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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Aftermath

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This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

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Fallen

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I cannot move any longer.

I slow.

Stumble.

Fall.

My eyes droop, and darkness seeps into my vision like moldering water. I try to look up, but I have so little energy left, and all I manage to do is scrape my too-pale skin against the sidewalk.

People pass by all around me. Like a dammed up river, they flow to either side, unwilling to acknowledge me as I lay on the ground, gasping for breath.

I don’t blame them. If our roles were reversed—if I were human instead of them—I would do the same.

My kind arrived on Earth almost two decades ago. We didn’t mean to stay. It was only supposed to be a stop during the long exile from our own world. We were malnourished, weak, and near death, and Earth was an unexpected paradise.

It was not our world, and we always told ourselves that when we were better, we would leave. But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. We came to view Earth as our salvation, a gift from the gods of our ancestors and therefore ours by birthright.

We began to resent humanity. We were stronger, we reasoned, and more intelligent. Meanwhile, humans only ever seemed to take the Earth for granted. We decided to seize control. We told ourselves it was for their own good, but in truth, we were jealous—jealous of their abundance, jealous of the relative comfort and security they inherited by virtue of being born.

I crack my eyes open long enough to spy a woman standing over me, staring. I beg her with my eyes to have pity, but the hatred that blazes beneath her stern features is all too clear. She makes a grating sound in the back of her throat, then spits on me before moving on.

We were so confident, so sure we could win. But the humans were a proud race, and they refused to be ruled by outsiders. Hundreds of millions died, but in the end, victory was theirs. Those of us who survived fled deep underground, where the majority were hunted down like dogs and executed.

I myself survived for almost five years. But the humans, in their desire to root out every last one of us, released a toxin into the atmosphere: harmless for them, fatal for us.

That very poison flows through my veins, depriving me of the ability to breathe. I want to be angry at them, but I cannot. They were only defending themselves, and I’m unable to find fault with their actions.

We could have been better. Our own world had been conquered by an outside race, turning us into cosmic refugees. The ordeal should have made us more compassionate. Instead, we tried to do the same to Earth.

I consider the commandments of our people’s gods and how far we strayed from them before losing the war, and as my vision narrows and my heart stammers to an increasingly irregular rhythm, a wild terror grips me.

Soon, I will stand before those very same gods for judgement. And with the faces of all the humans I murdered flashing before my dying eyes, their horrifying verdict seems all too clear.

I wrote a companion piece to this called “Aftermath.” You can read it here.

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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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Just Doing His Job

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 30, 2016.

He slipped inside the church, unseen; sat down in a nearby pew and waited.

It was an old stone cathedral, erected in the Philippines by Spanish Catholics during the 1600s. He paused to admire the architecture and took a mental snapshot. He’d never been to the Philippines before, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be going back.

Every now and then he turned to peer at one of the three broad double doors. He was waiting for someone.

Ten or fifteen minutes of contemplative silence. Then he spotted an elderly woman in a faded blue blouse. He watched closely as she knelt to pray and, after a brief appraisal, his suspicions were confirmed.

It was subtle, something that most people either couldn’t see or didn’t bother to notice. A slight ripple, a liquid shimmer in the air, like a mirage in the distance on a hot summer day. In her presence, things would change in almost imperceptible ways, a brief tweaking of probabilities and outcomes. Some things would become a little more likely, others a little bit less.

Such individuals had effected profound changes in the course of human events, small alterations to reality that rippled outward into space and time, having an increasingly heavy impact on the world and beyond. Most had no idea what they were capable of and, of those who did, rarer still were those who could control it. It was simply a part of their nature, a manifestation of their existence.

Now that she was praying, her influence had grown strong. He could see it swirling all around her.

He got to his feet and quietly approached her from behind. It was best to avoid a confrontation, to avoid getting caught in her web of influence.

He reached into a coat pocket and produced a small pen-like object and pad of paper. Then he positioned the pen-like object so that it was pointed at the woman’s neck. Finally he pushed down on a spring-loaded button. An instant later, the woman swatted at her neck.

When she turned to investigate the source of the sting, he smiled and pretended to scribble words into his notebook. Confused, she returned his smile with one of her own and turned back to face the tabernacle and continue praying.

The sting would have been benign. She would have forgotten about it even before she turned back toward the front of the church. She would go home after mass, have dinner with her family, fall asleep at the end of the day, and, by morning, her family would be planning her funeral.

He punctuated an empty page, placed the pen-like object back into his pocket along with the notebook, and exited the church. The humid heat of Bacolod embraced him.

He had just been doing his job, and this one was done. Tomorrow, he would board a morning flight for Manila; an hour later, he would be flying out to California.

He had another job to do.

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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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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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