedded in the far wall, and in its dim penumbra of light, Jahi discerned the two men’s features.

“This,” said Rashidi, pointing to the one on his left, “is Kasim. And this,” he continued, now gesturing to the one on his right, “is Chibale. Both are excellent guards as well as soldiers. They’ve expressed similar reservations to the ones you and I share, and I’ve asked them to be a part of this.”

A part of what? Mutiny, that’s what. Mutiny and rebellion. Jahi was so deep in it now—and to think that only a few days ago, he’d been nothing but a humble diplomat, with no more personal ambition than a moth. But this wasn’t about ambition. This was about survival.

Once he’d admitted to himself that he was headed down the path of betrayal, he’d tried to convince himself it was for the common good of Egypt, that he was looking out for the people’s best interests. But that wasn’t true, or at least it wasn’t Jahi’s primary motivation. It was the simple knowledge that, given enough time, he would succumb to the master’s suspicions. Better to take the master out before he could take them out. Wasn’t that the gist of Azibo’s argument? And while Rashidi himself was an unusually selfless individual, Jahi guessed that he, too, was influenced in no small part by the good old-fashioned instinct for survival.

Jahi offered each of the unfamiliar men an introductory nod.

“I’m Jahi. It’s good to meet you.”

That was it for a while. The gravity of what would soon unfold in the privacy of the room cast a somber pall over their tiny party.

“Each of us is here,” Rashidi said when the quiet grew exceedingly uncomfortable, “because we have a common problem in need of a solution.”

They all focused on him at once. Such a knack for leadership, thought Jahi. It was a skill that he, though not jealous, had always admired in the master. Now, here was plain and simple Rashidi, exercising a similar kind of charisma—a calm, authoritative countenance that turned both heads and minds. But unlike the master, he didn’t need to read their minds to know how to pull their strings. How would the world be different, Jahi wondered, if Rashidi were in charge instead?

“But before we continue, before we each take the grave risk of acknowledging this problem in the open, we must each swear that nothing of what we discuss tonight will make it outside this room, no matter the consequences.”

Jahi recognized Rashidi’s tactic and nodded his approval. Yes, the man was indeed a natural born leader. In the absence of any formal declarations, each of them would privately retain the right to change their mind at a later time. Surely, they still had doubts about what they were doing (even Jahi hadn’t rid himself of them entirely), and under such circumstances, a man undecided was a man who was dangerous.

But there was a secret all the world’s greatest leaders understood, a powerful principle of persuasion that politicians and businessmen alike had taken advantage of for centuries: To give voice to a promise or a pledge, no matter how tenuous or riddled with doubt, was to evoke an instant and lasting sense of commitment. Even if one didn’t have any intention of honoring it, the pressure to be consistent would weight heavily on their shoulders.

“I promise,” Jahi said at once, hoping to get the ball rolling, “that what we discuss tonight will stay between us.” A pause, and then he amended, “That is, between us and Azibo.”

Rashidi nodded. “Fair enough. And I promise the same.” He turned to the others. “How about you? Kasim? Chibale? Do you swear, too?”

“I do,” answered Kasim.

“And I as well.”

“Good. Then that’s settled.” Rashidi swiped a slick of sweat from his brow. “I suppose now it’s safe for us to name the reason for our gathering, before we make any specific plans.”

“The master.” Jahi peered at each of them in turn. “He’s crazy. In the span of just few weeks, I’ve gone from being his most favored adviser to an object of suspicion. If he doesn’t go, I don’t think any of us will live much longer.”

“Agreed,” Rashidi said.

The other two also nodded.

“We’ve dragged more than a dozen servants to face the master’s wrath in the past two weeks alone,” said Chibale, “some for no more reason than a hushed whisper or a nervous glance backward when they thought no one was looking.”

All four dropped their heads at that. They’d let this go on for too long, and people had died because of it.

We need to bring in Azibo,” said Jahi.

“Can we trust him?” Kasim narrowed his eyes.

“He was the one who spoke to me first. If he hadn’t made me stop and think about what was happening, I’m not sure any of us would be together now.”

“But what use can he be to us? He’s just a boy.”

“He knows things about the master, things I myself wouldn’t have had the means to find out otherwise. For instance, Azibo told me the master’s gone away.”

“What?” Kasim stood, as if the unknown fact were an affront to his dignity and station. “He didn’t tell any of us.”

“No,” Rashidi mused, “he didn’t. And with good reason, apparently. Jahi, what else does the boy know?”

Jahi shrugged. “Lots of things. The boy is…perceptive.” He thought back to the masterful way Azibo had played on his emotions.

Rashidi nodded. “Then I agree with Jahi that we should include him in our plans.”

“Fine.” Kasim grumbled something else, but it was too low for them to hear.

“I passed him in the hall a short time ago,” said Jahi. “He should still be awake, and the sooner we speak, the better.”

“Then we should go now,” Rashidi answered.

And just like that, Jahi, Kasim, and Chibale rose to their feet to follow after him.

A wonderful leader, thought Jahi. Again, he compared him to the master. He would make a noble replacement.

Alas, Rashidi’s assumption to power was not to be.

Read part 11 here.

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