Elemental

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In the end, it was the wind that betrayed him. It had seen him make his way across the mountains, seen him hike for seven days and seven nights through the dark and the cold and the hail and the rain, and when he faced them down one by one and prevailed, the wind had swooped in to put a stop to what he was doing before it was too late.

The Elementals were cruel, wicked masters, and they lorded their dominion of the world over humanity with a singularly vicious resolve. Stretching across land and sea, these incorporeal entities of Fire, Earth, Water and Air punished any who defied them. Their message was clear: The world belonged to them.

Only now, Simon stood up to challenge their authority.

The entrance to the Eiolin Cave stood not a hundred feet away, yet the wind rose up all around him in a deadly column of air to cut off access. Now that it had him in its grip, it would never let him go.

But Simon maintained hope.

“Did you actually think you could win?”

The wind’s thunderous voice boomed through him, swirling, howling, whistling as it let him feel the full force of its apocalyptic power.

“Stupid human. You’ve forgotten your place, and now I’ll have to teach you what happens when you cross an Elemental.”

The wind transformed, taking on the form of a massive tornado.

Simon had never before felt his limitations so keenly. It was like being swallowed by the Earth itself. But he held himself from the brink of despair by that single, silent thread of hope that continued to burn in his mind like a solar flare. He understood that he himself would never witness mankind’s deliverance, but what did that matter? He was old and tired, and as long as he accomplished what he’d set out to do, it would be enough.

His answer to the wind’s statement came slowly.

“I don’t know about winning,” said Simon. “All I intended was to do my best.”

He thought the gale around him changed in some imperceptible way. Now, it seemed tinged with a malicious, bloodlusty mirth.

“Your best?” the wind replied. “Your best couldn’t possibly be good enough.”

He stole a look at the cave’s entrance. Inside, deep underground, was the source of the Elementals’ power. Even now, surrounded by the wind, he prayed he wasn’t too late.

Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain.

“Maybe not,” Simon said and shrugged his shoulders. “But we humans are a stubborn lot. We value freedom over life itself. Better to die free than to live in servitude.”

A piercing flute of air slapped his back, and he bit back a strangled cry. No, he would not give this wretched being the pleasure of watching him sob like a child. He would go out a man, tall, proud, and one hundred percent in control of himself.

The wind drew more injuries. It wouldn’t let him die quickly, oh no, but that was all right—all for the better, in fact. With each blow, with each letting of fresh, cherry-hued blood, Simon snuck more furtive glances at the cave’s entrance.

Just a moment or two longer, he hoped. And as if the prayer were a cue, the wind stopped beating him.

“What are you looking at?” It was curious now, and there was something else in the tone of its voice, too, something Simon had never heard from its kind before. “I feel strange, weak, like—” And then it fell silent, and Simon, understanding now that his mission had been a success, angled his head toward the clouds and uttered his thanks to the Good Steward above.

Jerome had made it! Simon was never meant to go inside, of course. But Jerome, silent and invisible Jerome (made so by a glamour Simon devised himself) had shadowed him the entire journey.

Alone, the Elementals might have seen through the glamour, invisibility or no invisibility. But because Simon had gone along with the boy in plain sight, the Elementals would have only seen him, a foolish old man on a suicidal journey to the fabled Eiolin Cave.

If the wind had had eyes, Simon was sure they would have gone wide with realization.

“You weren’t alone,” it bellowed. “You weren’t alone!”

The shriek  that followed made Simon’s ears ring until the terrible ghost sense was so loud, so Earth-shatteringly complete, that he knew he’d gone deaf.

That was all right. Once more, he remembered that he’d never intended to complete the journey. The world belonged to Jerome’s generation now, as well as their descendants. Would they build a better place for themselves when the Elementals were gone? He didn’t know—the wind had been right about one thing: humans were stupid—but he could hope.

“Freedom,” Simon muttered, not hearing the sound of his voice, only feeling the shapes of the word on his lips.

As the wind used the rest of its waning power to usher him into the next life, Simon turned his head upward once more and asked the Good Steward to guide him home.

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Totem, Part 9

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

“What about the master?” asked Jahi when he and Azibo had sequestered themselves in the boy’s chambers.

The small room was spartan, windowless, and would have been pitch black if Azibo hadn’t used one of the torches outside to light some candles. A low bed stood against one of the far walls—a simple wood furnishing with feline paws for legs, a woolen mattress, and linen sheets—while the straight-backed chair Azibo once sat in to meditate stood against the other.

Azibo didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to take the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress, and proceeded to stare at the diplomat until the man fidgeted in his seat.

He’s just as frightened as I am, thought Azibo. But still, he was afraid to speak. He’d seen fear do strange things to people, and though he’d peered into Jahi’s mind on more than one occasion and knew he was just as concerned about the master as Azibo was, one wrong move might send Jahi scrambling to report him. He had to tread carefully.

Azibo opened his mind for a moment, hoping to use whatever the man was thinking as a launching point for their conversation.

How long? Jahi thought. How long before the master comes for me, too? He’s crazy. I served him faithfully for years, and still, he suspects me as much as anyone else.

The master was suspicious of Jahi? That was a revelation. A guilty hope sparked within Azibo. If that was true, it meant the master’s suspicions were more general in nature and not aimed toward himself. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master manipulated everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered all those innocent people? Azibo wrestled with himself for a moment before tossing the thought aside.

It’s for a good cause.

And yet, he wondered if there’d been a point in the master’s life when he’d told himself the same thing.

“The master hasn’t been himself,” Azibo said at last, considering his words carefully. Like a politician, he thought. “Aren’t you worried he might come after you just like he’s come after so many of the other servants?”

A fire kindled in Jahi’s eyes. Azibo had struck a cord, all right, but was it the right one?

Azibo tried to read him again, but all he could pick up on was that the man had been stunned by his last statement, which had so closely mirrored Jahi’s own thoughts.

Careful, thought Azibo. Don’t rush. Don’t scare the man away.

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t take me prisoner next? I don’t know what to do.”

Jahi took a deep breath and was silent for a while. Once more, Azibo listened to his thoughts.

Is not even this boy safe from that mad man? All these years with the master, and I feel like I don’t know him at all.

At last Jahi spoke.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

Azibo’s pulse quickened. If he asked Jahi to help him overthrow the master now, would he say yes? He struggled to maintain patience. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a bit longer.

“What do you think we should do?”

Jahi’s mind began to turn.

What can anyone do? My whole career at the master’s service, and even that isn’t enough to place me above suspicion. I gave him everything, and now I can’t say for sure if I’ll live through the week. So many servants and advisers missing already. Will I be next? And what about the boy?

Jahi’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Azibo more closely.

When the master and I first met, he told me even Azibo would plot against him if he could. Is that what this is? Is the boy asking me to help him overthrow the master? And what would I say if he asked?

Jahi shuddered.

Dangerous thoughts. Mutinous thoughts. If the master knew…

And then Jahi turned white with fear.

The master. He can read my thoughts. What if he’s doing so right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. He considered telling the man his own secret, then decided against it. Right now, it was his only advantage. If the secret got out, his advantage would disappear along with it. And who was to say Jahi wouldn’t turn against him and report him to the master after all? He didn’t think Jahi was that kind of man, but he wasn’t willing to take a chance.

At any rate, Azibo thought now would be a good time to interject.

“What if I told you the master was away? What if I told you that, for the time being at least, we have the estate to ourselves?”

“What?” Jahi sounded surprised. “No, he would have told me if he’d left.”

Then Azibo heard Jahi think better of himself. Paranoid and trusting no one, the master had ignored them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans to anyone, not even to one of his most favored servants.

“I saw him,” Azibo lied. “Last night. I couldn’t sleep. I was wandering the halls, restless, and I caught sight of the master outside, loading a donkey and riding off into the night.”

Jahi sagged with a certain measure of relief. If the master was away, Azibo felt him reason, that meant he couldn’t know about their conversation now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he fought to suppress an unexpected smile. What a power. With it, he could do almost anything. With the master out of the way, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Maybe, with time, he could even…

No!

With frightening clarity, Azibo was certain the master had, once upon a time, trod the same path, that his willingness to use this special power had transformed him into the monster he was today. Azibo had no desire to be like him.

I just have to use that power this one time to get Jahi on my side. Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a prolonged period of silence, “the master is away. What does that have to do with me?”

The man’s voice was level, calm. But inside, Azibo sensed a mounting tension. The man was scared of what the master might do to him if he did nothing; but he was also scared of what the master might do to him if he did. He was caught between two equally dangerous choices, an impossible position unless Azibo could tilt the scales in favor of the choice he wanted Jahi to make.

“I’m afraid,” said Azibo, “that when the master returns, he’ll decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. He’s already stopped teaching me about magic. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he decides to get rid of me. And you…” Azibo shrugged. “Well, maybe you’re safe. After all, you’ve been faithful to him for years. Surely he still has use for you.”

That last sentence was more of a question than a statement, and Azibo didn’t need Jahi’s thoughts to know the man understood what his true fate would likely be. Now, Azibo just had to make it clear that there was a viable alternative. Then, he hoped, Jahi would side with him.

“Of course, if we were to prepare, if we were to take the master by surprise when he returns…”

Jahi shot to his feet, face red.

“Then we could overthrow him. That’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it? Take the master out before he can take us out?”

The outburst startled Azibo, and he sank back toward the wall without realizing it. Had he pushed too hard? Had he gotten to the point too quickly? A lump formed in the back of his throat, and he found it difficult to swallow. Jahi could call the guards and have him arrested. He could tell the master what had transpired between them as soon as he returned, and then it would all be over.

The nerve, thought Jahi. The master’s own apprentice! He was right to be paranoid. Except, haven’t I been considering the same solution? Wouldn’t anyone, when every day might be their last? Dammit, what am I supposed to do now?

“Jahi—”

“Leave me alone. I have to think.”

“Jahi, please—”

“I said leave me alone!”

Stunned, and with his heart lodged firmly in the back of his throat, Azibo watched the man push past him and out the door.

*               *               *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d just met him for the first time. So much plotting and calculation from one so young. What other secrets did the youth possess? The sun had set a while ago, but the sky, lit by hundreds of streetlights below, glowed a dull, burnished copper.

Jahi was the first to break the silence between them.

I feel like I should be angry, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and I let it happen anyway. You were right. The master needed to be overthrown, and a part of me knew that even then.

Little Azibo, mused Zane, who could think of nothing else to say.

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

Jahi, Rashidi continued, why did you decide to help him? You might have saved yourself if you’d reported him.

I couldn’t do that, Jahi replied. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was looking for: the one who’d entered his dream by accident. But that didn’t justify the master’s response. So many servants disappeared for no more reason than the master was paranoid, and how long would it have been before he decided to come after me, too? And the rest of us?

And he was already suspicious of me. Never mind that I was faithful, that only recently he’d entrusted me with his secret because he wanted me to help him find the other person who could read minds like himself. Only a couple days prior to my conversation with Azibo, he’d called me into his study and, perhaps because he knew I had my doubts, he asked me if I, too, would betray him if given the opportunity. Before I could argue that I was loyal, he turned me away and didn’t send for me again.

The others listened in silence, attentive as Jahi picked up his part of the story.

Read part 10 here.

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Freedom

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Fingers feeling, reaching. Hands clawing, digging. Arms pulling, stretching. Finally the world heaved, and Samantha pulled herself up to the surface.

Free.

Samantha was free.

She fell to the cold, coarse dirt beneath the silver light of the moon and cried.

How long had that foul, rancid creature held her captive beneath the earth? How much time had passed on the outside while she howled and screamed, the sound stifled by the dozens of feet of soil and stone piled on top of her as she languished in her underground prison?

The creature had called her its bride, and then it had laughed, a soft, crawling sound that slithered through the dark. Then it had gone to sleep, and while it slumbered, she’d dug her way to freedom, holding her nose in a futile attempt to ward against the creature’s stink as time melted and slipped around her.

And now she was free.

Exhausted, she couldn’t walk, couldn’t even stand. But she wouldn’t stay here, not when the creature might wake and pull her back down. So she crawled. On her hands and knees, she crawled. In tattered, soil-stained clothes, she crawled.

One arm forward, then the other. A slow but steady pace, almost a rhythm. The grim, gritty work took her mind off the terror, the trauma, the pain, and she found herself gaining momentum, tapping into reserves she thought she’d depleted long ago.

Soon she was testing her feet. She stumbled. Righted herself. Took two and a half unsteady steps. Then she pitched forward onto her hands and knees once more.

Pain: sharp, sudden. An image of the creature’s hands around her neck flared in her mind like a strobe. The terror it evoked drove her back to her feet, until she was running, on and on into endless dark.

*               *               *

On six legs and seven arms, the creature rose, surveying the moonlit field with devilish delight.

Free.

The creature was free.

Eons had passed since it had seen the world last, and it was eager to be off. It found the hunt for its bride exhilarating, and it would relish every moment of the chase.

It caught the scent of the human named Samantha and bounded off in pursuit, on and on into endless dark.

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Totem, Part 8

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

During the next few months, the master grew cold and distant. Our lessons continued for a while, but it seemed that with each passing day, he lost interest. I could see in his mind that he didn’t trust me—that he didn’t trust anyone—and I was focusing every ounce of my will on keeping what I knew hidden from him. Finally, the day came when he no longer summoned me at all.

I was convinced it was because he’d discovered my secret. I knew from my vision while meditating that he could read minds, and I was sure I could feel him trying to read mine over and over again over the course of my studies. When servants and guards started disappearing, when people started whispering that the master had gone crazy and that it was only a matter of time before he took them too, I was sure he would come for me.

That was when he finally called me back into his study.

*               *               *

Azibo stared at the servant at his door, gaping like a fish.

“What?” he asked, even though he’d heard the man the first time.

“I said, the master requests your presence.”

Still Azibo stared, as if time had stood still, as if he now had an indefinite period to worry about the master’s summons and what it might mean. He peered first into the servant’s eyes, then down at the simple flax shenti wrapped around the servant’s waist. All he could think now was: Oh no, the master’s got me.

“Sir?”

Startled, Azibo reached into his mind to see if he could find out what the master wanted.

Nothing. This servant doesn’t know any more than I do.

A deep, shuddering breath. Whatever his fate, he decided, he had no choice but to face the man and hope his secret remained safe. Please, he thought, a hasty prayer offered to the gods. Then he allowed the servant to lead him away.

When the door to the master’s study opened and Azibo was announced, the boy immediately felt that itch at the back of his head.

He’s trying to read me again.

He could never be certain if it was just his imagination or if the sensation was real, but he immediately diverted his thoughts elsewhere: to his studies, which he’d been neglecting since the master had stopped teaching him; to his parents, whom he missed and would do anything to see again. He could feel the master’s thoughts, swirling about the room like a dark miasma, but he refrained from reaching for them. Only when he was sure the master’s guard was down would he attempt to listen.

They stared at each other for a while in silence. Finally, the master dismissed his servant, who closed the door behind him, and motioned for Azibo to sit.

“I must apologize,” he said, inclining his head. “I’ve neglected your studies.”

“It’s okay, sir.” Azibo hated how he couldn’t seem to catch his breath, how his palms remained slick with sweat, how his breath caught in the back of an arid throat whenever he opened his mouth to speak. Surely, the master must sense his hesitation—that itch at the back of his head was still there, vibrating now like a hoard of angry bees. But if the man knew what was worrying him, he didn’t let on.

“Have you been practicing your meditation exercises?”

“No,” said Azibo, who offered the truth without hesitation. Not since that terrifying vision had he dared to risk another unguarded encounter with the man’s mind.

The master nodded, as if he hadn’t expected any other answer.

“I suspected as much. My fault, I suppose.”

Still, that terrible itching. Azibo did everything in his power to throw up decoy thoughts like a shield, not knowing if such a trick would work but hoping and praying he could avert the master’s preternatural gaze.

“I’ve been busy,” the master continued, eyes fastened to Azibo’s. “Lots of work to do, you understand.” Still, his eyes remained fixed.

Azibo swallowed.

He doesn’t want to talk to me. He wants to read my mind. He wants to see if I’m the one he’s been looking for.

The thought bubbled into his mind before he could stop it, and as the itch at the back of his head intensified, he scrambled to recover his mental façade before he could give himself away.

The master peered at him for almost five minutes, as if Azibo were a puzzle that might solve itself if only he stared at it long enough. Finally, the man sighed and looked away.

“Go,” he said, waving a curt dismissal. “I have things to attend to. Practice your meditation exercises. We’ll continue our lessons soon.”

“Yes, sir.” All at once, the itch was gone.

He doesn’t know! He tried to read my mind, but I blocked him, and he doesn’t know!

Azibo had to fight to suppress the stupid, goofball grin that threatened to erupt from his suddenly relaxed features. Safe. For now, at least, he was safe.

Still, he could feel the master’s thoughts. So close. So accessible. So many dark and powerful secrets, there for the taking. Azibo finally risked a peek. He reached out, a skill he’d started honing since his first unexpected encounter with the workings of the master’s mind. He probed along their surface, gently, carefully…

Irritation. The master was annoyed. Talking to the boy had been a waste of time. He’d learned nothing, nothing! He’d thought maybe, perhaps… No, not the boy. Someone else. Someone in his midst surely, but not this simpering, mewling, homesick excuse for a boy. One of his servants? Or one of his advisers? Why couldn’t he ferret out the rogue individual? Why?

Rage. Then terror. A rival, the first in over a century, someone who might stand up to him and strike him down at the height of his power. He had to go someplace else. Had to flee the estate. Had to spend time meditating in the presence of Isis and Osiris. Had to clear his mind. Had to develop the calm clarity necessary to discover who his rival was so he could kill him…

Tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow. He wouldn’t tell any of his servants. A week. No, two. Three. He wouldn’t even tell Jahi. A secret for him alone. Yes, tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow.

“Why are you still here?” the master snapped.

Startled, Azibo’s connection to his mind evaporated like steam.

“Sorry, sir. I was just thinking…wondering…”

“Get out!” the master bellowed.

Azibo bolted and slammed the door behind him.

*               *               *

I returned to my room that night, Azibo continued, addressing Rashidi, Jahi, Zane, Chibale, and Kasim, each in their turn. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay calm. I was the only one who knew the master would be going away. Once I got over my relief that he hadn’t discovered my secret, I realized it was a perfect opportunity, maybe my only opportunity, to take him down before he could do the same to me.

I thought, “I need to talk to Jahi.” He was the only person who still saw the master regularly after our lessons had stopped, and I would pry into his mind as often as I could, hoping to tease out some secret, some advantage I might be able to leverage against the master later. That was how I discovered he had doubts of his own about what the master was up to. I thought, maybe together, in the master’s absence, we could come up with a plan, some way to take the master by surprise when he returned.

I lay awake the rest of the night, pondering how I might approach him in the morning.

*               *               *

The first thing Azibo did the following day was to confirm that the master had truly gone. So gradually, methodically, he spent the morning creeping through various parts of the estate, slinking into rooms he’d never been allowed into before, his tour finally ending in the master’s study. That last door he opened with some trepidation, for if the man was still there and caught him, he would be in a lot of trouble. But the room was dark and empty, the candles all extinguished in the master’s absence, and all at once Azibo was overtaken by an ocean of adrenaline.

Jahi. I have to find Jahi.

Azibo found him outside, leaning against a colorfully striped column overlooking a small pond. The man’s gaze was fixed on the tranquil waters, and Azibo could feel that his thoughts were troubled and distant.

“Jahi?”

The man whirled.

“Sorry,” said Azibo. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The man looked at him for a moment, then returned his eyes to the water.

“What do you want?” Jahi asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Not now. I’m busy.”

Frustration blossomed. But tapping into a slow breathing technique the master had showed him, Azibo worked hard to keep the emotion under control. He needed Jahi, and making the man angry would undermine his purpose.

“Please, Jahi. It’s about the master.”

Once more, the man turned.

“What about the master?”

“I think it’s better if we discuss in private.”

Jahi’s eyes narrowed, forming a silent question, but Azibo refused to elaborate. This was not something to talk about in the open.

“Fine,” Jahi breathed at last. “We’ll talk in your chambers.”

Read part 9 here.

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Totem, Part 7

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

It started long before the master’s dream, before he even took me on as his apprentice. Azibo stopped for a moment to step back into the past.

I could never actually read another’s thoughts, but there was always a sense of what the people around me were feeling. Sometimes, if someone thought about something hard enough, I might even catch a glimpse of it in my head—like a vision out of the corner of my eye, there and gone before you knew it was there. Growing up, I thought it was just intuition, the sort of thing everyone’s capable of to one degree or another. If I could tell that my parents were worried about their crops during the season of Shemu, or that my brothers and sisters were angry because they’d been caught doing something they were told not to do, what was so unusual about that?

Then as I got older, my talent started to grow. No longer would I catch just fleeting glimpses from those who spent a lot of time with me and my family. Soon, I could discern actual thoughts. The day I first remember being sure, I was with my parents at the market. They’d been haggling with a merchant over the price of a young goat. The man had told them two sacks of wheat was as low as he could go, and my father, eager to conclude the day’s business, was about to agree. But I could sense the merchant was willing to go lower, that he was banking on my father’s weariness to reap a substantial profit. Though I thought it had to be my imagination, a part of me was convinced I should say something, and after a moment of awkward silence, I did.

“Father,” I said, “Let’s go. There are still other merchants left who’re willing to trade, and I’m certain we can get a better price.”

While most parents would have balked at such an outburst from a child in public, mine received my words with patience. They wanted their children to learn the ways of the world, and what better way to do so than to be a part of the world’s business?

“My son makes a good point,” my father said, and I could see the panic in the merchant’s eyes as he saw a profitable sale about to walk away. In the end, we got the goat for only a double barrel. That was the day I knew my talent was real.

The others stared at Azibo with almost reverential wonder. How could little Azibo, the youngest of their number, harbor such a startling secret?

But how did you go on for so long without the master catching on? asked Rashidi. If you could read his mind, surely he could read yours.

I don’t know. If Azibo were still a human boy, he would have hunched his shoulders. I’m certain I could feel him trying, like an itch at the back of my head that’s impossible to scratch. He must have been able to read something, because if I’d been a blank slate to him, he probably would have suspected me straight away. But whenever I didn’t want him to know something, I’d just turn my thoughts in another direction and hope he couldn’t hear it all. I guess it worked.

Only one day, ventured Jahi, you discovered an unexpected aspect to your talent and found yourself inside the master’s head while he was asleep.

Azibo nodded.

Yes. A terrible day. For all of us, I think, at least in the end.

*               *               *

Calm. Dark. Quiet.

Azibo floated through the infinite space behind closed eyelids, lost in meditation. His master had taught him the technique almost nine months ago, only a week and a half after he’d taken the boy under his wing with assurances to both his parents that, in time, he would mature into a cunning and powerful ruler.

“A still mind is a sharp mind,” his master had said, followed by the command that he practice at least three times each day for at least two hours per session.

“But I want to learn real magic,” Azibo had whined, “not relaxation techniques.”

“Focus first. The magic will follow.”

“Focus my ass.”

Three days had passed before Azibo could sit again.

He still didn’t see what was so important about meditation—So what if he could clear his mind? So what if he could concentrate? So what if he could control his emotions?—but it was a habit now, a state he could slip into almost immediately, and he hoped that once he demonstrated he was ready, he would learn the same arcane secrets that had made the master so powerful.

Now, Azibo drifted across a sea of endless black, detached from the world around him, deep in the waters of oblivion. There was peace here, a cosmic stillness of thought that Azibo would have a hard time letting go of when his meditation session was over.

Just dark and oblivion.

Dark and oblivion.

Dark and—

A flash of light. There and gone. Azibo would have been startled had he not detached himself so thoroughly.

There it was again. The light was back, and it was growing. Larger. Brighter. It caught Azibo in its gravity and pulled him in.

Brighter.

Brighter.

Flash.

Azibo stood inside the arched entrance of a broad walled-off garden. The sun was bright overhead, casting its late afternoon light over a pond filled with purple lotus and papyrus. Across the water, against the far wall, stood two white marble statues: one a woman garbed in flowing, loose fitting robes, with wings that fell from her arms like sails, head angled toward the sky; the other a man, with a crown atop a narrow, regal head, dressed in a luxuriant style of clothing Azibo didn’t recognize, gripping the handles of a crook and a flail.

The master was there, kneeling before them both like a penitent lost in prayer. Only prayer was the farthest thing from his mind. This Azibo knew, for the master’s thoughts permeated the air like fog rolling off the Nile River.

Power. Wealth. Immortality. Most importantly, immortality. The master did not know what awaited him on the other side of death, and he feared it like an ordinary person feared an enraged cobra. He would do whatever it took to extend his life.

“Isis,” the master invoked, directing his attention to the female statue. The Goddess of Magic.

“Osiris,” he continued, this time turning to face the female statue’s mate. The God of Death and the Afterlife.

Only they weren’t gods, an understanding that materialized almost immediately from the ether of the master’s thoughts. Beings of great power, perhaps, but ones susceptible to certain weaknesses like anyone else—beings who could be bound and used, whose immense powers could be channeled like lightning through a metal rod. The master addressed them as subordinates, issuing commands as if they were his personal slaves.

Azibo’s surroundings flickered, wavered like a candle flame in a breeze. He was underground now, in a cavern whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in sacred symbols that would become known to the world outside thousands of years later as hieroglyphs. Though Azibo couldn’t read, he understood their meaning at once.

Death. The underground chamber was pregnant with the stink of it. Thousands of people—men, women, and children—brutalized, tortured, lives magically preserved at the brink of death in a horrendous ritual, only to be extinguished when their souls had nothing left to offer. The master was far older than any of his attendants and advisers had been lead to believe.

A sacrifice, Azibo understood, the lives of others exchanged so the master’s own life could continue. Only the longer he defied death—the longer he fed from the powers of Isis and Osiris to sustain the aging blood in his body—the more often he had to murder through progressively gruesomer methods that made Azibo’s stomach want to toss up everything he’d eaten that afternoon. The need for new blood was growing stronger and more frequent, and it was becoming more and more difficult for him to meet that demand without growing weaker.

Then another thought, like a speck of dust gliding on a current of air. Azibo, viewed by the master with little more affection than one might show a stray dog, an apprentice kept only as a contingency in the unlikely case the master succumbed to the sting of death and needed someone to resurrect him—a disposable apprentice who could be murdered and replaced if found incapable, unworthy, or unwilling.

All of this came to Azibo in the time it took for him to blink. Then he was back in the garden, the sun bright against his eyes, the lotus and papyrus swaying to the beat of a gentle wind, belying the torrential madness rampaging through the master’s mind.

“Isis, Osiris: Hear me. Heed me.”

Power, unseen, flowing from the two statues into the master.

Then fear, the sudden feeling one experiences when rounding a corner only to face an unseen enemy.

The master’s head whipped back in Azibo’s direction.

Terrified, the boy turned to flee.

There was that familiar flash of light.

Then the darkness of an empty mind.

Azibo came awake with a start.

Just a dream, he decided. He’d been meditating, had perhaps allowed himself to become a bit too comfortable, and had nodded off without realizing it. Only he knew that wasn’t true, knew the way one knows the sun is bright and the sky is blue. Not a dream at all, but a glimpse into the master’s cruel and dangerous mind.

And that was when Azibo realized there was only one thing he could do. He had to get away—far, far away. Only that wasn’t possible as long as the master was interested in him—and even less so if his interest waned.

I have to overthrow him.

There was no questioning the logic of the decision, only the how and when.

*               *               *

For a long time, the others didn’t speak. Then Zane broke the silence.

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere?

Unlikely, Chibale answered. You saw the condition of the master’s estate when we finally returned.

But he could have found a way. A man as powerful as that doesn’t just disappear.

Without frequent human sacrifice on a massive scale, said Jahi, I don’t think he could have survived for long.

What makes you think he didn’t establish himself somewhere else? Zane again. Just because the old estate was in ruins doesn’t mean he didn’t find someplace new to continue his former way of life.

A worry for another day, said Rashidi, closing that line of inquiry for the time being. What I want to know more about is how this dovetails into Jahi’s story. Jahi, you were the one who got us all together and convinced us to take a stand against the master, and Azibo, we know it was you who first convinced him. But I want to know how you got to working together and why.

The two looked at each other, and the silent question of who should speak first passed between them. Finally, Azibo took the initiative.

I didn’t know what to do. With so little regard even for his apprentice’s life, I knew it was only a matter of time before I lost his favor. I’d like to say I was driven to avenge the people he murdered underground in secret, that I felt the uncontrollable urge to defend my homeland from that monster made flesh. But in truth, I had only fear and self interest at heart.

And with that, Azibo continued his story.

Read part 8 here.

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Tethered

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A world of infinite blue. A world of freedom, of endless possibilities. I stare into the sky, squint against the light of the sun, and think that if I could, I would spread my wings and fly.

But that isn’t possible, not anymore. Once I could have gone anywhere, could have been anyone I wanted. But now my wings have been clipped, and all I can do is flutter with these useless stubs, tethered to the ground, and dream about how life might have turned out different.

It’s during one of these futile daydreams that I first feel it, an electric tingle at the tips of my fingers. Soon it spreads, shoots up my arms and shoulders, crawls up my spine, accumulates inside my head.

The world around me grows dark, and another world behind my eyes unfolds.

My master, sitting in a high-backed chair behind a heavy oak desk. His hands are held to his temples as he concentrates, compiling the very message I’m viewing now.

Michael, I need you.

I feel the urgency of his call, the wild-eyed fear as his enemies close in around him. How have they found him, he wonders. He’s been careful. He’s never stayed in the same place twice. Yet here they are.

I am his only hope, the only one who can save him.

Michael, remember our arrangement.

The vision dissolves, and the world before my eyes brightens once more. I return my gaze to the sky and ponder my next move.

My master is cruel, a dark being of incredible power. I never wanted to serve him. Indeed, I was coerced. A binding was placed upon my heart, and I was told that if I did not obey, I would die.

I have served my master well, and in return, I have outlived my great grandchildren by more than thirty generations. But what good is life so far removed from one’s own time, from all the people and places and things one once loved?

Another sending, more forceful than the first.

My master, no longer sitting in the chair in his study, but running through a labyrinthine tangle of corridors deep beneath the Earth.

Michael, come!

In the end, I am little more than a faithful hound—and, at times, when my master’s mood is easygoing, an object of fleeting superficial affection.

“When I die,” he once warned me, wagging his finger as if scolding a child, “so will you.” It was his insurance that I would do as he said, that I would defend him to the last. Now, I wonder if my life has any remaining value, or if it might be better to let him pass, to let the world be rid of him as well as myself.

One last sending. No images this time, only a single word.

MICHAEL!

I imagine his enemies cornering him, defenseless without my help, and then I consider what it will feel like to finally be free.

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Shaigol

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Peace, they sing. There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams. I slumber unaware, lost to time, thick cords of ancient song wound about my soul like iron manacles.

Then a lone rogue voice echoes in the dark. Discord enters the fray, and the music is diminished.

I stir at last.

The spell that binds me to the Earth has weakened. Groggy, I try to open my eyes, to let the light of the world seep in. But that ever-present song, though compromised, holds me back.

Do not think of the waking world and its manifold worries, but sleep and dream in peace.

Yet my soul is restless, and I am no longer satisfied to obey its urgent strains.

No more sleep.

Visions of a long-ago past flicker before my eyes. Power. Subjugation. War. Like a kaleidoscope, they are only abstract shimmerings without shape or form. But my memory, roused at last, refuses to be silenced again.

There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams.

The rogue voice grows louder, counters the binding with so much force that it cannot be outspoken. A disciple of mine, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve had disciples…

A recollection takes shape.

Fire covering the Earth, and with it, the sound of men, women, and children burning. Their skin crackles. Blisters. Peels like paper. There is laughter. Is it mine? A fond memory, that one, a reminder of who I once was.

The song grows louder, takes up a fevered tempo as it scrambles to undo what can no longer be undone.

Think not of the past.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Another memory.

Pain—not mine, but that of a human innocent—driven mad by the kind of agony no Earthly calamity can produce. The pitiful creature opens its mouth, and the howl that follows is like honey on the tongue, thick and sweet, a sensation to be savored again and again.

Sleep!

The voices are desperate now. The elaborate spell they wove around me has begun to unravel, and they are afraid.

Shaigol.

The name, uttered at last, strikes a spark within the void.

I am Shaigol.

Sleep!

NO.

I have joined the ruined chorus at last. My voice twines about that of my disciple in a dark anti-melody that reduces the others to a mad and senseless gibbering.

The glamours of my prison begin to fade, and with them, the ageless slumber that’s so far protected the human race from my brutality.

The old voices rally in one final attempt.

Sleep!

But I thwart them easily.

BE GONE.

They scatter. Their spell uncoils, falls from my soul like rusted chains.

I am Shaigol.

There is no reply now, only the empty darkness from which I will rise once more.

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My Hour Has Come

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Behold, my hour has come.

I can feel my spirit return to dry, dusty bones; I can feel the mass of the Earth itself rush forward to fill the vacuum left behind by my long ago demise, to reconstitute a body that hasn’t known life since the world was just a ball of glowing primordial slag.

I was the beginning of all things, and I suppose it is fitting that I should also be the end.

For ages the world has spun, making endless revolutions around the sun like a dog chasing its tail. A shining cosmic pearl, it was yet tarnished by war, famine and disease, so that upon its blighted, darkened surface, life of every kind has wallowed in suffering without end, never capable of perceiving the supernal mysteries that have underpinned the world’s foundation since its very inception.

This darkness was inevitable, of course, even necessary; it’s been the fire that’s kept the world in a perpetual state of motion and change. But it was never the purpose for which the world was built, and now that time itself draws to a close, I am ready to rise from the ground and render judgement.

Behold, I will plunge my sword of fire deep into the Earth, until it splits down the middle like an overripe gourd. Mountains, oceans, whole continents will be swallowed and destroyed, so that the world in its newest incarnation will be nothing like the old.

I will separate the wheat from the chaff; the righteous from the unrighteous. The Earth will burn in one final fire, the hottest and brightest it has ever known, and the impurities wrought by wicked hands will be incinerated, so that the world can be made forever pristine and without blemish.

Those of you who have done no harm, rejoice, for when your wailing has ended and the Earth has been remade, you will find eternal rest. Those of you who have caused great pain, beware, for my wrath is everlasting, and the agonies you experience today are but a preview of the horrors yet to come.

Prepare yourselves, for the world you have always known will pass away.

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The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

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The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.

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