The World Fire

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Dappled light danced across Vivian’s face, a hypnotic electric blue. She’d traveled long and far to get here, to the ends of the Earth and back. So much pain. So much loss. Time had passed her by as she wandered the darker passages of the world, until everyone and everything she’d ever known was dead.

“The World Fire accepts your sacrifice,” said the priestess, sitting cross-legged opposite the brightest flames Vivian had ever seen, an azure blaze that sizzled and popped with raw, untamable energy. “Come and accept your gift.”

Vivian shambled forward, a painful lump bulging in her throat as she swallowed. She hadn’t eaten in three days and she was weak. When at last, after God knew how many centuries of wandering, she’d finally arrived at the underground temple’s gates, she’d expected the mysteries she sought to be laid before her feet. Instead, the priestesses had denied her entry, requiring her first to fast.

“Please,” she’d said, weary and starving. But they’d been adamant, and Vivian had been put up in a tiny monastic cell outside the temple proper with no source of light save for the dim flicker of an oil lamp, the flame blue, like all the fire down there.

“Do you know why we made you fast?” the priestess asked, face shrouded by a dark cloth.

Vivian shook her head. She was muzzy and and couldn’t think straight. She’d tried to meet the priestess’s eyes, but the fire kept drawing her attention, wild energies she’d lusted for her entire life.

“The World Fire demands sacrifice,” the woman said in a low voice. “Even after all you gave up in search of it, you were required to give up more, because only with your stomach and your heart empty can you partake of its secrets.”

Vivian licked her lips. There were many theories pertaining to what the fire was and what it could do, ranging from the plausible to the fantastical and everything in-between. She hadn’t known what to expect when she set out, then a young woman disillusioned with life, but she’d believed with almost religious zeal that the fire could satisfy her deepest curiosities, that in its furtive flickers she would glimpse nothing less than the mysteries of the cosmos.

“Come forward,” the priestess said again, and Vivian placed one stumbling foot after the next, the object of her endless quest burning before her like an indigo star.

There were those who said fire was an expression of the divine. There was Moses and the burning bush, the great “I AM;” there was Agni, the Hindu fire God, riding on the back of his goat with flaming hair flying in the wind; there was Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, wielding his mighty blacksmith’s hammer as he toiled in a supernatural inferno. Now, standing in the midst of this underground temple, Vivian believed all those stories were true.

The flames sang to her as they danced, casting harsh, abstract shadows along the walls, primal rhythmic chants promising salvation. Come, the fire crooned. Find the answers you seek.

A blinding flash erupted as Vivian stepped into the flames. They tore into her skin, which sizzled and crackled; they clawed at her eyes, which boiled and popped. Smoke choked her airways so she could no longer breathe. But none of that mattered, because here, on the precipice of death, the secrets of the universe were revealed to her at last.

“I see,” Vivian rasped through blackened lips.

The fire required sacrifice, the priestess had said, and how right she’d been. The fire had opened her eyes, giving her the knowledge she desired, but in return it had demanded her life. That was how the World Fire worked, how it claimed the fuel it needed to burn, the fuel it needed to power every revolution of the Earth around the sun.

Vivian’s body crumpled in immolation, and she offered her spirit to the fire and said no more.

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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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Anya Returns

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She stares at me with eyes of purple fire, a blazing phantom in the dark. My breath catches in my throat, and when I finally speak, it comes out a hoarse whisper.

“What happened, Anya?”

The woman I had known so many years ago grins.

“My eyes were opened.”

I wait for her to say more, but that’s all she offers in reply.

We grew up together, Anya and I. We were best friends, inseparable from the start. Our relationship turned intimate, and by the time we neared our college graduation we were already contemplating marriage.

That was when she disappeared.

Now, she rolls onto her side, pressing her body against mine, and I instantly grow hard with years of pent up longing. I have never felt an urge so strong. It overloads my synapses, drives me to the brink of madness.

This is a dream, I think. Any minute I’ll wake up. This close, I can see myself reflected in her spectral eyes.

Her family and I spent years looking for her. The police gave up in a matter of weeks for lack of evidence, but we kept searching, scouring her apartment, interviewing her friends, calling the numbers in the phone she left beside her bed.

Now, here she is again, lying in my bed as if the intervening years were nothing.

“You loved me once,” she whispers. Her breath tickles my ear. I detect the familiar smell of lavender and lilac. Her favorite scent, at odds with the feral untamed fire in her eyes.

Those flaming pupils bore into my own, extract my deepest secrets.

“I don’t understand,” I say, because there’s nothing else to say.

“Then let me help you understand.”

Her mouth opens, joins with my own. Another fire kindles, erupting to life inside my body. She leaps on top of me, hot to the touch, and I have no choice but to offer up my heart as an immolation.

“Love me now,” she says, and as our bodies become one, as the embers of an old love ignite once more, I glimpse the possessing spirit within and welcome it into myself.

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Leaves in the Wind

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A dry rustle makes Nicholson turn. Leaves, caught up in a breeze, gliding lazily across the sidewalk before settling back to the ground. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Just leaves. Relax.

He turns and continues down the street.

Not a big deal, he thinks, though he’s started to walk faster. It happens every October. The leaves fall, dry like shed snakeskins, and are blown about by the wind along the street.

Once more, he can hear them behind him, skidding across the concrete, a hollow rattling whisper.

Nicholson turns again. The wind is still gusting, and the leaves, suspended in the air, twirl and dance as if alive.

As if alive.

Nicholson bolts. This is silly, he thinks even as he picks up speed. The spirit he encountered all those years ago is long gone, a forgotten phantom that Nicholson escaped decades ago.

Only it isn’t silly. He has too much experience with his old nemesis to think it’s a coincidence.

The leaves stop and he glances back. It’s toying with him, playing on his fears. He slows, then stops, gasping as he catches his breath. Running, he decides, won’t do him any good. His only defense all these years has been to keep a low profile, and now that defense has been shot to Hell. Nothing left to do but face it head on.

“Nicholson.” The voice comes out a dry dusty whisper. “I told you you couldn’t avoid me forever.”

The wind kicks up around him, forming an invisible wall, tugging at his shirt sleeves, tousling his short sandy hair.

“How did you find me?” Nicholson asks.

Leaves dance around him in delighted autumnal laughter.

“I am the wind. I am everywhere.” The breeze grows louder, stronger. “You are free because I let you go, not because you could have escaped me on your own.”

“Then why did you let me go?” Nicholson tries to sound defiant, but can only manage a strangled croak.

The wind has become a tornado.

“Because I enjoyed watching you run, because you were always looking over your shoulder, terrified of every breeze, every rustling leaf. But I’m tired now, and hungry, and in the end, even amusing prey is just prey.”

Nicholson’s shirt brushes against that spinning wall of air and the fabric tears, yanked away to become part of the raging tempest.

Nicholson’s eyes open in wide, preternatural terror.

“Goodbye, Nicholson.”

The wall closes in.

Nicholson screams.

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The Dokash

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I am not a madman.

The doctors all say the same thing, those small minded men and women in their white lab coats and sterile, condescending smiles. They assert that I’m delusional, that I’m a danger to myself and others. Do not believe them. I’ve come not to do violence, but to warn of the violence yet to come.

I am their emissary. I herald their arrival, the rightful heirs of your world, the Great Masters who were here long before you were even a dollop of goo in the primordial soup. To you, I issue fair warning. Turn from me all you like. Your refusal to listen will not save you when they come.

You, who mill about in your suits and ties like ants before a mound of sand; you, who believe yourselves the sole sovereign masters of nature; you, who gaze up at the vastness of the universe and conclude that all of it was made for you; prepare yourselves.

They’re coming. From beyond the cosmos, from beyond space and time, they’re coming. They’ll remake the Earth in their image. Oceans will boil. Fields will blaze. Heaven and Hell will pass away. Skin will burn. Flesh will melt. And your souls, stripped of their mortal coils, will serve the Dokash.

Mind your place, do them homage and you will be rewarded. But do not obey, do not pay tribute and you’ll be punished, made to crawl on all fours like dogs, tongues lolling, while the Dokash regard you as children who delight in pouring salt on worms and snails, so that you would prefer the kind of death in which there is nothing at all.

Hear my words and prepare yourselves. The life you know is coming to an end.

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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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Better Off Inside

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Light penetrates my eyes. For a moment I gaze up, squint through the bars of a prison abandoned for centuries, and consider my escape. Then the light begins to burn and I look away.

The bars have rusted through, have even crumbled to powder in places. Yet I remain.

All of us remain.

Part of the prison’s success was the way the guards got into our heads, the way they convinced us we deserved persecution, that we were better off inside.

The world is dangerous for a monster like you. We locked you away for your own good.

Humanity ultimately forgot us, as humanity forgets so many things. They were free, we were not. Out of sight, out of mind. I imagine our existence became the subject of legend, that once enough time had passed even the legend began to fade. I don’t remember how long we’ve been down here, nor do I remember when they stopped sending their guards. I only know they don’t hold power over us any longer.

But we won’t leave, because fear has become our new jailor.

Don’t you think I yearn to be free? Don’t you think I would give my soul to break out of this cage that binds me beneath the Earth, to crawl through the shaft that connects us to the surface and enjoy fresh sunshine once again?

Ask any of us and we’ll tell you the same thing: we fear what will happen if we leave, what you’ll do to us if we’re discovered again.

You enjoy your light above. We’ll make the darkness our own.

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Anathema

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Arnold stopped to peer at the moon, glabrous and pale in the late night sky, then slipped through the broad cathedral doors. The church was silent except for the echo his shoes made when he walked across the marble floor, and he suppressed a shudder as he passed by flickering candles and confessionals, surrounded by leering statues of the saints.

He stopped beside the front row of pews, genuflected before the blessed sacrament and sat. It was a ritual he’d learned in his youth. A ritual he hadn’t practiced in years.

The domed ceiling rose to a spectacular height, covered in otherworldly frescoes depicting the cosmic struggle between God and Satan. He looked up and felt dwarfed by the vastness of eternity, a terrible awe of Heaven and Hell, and felt as if he might be crushed between the two.

Arnold took a deep breath and gazed toward the altar, where a large wooden crucifix loomed over the empty congregation, hidden beneath a dark shadowy veil. He imagined the figure of Christ within, face frozen in perpetual agony.

It was Holy Week, a time of penance and reflection, and Arnold had a lot to think about.

The cathedral was a special place. Time was thin here, and if he focused hard enough he was sure he could peer through it, into the past, where he’d spent so many formative years in the Church, into the future, where he searched for answers to questions that had almost destroyed him once and threatened to destroy him still.

What was he? He was no closer to figuring that out than he’d been fifteen years ago when his terrible transformation began.

Life had been simple as a child. He’d done as his parents had told him, had believed as the priests had taught him. He’d gone to mass and confession, learned his prayers, absorbed himself fully in the truth that was presented to him.

Now, he was a stranger in his old place of worship, a stranger to his family, a stranger to himself.

He waited, as if God might glance down from Heaven and notice him at last. But there was only the quiet and the dark.

A faint buzz emanated from the stone walls, as if a tension was mounding in the cathedral’s foundation. Arnold closed his eyes to pray.

“Hail Mary,” he began, voice husky and dry. He stopped to clear his throat, then started again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Was there a Lord? If so, how did Arnold fit into his plans? The buzz grew louder, and Arnold could feel the pew begin to vibrate beneath him.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

What did it mean to be blessed? Arnold had been taught that to be saved, one must remain in a state of grace. Was Arnold in a state of grace, or was he now anathema? Did he have a place in Heaven, or a place in Hell? The buzz transfigured, became a loud shuddering rumble.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

A thunderous crack exploded like a cannon, and Arnold’s eyes popped open.

The veil had torn along a jagged seam that ran down its center like a fault line in the earth. The heavy wooden cross beneath trembled, leaned forward as if in prayer, then came crashing down, destroying the tabernacle, scattering consecrated hosts like confetti.

The earth shook with such violence that Arnold imagined the gates of Hell were opening, ready to swallow him whole.

“Please, God, make it stop!”

Arnold rocked back and forth like a toddler, holding his hands over his ears as if the gesture could protect him.

Then just like that it was over. The Earth stopped moving. The cathedral fell silent once more.

Face hot, Arnold’s neck bulged as he beheld the ruined altar, veins popping through his skin like thick cords.

“What am I?” he shouted at the painting on the ceiling. “Why are you doing this to me?”

A man emerged through the open doorway behind the altar, a silhouette wreathed in moonlight. He stepped forward until the pallid illumination revealed a pair of wide, disbelieving eyes.

The parish priest.

Arnold leaped to his feet and bolted.

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We Are You

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The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

Rain fell, pattering the street, while above in the clouds, thunder exploded like aboriginal drums. The rain had soaked through her clothes, and a chill was settling into her chest. But she kept running, blood pounding, side aching, because something dangerous was behind her, and if she let her guard down for even a moment she was dead.

Another shriek, a war cry that drained the blood from her already pallid face.

Have to go. Have to get away.

The streets had been abandoned years ago and Diane was alone. Buildings slumped in abandoned lots, while empty cars tilted into gutters and signs hung from rusted posts like ancient monuments to forgotten gods.

No one left but Diane, which meant no one left to help.

She remembered a time before the invasion, before the world had been reduced to broken structures and shattered dreams. The image most prominent in her mind was that of her mother, cradling her in her arms when she was only three. Nobody would have believed her if she said she could remember such a young age, but Diane recalled every word that passed from her mother’s lips as she sang Diane’s favorite song, every stroke through her hair as she leaned in to whisper that she loved her, that no harm would come to her as long as she remained in her mother’s arms. The potent memory of what she’d had and what she lost made her chest ache.

I miss you, Mom.

Then pain shot through Diane’s leg, and the world rose to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs.

The gutter. She’d tripped over the gutter. Diane staggered to her feet, eyes wide.

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

But it was too late. By the time she found her balance she’d already seen its eyes, staring at her from across the street.

Diane’s eyes.

Her dark double’s thoughts immediately burst inside her mind.

We are you, now. The time for running is over.

It was the last thing Diane heard.

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Alone

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Philosophers have pondered it. Theologians have pontificated about it. Scientists have been skeptical of it. Life after death. The great beyond. Sarah had been afraid of it, then had slipped silently into it during the night.

She had no idea how she’d met death. She could only remember waking in a dark place, unable to move her limbs because she had no limbs to move. Her nature, her mode of being, had been turned on its head in an instant. It took her ages to come to terms with the loss, to begin exploring the depths of her insubstantial self.

When at last acceptance came, she drifted through the cosmos, ready to begin whatever journey lay ahead. Moving was not so much an act of the body as it was an act of the will, a projection of thought and mind.

She called out, hoping to find others like herself, but no one answered.

Was that what death was? To be alone? The thought terrified her. If her eternal vocation was to exist in such a state, she’d rather the darkness had consumed her.

She continued to skid through the universe, crying out in increasingly panicked outbursts.

Hello? Is anyone there?

She felt her soundless voice reverberate, ripple out through space and time. But again, there was no reply. If she kept this up, she was certain she’d go mad.

Had she gone to Hell? As she streaked through a thousand worlds in silence, she pondered this terrible prospect.

Hell. Was that the reward I earned in life?

She tried to remember but could not. Her old life had faded until it left only the vaguest of impressions, a formless shadow in the dark.

Is anyone there? Please, answer me.

She projected herself further. Further. Like a heat-seeking missile, she launched herself as far as she could go in search of companionship.

Sarah.

A silent whisper, echoing across the void in reply. Her name. Someone had used her name. At last, an answer to her call. If she had a body, tears would have poured from her eyes.

I’m here!

Sarah, follow my voice.

And Sarah did. On and on she went, zeroing in, while every so often that voice would say something new so she could pick up its trail and continue following after it.

Sarah, over here. That’s it, Sarah. You’ve almost made it.

There was light in the distance, not the kind she had once witnessed with her eyes but something different, a radiant, all-consuming fire that warmed her essence.

Just a little further.

The voice was close now, still separated from her by some unfathomable chasm, but close all the same.

Suddenly, the light was a searing fire that burned just to look at it.

Sarah, you’ll have to jump.

I’m scared.

But she ached to pass through it, to see what was in store for her on the other side. Most of all, she longed for communion with the voice that had reached out to her at the height of her terrible loneliness.

Just let go and jump.

Sarah felt power mounding in her. Fear and desire warred with each other in greater and greater intensity, until the fire in her own soul was a greater agony than the fire she contemplated crossing.

That’s it, Sarah. Jump!

She did as the voice commanded. There was a timeless instant in which agony reached an excruciating peak, in which she could feel all the impurities of her former existence smelted away. Then she was pure, pristine, and the fire could no longer harm her.

She was a part of the light now, and inside of it she could at last behold the one who’d spoken to her with a kind of awe she’d been incapable of in life.

Welcome home, Sarah.

Love filled her to capacity. The chasm had been bridged, and Sarah would never be alone again.

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