Totem, Part 11

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

I always thought you would have been a better leader, said Jahi after stopping his part of the story to rest. I wish you’d had the chance.

It was late, and the birds who’d once been advisers to a cruel and powerful ruler gazed at the distant horizon in anticipation of a dawn that wasn’t far in coming.

What makes you think I would have replaced the master? Rashidi glanced in Azibo’s direction. I can think of others who might have wanted to take control.

Azibo didn’t acknowledge him, only flicked his eyes downward.

Anyway, that kind of responsibility never appealed to me. I’d rule if necessary, but only if duty required it.

And that, Jahi said, is precisely why you would have been a better ruler.

I should have had more faith in you, said Azibo at last, changing the subject. He turned to address Jahi, but his eyes never lifted from the ground. I was certain you would turn me in. I should have known better.

If Jahi were still a man, he might have smiled. Those were uncertain times. You had every right to be afraid.

All that silence that passed between us after I told you what I thought about the master. It made me uneasy, and then that night you finally returned to my door with the others, I thought for certain…

Azibo stopped to consider his words.

With the exception of Zane, who came into the picture a little later, none of the others needed to hear the rest. They’d all been there. But there was something sacred about hearing the tale unfold, as if the experience allowed them to travel back in time to live through it all again. Here, in the semi-darkness of the nascent dawn, they could almost feel their human bodies, and none of them wanted to let that feeling go.

So Azibo considered how best to pick up where Jahi left off, and when the others had gathered around him like a village elder, he recounted the fateful meeting during which most of their paths finally crossed.

*               *               *

When the knock at the door came, Azibo jumped. The hour was late, and he hadn’t been expecting visitors. Could it be Jahi? The two had exchanged glances earlier that evening. The man’s dark eyes had appeared troubled, and before he turned away, Azibo had wondered if he’d be ready to talk again.

Has he come to arrest me?

The thought made Azibo’s body grow cold, and when he opened the door and beheld not only Jahi, but also three of the master’s guards, he thought, just as Jahi had when Rashidi first came to his chambers, that he’d been betrayed. Then he reached out to the men’s minds, listened to their thoughts, and realized the truth.

They were on his side.

A tsunami of emotions raced through his mind—gratitude, guilt, relief—an oceanic wave that slammed hard into the back of his eyes so that he had to fight to hold back tears.

One of the guards must have noticed the struggle, because the first words out of his mouth were, “This is the sniveling brat who can help us overthrow the master?”

Though Azibo’s face was flushed and he was certain some of his tears had broken through, he drew himself up to his full height, turned to Jahi, and asked, “Who are these men?”

“Friends.” Jahi shot the guard a murderous glare. “I trust them, Azibo, and you can trust them too.”

Azibo eyed them all warily.

“I thought— Never mind.”

He’d been about to say he thought Jahi was going to turn him in, but instead said, “If these men are friends, then we should be introduced.”

“Yes, of course.” Azibo felt some of the tension in the man unwind. “This is Rashidi,” he said, pointing to the oldest looking guard. “He’s the master’s head guard. And these two,” he said, pointing to the men next to him, “are Chibale and Kasim. They’re under his command.”

Kasim. So, that was the name of the man who’d spoken out against him.

Jahi turned toward the others. “Rashidi, Chibale, Kasim: this is Azibo.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Chibale, and both he and Rashidi shook his hand by way of introduction.

Kasim, on the other hand, said nothing, only stared at Azibo with open contempt.

Azibo’s first instinct was to take the emotional pulse of the room. Jahi, for his part, felt more sure of himself than he had the first time they spoke. He was less doubtful now, and possessed both clarity of mind and purpose.

As for Rashidi, there seemed to be little room in his heart for ambition, only a deep and abiding sense of duty and an unquenchable demand for justice. Rashidi wasn’t the sort to claim victory for himself or to blame others for his defeats. He had his doubts about Azibo, yet he nevertheless maintained an open mind. He desired only what was best and what was right, and he held little regard for what others might think of him should his moral or strategic senses deviate from commonly held assumptions. The man was not above selfishness, but that selfishness centered not around petty jealousies or a coward’s desire to save his own life, but the all-consuming need to be the best possible version of himself and to be a capable leader. Azibo decided then and there that he liked the man, even looked up to him, and he would be honored to serve alongside him.

Chibale was also decent enough, though his thoughts were more aligned with pragmatic concerns. He, too, harbored doubts About Azibo, a fact that stung his ego. But he had to admit those doubts were reasonable, and he could find no fault in this man either. Like Jahi and Rashidi, he was loyal and wanted only what was right, and so Azibo decided he could trust him, too.

Kasim, however, was a more difficult subject. Unlike Rashidi or Chibale, his thoughts were both contradictory and erratic, a violent tug of war between his fear of the master and the trust he’d placed in his comrades. The man was brash and quick to judge, but paradoxically, he was less sure of himself and his decisions than the others. He seemed secure enough in his choice to follow Rashidi, and Azibo didn’t think he’d intentionally compromise their mission, but his belligerence and tendency to second guess the decisions of others gave him great pause. Would Kasim be an asset or a liability? He would have to get to know the man better before he could decide.

If only they knew what I can do, that I’m reading their minds even as we speak. But that was a secret he couldn’t share lest he risk giving up his greatest advantage, and so he would have to find another way to convince them of his worth.

“As I was telling you,” Jahi continued, “Azibo made me realize what we had to do.”

You could have come back to me first before consulting with others, Azibo thought. But he held his tongue. In their eyes, he was just a boy, and he couldn’t afford to reinforce that image by throwing a tantrum.

Fortunately, Azibo didn’t have to work very hard to convince Jahi. Since their first talk, the man had come to hold for him a certain level of respect.

“Yes,” Azibo said, working hard to maintain his composure and to exude what he imagined was a sufficiently adult serenity. “He and I discussed the master a few days ago, and though Jahi was uncertain at the time, it appears we both now believe the same thing: that unless we stop him, he’ll eventually come for all of us.”

Rashidi nodded.

“That is the conclusion we have reached as well.”

“Well then,” said Azibo, “I suppose all that’s left for us to discuss is how best to proceed.”

Kasim jumped into the conversation.

“And you can contribute to this discussion how?”

Before Azibo could answer, Rashidi spoke over him.

“Jahi tells us you saw the master depart in secret.”

“Yes.” Azibo sat on his bed, trying to appear relaxed. “He loaded a donkey with supplies. From what he took with him, it seemed he intended to be gone for a while.”

“But you’re not sure for how long.”

Azibo pondered his last encounter with the master. At the time, he’d learned from reading the man’s mind that he was considering an absence of one or two weeks, perhaps even three. He could relay that back to them, but then he would have to explain how he knew. Doing so would almost certainly lead to uncomfortable questions that Azibo preferred not to answer, so instead, he said, “A few days at the least, a week or two at the most.”

“Are we really going to take him seriously?” Kasim started to pace across the room, wide-eyed and angry. “We can’t base our strategy on the testimony of a child. It’s madness. It’s—”

“Kasim, be silent.” Rashidi’s exhortation was a whispered whipcrack in the torch-lit chamber, and Azibo didn’t need to read Kasim’s mind to know the man had just been humiliated.

I’m going to have problems with him, Azibo thought. He would have to be strong enough to rise above him. His young age meant there was a strong prejudice for him to overcome, and that in turn meant he had to be more of an adult than the adults.

“I understand your concerns,” Azibo said, trying hard to be the consummate diplomat. “But I saw him with my own two eyes, and as his apprentice, I’ve gotten to know the master well enough to be a reliable judge of his behavior.”

The master’s apprentice. The reference to his privileged station was intended to remind Kasim of his authority in this matter, and it seemed his words had had the desired effect. He could feel Kasim’s mind wrap itself around the fact, and after a moment or two of silent fury, he reluctantly came to appreciate Azibo’s value, even if he would never admit it out loud.

“As I was saying,” Azibo continued, “I believe we have some time to plan before we have to worry about the master returning.”

Rashidi nodded.

“Thank you, Azibo. Your observation is most valuable.”

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to grow comfortable,” Jahi warned. “We don’t know how long he’ll be gone. He could decide to return tomorrow.”

“Agreed.”

“The question is,” Jahi continued, “how do we fight someone so powerful? We don’t even know what he’s capable of.”

“Azibo,” Rashidi asked, “you’re his apprentice. You know him better than anyone else. Can you tell us anything that will help?”

Azibo considered the question at some length. He knew the master could read minds, but he didn’t want to reveal that ability for fear he might also give away his own advantage. What else could he contribute to the discussion? The master had not yet taught him any magic, only worthless meditation exercises.

What about the dream?

Azibo thought of the scene that’d unfolded the day he’d first stumbled into the master’s mind: the invocation of Isis and Osiris, followed by a vision of the master’s sacrificial altar underground. One conclusion that might have saved them all escaped him until it was too late, but he did think of something else.

Because of what he’d observed in the dream, Azibo knew the nature of the master’s immortality. He was aware of his growing need for human sacrifice, along with the weakness that resulted from not being able to fully meet that demand, and he also knew from their last encounter that the master was agitated and afraid.

The two conditions made for a dangerous and potentially fatal combination, and if they could take advantage of them somehow, if perhaps they could catch the master by surprise…

“The master,” Azibo began, and then he paused to consider what he should say next. A lie, he decided, would be in his best interest. “He told me a secret. This was before he was so paranoid that he refused to speak with me. He said something was wrong, that he was weak and sick and that he needed time to rest and recuperate. I believe this weakness could make him vulnerable if we were to take him by surprise.”

Azibo saw Jahi furrow his brow, and he opened his mind for a moment to listen to the man’s thoughts.

What if the master reads our minds when he returns? How can we take him by surprise if he knows what we’re thinking even before he arrives at the front gate?

Azibo felt the man wrestle with himself over whether or not to reveal the master’s secret, and he realized he needed to alleviate Jahi’s fears before this discussion could take an unwelcome turn.

“The master,” Azibo continued, “has certain abilities, certain ways to sense the people around him.” There. That was close enough to reference the master’s secret without actually revealing it. He hoped Jahi’s mind would make the connection to mind reading on its own. “Whatever weakness has overcome him has also dulled this ability.” That second claim was a bald faced lie, but Azibo knew, from personal experience, how the master’s secret talent worked, and he was confident it didn’t pose them any danger as long as they were careful.

Like himself, Azibo reasoned, the master wouldn’t be able to hear the thoughts of those around him without first reaching for them specifically. They might leave an emotional trace that could be sensed without effort, but only when he focused in on someone could he read them in any detail. If he didn’t know anyone was there until it was too late—if they could hide until they were ready to strike him down—then their chances were good.

Azibo let Jahi mull this information over.

We can do this, thought Azibo, silently urging him to be strong. Don’t worry, Jahi. I know we can do this.

“If the master is as weak as you say he is,” Rashidi said, “then I agree, a surprise is likely our best option. A swift, clean cut. But there’s a complication. We can’t murder him in the open. Our rebellion has to remain a secret, even after we’ve killed him. If any of his other advisers catch on, they’ll have us arrested, then fight over who among their number has the right to take his place. I’ve seen the chaos that results from a powerful leader’s execution, and no matter how many crimes they were guilty of, the power vacuum that replaced them was almost always worse.”

That gave Azibo pause. He realized there was still so much he didn’t understand about politics. Kasim’s concerns, though irritating, suddenly seemed painfully valid. Could they do this without making things worse?

But after a moment’s consideration, Azibo decided anything was preferable to the master remaining in power—even the risk of a bloody struggle over who would get to take his place when he was gone. None of the master’s other advisers were capable of the magic or supernatural cruelty the man so dangerous, and as long as they could take him out before they were caught, that would be enough.

“We should let him arrive,” Azibo said when none of the others offered a solution. “He left in secret, so he can return in secret. Only, we’ll be watching for his return, and when he’s tucked away in the privacy of his study, then we strike.”

Azibo could feel their emotions and realized this last statement had startled them. That such a cold-blooded thought could come from someone so young gave them all pause.

Well, thought Azibo, let them be scared. Maybe now, they’ll understand that I’m more than just a child.

“I think,” said Rashidi, his voice just the tinniest bit unsteady, “that what Azibo proposes is a good idea. Kasim, Chibale and I can wait for his arrival, and Jahi can keep watch and signal when he’s close. Azibo, you’ll have to look out for his signal and warn us when the master approaches.”

Yes, Azibo thought, that was a good plan. A sudden wave of giddiness washed over him as he considered the very real possibility that the master could soon be out of the picture. If they were successful, what challenges would await them next? With the ability to read minds, there was nothing Azibo couldn’t accomplish. A vague sense of guilt vexed him as he considered the prospect of using this secret ability to his advantage, but he chose not to let it bother him. He didn’t have to be like the master. He could find a way to use his talent for good.

He beheld the others, who were now, for better or for worst, his comrades in arms, and he swore he would do right by them when this was over and they were finally free. He didn’t allow himself to consider the possibility that they might fail. After all, he believed, their plan was foolproof.

Unfortunately for them all, it wasn’t.

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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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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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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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Sand Castle

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This post was originally published through Patreon on July 12, 2016.

Cindy sat on the beach, her back to the ocean. She was digging, extracting large scoops of dark wet sand with her hands to form the gate towers of a lopsided castle.

She’d been alone for almost two days. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, but she continued working, first sculpting the basic structure, then patting it down so that it was smooth and seamless. Beyond, the waves crashed into the rocks piled along the shore.

Her parents had died in that ocean, victims of a devastating shipwreck, and Cindy was the only survivor. The tears that breached her eyes threatened to usher in massive racking sobs, but she held them back.

She had to be strong if she wanted to get home.

When the castle was finished, she dug a shallow ring around the perimeter, followed by a jagged line that connected it to the shore. When the next wave washed in, it flooded the tiny rivulet, and when the mote around the castle was full she swiped her hand through the makeshift canal, cutting off the water’s path back to sea.

She rose to her feet to survey the structure with a critical eye. Close. It lacked only one thing. She bent down once more to carve her family’s crest into each of the four walls.

Finished.

Cindy touched the castle with her right hand and closed her eyes, waiting until the sand grew warm against her skin. Soon, her ears could resolve the clangs of blacksmiths at the forge, the clopping of horses’ hooves, the chatter of stable workers, soldiers and serfs. She smiled despite the tears that stung her eyes. It was working.

She reached farther, through the castle walls, through the keep, into where her aunt and uncle sat on the throne. She called out to them, and they heard her distant cry at once.

A breeze brushed back a strand of Cindy’s hair. There was a whoosh, a pull, and when Cindy opened her eyes again, she was home.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on an empty uncharted shore, there stood an abandoned sand castle. Elegant, intricate, a master work of magic and engineering. But like Cindy’s parents, it would soon be swept away by the sea.

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Putting On the Mask

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After three centuries of endless searching, his quest has reached its end.

The object he requires stands before him now, sparkling beneath a glass case atop a plain wooden stand that belies its incredible power. He glances about before returning his eyes to the display. He knows there are cameras recording every angle of the room—the world has advanced considerably over the course of his unnaturally long life—and though he’s sure the glamour he learned during his exile is still working, he’s paranoid. Things can’t go wrong now, not when he’s inches away from the thing that will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the world forever.

When the white men butchered his people, including, eventually, his wife and children; when they planted their flags in the blood-soaked fields and claimed their land in the name of a foreign crown and an equally foreign god; when they obliterated all traces of his once proud and affluent culture, leaving his homeland in ruins; he thought his life was over. But there was one thing that kept him going, one thing that kept the withered heart in his desiccated chest beating long after it should have stopped along with those of his people.

The mask.

The priests, having foretold their own destruction more than a thousand years before the invaders came, saw fit to pass it down from one generation to the next, not under heavy guard or behind the locked doors of a fortified structure, but through a secret succession of descendants that even he, as their king, was not allowed to know.

The priests, in their wisdom, had understood a vital truth: that the greatest security sometimes lies in obscurity. A guard or a temple would have advertised the mask’s importance and would have surely fallen. But a simple family heirloom? No matter how zealously or how violently the invaders sought to stamp out their heathen practices, there was no way for them to reach everyone—no way for them to know that somewhere, in a simple fisherman’s village, in a quiet bamboo beach house, the future restoration of their people abided in peace.

Unfortunately, the priests were slain, and with them their secret.

He searched long and hard, trudged through creeping rainforests and windswept mountains. But he never found it, and the history of his people soon faded and was lost.

Then a miracle: a report in the Los Angeles Times. An archaeological exhibit had come to the Getty Museum, and among the artifacts on display was a peculiar wooden mask.

The mask.

Now, he hesitates with arms outstretched. He knows the instant he lifts the glass, an alarm will ring. But, of course, once he puts on the mask, that won’t matter. Once he puts on the mask—once he dons the vengeful spirits of his people like a shield—nothing will be able to stop him.

He removes the glass.

An alarm bell rings.

When he places the mask over his face, a dark energy swirls before his eyes like motes of electrified dust.

The guards arrive a minute later, and he turns to greet them, face twisted in a rictus of supernatural ecstasy. Let them come, he thinks. Let them bear witness to his revenge.

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Buried Alive

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 24, 2016.

They said it was for the common good. They said it had to be done, that there was no other way. Eventually, no justification was needed. They were too great a liability. It was too dangerous for them to live among society and there was nothing that could be done to improve their condition.

So in the end, thousands of men, women, and children were rounded up like cattle and buried alive. Polite society did its best to ignore their shocked and disbelieving cries, their futile pleas for mercy and redemption.

It was necessary.

It was for the common good.

When it was over, the truth was buried along with the victims. Thousands of years passed, and society almost forgot. But the truth refused to remain buried.

Now, in an open field far from the city, in a barren patch of earth that’s remained empty to this day, a dark energy stirs. The ground rumbles, a deep bellowing groan.

They’re coming, and they want revenge.

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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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The Blight

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Imagine: Green, all-encompassing, ever reaching. A place of endless spring. A place of fertile hopes and breathless wonders. A billowing canopy of shimmering translucent leaves, casting a bright and verdant glow over the forest floor below.

Such had been the nature of the world before the Blight.

Now the light that loomed over Angeline was faint, a sickly, mottled soup of barren browns and grays. A forest of dead things, covered from ground to canopy in a dark, cloying mold first discovered in their sacred woods almost three hundred years ago.

Angeline’s heart broke to see her home in such a state, for she was old enough to remember the Age before it. That’s why she was here now, to fight back, to reclaim what was hers and her people’s by birthright.

She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out to the trees. “Andre? Are you there?”

A branch snapped behind her, heralding his arrival.

The man who faced her when she turned was dark, skin festooned with mold and scabs. He wore no clothes. Clothes were an invention of civilization, and the forest had not seen civilization for quite some time.

“Angeline.” The man bowed.

“There’s no place for formalities here,” she said, but the corners of her mouth had already curled into the barest flicker of a smile.

Andre was a good man and loyal to a fault, so much so that he’d stayed behind to take care of the forest long after the rest of their people had fled into the mountains on the coast.

The Blight would, of course, extend even that far in time. Every year, the nauseating mold crept closer, penning them into an ever shrinking perimeter. But for now, at least, they were safe.

When Angeline had asked Andre why he’d chosen to remain, he’d only said, “The forest is my home. I can’t leave.”

Angeline admired the man’s courage, and it was the reason why she herself hadn’t given up, the reason why she’d returned every day to battle the Blight that had made their forest uninhabitable.

“Shall we go?” she asked. Her voice was just as regal, just as serene as it had been when she was queen.

Andre nodded, and together they set off into the thickening trees.

“So much death,” the man lamented, and Angeline placed a comforting hand over his weathered shoulders.

“That’s why we’re here,” she reminded him. “To reverse the damage so the forest might live again.”

The forest grew darker as they delved deeper into its heart. The light that filtered through the skeletal branches never changed. Rather, the darkness of the Blight itself radiated from the forest’s center like a fever.

“I hate coming here,” said Andre.

So did Angeline, but she didn’t say so. The man looked up to her. He’d never stopped seeing the queen she’d been centuries ago.

“You’re a hero,” she said. “Someday, our people will sing songs of your bravery.”

“I don’t care about that. I just want our home to be what it once was. I want future generations to know life and light, not this…” He gestured helplessly at the bare trees. “This nightmare.”

“And that is exactly why you’ll succeed—why both of us will succeed—because we don’t work for accolades but for a world we love and refuse to let die.”

They halted before a massive, world-sized trunk. It towered well above the other trees, its own leafless branches soaring high into the clouds. As thick as it was tall, the part closest to the ground resembled a wall more than a tree, its massive curves lost to the horizon.

There was almost no light left here, only a soupy, cloying black that covered every inch of the bark in thick ropy webs that held the entirety of the forest in a fatal chokehold.

“Disgusting,” Andre spat.

“And yet,” Angeline replied, “I sense life still. Faint, guttering, but stronger than the last time we were here. Our work has accomplished something. It has not been in vain.”

“Right.” Andre edged closer, repelled by the rot and corruption but determined to face it in battle. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

Angeline and Andre placed their hands over the craggy surface of the bark. Both of them recoiled as the Blight reached out and tried to take hold of them, as the Blight tried to squeeze out their own lives as it had squeezed out the lives of the surrounding trees. But one warning glare from Angeline was all it took to send those dark feelers reeling back.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the soul she sensed inside the tree, the heart of their world and the source of their people’s strength. It hunkered against the dark, hanging on by only the faintest of breaths. Angeline called out to it and shared with it her ancient song.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

A moment later, Andre joined her.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

The Blight wrapped itself tighter around the forest, dimming what little light remained. But Andre and Angeline refused to be intimidated, and instead sang even louder.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:

Have strength.

They finished together, their voices a joyful alloy of faith and hope that they knew the Blight would find repulsive.

Now that their song was finished, the momentum that had been building between them surged into the tree like lightning. The Blight staggered, reeled, and for a moment the soul inside the tree flared with new light.

Together, they opened their eyes.

“Look,” said Angeline, pointing to a tiny shoot of green at the tree’s base. It was the first new growth either of them had seen since the Blight had first taken hold. The mold reached out and tried to smother it, but the scion only shook it off like a spot of dirt.

“Will it be enough?” Andre asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I believe it will. If not, then what are we doing here, and what else is there but despair?”

Andre nodded.

“Then I, too, believe.”

With those last words shared between them, they turned and made their way back to the forest’s perimeter.

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